Diminishing Returns: Final Fantasy IX
by Pitchfork



January, 2000. SquareSoft is in the same place as Al Pacino in the second half of the movie Scarface. It used to be a no-name NES developer that could only produce 8-bit clones of Sega games. When it took hold of the coattails of Enix and its ground-breaking Dragon Quest, things began looking up. Gamers eagerly devoured its Final Fantasy, Seiken Densetsu, and SaGa titles; the first syllable its name became synonomous with quality amongst the RPG-savvy. But Square had more ambition than that. With Final Fantasy VII, it broke out of Enix and Dragon Quest's shadows, and successfully brought the JRPG to the mainstream. And the good times just kept rolling. Final Fantasy VIII may not have lived up to fans' expectations, but was still a megahit. The numbers would later show it was the fourth best-selling game for one of the most successful video game consoles of all time. Chrono Cross was a megahit. Xenogears and Vagrant Story were becoming cult favorites. Legend of Mana and Parasite Eve II had already been released in Japan, and were on their way to the States. "The world is yours," proclaimed Square's legions of new fans. "Push it to the limit," sang Sony, who couldn't help noticing people were buying their Playstation machine just to play Square's games.

So now Square was sitting in its penthouse suite, with more success and money than it knew what to do with; delirious with power, ambition, and the mountains of cocaine it had lying around. But despite its ongoing success, Square somehow couldn't help feeling discontent. The new sequels to its classic games, while popular, somehow lacked that special spark that the original titles what they were. Its older fans were becoming alienated: this wasn't the Square they fell in love with. "Who needs you?" Square shot back. We're selling millions of games! We have more than enough new fans to replace you! Go play Kartia or Grandia or some shit, if you think it'll make you happy -- but it won't. Fine! Leave! You'll be back!"

But one day, while cleaning off its nose, Square got an idea. "Listen up!" Square annouced to its cronies one day. "Let's put out a game like the ones we used to, eh? You know, with knights, moogles, and dragons and stuff. Where's Amano? Do we still have his number? Get him on the phone and tell him we got a job. Come on -- it'll be fun! Right? Just like old times, do you hear me?! Let's do this. Snap to it!" Meanwhile, the forces Square invoked through its own hubris -- which, in this case, would be The Spirits Within -- were already set to destroy it.

And that's exactly how Final Fantasy IX happened.

If Final Fantasy VIII was an anomaly, the jury is still out on exactly what IX is. VIII went and turned the series' conventions up on their heads, but while -- or because it was so divisive, people still remember it. IX, on the other hand, was meant to temporarily return Final Fantasy to its roots, and has for the most part disappeared into a memory hole of video gaming. There is a Penny Arcade strip that expresses its legacy better and more succinctly than I can:

Click here to see said comic.

Final Fantasy IX will probably forever be known as "that one Final Fantasy game that came out between VIII and X." Which is interesting, because FF fans and JRPG conoisseurs tend to have very strong feelings about VI, VII, VIII, and X, but it's rare that bringing up IX to them elicits much more than a "meh." (Sometimes a "meh?") The obvious question: why?

The biggest factor is probably just bad timing, and on several fronts. For one thing, Final Fantasy IX was released in Japan and North America following the Playstation 2's release in both territories. Between this and the Dreamcast, mainstream attention was diverted elsewhere. We can also presume that it came out at time in which many older fans -- to whom Final Fantasy IX was most likely to appeal -- had already jumped ship after VII and VIII, and were thus unaware of its release or had simply moved on. It's equally likely that many of the new fans whom Square won over with VII and VIII were miffed at their sci-fi worlds and jejune cyberpunk protagonists being switched out for a fairly tale realm filled with golden-hearted thieves, magical princesses, and bumbling knights.

Another factor is lack of effort on Square's part. Apparently, Final Fantasy IX wasn't intended to be a part of the numbered Final Fantasy titles. It was originally developed to be a spin-off, like Tactics or Crystal Chronicles, and therefore not as high-priority in terms of budget or development time. (This would also explain Square's apparent lack of business sense in developin the newest iteration of its flagship franchise on a console that was already obsolete.) The most likely explanation for why Square decided to include it in the series proper was to boost sales. But that alone wasn't enough, considering how little it was marketed compared to its predecessors. There was no publicity blitz prior to IX's release, as opposed to VII and VIII's, nor was there a playable demo as there had been for VIII. I remember knowing exactly when to expect VIII's release, but being caught completely off-guard by IX a year later. I had to look twice at Blockbuster's video game shelf in the Fall of 2000, and wondered why nobody had bothered telling me that the new Final Fantasy game was out already.

It seems that Final Fantasy IX was actually developed alongside X and XI as part of a three-pronged effort by Square. Think of it as present-future-past plan. X was made to continue along the path established by VII and VIII, and to bring Final Fantasy to the new Playstation 2 on time. XI was made to be Square's foray into the increasingly lucrative online market, which was then dominated by EverQuest. IX, meanwhile, was made to provide fans with a final visit to the series' roots before moving on completely.

On paper, Final Fantasy IX was a fine plan. A marriage of Final Fantasy then and now: black mages, summoners, and dragoons duking it out with antlions and hill gigases in epic three-dimensional battles. Bahamut, Odin, and Alexander causing mass-scale destruction in decadantly flashy FMV sequences. Familiar locations from the 8 and 16-bit games reenvisioned in beautifully-painted artwork, free from the confines of two-dimensional tilesets. All the technological and directoral achievements of new Final Fantasy combined with the popular conventions that helped the series rise to prominence. What's not to like?

In reality, this also means the idiosyncracies and flaws of the 2D games get mixed with and reinforced by those from the 3D. The 2D games' overabundance of random battles meets the 3D games' load times. The challenge factor (and occasional mercilessness) of the 2D games has to somehow be reconciled with the accessibility strove for by the 3D. We get heroes that try to be as likable and straightforward as Cecil, Butz, and their respective crews, but are also forced to grapple with sordid pasts and personal demons like Cloud, Squall, and their buddies; villains with personalities and motives as two dimensional as Zemus and Exdeath, but who are as overexposed and zazzed-up to the degree of Sephiroth and Edea. The Satuday morning Toonami anime storyline favored by the 2D games meets the overinflated self-importance and outright clutteredness of the 3D.

Final Fantasy IX's story is worth elaborating on, because it's one of the game's greatest setbacks. Two things are responsible for bringing it down: the apparent and almost baffling inability of Square's writers to leave an idea on the cutting room floor, and the equally mystifying issues with its pacing.

