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Final Fantasy IX Review Rewind

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On 01/27/2016 at 02:00 PM by Matt Snee

The greatest JRPG of all time?

For those curious to see the amazing places a JRPG can go.

In today's daily ephemera of new releases and dazzling technologies and breakthroughs, it's easy to forget about the Golden Age of the PSONE -- or, as we knew it at the time, the PlayStation. This is especially true of the JRPG's of the system, which today still have no parallel. While many consider the SNES as the glory days of the JRPG, to me, that has always been just a prologue to what we saw on the PlayStation. It is true that many of us cut our teeth on Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger, but the explosion of the genre catalyzed by Final Fantasy VII is a whole different matter. Not only were we treated to Square's trilogy of FF VII, VIII, and IX, but we also had Xenogears, Grandia, Wild Arms, Chrono Cross, Suikoden, among others. This was when the JRPG truly matured into an art form, and while we have had great games since, the depth and variety of them has never eclipsed what we saw on the PSONE. 

The shining jewel of these games, however, is not the crowd favorite of Final Fantasy VII -- a great game, to be sure -- but rather Final Fantasy IX, a culmination of the series and one of the finest examples of the genre. While IX harkens back to earlier games in the series, it also exemplifies the potential of the JRPG, with great characters, fun combat, a thrilling, timeless story, and a wonderfully realized world that is both whimsical and lived in.  But what Final Fantasy IX has as its greatest feature isn't anything mechanical, or technological, but simply a heart and soul -- aspects generally lacking in today's JRPG's. 

Hironobu Sakaguchi had been involved with Final Fantasy since the beginning, and IX was his swan song. While it brought back a lot of the series' tropes after the darker Final Fantasy VII and VIII, it also cemented Final Fantasy's legacy.  While we may never see another Sakaguchi Final Fantasy, the last one he left us with is endlessly entertaining and filled with such wonder to last forever. And while it isn't flawless, to be sure, the glorious experiences to enjoy within it will hopefully never be forgotten. 


From the title screen of the game, the player knows he's in for something special. Instead of your typical video game music, we are instead treated to a melody composed of medieval flutes, courtesy of the legendary Final Fantasy composer, Nobuo Uematsu.  While Uematsu would continue working with Square after IX, this game's soundtrack is perhaps his most unique, his most heartfelt, and his greatest. While he did push the 16 bit engines of the SNES top new emotional heights, it's this soundtrack, coupled with the game's story, characters, and environments, that just might be his total masterpiece.

Like I noted earlier, a lot of the signatures of earlier Final Fantasy games make their reappearance in this one: black mages, chocobos, crystals, moogles, eidolons, etc. But here they are given a new depth and a fairy tale resonance. The world of Final Fantasy IX is one of its greatest strengths, a place of both incredible magic but also the mundane sufferings of everyday life. Here the player meets magical creatures, legendary places, and dastardly villains, but there's also the simple hearts of the NPC's, the subtle details of the environments, and the feeling of a world that has existed for quite some time.

The pinnacle of all this, of course, is VIVI, a young black mage whom we meet in the tender moments of the game's opening who hopes to catch a glimpse of a princess and an exciting play while he is in Alexandria, a fantastic kingdom which will lay at the center of most of what we will experience in IX. Together with the roguish Zidane, the clumsy knight Steiner, and the precocious but heavy-hearted princess Garnet (among other characters), VIVI will discover truths about himself, the world, and the wonders of life as he helps save the world from certain doom.


The combat system isn't terribly changed from previous Final Fantasy games, but returning in IX are the combat classes notable from the early games. There's a thief, a mage, warriors, healers, and a blue mage of course. How you combine these classes will tailor your experience with the combat in the game. While not quite a quick as Final Fantasy VII's system, and certainly not quite as annoying as Final Fantasy VIII's, Final Fantasy IX's combat exists as a lot of its other features do -- in moderation and culmination. But it's not an entirely simple system, as its rules allow for a lot of nuance and variation for strategies and challenges. There's no drawing magic here, like in Final Fantasy VIII, and the "limit break" type system here is hit or miss, depending on the character. There's also Zidane's various theft commands, which will grant you a good number of items if you bother with it, and Garnet's and Eiko's summons. The combat really depends on the enemy, as strategies that work on some foes, will not work on others, and vice versa. 

The equipment system however is quite neat. While it's sort of typical, with five spots on characters where armors and weapons can be equipped, these items contain skills that characters can learn so that they eventually no longer need to equip these items to use them. These abilities, which range from magical spells and skills to buffs and debuffs, widely vary and also depend on the character on whether you can use them or not. Characters are granted a set number of ability points they can spend on the abilities they have equipped, and you can adjust these as the need arises outside of combat. While you might need to an auto-potion ability or a buff that helps you against demons in one fight, you might spend the ability points differently for another.  It's a system with a lot of choices, and nuance, and really works quite well. 

