Final Fantasy IX was released in North America on Nov. 13, 2000. It turned 18 this month. Time. What even is time?
The final (lol) mainstream PlayStation Final Fantasy game was in a weird position upon release. Sony’s vaunted (but light on lasting launch titles) PlayStation 2 came out just over two weeks before Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy VII was and remains one of the game industry’s most revered projects. Final Fantasy VIII was so divisive the ripples from its reception are still felt today. On top of everything, the PlayStation had established itself as a the predominant home for good-to-great non-Final Fantasy RPGs.
Suikoden II ticked a lot of boxes for fans of more grounded, but narrative-rich games. Chrono Cross, a sequel to the SNES classic Chrono Trigger, came out for PlayStation just months before IX. Final Fantasy Tactics scratched strategy game itches for many folks unmoved by traditional Final Fantasy entries. Xenogears was available if you wanted to kill God.
Final Fantasy IX was a throwback. Deliberately so. Marketing itself as a return to the series’ roots, the game focused on a band of heroes discovering an evil truth about the world and undoing it. Pretty standard fare. Why is the game so highly regarded? Why is it canonically the best one? We posed these questions and more two of the game’s biggest fans (employed by this website).
Spoilers for Final Fantasy IX to follow.
John Warren (J): Did you get the game at launch?
Steven Strom (S): I don’t think so? This was actually before I was “into” video games the way I am now. All the games I owned back then were things my dad thought looked cool and bought for us. So I just played whatever we had.
Which included a weird number of Square games, in retrospect. My dad would have had no idea what Squaresoft even was at the time, but he got me that and Brave Fencer Musashi. Some very formative games for me!
What about you?
J: I think I didn’t play it till 2001 or something. I never owned an OG Playstation and when I bought a PS2 I think FFIX was the first thing I played, haha.
Did you play the other PS1-era FF games before IX? Were you a fan of those?
S: I think FFIX was actually the first!
J: Ah your first!!!! That’s amazing.
S: Which might account for why I love it so much, lol.
I didn’t get way into video games until the late PS2 era myself. So no SNES FFs for me.
J: Well I guess that leads me to ask if you played other JRPGs or was FFIX first in that realm as well?
S: (Although Chrono Trigger was a constant rental.)
Well, there you go, lol.
J: Okay so you were familiar with the general ebbs and flows of a JRPG — it wasn’t just a totally brand new world. What struck you with IX?
S: I think my earliest, most striking memory of the game is when Blank gets petrified by the Evil Forest. My proto-emo mind was like “Whoa, that guy was my friend and now he’s ‘dead.’ This game is hardcore.”
But it wasn’t angsty, like VII and VIII. It was melancholic. And that really stuck with me. Was there a specific scene that grabbed you early on like that?
J: Yeah I definitely thought the Theatre troupe was part of your main group from the start. I think packing the black mages into coffins and putting them on that airship!! I was like “huh okay this cool little dude I’ve been following is having an existential crisis and I get it and it’s scary.
That entire stretch of Blank getting petrified and then Dali being kind of a weird town with some secrets and finding out there’s more to Vivi than you thought. That all grabbed me.
S: Yeah. I feel like IX does that better than just about any FF game. There are these kind of pre-Mass Effect loyalty missions.
You THINK you know your party members and then get big, long levels about their back stories, before they redouble their commitment to you. And they’re all kind of tragic.
J: I remember being _really_ impressed with Garnet cutting her hair. I know that’s small but I thought that commitment to a visual change for a character was really cool actually haha.
S: It’s something that could only really work with 3D graphics, too.
S: People always shit all over this era of game graphics, but I always think that’s reductive.
J: Oh my god yeah I think when art direction was strong and consistent (and IX was both), this graphical style did a lot and still does a lot for me.
I’ll get into favorite characters but what did you think about Zidane? They took a “oh there are no real protags in this one” approach but he was essentially the main character.
S: Yeah. I mean, he’s the character you get from the start, which always FEELS like the centerpiece.
J: And ultimately all roads ran through him, for sure.
S: Yeah. And he’s fine, as far as FF leading men go.
J: He is fine. Yes.
S: He’s a young, happy-go-lucky sort of swashbuckler. Which is a nice departure from all the angst and embarrassments (Leon, Vaan, etc.)
Ugh, Squall, not Leon.
Leon is what he calls himself in Kingdom Hearts.
J: Omg you’ve outed yourself, Steven.
Yeah! Agreed. I mean he doesn’t stand out as a series favorite but he wasn’t detached. And when he was detached in a later scene it was WEIRD.
S: Oh I loved Kingdom Hearts when I was a kid. Hit me at that perfect age. But I never kept up.
J: Tough to keep up with 47.273 games.
Do you have a favorite character from Final Fantasy IX? Standouts?
S: I mean Vivi is the boy. I also really like Freya.
There’s something I really like about rat people, who would just be disgusting monsters in any other work of fiction, being noble knights in FFIX.
J: Vivi is the boy. I’m so happy to hear this.
Freya and everything with the Burmecians was really strong, yeah. I think Vivi is an unbelievably strong character on his own, but I loved loved loved the characterization that he was infantilized by everyone but Steiner.