A REVIEW AND SUMMATION OF FINAL FANTASY IX'S STORY, USING ONLY EMOTICONS:

DISC ONE: :D
DISC TWO: :)
DISC THREE: :I
DISC FOUR: :/

Final Fantasy IX starts out strong. The characters are quirky and funny. The plot is standard anime/JRPG fare, but presented with enough bombast and speed to make for an enjoyable ride. The ATE system is introduced, which allows a player to view events happening beyond Zidane's perspective at certain points in the game. But after the hectic first disc, the action slows down and never regains its momentum. "Find object X to accomplish Y" quests abound. The more colorful characters of the supporting cast are muscled aside until they've been practically been reduced to spectators. The game starts taking itself more and more seriously; the trumpet-blowing penguins, the Black Waltzes, and slapstick comedy of the first disc are steadily replaced by a cadre of Replicant wannabes, b-list anime villains, and melodrama that sometimes gives Squall a run for his money. By the third disc, the ATE system almost disappears completely. The plot is beyond contrived, even by Final Fantasy standards: the only thing worse than the manner in which Terra, Garland, and the Genomes are wedged so forcefully into the story is how they're presented as some momentous and terrible revelation and then end up having all the impact of a badly-timed non-sequitur. I personally suspect that the stark change of direction correlates with Square's decision to include the game in the numbered series instead of calling it a spin-off (or a gaiden, if you want to be nerdy about it), but there's probably no way of actually proving this.

Of course, Final Fantasy IX certainly isn't all bad. The four-member battle party returns at last, making me wonder why it was ever slimmed down to three in the first place. Party members once again have unique abilities, but are also customizable through limited sets of special skills acquired by equipping weapons and armor (striking the greatest balance between distinctness and customization since VI). Boss battles are challenging again. It has more sidequests and mini-games than any of its predecessors. Plus, the presentation is nothing short of top-notch, coming just short of being too much for the Playstation. (Some of the emulation troubles I experienced will vouch for that.) In spite of its shortcomings, all that Final Fantasy IX does well makes it even more of a wonder that it is so often overlooked.




Characters

Another Final Fantasy, another catalogue of names and faces. After the more realistic -- not to mention compartively bland -- cast of Final Fantasy VIII, these new guys are a vertiable freak show. Keeping with the game's retro bent, most of Final Fantasy IX's characters recall faces and names from earlier entries, but the Square strives to flesh them out to the same degree as those from the previous two Playstation titles.

ZIDANE TRIBAL
Thief
Trance Ability:
Dyne. Zidane goes Super-Saiyan (oh, you think I'm joking) and all of this thief Skills become absurdly powerful energy attacks for the duration of Trance.

First there was the austere Cloud. Then came the morose Squall. Final Fantasy IX's development team originally intended for the game's protagonist to be a further progression in this direction, but the limited Playstation hardware simply proved incapable of handling so much weltschmerz and angst. So instead they made a U-turn, casting a peppy, good-natured youngster with a knack for adventure and a compulsive drive to help people in need as Final Fantasy IX's central character. Zidane's temperment is no doubt intended as a throwback to older Final Fantasy heroes such as Butz and Locke, meant to assuage players who were turned off by the brooding new breed of JRPG hero. His monkey tail is meant to remind players of the original Dragon Ball (or The Monkey King, on which it was based), and reinforce that warm, fuzzy sense of nostalgia -- and it would probably work if Zidane didn't look so damnably much like a hideous mutant clone of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and act like he was the sole recipient of all Squall's unused testosterone. At any rate, Zidane is a member of Tantalus, a theatre troup/bandit gang from Lindblum. When Final Fantasy IX begins, he is handed his newest objective: sneak into Alexandria Castle during Tantalus's performance of Lord Avon's I Want To Be Your Canary and kidnap Princess Garnet. Epic hijinx ensue, which eventually lead to Zidane becoming tasked with saving the universe. You should know how it goes by now.

Something Borrowed: Zidane is reminiscient of Butz, Locke, and even Laguna: a courageous underdog with a heart of gold, instead of a troubled bad ass with a giant sword and a chip on his shoulder.
Something New: I'd like to play devil's advocate for a moment. Ordinarily, when somebody can stumble upon spoilers for the newest installment of your ongoing fantasy series by watching old reruns of Dragonball Z, shouldn't that usually be taken as an indication that you've jumped the shark? Just sayin'.


ADELBERT STEINER
Knight
Trance Ability:
It's clobberin' time! Steiner doesn't get any new battle abilities when he enters Trance -- his physical attack power just triples. Simple, but dreadfully effective.

Steiner is Captain of the Knights of Pluto, an all-male combat squadron (which means nobody takes them seriously, as Alexandria is run by women) charged with defending the kingdom and its royal family. Steiner is the first "knight" character in Final Fantasy who doubles as a comic relief. He's dense, easily-flustered, and makes a loud CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK sound whenever he moves. As the story unfolds, Steiner gradually pulls his head out of his rear orifice, thereby finding a new outlook on life and losing all the qualities that make him such an endearing yutz to begin with. (Side note: is it just me, or are all of Square's characters -- and most JRPG characters, in general -- interesting only up until the moment they work out their personal flaws?) The first of Steiner's two abilities is Sword Art, which consists mostly of techniques borrowed from Final Fantasy Tactics' Knight job. The second is Sword Magic, which mimics the Mystic Knight's Spellblade ability from Final Fantasy V, but it is only usable when Vivi is in the party with Steiner. Kind of redundant, but quite useful.

Something Borrowed: Another royal knight with a job to do. See also: Richard from Final Fantasy II, Ignus from Final Fantasy III (the remake), Cecil from Final Fantasy IV, Galuf from Final Fantasy V, Cyan and Leo from Final Fantasy VI, Argrias and Orlandu from Final Fantasy Tactics, etc.
Something New: CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK CLANK...


VIVI ORUNITIA
Black Mage
Trance Ability:
Double Black. Self-explanatory.

Vivi is easily the most popular character to come out of Final Fantasy IX. This is not surprising at all, considering how Square bent over backwards to ensure that the first Black Mage to appear in a numbered Final Fantasy game since V be as cute and lovable as a Hello Kitty plush toy. He's shy, gentle, soft-spoken, and excudes this air of curious innocence that makes you just want to pick him up and squeeze him like said Hello Kitty plush -- or strangle him once it occurs to you that he is an unnatural marriage between a Care Bear and a Blade Runner Replicant. Throughout Final Fantasy IX, Vivi embarks on his own version of the "coming to terms with his own identity" quest, which we've previously seen in Final Fantasy VI (Terra) and VII (Cloud).

Something Borrowed: Black Mages were Final Fantasy icons long before IX rolled along.
Something New: But they've never been cast as magic-wielding Replicants. Vivi's personal crisis borrows even more from Blade Runner than Cloud's.


PRINCESS GARNET TIL ALEXANDROS XVII / DAGGER / SARA
Summoner/White Mage
Trance Ability:
Eidolon. For the duration of Trance, all Dagger's summon spells run through their full animations (which makes them do more damage), and sometimes show up at random between turns. Kind of obtuse.

If you guessed that Dagger is a sheltered teenage princess who yearns to see the world beyond the castle walls, you'd be right. You'd also be correct if you went on to presume that when she escapes from home, she finds herself unequipped for life outside and must turn to a kind-hearted, streetsmart young thief for guidance and protection. (Good grief -- is this the plot of Final Fantasy IX or Aladdin?) "Dagger" is a fake name Garnet takes up while travelling to hide her identity, while "Sara" is her birthname. This makes her the third Princess Sara in the series, after the ones from Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy III. As a princess and as the hero's love interest, Dagger needs to be rescued on a regular basis -- but you probably already figured that out, too.

