The best of both the old school games and the modern entries.
It seems that the more Final Fantasy progresses, the further it gets from its roots. As time passes, each game loses more of what made many fans fall in love with the series in the first place. Square made Final Fantasy IX in order to ensure that nobody forgets the traditions and origins of the series. The result is an enjoyable RPG that combines the old school feel of the NES games with the cinematic presentation of more recent games.
The game starts with Zidane, an Aladdin-esque street urchin/thief, plotting to capture the princess of the powerful kingdom of Alexandria through a thief organization called Tantalus. However, the goal of Zidane (and the friends who join him along the way) soon changes to evading the forces of Alexandria and then to saving the world of Gaia from the forces of the enigmatic Kuja. Some of the characters who join Zidane and Garnett include the black mage Vivi, the loyal-to-a-fault knight Steiner, the dragoon Freya, and the loner Amarant. The entire cast gives off much more personality than previous characters, and they feel more natural because of it. However, they still fall victim to the character plagiarizing that many Final Fantasy characters fall victim to. Zidane is the plucky Aladdin-esque archetype, and Garnett is essentially a slightly smarter version of Rinoa from Final Fantasy VIII. In addition, some of the characters are not particularly necessary to the story. For the most part, Freya and Amarant add very little to the story, the two characters only being necessary for a few scenes. Some could say the same thing of Quina, but it (the game never tells what gender Quina is) has the use of being the comic relief in the story. Besides, Quina is an optional character, ruining arguments against its use since it is never an actual part of the story.
Additionally, Final Fantasy IX suffers from villain confusion early on. At first, it seems to be the Queen, even though many fans who follow the series will know that the main villain is Kuja. In fact, Kuja does not even appear until Disc 1, and even then, he just speaks with the Queen a bit before riding off on his silver dragon, leaving a “Change to Disc 2” screen in his wake. It is not until the end of Disc 2 onwards that Kuja clearly becomes the main villain of the story. This villain swap is reflected through the characters of Zorn and Thorn, the Queen’s jesters. In the middle of Disc 3, they switch to the side of Kuja, doing his dirty work instead of the Queen’s tasks.
Despite all this, the story, as a whole, fares much better than the individual characters. A large part of Final Fantasy IX’s goal is to return to the roots of the series, and a large part of this is that black mages wear pointy hats with little yellow eyes peeking out from underneath and have no physical body under their clothes. In fact, black mages play an incredibly large part in the story. For example, they help Vivi realize his identity and act as Kuja’s bodyguards. Besides the black mages, Final Fantasy IX makes numerous references to older games in the series, using concepts like four elemental dungeons, crystals controlling the world’s magic, a kingdom that seeks to rule the world through war, a Cecil/Golbez relationship late in the game, and gnomes who answer with a variant of, “Lali-ho”. In spite of the old school allusions, Final Fantasy IX does not abandon the cinematic quality that newer entries utilized. The events flow together nicely, and the cutscenes feel more professional than they did before. A perfect example is early in the game, when a Black Waltz is chasing the protagonists. It is very easy to imagine this scene being in an Indiana Jones type movie, complete with an explosion following the heroes’ narrow escape.
On the other hand, things do not stay this way throughout the entire game. Near the end, the story gets needlessly confusing and difficult to comprehend. The ending to the game is not any better, but for different reasons. It lacks a sense of drama or gravitas, coming off as cliché rather than stellar. In addition, a significant amount of the story is told through Active Time Events, which are random events that are not part of the main story, but are instead side cutscenes that the player can view at their leisure. The Active Time Events come off as leftover parts that the developers could not fit into the story. Sure, some of them may involve a mini-game or choice in dialogue, but this does not prevent them from feeling unimportant or irrelevant. Despite all of this, Final Fantasy IX still has a magnificent storyline that manages to combine the best of both old and new school.
Gameplay follows the same philosophy that the story (and most other aspects) follows. The battle system returns to the Active Time Battle system that Final Fantasy V (officially) started, throwing out the Materia and Guardian Force systems of previous games. This means that characters start with the basic abilities they require, like attack, defend, use item, and magic. While this does mean that characters are permanently assigned unbreakable character classes, this does not indicate a lack of customization. In fact, Final Fantasy IX has a simple, yet effective system of learning abilities. Skills are learned by equipping certain weapons and armor. While they can be used as soon as they are equipped, the abilities are not permanently usable until enough Ability Points have been acquired. This, combined with weapon synthesis, gives the player a very good reason to keep their old armaments (unlike most RPGs, where weapons and armor are immediately sold as soon as something better can be found).
