Everyone has a favourite game. A story that completely encapsulated you, a world you wished beyond reason to belong in, characters you genuinely liked and venomously hated. A game that felt like it was made just for you.
For me, that game is Final Fantasy IX. Written and produced by Sakaguchi and published by Square for the Playstation in 2000.
Final Fantasy IX was the first game I ever completed, the first game I bought for myself. The first game that made me think: “Wow. Nothing will ever compare to this.”
To this day, nothing has.
Looking at it now, it’s pixelated, it’s a little rough around the edges and it’s a stark difference to the other games in the series. It’s pure fantasy in a collection of industrial, futuristic titles. Don’t think Cloud think perhaps, more Squalls’ odd friend with a tail; who cracks too many jokes at parties.
By many, Final Fantasy IX is considered a more ‘traditional’ Final Fantasy game. This perception was founded due to the return of Yoshitaka Amano; the lead artist on some of the earliest Final Fantasy titles.
It did not sell as well as its predecessors at the time, but now, nearly 16 years after release, it’s certainly becoming more and more appreciated. Despite its initial figures, and the shadows cast by series hit runners ‘Final Fantasy VII and ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ to this day, it’s still wonderfully brilliant.
The game takes place, predominately, in the world of Gaia. A planet split into four main Continents: the Mist Continent, the Outer, the Lost, and Forgotten Continents. The Mist Continent is home to a vast majority of Gaia’s population, while the others are largely unexplored and remain a mystery to most of the planets’ inhabitants, and also to you; until you set foot there.
It’s the Mist continent on which we spend a large chunk of our time with ‘FFIX’, exploring the lush green landscapes, scaling mountains, freezing in ice caverns. It’s a Continent split into four nations: Alexandria – a Monarch ruled City of cobbled streets and shady alleyways; Lindblum – a City that prides itself on its industry and bustling marketplaces; Cleyra – a torn nation made up of a City plagued by eternal rain, and another perched in the highest branches of a tree; and Treno – a land covered in everlasting darkness, never seeing the dawn.
Alexandria is where we begin our story, and where we meet the three characters on whom the story focuses: Zidane Tribal, Vivi Orniteir and Garnet Til Alexandros XVII. A thief, a Black Mage, and a Princess.
We learn Zidane is charged with kidnapping Princess Garnet with the aid of his friends, the thief band Tantalus. In quite possibly one of the best opening scenes I’ve ever come across, we see them enter the City of Alexandria by airship, posing as a theatre troupe to perform “I Want to Be Your Canary” on the eve of Garnet’s 18th birthday.
Meanwhile, Vivi – a poor boy, sneaks into the Castle to see the show, and gets whisked away himself, joining us on an adventure that spans four discs and hundreds of hours.
As the story progresses we begin to learn more about our characters and the world around us and truly begin to realize the scale of the narrative, slowly at first, before the rushing climax of the finale.
We learn of Vivi’s past, that he is a “doll” manufactured to kill, tossed aside and left to find his own way. He realizes his life is ending, and accepts his impending mortality with a new-found bravery over a story arc that is both emotionally gripping and starkly similar to the reality of growing up. His story is, perhaps, the most noteworthy.
As the story unfolds we meet a young, naive, unsure boy who has trouble making friends. However, towards the conclusion of his story arc we see a character full of friendship, sure of both his life and his word. He speaks to us in the games final moments, his words wise and resonating, widely different to the stammers we first hear.
Zidane and Garnet also find themselves in each other, growing closer as they, too, grow up and realize their place in the World at large. We see a scene in which Garnet cuts her hair with a dagger placed to the back of her neck, shedding her childhood innocence and watching it fly away; entangled with her frayed locks in the wind. We see heartache, tears, joy and song. We see them fall and rise again, learned and stronger and the player feels it all along with them.
The characters we are given are much, much more than we expect. The world is vast and the horizon unreachable, but the characters are where the games depth truly resides.
Each one of them has a back story, a reason. They all grow, they all realize who they truly are and learn to accept themselves in believable and truly resonating ways.
Even characters who do not share the spotlight of the main three, who you can disregard from your party roster and never play, never learn or bond with all have heart wrenching tales behind them too.
We meet characters who find love, who believe in friendship and grow up before our eyes. Enemies become friends, cities crumble – engulfed by flames, yet our characters’ hearts always stay true.
The game and its sweeping narrative teach us that we never finish growing, that what we are looking for was inside us all along, we just needed someone to show us it was there.
It’s a game unlike any other I’ve ever played, one that Sakaguchi calls “closest to [his] ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be”. It’s truly an amazing game purely for the story and the characters it holds.
Never mind the masterfully composed soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu, a world renowned composer who encapsulates and enriches each moment with beautifully choreographed melodies that refine him as a storyteller in his own right – “Roses of May” in particular being one of the most moving and engrossing songs I’ve ever heard.
There’s also the old school turn-based battle system, which allows characters to unleash their strength in ‘Trance’, or summon huge, ancient creatures called Ediolions to destroy enemies in battle, while the rest of your party throws fire, ice, and swords at them too. All of this doesn’t just add to the experience, it just makes an amazing game better.
In all honesty, I can’t praise this game enough. It’s truly a fantastic journey, one you will want to revisit again and again and, for all my words here, I have barely touched the surface of this magnificent, heart-felt and truly beautiful game.
If you have never played it, please do. I hope you’ll see what I mean when I say:
“Final Fantasy IX is my favourite game.”