Final Fantasy IX Retrospective: What Made It So Special?

BY CLIFFORD REEDER: It is safe to say that we all have one thing from our childhood that means the world to us even many years, if not decades, later. Something with imperative emotional value that always holds a place in our hearts no matter how much time has gone by, and in this context, I’m sure many of us consider that special item to be a childhood video game. A video game that we could go to no matter what situation was troubling our lives.  A video game that, regardless of where you were or what you were doing, you could pick it up and play it again and again; still enjoying the soundtrack, characters, and gameplay just as much as you had the first time around.

I was born in 1993 and my experience with gaming was varied. My grandfather owned an original NES and would help me play games like Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Bros., as well as allow me to watch him play his favorite game, Tetris. While experiencing these titles, both first and secondhand, helped ease me into a hobby that would eventually become a cornerstone in my life, it wasn’t until a few years later that I was introduced to a game that would shape me into who I am today. That game, released on July 7th, 2000 for the PlayStation, was Final Fantasy IX.

            Final Fantasy IX, as given away by the title, was the ninth main number entry in the Final Fantasy series. These were Japanese role-playing games that, despite being continuations of another series, always featured new characters and new worlds in each installment. Final Fantasy IV was about a Dark Knight turned Paladin who is forced to fight his own nature in order to save the world from a kingdom he once swore to protect. Final Fantasy VI featured a descendant of an ancient race of magic wielders who learns of her heritage to stop a crazed jester from bringing the downfall of the world. Final Fantasy VII, the series first voyage into 3D graphics, brought to life a futuristic world where a young man helps an eco-terrorist organization fight back against an evil corporation intent on siphoning away the world’s lifeblood.

As you can see, each game was vastly different in terms of characters and storyline, so what was it about Final Fantasy IX that left such an impact on me? Well, for starters, the two games prior to this entry were heavily centered around modern aesthetics. These titles focused on science-fiction fantasy instead of the medieval style high fantasy the series had been founded on. Though the past two titles did very well for themselves, the developers at Square (now known as Square Enix) wanted the ninth entry to feel more retrospective of the series and return to their medieval roots.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

The game starts off by introducing us to a magical world. A brilliant castle looming over the massive city of Alexandria as airships and people travel towards the center of the city from all directions. Princess Garnet, one of the main characters, awakens from a terrible nightmare and looks upon the city. Her garb, a brilliant gown, alludes us to the fact that she is preparing for a significant event. We are then introduced to one of the occupants aboard a massive airship heading towards the city’s heart, a monkey-tailed man by the name of Zidane Tribal. As we soon learn, this is our primary player character. He is a member of a larcenous group known as Tantalus who, as we are quickly informed, are plotting to kidnap Princess Garnet during a play they have organized in the city. Should they succeed, they intend to transport the Princess to the neighboring kingdom of Lindblum.

This is where I believe the game becomes incredibly unique. While most games at the time would stick to a single narrative or single character, Final Fantasy IX went above and beyond by allowing the player to experience the perspective of multiple characters all during this same period of time. After learning that Tantalus is heading towards the castle to kidnap the Princess, the player is then taken to the city streets and introduced to a new character, a young kid by the name of Vivi. His design directly mirrors the Black Mage from the original Final Fantasy and his character traits are introduced immediately. He is portrayed as clumsy and awkward, constantly tripping over his own feet, and dropping his precious ticket for the play. He soon gets into hijinks with a rat-faced kid named Puck and finds himself sneaking into the play after learning his ticket had been a fake all along. Later on, during the performance, Queen Brahne, mother of Princess Garnet, notices that her daughter is missing and sends Steiner, captain of the Knights of Pluto, to look for her. While Steiner searches for the Princess, Zidane and his friend Blank, another Tantalus member, have infiltrated the castle, located Princess Garnet, and have begun chasing her throughout the castle halls while she attempts to flee. During this, the Princess is wearing a disguise akin to that of a White Mage style robe.

This is one of the biggest things I came to absolutely love about the game. Final Fantasy IX introduced an Active Time Event system, or “ATE” for short, which allowed players to experience different scenes and events taking place at the exact same time. This gave you plenty of opportunities to see events play out where you normally wouldn’t have, as well as give many characters in the game some deeply valuable development. On top of this, these events are almost entirely optional, allowing the player to simply play and proceed as normal without requiring them to watch every single cutscene the game has to offer. This provides two equally valuable options, one for those who wish to delve deeper into the story, and one for those who simply wish to proceed further into the game without sinking too much time into optional cutscenes.