The basic structure of the game is exploration and  travel, like most of the great JRPG's. The characters will travel across the world gaining powers and having experiences that shape both their personalities and their skills.  As the player embarks with them, he or she will get to know the detailed and whimsical world the game takes place in. There are a lot of unique, exciting places to visit, and one of the game's strengths is the feeling that these places are real, as fantastic as they might be. 


Almost fifteen years later, what's most amazing about Final Fantasy IX isn't the game itself, but sadly that nothing has been released in all this time that even remotely compares. While the technology of video games has certainly evolved since its release, storytelling in Japanese RPG's has not. While there are certainly isolated instances of great storytelling in modern JRPG's, the depth and variety of PSONE games in the genre -- exemplified in Final Fantasy IX -- the majority are retreads that don't even come close to the soulful tale told in this game.

But while pundits and critics complain about turn-based combat and Japanese archetypes (and neglecting to note the tropes in American games) what's really lost here is the ability of the medium of the JRPG to tell a compelling, unique story that can't be told in any other form. Spending forty or so hours with a cast of characters, and getting to know them so closely during their personal journeys, is something other media just can't do as well as a JRPG can. Fifteen years ago, JRPG's were the pinnacle of interactive storytelling, and nothing even came close. Now, they've been relegated into the background, irrelevant, fulfilling a nostalgic niche.

This reviewer, like many others out there, grew up on JRPG's, and some of the most compelling stories I have experienced in my life have been told through this formerly dazzling genre. Final Fantasy IX might be a once in a lifetime experience, but the fact is games like this don't have to be so rare, and a thing of the past.

And someday, perhaps, the JRPG will rise again.  

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

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A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



The Last Ninja

01/28/2016 at 01:51 PM

Great review, Matt! I was blessed to play this game a little over a year ago, and I loved it! The characters and story are both fantastic. However, I have to disagree with you. I think that FF6 is the pinacle of the series and one of the greatest JRPGs of all time. The SNES had a LOT of amazing JRPGs, so I would say it started the golden age of the JRPG and that simply continued into the PS1 days. Despite older technology, many of the SNES games are superior to the PS1 games (Chrono Trigger is better than Cross; FF6 is better than FF7, 8, or 9; Secret of Mana is better than Legend of Mana, etc.). But there's no denying that the PS1 era was a magical time for the JRPG! 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/28/2016 at 02:12 PM

ha ha, yeah I know a lot of people don't share my opinion here, but it's just what I think about the matter. We can all argue until the end of eternity on what's the best Final Fantasy game, but for me, there's nothing that tops IX.  I do like the SNES games, but I've always personally preferred the PSONE age.  It's probably my favorite console, so....  

Thanks for reading the review.  It was a long time coming.  


02/07/2016 at 08:09 PM

Sorry about the lateness of my reply. I agree with Matt. The SNES had notable RPGs, to be sure, but its library in that department was nowhere near the breadth and depth of the PS1, and it had a lot of throwaway RPGs too. The PS1 had so many games I loved - the Final Fantasies (the three main games plus Tactics), the Lunars, Xenogears, Valkyrie Profile, Dragon Warrior VII, Tales of Destiny/Eternia. One thing the PS1 had in its favor was that there were far more companies making RPGs for it, therefore a much wider variety of voices beyond those of Squaresoft, and there were far more games getting localized rather than being stuck in Japan. My favorite Final Fantasy games are VII and IX (along with XII on PS2 and Tactics on PS1) on top of all that.


01/28/2016 at 03:49 PM

You have always known my feelings about FF9. We share pretty much the same opinion on it. I really think FF9 doesn't get the attention it deserves. Hell we didn't even get a trance character in Final Fantasy Explorers from FF9. This game as always stayed with me, even after playing some of the newer titles in the series. I just love everything, the setting, the characters, the story, and the lessons this game carry's. It has some strong themes but yet presents them in a understanding and light hearted way. I really can't comment about when the golden age or best era of rpgs were because I really didn't play many until the psone period. Hell FF9 was the reason I begged for psone. I saw a friend play it and it kept me going. I kind of wonder if I hadn't of seen that game in action if maybe I wouldn't be the gamer I am today. My love for this hobby might have died while I was still young which is sad to think about.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:50 AM

that would be sad, Nicole!  I'm happy that FFIX was important to you, it was obviously important to me too.  It's definitely one of my favorite games of all time.  Sometimes I wish I could share it more with people who don't play games, cause the story is universal, but.. I can't.... 

Cary Woodham

01/28/2016 at 04:10 PM

FF9 is what FF7 and 8 should've been.  It's my third favorite after FF6 and FF4.

I'm with TheLastNinja, though.  My heart belongs to the 16-bit RPGs.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:50 AM

I understand, Cary.  I can see why those SNES titles are so important.


01/28/2016 at 04:23 PM

You make a good case for this game being a contender for best JRPG. I think it's the best overall FF on the PS1 at least. It's a textbook sample of the sub-genre, featuring its core values and executing them all wonderfully. You can say it's the most balanced fantasy JRPG on PS1 and maybe since then. I think they blew it towards the end when they introduced the "he's a genome!" trope that was already tired by then, but it was surely better than the daft plots of FF7 and 8.  This game earned the Fantasy in the title. A magical, colorful world of charm. Only Chrono Cross can match it in this regard.