S: They do have a kind of an unlikely friendship/buddy cop thing going on later, huh. Who’s your number two? Vivi is too easy.
J: Vivi is too easy yeah. I think an underrated character is Marcus, but I think (even though we agree and so it’s boring) Freya would be my second favorite.
She’s just sad and cool and determined.
S: Everyone in this game is sad, but it somehow never gets annoying.
J: Yeah it’s never obnoxious.
I was going to make a joke and say Necron was very interesting but I couldn’t even type that with a straight face.
S: Necron and most of the ending of this game are a total blank spot for me (pun intended).
My favorite parts of the game are when all the characters are just consoling each other over their messed up personal lives. All the world-ending weirdness feels kind of tacked on?
J: Yeah it’s a common issue with Final Fantasy until XII where the stakes just have to be upped to CATACLYSM STATUS when it’s unearned.
S: XII is actually another favorite because it takes the stakes down a notch, lol.
J: Yeah exactly.
S: I do like Kuja, though. He’s so messy, lol.
J: HE’S SO MESSY. Like can you believe his palace? Favorite places in IX?
S: I don’t know about FAVORITE, but Oeilvert is always the first area I associate with this game.
J: Definitely iconic as far as IX goes.
S: It’s my earliest memory “I walked away from this game for a month and forgot what the story was.”
So when I came back to the game, I brought Vivi in my party, and had to beat the entire zone where you CAN’T USE MAGIC with my Black Mage in tow.
I think exploring Lindblum was really good for me. Loved exploring the castle and the town. Loved the Synthesis shop there.
S: Lindblum is great.
On the topic of PS1 graphics, there are some amazing pre-rendered backgrounds in this game. Lindblum is a big standout.
J: So pretty. I kind of hated the approach of VII and VIII where characters could just be boosted in any way with Materia and the Junction System, respectively. I liked IX‘s approach of class-based characters and creating ideal combinations in battle. Did you like the constraint or do you like freely spec-ing your RPG characters?
S: I like this better than VII and VIII for sure.
I prefer RPGs to force you to make choices about your build. IX doesn’t TECHNICALLY do that, since the classes are chosen for you, but you still have to think about it more than the other games. You at least have to consider the teams you construct (which Oeilvert perfectly demonstrates).
J: Who was your most neglected character?
S: Probably Eiko.
I already HAD a summoner. I didn’t need another one!
I’m not usually someone that gets their starting characters and sticks with them. I inevitably feel bad and try to rotate everyone in and out. But Eiko didn’t do much for me to begin with.
How about you?
J: Eiko for sure. Amarant almost never made my rotation. I never used Quina in early playthroughs but more recently I use them pretty frequently.
S: I feel like we haven’t given Quina love.
I have…complicated feelings about Quina Quen.
I think I love them, but they are perhaps more Problematic now in 2018 than they were back then. Or rather, I became more aware of how problematic they were as an adult.
Their genderless-ness is cool, but I REMEMBER it being played for laughs. But this is also a game where the main villain is a man in a crop top and a leather thong. So…
FFIX was probably genuinely one of my first brushes with gender fluidity.
J: Quina is definitely played for laughs which sucks. But. They DO eat things to learn magic which I definitely understand.
S: Very relatable!
And when they’re really mad they actually cook things, which is also–as they say–gigantic mood.
Why is Final Fantasy IX your favorite?
S: I think it was the first game I played that really focused first and foremost on its characters, rather than a “save the world” plot.
Which really informed what I like about games today.
And it gave those vignettes a LOT of time to breathe. Which is something I used to have time for in games, lol. How about you?
J: Yeah! Those QTE scenes were really charming and fleshed out so much of that world. Made everything feel very literary, which is kind of an embarrassing adjective but I’m not smart enough to come up with something else.
I think FFIX is my favorite because of its characters. I never invested in other series characters the way I invested in Vivi, Freya, and Garnet. I love Steiner’s transformation from bootlicking helicopter knight to complete lovefool for Beatrix to principled guardian of his friends.
S: Steiner is really good, yeah. He’s a great example of using comic relief to show character growth.
J: And his theme song with all the variations rules.
A parting question. Zorn and Thorn. Important to know what you think about Zorn and Thorn.
S: Zorn and Thorn are a nightmare. Even more-so now that I looked up their FF wiki page and learned that they are 88 years old.
J: Oh my god I didn’t even know that.
It honestly contextualizes them more than I expected but I still hate their collective guts.
S: I guess they’re kind of a Kefka throwback, for the game that is a throwback to the SNES games?
J: Okay if you had to choose one:
1) For an entire day you can read everything normally but everything you hear is Kefka’s laugh.
2) For an entire day everything you read and hear is immediately followed by a Zorn/Thorn-esque mirror phrase.
S: This is a truly sadistic choice.
J: At least I didn’t poison your mote.
S: Probably Kefka’s laugh, though. The passive voice/active voice thing would drive me crazy as an editor. And it would just take so long to get through the day!
J: So long to get through the day, it would take!