Final Fantasy IX: The Last Marathon Game of the Old Millennium. Or at least that’s the case in Japan and North America, where it launched in 2000. In Europe it didn’t land until 2001, making it also the first Marathon game of the New Millennium. FFIX can have it all!
FFIX was also the last of the Final Fantasy PSX Golden Age, and also the last conceived by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi. Granted, Sakaguchi hadn’t been Director since FFV (setting aside The Spirits Within, since film and game “directors” are very different roles), being Producer ever since. He would even continue to serve as Producer or even Executive Producer through FFXII. But in practice, fans could tell that FFIX was different. FFIX is pretty open in how it salutes the older games in the series, and it’s often considered the last old school mainline Final Fantasy to boot. A lot of old concepts are back, and a lot of concepts (long-present or previously-absent) have yet to return at least not to the main series. This might get a little sniffly before we’re done.
We’ll be playing the HD remake on Steam, released in 2016. The HD remake’s improvements are mostly graphical, with few gameplay changes, though the few that are there are quality of life improvements that I’ll probably want to mention. Oh, sure, they’ve also got the pay-to-win DLC “boosters” that were in the FFVII and VIII PC re-releases, but we’re not really concerned with that. The cloud saving’s nice, I guess. While there were rumours that he HD remake would include an updated translation, this didn’t turn out to be the case, which is too bad. FFIX’s translation is good, but the confused translators misunderstood several of the game’s many references to previous Final Fantasy games, probably because those weren’t consistently translated in 2000 to begin with (the standardization began two to three years later, a period that covers FFX, the Finest Fantasy for Advance line of GBA remakes, and Kingdom Hearts. You can see how the remakes and crossover game would have encouraged the shift towards standardization, even moreso than the all-new FFX). It may very well prove that I’ll get annoyed at the inconsistencies and start addressing things by their standard names, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Session 1 here runs from the start of the game to the end of the Festival of the Hunt.
FFIX begins with an opening demo that would have absolutely failed to convince me to buy the game if I saw it running in my local game shop (that’s what demos were for, after all). It’s just… shots of an airship, a map, and also some rain? It’s state-of-the-art, but it’s a state-of-the-art depiction of nothing. At least FFVIII gave me a damned sword fight, confusing as it might have been. Did we really have to put Tetsuya Nomura in charge of Kingdom Hearts before the company that built its late-90s reputation on expensive graphics learned how to put together a good trailer? For the record, I’ve actually remembered one of FFIX’s TV commercials for years… although as it happens, I mis-remembered it as being an ad for Chrono Cross until I looked it up again a year ago, so take that with a grain of salt.
The actual game opens with a scene of a storm at sea, as two figures in cloaks hold on to their ship for dear life. When we get close, both seem to have the same face, or at least similar faces, and in a flash we’re introduced to Princess Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, who looks just like them. This may imply she’s one of the people on the boat… or will be, prophetic dreams being a fantasy standby and all. Hard to say. Hopefully you know what I’m getting at, because I sure don’t.
We’re back in a quasi-medieval setting for this outing (with a few vague steampunk touches mostly obvious in the airships), and Garnet is in a regal sitting room of a castle and seems to have just woken up from a nap. Like FFVIII, FFIX uses mocap actors during its CGI animations, but FFIX doesn’t properly attach mocap credits to specific characters. Jackasses. As mentioned previously, we do happen to know that Mayuko Aoki, the woman who did Rinoa’s mocap in FFVIII, did Garnet’s mocap here. She would go on to do Yuna’s mocap for FFX. Unfortunately, she’s the only mocap actor whose name has been attached to an FFIX character (that I’m aware of).