Something Borrowed: See also: Maria, Rosa, Lenna, Tifa, and Rinoa. Yep, Dagger is basically every Final Fantasy female lead we've seen so far.
Something New: A couple of things. First of all, IX is the first time Final Fantasy has made use of the "peasant/princess" love story that has defined comedy from the age of Classical Greek drama up to Elizabethan theatre. I'll spare you the Northrop Frye lecture (Steiner is the senex! Steiner is the senex!) for now, but this is yet another nod to Shakespeare. Secondly, there's...well, let's start by looking at Tifa and Rinoa. Final Fantasy VIII's Rinoa had her fans, but to put it bluntly, there is far less Rinoa hentai floating around cyberspace than there is of VII's buxom heroine. It is an established fact that you can gauge the populariy anime/video game character by the amount of people drawing them naked and posting them on the Internet, and its is unlikely that this discrepancy between Tifa and Rinoa smut escaped Square's attention. The natural solution was to fetishize Dagger in a similar vein as Tifa. But instead of giving Dagger a massive bust, they focused on her booty instead. Take a look:



That is undoubtedly one of the most lovingly-crafted derieres I've ever seen in a video game. I'm kind of curious about how many man-hours went into sculpting and perfecting that particular part of Dagger's model, but not sure I'm prepared for the answer.


FREYA CRESCENT
Dragoon/Irish Folk Dancer
Trance Ability:
Death from above! If Freya uses the Jump command during Trance, she'll stay in midair until her Trance gauge is depleted, automatically raining spears upon enemies whenever her turn comes around.

Freya originally hails from Burmecia, but has been out on a training expedition for the last five years. While searching for her lost love Sir Fratley Irontail, she passes through Lindblum and bumps into her old buddy Zidane. Not only is Freya the first female Dragoon in a Final Fantasy game (excluding the Final Fantasy V girls, but they don't really count), but the first anthromorph party member as well (Mog, Umaro, and Red XIII don't apply). She's exactly what you'd expect from a Dragoon by now, but she also comes equipped with an aresenal of MP-consuming Dragon Knight abilities. Also, rather than jumping up and then landing on an opponent during her Jump attack, she flings her spear at it in midair and recovers it as she lands, making for a much more impressive spectacle. In this fan's humble opinion, Freya might be the coolest Dragoon character in the series. Maybe even better than Kain and Final Fantasy VII's Cid.

Something Borrowed: Again: if you've played Final Fantasy IV, V, VI, or Tactics, you'll know what to expect from Freya as a party member.
Something New: Let me see if I'm understanding this. Freya is one of the main heroines of a JRPG -- and she doesn't at any point have the hots for the hero, never needs to be rescued by the hero, and in fact shows up the hero in a monster-slaying competition? (Unless the player really knows what he's doing during the Festival of the Hunt sequence, that is.) And wait -- does Freya really offer zero fanservice? Not even the slightest effort is made to cater to Secret of Nimh fanboy furries? (Irrelevant question: was "yiff" part of Internet vernacular back in 2000?) And am I really not imagining the game, when Freya ends up with the guy she has the hots for -- a guy who, again, isn't the game's male main character? Whoa. Not only might Freya be the best Dragoon in Final Fantasy, the best female party member in the whole series (at least from a feminist perspective).


QUINA QUEN
Gourmand/Blue Mage
Trance Ability:
Cook. Quina is able to devour his/her opponents alive with greater ease during Trance.

An ambiguously-gendered humanoid creature from the Mist Continent's Qu Marsh. At the behest of his/her Master Qu, Quina joins Zidane's travels around the world to try new and exciting kinds of food and become a true gourmand -- sort of like Kung-Fu meets Iron Chef meets, I dunno...Benji from The Sound and the Fury. Quina reminds me of a guy I met a couple of times named Chris C., who was a brother of one of my sister's friends that had down syndrome. My sister and her buddies geniunely liked Chris, so they let him tag along with them on their adventures about town. He was perpetually horny and damned near impossible to control, but there's something kind of refreshing about a person to whom the entire world is basically a playground. I guess what I'm really saying here is that Quina is essentially a lumbering retard who never really knows what's going on and will put anything in his/her mouth.

Something Borrowed: I am certain that Square had spies working in LucasFilms during Final Fantasy IX's development. While they were observing the progress of The Phantom Menace, they faxed Square back some information on Jar Jar Binks, which got the developers thinking. "This character is annoying as hell. Nobody is going to actually like this Binks guy. But then again: this is George Lucas we're talking about here, and we owe him too much not to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's gotta have some kind of plan here. Okay then, Mr. Lucas -- we will continue following your lead! Get R&D to study Jar Jar and re-adapt him for Final Fantasy IX!" It's a stretch, I know -- but what other explanation is there for why Square squandered one of the game's eight precious party member slots on such a bizarre and idiosyncratic character? It's the first time since Final Fantasy IV's Edward that they seem to have deliberately created a character to stick in players' craws.
Something New: Quina is another Blue Mage, but with a twist. A couple years earlier, somebody in Final Fantasy VIII's think tank realized that the traditional method of collecting Blue Magic needed to be rethought. It required too much guesswork and luck, and was especially irritating when it came to acquiring spells that enemies only use on themselves, result in instant death for the user, or are only cast by a single late-game boss. The solution devised for Final Fantasy VIII was to add a few more items (to a game already having what seems like hundreds) that could be used to teach Quistis new skills. But this wouldn't work for Final Fantasy IX, which had a much more conservative inventory. Instead, they settled on giving Quina an "Eat" command, which works like Final Fantasy VII's Morph ability: if a monster's HP is at 33% or less, Quina instantly kills it and depending on the enemy, learns a new Blue Magic spell.


EIKO CAROL
White Mage/Summoner
Trance Ability:
Double White. You know the drill.

Eiko's arrival was hailed by certain nameless otaku subgroups, who had been thirsting for a new magical loli in Final Fantasy since Relm. Eiko is one of two survivors of Madain Sari, an ancient village of summoners that was wiped out in a mysterious catastrophe twelve years ago. Attended by a loyal cadre of moogles, she lives comfortably; but Eiko longs to see the outside world and meet other human beings. Her personality is more or less borrowed from Relm and Yuffie's, so Eiko is a spoiled, hyperkinetic brat with a bad mouth who can't for the life of her understand why Zidane prefers Dagger. When she leaves Madain Sari to join Zidane and co., she disobeys her grandfather's request for her not to leave home until she turns sixteen -- which probably wasn't meant to sound dirty, but kinda does.

Something Borrowed: Everything about her. Eiko is a mashup of Rydia, Palom, Porom, Relm, and Yuffie, with an added dash of Krile.
Something New: Uh, let's see here. Eiko is Final Fantasy's first 32-bit loli, so she automatically gets more FMV exposure than she's really owed by her role in the story. But that isn't really original, is it? Huh. I think I'm stumped here.


