I’ve been meaning to do this series for a while.
Despite countless playthroughs and fervent (if often disappointed) perusals of related media, my love for this title hasn’t calmed down whatsoever. The headrush of blissful memories and artistic admiration actually makes it hard to focus on anything else for a time. Heck, the trailer for the PC re-release alone was enough to bring me to tears. This game carved its way into my soul all the way back at the age of ten, when I was falling in love with RPGs in the characteristic wild abandon freefall that children often do when learning a new form of adoration. Where Final Fantasy VII first opened my eyes to the complexity of videogames and Final Fantasy VIII began to whet my appetite, Final Fantasy IX filled gaps I didn’t even know existed and proceeded to guide both my artistic hand and emotional perspective from then onwards to this present day.
We all have one of those games, the titles that mean so much to us mere words seem paltry and even insulting in their scope.
I had to visit an old game shop three times to get my hands on another copy. It’s located in the middle of nowhere in my bumfuck city-town, specifically designed for a niche market founded in nostalgia and lots of spare change. I don’t have a car, so these trips took a combination of bus transport and cautious trudging through stray dog-infested neighborhoods to find — and that’s if I was lucky enough to see a copy available when I got there! Even better is when I actually found my old copy from childhood tucked away in a forgotten moving box in my closet weeks later. Thanks to the recent and very overdue PC port, the average gamer won’t have to go through Hell and a half to play this title…though I won’t pretend for a second it wouldn’t be worth it. This three part series is going to explore the ins and outs of this underappreciated classic, from its visual and musical direction to its gameplay and character themes. Spoilers will be marked.
A little refresher. Final Fantasy IX came out all the way back in 2000, marking the last Final Fantasy game we’d see on the Playstation. The story goes something like this — the princess of Alexandria, Garnet, is planning a secret escape to solve the mystery of her mother’s increasingly cruel and unpredictable behavior. On the eve of her departure she meets Zidane, a dashing thief part of a bandit group that has planned on rescuing her and taking her to her uncle all along. Meanwhile, multiple interlacing plots, both political and nightmarish, are brewing beneath the surface.
This game was explicitly created as a throwback to early Final Fantasy titles, eschewing the urban, sci-fantasy design of VII and VIII in favor of the cobblestone roads, organic environments and whimsical fashion that began the legendary series. There are more than a few visual shout-outs to its origins, such as Garnet’s white-mage disguise robe in the beginning of the game or Vivi’s…well, entire character design. It didn’t sit well with everybody, though, as a common complaint from gamers then and now were the stylized designs and the (uh, relatively) new direction. I found it charming then and I’m still hopelessly in love with it today. C’mon, everyone buys the hell out of those exaggerated Funko figurines. Surely this can make a retrograde comeback?
Now that we’ve got the history lesson out of the way, let’s begin on where exactly this title holds up. The myriad of environments and cultures that fill up this world do the complex work of being quirky, interesting and leaving a lot to the imagination. Visual design is the very essence of ‘show, don’t tell’, after all, and even today the environment art holds up with some of the very best. Every inch of the world you explore is choking with detail, somehow managing to make your eyes roam curiously without falling into the trap of being too cluttered. Final Fantasy IX draws inspiration from a variety of sources, taking notes from Polish Gothic architecture with one location only to dip into Persian tilework with another.
Tired of generic floating islands and boring castles in your RPGs? Wait until you see Burmecia, a beautiful stone city under rain so perpetual raincoats have become mainstream fashion for the rat-folk who live there. Prefer the familiar? Lindblum has you covered with charming steampunk cities and airships. Not surreal enough? The fourth disc will have you exploring glass mansions with living shadows and dreamscapes filled with floating clocks and shipwrecked boats. No matter your aesthetic, this game has imagination and identity to spare.