A few dramatic camera pans later, and it’s time to leave the palace and introduce the Prima Vista, a very fancy airship that also served as a theatre, carrying its troupe of actors from place to place, like a riverboat theatre. Its deck even doubles as a portable stage! Here we meet our lead character, Zidane Tribal, a “tailed human.” By the way, Zidane’s name is FFIX’s first of many references to Square’s previous works, and also arguably the first to get screwed up in the localization. I’d argue “yes, it counts,” especially since the “screw up” follows the exact same pattern as later lost references, but once I explain the problem, you’ll see why the waters are muddy. In Japanese, Zidane’s name is “Jitan,” which is shared with Square’s first ever protagonist from their first-ever game, The Death Trap. “Zidane,” meanwhile, is just a stylized transliteration of “Jitan,” and wouldn’t you know it, most of the screwed-up references in this game are stylized transliterations that missed the referential intent! The complication comes from the fact that there’s no precedent for this reference. No one outside of Japan knew about Jitan or The Death Trap in the first place. If Square Enix wanted, they could rightly remake The Death Trap tomorrow and localize its protagonist to whatever the crap they want: “Jitan,” “Gitan,” “Larry,” “Elmo the Rabid Clown,” or even “Zidane!” As you can imagine, there’s a big gulf between screwing up a well-established reference to your own, narrative-heavy series, and screwing up an un-established reference to something completely external!
Zidane arrives in a dark room and the player is supposed to set up a candle, but of course I started to fuck around and poke into corners. It was here where I discovered that FFIX likes to stash small prizes in its environments, much like a fellow PSX RPG/burglar simulator, Breath of Fire III (a personal favourite of ours that I hope to put in a standalone Retrospective someday). After setting up the candle and setting our configuration preferences (including swapping controls to the North American standard of X to control and O to cancel, since the remake uses the Japanese standard of O to confirm and X to cancel by default), I put the candle where it belonged and got a chance to name Zidane, though we stuck to Marathon rules to leave the names untouched.
In ran three others – Blank, Cinna and Marcus – who were looking for “the boss.” Just then, a man barges into the room wearing a dragon mask on his head and wielding a sword! Annnnd it’s presented in a weirdly comical fashion, despite throwing you into combat? It’s an emotional whiplash, and is probably meant to be. FFIX is nearly the only Final Fantasy game that I’m aware of that was meant to be a comedy (FFV – also by Sakaguchi – is close, but I feel it’s more “light-hearted” than open comedy), and they seem to have decided to get started by throwing you into confusion! A lot of FFIX’s humour (and character design!) seems very “Akira Toriyama” to boot, which is strange considering they were going up against the actual Akira Toriyama on the Japanese market, with DQ7 coming out one month later! If you think you’ve gotta copy the competition, that’s your business decision, but this is so on the nose that it’s a bit like trying to outsell Dr. Seuss’ by trying to publish, “The Rat in the Hat.” Luckily for FFIX, I haven’t played DQ7 and can’t compare it, but you can bet that if I ever do, I will! I’ll make a whole standalone post if I gotta!
Speaking of Dragon Quest comparisons, I absolutely love FFIX’s art style, for all it may be derivative of Toriyama. I know, I know: we played the HD version, and so it’s definitely above the curve from FFVIII and Persona 2, but I’ve checked a few Let’s Plays of the PSX version after our first session, and I still think it holds up! In fact, I think FFIX finally found a fully 3D art style that really works on the PSX in my mind (FFT also worked, but it mixed 3D with sprites and belongs in a different category). The original graphics have an interesting quasi-pixelated style in places that works to its favour as well, very impressive, I think they stand up in their own right, which is something I can’t say about the FFVIII graphics. You’ll recall that FFVII’s mix of chibi world models and detailed battle models were too inconsistent for my liking, and while I didn’t have any problems with FFVIII, the PSX was too weak to do realistic styles justice in my eyes. But with FFIX, we take the comedy tone, the cartoonish art style, and some really lovely backgrounds (I can’t put my finger on what it is I like about them so much), and pit those against the ongoing limitations of the system, and I think FFIX comes out on top!
The dragon-masked man attacks you with the sword, often tripping and falling on his face during his attack animations. In terms of mechanics, FFIX is a classic ATB game, ala FFIV-VII, with four party members ala Sakaguchi’s last game as director, FFV. We even finally, finally get a full-time menu interface back, instead of the horseshit “cursor moves relative to a camera that’s never in the same position” targeting interface used by FFVII and VIII. Front and back ranks are also back, as are regular Defend commands, both of which were tossed out to dry by FFVIII. Oh, and naturally everyone has access to the “Items” command, though I admit that after FFVIII (and the restrictive combat systems of Persona 2 that discouraged item use), I sometimes forgot it was there! Characters have their own unique abilities again, ala FFIV and VI, but they also have a currently empty “Skill” menu that will be relevant later. Well… I say that “everyone” has unique abilities, and that “everyone” also has an empty Skill command… but at the moment, every single person in the party has Steal as their “unique” ability, and only Zidane has the Skill command. Let’s just say that you aren’t surprised when Cinna, Marcus and Blank turn out to be temporary party members. In fact, when the dragon-man knocked out Cinna, Kyle told me not to bother Phoenix Downing him, since he “really doesn’t matter.”
