You know when you’re playing around with a new recipe and you fall in love with one particular spice? Call it cumin. You find every recipe that makes sense with cumin, and eventually, you grow so obsessed with it that you just keep adding it to all of your dinners for a month straight, until the rest of your family is like “cut it out with the cumin,” and you realize you’ve gone too far? Then you make a dish with no cumin whatsoever that’s just a throwback to your older, cumin-free stuff? That’s Final Fantasy IX.
This is part nine of Kotaku’s Final Fantasy Retrospective, in which we take a look back at every mainline FF game.
Released in 2000, the ninth Final Fantasy looked at its older sisters and said, “Whoa there, let’s dial it back a notch.” Final Fantasys VII and VIII had embraced modernity, filling their worlds with cars and flying schools, and there was some concern on internet message boards that the series had lost its way. Why were the swords suddenly also guns? Where were all the dwarves and paladins? Why had Final Fantasy turned into Final Sci-Fi?
Likely anticipating those reactions, Square developed Final Fantasy IX alongside FFVIII with plans to release them one year apart. (Incredible to think about now, isn’t it? Two Final Fantasy games coming out in two years?) Under series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, the goal was to make a game that paid tribute to all of its predecessors, and as a result, Final Fantasy IX was as old-school as it got. With a traditional medieval fantasy setting and a cast of characters who resembled the classes of old—Vivi the Black Mage, Steiner the Knight, and so on—Final Fantasy IX quickly quieted those internet complaints. If you were part of the crowd that felt like the last two games had gone astray, this was for you. The developers even stuffed it full of Final Fantasy references, from obvious (a villain named Garland) to subtle (Cid’s last name is “Fabool”). If Final Fantasy VIII was like going off to college, then Final Fantasy IX was coming home for Thanksgiving. You’d visit familiar haunts and hang out with old friends.
Of course, to think that a Final Fantasy game could ever refrain from going off the deep end would be as silly as thinking that I could finish these retrospectives before Final Fantasy XV came out. By the end of Final Fantasy IX, you’ve traveled to another planet, battled clones and machines, and traversed back in time to confront the incarnation of uh, death and hatred?
It all works beautifully. (Except for maybe the incarnation of death and hatred.) Playing through Final Fantasy IX helps elucidate what people love about Final Fantasy in the first place. It’s got the music, the charm, the atmosphere. It’s got that feeling of adventure, where your world is first limited to a single city, then to a few cities, then to a continent, then to the entire planet, and then to multiple planets and maybe even an extra dimension or two. Final Fantasy IX’s story tackles serious issues of human belonging and identity, and it’s also chock full of the jokes and weirdness that make Final Fantasy so great.
Let me give you an example. In the bustling city of Lindblum there’s a grizzled old lady named Grandma Potpourri. Track her down and out of nowhere she’ll shatter the fourth wall, asking you if you’re having a good time. You get two options: “Yeah, I’m havin’ fun” or “No, this game sucks.” Choose the latter and, well:
Final Fantasy IX is an excellent video game.
The story: A theater troupe named Tantalus moonlights as a gang of noble thieves (think: Robin Hood), and as they head to the city of Alexandria to perform their latest play, they devise a plan to kidnap the royal princess Garnet. Playing as Zidane, an actor and thief with a monkey tail, you set out to find the princess, only to find that she’s been planning her own escape and actually wants to be kidnapped. After some violent and explosive mishaps, Zidane, Garnet, a little black mage named Vivi, and Garnet’s bodyguard Steiner all wind up flying out of the castle on Tantalus’s airship and crash-landing into a forest full of monsters.
What follows is a world-spanning adventure involving war, subterfuge, magical crystals, summoned monsters, and lots of clones. There are multiple airships, soulless black mage armies, and devious plot twists borrowed from other Final Fantasy games. By the end, your entire party has made it to hell and back. The game’s final scene, in which Zidane returns to surprise Garnet after being left for dead underground, is particularly memorable. It almost makes up for that non-sequitur of a last boss.
The main villain: Kuja, a scantily clad, silver-haired narcissist who teams up with the nasty Queen Brahne (Garnet’s mom) and creates an army of black mages to do his bidding. Kuja is a complicated one. He’s not quite as devilish as Kefka or as menacing as Sephiroth, but he holds his own, complete with wanton destruction and convoluted schemes. Also he turns out to be Zidane’s brother (sorta), in a plot point taken from (or, more charitably, “referencing”) Final Fantasy IV. Like Golbez before him, Kuja ultimately finds redemption, but not before he causes a whole lot of suffering for a whole lot of people. Then a demon called Necron pops up out of nowhere and fights you.
The gimmick: Each of the game’s eight playable characters is based on a traditional Final Fantasy class, like Thief and White Mage, but there’s a catch. Rather than learning abilities as you level up or gain job points, you’ll get them through your items. Equip a Mage Masher dagger on Zidane, for example, and he’ll be able to learn the skills Detect and Flee. Once he’s learned them, he’ll keep them permanently.
