What’s so good about FINAL FANTASY IX?

It's one of the most beloved games in the FINAL FANTASY series, but why? We look at why the Tantalus Theatre Troupe continues to draw in the crowds...
By Duncan Heaney

We’ve previously discussed what’s good about FINAL FANTASY X, but what about the game that preceded it? Many fans cite FINAL FANTASY IX as the best in the whole series, but what does it do to earn such high praise?

In honour of the game's anniversary, we thought we'd take a look at why it’s so beloved.

1. Every character is memorable and unique

FINAL FANTASY IX features one of the quirkiest casts in the entire FINAL FANTASY series - maybe even in all of gaming. Every character in the game is utterly distinct - both visually and in terms of their personality.

Take the nominal lead, Zidane, for example. He’s one of the most outwardly cheerful heroes to lead a FINAL FANTASY game, and his mischievous nature is mirrored in his prehensile monkey-like tail.

Then there’s Quina, the lick-y gourmand who joins the gang - essentially to eat as much of the world’s flora and fauna as possible. As motivations go, it’s… um… one of a kind and the long-tongued character design is also unlike anything else is the series.

That’s just a tiny sample of this amazing cast - whether it’s the solemn stoicism of Amarant, or the grotesque cruelty of Queen Brahne, every character wedges themselves in the mind long after you’ve shut down the game.

2. The story is uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time

The opening of FINAL FANTASY IX is so fast, funny and entertaining, you’d be forgiven for thinking you know what to expect from the rest of the adventure.

But FINAL FANTASY IX wants to take you on an emotional journey that ranges as far as the physical one the characters undertake. There’s serious darkness in this world.

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This is particularly evident in the case of Vivi. The young Black Mage’s journey of self-discovery is shocking and heart-breaking in equal measure.

And yet despite all the pain and the tragedy the heroes endure, the game never wallows in misery. It still looks for joy and humor in the world and goes out of its way to leave you with a smile on your face. It’s actually amazing that a story with so many potentially disturbing twists can be so inspirational.

3. The ability system is fun and flexible

The genius of FINAL FANTASY IX’s ability system is that it’s incredibly easy to understand yet has incredible depth.

Here’s a very basic rundown of how it works: almost all gear and weapons contain inherent skills and support abilities.

Skills are active commands that you can use in combat, such as magic spells, or deadly physical attacks. So long as you have that item equipped, you can use it, and eventually you’ll learn the skill permanently.

Support abilities are passive bonuses that boost a character’s abilities, such as more health or extra damage against specific enemy types. You’ll need magic gems to equip them - different abilities require a different number of gems, so you’ll never have enough to use everything.

Then there are extra complications, like the fact that some characters can’t use certain skills and abilities. It all means that you have to make constant decisions about the makeup of your party.

Do you stick with an underpowered piece of kit to bank the skill for later use? Should you switch up your support abilities to help overcome a particularly bothersome boss? Smart choices can mean the difference between success and a messy end.

4. The side activities are particularly good

If you’re someone who enjoys poking away at every nook and cranny of a game, FINAL FANTASY IX must feel like a gift from the Eidolons - it’s absolutely packed full of entertaining side quests, secrets and minigames.

The most well-known is undoubtedly Tetra Master. This deceptively deep card game can be played with many of the characters across FINAL FANTASY IX’s massive world, and depending on the type of player you are, it’s either a fun diversion, or an all-consuming mega-game that will become an obsession for hours.

But there’s far more than that to do in FINAL FANTASY IX. Chocobo Hot and Cold sees you using the iconic birds to find unique treasures across the world. You can also search for Stellazzio coins, meet friendly land spirits, chase frogs, jump rope and more.

The main story is already pretty chunky, but factor in all the entertaining side activities, and FINAL FANTASY IX will keep you busy for a very long time indeed.

5. It’s one for the fans - in the best possible way

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do fan service - FINAL FANTASY IX does it the right way.

The game is a celebration of FINAL FANTASY up to that point, and it’s full of fun nods to earlier titles. For example, the Black Mage design is a direct reference to the original FINAL FANTASY, as are some of the airship designs.

Character and place names are reused from earlier titles too. You’ll notice off-hand comments about ‘spiky haired sword wielders’ and you may recognize certain ability names from prior games too. If you’re a long-term fan of the series, you’ll be amazed at the sheer volume of callbacks and Easter eggs.

And yet you don’t need to be a veteran of the series to enjoy the game. Not getting any of the many, many references won’t impact your understanding of the plot, characters or world. The game still stands up as a fun standalone adventure in its own right.

Those are just a few reasons why FINAL FANTASY IX holds up as a classic. It’s available on multiple platforms, so play it yourself and tell us what you think.

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