Since Zidane is our main character, I ought to talk about his Steal command. The Steal command in FFIX works like it did in previous games… to a certain point (which feels like bit of an odd duck between the experimental Steal systems of FFVIII and later X!). The major addition is that you can usually steal two or even three different items from the same enemy in a sequence, each item potentially better than the last (though the game gives them to you in whatever order you randomly win them, so you can win the rarer items before the common ones!). Unfortunately, the odds of Stealing in the first place is just as terrible as in older games, and now you have to do it three times in a row, so if you want exploit Steal to its fullest, you’re going to have to be even more patient than ever, and a lot of players won’t want to bother!
After a short fight, your party “wins” the fight by breaking the dragon mask to reveal the man inside, who turns out to be your boss. No explanation is ever given for his attack – I suppose he just found a mask in the back of the ship and decided to prank his staff. In any event, meet Baku. Baku is another animal-man, like Zidane. In his case, he looks something like a pig, which really adds to the Toriyama feel we have going on here. He leads you into another room and identifies your group as Tantalus, informing the player that you’re not just controlling a troupe of actors, but a troupe of secret criminals who use the theatre gig as a way to get close to their targets! Your current mission: to use your cover as actors to enter the castle of Alexandria and kidnap Princess Garnet from the intro. At the end of the briefing, Baku addresses Garnet as “the most babe-ilicious beauty in all of Alexandria.” This prompted Kyle to sigh. At the time, I thought he was having a laugh at the 90s language, but no: his issue is that people will not shut up about how Garnet is pretty… over the course of hours. I thought it was weird when people kept saying Rosa was pretty in one town of TAY, but this? It just never stops! After a while it stops even sounding like a compliment, and starts to sound like everyone is just stating a fact for no reason!
Of course, to maintain a disguise as actors, you actually have to put on a play, and the play in question is the embarrassingly- and perplexingly-titled I Want to Be Your Canary, a name that still doesn’t make sense even after I’ve seen most of their performance! The Japanese title is I Want to Be Your Bird, which arguably chalks up a point for symbolism, since Garnet was looking at birds in the intro, but I still don’t know how it relates to the plot of the play!
From here, we cut to a small Black Mage in the streets of the city of Alexandria, who sees the airship arrive. More on the Black Mage in a moment, as the game gives a dramatic pan through Alexandria and reveals a tall, thin Crystal inside the castle walls (the game has to focus on it pretty hard, as it’s nigh-transparent, and furthermore hasn’t been mentioned or seen in the hours we’ve played since). And after that pan… the title appears! Huh! I would have expected it to come after a more dramatic moment? Actually, considering this game is a salute to the classic Final Fantasies, we’re lucky it didn’t show up one-to-three hours into the game!
In any event, back to the Black Mage. This is Vivi Orumita, who “Looks like [he’s] 9 years old,” according to his naming screen. But the naming screen doesn’t appear for a while, and for a fair-sized stretch of gameplay, Vivi is just a mysterious Black Mage. Aside from his child-like appearance, Vivi is based on the classic Black Mage design, complete with a shadowy absence-of-a-face. Frankly, he looks like someone shoved one of Majora’s Masks Boe enemies into a straw hat, but no one ever questions that, so it may be just for effect… right? More on that as we go along.
Vivi has himself a ticket to I Want to be Your Canary, and we walk him through town to attend the performance. Along the way, we learn one of the HD remakes few quality-of-life changes, in that it now displays balloons that show who is willing to play you in FFIX’s card game, Tetra Master, which was always a mystery in the original (as it was in FFVIII). Not that you can play the card game at the moment, as you don’t own a single card, but the prompt is there never-the-less!
