Final Fantasy IX (2000)

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“You mustn’t allow yourself to be chained to fate, to be ruled by your genes. Human beings can choose the kind of life that they want to live. What’s important is that you choose life… and then live”
-Naomi Hunter, Metal Gear Solid

 

 

Final Fantasy IX is the ninth installment in the acclaimed series and has a prestigious position in the history of this franchise. It was the last Final Fantasy of the PS1. It was the last of the “single-digit” Final Fantasy games. In a sense it closed out that era for the franchise, like the curtain fall whence the actors take their bows.

As such, FFIX acts as a bookend for everything that came before it and it specifically paid homage to the earliest Final Fantasy games. For this reason, I recommend it foremost to those who have never played a Final Fantasy game ever. Play IX, then VI, then VII. Take it from a Red Mage.

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“This title (currently in development) is based on a reflection of all the previous works in the series. The coming installment [Final Fantasy IX] is my “favorite”, it’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.”
-Hironobu Sakaguchi, original creator of Final Fantasy

IX honored the original games in several different ways. After the sci-fi settings of VII and VIII, the two games which preceded it, IX spearheaded a return to the high fantasy series’ roots. Abandoning the dystopian jungle of sprawling Midgar and the gilded, mechanical wonders of Balaam Garden, IX’s world seems steampunkish, Victorian, antique, medieval, populated with rich pseudo-European cultures and castles and the series’ traditional wooden airships. Nothing wrong with science fiction but this is Final Fantasy. Just sayin’.

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IX also leaves behind the trendy, moody protagonists, Cloud and Squall, to adopt Zidane, a far more lighthearted and jocular trickster-archetype, albeit with a mysterious past. In FFIX there is humor, charm and genuine warmth, if even optimism. Not that none of those things were present in VII and VIII, but we never see Zidane brooding over himself or preoccupied with introverted thoughts so much as we see him constantly sticking his foot in his mouth or causing an impulsive ruckus.

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He’s the proverbial life of the party. Lecherous but harmless. The same goes for the wacky cast of diverse characters, which are certainly more wild and varied than those of VIII. Steiner in particular (my favorite character) is funny as the game’s straight man.

These characters feel like they have real personalities and obsessions and desires. We can almost anticipate what we expect them to say but they can sometimes still surprise us. I’ve played a lot of JRPGs and this cast is one of the best:

Even the character design of IX moved away from the more realistic approaches in VII and VII with its super-deformed cartoon characters and eccentric personalities. It isn’t hard to image that this is what the 8-bit and later 16-bit sprites would actually look like if translated straight into PlayStation graphics. And IX’s world is populated by more than humans, with anthropomorphic animals and mystical creatures everywhere.

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Moogles… moogles everywhere…

Lastly, the traditions of the earliest games are remembered in IX with its return to the class “Job” system. In VII and VIII, characters were generally blank slates in gameplay terms. They could all learn the most of the same abilities and skills and magic. This direction in RPGs can lead to homogeneous characters. Though this didn’t take away from any of the enjoyment of VII and VIII, the return to Jobs where every playable character has a set of unique skills and abilities is a welcome variation. There’s Zidane, a thief, then a black mage, a white mage, a knight, a summoner, a dragoon, a . They even tucked a blue mage in there, though of course games had developed enough by this point that their personalities take precedent over their class definitions.

White Mage 8-bit rightI personally find IX‘s deliberate aesthetic a refreshing vision after the increasing trend of blackmageseriousness and realism from the previous two games. It’s a final farewell to everything that came before it. It reminds us what made the Final Fantasy series great in the first place and why it’s here, one of the most influential RPG franchises there are. The series has of course moved on and continued to evolve, as well it should, but Final Fantasy IX is always there to remind us of where we’ve come.

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Final Fantasy IX opens by introducing us to Zidane and a group of thieves called Tantalus on a mission to kidnap Princess Garnet of the Kingdom of Alexandria under the guise of a theatre troupe. IX often juggles between the perspectives of multiple characters, so next players and put into the shoes of a little black mage named Vivi in Alexandria, on his way to watch the show. The game uses Active Time Events (ATE) to allow the player to switch between multiple characters, providing extra scenes and development.