AMARANT CORAL (SALAMANDER)
Monk/Ninja
Trance Ability:
Elan. While he's in Trance, all of Amarant's Flair abilities (most of which are taken from the Monk class in Final Fantasy Tactics) automatically target all allies/foes instead of only one at a time.

The "Flaming Amarant" ("Salamander" in Japan) is a bad ass with a bad attitude. Really, that's all there is to him. He has a grudge against Zidane for making a fool of him in the past, picks fights with just about everyone, and goes off on Squall-esque rants about the pointlessness of depending on other people. Although Amarant is clearly just an afterthought as far as the game's story is concerned, he makes an incredibly useful ally -- as you'd expect from a party member combining the abilities of the ever-useful Monk and Ninja classes.

Something Borrowed: Final Fantasy IX needed a grouchy loner to follow in Shadow and Vincent's footsteps.
Something New: Even the totally optional characters from Final Fantasy VI and VII were integrated better than Amarant. Square really wasn't even trying here.


TANTALUS



Named for the figure from Greek myth who endures eternal punishment in Hades for stealing the gods' ambrosia, Tantalus is a traveling theatre troupe and bandit gang from Lindblum that raised the orphaned Zidane. Even though they're criminals, Tantalus isn't such a bad group of guys. Some of its more prominent members are Baku (the rotund ringleader), Blank (Zidane's rival and best bud), Marcus (the ugly one), Cinna (the uglier one), Ruby (the floozy), Benero and Zenero (the twins), and of course, Monkeyboy himself.

Something Borrowed: Final Fantasy IX is full of nods to Shakespeare, but Tantalus is perhaps its most prominent homage to the Bard (excluding the name given to the Mist Continent's famed playwright). As thieves, they echo Falstaff's gang from Henry IV; as actors, they echo A Midsummer Night's Dream's Rude Mechanicals (although it's unlikely the clumsy, psuedo-Elizabethan dialogue of their performances was intended to sound as bad as it does). I challenge you English and theatre buffs out there to tell me Baku and Zidane aren't Falstaff and Prince Hal reincarnated in Square form.

Something New: This is the first time Final Fantasy has borrowed from Shakespeare instead of Star Wars in designing a game's early throwaway allies.


GENERAL BEATRIX



Alexandria's highest-ranking and most feared soldier is perhaps the most powerful living warrior on Gaia. Beatrix doesn't lose. Ever. Zidane and the heroes clash swords with her on numerous occasions, and always get their asses kicked. After a couple Final Fantasy games in which the main character is automatically better than everyone else in the world at everything, Square's casting a character whom he is simply incapable of defeating is actually kind of refreshing.

Something Borrowed: Need further proof of Beatrix's mettle? She's got General Leo's Shock attack, which is the holy grail of old-school Final Fantasy knight techniques. (Yes, Steiner can also learn it eventually, but Beatrix dishes it out as early as Act One.)

Something New: Two exceedingly strong and independent female heroines in a single Final Fantasy game? This must be Square's way of apologizing to female players for ten years of helpless damsels in distress and female leads who are incapable of even the slightest action when their sword-brandishing counterparts go missing. Do note however, that as soon as she starts falling for Steiner her HP and MP suddenly stop being bottomless. Hmm...


REGENT CID FABOOL IX



Who would have thought? One of Final Fantasy IX's characters is a middle-aged man named Cid who builds airships -- though he hasn't been very good at it lately, since his wife got fed up with his philandering ways and used her magic to turn him into a bug. Even though his mind and strength aren't quite what they were as a human, Regent Cid of Lindblum remains a beloved leader to his people and one of Princess Garnet's most trusted allies.

Something Borrowed: It's another Cid. Final Fantasy IX cracks a little metatextual joke by referring to the regent as the ninth in a royal line of Cids -- which he is, if you count Orlandu from Final Fantasy Tactics. And yes, his surname is taken from Yang's home in Final Fantasy IV.
Something New: After nearly a decade of playing crazy old farts and engineers who get killed off, Cid is now the respected and just ruler of a powerful kingdom. Guess he finally racked up enough karma to climb a few steps up the ladder.


MOOGLES



Moogles! They're back! And there's a whole bunch of them! And some are dressed in adorable little outfits! And they make sounds now! Well, putting my girlish swooning aside for a minute, Moogles play a more important role in Final Fantasy IX than ever before, as they function as the game's save points.

Something Borrowed: Kupo!
Something New: Mognet, which was featured in the DS remake of Final Fantasy III, makes its debut in IX. And according to Final Fantasy Wiki, it looks like the head of Mognet makes cameos in the Crystal Chronicles games on the Gamecube and DS.


BLACK MAGES



The iconic offensive magic class from 2D Final Fantasy returns en masse. Manufactured by combining Terran knowhow with the monster-spawning properties of the Mist, the doll-like Black Mages serve as the unstoppable magic-hurling footsoldiers of Queen Brahne's conquering army. Though created to be mindless drones, they eventually become self-aware and flee to a remote forest on the Outer Continent to live out the remainder of their lives in peace.

Somethng Borrowed: Everything. Their backstory bears no small resemblance to that of Final Fantasy VI's Espers, and the existentialist dilemma which defines their existence is heavily reminiscient of the Replicants' struggle in -- you guessed it -- Blade Runner.
Something New: Black Mages have never before been so likable; and since they've been fan favorites since their debut, that's saying a lot. Final Fantasy IX's story is undoubtedly one of Square's sloppiest, but the writers hit it right out of the park with these guys. Watching the Black Mages try to make sense of the world they suddenly find themselves thrust into is one of the game's -- and series' -- finest points.


GENOMES



Soulless, genetically-engineered Terran lifeforms whose features bear a startling resemblance to Zidane's. Once Garland's plan comes to fruition, the dormant souls of Terra will inhabit the Genomes' bodies, and their lives will begin anew on Gaia.

Something Borrowed: I'm not sure whether their obvious parallels to the Black Mages make them a compelling foil, or if it's all just really redundant.
Something New: Swing, and a miss.


EIDOLONS



Summon monsters return once again, and with yet another new moniker. The summoners of Madain Sari worshipped them as the guardians of Gaia -- which is ironic, considering how they spend half the game ravaging the planet under Brahne and Kuja's command. Their powers are tied to special jewels, and they can also be found living inside the bodies of certain little girls.

Something Borrowed: Final Fantasy VI's Fenrir and Maduin (Madeen) reappear, and V's Atomos steps in to replace VIII's Diablos.
Something New: It's more than a little surprising that Square waited until the third and last Final Fantasy installment on the Playstation to showcase summon monsters unleashing destruction in high-budget FMVs. And here's something else borrowed: remember Bahamut's rampage from Advent Children? Square practically ripped that whole sequence from Final Fantasy IX.


