I love Final Fantasy. Actually, let me correct that, I love what Final Fantasy represents.
Actually, let me correct that once again. I love what Final Fantasy once represented.
It was the pinnacle of everything artistic. Storytelling, design, music. It set standards and influences across the board on my favorite genre of gaming. A genre that, for nearly a decade, had consumed me.
Enter the year 2000. A new Final Fantasy game dropped into my lap as I just began college. In high school, I worked at the local video store (the exact same store I’ve referenced picking up classic RPGs in my past writings; must have been fate). I had seen other Final Fantasy games come and go since working there. I remember the day Final Fantasy VII came out, the hype of Sony’s commercial bombardments putting a sheen on everything, and the first time we unwrapped it in store and watched the opening cinema. I remember the demo of Final Fantasy VIII with Squall and company doing their best Omaha Beach impression, and the subsequent game that was released later and, even though I disassociate myself with it, have still played through numerous times. I remember when Chrono Cross came out, Suikoden II, Final Fantay Tactics, even a new Mana game spinning in my Playstation. It was RPG glee.
“I remember…I remember”….hmmmm, something about that phrase….
Anyways, I digress. A few weeks after my birthday, Final Fantasy IX was released and…
I hated it.
Chibi characters? Slow battles? Hippos? You’re throwing hippos at me now, Squaresoft? Does this Black Mage have a disability of some sort? And why does my character have a tail? Truthfully, I remember stopping my play after the first disc. There was nothing that grabbed me, that thrust me deep into its world and story and the battles, damn those battles, often lulled me to sleep. I never thought it possible, this was Final Fantasy after all, but I took the game and shelved it with no intention of playing again.
Now I’m going to go off on something a little personal that most people don’t do on message boards. We like our anonymity and hide behind our avatars, but I think to showcase certain changes people go through, and prove how some things are just going to be subjective in certain ways, it’s needed here. From 1999 to about 2002 I lost all four grandparents in my family, one in particular more-or-less being a father to me. I remembered the times fishing, the holidays, the snow and the lake. The good times, and the bad, rough ones at the end.
By my junior year in college, I pretty much did three things: go to class, go to work, and stay home. I decided to give some games another go around and as I went through my trunk of titles, Final Fantasy IX lay there on top covered in three years worth of dust.
“Eh…why not?” I thought. I couldn’t remember anything from it, it would be like fresh eyes on a term paper.
That’s when I started to remember, and also when I started to understand.
You can probably guess how it went, I wouldn’t have written all this thus far, and all that follows, if I didn’t find myself falling in love with it. In college, I found myself really missing my childhood. My years freeloading off my parents were drawing to a close and the “real world” was about to kick in and, most likely, kick my ass. I was looking for an escape and, like so many, I found myself escaping to the past, to those fond memories of games of yesteryear. And here it all was, tightly wrapped in a neat, little package. I found humor and memories in this charming title that, unlike the bleakness of so many games, was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Speaking of that tunnel and light, it also grabbed me by its sincerity of its themes, no bigger of which found me in its clutches than its take on death. Having gone through a lot in such a short period, and often watching a lot of depressing movies which I’m sure did not help, Final Fantasy IX had a new take: enjoy life. Celebrate it. I’m not of the church-going variety and I really didn’t like talking about certain things with people so a psychiatrist was out of the question. In a way, Final Fantasy IX was therapy with its idea and message and I soon found myself playing though it faster than you can say “Kuja looks like a girl.” I now saw it for what it was. It wasn’t some childish, bland pop-up-book with talking hippos and…what are moogles again? It was full of feelings and ideas, of emotions of times past and times yet to come, of understanding and acceptance and the realization that it’s not about how much time we have left, but what we can do with what time we have to begin with. Love your past, accept your future. It played off my lost childhood and my family and teachers reading me fairy tales or scary stories around a campfire, it played off my love of classic games, it played off the deaths I tried to overcome. And in the end, it soon became, not about Zidane and saving the world, but about me.