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The kidnapping doesn’t go quite as planned when the Princess’ guardian knight Steiner gets involved, uncovering the plot of Tantalus. But as it turns out (spoilers: highlight to reveal) Princess Garnet actually wants to be kidnapped, believing that her mother the Queen has been acting strangely. Only her uncle Cid, Regent of neighboring nation of Lindblum can provide refuge and perhaps an explanation.

What ensues is a massive, complex and thematic narrative involving lust for power, multiple puppets and puppet-masters, and an escalating war between nations. Zidane and his party will eventually uncover the meddling of forces more powerful than the Queen instigating the conflict for their own ends, as well as the existence of a parallel world and the nature of the threatening Mist. It’s… complex, like I said. Final Fantasy IX spanned four discs. It is quite a long tale and I’ve played through it multiple times but it’s still easy for me to get lost in the storyline.

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This may just be because of the sheer size and scope of the story, but I’d blame it mostly on the wealth of sidequests in the game. Final Fantasy has been known for some time for its sidequests and IX isn’t going to be the exception. Yeah, you’ve got the odd minigame (jump rope, auction house, foot racing, etc.), your typical fetch quests and hunting for rare equipment, secret boss battles harder than the final boss and missable items, but there are also two sophisticated sidequests the game introduces: Chocobo Hot and Cold, and the Tetra Master card game.

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Chocobo Hot and Cold is just what it sounds like, a game played like “You’re getting warmer! You’re getting hot!” It’s a buried treasure hunting game played on the back of the series’ avian mascot, the Chocobo. In various areas scattered across the world map, you can dig up treasures and chocographs that lead to more treasures found abroad. By finding items, your Chocobo levels up and becomes faster at digging with its beak and locating treasure. Certain rare items can only be found by completing the rather lengthy Chocobo sidequest.

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The best thing about it is it returns to the system of colored Chocobos with different topography-traversing abilities. Blue and red Chocobos will be able to cross into previously unexplored areas, while the final Gold Chocobo takes flight.

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And then there’s Tetra Master, a variation on VIII’s Triple Triad… Oh, man. The Final Fantasy series never had a sidequest as complex as Tetra Master up to this point (though FFX’s Blitzball may be slightly more so). Tetra Master is a card game with some difficult rules, and a lot of hidden rules as well, with a convoluted set of its own mechanics.

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You can collect cards representing characters and monsters, some of them dating back to ancient Final Fantasy-dom, and use these cards in “battle” by playing the game with random NPCs scattered throughout the world. It’s actually a really awesome idea that you can just walk up to someone in a town you’ve recently entered for the first time and strike up a game with them.

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The game itself is far too intricate to fully explain here but if you really need to, I’m sure you can find a helpful FAQ dedicated solely to that purpose. There are 100 cards in total and you can carry 100 cards at a time, making it pretty difficult to get all 100 since you forfeit a card if you lose a match meaning the more different cards you get the less duplicates you can have of them. I don’t think I ever got all 100. I think I meant to but I always beat the boss and completed the other sidequests and was like “I’ll get back to Tetra Master someday… Oh, look! A PS2!”

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Final Fantasy IX is one of the highest rated of any of these games. For good reason. It was determined to be a modern classic, a nostalgic throwback to everything that built the series and made it what it is, introducing the earliest and most inaccessible games to new fans of Final Fantasy. And for that, it’s a valuable piece of gaming history. I’m not wearing rose-colored glasses. Attention to “retro” sensibilities formed a large part of what made FFIX a critical success.

So I say again: Play Final Fantasy IX if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy title before. It’s now available on the PlayStation Network as a PSOne classic. Which indeed it is.

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The 8-Bit Review
visual Visuals: 10/10
There are only a handful of moments from my younger years that I can still recall concerning my first reaction to a video game. I remember my jaw falling open when that opening title sequence played for me for the first time. Chills. This game was and still is gorgeous, especially its detailed pre-rendered background art, lively cutscenes and characters.