What’s cool about this system is that it makes every new piece of equipment feel like a special little treat. In most RPGs, gear is designed to appeal to number-crunchers, sending endorphins to the part of your brain that gets a kick out of watching the defense stat go from 23 to 24. That’s fine and all, but in Final Fantasy IX, every new piece of gear brings with it a loot box’s worth of possibilities. Not only is that slick new Ice Brand going to do more damage, it’ll teach Steiner the Mental Break skill, allowing him to take down enemies’ magic defense. That Octagon Rod doesn’t just look cool, it teaches Vivi a whole new level of spells: Firaga, Blizzaga, and Thundaga.
It also forces you to make some interesting decisions, because often you’ll get access to new gear before you’ve finished learning all the skills from your old stuff. Do you equip that hot new helmet for the extra defense bonus or wait until you’ve learned Minus Strike first? It’s not exactly a dilemma to keep you up at night, but it makes for a far livelier equipment system than what most RPGs offer.
Another good gimmick: The ATE system. “ATE” stands for Active Time Event, and it’s basically a fancy way of saying “press the select button to watch some fun optional cutscenes.” A bunch of these will pop up pretty much every time you reach a new city, which is a cool way to offer character development without bogging down the story for those of you who just want to blaze through the game.
The setting: Gaia, a fantasy world chock full of forests and mountains and rivers. The area of Gaia with the highest population is known as the Mist Continent because it’s covered with a thick fog called Mist that spawns dangerous monsters. This is absolutely nothing like Sony’s role-playing game Legend of Legaia, released two years before Final Fantasy IX, in which the world is covered with a thick fog called Mist that spawns dangerous monsters. Because in Final Fantasy IX, there are airships.
Fun fact: Final Fantasy IX will forever be associated with the worst strategy guide of all time, one that has become legendary in its inadequacy. Rather than offer a proper walkthrough, the genius brains at Square decided this would be a good opportunity to plug their burgeoning website, PlayOnline, leaving intentional gaps throughout the guide that you’d need to go online in order to fill. This didn’t just happen sporadically, though. Every single page of the guide was plastered with blue boxes teasing that the real info was online, leaving anyone who spent real money on the book wondering why they’d bothered. In retrospect, this was probably a harbinger for the death of print strategy guides. Thanks, Square.
Another fun fact: A large chunk of the game was developed in Hawaii, where Sakaguchi (no longer at Square) lives and works to this day. Dude loves surfing!
The localization: For many years, the Final Fantasy series had a serious localization problem. From the confusing nomenclature of Final Fantasy IV and VI (released as 2 and 3 in the West) to the garbled dialogue of Final Fantasy VII, Square never seemed to take the English versions of its biggest franchise very seriously. This wasn’t the fault of the translation staff; it was an issue of time, resources, and priorities.
Then came Final Fantasy IX, which blew everybody out of the water. The English dialogue of this game was and is still a delight, written and edited by masters of their craft. With tinges of Shakespeare and plenty of subtlety, Final Fantasy IX mixed dark ruminations on good and evil with hilarious quips and banter. In 2000, our standards for RPG dialogue rested somewhere around “coherent,” which made FFIX‘s level of excellence feel all the more special.
Biggest galaxy brain: Garland, who talks like he just discovered Hot Topic.
Corniest yet somehow still best quote: “No cloud, no squall shall hinder us!”
The card game: Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad was a remarkable success, an addictive blend of collection and strategy that served as a wonderful distraction from the main storyline. The developers of Final Fantasy IX no doubt saw that and wanted to craft a card game of their own. So they iterated. They took Triple Triad’s nine-square grid and expanded it, then added complexity (four stats instead of one), randomization (attack and HP values vary), and luck. It’s an unfortunate mix. Whereas Triple Triad was simple and elegant, Final Fantasy IX’s Tetra Master is dull and convoluted. At least it makes for a good answer to the hypothetical question, “What if Triple Triad, but bad.”
Meet Cid: This time, he’s a king. Specifically, he’s the king of Lindblum. Also, his wife turned him into an oglop—an insect, sort of like a beetle—because he had an affair. Cid can’t join your party like he could in FFIV and FFVII, but he is charming, and as a throwback to older games, he hooks you up with an airship or two.
Most annoying secret: Excalibur II, which you can only get if you reach the final dungeon in under 12 hours. This might be a fun achievement for speedrunners, but given that much of Final Fantasy IX’s charm comes from exploring and soaking in the world, not to mention talking to every NPC you can find, this quest feels counterintuitive. It’s not even a good reward. I mean, sure, it’s one of the most powerful weapons in the game, but if you’re good enough to reach the final dungeon of Final Fantasy IX in under 12 hours, the last thing you need is a new weapon. They could’ve stuck in a hidden scene or something.
