If it ever came up in conversation, I could talk to you endlessly about why Final Fantasy IX is easily my favorite in the long-running role-playing game series. From the bustling medieval fantasy world that it is set in, to the ragtag bunch of characters that find themselves thrown on an unexpected adventure together, the game, from my perspective at least, remains to be one of the most underrated.
In many ways, I can see why. After the neo-futuristic direction that was chosen for both Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, the approach that was taken for the game’s development was to create a retrospective look back at what the series had long been – rather than a concerted effort to necessarily evolve it for the future. That change would ultimately come when it made the jump to PlayStation 2, but, as the last Final Fantasy game that series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi would work on as a producer, it was the chance to witness an unpredictable, heart-wrenchingly dark story unravel coupled with some tremendous character development and deeply emotive themes.
We start in the kingdom of Alexandria, where Tantalus, an infamous band of daring thieves, is working undercover as a theater troupe to kidnap Princess Garnet Til Alexandros, the heir to the throne. While they put on a performance of “I Want To Be Your Canary” – the kingdom’s most popular play – from aboard their theater ship to distract Queen Brahne and her loyal subjects, Blank and the flirtatious but virtuous thief Zidane are challenged with locating and kidnapping the princess. Their mission is far easier than expected, because, as they soon discover, she had made her own plans to attempt to escape the castle that same night.
With Knights of the Pluto captain Steiner giving chase thanks to his unwavering vow to protect her, a misdirected spell cast by inexperienced black mage Vivi soon blows their cover. Furious at the deception, the Queen unloads the castle’s defenses at the theater ship in response. Barely managing to escape, it soon crash lands in the Evil Forest. And so, our adventure begins. It isn’t long before we learn the unnerving reason behind why the princess wanted to make her escape, and, once that murkier plot has been uncovered, the band of characters must rally together to fight for the greater good.
Final Fantasy IX’s main cast is one of the strongest to have been conceived for the series – likable characters that you will want to root for and savor learning more about. Amarant aside, they’re a memorable bunch who have since become fan-favorites. It was the new Active Time Events mechanic that helped this, in that, when prompted, you could witness and sometimes control scenes that were taking place away from your main location.
Everything else that you have come to expect from a Final Fantasy experience remains par for the course here. Random encounters will frequently interrupt your journey, in which the Active Time Battle system makes a return. You can choose whether battles never stop once a party character is ready to take their turn (“Active”), or if the action stops while you decide what to do (“Wait”). There’s also how your characters are positioned in rows to consider, with physical attackers best placed on the front row while spellcasters attack from a distance at the back.
Strategy continues to be layered thanks to Action and Support Abilities that your characters can learn from the equipment they carry. These either reward you with passive skills or those that you can choose to use in battle. And then there’s Trance, which replaces Limit Breaks. As your party takes damage the Trance Gauge will increase, and, once full, they will gain access to more powerful attacks. I still don’t think that it was the right direction, in that the gameplay mechanic felt more convoluted than it ever needed to be.
At least Final Fantasy IX remains accessible to all – more so than ever before, thanks to new booster functions that you can use. High Speed Mode will, unsurprisingly, speed up the game, whereas Safe Travel will prevent random encounters from happening. Throw in 9999 (which sees every attack deal 9999 damage) and Battle Assistance (that means your Active Time Battle, HP, MP, and Trance gauges are always full), and you can eliminate any challenges that you’re faced with. You can even head into the Config menu to activate Master Abilities, Level and Magic Stones Max, and Gil Max, that, coupled with Safe Travel, means that you can simply sit back and watch Final Fantasy IX’s meaningful and heartfelt story unfold.
Given these additions, it’s worth mentioning that this is the same port that has graced PlayStation 4, PC, iOS and Android. You can expect high-definition movies and character models (which do look slightly out of place against the aged pre-rendered backgrounds) as well as a handy autosave. But, there are also problems that remain unaddressed. There’s a contentious bug, where, after every random encounter, the music track that has been accompanying your exploration restarts rather than continuing on from where it left off. The community has complained about this for a long time – the Final Fantasy IX port was released for PlayStation 4 in September 2017, believe it or not – and Square Enix hasn’t even made an effort to correct it on other platforms. That means that it is a shared disappointment to have, then.
It’s a minor – if understandably frustrating – blemish on a port that presents Nintendo Switch owners with a welcome chance to revisit an all-time RPG classic, or to enviably discover it for the first time. That sentiment is reinforced by Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack – arguably brimming with some of the finest melodies that the Japanese composer has ever plucked from his creative mind. Oh, and who can forget the addictive Tetra Master card game, even if it’s more complicated than what came before.
I never thought that I would ever have the chance to play Final Fantasy IX on a Nintendo console, and, with Nintendo Switch, Square Enix has perhaps found the perfect place to experience the genre classic. Complete with its twists and turns, you can chip away at this roughly 40-hour quest both at home and on the move, which I can only hope will allow more players the time needed to reach the game’s grand and, for some at least, tear-inducing conclusion.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Square Enix