With Final Fantasy IX now available on PS4, we're revisiting why you should play this classic RPG. Enjoy!
Square-Enix is certainly a powerful publisher—what with owning colossal brands like Tomb Raider—but the closing years of the 20th century saw their Japanese development efforts at peak relevancy.
At a time when jokes about Final Fantasy XV's delays are growing as stale as the ones we couldn't stop making about Duke Nukem Forever, it may be hard to remember just how prolific Square used to be. From Final Fantasy VII onwards, the PlayStation provided a home for countless Square-developed RPGs, with a few strange experiments like Brave Fencer Musashi and Threads of Fate thrown in for good measure. And while not all of the company's woes can be blamed on 2001's disastrous bomb, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Hironobu Sakaguchi's misguided project serves as a fitting end to this particular chapter of Square's history. The aughts saw plenty of successes for Square, but also a marked reduction of confidence, and much of their major talent either leaving or going independent—including Sakaguchi himself.
In retrospect, Final Fantasy IX comes off like a "wrap party" for the Square of old. The development team couldn't possibly know what the future would hold, but, in any case, IX entered the world as a celebration of Square itself. It's the reason this 2000 PlayStation release wavered from the more modern direction its keepers were steering the franchise: One last "get the band back together" hurrah before making video games would become much more difficult. Final Fantasy IX stepped away from appealing to youth-oriented pop culture, and instead dusted off the comfortable tropes that made Square a name during the 8 and 16-bit eras. And you only have to look at the following year's Final Fantasy X to see how drastically things would change: Rather than the hunky hunks and babely babes of that particular entry, IX's cast amounts to a colorful troupe of circus freaks who probably won't be modeling for Louis Vuitton anytime soon.
Final Fantasy IX's approach could be called "cynical" if it didn't work so well without context. It's true that much of the game's appeal is built around nostalgia—more specifically, nostalgia for the first three games in the series. (Which, depressingly enough, aren't as far away from Final Fantasy IX as we are today.) Most of these references would be lost on any non-Japanese person playing Final Fantasy IX during its original release, though; we Americans wouldn't get our hands on part II until 2002's Final Fantasy Origins, and we'd have to wait for 2006 to play the DS remake of part III. And it's likely the few Final Fantasy I references that would be intelligible were lost in an English localization that differed greatly from the harsh limitations of what's present in the series 1990 American debut. In any case, the nostalgia acts more as window-dressing than the beating heart of Final Fantasy IX; even if you don't know the specifics, the references sprinkled throughout evoke a comfortable sense of familiarity to anyone who grew up alongside Square's rise to power.
It's a shame, then, that we're only just seeing Final Fantasy IX leap outside the realm of the PlayStation family. While Square hasn't been shy about making IX available on PSN—unlike some of their other PS1 releases—it didn't receive a PC port like VII and VIII, which did much to hurt its chances of appearing elsewhere. And though this isn't the most likely scenario in the world, Square's reluctance to celebrate Final Fantasy IX could be chalked up to their Sakaguchi-breakup wounds taking more than a decade to fully heal—this is his favorite game of the series, after all. Again, it's all conjecture, but he did lose them close to 100 million dollars, and financial problems are one of the leading causes of divorce.
Regardless of how this upcoming Final Fantasy IX port happened, it's nice to know that it's happening. As time passes and the idea of "retro" games extends as late as the 32-bit era, it's hard to think of a generation that could benefit more with the help of modern technology. Don't get me wrong; Final Fantasy IX is a fine-looking game—but even the best-looking PlayStation games still have to communicate their polygons through 300 stunning lines of resolution. Frankly, Final Fantasy IX's biggest problem is that it asks the PlayStation hardware to do more than it was ever designed for, which leads to some annoying compromises. Sure, IX brought back battles with four party members, but said battles need a 15-second preamble to load in all of those character models—even Nobuo Uematsu's battle theme starts with some musical thumb-twiddling to account for this issue. These problems weren't so noticeable when we were inured to them, but jumping back into the frequent pauses of Final Fantasy IX makes for an irritating experience this upcoming port should (hopefully) fix.
If anything, I hope this re-release of Final Fantasy IX allows people to view it in a new light. It found its fans in 2000, but much of the attention it could have received was lost in the next-gen shuffle—back when the latter games of a generation would disappear forever, rather than popping up again with a new coat of paint. IX was always intended to deviate from Final Fantasy's intended future, and now that the series has gone in some pretty strange directions over the past 16 years, its back-to-basics style feels like an outright anomaly. With Final Fantasy XV apparently taking the form of a brodown-throwdown camping trip, the somewhat hokey world of black mages, airships, and crystals has never been more appealing.