A Place To Call Home
I played Final Fantasy IX for the first time nearly twenty years ago.
My brother and I were brand new to the world of RPGs, christened on the classic NES and SNES Final Fantasies only by means of a ZSNES emulator and a floppy disc. Together we had bugged my dad to take us to the local Blockbuster and rent us one of these titanic games — he relented, and Final Fantasy IX was ours.
In retrospect, Final Fantasy IX was one of the best ways we could have been introduced to this magnificent series. I had played Final Fantasy IV and V (both of them fan-translated English ROMs), but the world of the fantasy RPG was brand new to my younger brother. Full of whimsy, heart and adventure, Final Fantasy IX wasn’t just the introduction, it was the game that made us fall in love with the RPGs as a whole, and changed how we would look at video games for the rest of our lives.
Behind the Door
The summer of Final Fantasy IX was one of turmoil for us. My parents were new to the world of divorce, and so were we by extension. Our childhood summers were split down the middle, half with one parent and half with the other. The rules of the house were different depending on the parent, and so our bond with Final Fantasy could then only be curated by the month that my brother and I spent in my father’s suburban home. During that summer we were both dedicated to Final Fantasy IX — the real world was nothing but a horrid distraction from the mysteries of Gaia.
Final Fantasy IX is a love letter to all the series entries that preceded it, as well as a beautiful send off into a future generation of RPGs. It is the culmination of the characters, adventure and setting of Final Fantasy games, but it also serves as one of the best entry points in the entire series. Brimming with charismatic characters and a heart-wrenching story, Final Fantasy IX is the distillation of everything good in the genre, and one of the best entries in the thirty year history of the series.
New to the expectations of your typical RPG, my brother and I were instead gifted with the fanciful world of Gaia and its bevvy of creative, unique characters. The localization of Final Fantasy IX is incredible — a lack of voice acting holds nothing against the broad swaths of instantly unique character dialogue and personalities. The game does well with its introduction via Vivi, one of the most lovable characters in Final Fantasy alum. Through his eyes we are gifted a true tale of otherness, an existential drama that unfolds without any of the heavy hand-holding that is rife within the genre.
Melodies of Life
While told through the eyes of Zidane, Final Fantasy IX’s characters are so varied and wonderful that virtually any of them could have served as the protagonist of their trek through Gaia. A steampunk odyssey blooming with gorgeous locations and interesting monsters, Final Fantasy IX explores the nature of the RPG archetype itself, assigning roles and jobs to each character by the default nature of their personalities and place in the world, showcasing its drama between the working class, the wealthy, and the imperial.
The title track to the game, A Place To Call Home, is how I feel each and every time I return to Gaia. Games with linear structure but highly impactful narratives like Final Fantasy IX carry the feeling of a good, well-loved novel. Every time I play through Final Fantasy IX again the world is opened fresh again, and the nostalgia hits like a hammer. There is something in the construction of Final Fantasy games that make each and every one feel like a mirror into a real world, and Final Fantasy IX is no exception, but a celebration of how good it feels to step into a place fully realized and beautiful.
What Final Fantasy IX did for me as a pre-teen — and what it does for me now — is provide a sense of escapism that is touched by love and wonder. Escapism in an RPG that makes me feel as though I am not alone, that there can be real benefit in calling upon the help of friends and loved ones in order to scale monumental tasks. Final Fantasy IX is an existential drama not mired by pseudo-intellectualism or overwrought symbolism; it is a game that wants you to know that the universal task of being a person is a messy adventure fraught with loss and personal discovery.
I Want To Be Your Canary
The game carries all the mantras of a Final Fantasy while cutting the fat on everything but the series’ refined simplicities. Moogles and magic abound, but the story is placed front and center in a world that feels so achingly familiar it may as well have stemmed from the collective dreamscape of every person to ever place a Final Fantasy game into their console. Summons, magic spells, airships and even a trading card game complete this trek through the nostalgic and the familiar, and Final Fantasy IX smartly made its turn-based system and character customization as streamlined as possible in order to showcase the grandness of the adventure itself.
For my brother and I, our adventure in Gaia happened on-screen and off, our summer conversations belonging solely to the game: would Dagger save her country? Would Zidane find his home? Would Vivi find a place to belong? Would Steiner fulfill his duty, or Freya find her beloved? Would Amarant undo the party with his selfishness, would Eiko make Zidane fall for her whimsy, would Beatrix save her kingdom, would Quina perfect their ultimate dish? The arresting charms of Final Fantasy IX had done us both in, and unrefined as we were in how to play through such an enormous RPG, we were tasked with helping one another conquer brutal boss fights and locate every Stellazio coin.
The overwhelming beauty in Final Fantasy IX stems from its cast of characters and how their actions interlace with the evils consuming their world. In typical Final Fantasy fashion, the villains of the first act are shown to be frauds and puppets of a more sinister evil, and every character must wade through the effects of a broken heart as their homes, friends, and family are ruined in the wake of a world-altering evil. Well beyond its initial moments, Final Fantasy IX continues to prompt the players with questions about the nature of belonging, meaning, and humanity.
From the rain-slicked streets of Burmecia to the inverted Ipsen’s Castle to the grand sweeping landscapes that exist between the Mist and Outer Continents, the diverse world of Gaia, steeped in miasma, feels like the birthplace of all other Final Fantasy worlds, the happy amalgamation of so many beautiful and mysterious landscapes that have made home the plots of these beloved games. Its characters feel familiar because they comprise the best of everything that came before, and showcase the strongest aspect of a good RPG — the diverse cast of characters that are its heart.
You Are Not Alone
There is a moment in Final Fantasy IX I always think on. At the absolute abyss of Zidane’s depression, after learning the truth of his origins, his personality and drive break and he is left a shell that can no longer recognize the benefits of his friends. And it is there, in that same abyssal darkness, that his friends lift him up regardless of his pain and misery. It is in those halls that his friends fight shoulder to shoulder to remind him that, without one ounce of doubt, he is not alone.
The game is filled with moments — Vivi’s coming of age in the Black Mage Village, Zidane kidnapping the princess, Dagger cutting her hair away, Steiner and Beatrix back to back defending the streets of Alexandria, or Freya facing the loss of both of her homes — that fit together so well that every story beat feels like a nostalgic snapshot. Final Fantasy IX is a testament to both storytelling and character design, a world-building marvel that seeks to make you feel something for every character, regardless of how minor.
Final Fantasy IX was a game of my childhood, and continues to be an anchor of my creative adult mind, a labor of love so obvious that it lives and breathes as if it has existed for far longer than twenty years, and will exist far beyond twenty years more. The game presents to us the melodies of life, those wholesome small notes of moments that collectively make up the grander scheme of our human existence. Somewhere in the adventure of Zidane and his ragtag group of world-changing heroes exists all possible stories — one of the best ones in the entirety of the genre of RPG and a testament to storytelling, worldbuilding, and music in the medium.