[The 20th anniversary of the North American release of Final Fantasy IX is on November 13, 2020 - a week from now. In the next couple of days leading up to that, I'm hoping to write a series of blogs to celebrate this wonderful game. I hope you enjoy the read.]
Final Fantasy IX is a classic JRPG that, for a while, was overlooked by its other siblings. It came out close to the tail end of the PlayStation 1’s lifecycle just as the PlayStation 2 was coming out and many players were moving on to the next generation. Final Fantasy X would come out the next year on PS2 as well, so FFIX was in a weird position. Though the game still sold well, it didn’t have the impact of FFVII and VIII (both financially and in popularity), during a time where graphics were still advancing rapidly, and the enhanced realism was more appealing. FFIX pushed for a more abstract look and opted for a return to the more medieval style that the original video games were built upon instead of the futuristic, more grounded settings of VII and VIII (which may have also alienated some fans at the time who had been drawn into the series with those games).
In recent years, though, FFIX has been ported to a variety of consoles like the PC, Switch and PlayStation 4 that’s allowed new audiences to be introduced to the game for the first time, which, personally, is really exciting to see. It still holds up against the test of time is still a lot of fun to play to this day. The game has a great narrative with a strong opening that I would like to talk about in more detail, because it’s one of those moments in games that really hooks you in.
Excellent openings are hard to execute. A great introduction not only has to draw an audience into its narrative, but also needs to begin immersing the player into its world and lore - all while setting up the foundation for what’s to come (and showing the player the controls/mechanics and keeping them engaged throughout this process). The beginning of Final Fantasy IX is an excellent, multifaceted beginning to a game that checks all those boxes and more.
The game starts off with a raging, thunderous storm, where we see two cloaked figures on a boat struggling to stay above water. Suddenly, the scene snaps to a young woman, crown on her head, seemingly waking up from a dream. She opens the window nearby as the camera pulls back to reveal that she lives in a castle overseeing a vast city.
We transition to a huge airship sailing above the clouds, and inside, a man with a tail (who goes by Zidane) makes his way around. This is where the player starts, and after learning the basics of combat and interaction, they get to meet a crew that Zidane is clearly familiar with. They start a meeting, where they discuss their plans to kidnap Princess Garnet by acting under the guise of a theatre troupe performing a major play, “I Want to Be Your Canary”, by Lord Avon (a reference to Shakespeare, who was known as the “Bard of Avon”) that’s happening in the city to celebrate the princess’s 16th birthday.
The scene shifts to a strange-looking boy (looking like a traditional Final Fantasy Black Mage) walking in the city, named Vivi, watching the same large airship from before above him, arriving at its destination – the vast city of Alexandria. It’s in Vivi’s shoes that the player gets to properly explore the world for the first time, and really become accustomed to the game’s people, history, and culture as everyone from around the continent congregate for this huge event.
Eventually, Vivi makes his way to the play, where the game again switches its perspective back to Zidane as the kidnapping plot goes underway. He finds the princess while she’s attempting leave the event disguised, but it is actually Garnet who asks him to abduct her and bring her away from the castle! Initially taken aback, he agrees to do so to the best of his ability.
Meanwhile, the captain of the guard, Adelbert Steiner, goes out looking for the princess, who’s left her seat from the play and hasn’t been back for some time. He catches up with Zidane and Garnet, and this all comes to a head when his chase after the two has all of the key players in this tale so far – Zidane, Garnet, Steiner, and Vivi - appearing on the stage of the play. The queen realizes what’s happening and tries to blow up the airship (where the stage is located), but it manages to fly away with our heroes. This should be about where the first hour ends (well, depending on how long you jump-roped or played FFIX’s card game, Tetra Master). From here on out, the party goes on a world-spanning adventure.
The summary I provided here honestly doesn’t do the actual execution justice – there’s a lot of little details I wasn’t able to cover that really make this story shine. There are so many moving parts at play, yet the game manages to balance them all so very well.
The game’s opening hour sets up an awesome setting and environment to play in – a bustling city brimming with life and people visiting from all over to come watch a big theatrical production. The player is given ample opportunity to really immerse themselves into the world, its history, and its people. The player can examine little plaques and statues that detail the game’s celebrated historical figures and wars that were fought or find out what the tonnage is for an airship.
