Or, Some Reflections a Long-Time Coming
I still remember playing the demo of Final Fantasy IX back on Christmas Eve of 2000. I’ve always had an affinity for the series, and the ninth installment seemed like it was going to be a tailor-made experience just for me.
I received the full version of the game as a present and I absolutely loved it. That is, until I found myself getting stuck. Unlike previous games in the series, I found FFIX to be difficult. I already owned the strategy guide put out by Brady Games, but, unlike the other strategy guides that I owned, there was something weird going on. Most of the vital information had been removed from the guide and put up online instead. Keep in mind that this was still the year 2000 — many people (self included) didn’t have home Internet yet. Hilariously, the website that contained all of the data made by the magazine is now no longer online. The guide is officially even more useless than what it was before! Amazing.
For a long time I would always defend FFIX’s first two or three hours as some of the finest in immersive storytelling. I still think the first few hours are some of the best in any of the series. Yet the story hadn’t truly captured me. I wasn’t terribly interested in one of the main plot lines. For a long time, I never got past the second disc (out of four).
Now, almost twenty years after the game first came out, I have had a chance to play and beat the game on PS4. I was impressed by how much better the game looks with polished models. It’s amazing to see the level of detail that the models always had yet wouldn’t have been apparent on the original hardware.
The game is at its best when it spends time with its large cast of characters. The world feels alive in large part because there are so many supporting cast members. They aren’t treated as typical NPCs in lesser games. These characters have motivations, relationships, and interact with one another. The Tantalus crew of thieves is just one example. They play an integral role in many parts of the story, while at the same time making it clear that they have better things to do sometimes that doesn’t involve the main cast or plot.
💀 “Arrr! Be aware, matey! There be spoilers ahead in these waters!”
I also had a smile on my face for Regent Cid’s subplot. His stint as both an oglop (like an in-world cockroach) and a frog are memorable. It truly feels like an accomplishment when he is finally transformed back into a human.
There are still shortcomings to the game, of course. Despite the characters dedicating themselves to challenging threats to their world by power-hungry monsters, they seem unable to question the power structures that they’re accustomed to. It’s never quite explained why the people of Alexandria are so willing to forgive their aristocratic ruler’s failures. Not to mention why the Burmecians are fine with ignoring Alexandria’s role in the genocide of their people. Perhaps I missed some dialogue that discusses it?
As much as I became accustomed the gameplay, I found the pacing to always be a little off. JRPGs tend to get a lot of flak for their frequent use of grinding as a game mechanic. I never found it to be an issue in IX. What is a problem, however, is when a JRPG’s combat system feels weirdly slow. Characters stand around for a second or two after being given a command. Monsters get to take actions even when you know that you entered yours first. It feels weird the whole game. Contrast this system to the next in the series and it’s an amazing difference: Tidus and his friends respond really quickly. The game even has a chart out-lining which character or opponent will move next, and affecting the order becomes a major strategic part of combat. X’s combat remains some of my favourite in the series.
What’s the deal with leveling up, too? There are only certain pieces of equipment that raise your stats, but the game never tells you which ones they are? I found it obtuse and annoying. There’s an argument to be made about preventing players from min-maxing. At the same time, however, JRPG players tend to love that sort of stuff. I didn’t want perfect stats for my team, but I did want to know how to make them stronger in the most efficient way possible.
Since playing through the whole game, I now have a greater appreciation for the story. I think it holds up pretty well. The villains are fine, if maybe a little under-developed. Zidane’s origin story also feels sort of half-baked and repetitive. We already had a character (Vivi) question their own creation. Why dwell on it again? It just seemed out-of-the-blue and like the game was treading water. That time could have instead been devoted to coming up with more memorable villains.
The final nit-pick that I have is minor and really specific: I missed the original game’s font when I played the PS4 port. I’m glad that they made it more readable, but I wish they would have stuck with a sans-serif font.
I probably won’t play through the game again any time soon. I’m glad that I got to experience it. I do think it’s worth playing if you’ve never played it. There are some cool references to previous titles in the series that makes it feel like a tribute to everything that had come before it.
2020 May 15