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We mustn’t forget that this is a PS1 title and as such its original graphics today look blurry, jagged and aged. Characters look especially pixelated and warped further away from the screen, especially in comparison to the rich backgrounds. That’s as it should be as technology advances. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t breathtaking when IX was first released.

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audio Audio: 10/10
What gave that title sequence its impact was most likely the sheer beauty of its musical accompaniment. A soft, non-intrusive melody on the flute opens a game that knows what it’s doing and will take its time doing it.

Given the return to the high fantasy setting, the majority of the soundtrack is prototypical. A lot of it sounds like theatre music, and I mean the stage. There’s a sense of the performance of its songs, as if they are there for more than just background noise. Various themes run through the music, such as the central “Melodies of Life” motif, but these are played out to gentle, almost ballad-like, high middle ages sounds.

Vivi and Steiner’s themes above are perfect examples of the whimsy and personality of this soundtrack. Steiner’s captures the imagery of a bumbling, self-important idiot. Almost everywhere there’s this added flavor of European musical tradition. The inclusion of harpsichords and pizzicato strings, for example, seem to date certain tracks with a baroque feel Bach would be proud of. Heck, Nobuo Uematsu, the masterful composer of the majority of the Final Fantasy franchise, is probably just Bach back from the dead.

I don’t know how the man could craft so many soundtracks for so many games with such a broad range of emotions, styles, influences, and instruments.

The native Hawaiian in me adores the ukulele rendition of the classic Chocobo theme below.


gameplay Gameplay:
10/10
One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the battle system. Active Time Battle first introduced in FFIV makes its return here, ensuring fights remain tense. Final Fantasy IX sticks to its genesis with turn-based combat and the Job system as we’ve already mentioned.

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Each character having a Job ensures that strategy must be employed in choosing characters for your party based on their interactive abilities with each other, or being tactical about certain delicate situations when the story forces you to use a specific set of characters only.

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There is also the newly introduced “Trance” state. This is similar to the Limit Break bar of FFVII, which fills up over time. When the orange bar gauge is full, your character will enter their “Trance” state. In “Trance” their strength is dramatically increased and they’ll have access to new skills and magic. It’s a neat addition in theory, but it cannot be saved up which means a character’s bar might fill at the end of a regular battle and their “Trance” state is wasted. It’s cool, but it’s not a game-changing addition.

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A streamlined ability-learning system was implemented in FFIX. Leaving behind overly-customizable characters from the previous games, characters can only learn abilities particular to their class. Zidane can never learn black magic, Garnet can never use sword skills, and so on.

Specific abilities are learned by equipping armor or weapons that grant access to those abilities, providing they can be learned by a character’s class. As long as the character wears that particular armor or uses that particular weapon, they are allowed to use the abilities attached to it. Once the character gains enough ability points through battling with that set of equipment, they can take it off and keep using the ability anyway. The system made it so rare weapons are even more valuable as they typically allow access to rare abilities.

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Characters can only “equip” a set amount of abilities they have access to based on their total ability points, indicated by the uppermost blue gem icon.

story Narrative: 9/10
Expect a very long plot with a lot of character development and world building. This world is a rich tapestry of interacting cultures and characters. Thematically the game touches on some profound ideas like free will, memory, and the meaning of life and mortality. There’s an underlying scheme of choosing to live life, seen through Zidane and Kuja, the antagonist, who both turn out to be (spoilers: highlight to reveal) soulless creations given personalities. Kuja becomes nihilistic when confronted with the fact of his mortality. Zidane seems to confront life, and even death, with “an eat drink and be merry” attitude, though that wanes as he matures through the story.