The best dance sequence:
Best music: Crossing Those Hills
Best flamenco music: Vamo Alla Flamenco – I was in Spain last year for my honeymoon and went to a flamenco show and I swear this would have fit perfectly, complete with clapping and sporadic shouts. It’s so good.
Most ridiculous-looking character: Remember Dr. Odine from Final Fantasy VIII and his giant neck brace? Did you think they would never be able to trump that? WELL. Meet Dr. Tot:
Saddest boss fight: About halfway through the game, you’ll meet Eiko, a precocious young summoner who lives with a bunch of moogles, including her best friend, Mog. She winds up in the hands of Zorn and Thorn, two evil clown soldiers who have been haranguing you all game, and she’s about to be in real trouble when Mog reveals her true form: Madeen the eidolon, who transformed into a moogle so she could hang out with Eiko all the time. Then Mog sacrifices herself to save Eiko and it’s all very sad, although at least you get to then use Madeen in battle.
Villain-turned-ally: Final Fantasy games have a long tradition of giving you a badass guest character for one or two battles, usually one who either was or is also a villain. FFVI had General Leo, FFVII let you play as Sephiroth to see how powerful he really was, and FFVIII gives you brief control of the witch Edea. In Final Fantasy IX, your badass guest is Beatrix, a loyal knight who starts off as a mega-powerful villain before eventually seeing things your way and switching sides. She and Steiner team up for a few fights, which is a lot of fun.
Quote that succinctly sums up both the Final Fantasy series and life as a whole:
Most unique save system: To save your progress in Final Fantasy IX, you have to talk to moogles. These aren’t the faceless, gibberish-speaking moogles of previous games, though. Final Fantasy IX features a network of dozens of the winged white creatures, each of whom has their own name and personality, and as you’re traveling from place to place, they’ll ask you to use a system called Mognet to send letters to all of their friends and family. It’s a fun way to break up the monotony of standard save systems.
Best Final Fantasy reference: Final Fantasy IX is to Final Fantasy references what Stranger Things is to ’80s throwbacks. They just never end. As a lifelong Final Fantasy nerd, I must confess that I absolutely love this element of FFIX, even if I didn’t understand half of the references in 2000 because so many of the games hadn’t even come to the United States. Here’s one I always really enjoyed:
Worst feature: The damn random encounter rate, which, thankfully, can be mitigated in modern versions of the game thanks to cheat codes. Back in the day, it was really bad. Invisible battles every five seconds.
Also: The damn steal grind. Remember how the thing everyone hated most about Final Fantasy VIII was the fact that you’d have to just stand around in battle, watching your characters draw magic from enemies? In Final Fantasy IX, the baddies are holding onto rare items that you can only acquire by stealing from them, which will lead to lots of standing around in battle, watching your characters try to steal from enemies. Often, bosses will carry upwards of three items, and you’ll have to steal the first two one at a time before you even have a chance of getting the third, rarest one. While in theory this could make for an interesting bit of tension—do you risk extending that tricky boss fight just so you can steal from them?—in practice it’s just boring.
Best mini-game: Chocobo Hot and Cold, a massive treasure hunt that sends you all around the world in hunt of good loot. My favorite part of this mini-game is the way your friendly chocobo pal will scream “Kweh” in varying levels of excitement (“KWEEEHHHHH!!!!”) based on how close you are to finding your target.
Best character: Vivi the black mage, whose story starts with him buying play tickets that turn out to be counterfeits and never gets any less tragic. Although Zidane is ostensibly the main character of Final Fantasy IX, it’s Vivi whose journey is the linchpin of this game. Vivi’s quest of self-discovery and identity starts when he runs into other black mages who look just like him but have no souls or speaking ability, and really escalates when he finds out that all black mages in Final Fantasy IX’s world have a lifespan of about one year. His evolution from gullible little boy to confident, self-sufficient man is one of the best things about FFIX.
Worst character: Amarant, who I thought was cool as a kid because he was a stoic ninja, but have recently realized totally sucks because A) he shows up late to the party, B) he doesn’t have a personality beyond “confused all the time,” and C) tries to kill you.
This game is so damn dense: One of the most remarkable things about Final Fantasy IX, even in today’s landscape of 400-hour open-world RPGs, is just how jam-packed with stuff it is. Blink and you’ll probably miss some charming detail, be it the friendly monsters who just want you to feed them items (a Gau reference, perhaps?) or a mission to reunite a family that many people didn’t know existed. There’s even a quest to go find coffee. Final Fantasy IX is full of unique scenes and mini-games (sword-fight for a crowd! Swing in a cage!) that make the game feel special. Whereas modern games are all about reuse of systems and mechanics, Final Fantasy IX feels like a grand, handcrafted adventure.
Does the game hold up? It sure does. The modern versions are a bit ugly thanks to some baffling font and UI choices, but they also have those clutch “fast forward” and “no random encounters” toggles, so play it on a modern platform if you can.
Next time: Underwater soccer…