QUEEN BRAHNE



The fat-ass, butt-ugly ruling monarch of Alexandria looks like she'd feel more at home in an animated Disney film than in Final Fantasy, which further cements my suspicions that Square was getting in some practice for Kingdom Hearts during IX's development. Final Fantasy has always been full of corrupted rulers who seek some ancient power or other to help them achieve their aims of world domination, and Brahne plays the part as well as any -- but with a greasier, more womanly touch than that which we're used to. As you've come to expect by now, her reign of terror only lasts until an ambitious subordinate stabs her in the back with the very power she unleashes.

Something Borrowed: See also: the Emperor (Final Fantasy II), the king of Baron (IV), Emperor Gestahl (VI), President Shinra (VII), and Vinzer Deling (VIII).
Something New: Final Fantasy has had cartoonish villains before, but Brahne takes it to a whole new level. Watching her for too long can make you physically ill, and that in itself is an unparalleled feat of animation and character design for the the series.


THORN & ZORN



Queen Brahne's court jesters and wizards (who were presumably given to her by Kuja) feature as Final Fantasy IX's recurring low-end villains. They first come across as bumbling, comic-relief misfits, but turn out to be much more sinister and dangerous than you'd suspect. Few things are more unnerving than an evil clown -- especially when there's two of them, and when their speciality is extracting magical essences from slumbering teenage girls.

Something Borrowed: They're a lot like evil versions of Palom and Porom, even using the same "Twin" spells when faced in battle.
Something New: But Palom and Porom certainly didn't do that when you slammed them together. Creepy.


GARLAND



The name is the only thing the overseer of Terra shares in common with the primary villain of the original Final Fantasy. Garland was created by the people of Terra to watch over their sleeping souls and implement the rebirth of their dead world through a gradual assimilation of Gaia. Thousands of years old, patient, calculating, commanding all of Terra's high technology, and unwaveringly resolute in his mission, Garland will see his task carried out, no matter what the cost or how many centuries it takes.

Something Borrowed: The previously-seen Final Fantasy character Garland shares the most in common with is probably FuSoYa. Both are the products of advanced civilizations from dead worlds, have been charged with watching over their people, and sport some impressive white beards. But whereas FuSoYa's mission is peaceful, Garland's is precisely the opposite: to spread war and chaos throughout Gaia.
Something New: Garland is a much more morally ambiguous antagonist than Final Fantasy usually serves up (give or take a Delita). His job demands he get his hands dirty, but Garland is absolutely certain that his doing it for the sake of his world's survival absolves him. It's unfortunate that Final Fantasy IX's atrocious pacing robs him of the impact he should have had, and as a result he ends up playing third fiddle to Brahne and Kuja -- a pair of far more typical and less interesting villains.


THE FOUR CHAOSES


 

The latest Final Fantasy's last dungeon gauntlet of bosses is also the first game's last dungeon gauntlet of bosses. That's right: Lich, Kary (now called by her original name, Marilith), Kraken, and Tiamat are all back, and true to their appearances in the Temple of Fiends, they attack completely without warning at certain points on the path through Memoria.

Something Borrowed: See: Final Fantasy I.
Something New: I never thought I'd be so excited to be attacked by Kary without warning.


HADES & OZMA



Another game, another pair of optional super bosses. The legendary blacksmith Hades hides in Memoria, and can synthesize some rare and useful equipment for you're able to best him in combat. Ozama is -- uh, a giant globe with off-color hemispheres that rotate in opposite directions. Are we really that low on ideas, Square? Fighting Ozma requires undergoing two lengthy sidequests: you must have a chocobo that can access Chocobo's Air Garden before you can even face Ozma, and the "friendly monsters" sidequest must be completed if you expect to stand any kind of chance. Ozma's HP is only around 60,000; a fraction of the million plus boasted by the optional Weapons from Final Fantasy VII and VIII. However, Final Fantasy IX doesn't give you any game-breaking spells, abilities, or items like Knights of the Round, Eden, Renzokuken, Ominslash, Final Attack, or Holy War to save you, so the odds are usually still overwhelmingly in Ozma's favor.

Something Borrowed: They're no Shinryuu and Omega, but they'll do.
Something New: Shinryuu and Omega were palette swaps, and Square still put more effort in designing them than Ozma.


KUJA



The mysterious arms-dealer who has been supplying Brahne with the arcane knowledge and hardware she uses in her bid to conquer Gaia. Not even Brahne suspects what he truly is: an abnormal Genome dispatched by Garland to stir up havoc and war throughout Gaia. As the result of an unforeseen fluke in the Genome production process, Kuja has an ususally powerful sense of self and is unwilling to live in servitude and die in obscurity like the rest of his soulless bretheren. He plans to serve Garland only until he can find a way of overthrowing him and averting his pre-authored fate.

It probably wouldn't even be editorializing to say that Kuja is the least impressive antagonist Final Fantasy has had up to this point. Instead of drawing inspiration from a Shakespeare villain, Square apparently decided to base Final Fantasy IX's main villain on the attention-whoring snots who get rejected at their auditons to play Shakespeare villains. Overlooking the man-thong, the effeminate hair tosses, the mincing, the temper tantrums, and the embarrassing attempts at poetry, there just isn't much going on with this guy. He's like that one insufferable drama [REDACTED] you knew back in high school: he always has to be the center of attention, he never shuts the hell up even when he has nothing worth saying, and even while doing something villainous, he acts like he's standing in front of a full-body mirror and practicing for his role as Scar in the spring semester production of The Lion King. His only real interesting moments occur when he's ripping off Blade Runner: Kuja is a glimpse at what Roy Batty would have been if he'd made the opposite choice at the end of the film. (And if you think all the Blade Runner similarities are coincidental, explain Kuja's "time to die" line, which he speaks immediately before his final showdown with Zidane.) It is possible, though, that Kuja comes off so badly because of some cultural differences between Japan and the States. Adolescent Japanese players would probably find something compelling about a person produced to look, act, and think like everybody else but resists; insisting on asserting his individuality and fighting his destiny. If that's the case, American players would probably be able to relate more to Kuja if he looked something like this.



But in short, Kuja isn't really a villain. He's just a dick.

Something Borrowed: "Garland, Garland! I got the lead role in the Bran Bal Playhouse production of Final Fantasy VI! I'm playing Kefka!"
Something New: Butt floss.


NECRON



Final Fantasy IX's last boss is a JRPG icon, and for all the wrong reasons. Moments after Kuja's defeat, Necron shows up out of nowhere, announces that he's going to destroy the universe, then fights Zidane and his buddies in the game's final battle. "Pulling a Necron" isn't anything new to JRPGs or Final Fantasy, but this guy's unexpected and arbitrary appearance at the end of IX is by far the most ridiculous example of this unfortunate practice, and the reason it's named after him.

Something Borrowed: Fighting Necron reminds me a lot of fighting Chaos from the first game. Instead of relying solely on one or two ULTIMATE SOLAR SYSTEM DESTROYING MAGICKS (which he does have), Necron wears the heroes down by buffeting them with powerful elemental magic, while casting healing and buffer spells on himself.
Something New: THANK YOU Square for finally giving me the option to take Monkeyboy out of my party.


