Final Fantasy 9 doesn’t get enough respect for being the top of its very specific, very forgotten class.
It’s easy to see why someone would have issues with Final Fantasy 9 at its initial release. For starters, it was a JRPG right there at the end of the Playstation 1 JRPG boom. This meant it had a healthy amount of competition from all angles (including an in-house rivalry with Square’s own Chrono Cross). And, honestly, a “throwback” JRPG in that environment was the worst possible idea. Yes, the Final Fantasy franchise had drifted very far from the medieval fantasy origins of Final Fantasy (give or take a floating techno city), but that didn’t mean the rest of the genre had moved on with it. Medieval fantasy JRPGs were a dime a dozen in 2000, and practically everything in Final Fantasy 9 had been done by other JRPGs of the eon. Fantasy world with a whole bunch of depressed furries? We’ve already got Breath of Fire. Your Princess suicidally depressed into a haircut thanks to being responsible for the destruction of her kingdom? Straight out of the Wild Arms playbook. Hell, even some seemingly unique flourishes are improbably specifically from other titles of the epoch: the malevolent monster fog that initially rescinds and then blankets the world in a time of crisis is the entire premise of Legend of Legaia. In short, there’s a thin line between “retro” and “derivative”, and then it’s an even shorter hop to “outright theft”. And it probably didn’t help that Final Fantasy 9’s hero is a thief…
And, come to think of it, that thief was a problem, too. Every protagonist, from Beatrix to Zidane, is deliberately evocative of other heroes in the Final Fantasy franchise. Vivi might go through an interesting journey from “9 year old” to “inspiration for an entire society”, but a quick glance reminds you he’s still just a generic Final Fantasy Black Mage. Freya is a dragoon obsessed with her potential lover, and Dagger is a princess with global responsibility issues. And Eiko? Look, I’m sorry, but Rydia called, and she wants her everything back. And it’s kind of hard to not be cynical when you’ve seen these characters before and liked their games better. With very little exaggeration, by the time some people played Final Fantasy 9, they had already played Final Fantasy 6 for approximately 500 hours. You want your protagonist to fill the shoes of Locke Cole, you damn well better be sure he’s going to bring something new to the table. Oh? At one point in one dungeon he gets sad about being a monkey? But then he instantly recovers? Wow, Final Fantasy 9, you phoned it in so hard, Steiner just learned the rotary-dial ability.
But now it’s twenty years later. Time has passed, and, for better or worse, the world is very different. Now JRPGs are only medieval when they’re also showcasing anime high school students. Now Final Fantasy is a brand that includes more spin-offs and “experiments” than it does actual numbered entries (and those numbered entries get their own, specific spin-offs, too!). The idea that any one game could capture the zeitgeist of the franchise and its most prominent age is no more possible than you could now produce a film that somehow featured every movie star back to the dawn of Hollywood. The Final Fantasy franchise is now so much more than “there used to be crystals, right?”, so Final Fantasy 9 being some kind of deliberate nostalgic journey seems… quaint.
… And it’s not like anyone is going to compare FF9 to Legend of Legaia anymore. Nobody remembers Legend of Legaia.
So now, divorced from the expectations of the bygone year of 2000, it’s easy to play Final Fantasy 9 and see that the real innovations could never be found by watching this…
But by playing through this…
In case you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of Final Fantasy 9’s plot and its various scenarios, let me explain what you’re seeing there. Ultimately, this is not a complicated scene: it’s Darth Vader telling Luke he’s his daddy. Zidane has just discovered his home planet, and Garland here is explaining how he created Zidane to destroy the (or at least one) world, and souls have to migrate through a magical tree, and Zidane’s brother is another destroyer-monkey that apparently exists with an expiration date, and… Actually, come to think of it? Maybe this scene is a little complicated. This happens a lot in JRPGs: the crux of the plot involves a lot of metaphysical and metaphorical ideas, and there’s really no way to get that information to the player without evoking some kind of massive info dump. In this case, Final Fantasy 9 has wholly invented its own version of the afterlife/reincarnation, and, in order to simultaneously explain the details of that system and how the villains are gumming up the works, you basically need an introductory course on Final Fantasy 9’s religion. Christians don’t know how easy they have it when they can just toss off a line like, “I’ll send you to Hell!” without having to follow it with, “Which is a location where the greatest sinners are eternally tortured by Satan, a demon that once fell from Grace when…”
But what is being explained isn’t important (sorry about the previous paragraph, I’ll try not to waste your time with asides in the future… wait! Dammit!), what’s important to the entire genre is how it’s being explained. Garland is not confined to a mere text box, nor is Garland a giant cut-out that encompasses half the screen. Garland is hovering across a magical mushroom patch (or… something) and explaining the why of Final Fantasy 9 while “escaping” Zidane. This is inevitably leading to a showdown of some sort, and requires the player to actively “play” while listening to Garland. Want to know more? Of course you do! Follow the floating evil dude. You’re actively playing a videogame, after all, and a role-playing game at that. You think Zidane wants to know more? Of course he does! You’re playing as Zidane! Your goals are one in the same. Now go on, scoot, follow that bearded knight and get the whole story. After all, if you’re Zidane, you’re part of the story.
And that’s something we never saw again.
