For the first review in the brand new Retro series of video game reviews on The Edge, I thought I’d go with my favourite game of all-time, naturally. In my opinion Final Fantasy IX has everything that a video game needs: an emotional and engaging storyline, relatable and genuinely interesting characters, and an epic amount of enduringly fun gameplay, full of absolutely loads of challenges. Truly, it is a work which I feel is underappreciated by the world of gaming.
The ninth installment in Square Enix’s (then Square) best-selling Final Fantasy franchise came at exactly the right time, riding on the massive successes of Final Fantasy VII and VIII which pretty much blew the rest of the PlayStation back catalogue away. For FF9 the developers wanted to bring as many elements of the previous games in the series into one package, with a wide range of references and harkbacks injecting the most hardcore of fans with nostalgia and forcing newer players to check out the original games. As the final outing on the original PlayStation console, many worried that FF9 would fall flat due to the release of the brand new PlayStation 2 around the same time; and while it failed to live up to the sales of FF7 (9.8 million) and FF8 (8.1 million), and was subsequently outsold by the first of the PS2’s games Final Fantasy X (6.6 million), the 5.3 million units of FF9 have attracted some of the best critical response of the series, with both major aggregate review websites ranking the game extremely high — GameRankings.com gave it 93.32% (second only to the 93.68% of FF6) and Metacritic.com gave it a mark of 94 out of 100 (the highest of the series).
There are so many reasons why I consider Final Fantasy IX the best game of all-time. Perhaps the most obvious and important is that of the story; without a strong storyline, anything (a game, a film, a television series, a novel) can fall flat, even with the best of every other element. For FF9 the setting and story was written with the ‘roots’ of the franchise in mind; both FF7 and FF8 were set in a futuristic world, and for IX the setting was brought back in line with the ‘classic’ Final Fantasy games, based on a medieval theme with a typical ‘royalty and corruption’ backbone to the narrative. As with all games in the series, FF9 focuses on a party of protagonists who have to prevent the end of the world, which in this case is posed by a corrupt Queen working with a supervillain whose overall goal is to, surprisingly, destroy the world.
Throughout the course of the game you meet a plethora of interesting and wacky characters, who either help or hinder your adventure. The villains usually link into the story really well, although there are the obligatory few boss fights which seem to make no sense (including the final one, which is an interesting choice by Square) — but overall the characters are developed incredibly well, and the story is split up nicely across the four discs of the game. The key to the story is the emotional connection you feel with many of the main characters, not least Zidane, Princess Garnet and Vivi. Once the game is over, you basically feel upset that you are no longer living in the world of Gaia, although you are left with a humble feeling of satisfaction for having helped the party reach their goals.
The second important element of any video game (probably equally as important as the storyline) is, of course, the gameplay. FF9 didn’t stray particularly far from the endlessly enjoyable playability of its immediate predecessors, with the obligatory puzzles, random battles and minigames spread across the massive game. The game is played as a faux-3D top-down adventure, as you direct one of your characters (depending on the situation, usually Zidane) around a town or the world map and interact with people, objects and places. In every town there are plenty of minigames, as well as a number of ongoing quests such as the interesting and funny Mognet quest and the ridiculous frog-catching game. Everything offers you rewards too, not least the Chocograph adventure which leads you around the world and awards you a massive amount of items, exclusive weapons, locations and new skills. Basically, aside from the main storyline, there are so many things to do in the world of Final Fantasy IX that you can play for absolutely hours, and complete the game many times, and you will still find things you never did before. In terms of the main game, the exploration of locations and the battles therein are extremely fun, and advance on the previous games very well; random battles are way less annoying than before, and training is actually a pleasure to take part in.
As well as its obvious qualities, Final Fantasy IX also ticks all the ‘extra’ boxes of a video game — every other element which, while not a crucial requirement in and of itself, adds to the overall ‘feel’ of the game and gives it that extra push from good to great. FF9 was the last game in the series for which the music was composed entirely by regular series composer Nobuo Uematsu, who is frankly legendary in the realm of video game composition. Uematsu composed over 150 tracks for the game, spending an entire year of his life producing its incredible soundtrack. While the game was obviously limited by its console, meaning the sound quality wasn’t the best, it is obvious to anyone who knows anything about video games that FF9 has one of the best collection of musical pieces in history. The music reaches to so many different areas — it is moving, it is epic, it is fun. It is perfect for the game, and it is in my opinion the pinnacle of Final Fantasy music history (and that is not a claim to be taken lightly). Even the battle theme is still enjoyable! Highlights of the soundtrack include ‘The Place I’ll Return to Someday‘ (the title theme), ‘Rose of May‘, ‘You’re Not Alone!‘ and ‘Dark Messenger‘.
At the risk of repeating myself, I will now stop listing all the qualities of Final Fantasy IX. Essentially, it’s a game that has the whole package — FF7 might have come along at the right time and presented an incredibly rich and engaging story, but the gameplay was slightly ‘off’ somehow and it wasn’t quite a fully-realised production. FF9 is an example of a magnum opus — it is Square’s best work so far, and probably the best there will ever be. If you want to experience the magic of the best-selling role-playing series ever created, then look no further than the ninth installment. Please, enjoy.
Gameplay: 7/10 (pretty standard walking around, but fun battles)
Story: 9/10 (incredibly emotional and engaging)
Graphics: 7/10 (nothing revolutionary, but very good for the PS1)
Audio: 9/10 (one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard)
Lifetime: 8/10 (there is so much to discover in the game, you can play it over and over)
Rating: 85% (probably the best in the series, and maybe even the best RPG)