Back during the castle chase, Zidane finally catches up to Garnet and informs her that he and the Tantalus crew are here to kidnap her. In a shocking twist, Garnet turns the tables on Zidane and directly requests that he kidnap her and take her to Lindblum Castle. Zidane, a ladies man and pleaser, promises he will do everything he can to get her safely to Lindblum. All of these events eventually lead to each character the player has been introduced to ending up in the same location. Steiner, having finally come across them, chases Zidane and Garnet onto the play’s mainstage, which we know to be the airship Tantalus had used to enter the city, while Vivi is chased onto the ship by guards who had caught him and Puck watching the show without a valid ticket. Upon realizing her daughter is aboard the airship, which has now lifted itself into the air and away from the city, Queen Brahne orders a bomb be sent to bring it down. The bomb collides with the airship, known as the Prima Vista, and brings it careening down into a deadly forest.

I won’t dive much further into the plot itself as there is too much to properly cover, but I would like to delve into another aspect of the game that really spoke to me: its themes. While there are a lot of different characters with their own wants, fears, and goals, there are a few major themes that persist throughout this game, with no specific character in mind. While Zidane is meant to be the main character, I believe there is powerful symbolism between two other characters that help to shape the entirety of the game. At one point in the game, Vivi discovers himself to be a Black Mage that was created in a factory from a strange substance known only as the Mist. He, like all other Black Mages, was created as a soulless machine intended to fight wars for Queen Brahne and the titular villain of the game, Kuja. Vivi is heartbroken by this discovery and hopes to uncover the reason for his unusual consciousness, as many of his brothers were simply mindless constructs. It is not until he discovers a hidden village, comprised entirely of Black Mages that can talk and think just like him, that he learns the real truth behind his existence.

Initially, Vivi is elated to come across others like himself, but after speaking to the leader of the village about their strange existence, he quickly discovers a terrible truth; someday, for no true reason, he will simply stop moving and cease to exist. On that day, he will die and there is no way to tell when and where it will happen. This worries Vivi horribly, and throughout a majority of the game, he struggles with this knowledge. Despite his internal worries, Vivi does the best he can to help Zidane and his friends on their journey to stop Kuja from enacting war and destroying their world.

Now Kuja, despite being the game’s primary villain, is almost identical to Vivi. He is the creation of a being known as Garland who, in an attempt to save a dying world, has created a race of monkey-tailed beings known as Genomes. The Genomes were intended to one day house the souls of Garland’s former race, the Terrans. These Genomes are very similar to the Black Mages, lacking a state of consciousness and existing only to serve a singular purpose. Kuja, having realized he would one day be smothered out by a Terran soul, chose to escape in an attempt to prove himself worthy to Garland so that he may continue to exist as himself.

This is where the parallels between the two truly come to light, and the real theme of the game is revealed. Garland informs Kuja, after he achieves a powerful state of being known as Trance, that Zidane was created to replace him. Kuja was a defective Genome with a fast-approaching expiration date, making him useless to Garland. Kuja would soon die, and there was nothing he could do to prevent the inevitable. In this moment, it is clear that Kuja has been given the same information Vivi learned some time ago, and upon being forced to face his own mortality, Kuja snaps. While Vivi, throughout his journey with Zidane and his friends, learned to embrace life as a gift and face his eventual death with strength and acceptance, Kuja took an entirely different approach. He became afraid, withdrawn, and sought to prevent his death any way possible. This change in Kuja eventually leads to the climax of the game.

These themes of mortality and life versus death went completely over my head when I first played the game, but as I revisited Final Fantasy IX time and time again, I eventually began to pick up on these quieter moments. The moments where the characters were most vulnerable, quietly dealing with emotions and situations that closely resembled things I may have gone through in my life. It is for this reason that Final Fantasy IX holds such a significant place in my heart. It created these wonderfully mature and believable characters that are faced with such awful and undeniable truths, but at the end of it all, became stronger as a result. It’s inspiring and motivating to see each of these characters learn and evolve, all the while their enemy is discovered to be someone struggling just as much to face the same exact fears. Someone who, at the end of the day, is as fearful of dying as everyone else.

Final Fantasy IX is an outstanding game in terms of both gameplay and story, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention stunning soundtrack created by the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. These tracks stuck to my mind and never truly let go. Even years later I still find myself remembering and humming some of these classic tunes as I go about my day. Each character’s theme works perfectly with their personality and design, the battle theme does absolute wonders for a game where combat is significant to progressing, and even the environmental and situational tracks are memorable and breathtaking. Songs such as “A Song from Her Memory”, “A Place to Call Home”, or Kuja’s final boss theme, “A Dark Messenger” have so much power and influence held within their sound, I’d implore you to at least give a few of them a listen. You certainly won’t regret it.

At the end of the day, we all have that one thing that we hold near and dear to our hearts. Whether it was the characters that inspired us, the stories that motivated us, or the beautiful soundtracks that kept us engaged all along, there will always be something in these games that resonates and sticks with us even through the toughest times in our lives. For me, I’m glad to have a game like Final Fantasy IX in my life. Its strong characters and even stronger messages about life’s inevitable truths give me the strength to face my own truths with a little more certainty than I would have before.