Quite a few people criticize Final Fantasy IX for having a clear sense of urgency throughout most of the game. Sure, you have to save the princess. But afterward your characters kind of just stumbling through events until they reach their destination. It’s a pretty slow story progression.
Even then, it doesn’t really seem as if there’s always a definite purpose, or goal to accomplish in mind until later in the game (sometime after Disc 1, or when you finally get to see Kuja in the flesh).
But that’s not a bad thing, it only means the story is building. From a narrative standpoint, this is pretty much what the first Final Fantasy did. In the first Final Fantasy, we had to save a kidnapped princess Serah. In Final Fantasy IX, we had to abduct a princess, also named Serah. Afterward, you moved from dungeon and town simply exploring your surroundings. And like Final Fantasy I, you really don’t know who’s really pulling the strings, until the end. So then, Final Fantasy provides another much more subtle homage.
From here, Final Fantasy IX is actually more linear than Final Fantasy I. You can’t reach dungeons out of the intended order like you could in the first game. You’re pretty much bound by the narrative. So while you’re waiting for the story to build, you can enjoy the character arcs and side quest.
In Final Fantasy VII, you either had to take down Shinra or search for Sephiroth. In Final Fantasy VIII, you had to search for the sorceress. In Final Fantasy X, you had to complete your pilgrimage. Not a whole lot of reason to be playing arcade games, cards or sports, even if you had the time.
Final Fantasy IX progresses in a way where matters aren’t always pressing. So while exploring Alexandria or Treno, you could play Tetra Master if you wanted or you could advance the story. While on your next outing, you could play Chocobo Hot ‘N’ Cold. The former forces you to talk with people. The latter forces you to get familiar with the world, whereas you’ll probably have a sharper eye for detail.
And from a gameplay standpoint, it makes sense to the players why they might want to break up the story. If nothing is happening right now, well, play cards or explore Gaia with your Chocobo. In a game like Final Fantasy XIII, the story doesn’t lend itself to sidequests. A game like Final Fantasy XV does, but isn’t there someplace you have to be? In Final Fantasy IX, you can enjoy the adventure.
Final Fantasy VI and XII are similar, and Itou had a hand in directing both. Nothing wrong with it, just an observation.