For my part in this wonderful exploration of the Final Fantasy series, Final Fantasy: A Crystal Compendium, I’m taking a look at the first Final Fantasy game to hit us at the turn of the millennium – Final Fantasy IX. Before I proceed though, I want to say a huge thank you to the excellent (and patient) organizers of this event – OverThinker Y & The Well-Red Mage for making this possible, and also to everyone else who is taking part, I really do feel honoured to be involved.
Having been given a broad brush with which to write, I found it difficult to narrow down what I actually wanted to say about this game. Should it be a review? Perhaps a study of history, geography and politics? Maybe a discussion piece on the acceptability of having a crush on a character that has a tail? But no, in the end it all boils down to this: Final Fantasy IX was my introduction to the series. In fact, it was the first JRPG I ever played. When I look back now, this was a game-changer, and ultimately, may be the root reason for me starting this blog. This game created a way in – paths through the mist if you will, to the whole genre, introducing me to themes and ideas that have permeated my life. Please be aware that this article contains *spoilers!*
OK, so going waaaaayy back to those hazy days of 2009ish, my partner, who had previously got half-way through the game and got stuck, decided we should play it. I’d already been torn away from my PC-only background and been introduced to Zelda and Metal Gear Solid, so now it was time for me to play Final Fantasy. I rolled my eyes, pouted and then, when bribed with chocolate (or possibly beer), reluctantly agreed. Why was I against it in the first place you may ask? Well, simply put, I believed Final Fantasy was a waste of my time. I think it’s the title. I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan and believed that anything with the word ‘Fantasy’ in the title was going to be either girls with brightly coloured hair but no clothes, or heroes I didn’t care about prancing around with dragons (or worse, horses). Now this bias against the fantasy genre was my first mistake. Even putting my unwarranted dislike of the genre aside, it isn’t as if the Final Fantasy series is restricted to the Fantasy genre. It encompasses many genres and styles – sci-fi, war, comedy, romance, yadayada, and Final Fantasy IX proves that point excellently with its eclectic mix of philosophy, comedy, romance, adventure and (really inexplicably at the end) sci-fi.
But what then, with its difficult to define genre and misleading title, defined this game for me? I imagine to most reading this, the idea of what a JRPG is is well-defined, but looking back to this time, having never played one before, some of the defining things I took from it were new to me. The idea of a fully formed imaginary world ready to be explored and enjoyed, the cast of characters who inhabit that world, the mechanics which encourage and frustrate your exploration of it, and the curiosity of being able to manage a party, each of whom has their own strengths and weaknesses.
The planet on which most of the game is set – Gaia – is a huge strength of the game. Well envisaged worlds are something you can lose yourself in, even become a part of. Before Final Fantasy I’d lost myself in all kinds of things, but the experience of being able to explore (pretty much) freely, have pointless conversations with passers-by and experience the wonders of an imagined civilization, Chocobos and all, really was an incredible experience, even if it is something we, as gamers, may take for granted.
What struck me first was how much like a real world it was. Starting in Alexandria, you explore so many different places, each with their own identity. From the small town feel of Dali, to the big city vibe of Lindblum with its Theatre District, bars, shopping and air-cab, the locations in the game feel like they actually exist. A real favourite of mine was Treno, one of several large towns on the Mist Continent. I found it a beautiful location, not only the grand buildings of the nobility, but the slums also have a certain beauty, as they seem especially real. Treno is also home to the card stadium, used by Zidane in the Tetra Master tournament. I’ve seen it argued on the internet that Tetra Master is a terrible mini game, but I got really into it, and somehow, this had a real sporting event vibe.
As you travel around Gaia, you sometimes find your progress blocked, particularly as the roots of the Lifa Tree spread, but as new things appear to block your path, so your means of transportation grow too. Chocobos, boats and airships are all utilised in Final Fantasy IX, as well as a few more novel methods, like Gargants. Now I don’t know about you, but the exploration mechanics in JRPGs are something that have interested me since playing IX, and now, every time I get about 10 hours into a new JRPG, I find myself looking around furtively wondering when I’m going to get an airship! In IX though, airships and the fuel that allows them to function are actually very closely aligned to other aspects of the story. The gorgeous theatre ship, the M.S. Prima Vista, is still in my mind the finest airship out there!
