It is hard to believe that almost ten years have passed since the Sony Playstation began to make its transition into the Playstation 2 era. However, before the Playstation saw its last years as one of the dominant systems of the 1990s, it saw the release of Final Fantasy IX, the last numbered title of the series in the twentieth century and marked the beginning of a new age in the series. Following its great successes with the previous numbered titles, Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Squaresoft, the predecessor of Square-Enix, decided to make the final title of the Playstation a reflection of the traditional Final Fantasy games from the past.
Unlike the dark, complex story lines of the series’ two previous titles, Final Fantasy IX returned to its original fantasy theme, which became the trademark of the series. Final Fantasy IX brought back the medieval-style backdrop and storyline that had been so commonplace throughout the progression of the series. FF IX takes gamers to the world of Gaia and the kingdom of Alexandria where you step into the shoes of Zidane, a thief and actor of the Tantalus theater troupe, who are on their way to the city of Alexandria to perform the kingdom’s popular play, “I Want to Be Your Canary,” in celebration of Princess Garnet’s sixteenth birthday. However, their real plan was to kidnap the princess and bring her to the Regency of Lindblum for fear of her safety under her power-hungry adopted mother, Queen Brahne.
In true Final Fantasy fashion, the story becomes more complex than the initial assumption. In fact, Queen Brahne is merely a pawn for the main antagonist, Kuja, who wants the ability to control eidolons to destroy his controller, Garland—the guardian of the world of Terra. In order to accomplish this, Kuja supplied the queen with the technology to create soulless Black Mages in order to fuel her ambitions of conquering her neighbors and throw the world into chaos. Along the way, players will notice the depth of each character as they struggle to find their unique identities and role in the world. For example, Vivi, a black mage who is self-aware, tries to understand the reason of his existence and how to come to grips with himself. As with its past games, the series again excelled in the extent and depth of story in FFIX.
In addition to returning to the traditional storyline formula of the past Final Fantasy games, Square also revived the old character class system that had been so common among its previous installments, with the exception of VII and VIII. Each character is assigned to a certain role in battle, such as white mage, black mage, thief, knight, blue mage, etc. This may seem like a step backwards compared to the open-ended possibilities of the previous two titles, but it works as it had with the older, traditional Final Fantasy games. Another feature worth noting is the return to simplicity of equipment and support abilities. Weapons and armor include special character abilities, which the character may use once the item is equipped depending on their specific class. Once the character accumulates enough ability points in battle, the ability becomes usable without having to keep the item equipped.
The game play is pretty generic Final Fantasy; the player navigates a character throughout the game world, exploring areas and interacting with NPCs. In some parts of the story, the game allows players to play as some of the NPCs such as Beatrix and the members of Tantalus allowing for greater diversity and a more interesting experience. To aid exploration on the field screen, Final Fantasy IX introduced the “field icon”, an exclamation mark appearing over their lead character’s head, signaling that an item or sign is nearby. Players speak with the ever familiar moogles to save their progress, restore life energy with a tent, and purchase items, a deviation from previous installments, which used a save point to perform these functions. Another new feature is Mognet, where Moogles may request that the playable character deliver letters to other Moogles. This gives the story a distinct perspective from other creatures as well as a touch of a comical relief.
Like previous Final Fantasy games, combat is wrought with random enemy encounters as players progress through the game. On the battle screen, the enemy appears on the opposite side of the characters; each battle uses the familiar Active Time Battle system that was first featured in Final Fantasy IV. he character’s command list is presented in a window opposite the ATB gauge list; while all characters can physically attack the enemy or use an item from the player’s inventory, they also possess unique abilities. These character-specific commands change when the player goes into Trance mode, which is activated for a limited duration when a gauge fills as character sustains damage in a style similar to the Limit Breaks used in Final Fantasy VII. When the gauge is full, the character’s strength is greatly increased, and the player can select special attack commands. The only drawback is the unpredictability of the Trance bar as it can fill up right when one of your other characters makes the final kill, thus ending a battle and wasting your Trance ability. Unlike FFVII’s Limit Breaks, filled Trance bars are not carried over to other battles, which could lead to a great deal of frustration. After a battle, players gain experience points, items, and, of course, Gil to buy new items and equipment. You may also earn new cards for one of the unique mini-games of Final Fantasy IX called Tetra Master.
As with other Final Fantasy games, mini-games are another integral part. In Final Fantasy IX, there are two such games: Tetra Master and Chocobo Hot and Cold. Tetra Master is a card game, which involves two players with a hand of five cards each. Each card is of a specific monster with vague stats. The point of the game is to capture as many of your opponent’s cards as you can. If you end up with more cards, you win and get to choose one of your opponent’s cards as a prize. However, if you manage to capture his entire hand, you get all five of his cards. The frustrating part is the vague rules associated with the game. The stats of each card is hard to determine and in some instances, the card battles are based on chance and what picture on each card looks more intimidating. Chocobo Hot and Cold is a simple game of hot and cold. Throughout Gaia, players will find Chocobo-friendly areas that allow you to dig for treasure with the help of Choco, your adopted Chocobo friend. In order to find the location of treasures, players will need to play Hot and Cold to find treasure maps called Chocographs. These chocobo treasure hunts allow players to further explore the world map as well as find rare items that may prove useful later in the game.
Final Fantasy IX also saw the last time that the series would utilize an open world map that allowed players to explore freely, which was one of the biggest features that made the games attractive to many players. In the world map, players can freely navigate around the various lands of the world unless restricted by terrain, such as water or mountains. To overcome geographical limitations, players can ride chocobos, sail on a boat, or freely pilot airships, a feature that would disappear in subsequent games.
Last but not least, Final Fantasy IX has one of the most memorable and extensive soundtracks composed by none other than Nobuo Uematsu, who has been the face of the series’s music for more than a decade. Final Fantasy IX was his last exclusive Final Fantasy score. Originally, it was supposed to be about ten tracks, but Uematsu spent an estimated year composing and producing around 160 pieces for Final Fantasy IX, with 140 appearing in the game. Most of the pieces heard throughout the game are influenced from medieval music, but Uematsu also drew from old Final Fantasy scores, most notable of these tunes is “Rufus’s Welcoming Ceremony” from Final Fantasy VII, which was played by the Tantalus band early in the game. With a combination of dark and light tunes, the Uematsu’s composition enhances the game, making it entertaining and pleasing to the ears.
Overall, Final Fantasy IX combined the great features of the past to end the series’s first decade and a half in existence adding in new elements as well. Although it did not do as well as its two immediate predecessors, it still sold millions of copies around the world and is still replayed by many. The fusing of a great in-depth story, exciting game play, and music makes this game one of the most noteworthy nostalgic titles of the Playstation era. For fans and RPG players not familiar with Final Fantasy, it is a must-buy for your classic collection.