Getting in there before American and Asian gamers complain about the date, for this latest retrospective piece we are going on the initial European release date for Final Fantasy IX, which is the 16th February 2001. That’s right, 20 years ago; a time where European gamers had to wait an extra seven months longer for one of the best Final Fantasy games.
As most gamers will know, each mainline instalment is an entirely new story, and the ninth ‘Final’ Fantasy is no different. This time around, Final Fantasy IX took a step backwards from the more ‘modern’ entries of VII and VIII, and firmly planted IX in a more traditional and medieval setting. Knights, castles, crystals; everything that made the franchise so popular in its infancy was here once again.
In Final Fantasy IX, you primarily play as Zidane, a member of a Tantalus – a travelling theatre troupe that doubles as a group of thieves. Or is it the other way round? Either way, whilst they can sing, dance and act, this bunch of triple threats are also on a mission to kidnap Princess Garnet from the city of Alexandria.
Unbeknownst to them though, Garnet was planning on boarding their airship anyways, as a way to escape her mother, Queen Brahne. However, Brahne shoots their airship down as it is escaping – with no regard to the safety of her daughter, it has to be said – and those that survived the crash must travel on foot to the city of Lindblum where Garnet’s Uncle Cid is awaiting her safe return.
Of course, as with many of the earlier Final Fantasy’s, this plot only covers the first few hours and it isn’t long before various antagonists are introduced, along with more otherworldly ideas. But even with the game celebrating 20 years, the journey you go on is always best experienced without knowing what is to come.
In amongst all this though is little Vivi, perhaps my favourite Final Fantasy character of all time. He acts as the black mage of the group in terms of battling, but his story of self-discovery is at times some of the most emotional storytelling in the entire franchise.
He is inadvertently embroiled in the kidnapping of Garnet after sneaking in to watch the play that Tantalus are performing, and also survives the following airship crash. He travels with the group but doesn’t plan on staying with them long. As an introverted individual, he does feel a little out of place with these more extroverted characters.
Upon reaching the village of Dali, the group stop for a rest, but after some digging around they discover some dark secrets. Hidden beneath the village is a factory that appears to be making black mages; the same black mages that Vivi himself is. Obviously, seeing something like this causes the poor chap to have a major existential crisis. Now, truly unsure what to do next, he sticks with his newfound friends who – after being attacked by several of these manufactured black mages – agree to help Vivi find the answers he so desperately deserves.
Vivi – and indeed many of the main characters – are the reason that Final Fantasy IX is so fondly remembered. Many argue that it was the last entry in the ‘Golden Age’ of Final Fantasy, though with personal favourite Final Fantasy X coming a few years after I would disagree here. All agree however, that being the last Final Fantasy released on the original PlayStation, it acts as a love letter to the earlier entries in the series that originally released on Nintendo home consoles. It features many of the same tropes and aesthetics that the earlier games featured and could not be further from the design of Final Fantasy VIII, which was the first in the series to really portray humans in a recognisable scale.
However, it did also mean that some of the game itself felt a little dated. Gone is the materia system from VII, and the whole whatever was going on in VIII. In its place was simply a turn-based battle system that, whilst it felt very much in keeping with the old-school feel, didn’t offer anything new or exciting.
Interestingly though, the PlayStation 2 was already out by the time Final Fantasy IX released. You may think that this meant a lot of people may have missed out on the original release, but don’t forget, the PlayStation 2 made backwards compatibility cool. Sure, it wasn’t the first to enable this, but it definitely helped popularise it. Right before the PlayStation 3 confused the whole situation, and then the PlayStation 4 removed it altogether.
All this and I haven’t even mentioned Tetra Master – the collectible card game minigame that almost every NPC in the land played. Some may call it a poor man’s Triple Triad from Final Fantasy VIII, but I am one of the few that preferred this version in IX. Sound off in the comments if you disagree.
Yet, despite this being a 20-year retrospective, it wasn’t until a few years after this that I first played Final Fantasy IX, by which point it had done well enough to join the PlayStation Platinum collection. And that was the copy I purchased.
How can I remember that far back? Well, I can go one better, and even tell you which shop it was. That well-known game store, WHSmith! For those not in the UK or who have never visited a UK airport, WHSmith is primarily a newsagent, stationery and bookstore. It’s not well-known for their selling of video games, but back in the original PlayStation era it was known to stock some of the bigger titles.
The post-Christmas money was burning a hole in my pocket, and after borrowing Final Fantasy VII from a friend, I wanted to know more about the series. I certainly didn’t regret spending that £20. VII might have been my first Final Fantasy foray, but it was IX that made me fully invested.
But enough talk about this appearing on the PlayStation; as of February 2019, Final Fantasy IX is available on Xbox consoles and Xbox Game Pass! There is just one annoying bug that restarts the music after every battle encounter – a particular annoyance when you consider the world map theme only really gets going after about three minutes. The PS4 version has been patched, however Xbox gamers are still awaiting this bug to be fixed. Who knows, maybe it’ll be done for the 20th anniversary.
But for now, do you have any memories of Final Fantasy IX? Perhaps you’ve only played it recently on Xbox consoles for the first time? Or maybe reading this has convinced you that now is the time? Please, as always, let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.