Strongly disagree that JRPGs were the pinnacle of storytelling though. Too many were loopy fantasy cartoons for kids featuring a whole lof ot scattershot world building and "kitchen sink" mashing of themes. I'd say adventure games overall were equal or better in writing craft and more disciplined narratively. I can see Hemingway, Clive Barker or Dickens writing an adventure game, not so much a 90s JRPG. Brevity is vital, in my mind, and it's something most adventure games had. The longer RPGs got, the sloppier they got. Chrono Trigger, at about 20 hours, is still a more memorable bit of storytelling than most of the genre (I'll take Chrono Cross though).  The mighty Planescape:Torment, if played straight through, is not much longer and it's still regarded by many as the best of the best writing in games. There's also Vagrant Story, also in the 20 hour range, which takes cues from Shakespeare and Chaucer. I don't remember FF9 being super long (long enough for that genome nonsense to be introduced, unfortunately), and I did a lot of the side content. Now we have games where anything less than 60 hours is considered a sin but who will remember their plots or dialogue 15 years later?



Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:56 AM

JRPG's might not have been the pinnacle, but they were obviously a pinnacle. I didn't consider adventure games, but for my money, I've always enjoyed the epic nature of the JRPG. But I've always leaned more towards "epic" storytelling than stuff that's more brief.  

But you have to admit, story was such a secondary thing back then compared to now.  Every game has a "story" now, with cut scenes and whatnot whereas back then -- especially for the 16 bit era, that was not the case. Sure, that's the nature of tech, but it is what it is. I think my main point though, that storytelling in those PSONE games -- predominantly great -- has just kind of devolved in JRPG's now. 

I don't complain about the genre as much as some people do, but I do have to admit that it isn't what it used to be....

Chris Yarger Community Manager

01/28/2016 at 05:38 PM

Perfect words for my all time favorite game of the series. Well said Matt 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:49 AM

thanks Chris!


01/28/2016 at 07:11 PM

I don't really need to comment here do I? But anyway, other than that fekkin' grab the key mini game I loved this game so much it's unnatural. In summary and in conclusion Vivi Rules!

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:48 AM



01/29/2016 at 02:10 AM

I've always wanted to play the FF games. i played a bunch of FFIV on DS a while back and really loved it. I played some FFXII and didn't like the combat system much. I'd love to go back and play all the turn-based FF games. 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/29/2016 at 08:48 AM

yeah i don't like those new fangled ones either.  But the turn based ones are classic!!


01/31/2016 at 12:42 AM

It's one of the few FF games I hadn't played.  I own it, so I'm sure one day I'll get to playing it.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

01/31/2016 at 11:00 AM

you should man, I think you'll like it.  It's classic.  

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

02/03/2016 at 11:10 AM

Dang it Matt, now you're tempting me to break sequence and jump right to play FF 9 once I finally finish FF4! Over the years, I've notice how Final Fantasy 9 has quietly recieved higher praise as the best FF game than 7 or even 6 (depending on the person's taste).

I was fortunate enough to get a new copy of the game in a game store about a year ago. My plan was to play through 4, 5, and 6, then skip up to 9 (I already beat 7, and I never got 8), but this review really makes me want to just play 9 because it seems to exemplify all of the things that got me into RPGs in the first place-- interesting characters and a good story. And boy, do it love a good story!

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/03/2016 at 12:43 PM

it's great man, I truly love that game a lot.  I still have the original disc myself, but I play on the Vita now.  But I'm glad I still have the original game cause it means so much to me.  

Well, you don't have to play them in any specific order, really.  Laughing


02/21/2016 at 12:34 AM

Don't beat me up, but FF8 was my fav for a long time before X and 12. For some reason that futuristic look and weird visual of 8 really impressed me, especially the soundtrack and strange story. I think compared to 8, 9 felt too old school for me. I've eventually gone back and played it --9, but not with the same sense of nostalgia as other games like Xenogears for example. I played FF1&2 when they released on GBA, and 3&4 when those released for NDS. I did play 6 when it released for SuperNES. I rented it from a local video store, and quite loved it at the time as well. 40 Hours seems rather short for a JRPG. I was thinking of playing through another series, aside from RE or Silent Hill and I was thinking of tackling FF.

Out of curiosity, what are your favorite JRPGs from PSOne-PS2? 

Matt Snee Staff Writer

02/21/2016 at 11:47 AM

hey man, to hell with the haterz, I love VIII too.  I played that game endlessly before IX came out.  

For the PS2, while I like FFX, I think my favorite JRPG's on it are Xenosaga (which I haven't finished, and Dragon Quest VIII.  DQ VIII is one of my favorite games of all time, it's great.

Other games I really like on PSONE are grandia and Xenogears.  Haven't played a bunch of others, but I'm getting to it.  

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