Let’s continue exploring worldbuilding with the resident Burmecians and Cleyrans. I mean, think about the last time you saw rat-folk in any fantasy setting that weren’t evil NPCs or background decoration. Final Fantasy IX‘s anthropomorphic rats are wonderfully designed and even more wonderfully nuanced — they don’t occupy a singular stereotype with Noted Exception™, which only gets better when you realize the majority of Final Fantasy IX‘s playable cast aren’t human. From Burmecia’s legendary dragoons to Cleyra’s beautiful river dancers, they’re absolutely darling fantasy cultures. Freya also has one of the coolest character designs I’ve ever seen in my life. A rat-folk dragoon woman wearing a pastel raincoat adorned with heraldry? What more do you want?
Now for the other side of the coin…who are the hippo people in Alexandria, anyway? What about the colorful tapir women in Lindblum? Just who is that rich duck lady you exchange rare items with in Treno? While the curiosity is maddening at times, I’m also glad this game expands upon certain cultures while leaving the rest up to speculation. It’s simply more interesting that way. While a frequent problem of fantasy spaces are the constant mishandling of Fantasy Counterpart Cultures, Final Fantasy IX generally does a good job of avoiding a lot of those pitfalls. Real-world issues are touched upon with respect, such as (SPOILERS!) the Summoners’ recent genocide at the hands of the core villain and the Burmecians and Cleyrans following suit in multiple harrowing set pieces — I remember being touched by multiple scenes where, in Burmecia’s ruins or Cleyra’s, you have the option to save a family from a falling pillar or guide priests away from danger. The former even visits you later in Lindblum, adding (for lack of a better word) a very human touch to the game.(END SPOILERS!)
The existential experiences of the short-lived and human-crafted black mages, the parallels drawn between (SPOILERS!) one of the main characters and the Genomes discovered later in the game…there’s a lot to see here and even more to think about.(END SPOILERS!) Art direction isn’t merely making something as stylish as possible — it’s about using that design as supplementation for the underlying meaning and themes that carry the story. While Rule Of Cool can definitely apply, you can only go so far on glitz and glam before the weight of a lack of weight starts to…well, weigh on you.
Freya isn’t the only neat looking cast member, either. Yoshitaka Amano shines here with his eclectic and fantastic character designs, breathing life into what had, at least for me, been a conga line of poor visual choices and far too many belts (Kingdom Hearts would later disappoint me). We have all the bases covered here — Vivi’s loving visual nod to ages past, Garnet’s somehow old-fashioned and retro bodysuit, Zidane’s lean toward the practical while remaining artistic.
Heck, the utterly bizarre ensemble Eiko sports fits perfectly into the whimsical mish-mash of the world — I mean, one of the last summoners of an isolated civilization? She’s going to look a bit out of place. Even bombarded with what can seem like an overflow of details and color, character personality still gets across just fine at a glance. I can tell Steiner’s a hardass with his distinctively less colorful armor. I can tell Quina’s obsessed with cuisine. Amarant clearly looks the part of the hardened, traveled warrior. It just works.
The soundtrack is too good. It’s hard for me to bring to mind a single piece that passed me by in mediocrity, as every single musical snippet from beginning to end is characteristic and memorable. Nobuo Uematsu makes the limited MIDI range dance — folkish piano carries you through the lively nighttime city of Treno and the theme song of the Tantalus gang is a ragtime showtune that gets stuck in your head whether you want it to or not. I remember feeling my blood pressure rise in delight during the opening mock-fight cinematic of the game, with ‘Taste My Blade’ lifting the already charming and curious mood into something sweeping. While one of the climactic scenes near the end already bore plenty of weight through character drama and circumstance, the track ‘You’re Not Alone!’ still gets my heart pounding — it’s also what the Square Enix orchestra chose to recreate during their tour and something you should check out if you’re fond of goosebumps.