Places

As previously stated, Final Fantasy IX is far from perfect. Its story is overcluttered and suffers from astoundingly poor pacing; it has an overabundance of random battles and load times; the Trance system is yet another failed attempt at a Limit Break mechanic that isn't somehow broken; it thrusts Quina and Kuja upon players. But one thing you cannot say about Final Fantasy IX is that it looks and sounds anything less than gorgeous.

While the game developers in charge of the story and writing were clocking out at five and hitting the bar every night, the folks responsible for the pre-rendered environments and music were putting in overtime. The world of Final Fantasy IX is among the most eye-poppingly beautiful and diverse of any Square has ever created. Its sense of scope and variety is due in no small part to the game's soundtrack: this is the first game in the series that virtually never recycles its BGMs. Every dungeon, village, and city has its own unique theme, regardless of how important it is or how much or little time the player is expected to spend there. It's entirely worth sinking 30-40 hours into Final Fantasy IX for the aesthetics alone. (Also note that the Playstation emulator I used blurs its screen captures; the actual game looks far better than the images you're seeing here.)

THE MIST CONTINENT



The largest and most populous continent on Gaia is blanketed by the Mist -- a mysterious vapor possessing a slew of arcane properties. Since the Mist breeds monsters and can poison the mind through prolonged exposure, all the continent's major human settlements and kingdoms are situated on plateaus above it and partitioned off from one another by tremendous gates erected between mountain ranges. Final Fantasy IX is (and will probably remain) the last game in the series to have a traversible overworld map, and the Mist Continent is the finest example of design in this respect. In the early days of 2D Final Fantasy (and JRPGs in general), overworld maps consisted of a few giant green islands decorated with forests, deserts, marshes, and impassable mountains and rivers to make traversing from town to dungeon to town less monotonous. When Final Fantasy went 3D, its overworld maps followed suit, but the approach to designing them went unchanged. But the Mist Continent finally takes advantage of the additional dimension, becoming a realm defined by its unique topography. It's a shame that the rest of the the overworld is markedly less inspired, adhering the lazy old design formula of "island goes here, town goes here, mountain goes here, dungeon goes -- oh why not -- here..."


ALEXANDRIA



The city which Dagger and Steiner call home draws heavily from Elizabethan London, as evidenced by its steeples, its peoples' love of the theatre, its boat-taxis, cobbled streets, taverns, and of course, the bloated caricature of Queen Elizabeth herself who sits her fat ass on the throne. It might seem inconsistent on Square's part to name a city styled on Renaissance-era Europe after an ancient Egyptian city founded by a Macedonian warlord. Fact of the matter is, this city is named for a different Alexander.


LINDBLUM



I really want to say Lindblum is at least partially inspired by late 19th/early 20th Century New York. It is a thriving metropolis bustling with commerce, technology, art, and. Originally a city of hunters, Lindblum annually celebrates the Festival of the Hunt to commemorate its founders. (Scratch that part about New York -- maybe Square had its eye on Spain and its Running of the Bulls.) Lindblum is the first nation of Gaia to unlock the potential of steam power, making it the most technologically-advanced kingdom on the planet. Would you expect any less from a place run by a Cid?


BURMECIA & CLEYRA



The western kingdoms of the Mist continent are populated by a race of anthromorphic rats. Burmecia is the most depressing town in any Final Fantasy game due to its being decimated by Black Mages before Zidane even shows up, a particularly haunting BGM (one of Uematsu's best pieces) and the fact that its genius founders got it in their heads to build a city in a place where it literally never stops raining. (Insert Seattle joke here.) Its sister city Cleyra lies atop a giant tree in the middle of the desert, and was founded by Burmecian expatriates. Cleyra is completely pacifist, but protected by a magical sandstorm fueled by the power of folk dance. (Again you think I'm joking.)


TRENO



The southernmost city on the Mist continent is perpetually blanketed by night (for some reason) and was probably modeled somewhat after old Paris. It is a highly-strafied society, composed on one end by nobles and aristocrats, and workers, thieves, and youngers howling about revolution on the other. Treno is relatively unimportant to the overall plot -- as it doesn't get levelled at any point in the game -- but it is Gaia's captial of sidequests and mini-games, as it hosts the card tournament and is the hub of the Stellazzio Coins quest.


IIFA TREE



A giant tree on the Outer Continent. Hmmm. Kinda looks like the Mana Tree from Secret of Mana, don't it? ...Which itself reminds me of the Elder Tree from Final Fantasy V...which was originally from Final Fantasy III. The Iifa tree is sacred to the dwarves of Conde Petit and the people of Madain Sari, and is referred to as "the Ancient Tree of Life." Not even the ancient Summoners suspected its dark purpose.


TERRA



Extraterrestrial worlds are nothing new to Final Fantasy, but none before this have ever looked so utterly alien. There must have been another gas leak in the Square building. The planet called Terra is Gaia's "twin" from another dimension. Once the home of a thriving civilization, it languished in decay following an unspecified disaster. Its people struggled to save their world, but their attempts to resuscitate Terra only futhered its woes. Eventually, the Terrans settled on a new stratagem. Everyone's souls were put into a cold sleep, and Garland was created to watch over them. While Terra's souls slumber, Garland enacts a gradual process utilizing the Iifa Tree, the Mist, and specially-created "Angel of Death" genomes that will allow Terra to live again by assimilating Gaia.


MEMORIA



The extradimensional "Place of Memory" created by an AWOL Kuja is Final Fantasy IX's last dungeon, and yet another of the game's self-aware winks. What better way to conclude a Final Fantasy game that's meant to serve as a series retrospective than by a literal walk down Memory Lane? Following the path takes Zidane and his pals back into their collective memories, through Gaia's history, and to the very dawn of all existence. Memoria is the coolest-looking last dungeon in a Final Fantasy game to date. If Polly would let me post screenshots of every single corridor of the place, I would.


THE CRYSTAL WORLD



The last leg of the final dungeon takes Zidane beyond Memoria and into a realm beyond the confines of space and time, where the original Crystal is situated. The Crystal World is therefore the origin of all existence in all dimensions. (And if you read into it more than you probably should, it might also be where the Crystals from Final Fantasy I, III, IV, and V came from.) It's also reminisicent of the final chambers of Castle Pandemonium, the Dark World, the Lunar Core, and the Void from II, III, IV, and V: dark, composed of glassy crystal floors and walls, and populated by tremendous monsters you're better off just running from.

"Memories construct time. History repeats itself."

At its inception, Final Fantasy wasn't a particularly original video game. It was essentially an 8-bit Dungeons & Dragons clone, set in composite world pieced together from various conventions of Western fantasy. In time, Final Fantasy turned these borrowed materials into its own, creating an artificial mythology and a series of motifs spanning across more than ten years of successive titles, that define the series as much as its turn-based battles and flashy graphics. Final Fantasy IX is a unique entry in a series which became what it was by constantly revamping itself and changing its rules, as it deliberately retraces its footsteps and examines what it used to be. Final Fantasy IX is a game about Final Fantasy itself. At every turn is a reference to an earlier game or a mention of a familiar name or place. What follows is a (by no means complete) list of of some of the more prominent and interesting ones.