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A third character, Vivi the black mage, is also confronted suddenly with the harsh reality of the nature of his existence and reason for being, and mortality. His reaction is one of the most striking moments of this game’s narrative. It’s something I always remember about FFIX. There is little actual “quiet” in video games. They’re often so bombastic and loud and action-oriented, but there’s a scene in the village of black mages where Vivi and others discuss the nature of death, revealing their innocent ignorance of it, and it’s a scene for me that moves beyond the typical clichés of dealing with subjects of life and death in mainstream entertainment. It’s handled well and with care. It’s not cheap and frivolous.

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The antagonist (one of them) Kuja is one of the weakest villains in the entire franchise, in my opinion. After Kefka and Sephiroth, he doesn’t have much going for him. I think the ending of FFIX suffers because of him. There are things that seem to just come out of nowhere. I feel like we all know that the conclusions of good stories should come about as a logical result of everything that happens during the story, and there are moments toward the end of IX where I didn’t sense that. It’s the one thing that keeps this epic from perfection.

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Thankfully, there are other strong characters, like Vivi, who carry the story to its conclusion.

accessibility Accessibility: 9/10
Given that pretty much everything about the battle system is found in one form or another in previous Final Fantasy entries, I’d say this game is quite accessible. Even if you’ve never played a Final Fantasy (for shame…), this isn’t such an ambitious project that it left behind all semblances of traditional RPGing. In fact, it must be its own focus on the traditions of the past that affirm a natural accessibility here. No surprises. Just great presentation. The battle and ability systems aren’t difficult to learn… unlike Tetra Master. If anything, it’s the game’s sheer breadth that makes it a game some will pass on entirely.

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diff Challenge: 8/10
If you intend to complete this game 100% then you can jack up this Challenge score another two points. Finishing the main story is a feat of patience and dedication, considering how long this game is. Beside that, the sidequests may result in quite a lot of additional time being put in on top of that. This is really a sprawling significance we’re talking about in the world of Final Fantasy IX. Plus, there are some decently hard bosses scattered throughout the storyline as well as a handful of secret fights that will test your limits. Ozma, I’m looking at you…

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unique Uniqueness: 9/10
How could a game that made as an homage and a farewell be so unique? Simple. It’s the only Final Fantasy that is both of those things. And despite those facts, it will always stand on its own, instantly recognizable among the Final Fantasy titles.

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pgrade My Personal Grade: 9/10
I think I would’ve played through this game more were it shorter. As it stands I’ve beaten it all the way through twice. Never found all the cards, though. Finished the Chocobo treasure hunting, so there’s that. The first time I reached Memoria my game glitched and froze. Turned out I had bought a faulty fourth disc. I couldn’t get the game to run past that part. It wasn’t until years later that I finally was able to get a hold of a fourth disc and finish the game. I replayed it again via PSN.

It’s not my favorite Final Fantasy game but it is up there, for all of the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Like Sakaguchi said, and I have to agree with him, if there’s one game that has come closest to capturing the energy and spirit of this franchise it’s got to be FFIX, with warmth and humor and the will to not be too afraid to be childish. Before the series moved on too far, it was good to take a look back at where it’d come from.

If you haven’t played it, get on with it, man! The crystal calls!

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Aggregated Score: 9.3

 

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60 thoughts on “Final Fantasy IX (2000)

  1. God, I love this game. If you put a gun to my head, I may have to pick FF VI as my favorite by a molecule – but in reality these two are tied for me. I, like the world, was captivated by what VII did for JRPGs in the West, and I thought for all of it’s quirks, VIII was a tremendous sci-fi experiment that I respect SE a lot for undertaking. But IX was everything I wanted when it was announced as a callback to FF’s early days – and despite my giddy expectations, it managed to exceed them all.

    While I can completely understand your take on Kuja, and while I wouldn’t argue that he is anywhere near the best villain in the series, I do like him a bit more than your take does. I think his character development transitions him well from unexplained psychopath to sympathetic, but irredeemable villain. I do think that his physical character design detracts from his impact – it isn’t that pretty-boy villains cannot be effective (hi there, Sephiroth) but his complete androgyny leaves the player spending more time trying to determine what he is than why he does what he does. Overall, is he fantastic? No, but I do find him to be more well-done than, say, an evil, sentient tree. 🙂

    Fantastic choice, and as always, fantastic review! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • *gets gun*

      Haha! Thank you for your sizeable comment, sir! I wouldn’t expect any less from someone with an avatar such as yours. I think we can safely say that our choice of favorite FF’s is about the same.