Getting involved in small moments like an old woman making clothes for her granddaughter, helping a boy find his cat, or being notified by a shopkeeper that he’s closing up early so he and his wife can go watch the performance that they’ve worked so hard to pay tickets for may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but a bunch of little moments like that strung together really breathes life into the world that the player is a part of.
From a storytelling standpoint, everything is centralized towards the “I Want to Be Your Canary” performance. This is how our characters meet up – the play acts as an opportunity for people who come from different places and backgrounds (a princess, a thief, a knight, a boy) to connect with each other. This event gives them all a reason to cross paths when they normally never would. It’s simple, yet so effective.
There are so many hooks that are placed for the audience to grab onto and really start to become invested in playing, because there will be questions raised that beg for answers. Why are Zidane and his band of thieves kidnapping the princess? Why does the princess request to be kidnapped? Where does Vivi come from, and why does he look so different from anyone else shown so far? There are more than enough threads being spun here for the player to want to follow and delve deeper into the storyline and the characters.
Speaking of the characters, I feel like they’re greatly established here and with a lot of intrigue. You don’t get to see Garnet speak much in the first hour, but what she does say makes it clear that she is not passive and is (or is trying) to take a more active role. She shows cleverness and bravery when she at one point jumps off a tower, only to use streamers to swing to a different building. She’s resourceful when she must improvise on stage. There’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.
There’s not a lot to be shown or said of Vivi at the start, but I feel like that’s the point. It’s clear he’s not familiar with the area – he needs people to guide him around the place. You get to explore what feels like a ginormous city from the perspective of a young child. I asked myself, “Why is a kid running around the streets alone?” That question never gets an immediate answer. In this first hour, Vivi is a mystery – and that’s exactly the point.
Zidane is a part of a group of thieves aiming to kidnap Princess Garnet, and yet it never seems like it is done with malicious intent. The “criminal” theatre troupe say they’re going to do something bad, but they don’t seem like bad people. I always wondered until recently – “Why does the boss of the troupe attack Zidane and company at the beginning of the game?” Yes, it introduces the player to the gameplay mechanics. But why was it done this way? There had to be other opportunities for the player to fight something – to have it be your boss wearing a dragon head seems a bit silly. Then, it clicked for me – yes, it’s absolutely silly. That’s the goal.
The boss, Baku, tries to fight the other thieves while wearing a dragon head, and he is so bad at it. He trips multiple times during the first battle of the game! I realized that this sequence takes the edge off the characters themselves. Even while they discuss their kidnapping plot, it’s done in a comedic manner. It makes the audience think, “Yeah, these guys are doing something bad, but they don’t seem that bad.” And that’s the key – the whimsy not only adds depth and allows this troupe to be more relatable, but it also prevents the players from thinking too badly of someone who will be one of the primary protagonists of the game. Players will naturally feel like there’s got to be more going on to this situation rather than just thinking under the assumption that these guys are bad people, because clearly, they don’t appear to be behind closed curtains. It’s a genius move, in hindsight.
Steiner seems to get the least screen-time out of the main cast introduced, but he’s very much a driver of the initial events unfolding. He’s the one that forces Zidane and Garnet toward the stage at the end of the first hour, as he attempts to “rescue” the princess from these “villains”. However, he does this with a mix of devotion and comedy relief that makes him endearing in a weirdly awesome way. Moments like him attempting to follow after Zidane and Garnet by flying through the air with streamers (only to crash into a tower), or not listening to the party members when they continually warn him about a bomb monster growing in size behind him (thinking it’s a “Look behind you” trick shows he’s smart, but it’s in a situation where he should have, in fact, looked behind him) are absolute highlights. Steiner is a stoic and serious knight, at first. But the use of humor adds a lot more substance to his personality and makes him much more interesting than he has any credit being.
The way that this story and these characters are introduced is why the opening of Final Fantasy IX is so fantastic. This has everything you want out of an opening, fires on all cylinders, and displays some of the best characteristics of playing a Final Fantasy game – great stories, fun worlds, and endearing characters. You can really feel how series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi and the rest of the Final Fantasy team had honed their craft and expertise for 10+ years up until that point. The game refuses to show its hand too early but makes it clear that the cards its holding are worth playing the game for (and I don’t just mean Tetra Master).
I started this journey with FFIX over 15 years ago, which introduced me to the Final Fantasy series as a whole. It’s truly a game with spectacular moments of excitement, drama, and real emotion that I loved being a part of. After reading this, I hope that maybe you’ll want to give this game a try someday, too.