Final Fantasy 9 is back on the brain. I should be playing a bunch of games in my backlog before writing my GOTY list, but here I am diving into a JRPG from two decades ago for what must be the dozenth time. It might be my favourite game of all time, with its story, characters, and gameplay mechanics formative for not only the world of games, but my love of fantasy across all things. Unlike other entries in the series, 9 is timeless in its execution.
There is something about Final Fantasy 9 that wraps around you like a warm blanket, teaching valuable life lessons across its ensemble cast while never detracting from the allure of a swashbuckling adventure. It’s a game that taught me the value of empathy – something my parents sure didn’t do – and how helping others with trials and tribulations will not only make their lives better, but assist in somehow bettering your own. Everyone you meet is hospitable and welcoming, yet unafraid to show the clear problems that ail them, with even the smallest nuggets of dialogue pointing to a bigger picture than most expensive of modern triple-A blockbusters these days.
The comfy vibes are present from the off. A CG cutscene follows two hooded girls battling through a raging storm at sea, their rickety wooden vessel useless against the storm. Then we cut to Princess Garnet, stirred awake in a flowing white dress as she walks over to the castle windows and provides our first view of the Kingdom of Alexandria. This is a far cry from the dieselpunk dystopia of Final Fantasy 7, and much more than a homage to the NES and SNES classics that birthed this iconic aesthetic in the first place.
It takes the series tenets that dominated gaming during the fifth generation of consoles and considers exactly what the future might hold. It is the last entry in the series that isn’t held back by needless anime archetypes and melodrama, presenting a distinct selection of personalities and locales that are entirely original, a spark that would sadly be lost moving forward.
A mysterious opening is cast aside for a leisurely stroll through Alexandria as Vivi the Black Mage. This adorable little dude is down on his luck, but has won a ticket to the biggest show in town and can’t wait to have a good time. It’s a big day, with the city’s populace bustling in the streets to do their last minute shopping before the royal family shows themselves at the local opera house. Vivi is a bit of a plebian, but with a ticket, he can finally hang out with the big wigs and treat himself. Except it turns out the ticket is a fake. Big bootleg energy.
All hope is not lost though, since after befriending a mischievous little rat child in a nearby alley, they sneak into the show together by shimmying across precarious rooftops. It’s a delightful introduction to this world, viewed from the perspective of an outsider as we edge closer and closer to the central plot that will change everything. Turns out the show is a ruse by a fake theatre company to kidnap the Princess and hold her for ransom, but the young lady in question actually wants to be kidnapped, eager to escape the suffocating clutches of her mother, who has no concern for her desires in life, and a much darker plot waiting in the wings.
The ensemble unites through the most unlikely of circumstances, setting in motion a journey that will result in them finding themselves and saving the world, and no game in the series sets things up as well as this one. Everything about it is perfect, subversive in its wholesome nature while always providing room for levity amidst the melancholy. Final Fantasy 9 deals with heavy themes like grief, racism, and sociopolitical tensions, which you’d expect to clash with the Sylvanian Family visuals, but it really doesn’t.
Its writing is strong enough to justify each and every decision that’s made. Burmecia and Cleyra falling victim to hostile invaders rips at your heartstrings, while more upbeat escapades to the likes of Lindblum as characters meet new friends and pursue their own personal goals amidst a wider landscape earn their keep. There is always time for humour and heartbreak throughout because Final Fantasy 9 earns every moment, resulting in one of the sweetest endings I’ve ever seen.
I’ve long said that Final Fantasy 9 would be impossible to remake, and deserves a sequel more than a reimagining regardless, but as I replay it for the first time in years, I can’t wait to see what precious moments I’ve forgotten, and which have long been committed to memory.
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