FINAL FANTASY I

The Ice Cavern & Mt. Gulug



Or the Ice Cave and Gurgu Volcano, as they were first known to American players. Free from the constraints of tilesets and limited color pallettes, Final Fantasy IX revisits old locations and reenvisions in ways that would have been impossible before the advent of pre-rendered backgrounds and more powerful consoles.


Matoya



Eight games later, the cave-dwelling old bag finally gets a shout-out.


Mages, mages, mages



The original Final Fantasy mage classes began as Dungeons & Dragons clones. The White, Black, and Red Mages were derived from D&D's Cleric, Mage, and Ranger classes, respectively. In the years since, they've become as distinct a part of Final Fantasy as elemental crystals and nuclear-powered dragon gods, and all appear in Final Fantasy IX in one form or another (although the enduringly popular Black Mages play a much larger role than their White and Red counterparts).


Jane & Sarah



One of Final Fantasy IX's sweetest and easiest to miss references. Queen Jane just never gets to have it easy.


Garland & the Four Fiends



Should be self-explanatory if you've already read through the characters section above.


Shrines & Portals



In the first game, the Fiends' inner sanctums were arranged on the four corners of the globe, with the Temple of Fiends at their center. Once the Four Fiends were defeated, the Light Warriors could go to the Temple of Fiends, where the four energy fields converged, and warp to the past to confront Garland. In Final Fantasy IX, four elemental shrines are located on the four corners of Gaia, with the Shimmering Isle at their center. Once Zidane and his friends defeat the Four Guardians, they can go to the Shimmering Isle, where the shrines' energies converge, and warp to Terra to confront Garland.


FINAL FANTASY II

Altair



The hub of the rebellion against the Paramekian Empire gets a passing mention as a remote item shop. Final Fantasy IX is full of references like this. If you blink once, you miss them.


Hilda



The Princess of Phin returns as Regent Cid's sexy and sassy wife, who turns him into a frog out of jealousy that he got to be in every Final Fantasy game since II, while she spent the last ten years in a Square meat locker.


Pandemonium



In Final Fantasy II, the fortress of the ressurected Emperor is supposed to be an extention of Hell itself into the mortal world, but still looks like any other castle in the game. Years later, Final Fantasy IX reenvisions it as Garland's stronghold and gives it the nightmarish treatment it was originally due.


Ramuh's Story



The Thunder God embellishes a little -- there wasn't even close to 33 towns on Final Fantasy II's world map -- but the story he tells is taken directly from the Snow Cave scenario in the second game. Afterwards, Zidane makes an eerily self-aware comment about why people concern themselves so much with the choices a story's hero makes.


FINAL FANTASY III

Dorga & Unne



Final Fantasy III's wizards don't return in the flesh, but you can buy some of their old junk at the auction house in Treno. The writing on Unne's mirror is taken almost word for word from her dialogue.


The Invinsible



The biggest and best airship from the third game is finally let out of the scrap yard, and has been souped up to become Terra's most powerful battleship. Note the towers protruding from the roof -- the signature of an Amano mech design.


The Cloud of Darkness & The Darkness of Eternity



You didn't think the last boss's Japanese name was Necron, do you? It was probably changed because of text space restrictions, but Necron's Japanese name literally translates to "Darkness of Eternity." Is there a link here? The Cloud of Darkness emerges at the very end of Final Fantasy III to return all existence to Void. The Darkness of Eternity emerges at the very end of Final Fantasy IX to return all existence to nothingness. Hmmm.


FINAL FANTASY IV

All Summoners Must Die!



Man. There's a grim Final Fantasy motif: villages of peaceful people who communicate with spirits and gods getting burned to the ground by ambitious, hi-tech powers who fear their abilities. And in both Final Fantasy IV and IX, said powers are tied directly to the game's hero.


Magical Field



One of Final Fantasy IV's coolest dungeon concepts returns, albeit a little watered-down. In that game, the Dark Elf steals the Earth Crystal and takes it back to his cave, then sets up a magnetic field to paralyze anybody using metal equipment. Golbez holds Rosa hostage and has Cecil trek inside to get the Crystal back in exchange for her life. In Final Fantasy IX, the Forgotten Continent is surrounded by a barrier that prevents the use of magic. Kuja holds Zidane's friends hostage and sends him off to the Forgotten Continent to recover the Gulug Stone in exchange for their lives.


Namingway & Porom



One gets a trading card in his honor, and the other gets a line of toys named after her. You'd think action figures would be more of a Palom thing, but whatever.


Moonshine & monkeyshines



In Final Fantasy IV, the second moon is home to a race of intelligent humanoids who sleep in stasis, watched over by FuSoYa, waiting for the Blue Planet's people to evolve to the point where commerce and coexistence between the two races becomes possible. Currently, there are two Lunarians living on the planet: Cecil and Golbez. At the end of the game, after many battles, the two set aside their long-standing feud and make their peace. In Final Fantasy IX, Terra is home to a race of intelligent humanoids who sleep in stasis, watched over by Garland waiting for Gaia's people to die out so Terra can assimilate it. Currently, there are two Terrans on Gaia: Zidane and Kuja. At the end of the game, after many battles, they put aside their long-standing feud and make their peace. Man -- a reference is one thing, but this borders on self-plaigarism.


FINAL FANTASY V

Daguerro



A massive treasure house of ancient texts, sought and inhabited by scholars from around the world. It's gotta be a nod to the Library of the Ancients in the fifth game -- why else would Gilgamesh be hanging around? Maybe it makes him less homesick.


Gilgamesh



Well, speak of the devil. I will be honest: I wouldn't have known this was really the series' famed dimension-hopping ultimate warrior/useless bum if I didn't discover it in some Final Fantasy IX materials on the web I was idly looking through shortly after completing VIII. The only way "Alleyway Jack" will tell you his real name is if you get a Treasure Hunter rank of "S," which I failed to do this time around.


FINAL FANTASY VI

Mog



Eiko's "sister" is a uniquely-abilitied moogle named Mog. Interestingly, she's the only moogle in the game who's incapable of saying anything other than "kupo," instead of vice-versa.


Treno's auction house



Even aside from its auction house, there's a lot Treno has in common with Final Fantasy VI's Jidoor: both are highly class-conscious and crawling with rich snobs. Considering how many other old locales Final Fantasy IX revisits, it might not be too unlikely that the designers had Jidoor in mind when coming up with Treno.