Of course, this world is more than just a collection of places to travel to, the characters within it are what really bring the game to life. I might have made the mistake of assuming that the characters would not be engaging. That they would be two-dimensional. From my personal point of view, the art style of IX was a bit off-putting. It was too cartoonish, and tended too much towards animal people for my taste. However, the uniqueness of the characters – a black mage, a rat-person, and, erm, Quina (?!), left an indelible impression on my mind.
Protagonist Zidane is roguish, charming and funny, but the story which unfolds reveals so much more – he struggles to express his feelings, he loses his identity and then his hope and his belief in his friends. Similarly Vivi, a sweet, bumbling black-mage, who begins the game wondering cluelessly around Alexandria, with no concept of his own identity and little understanding of what it is to be alive, has to suffer through the unfolding horror of the truth of the black mages, starting with the disturbing scenes in Dali where the mages are mass-produced. Although he feels initially incapable of taking matters into his own hands, he eventually builds his confidence and bravery.
Not all the characters are easy to get along with. Steiner and Amarant both, in their own way, like to make life difficult for the others, but the concepts of friendship, dedication & self-belief run all the way to the core of the game, even if it takes some longer than others to develop a sense of trust. Even in the inexplicable Quina do we see these things, even if his/her/their motives are sometimes dubious – I particularly enjoyed the wedding scene between Quina and Vivi in Conde Petie for example.
For me, the characters, and the interactions between the characters are probably the most important things in a JRPG, and this is established in a number of ways. The design of the character is important – you want them to look appropriate for the role they are playing, and their speech is important too. Things like accents help to create a full character, and what I find particularly interesting about IX, and the games before it, is that all this was achieved in text form. In fact, I was very much against the idea of Final Fantasy games having voice actors, and I still haven’t played X for fears that the performances fall short of what I expect. Localisation is clearly a ridiculously difficult job, and I’m not going to pretend I understand how you go about it, but I really like some of the stuff that made it into IX. One localisation quirk that I really like is the way that the inhabitants of Conde Petie all seem to have Scottish accents!
The characters also give rise to a different element of the game, which I had never experienced before – the idea of controlling a party. Certainly for the majority of the game you control Zidane, but there are times when you control others outside of battle, and in battle you choose a party of 4. In essence Zidane is not you, nor is he the lone hero of the game, but rather he is just one of many characters you inhabit and whose stories you are experiencing. The party mechanics relating to the Active Time Battle system, levelling-up, synthesis, trance (I could go on) showed me a depth of thought, skill and strategy required to play the game that I hadn’t expected. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of all your party members is essential to really understanding the game’s battle mechanics.
Speaking of mechanics, there’s also status effects, items, HP, MP, arrrrrrgh! At the start I had no idea what many of these things were, but somehow, words like ‘potion’, ‘poison’, ‘slow’ & ‘silence’ all have entirely new meanings for me now, it was a bit like learning a new language!
Just to finish off, I said at the start of the article that this was my first experience of a JRPG. The characters, the world, the game-play mechanics shown to me here made me into a JRPG fan for life. So what happened next? Well, I went on to play VII and VIII. Then the whole of the XIII trilogy. Oh, and XII. I got a Final Fantasy inspired tattoo and bought every Black Mages album ever made and went to Distant Worlds. I got into other JRPG series, bought action figures and delved briefly and inadvisably into cosplay. I’m not pretending to be the world’s most knowledgeable Final Fantasy or JRPG fan, I’m never going to remember the names of all the weapons or enemies, but the truth is I don’t need to. Final Fantasy has made me laugh, cry and sit in stunned, devastated silence. It has started conversations and put me back in touch with old friends. It taught me to be more open-minded. These worlds inside worlds are places I don’t want to leave behind, and my journey started here, with Final Fantasy IX.
I really do want to be your canary.