Unfortunately, once Vivi reaches the box office, the ticket-taker informs him that the ticket is counterfeit, and that Vivi has been scammed. Indeed, every Key Item in this game has a description written up in the menu, and this menu shows you that counterfeits accidentally says: “I Want to be your Crow.” The ticket-taker says that there are a lot of counterfeits out there right now, since the play is the event of the season. In reality, only the nobility and the rich can get in. One NPC nearby wonders who would con a kid like Vivi with a fake ticket, and we haven’t yet gotten an answer, and for all I know, we may never! The ticket-taker feels bad for Vivi, and tries to help him feel better by giving him three Tetra Master cards. Unfortunately, three cards isn’t enough to actually play – you need at least five – but for the time being, he suggests you go to a nearby alley to learn how to play the card game from a guy named Alleyway Jack. Uh-huh. Looks like I’m about to start a performance of “Vivi and the Organ Harvesters.”
Near the box office, by the way, is one of Final Fantasy’s more infamous minigames, the jump rope minigame. On the PSX, you could easily ignore the jump rope game, since all it does is give you cards you can get elsewhere, but if you get… *sigh*… one thousand skips in a row, you would get an pre-Achievements-style item to commemorate it. Yes, this means that the HD release upgraded it to a full Achievement in the re-releases, which makes it seem a lot more important for completionists. Since this is total bullshit, we ignored the entire thing.
For lack of anything better to do, Vivi goes into the Alley and meets a sign-maker installing a sign meant to advertise a “Mini-Theatre” that’s under construction. There was no sign of Jack Kidneytheft. Here, Vivi meets up with “Rat Kid,” a beastman child who also wants to see the show, but will only let Vivi see it with him if he agrees to be Rat Kid’s “slave.” That didn’t sound very appealing, so I turned him down and did a little more sidequesting, finding several cards hidden about town, rescuing a kid’s cat, and stealing a little girl’s allowance. We’re the heroes. I also discovered a Phoenix Pinion… (Ed. which I originally mistook for a downgraded Phoenix Down, only learning during our second session that it has the ability to randomly summon Phoenix like in FFVIII. Long story). I then played my first game of FFIX’s card game, Tetra Master, and won a Perfect on my first attempt! …Despite having no idea what I was doing whatsoever! More on that in only a few sentences, once we meet Mr. Black Market Liver Transplants and nominally learn how to play.
Once I was questing, I decided it was finally time to work with Rat Kid, and Vivi helped him steal the sign-maker’s ladder now that the man was absent. Once Rat Kid left with the ladder, Jack Kidnapperson finally arrived and offered to talk Tetra Master. Oh boy, do I not want to waylay this entire Journal to talk about this card game, but I guess now is as good as ever, since I’m not sure when or even if we’re ever going to play ever again. You see, FFIX has a card game, but FFIX doesn’t offer any reason to play its card game. The only prize in the game is cards, and unlike FFVIII, you can’t Refine your cards into useful items, sell them, win anything with them, or do anything else with them whatsoever. It’s just there for its own sake, as though Square was hoping it would become popular in its own right. Just a few years later, Square would try to make Tetra Master one of its first online games, with a $1 a month subscription fee. The game ran for about five years, which is nothing to sniff at, but these days, it’s been entirely forgotten, and if any card game shows up at all, it’s Triple Triad (including in FFXIV). Ugh, I haven’t even started talking about the real RPG…
Tetra Master is played on a 4×4 grid, although 0-6 squares will be randomly blocked off at the start of play. You start with five cards, and the person with the most cards on the grid at the end of the game wins, just like Triple Triad. Cards in the game usually have arrows on them, pointing in up to eight of the cardinal directions, though there are some utterly worthless cards with no arrows at all (although see below). If you place a card so that its arrows point at an enemy card already in play, and the enemy card doesn’t have an arrow pointing back at you, you capture the enemy card for free. If it does have an arrow pointing back at you, the two cards will battle, but here’s the first bit of bullshit: the game refuses to say how the battling actually works. Jack acts like there aren’t even mechanics for combat (which is a complete and utter lie from the devs), though later in the game, someone will act like there are, but that no one in the FFIX universe knows how combat works, and that they only have a “theory!” Holy crap!
