It was quickly becoming a year-long tradition for me to play a Final Fantasy each Christmas. And why not? At the time, Squaresoft released a game every two years. I started the series late, but I could now play the games on a regular basis. I looked forward to playing for fantasy games set in the future.
But this one was different. Final Fantasy VII was a cyberpunk dystopia with realistic looking characters (for the most part). Final Fantasy VII was a modern game with realistic looking characters in battle and the field. Final Fantasy IX was..not. I didn’t know how to explain what I saw. The characters had big heads, the wide hips, narrow shoulders and short statures. Everything was noticeably bright and colorful too. It seemed happier. This was like a Saturday morning cartoon.
I mistakenly assumed all drama arose from dark settings and gritty textures. Anything less was childish. The cast was diverse, with animals and humans. Vivi looked familiar. That’s because the Black Mage from the first Final Fantasy inspired his design. So then, unlike Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX took much more from the first game. I didn’t really know what to think of it, but I gave it a chance.
I liked it, but nothing grabbed my attention at the time. The story flowed better than Final Fantasy VII and VIII, and it was much more a fantasy than science fantasy. Still, I didn’t really get Final Fantasy IX. The battle system was slow, the story took a while to build and it seemed dialogue heavy.
Now I know the style I saw is chibi. Chibi characters are big in Japan and were prominent in the older Final Fantasy titles. So why were they here? I didn’t know at the time, but for nostalgia. If Final Fantasy VII and VIII were all you knew, you probably didn’t get Final Fantasy IX. I didn’t play the older games, so I had no reference.
Final Fantasy IV and VI would have been good places to start, but I no longer had a SNES. Then again, that wasn’t an excuse. They released Final Fantasy Anthology, which contained Final Fantasy V and VI a year earlier. They released Final Fantasy Chronicles, which contained Final Fantasy IV. I could have played any of these games, but I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t care for the sprite design? Maybe I wanted realistically proportioned characters in my games? Maybe I only cared for 3D? I don’t know why I passed up the classics when I was younger.
But Final Fantasy IX grew on me and suggested I play them. Freya and Vivi’s costume design made me wonder: what was the Black and Red Mage like in the original game? Zidane was a thief. How did the thief play in Final Fantasy? After playing Final Fantasy IX multiple times later, I made the leap to the classics. I started with Final Fantasy I and progressed all the way to Final Fantasy VI. Finally, I had a suitable overview of the series. I understood what Final Fantasy IX was trying to accomplish. It was a homage to the series and a love letter to fans.
And when I replayed Final Fantasy IX after the classics, I had much more appreciation for it. Now I started hunting for Easter eggs, which kept my attention. You really have to play the earlier games to understand what Final Fantasy IX tried to accomplish. But even if you didn’t, the magic was still there.