Short answer: It is.
This should be the end of discussion. And for me, in practical conversation, it is. But I’ve noticed something strange when reading what he wrote.
Final Fantasy IX is more like what Sakaguchi wanted Final Fantasy to be like, for as he said:
The coming installment is my “favorite,” it’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be.
Well, there then, right? He said it, we believe it, that settles it. But why did he put the word “favorite” in quotes? As he was talking, would he have used his fingers for “air quotes”?
Sakaguchi would say a game was his favorite and his personal stamp of approval would boost the game’s appeal. He once said Final Fantasy V was his favorite, and we all remember this scene. Either way, I think we have Sakaguchi misunderstood here.
Final Fantasy IX epitomizes the past Final Fantasy games. I think this is what Sakaguchi likes about Final Fantasy IX. He probably didn’t want to choose between Final Fantasy games. Then again he did mention IX, I think as to symbolically say all of them.
In fact, now let’s take in Sakaguchi’s full quote, in proper context. When asked which is his favourite (without quotes) game, Sakaguchi said:
The upcoming Final Fantasy IX. This title (currently under development) is based on a reflection of all the previous works in the series. The coming installment is my “favorite,” it’s closest to my ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be. But, I’ve set my standards too high, so I think there’s room for more Final Fantasy titles to come.
But isn’t every Final Fantasy unique? What does he mean by setting his “standards too high”? Does this mean Final Fantasy IX was his favorite before the game finished development? By putting it in quotes, it’s almost like he didn’t want to say any were actually his favorite. I think he used this opportunity to promote the game, putting his stamp of approval on it in advance. Something tells me we lost a lot of what he said throughout the interview in translation…
Either way, Final Fantasy IX summed up the series at the time. When Sakaguchi said it was what his ideal game, he wasn’t talking about the medieval setting, the aesthetics or story. He means his reflection while working on the series. Final Fantasy grows and builds upon itself, without repeating. This is what Final Fantasy IX captures.
Final Fantasy IX wasn’t trying to be THE Final Fantasy of course. It showcased all of what Final Fantasy was before moving on. And he succeeded in making Final Fantasy its own thing, paradoxically by making it a homage to past titles.
At least, this is what I think.
I also think Final Fantasy IX combined a lot of “leftover ideas” unfit for other games. For example, Tetra Master was most likely a prototype of Triple Triad. Trance was probably for in Final Fantasy VI. Chocobo Hot ‘n’ Cold, Mognet, Stellazio and maybe certain story and battle elements were probably leftover ideas as well.
This innovation of combining the forgotten elements is why Sakaguchi like it.
At least, that’s my suspicion…