Friday, December 2, 2022

Finally Getting Around to Final Fantasy IX

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started up Final Fantasy IX only to get a few hours into it and lose interest.

One of the more cinematic installments in the franchise, the opening few hours of Final Fantasy IX have always felt like a slog to me. Don’t get me wrong — the opening sequence and its animations look beautiful, and the botched kidnapping plot is a fresh way to kick the game off. But something about the game just didn’t click with me.

Well, it didn’t click with me until now.

We all have those games, right? The games that collect dust on your shelf — or wait patiently in a folder on your desktop. The ones that you’ll get around to… some day. It’s the dreaded backlog. And for the last two decades, that’s exactly where Final Fantasy IX has been for me.

I’d tell myself, “Yes, I know it’s a great game. Yes, I know I’m going to love it. But not right now.”

With so many awesome new games coming out every year, it’s tough to find the time to work through your backlog, especially if it’s full of 40+-hour JRPGs.

But in an effort to hold myself accountable and work through the hundreds of classic games in my backlog, I’m kicking off a new series for Nintendo Watcher called “The Backlog.” Final Fantasy IX isn’t the first game I’ve scratched off the backlog list this year, but it is the most recent, so I thought I’d start here.

This isn’t a review. Not really anyway. There are thousands of Final Fantasy IX reviews out there. Instead, this is simply a commentary on my experience playing through the game more than two decades after its original release.

Why I Never Got Around To Playing Final Fantasy IX

I don’t think I was the only person who overlooked Final Fantasy IX when Square released it back in 2000.

A lot of us missed it because Final Fantasy IX was a victim of circumstance.

Final Fantasy IX was released on the Sony Playstation in July 2000, and it looked amazing, and Square was obviously squeezing everything it could get from the original Playstation’s hardware. But there was an obvious problem: The Playstation 2 had already been released in Japan in March, several months before the release of Final Fantasy IX on the PS1. And the next-generation Playstation would go on to release in Europe and North America in Fall 2000.

Sure — there were plenty of people out there with first-generation Playstations, but the problem was Final Fantasy IX immediately looked dated when compared to the new games on the Playstation 2.

So the original Playstation was showing its age, and its successor was already on store shelves. Not a great place to release a new game for an old console.

To make matters worse, Square was already working on the next Final Fantasy game — Final Fantasy X — and it would be released on the Playstation 2 just a year after the release of Final Fantasy IX.

Not much breathing room for Final Fantasy IX.

(Side Note: Can you imagine getting two new Final Fantasy games in 12 months?! How about three new Final Fantasy games in 24 months?! Because that’s what the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were like. Final Fantasy VIII was released in 1999, Final Fantasy IX was released in 2000, and Final Fantasy X was released in 2001.)

That’s not to say that Final Fantasy IX was ignored or panned by everyone. Obviously, it wasn’t. The game sold well at the time and remains at the top of many “Best Of” lists.

I just want to put the game’s release in historical context (and come up with an excuse for why I didn’t pick it up back then).

Why I Returned To Final Fantasy IX Now

With the re-release of Final Fantasy IX on the Switch in 2019, I made up my mind: It was time to — at least – buy Final Fantasy IX.

Even though it was available for virtually every modern console, buying and playing Final Fantasy IX on the Switch made the most sense to me. Since the Switch came out, I’ve been able to power through long games with bite-sized playing sessions. The Switch’s instant-on feature combined with its portability really makes it the perfect system for playing RPGs, I think.

Final Fantasy IX was remastered and available on the Switch. The Switch was my go-to console for long games. It was a perfect match.

So I bought the game. At full price, Final Fantasy IX is $20.99 on the eShop. I picked it up during a sale for $9.99.

After it finished downloading, I started playing the game and slowly got used to the Active Battle System again. But before long, I hit my first real difficulty spike: leaving Lindblum and trying to fight my way to Gizamaluke’s Grotto.

Stumbling Through

Up until this point, I hadn’t really battled all that much. All my characters were severely under-leveled, and as soon as I stepped outside of the gate at Lindblum, I’d get killed. Even worse, sometimes I would win a few fights but get killed by a random encounter before I could make it back to Lindblum to recover and save my game.

Ugh.

It wasn’t that Final Fantasy IX felt difficult — it’s that it felt unfair. It could just be my perception of the early hours of the game, but it felt like, before this moment, I hadn’t really had the opportunity to get used to battling or level up.

I got so frustrated that I just put the game down.

I made all kinds of excuses for myself.

I never like the ABS anyway. Maybe I’m just too used to the later games. This game is just old. 

I didn’t return to Final Fantasy IX until many months later. I couldn’t let this game beat me. And so many people love it! There has to be a reason. There’s just something here that I’m not seeing.

So I stocked up on potions and bravely walked out the gate at Lindblum, determined to slice and dice my way through Final Fantasy IX’s harsh and unforgiving world.

I spent hours right outside the gate.

Grinding. Healing. Saving.

Grinding. Healing. Saving.

Grinding. Healing. Saving.

It wasn’t fun, but I eventually made amends for trying to speed through the game at first.

After grinding out a few levels, the game became fun. As I worked my way through the world, I met more characters that joined the party and learned how to use them effectively. At several points in the game, you’re forced to use only certain characters. I didn’t like it at first, but it forced me to build a more well-rounded party, and that really came in handy later in the game.

Building The World Through Its Characters

The main playable characters of Final Fantasy IX — Zidane, Vivi, Dagger, Steiner, Freya, Quina, Eiko, and Amarant — and the relationships that form between them tell the story of Final Fantasy IX. And it’s this character-driven plot that really stuck with me.

Yes, there are nations at war and a madman who wants to destroy the world and every living thing on it, but for me, that plot isn’t nearly as powerful as what’s going on with the characters.

Every Final Fantasy IX character is struggling to figure out where they belong and how they can live up to the expectations of others. But this conflict is really pronounced in Vivi and Dagger. Famously, Vivi battles an ever-present existential crisis that cripples him at times. He’s a black mage who’s afraid of his own powers and becomes deeply conflicted about his nature as he uncovers his origins. Similarly, Dagger tries to run away from the responsibility of her bloodline. Her mother starts acting irrationally, and she runs away from Alexandria.

But as Vivi and Dagger learn more about the world — and themselves — during their journey, they realize that the world’s complicated.

People are complicated.

People you love can do awful things and still be deserving of your love. It’s the same lesson that — spoiler alert — Zidane learns about Kuja.

These are the kinds of compelling and universal stories that I look for in RPGs. If I’m going to spend 40 hours with a handful of characters, I need them to grow and learn and… well… be human.

Some of the other characters go through similar arcs, but they’re not nearly as compelling. I’m thinking specifically about Eiko and Amarant. Their stories aren’t all that stirring, and the narrative might have been tighter without them, but combat would have been harder. I can’t fault the game here.

Who Should Play Final Fantasy IX

Final Fantasy IX is a great RPG, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll return to anytime soon. Maybe ever.

And as much as I enjoyed Final Fantasy IX, I can’t recommend it to everyone.

The Final Fantasy franchise has changed so much since the initial release on the NES. If you’re interested in the Playstation-era Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VII is the obvious choice. But if you’ve already played VII and like the battle system, you should have Final Fantasy IX on your radar.

Justin McGee
Justin McGee
Lifelong Nintendo fan. Follow me on Twitter @PuffyRedShirt

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