By NJS 4 Comments
When I started playing through Final Fantasy IX I admit I wasn't blown over by it. In truth I hadn't expected a great deal from it since the get-go. It was solid, unspectacular, perhaps a little daunting in gameplay terms too. I had never really played a game like it before, a game I guess we'd now term as a JRPG. It was turn-based, statistical, somewhat confusing with its visual array of incomprehensible numbers and words. Ability points? Experience? I had never had to worry about these things, having been a staunch N64, and thereafter, GameCube videogamer. I was brought up on games like Ocarina of Time and Jet Force Gemini. My dad gave me his friend's PlayStation some time in the late 90s and much like FFIX I thought at first it was nothing special. The games I played on it were so-so titles like Brian Lara's Cricket and V-Rally 99. The controls felt funny. The controller itself was a grimy, bathed in old sweat nightmare of sticky awkwardness.
I bought FFIX some time in 2003, I believe. I could very much be wrong, though, as my memory of that time is quite fuzzy. I'm not sure whether I already owned a GameCube or not. I bought my copy of the game somewhat on a whim, that I do remember, since it was on offer at what used to be the Virgin megastore on Oxford Street. It was one of those "buy 2 for £20" deals or something, since I got Harvest Moon at the same time - a game that was also great but which sadly is now for all intents and purposes lost to me. It wasn't even like I was looking for something in particular to buy at the time as I made my way upstairs to what used to be quite a large selection of games that was sparsely populated, and then only by 12 year olds looking for their next gaming fix. Come to think of it, that's probably why that store eventually closed down and subsequently replaced by several stores, including the maligned Zavvi store. Which, er, also closed down.
As I began to play it I quickly realised that the main character, Zidane, was familiar to me somehow. Not being subject to the massive hype and chatter there must have been about FFIX upon its release here in the UK in 2001, since I took almost no notice of PlayStation releases, I did not know much about the game. I do remember, however, that the Zidane character was prominent in advertising at its release. He was on the cover of some games magazines, but more specifically, I remember some of the promotional material that was used in GAME and Electronics Boutique (EB Games), and ultimately that is the reason why he seemed so familiar to me.
Back to the game itself now and the first time I really got stuck. Since I was a complete newbie to the idea of having to level up in order to help progress, the boss fight with Gizamaluke in his grotto proved to be both infuriating and demoralising. For a while I was stuck, completely and totally, with the idea that I was simply not good enough to beat him. Several months passed before I gave the game another go. This time, having got a couple of extra levels with Zidane (Lvl 14 if I remember right) the fight was easy, simple even, and I was delighted that I could move on. I think it was at that point that I finally began to 'get' Final Fantasy. I started to realise and feel that this was not just a game, it was a living, breathing world full of interesting characters and a deliciously exciting, twisting story. I had never played a game like that before. Games like Ocarina of Time and Mario 64, while superb on a pleasurable, playable and technical level, lacked a real sense of plot, and felt like they just boiled down to which dungeon came next, which object was next on the list to collect. Despite its seemingly more linear story arc, Final Fantasy IX actually gave me the sense of being more free to make choices. What weapon do I use? Do I use the money I have now to get this, or should I wait until I find a better one in the next town? What does this ability do? And so on.
Coupled with its more worldly characters, Final Fantasy IX always felt more alive, more meaningful. When cities were burned down to a crisp, the locales and the environments were affected, in their speech, the way they looked, they way they behaved.
All this leads me to Memoria, the penultimate dungeon in the game, and the dungeon which, in my opinion, is the finest example in videogames of what a great story and good characters can lead to. Now, I would say that because of FFIX's environmental - and perhaps technical - limitations, in the field maps and so forth, that it lacks the interesting level concepts that you see in great games like the Metroid Prime series. That game has stellar level design. That's not to take away from the overall look of FFIX's dungeons, but the way in which you interact with them was wholly different to many games that I was used to at the time. With its dark, foreboding visual style Memoria is one place I'll never forget visiting the first time. Looking up at its almost demonic, twisted castle-like structure was like looking into a very disturbed soul. With smart imagery of the once-planned assimilation of Gaia, and knowing nods to previous moments in the game, Memoria is perhaps best thought of as not just a videogaming dungeon masterpiece, but a bona-fide work of art. It cannot go without mention that the music in Memoria is particularly affecting, with its sad, slow, mystical spell being woven each time you visit it. It's one of the game's strongest points, as much of the music is memorable and enchanting.
Using the idea that memories can construct this bizarre, hypnotic location was a stroke of genius. Only certain members of your party seeing the destruction of Alexander, for example. Or the strange implications of Zidane being able to see Dagger's memories of being onboard a boat out at sea. Looking into the eye of the Invincible. The birth of Gaia. Each scene, each painting, is alive with a sense of deep rooted mystery, as snippets of the history, the lore, of your world your characters inhabit is teased out to you in the shape of Garland's messages to Zidane. What does it all mean? How do they relate to the previous 40 hours you've spent exploring this magnificent world?
In a sense they don't, and while this perhaps adds to the overall intrigue of the game, I've never felt fully satisfied by the game's conclusion in that sense. Yes, the last couple of battles are enjoyable, but once you've finished with Memoria, the game almost ignores the fact that you've just been through this incredible journey of characterisation. I felt more in tune, more identified with the characters once I'd played through Memoria. But I ended up losing some of that as I plowed through the Crystal World, and without the complete explanation of the memory fragments your characters encounter, it reminded me that after all I was, just, playing a video game. Final Fantasy IX was undeniably the most immersive and intriguing game I'd ever played at the time, and in some ways, still is. Perhaps one day I'll revisit the game and try once more to understand the motivations, the ideas behind Memoria and the game. But it certainly left a mark on me that reminds me of the power of videogames not just as a fun experience, but one of immersion, wonder and storytelling.
And it also reminds me that I really should play more Final Fantasy games. Yes, number iX is the only one I've ever played to this day.