Each and every Final Fantasy fan will have their own favourite in the series, and the chance for many of us to relive these grand adventures on the Xbox One and Nintendo Switch is an exciting prospect. With these re-releases the entry doors are blown open for newcomers to experience the series in arguably its golden age, with the upcoming releases of VII, IX, X/X-2 and XII.
But for now, the first classic re-released is Final Fantasy IX, a game that even when originally released was a throwback to the Final Fantasy’s that came before the advent of the PlayStation. But how does this hold up to more modern JRPGs that may have been influenced by it, and is this release primarily aimed at returning fans or newcomers?
That’s the question I always ask myself when an old game is remade/remastered/lazily ported over to new consoles: Is it aimed at old fans looking for a nostalgia trip, or newcomers who’ve always wanted to try it? The answer usually comes from how the game is brought over.
In the case of Final Fantasy IX, chalk this one up as ‘lazily ported over’; one that will leave a sour taste in those returning for a short period of time, before the core game shines through.
Make no bones about it, Final Fantasy IX is one of most universally adored Final Fantasy games out there and – for the most part – returning to Gaia is a blast, with this more traditional and medieval setting for a Final Fantasy game harking back to the series’ formative years.
This version of Final Fantasy IX on Xbox One also features Xbox Play Anywhere, meaning you can pick up on console or PC from where you left off.
Gameplay features a mix of story-telling, traditional turn-based battles and exploration. Remember this is a game from 2000 so speech is done through reading text boxes rather than voice actors. If reading for most of a 35-hour journey isn’t your cup of tea, this isn’t the game for you.
Final Fantasy IX centres around Zidane who – at the beginning of the game – is onboard the Prima Vista along with the Tantalus theatre troupe, on their way to the kingdom of Alexandria to perform the nation’s favourite play, ‘I Want to be Your Canary’. Their real motive however, is to kidnap the Queen’s daughter, Princess Garnet.
Imagine their surprise then when it turns out Princess Garnet was planning to escape Alexandria anyways, using their airship as a means of doing so! With fellow stowaways Steiner and Vivi also on-board, they set off a chain of events and uncover secrets that will change them, and the world around them, forever.
Several areas of Final Fantasy IX remain untouched: the story, gameplay and soundtrack being the biggest areas left as they were. Certain graphical updates exist; all the character sprites have been updated and given a HD polish. They look great though, really showing off some new details to the models that would otherwise have not been possible when originally released. The cutscenes have also been given the same treatment, but everything still exists in a 4:3 ratio.
Sadly, because the backgrounds were pre-rendered, these have not been updated at all. There were some spectacularly gorgeous backgrounds back in the day, but their charm has been lost a fair bit by not being updated. More disappointingly is the fact that fan mods exist for the Steam version released in 2016, so it could have been done, and it is a shame that they have not had the same care and attention as the sprites.
In fact, many of the same criticisms thrown at the Steam re-release – and before that the iOS and Android releases – are still present here.
One such bug may not be the most apparent, but it is certainly the most annoying.
As you know, Final Fantasy IX features random battles: You can be wandering through a dungeon or along the world map and then ‘BAM!’ the screens swirls into itself and reappears with your party in front of an enemy. A few rounds of back and forth turn-based battling occurs, but 99% of the time you are the victor. The victory theme strikes up, EXP is earned and occasionally spoils are rewarded too. Then you can continue through the dungeon or along the overworld until the next battle.
In the original version of Final Fantasy IX, that particular dungeon’s music or world theme would continue where it left off after the battle. These pieces of music can be over six minutes long, but in this version, the music starts from the very beginning again. As random battles can occur as often as every 10-15 seconds, that leaves you hearing the same introduction every time you exit a battle, willing the time away that you can escape the dungeon rather than fully appreciate the soundtrack.
Other frustrating features due to the port are not being able to assign your characters custom names, and for some reason the load times for the transition to a random battle can sometimes take longer than it did on the PlayStation. For example, why leave the character naming screen in the game but remove the ability to do so?
Some new features have been added in the form of boosters and cheats, but again these feel like they could have been adapted better to suit a console and a controller rather than a touchscreen. Boosters can be found in the pause screen for the game and assigned to the back four buttons. Press these during open gameplay though and they won’t have any affect; they only work when in the pause menu. These can enable high speed mode, safe travelling (no random battles), max damage and battle assistance. Perhaps most importantly, these do not disable achievements.
If you wanted to enable high speed mode, you would have to pause the game, press the correct shoulder button and then unpause it. It isn’t a massive inconvenience, but it could have been better implemented to just be actioned by a shoulder button press to toggle it on and off. This exists in the upcoming Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, but sees the longer workaround in Final Fantasy IX lacking any sort of consistency.
Cheats on the other hand do disable achievements and are permanently on that save if you decide to activate them. These allow you to master abilities instantly, reach max level and maximum Gil. Strangely though, these are accessed through the game’s menu at the bottom of the options, separate from the boosters but offering much the same perks.
About those achievements, and you’ll be glad that boosters don’t disable them. There are 51 in total, but they are not for the work shy. Only one is for story progression and that is for completing the main-story. The rest involve intricate knowledge of many of the game’s secrets and even then many will require a guide alongside several different save files; one tiny mistake or not talking to the right person at the exact moment can render an achievement missable.
If that wasn’t enough, achievements for winning 100 Tetra Master games, reaching level 99, earning a score of 1000 on jump rope – more difficult than grindy – and then killing 10,000 enemies should keep you busy for a long time.
And yet, for all that said, I love Final Fantasy IX. I’m over the moon it’s available to play on Xbox One and – along with Nintendo Switch – is found to be opening itself up to a whole new generation of gamers. Playing this game is a joy, it’s one of the best Final Fantasy’s, one of the best JRPGs, and one of the best games ever. A few bugs and general porting issues aren’t enough to completely dampen my spirits when playing through it again, and thankfully they don’t take away too much from the game. It does however just feel like a cash grab at times, as it has been hastily ported over, and features many of the same issues from previous ports. The Final Fantasy series deserves better than that.
But if you are getting into the series for the first time, then you best get started on Final Fantasy IX right now. You haven’t got long to play, as Final Fantasy VII is just around the corner.