The only real downside to Final Fantasy IX’s battle system is Trance mode. Like the Limit Breaks of Final Fantasy VII and the Special Arts of VIII, Trance is a special attack mode activated when characters receive enough damage. However, unlike the previous games, Trance mode simply means attacks that are more powerful and, maybe, slightly improved commands (like double magic casting). What's more, if Trance mode is activated, it does not carry over to the next battle; the meter is reset when the next battle begins. Often times, this means that a character will Trance in a random encounter, barely use it, and then begin the next battle with an empty meter, a problem magnified when the second encounter is a boss battle.
Sidequests also tend to be hit-or-miss occasions. Like previous entries, Chocobos have their own sidequest/mini-game, this one going by the name of Chocobo Hot and Cold. The whole point is to dig up Chocographs (code for treasure maps) by using your Chocobo as an avian metal detector in Chocobo forests/lagoons/other fields. Collecting every Chocograph in the game becomes a repetitive chore that is meant to be played in bits and pieces throughout the game, not grinded all at once. Even then, Chocobo Hot and Cold is mostly painful due to overly cryptic Chocographs. A lot of them are very obscure and inexact, like one that is literally just a picture of ocean without any notable landmarks at all.
Other sidequests are not any better. A lot of them require some sort of grinding, whether it is the mission itself or for the mission, and a few of them are meant to be completed over the course of the entire game rather than all at once. The only possible exception is the card game, Tetra Master. This card game is a lot like Triple Triad of Final Fantasy VIII, but much easier to understand. Those who liked Triple Triad will like Tetra Master; conversely, those who hated it probably are not going to enjoy this. To make things better or worse, one portion of the game requires the player to win a few games of Tetra Master, which requires a healthy set of cards, which leads Tetra Master into the same flaws that the other sidequests and mini-games suffer.
The graphics, while the best on the Playstation, also suffer from a few problems. From a technical standpoint, they are the finest on the system. The textures have higher resolutions than other games without the pixilation of Final Fantasy VIII, the CGI is of Hollywood quality, and the pre-rendered backgrounds are full of much more life than before. Artistically, the style continues the old school theme that all the other elements utilize. For example, Freya’s design is reminiscent of the Red Mage; Garnett wears a White Mage’s cloak for a small portion of time early in the game, and the final boss inadvertently looks a lot like The Destroyer from Romancing SaGa 3. The only flaw in the graphics is presented with a few of the CGI cutscenes, which show inconsistency between the computer-generated character models and the real time ones. For example, Kuja’s hair is a luminous aquamarine, yet becomes a greyer shade of teal in the pre-rendered cutscenes.
Unlike all the other factors, the music of Final Fantasy IX is uniformly great, even if it does raise a few minor questions. Many of the songs use synthesizers, most likely in an attempt to be old school, even though none of the older games made significant use of synthesizers. In spite of this, the music does manage to capture the classic feel of the older games. Conversely, the songs played during the CGI cutscenes feel like they came from the soundtrack of a big name movie. These songs in particular are much more subtle, preferring to set the mood of the depicted scene rather than go along with the gameplay at hand. Yet, as mentioned before, the soundtrack raises a few questions that are not answered (but do not interfere with the soundtrack itself). One of the questions has to do with a song taken from Final Fantasy VII called “Rufus’ Welcoming Ceremony”. The song itself is good, but it begs the question, “How can a game that can still be reasonably bought be considered old school?” The second question has to do with the leitmotif of Kuja. It does not play that often, but another song, Immoral Melody, is not only played more often and in scenes about Kuja, but is also remixed into several other songs for Kuja. Why is this not called Kuja’s Theme?
Hironobu Sakaguchi said in an interview that Final Fantasy IX was the ideal way to make a Final Fantasy, and it is very easy to see why. A large part of Final Fantasy is the presentation of the story, exemplified in the modern game’s focus on cinema quality. Final Fantasy IX captures this aspect perfectly, but at the same time depicts the light-hearted feel of the SNES and NES entries. The result is a great RPG and one that fans of the series should definitely consider playing.