I once mentioned before that RPGs today aren’t so much fantasy and adventure as much as they have become anime and melodrama. What I didn’t mention, though, is how the idea of fantasy and adventure has pretty much become a relic. I miss sitting in a circle in elementary school and being read Dr. Seuss and Mother Goose. Don’t lie to yourselves, you know if you had the chance to be seven again you would do it in an instant. In a way, that is exactly what Final Fantasy IX was able to draw out of me. Sure, it still succumbs to cliched anime stories at times, but it’s the “mood” it sets. The small bits of humor to take away from the heavy drama, like watching Disney’s Snow White or Alice in Wonderland, is timed perfectly and the characters themselves feel as though they are drawn right out of a classic Disney film and, yes, it even seems to emulate the feeling of a younger me playing old NES and SNES videogames in my Saturday morning pajamas, eyes glued in front of my parents' television.
What’s more though, is that this isn’t accidental. It was purely intentional on the developers’ part to take this approach. For some, it worked. Others, it didn’t. I think it depends on what mood you find yourself is in. But the innocence of childhood and those classic tales is prevalent throughout Final Fantasy IX, no doubt exemplified by the character of Vivi Orunitia who’s eyes we see most of the story through as it begins and ends with him.
But my childhood isn’t just a mood or a feeling either, it’s also my enjoyment of classic games in the series and specific little details that build up. By 2002 I had played quite a bit of role playing games, yet found myself often going back to the classic ones and ignoring the current ones. Why? The same reason I just mentioned above: to try and recapture my childhood. So is it really a surprise that a game that goes out of its way to recapture those games to begin with would end up being one of my favorites?
I could list dozens of references to the past titles that Final Fantasy IX brings out. From names like Garland, Kain, Locke, Squall, to attacks like Flare Star and Climhazzard, to the return of classic songs like the moogles theme (the moogles as a whole, so prominent in FFIX, were dearly missed, not to mention “Mog”) or Rufus’s march from Final Fantasy VII and the classic enemies such as the Four Fiends, or the random reference to a “flower girl” who thinks the soldier she is talking to is “nice, but doesn’t have much of a personality.” The set classes, the classic designs, Zidane’s homages to Locke of Final Fantasy VI fame (more on that later). Even non-Final Fantasy games like Ogre Battle and the SaGa series have small acknowledgments. Many RPGs will give slight nods to others, but not to this extent. I could make an entire thread based on the past game references alone. FFIX was able to make a game within the game by bringing out so many references to its own heritage with the series and the genre itself that I was a part of by playing those titles years prior.
Nostalgia is a funny thing, though. While I might find solace, warmth and enjoyment in some things, others may not. What was a part of my childhood is mine and mine alone. We all might share some things, like toys and games, books and movies, but even our take on them will be different.
But even without my ‘nostalgia glasses’ I can appreciate what Final Fantasy IX was able to bring to the table. It’s a celebration of much within a humble little game that, as Hironobu Sakguchi, the creator, stated is an encompass of everything Final Fantasy and that he wanted to recreate the “feel of a Final Fantasy world once more.” He even specifically states “We want people to play games like in those days” when you would simply just play and not have to constantly be referencing walkthroughs and strategy guides. Just play and have fun.
When Final Fantasy IX was being developed, Sakaguchi, and director Hiroyuki Ito (or Itou as sometimes spelled) went out of their way to make the game always reference the past. Internally and externally of the story itself. Sakaguchi, knowing this would be his last game to oversee, had no concerns about the future of Final Fantasy. It was in others’ hands, not his own, so it’s no wonder that he was far more hands-on for FFIX and no surprise he considers it his favorite in the series.
Sakaguchi envisioned a refection to the past, not a lens into the future. One reason being that it really hadn’t been done to such an extent before and on so many levels. Many of the themes prominent in past games return, the design bears more similarities of Final Fantasy IV – VI than the realistic interpretations of VII and VIII. It’s more exaggerated, more fantasy, and more of what he’s always wanted Final Fantasy to be. It’s the only time we can see what his vision is outside of the sprite world. Itou, too, brought a classic approach. A lover of Norse mythology and European History, he felt those themes needed to return to the series as central thematic elements.