      Like

  2. Good assessment of the FF9!
    I played it after 7 and 8 (and not being able to finish 8 because I didn’t understand the system back then xD;;; ) and I like it, as someone that started the FF’s in the PS1 era, I really liked how it went. Tho part of me always wished 7 had gotten the graphics 8 and 9 got, considering their 3D models were kinda rancid on the world map xD;;;
    Tho I don’t really understand people that complain about graphics, saying as someone that did start on PS1 but also 16-bit games, I’m always blown away by the graphics in the games. I still remember staring dumbfounded when I saw FF10 for the first time, and I still get all “wow!” when I see it. I don’t particularly think they’ve aged badly, aside 7’s world map models, they all look real great~
    I agree with you when you say you’d play it more if it wasn’t so long, plus I tend to get lost on world maps, and get bored when I have to traverse half a map in foot while fighting every 5 steps :”’D
    I’m not really into Zidane, never liked the superfluous type of characters, what really grabbed me was Vivi, Eiko and Garnet. They’re my faves, and I love them so much ;V;
    This is when I confess I’ve only played FF1 from the 1-6 games, and get stoned to death, but they’re long games and take lots of grinding so my motivation is low :’D I will…one day I will ;_;

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey thanks for reading and commenting! The PS1 FF trilogy (quad if you count FFT) was indeed great and I understand why it gave the series so many new fans. I never much cared for Zidane either. He doesn’t truly feel like a main character to me. Vivi and Steiner were my favorites, and I have a thing for Freya too.

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      • No prob, I always love reading about people’s experiences with series and games I love~!
        Man, never played any of the FFT games…sprg and trpg break my in half, they’re so hard, and take forever ;_;
        Definitely can see why they gained so many fans with them, plus when 10 came…boy do I remember how mindblown me and everyone around got when they saw those CG’s scenes. Just BEAUTIFUL!
        Steiner was an interesting character for sure~
        Now you’re making me want to replay the trilogy, but I haven’t touched them in 10+ years and that grinding must be vicious…@_@
        /shakes fist

        Liked by 1 person

  3. *spoilers for anyone who hasn’t finished it!*

    Final Fantasy IX is my second favorite Final Fantasy and video game of all time. I know it has shades of all the FFs before it, but (probably because it’s me) I saw so much similar symbolism to VII (whew say that three times fast!) in it with the two sides of the same coin hero/villain, the multilayered manipulation/dark behind the dark, souls being used for energy and aliens (lol that guy…) to name a paltry few.

    I loved that while it seems lighthearted and happy, it is super dark below the surface. Comparatively FFVII starts out dark, dystopian ,and apocalyptic and only gets worse, but it comes off more dramatic with FFIX because it seems to shiny and bright. The world of IX was also so lush due to that ATB. You were able to see so many points of view, and I love stories that go on without you? If you get my meaning. Like you know there are so many other things going on in IX outside of your characters’ story arcs due to being shown so many aspects of other lives.

