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The Wandering Tales of Stiltzkin the Moogle
Anyone who is well-versed with the Final Fantasy series knows that they are more than just simple videogames; they are a tradition. Though each entry is self-contained, several recurring factors weave a thread of familiarity throughout the games, creating that special atmosphere that has propelled the series to the forefront of the RPG genre. With the ninth installment Square released what can aptly be described as a celebration of the days of yore.
So instead of focusing on introducing new concepts to the genre, Final Fantasy IX borrows heavily from its storied past. For the connoisseurs of the series one of the most enjoyable of the myriad sidequests available is identifying the multitude of references to other titles scattered throughout the game. Whether it is through a line of text (“Let no cloud or squall hinder us!”), weapon (Kain’s Lance), location (Pandemonium), or item (Rat Tail), the numerous allusions will not fail to bring a smile to the weather-worn Final Fantasy veteran’s face.
The battle system too is nothing original. It is basically an expanded version of Final Fantasy VI’s Esper System—even the battle music to this game closely resembles VI’s. Basically, abilities are learned from items, pending how long they are equipped in battle. Want to learn [insert ability here]? Then equip it until [required ability points] are learned in battle. Also like no Final Fantasy since VI, each character has abilities that only they can learn. I personally enjoy this because it makes each character that much more unique and endearing.
And endearing the cast is—so much so that it makes up for the somewhat lackluster characters of the previous two installments; and like Final Fantasy IV’s cast they are stereotyped, to a degree. Seeing as how this game is an homage to the past this is wholly acceptable. The hero Zidane is the swashbuckling thief with a penchant for helping ladies (sound like another thief—I mean, TREASURE HUNTER?!); Garnet/Dagger is the classic princess who needs to be rescued (though she cooperates more than previous persons in her position); and there are several other characters that also flesh the game out. Of special note is Vivi, the black mage whose appearance will no doubt elate those itching with nostalgia. The story that these characters participate in is a bit slow to develop, but it does, and will keep you engaged until the final moment in the most gripping finale of the series.
Keeping with the nostalgic form, the characters are presented in the super-deformed graphic style like the 8- and 16-bit games. The graphics themselves equally place among the most impressive on the PS1, alongside Chrono Cross and Vagrant Story. The FMV’s are utterly fantastic, destroying (in my opinion) those of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. Moreover, it is great to see the classic medieval setting in three dimensions.
Where this game does not emulate the older ones to well is in the music department. Granted, the soundtrack isn’t crap-awful but I’m in the consensus that the PS1 era represented a slight slump in the grand Uematsu’s style. As compared to Final Fantasy VI (or to a lesser extent, IV) the character themes are nowhere near as driving or endearing. The music is fitting—to use that ever-efficient description—but the tunes do not stick with you like some of the older ones do. Though not a major disappointment, it is a far cry from the best that Uematsu can do.
Final Fantasy IX is not a hard ride; extensive leveling up is not needed, and few bosses (including optional ones) will present a challenge. The minigames and sidequests themselves are numerous and very rewarding, and affording that you partake in all of them the game will run about 50 hours or more—standard fare for RPG’s.
So, while this game doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel in the genre so much so as other games in the series have, it is definitely worth playing. Being the last Final Fantasy title on the PS1, it provides a fitting conclusion to what is possibly the greatest series of games to grace that system. Final Fantasy IX functions more than just a videogame: it pays respect to a bygone era while simultaneously addressing that we may never taste of it again.
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