Welcome to another installment of Retro Weekend, the weekly feature where I play a classic game and write whatever I want about it! This week, I played Final Fantasy IX over my vacation. I wasn’t planning on writing about it either, until I got to listen to OCRemix’s latest Final Fantasy IX compilation. Playing the game and listening to the music, I realized how happy this game makes me. I adore it for so many reasons. It’s my comfort food.
I haven’t had much of a chance to dive into some of the retro games I’ve been meaning to. Recently, I was on vacation visiting some family, which actually means I didn’t have much of a quiet, relaxing vacation. Originally, the plan was to plow through some old games, but once I realized how little time I’d have, I decided to instead pick up an old favorite and cuddle with nostalgia for a few hours. The game I played was Final Fantasy IX, and it’s a game I absolutely adore.
My history with the series is a bit all over the place, but over time I’ve gotten my hands on almost every game in the franchise. Surprisingly, the first Final Fantasy game I ever played was one of the most acclaimed, Final Fantasy VI (or III when I originally played it on Super Nintendo). I was about 6 years old and I hated it. I had to wait to attack? I was picking options out of a menu all the time? There’s so much reading! Yeah, I was too young for it. Flash forward a few years and I played the demo of Final Fantasy VIII and was hooked. I needed this game. But to hold myself over, I picked up VII and was blown away by what I played. After that, I was a fan for life.
Final Fantasy IX, however, always stands out to me. And I honestly can’t quite pinpoint what it is. In terms of the series, it was meant to be a return to form, pulling familiar aspects for the 2D games, taking the setting to a more fantasy-based world and letting the sci-fi elements of VII and VIII go. Characters had classes, which meant each party could be vastly different than the next and some groups would work much better against certain enemies than others. But it was all wrapped up in this fully realized epic world with the outrageous production value Square was beginning to be known for.
Maybe it’s the characters themselves that push Final Fantasy IX ahead of so many other games. Most Final Fantasy games have pretty great casts, but IX really has a bunch of standout characters that all play interesting and developing roles throughout the story that it’s hard not to care about most of them. Vivi is constantly questioning what his existence means. Garnet is a princess with heavy burdens to bear, running from them in some ways, facing them in others. Zidane is a fun-loving thief who gets caught up in real problems that he notices are bigger than him. Steiner’s sense of duty is undeniable, but he has to come to terms with what’s actually right and wrong when fulfilling that duty. There’s just so much here!
Okay, you know what? The music has got to be a part of why I love it. Nobuo Uematsu is in full form on this soundtrack. Nearly every single track is a gem. In my old age, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliance of Final Fantasy VIII’s OST, but I still think as an overall work, IX’s takes the cake. There are whimsical songs that instantly make me smile and feel relaxed. There are exciting tracks that get my blood pumping and ready to fight. There are downtrodden, melancholy pieces that reflect the dire situations in the game perfectly, forcing the player to really feel the gravitas of certain moments. Oh, and a wonderful Chocobo theme!
Uematsu’s work on IX is so spectacular because the tracks themselves seem to tell a story. Or at least they help tell the story. One song, “Never Alone,” is one of my particular favorites, and it feels like a track about contemplating your own actions and your own choices. Are you right? Are you wrong? Who will you become? And just when you figure it out, the music breaks off into this incredible riff that almost says, “You knew who you were all along, you have nothing to worry about, now go make history.” And dozens of tracks seem to follow suit and have their own narrative.
“The Kingdom of Burmecia” is a haunting piece that can send you chills. It plays during the dark and rainy arrival to the city that your party member Freya hails from. It’s in shambles. It’s practically deserted. But there’s still the presence of a once proud and beautiful city behind the gloom. It’s a track for a city that I could see being completely different if we saw Burmecia at a different time. Again, it’s something I find so special about this music because it not only is representative of the place, but the time and what’s happening around that time as well. These tracks are more than just background music.
The first track you hear is called A Place Called Home and with its sweeping horns and flute, it sets the entire tone for the game. Like I mentioned earlier, the characters in Final Fantasy IX are all very deep, dynamic characters that are all going through something personal and they deal with it on this adventure. But looking back, I think they are all trying to find a place to call home. Each one, in their own way, is learning who they are, and where they want to go. Figuring that out is one of the hardest things we do in life. Some people never find home. The tone of the track seems to balance on the line between being hopeful, and being disappointed.
I could sit here and wax poetic about the entirety of the album, but we all have things to do, and places to call our home. But the music of Final Fantasy IX is not only a highlight for the series, but for music in general. I can’t think about the game without thinking about the music, nor can I think about the characters without certain themes playing in my head. I’ve actually been surprised at how many people skipped over IX because of the impending release of the PlayStation 2 or simple RPG fatigue from the PS1 era, because it may possibly be the best game in the PS1 Final Fantasy trilogy. Hey, it may possibly be my favorite game in the series! I still can’t decide. But there’s absolutely something special, memorable, and endearing about Final Fantasy IX. So if you haven’t played it, I implore you to try. And if you have, pick it back up for a short while. It still has one of the most fun openings out of any in the series!