Final Fantasy IX is truly a forgotten classic. Marketed as a celebration of the end of the PS1 era, FFIX was released as the PS2 went global…alongside another (albeit critically superior) PS1 Square game; Chrono Cross. After being spoiled by the cyberpunk boom of FFVII and FFVIII, the masses weren’t exactly going gaga over IX’s return-to-form, with a cast of super-deformed characters in a relatively medieval setting. It was appreciated by hardcore fans, yet wasn’t as popular as the other two PS1 FF installments.
Playing FFIX after 10 years since its release, I realize that I too have under-appreciated it…falling for the “cooler” cyberpunk setting of FFVIII. The Spoony Experiment convinced me otherwise; VIII simply does not stand the test of time, which is why I refused to download it off PSN, opting for its superior sequel. It’s ironic that I remember more of FFVII and VIII than IX. I’m hitting myself in the head right now for forgetting most of it. Gameplay is what I remember the most (think of it as the evolution of FFVI’s system), followed by the characters. I mean, the majority of the plot is such a blur and most of the locations I just can’t recall for the life of me. I’m five hours in right now…and I can’t believe that I’ve totally forgotten how witty the script can be. Bits and pieces of the chemistry between Zidane and Steiner are in my head…but I never expected the writing to be this funny. It’s not “laugh out loud”, mind you…it’s just that you’re constantly smiling as you encounter things like an NPC reminding himself to take a dump and Zidane feeling up Garnet’s behind and going “Ohh, soft!” It’s sort of unpredictable to tell you the truth.
It’s not all fun and games though. FFIX’s plot is builds up well with a lot of serious moments. It’s hard to get away with having both humor and serious overtones in one RPG. I guess you can call this the “Sakaguchi touch”, since FFIX was the last game with Square that he was deeply involved in, serving as “producer” and creator of its original concept. Just look at Lost Odyssey, it basically goes for the same balance as FFIX. I bet if you look at all the games Mr. Sakaguchi directed or produced you’ll find that same balance present…and that is how the Final Fantasy series should be. Sadly, unlike Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy is a series that doesn’t keep up with traditions…as evident by FFXII and FFXIII. While experimenting does have its advantages, the feeling of nostalgia is simply lost if a series completely deviates from certain traditions. Just look at FFXIII; if the game was called “That Anime RPG with Tube Corridors” none would be the wiser.
The visuals hold up well. FMV grain persists, but the pre-rendered environments and polygonal character models are still good stuff, especially when you play it on your PSP. The handheld’s glossy screen pretty much washes out most retro PS1 artifacts. There’s just a bit of slowdown in some parts but nothing to write home about as the seamless loading compensates nicely. Additionally, thanks to one of the PSP’s recent firmware updates, you can finally customize the screen’s fit to your liking. Previously, you had three default settings, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Those black boarders annoyed the heck out of me in the default wide view. Now, you can pretty much fill the whole screen and decrease the stretch side-effect. Just experiment and find your best view.
As for Mr. Uematsu’s tunes, I’ve always found the main theme of FFIX (and its variations) to be addicting, along with the various battle themes. Couldn’t remember any of the game’s other songs, but right now I’m loving Lindblum Castle’s theme, Steiner’s theme, and the tune that plays in Qu Marsh. The latter has a bit of chiptune goodness that surprised the heck out of me.
All in all, FFIX proves that going retro may be the only way of moving forward. A lot of it reminds me of the good times I’ve had with FFVI (my favorite installment in the series) and keeps me optimistic of what lies ahead for the series. After all, FFXIII doesn’t exactly impress after more than 5 years of development time.