    Ahh I have too much to say about IX. My brain is going to implode. Excellent review. I’ll get to my replay and review of it one day, but I’m still on IV. Well, I will get to VI prior won’t I. IX struck me hard because it was about people who wanted more than what their “fates” dictated, and that went for Kuja, too. I thought narratively he was an excellent villain/character, but do agree with your assessment that he doesn’t hold a candle to the menace of Kefka or Sephiroth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for reading! I can agree with Kuja fitting in with the narrative, especially the themes of the game and as the negative side of Zidane, and Vivi, as well. I just think he… I dunno, maybe his little man “pouch” was a little too much. It’s not that I’m not a fan of anime, but he felt too anime, get me? I like FFIX just fine and I couldn’t imagine another villain from the series taking his place. But ah, there it is. At least there are so many other lovable characters in my estimation!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I know what you’re talking about lol. When I first saw the game I thought there was another female villain a la FFVIII. He is VERY bishie like okay Sephiroth is super bishie, no one is denying this (it’s one of the reasons I’m in love with him #swoon), but with Sephiroth I never really had any question about what his pronouns were (not that that really matters, but I just wanted to make the observation). I think they were going for more of the charming, narcissistic villain type who then was forced to face his own truth. Him and Zidane were juxtaposed with that, and it was interesting that Zidane nearly became like Kuja (destruction wise) until his friends slapped some sense into him. It’s why I have this argument that if Sephiroth had had a decent support system and, ya know, THE TRUTH, his story wouldn’t have been nearly so tragic, but that’s how those work.

        Hm, I started talking about Kuja and ended up talking about Sephiroth. #fangirlproblems

        Anyway I definitely agree with your assessment that Kuja was a pretty weak villain. In terms of villain credits, the best IS Kefka (yep a Sephiroth fangirl is admitting that) since he actually managed to destroy the world. Now I think Seph is a much more developed character, but in terms of getting the job done, I can’t argue with the Kefka assessment.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent excellent excellent review of FFIX! Gotta expect a Red Mage to have good taste! It’s my favorite Final Fantasy and also one of my favorite games of all time. It’s so refreshing especially after the more scientific FFs as you said. But there’s even more that it brings back, the jobs, 4-character parties, and super-deformed characters. Like you said too, the cast is awesome, and I love how dynamic these characters are. They’re goofy characters going through emotional changes. I also like the fact that it feels modern but with a retro fantasy look. It sort of reminds me of Shovel Knight in that way, where they took what worked in modern Final Fantasies but made sure to honor where the series came from. FFIX is a beautiful game, both from gameplay and aesthetic perspectives. I’m glad you put some music in there too, though my favorite FF song of all time is You’re Not Alone, which still gives me so many emotions when I hear it. I love it so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. FFIX was a good game. I wish I could say great, but I ended up playing it fresh after having a child and I don’t think I was able to get into it as much as I wanted to. I really love the throwback to the fantasy roots and some of the designs in the game were incredible! Particularly the airships and the Black Waltz’s! I don’t think I had ever wished airships were a reality so much in my life! Overall I enjoyed the system, though the ‘skills from equipped weapons’ thing was kind of a turn off for me. Loved ATEs and the quick time events because they were like icing on the cake and added little bits to the story here and there that maybe weren’t super important, but fun to watch. Character design was excellent all the way around. Not my #1 Fantasy, but up there. I’ll have to replay it again here soon, maybe with a little more intent. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This was the last FF game I played. I enjoyed it, but my brother had moved out shortly after and he usually had the game consoles.

    While I mainly have an affinity for the earliest games, this is my favorite of the more modern ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to hear that IX hit its mark for someone with an affinity for the earliest games. For me it was a pleasure to see someone like a Red Mage skulking around in the bars of FFIX. Thanks for commenting, doctor.

      Like

  7. Great review. It is an extremely loving, well done tribute to the series that couldn’t be anymore Final Fantasy if it tried! Really my only issues with it are the unmemorable villain (as you mentioned) and the random battles. Everything else is stellar, and as you said, Vivi is a wonderful character.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe random battles do wear one down nowadays when RPGs have taken on a more action feel. I personally aren’t too bothered by them until they get really tedious. Walking a few footsteps and then having to enter another random fight does bug me. I hate the first Breath of Fire for that. But yeah, Kuja was a big part of what didn’t work in this game for me. But I love the rest of the cast. Mostly. Thanks for your kind comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I demand you add Vivi’s Theme/The Alexandria Theme to the music section, or Roses of May.

    I have a major boner for the soundtrack in IX. It don’t think it has as many “standout” tracks like 6/7/8, but it probably has the best overall soundtrack.

    It is a toss up between this and 6 for my favourite, though I STILL don’t understand Trance.

    Liked by 2 people

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