The very next Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy 10 (yes, I know stating sequential numbers sounds obvious, but please remember that the next FF after that was Final Fantasy 10-2), relied on voice acting and dedicated cinema scenes for its plot advancement, thus making the franchise “like a movie”. And that’s great for anyone that uses their PS2 to play DVDs, but maybe not the best for the person picking up a controller to actually play a game. Regardless, we were all very excited about Final Fantasy 10, its movies, and other similar games like Metal Gear Solid 2 or Xenosaga. Game-movies are the future! It’s like the moving pictures! Videogames can finally be as respectable as Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2! Games are art! … Except we weren’t lauding the “game” part of our videogames, we were just excited about the occasional moments when a videogame could feature a mini-movie… and whether or not any sort of player participation was involved was completely moot. Grab some popcorn! It’s time to play a videogame!
But I’m not telling you, dear audience, anything you don’t already know. We remember the bygone Playstation 2 years, and we remember the gradual drift from “movie games” back to “games you actually play”. Yes, we still deal with the latest games touting sparkling stars performing minor voice acting, or “deeply cinematic visuals”, but, by and large we’ve gotten away from action games just sitting back and letting Norman Reedus deliver a soliloquy about baby carrying… Except for in the genre that started this whole mess. JRPGs are still considered plot-delivery devices, and, whether you’re playing a game featuring a lady trying to organize her armies against a dragon goddess, or some title where everyone inexplicably wants to %&*# the dragons in a wildly different way, you still wind up with “sit here and watch” cinema scenes for everything from tea parties to castle storming. Somewhere along the line, it was determined that JRPGs are closer to visual novels than any other genre, and would you care to sit down and have some exposition today? It might be explaining a planet’s apocalyptic backstory, or it could simply be the recounting of a supporting player’s daddy issues, but it still means you’re just sitting there smacking X to advance.
And what’s worse? In the absence of the seemingly unlimited budget of pre-Spirits Within Square, everything has flattened out to this…
And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a “retro-throwback”, or a JRPG so popular that it apparently earned its spot in Smash Bros history…
The directors of Final Fantasy 9 knew exactly what they were doing. Final Fantasy 9 is a game that never loses sight of being a videogame, and uses every “trick” that surfaced in the thirteen years that had passed since Final Fantasy. From multiple character animations, to dynamically moving villains, to even something as simple as “interrupting” text boxes, Final Fantasy 9 does everything it can to keep the player engaged in every conceivable way. After all, why would you bother with another goofy sidequest or “Active Time Event” if each wasn’t vibrant and remarkable?
Final Fantasy 9 truly was the end point of all JRPGs that came before. It’s just a shame it was also the end of the dynamic JRPG.
FGC #476 Final Fantasy 9
- System: Playstation 1 in its first go, but it’s made it to the Playstation 3, Vita, Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Switch in the intervening years. May I recommend any version that involves a fast forward button?
- Number of players: Oddly enough, Final Fantasy 9 has the ability to assign combat controls to either controller port, so you can technically co-op play FF9. Yay! I called Vivi!
- Remake Reproblems: I very much appreciate everything that is involved in the HD remake of Final Fantasy 9. Fast forwarding is amazing for a game that has always had absurdly slow combat. Automatically maxing your levels and abilities for when you don’t feel like grinding from square one is something I have wanted forever. And the graphical touchups add a new volume to a game that a lot of us originally played on ancient televisions that could barely handle three colors. But, man oh man, someone didn’t put nearly enough time into making sure the new HD sprites match the “HD” cinematics. Some of the most dramatic scenes in this game now appear to be animated by the folks behind Monty Python, and it’s not the best look.
- Cool Car: Your final airship is the Invincible, a destructive “monster ship” from Zidane’s home planet (and another Final Fantasy reference). It is also the ship that obliterated Princess Dagger’s home on two separate occasions. Dagger lampshades the situation if you chat with her aboard your new ride, but it’s still more than a little weird that the first princess of PTSD is totally cool with riding around on her own personal atomic bomb.
- Favorite Dungeon: Gizamaluke’s Grotto is the best name for a dungeon ever, and I will hear no objections to this apparent fact. The fact that it contains multiple exits and a moogle wedding is just gravy.
- What’s in a name: Pumice is the stone that eventually allows you to summon the combat airship, Ark. However, in the original Japanese, Pumice is known as the “Floating Stone”. That makes a lot more sense for this franchise.
- What’s in a name Part 2: One of Kuja’s pet dragons, Nova Dragon, was originally named Shinryu, ala the chief reptilian super boss of the series. Given Nova Dragon provides such a lackluster fight, It’s probably for the best that this one got changed…
- So, did you beat it: I got everything on the original hardware, including the Strategy Guide that is a reward for murdering the super boss. And I did that all without a real strategy guide, because the official strategy guide for Final Fantasy 9 is the worst thing to ever happen to the medium.
- But you still own it, right? I got the collector’s edition!
Visit Playonline for more information on how my life is a lie!
- Did you know? There are nine knights of Pluto! And Pluto is the ninth planet in our solar system. Or… at least it used to be…
- Would I play again: This… is not my favorite Final Fantasy title. I love exactly what it did, but the speed of everything kills me, and my knowledge of all those sidequests I’m ignoring if I ever want to finish the game again within my lifetime is terrible for my conscience. Final Fantasy 9, you’re an amazing game, but I just can’t deal with you right now.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Stretch Panic for the Playstation 2! …. God dammit. Please look forward to it, if you must.