Thanks to the wonderful melodies of Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy: Curtain Call, I have found myself eager to go back and relive some of the older games of the series. Most notably, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy IX. The former I had played several times in middle and high school, and I often felt that it was the last “truly good” entry in the series. Such an opinion is common amongst those that started with the 8 or 16-bit era, I’ve found.
I ventured into Final Fantasy IX because I had only played through the game a single time in high school, and in truth I had forgotten nearly everything that occurred within the game. I recalled fragments, such as Princess Garnet cutting her hair, the fight between Bahamut and Alexander, and some of Vivi’s history, but the vast majority of it had long since flushed away through the currents of time. I was encouraged to give the game another try because it happens to be one of the more peculiar favorites that many players have of the PlayStation era, and I was also eager to see if a more mature mind could be more appreciative of what the game provided.
On the one hand, Final Fantasy IX is better than I remembered. On the other, it’s also as bad as I remembered.
While I wouldn’t say many of my teenage complaints were unfounded, they also weren’t as bad as I had originally made them out to be. My younger self was no fan of each character’s skills, abilities or spells being tied to some piece of equipment, and altogether chose to just miss out on acquiring new attributes in favor of just burning through the story. I find this rather peculiar because on this second play through the game I did barely any sort of grinding, most of it early on, and still managed to learn just about every skill and technique I could hope to. If anything was missing, it was likely due to having missed out on a particular, unique piece of equipment with a high-level spell attached.
Of course, just because it was less of a problem does not mean learning magic through gear is a good design. While Magicite and Materia always had an effect on the character’s stats, they were typically divorced from gear (the exception being certain weapons and bangles in Final Fantasy VII having fewer or no Materia slots, linking certain slots together, and offering more ability points per battle). If the player wanted to swap out equipment, it was rare that it would have a negative impact on their ability to learn Fire 2. With Final Fantasy IX, a player may be forced to use an inferior weapon or piece of armor for no greater reason than not having learned an ability yet.
The system has potential to be built off of, though. Tie it in with skill trees of a sort, where certain equipment grant bonuses to learning skills within a certain branch. So let’s say Zidane has one branch focused on thievery, another on evasion, and a final branch on speed. Certain equipment will grant bonuses to certain branches of his skill tree, and thus encourage you to equip the proper equipment for a certain role in combat without locking the player out of the other branches permanently (after all, part of the fun of Final Fantasy games is maxing out all possibilities and even “breaking the game”).
With or without the combat changes, I did enjoy having the option to equip certain abilities that would allow the characters to be immune to certain status effects, or to boost certain attributes or unlock new skills in combat. It allowed a level of customization to the game, and while having to choose whether to use a weaker weapon in order to learn its skill was a hassle at times, it was nice being able to frequently switch out accessories rather than sticking with ones focused on immunities.
Now if there was any reason grinding and learning abilities could be considered a problem, it is simply in how linear Final Fantasy IX truly is compared to previous games. In fact, it’s rather amusing that no one seemed to care until Final Fantasy X (and later Final Fantasy XIII) that the games were becoming a lot less open-ended over time. IX leads the player by the hand, and when it’s not doing that it is simply dragging them by the end of a rope. Time on the world map is spread far apart as the game hoists the player from location to location, leaving little room to explore and even spend time leveling up characters or skills. This wouldn’t really be a problem, as one could view it as trimming the fat of the role-playing experience, if it weren’t for the game also swapping out party members frequently. It doesn’t take long before some characters are higher in level than others, or have learned more valuable abilities that make them all the more powerful and useful.
As the game does not keep all characters at equal level, whether they are in the party or not, it falls to the player to need to grind once they get the opportunity. Certain characters will need to catch up, otherwise they’ll be quick to fall come the more challenging boss battles. In other words, being linear itself is not a flaw, but the unavoidable discrepancy in character levels and abilities most certainly is.
The linear nature of the game is largely in part due to its desire to move through the story. Considering the pace at which events keep happening, it’s actually rather surprising that the game is as long as forty hours. It feels like less happens here than in Final Fantasy VII, but the game is just about as long. The greatest reason I can imagine is that IX has a tendency to implement more labrynthine dungeons filled with switches to pull and tedious puzzles. While this is not always the case, it is most certainly rough to follow the superior dungeon design of a game like Wild Arms.
Regardless of the game’s length, the story is actually quite delightful for a good half or two-thirds of the story. Zidane is not really the protagonist, not at first at any rate, with a greater focus on the remaining characters and their conflicts. Garnet yearns to see the outside world, to adapt to peasant life, and to try and end a war she feels partly responsible for due to her birthright. Vivi is a young mage seeking to figure out just what and who he is, struggling against the backlash of his brethren being used as vicious weapons. Even Steiner and Freya have their own character growth, and neither of them are truly primary characters. Zidane is just a vehicle to push them all forward on their goals.
Then Alexander is summoned, a giant ship descends down from the heavens, and a villain named Garland reveals himself. If I had to compare it to a previous game in the series, I would call this Final Fantasy IX’s “Basketball Court” (in reference to Final Fantasy VIII, where you learn everyone came from the same orphanage and merely have a convenient case of amnesia). It’s where the story takes an ill-fitted and terrible plot turn, only in the case of IX the tone also makes a drastic change. It is suddenly more about Zidane, a not too interesting character that they feel the need to dump character development into a one or two hour span of time, half-assing it as best as they can.
Final Fantasy IX’s story is better when the overall plot is simple, instead focusing on the characters rather than the events themselves. Yet once it takes that drastic step, it truly becomes utter nonsense.
While there is certainly more I could discuss about the game, these are the major points that had the greatest impact on my newfound impressions. I enjoyed Final Fantasy IX, found it to be a pretty good game. However, it is also understandable why I would have found little favor with it as a teenager. Final Fantasy IV taught me that video games can be more than “just games”, and Final Fantasy VI and VII continued to be milestone titles in my appreciation of the medium. After the disappointment that was Final Fantasy VIII I needed another great, and all I got was “pretty good”.
In the hindsight of the series’ efforts as a whole, having seen all the titles we missed in the United States up until the PlayStation era, it is easier to see that the franchise has not always delivered the best of the best. As an adult, I am fine with “pretty good”. Yet there was little chance of avoiding my disappointment at the time. A shame, I think, but not a feeling to be ashamed of.