Trance



This has been bothering me for a while now. In the Japanese and American GBA versions of Final Fantasy VI, Terra's special ability is called Trance. Since it's a result of her unique Esper heritage, only she can use it. When activated, she glows gold and the damage she inflicts skyrockets. In Final Fantasy IX, all the main characters have access to Trance, and it works basically the same as VII's Limit Breaks. When a character's Trance Gauge is full, they glow and transform, much like Terra. Exactly how Zidane goes super-saiyan, Eiko grows wings, and Amarant turns into a flickering purple demihuman is never really explained, but it's never really an issue -- at first. The PSX Final Fantasy games have thus far adopted this policy of "what happens in battle, stays in battle." This is the reason Squall never levels any cities when he brings down that hundred-mile energy column during Blasting Zone, or why the Shinra Mansion can still be standing after Cloud summons Bahamut while standing in the living room. But towards the end of the game, Final Fantasy IX violates this rule by taking a battle mechanic and turning it into a plot point. A logistical nightmare ensues. How exactly does Kuja use other people's souls to attain Trance, and how is he able to sustain for so long? If all you need a soul and angry feelings to enter Trance, why can't Beatrix do it? Hell, for that matter, why isn't everybody on Gaia turning into glowing demigods and blowing each other up whenever they lose their tempers? Come on, Final Fantasy -- if you want anyone other than nerds taking you seriously, you gotta do something about all these plot holes.


Kuja the Kefka-wannabe



The scene in which Kuja kicks his boss off a cliff and then blows up his entire planet would probably be more shocking if Kefka hadn't already done the exact same thing in Final Fantasy VI. I guess it's a fitting tribute to one of the most jaw-dropping moments in the entire series, but it's hard to be impressed with the event itself when you've already seen it before -- and done by a much better villain.


FINAL FANTASY VII

Identity crisis



And all of a sudden, the rug is pulled out from beneath the hero's feet as he is forced to confront his murky past and come to terms with the fact that he's not the person he thinks he is. This works great in Final Fantasy VII, since the entire game builds up to that one climactic moment from the very beginning. But in Final Fantasy IX, it's completely tacked-on, and only done because this is post-Final Fantasy VII and paying customers expect at least one terrible and momentous mindfuck of a revelation before the credits roll.


Midgar & Terra

The aforementioned identity crisis event occurs during the Terra scenario -- which is some interesting timing. The late point in the game at which Zidane arrives on the gloomy, high-tech Terra after prancing through a medieval/Renaissance storybook world almost seems to correspond with the late point in Final Fantasy when the high fantasy adventure was replaced with cyberpunk cities and postmodern angst. Don't buy it? Let's look at this mathematically. Zidane arrives on Terra at about 3/4 through the game. Final Fantasy VII can be expressed as a 7/9 value, for obvious reasons. If we find a common denominator and do some fraction converting, we get 27/36 and 28/36, respectively -- which is too damned close to be a coincidence and means I am totally right about this. (I feel that now is a good time to point out that if you've been reading all these articles up to this point, you've already waived the right to call me a nerd.)


Fun with Chocobos


Let's all be honest with ourselves: Chocobo breeding and racing was a pain in the ass in Final Fantasy VII. Sure, we all spent hours doing it and told ourselves we were having fun -- but we were lying. Well, the dominant mini-game in Final Fantasy IX is once again Chocobo-related, but it's actually a lot less tedious and time-consuming...unless I'm lying to myself about Chocobo Hot & Cold, too.


FINAL FANTASY VIII

Card games



Triple Triad was the perfect minigame: it was addictive, low-maintenance, and offered some incredible rewards. Final Fantasy IX tries to duplicate its success through Quadra Master, a similar card game that -- well, just doesn't match up. One problem is that at no point in the game, as far as I know, does anybody tell you what the rules are. "Each card has numbers and letters," a moogle tells you. "I think one of them means defense or something. I dunno; you figure it out." The other is that the benefits for sinking time into it are so trifling that it's barely worth the time unless you really enjoy playing it for its own sake.


Hokey love story


Final Fantasy VIII introduced the overriding love story subplot to the series, and IX loyally follows suit. VIII tried telling a compelling, realistic love story through Squall and Rinoa, and -- well, you know how that went. The cutesy, storybook romance Zidane and Dagger isn't very deep or convincing either...which might be okay, because I don't think it was really trying to be.




CONCLUSION

I am very divided about how to judge Final Fantasy IX. On the one hand, it's one of the best-looking games on any console, and one of the greatest arguments for the virtues of pre-rendered 2D backgrounds over wholly computer generated 3D environments. Its battles, character-building mechanics, and dungeon crawls are as solid as those from any of Final Fantasy's 2D incarnations, and probably better than either of its two predecessors on the Playstation. It has more than enough optional material and sidequests to keep a player busy for an extra 10-15 hours beyond the main scenario, and there's more than enough stuff you'll probably miss on your first time through to warrant a second.

On the other hand -- well, let's address the random battles. Yes, they have been an intrinsic part of Final Fantasy since day one, but they're wearing a bit thin. Chrono Cross demonstrated how they could be done away with entirely, but Final Fantasy IX still clings to a vestigial gameplay mechanic for which there is no practical reason not to phase out. While including random battles does keep with Final Fantasy tradition, they are one relic of the series' early days that probably would have been better off left in the time capsule -- especially since they detract from one of the game's strongest points. It is more than a little vexing to be strolling through a dungeon, admiring the craftsmanship and detail of the backgrounds, and then thrust into another battle screen without warning. Because of Final Fantasy IX's high encounter rate -- higher than either VII or VIII's -- this occurs far more often than most players would probably like.

Then there is the matter of Final Fantasy IX's story. It's a mess -- pure and simple. But so were most early Final Fantasy games' plots, and we didn't hold it against them. Why judge IX's so severely, then? The answer is because we're now at the point where an RPG's story is about as equally important as its gameplay when determining its overall quality. The genie's out of the bottle now, and there's no stuffing it back in. When a game has hundreds of pages' worth of dialogue and enough minutes of FMV to fill a half-hour television slot, the narrative it spins has to be equally engrossing as the time a player spends running around and killing monsters, or else it becomes a hindrance. A more pessimistic -- but perhaps equally valid -- standpoint would be to suggest that in a game like Final Fantasy, the story is the payoff the player earns for slogging through all those dungeons and fighting all those random battles, and if the story with which he or she is rewarded isn't up to snuff, the game does not succeed. Whether this applies to Final Fantasy IX (or any other entry in the series) is debatable, of course, but it's something to be considered. At any rate, Final Fantasy IX's story really could have been better, and the entire experience suffers for it.

There is another issue I have with Final Fantasy IX that is probably more subjective than anything -- but when has that stopped me before? Final Fantasy got to where it was through innovation. Ever since the second installment, each new Final Fantasy game has offered a completely different trip than any of its previous incarnations. It's the reason why many JRPG fans -- myself included -- prefer Final Fantasy to Dragon Quest. Final Fantasy IX is the first installment that deliberately backtracks, while bringing virtually nothing new to the table. (Truthfully though, this is something that wouldn't even be an issue if the game had been titled Final Fantasy Gaiden instead of Final Fantasy IX.) It makes for a fun nostalgia trip, but it's also the first time I've put down the controller after finishing a Final Fantasy game and couldn't help thinking, been there, done that.


VERDICT:
3 OUT OF 5 MAGIC STONES!



That's it for the Playstation installments -- and the last game in the series that can easily be emulated. I guess this means I'm gonna have to invest in a good capture card before moving on to X.






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