You know that song that makes you cry every time you hear it, regardless of how you feel in the moment? That’s the theme song of the game, ‘Melodies Of Life’, for me (and Nobuo Uemetsu’s personal favorite!). Each character has their unique musical motif, as well, which always made their particular scenes feel even more personal and sincere. Something that I found curious upon another playthrough as an adult was how the soundtrack’s style would change almost at random — while it generally has an organic and classic feel throughout the game, certain tracks would exchange the punchy piano and soft strings in favor of synth-rock. ‘Kuja’s Theme’, for example, is characterized by a moody and foreboding piano with heavy backbeats, where his Trance Theme starts out with an organ that descends into rollicking electronica. While I didn’t catch it as a kid, this subtle change from the familiar to the ‘unnatural’ works very well.
It’s not proper to discuss a Final Fantasy game without at least mentioning the FMVs –‘full-time videos’ for those unaware (and likely born in 2K). These felt like such an incredible deal as a kid, back when realistic 3D graphics were a mere and often clumsily handled suggestion in mainstream videogames and film. While this title shows its age in some scenes (Zidane, what’s wrong with your mouth), it still enchants the mind in others. The lighting and color remains spectacular, with some impressive particle physics in the appropriately explode-y set pieces. The direction is tight and tense, as it understandably has to be to curry a favorable balance between temporary movie and seamless game narrative. …Did I mention this game got a Coke commercial? It did! Something I still find a little interesting was how willing this game was to dedicate entire FMVs to comedy or lighthearted mundanities — something you would see barely a sneeze of in future titles.
FMV’s were interesting in their distinct lack of voice-acting or subtitles. To my fellow old-ish Final Fantasy fans: do you remember how fascinating it was when X brought that in for the first time? Instead earlier titles had to rely on careful direction and a stellar soundtrack to get across what wasn’t spoken, which isn’t a stretch at all when you consider decades of silent cinema and cartoons. I remember how delighted I was with the rare not-quite-exception of Garnet singing a lilting melody to birds on the balcony of Lindblum. This game mastered the art of the enchanting moment, never feeling hamfisted and only occasionally corny in the best of ways.
I suppose this is where I have to start bringing up flaws. Setting aside my rose-tinted glasses (though they might as well be rose-tinted cataracts at this point), I might be able to glean a visual or audio hiccup here and there. As emphasized in my previous brief, throwback review of the game, Final Fantasy IX still relies on tired visual shorthands for villainy or comedy (fatphobia, fatphobia everywhere) as well as a disappointing lack of brown skin due to a whitewashed vision of medieval Europe as we know it. Kuja, the primary antagonist of the game, follows closely in line with the ‘villainous effeminate androgyny’ that has become an almost running gag in the Final Fantasy series at large. Thankfully, the company seems to be steering clear of this with recent titles.
While a more minor issue that doesn’t hamper the game overmuch, I was a little disappointed with some of the summon designs. Although Bahamut is appropriately spooky, series regulars like Shiva, Carbuncle and Ifrit left me pretty underwhelmed. Considering how vital eidolons are to the plot and how strong the art direction is as a whole, their plain and forgettable designs are a surprising hitch in an otherwise memorable package. At least their battle animations didn’t take six and a half years to finish (you hear that, VIII?).
My second disc also froze sometimes. That sucked.
This game should be put in a damn art museum. So many titles, videogame or otherwise, could stand to attempt the delicate balance of charm and emotion that Final Fantasy IX reveled in. Even a glance at old reviews of the title showed a lot of appreciative perspectives on the more maturely handled angst, one of the more contentious traits of the Final Fantasy series at large — brooding is kept to a minimum, personal themes are consistent and tragedy is nicely balanced with humor and wit. Best of all? It comes across perfectly in the artistry. Bold and brilliant environments to somber and unearthly melodies, the game is damn beautiful and damn clever about it from start to finish. For those looking to stock up their Steam store with some quality, well…you can be rest assured your artistic sensibilities will want for nothing.
What are your favorite aspects of Final Fantasy IX‘s art direction? What don’t you like? Join me for part two where I analyze Final Fantasy IX‘s gameplay mechanics and how they hold up to the series as a whole!