Recognizing that some fans were less than enthralled, Square threw a bone to their oldest fans. What was originally meant to be a side project instead became the ninth installment of the series and a deliberate throwback to the series’ 8- and 16-bit era. Final Fantasy IX unfolds in a medieval/early Industrial Age world, meant to invoke the first six games in the series while being a unique creation in its own right. And after the dull present day environment of VIII, the world of IX is a much needed relief, a true return to fantasy.
Yet if Final Fantasy games were American Presidents, IX is the Zachary Taylor of the series. It’s not disliked; just ignored or forgotten about most of the time. It didn’t help that Square itself neglected it and allowed it to be overshadowed by a game that wasn’t even released yet: Final Fantasy X. That’s a tragedy. While IX is a nostalgia fest to a fault, so much so that references from familiar place names to even recycled plot points pepper the entire game from beginning to end, it is still in its own right a strong installment that takes some of the best elements of the first six games.
In contrast to the brooding, complex heroes of the last two games, IX stars Zidane, a monkey-tailed thief whose involvement in an ill-conceived plan to kidnap a princess, Garnet, embroils him in said princess’ investigation of her power-mad mother’s ambition to build a massive empire. Finding Garnet to be a surprisingly willing victim of kidnapping, Zidane meets up with Vivi, a black mage. However, Vivi himself isn’t exactly what he appears to be, and his own existence points toward a sprawling plan by a mysterious (and flamboyant) arms dealer, Kuja, that could lead to the extinction of humanity. Of course, despite the more cheerful protagonist, the story hits some pretty dark notes about mortality and being content with one’s lot, even if it is brutish and short. (And don’t tell me you didn’t also tear up when Vivi watches his fellow black mages fall from the airship like dolls and goes into a despairing rage!).
The gameplay is perfect simplicity. Rather than the convoluted and time-demanding system of VIII, you learn skills and spells by just equipping weapons and armor, and unique armor and weapons with new sets of abilities can also be created by combining earlier armor and weapons. It’s fairly basic, but it still requires a certain degree of planning, strategy, and experimenting. Likewise we go back to the diverse cast of IV and VI, where different party members bring different abilities to the table. Then there’s the soundtrack. It’s strangely low-key for a Final Fantasy soundtrack, which are usually known for classical bombast, but manages to be diverse and memorable. The main theme, “The Place I’ll Return To Someday,” is downright haunting, and probably my own favorite theme out of the entire series.
In short, this installment does deserve a lot more attention than it gets. It’s not exactly a return to the glory of the 16-bit era, but at the least it is a successful exploration of what made those games work. Maybe it was hobbled in fans’ eyes by lacking the distinctiveness that had defined the series since at least VII, but perhaps by simply being a tribute to the series’ past IX was in the end an assertion of the franchise’s diversity. Next time, we’ll get another controversial and experimental sequel, one that wasn’t helped by a genuinely crappy localization into the English-speaking world…