Thanks to the Internet, I can actually tell you how card battles work. Ugh, and it’s so stupid, too. Every step of this is worse than the last, this game was designed by such an utter amateur that I’m shocked it even got out of concept.
First off, each card has a four-character string of characters on the bottom. Please note that the picture on the card is only loosely related to the four characters, which are essentially random (as are the arrows). The first character in the string is your card’s attack value. This value… is in hexadecimal. Kyle, a grown man who has used computers and played video games for entire life, and knew me for every year I was still a programmer, has never even heard of hexadecimal! And why should he? And yet here these numbers are in a game designed and styled for children! If you’ve never heard of hexadecimal, you might benefit from looking it up if you want to understand Tetra Master, but let’s just say that the numbers 0-9 mean the same thing they do in everyday numbers, while the letters A-F indicate the numbers 10-15. Since we’re only dealing with single digits here, that’s all you need to know.
The second character in the four-character string is the only one that isn’t hexadecimal. Instead, it’s always a letter, one of a subset of four that illustrate the card’s attack style (it would be easier to tell apart if one of the letters aren’t the letter A, which belongs to the hexadecimal set!). For the time being, let’s skip it. The final two characters in the string are defence values in hex: Physical Defence and Magical Defence, respectively. Now that you know these stats exist… which is more than the game will tell… it’s a lot easier to explain the card’s attack style.
When you attack, your attack style (character #2) determines which stat the enemy uses for defence. If your attack style is “P” (Physical), your card’s attack value (character #1) is compared to the enemy’s physical defence (character #3). If your attack style is “M” (Magical), you compare your attack to the enemy’s magical defence (character #4). If your attack style is “X” (fleXible, god help me), you attack whichever defence value is lower (the lower number of character #3 and #4). If your attack style is “A” (Assault), it’s the best style of all, and your enemy will be forced to use the weakest number on its card for defence, even if that number would normally been its attack stat (character #1). Did you follow that? Would you have followed that at like, age ten? How about if there was no explanation? And how would ten-year-old “you” feel if I told you it was only going to get worse?
Thankfully, I’m not going to get into that, because it is awful. Let’s just say that each attack is a four-step process that’s still heavily randomized, that attacks can chain into other cards (reader MarissaBlackwing points out that having no arrows can be helpful here!) and leave it at that. Remember: the game explains none of this, and the level of randomness seems especially high if you don’t understand exactly what’s going on. You almost have to understand the exact math to get good at Tetra Master, and that’s just bullshit, because the game never tells you about it! Besides, shouldn’t a card game work without the need for a computer to generate a four-step randomized formula between moves? When actual card game designers (a European company named Dino) got their hands on Tetra Master to make a real-world version, they redesigned it pretty darned heavily to make it playable at a decent clip, but why didn’t Square realize they should have done that themselves?
On top of all of this, cards may randomly get promoted during the game for winning a fight, upgrading their attack class from P/M to X, and from X to A. The game explains none of this, either.
Long story short, the winner gets to keep exactly one of the cards that they captured during the game, although if you capture them all (a “Perfect,” like the one I won entirely by accident), you get to keep all five of your opponent’s cards.
Thankfully and once again, Tetra Master gives you absolutely no rewards that pertain to FFIX-the-RPG, so you never have to actually play it. There are a few achievements tied to it, including winning 100 unique games. Mind that you can’t re-challenge a character infinitely in a row like in FFVIII, so this Achievement isn’t an errant grind, but it’s still basically a grind. Thank goodness there’s no Achievement for gathering cards or maxing them out! Who’d have thought a game that gave you an Achievement for 1000 jump-rope skips could ever show mercy!
Returning to the actual world of FFIX, I’m just going to say that Jack McCrime, your card tutor, has four arms and hints that he has a different name in several towns, and he suggests that you might be able to interact with him to learn his real name.
Thanks almost entirely to the stupid card game, that eats through my word count for today. Initially, I was going to do two intro posts like we did for FFVIII and P2, but there’s something of a problem: the Journals are actually catching up to live play! We’ve only got two sessions of FFIX in the backlog before we run out of Journal content and I have to start posting some manner of filler or nothing at all! By holding back, it becomes more likely that Kyle and I will get another session in in time and delay the inevitable. We’ll see how it goes!