Nobuo Uemetsu also changed his approach. Composing nearly 160 tracks for the game, about 140 used, Uemetsu went all-out in sound styles, instruments and melodies. He noted how, unlike with Final Fantasy VII and VIII, he had the opportunity again to have fun with the soundtrack and not be so focused on attempting “realism.” He attempted a “simple and warm” style, as he puts it, much like the game itself and utilized lots of simple strings, flutes and pianos - far removed from the industrial sounds of VII or the overly orchestral work of VIII.
As some may know, Final Fantasy IX was a risk. Square felt that it could alienate the audience established with parts VII and VIII. With this rumor, the PS2 already out and the fact that nobody really knew what to expect with Sakaguchi’s final game, it was far from a safe bet for the company.
For me, though, it all worked out in the end.
Every story has been told before. It all stems back to the Old and New Testaments, legends of Sumaria, Greece and Norse myths and other cultures dating back to the original written words. Heroes were made, killed, villains emerged, wars ravaged the lands, Empires rose and fell and tales of legend were born. Every story can be traced back to these legends. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the same tale Ovid wrote in the 3rd century, Lord of the Rings is based in classic Fairy Tales and Germanic/Norse myths such as Beowulf, even Star Wars is based on tales of Samurai and Cowboys told by other filmmakers such as John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, who in turn took their tales from the classic mold of heroes and myths as well.
Many try to hide their influence, merely taking all these ideas and mold them into their own. All these embrace this notion, rarely directly referencing what inspired them, only occasionally ‘giving a nod’ to the influences of the past while still creating their own. Herein lies the heart of Final Fantasy IX. While directly acknowledging the past would be shunned by most, Final Fantasy IX is a celebration of it. It’s like a birthday cake made for a little boy that just turned nine.
Final Fantasy IX, though, is not merely a look back to the series, but is also a look back to classic role playing games as a whole. It arguably marks the last of the classic approach to RPGs and videogames in general. It didn’t influence anything afterwards, that wasn’t the intention. Nor did it progress the genre, that wasn’t the intention either. If anything, FFIX was a farewell because no other game will set out to cite the past as it does. And, correctly assuming, the creators were right as the past ideas and designs went out with it.
Despite it being rooted in the past, it doesn’t discredit what it does offer which, to me, is one of the most polished RPGs you could ask to play. The scenario writing, interweaving stories, scene directing and character dialogue are some of the best the series can showcase and really the best available on the Playstation. It’s easy to see that some ‘old hands’ are at work (for better or for worse if we’re throwing the battle system into the discussion) but veterans are easy to spot and their product even moreso. Storytelling in RPGs rarely go the route Final Fantasy IX does in that, like everything else I’ve mentioned before, it tried to emulate that of the past. Stay focused. Stay on track. Stop with the constant deviations and sideways plot and attempting to throw twist after twist, action scene after action scene.
I would argue that the storytelling found in Final Fantasy IX easily matches that of Final Fantasy VI. It’s clear, concise, to the point with a subversive meaning to it all. It doesn’t sacrifice its themes and depth for “simplicity” that so many assume happens, as though both factions are mutually exclusive. The scenes aren’t thrown or tossed together, there’s little debate on plot points as a result of muddled scene direction and inconsistent and contradictory story points. While I’ll touch more on the story itself a little later, I have no second-guesses when I say the presentation of Final Fantasy IX is the best of Playstation-era role playing. I wish today’s developers put as much care into their product rather than going for wow-factors and cool characters.
Knowing that there really is little originality in anything these days, as it all has been done before, I go into Final Fantasy IX with no expectations that it’s going to amaze me, or wow me, or offer something new I hadn’t seen before. But, as any sane person will tell you, it’s not so much the end that is important as much as it is the means, the journey far more meaningful than the final destination - sometimes looking back is looking forward… and sometimes not being creative, is the most creative thing imaginable…