In many ways, Final Fantasy IX feels like the last traditional Final Fantasy, as much as a series which constantly changes features can have a traditional form. Most grew to know the series with the SNES and PS1 titles, with all six games built around the Active Time Battle system. Though the last entry on the PS1, FF9 felt like a throwback to the SNES titles, focused on a more fantastical world than 7 and 8 while also featuring character designs by Yoshitaka Amano. Even the battle theme features the signature bassline from the earlier games. In many ways, IX is the best of both worlds and feels like a celebration of the whole series up to that point.
There’s a certain charm to Final Fantasy IX that the other games never achieved. Though the plot ends up as dire as any other entry, the game features a consistently lighter atmosphere. Each central character is designed to look nothing like another. The standout here is Vivi Ornitier, a shy boy with a design based upon the original Black Mage. Even the world design feels fresh, mixing together the more medieval styling of the earlier games with ever-present future technology.
Though it might be a minor point, I simply enjoy having more members in the active party. The SNES Final Fantasy games had four or five characters each, yet 7 and 8 reduced this number to three. FF9 brings this back up to four. Meanwhile, the twist on the ability system feels concise yet expansive. Each weapon comes with its own ability, which can be used whenever the item is equipped and becomes permanent after enough use. This gives a greater meaning to both finding and using each weapon.
Nobuo Uematsu is at the top of his game here, the final Final Fantasy to exclusively feature his music. The music is generally more whimsical than the other entries while also featuring some of the most singularly emotional pieces in the series. As mentioned before, the main battle theme builds upon the classic bassline to great effect. Many of the best tracks are limited to single moments. Otherwise minor character General Beatrix is elevated to another level through her wondrous piano theme, “Roses of May.” “The Darkness of Eternity” stands alongside the other classic final battle themes. My personal favorite is “You’re Not Alone,” which plays during a powerful moment where Zidane rejects the assistance of his friends after a devastating revelation. The piece starts as a gentle, melancholic arrangement, slowly building until finally bringing in a guitar and then chanting. It’s an epic theme to a great moment.
While I began by discussing the lighthearted charm, this cutesy aesthetic masks some of the darker themes in the series. The “You’re Not Alone” sequence helps elevate Zidane into a strong protagonist after a rocky introduction – one thing that often gets neglected when discussing the Final Fantasy protagonists is how much they evolve during the course of the story. Zidane and Tidus both get the short end of the stick. Characters like Cecil and Cloud start off cool and then gain more depth, while these later protagonists start as obnoxious teenagers and slowly mature. They may be abrasive, but seeing them grow is ultimately a rewarding experience.
Final Fantasy IX is the series at its most existential, with both Zidane and Vivi getting the brunt of this theme. Vivi is one of the best characters in this series, and this extends far beyond his iconic design. As a character, he is unaware of his origins. An early moment has the group stumble across an assembly line where black mages are being manufactured. What, exactly, is his purpose in existing? The revelations only get worse from there, but like Zidane, he’s not alone. This is a game about characters trying to break free of their intended purpose, whether it involves social roles or being literally manufactured. Kuja makes the perfect foil as the central antagonist. Where the heroes are learning to cope with their destinies, Kuja lashes out.
Final Fantasy IX also takes one of my favorite pages from the SNES era and jumps between characters until they finally come together. The game even includes a dungeon where the player must split the party into two. There’s also a massive world to explore, with plenty of rare collectables to gather. This game offers everything you could want from this series.
Everyone has a different Final Fantasy they call their favorite – the series is just that good. But IX stands as a culmination of all the stray ideas the series had explored during its breakthrough era. The only reason it gets less attention is due to the Wind Waker effect – certain gamers simply refused to try a game with this art style. Which is a shame, as this truly captures the spirit of Final Fantasy on every level.