I don’t want to start writing about Final Fantasy IX like this, but knowing it is 20 years old makes me feel really old. Back when getting games was a rare event, something that only happened a few times a year, you cherished those moments more, which means they left an imprint worth remembering.
I still remember when I got Final Fantasy IX, somewhere in the latter half of a high school year. My Final Fantasy journey had started with Final Fantasy VII a few short years before, and since I had devoured Final Fantasy VIII, playing both several times, trying to get everything and beat everyone.
For many, the excitement had moved on to the PlayStation 2 and Final Fantasy X. But thanks to living in a small town and not having internet, things were slightly lagged behind for me. I remember buying the game knowing nothing about it other than it was more Final Fantasy. The box art confused me… where was the modern blend of science fiction and fantasy worlds? Where was my graphics upgrade? The people look so strange!
Soon I would learn that a change in art style meant very little as I jumped into this world of animated dolls, kingdoms fighting one another, and a terrible threat that looms in the dark clouds overhead. That same blend of magic and technology was still there, even if the shiny technologies were gone, the same hijinks were happening with flying airships and large battles.
I was hooked. Final Fantasy IX, I know now, was quite the departure from a growing trend. The game had a multicultural, international team of developers, which allowed them to tackle some pretty dark and contrasting characters and themes, something not many of the games attempted.
The slightly odd-shaped characters are in part thanks to the artistry of Toshiyuki Itahana, while director Hiroyuki Ito brought the vision to life, and was also responsible for two other standout titles from the franchise history: Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy XII. It was also the final game that was made under series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi’s lead.
With its varied developer pool and some heavyweight names, Final Fantasy IX went into some daring territory. While FF7 and FF8 had been pushing for ever more modern settings and more realistic designs, FF9 was going back to basics as it were, with flying wooden ships, knights and dragons and a variety of character sizes and shapes.
Final Fantasy IX allowed (well most) of its characters a lot of breathing room, and thanks to the game’s Active Time Event system, the player was allowed to see what was happening with other characters away from the current action. What first started as little snippets of life away from the action eventually dives into some really serious territory. We watch characters come to grips with humanity, loyalty, duty, grief, purpose and much more, while also seeing funny stories of mistaken love letters and Quina just being, well, Quina.
Even the main character goes through a crisis of identity about half-way through the game, and Zidane has to deal with some heavy questions and realities. This attention to the various characters and not just the main protagonist and the big battle sets things apart from many of other games, and it feels like Final Fantasy VII Remake borrowed from this, giving a lot more time to characters to develop stronger stories.
If you never played Final Fantasy IX because it was on the end of the PlayStation 1’s life-cycle and you were looking forward already, or the graphics didn’t look great, or some other reason, you should seriously give it a try. Happy Birthday, Final Fantasy IX. I hope you get some cake before Quina eats all of it.