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There’s a fairly valid maxim that, while somewhat crude, is accurate: “Opinions are like assholes…everyone’s got one but no one really cares to look at it.” Nowhere is this more prevalent in “top lists”. Many people can look at one of those lists and scream: “Boo! That didn’t deserve to be on that list!” or “Why wasn’t XYZ on the list?” or “That reasoning was stupid! That doesn’t mean that should be on the list!” And, naturally, everyone believes their own rationale is the best.

I find that lists declaring what was the best or worst Final Fantasy game are particularly contentious. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of Final Fantasy fans: ones who think Final Fantasy VII deserves to forever be in the first or second position, or ones who think it should be at the bottom of the list if not off it entirely. I personally am of the controversial opinion that the end of Final Fantasy started with Final Fantasy X, although most people I talk to believe that was the “last good one”. Other people will maintain that for all its numerous flaws, Final Fantasy XIII should be considered one of the best (although I have yet to meet someone who believes Final Fantasy XIII-2 was any good storywise). And everyone has their reasons…and some can agree or disagree with them without necessarily being “right”, no matter how much one person thinks they are right or not. Because when dealing with a game, you’re dealing with “art”…and art is always subjective.

Nevertheless…my favorite game in the series is rarely on anyone’s top list, and that’s kind of sad to me.

It could be my preferences. I am definitely in the “old school” camp. Certainly before there was any of the “programmble actions” that were designed to make the battle systems in the games less “traditional RPG” and more cinematic. I’m purely a fan of the good old ATB system with the little sprites doing their thing. However, I like to think that when I play an RPG, or any video game for that matter, I’m in it for the story and the characters. And let’s be honest…in that regard, “pickings were slim” for quite some time. Until Final Fantasy VI, villains were your tradional Vader-esque/Sauron-esque dark lords who just wanted power and evil. And after Kefka earned his position as the best Final Fantasy villain of all time (I will be bold enough to say that’s a fact, not an opinion), the series regressed quite a bit on the villain angle in many respects. When Final Fantasy tried to get “deep”, it started throwing in metaphors. Now, in that sense, I only partially liked the series. A good metaphor should not be so abstract that it comes off as pure bizarre, but neither should it be so obvious that you need to beat the audience over the head with it.

Case in Point: In Final Fantasy X, the Summoners use the ‘Fayth’ to combat ‘Sin’. …You’re kidding me, right? Why didn’t you just name Tidus ‘Jesus’ while you were at it and Yuna ‘The Church’?

With these things in mind, I have as my opinion the truly greatest Final Fantasy game in the series, and the one that is also probably the most overlooked:

Final Fantasy IX.

Here’s the problem with this game in the series. If you mention it to anyone, they typically say: “Oh yeah…the nostaglic one.” Truth be told, a lot of that game was designed to be nostaglia for the series: from buying Une’s Mirror and Doga’s Artifact at the Treno Auction to the potion labels written by Matoya to the theme from Castle Pandemonia playing on Terra. The thing that irritates me is how the nostalgia in that game seems to “blind” players to the rest of it.

A lot of players also say that the character design annoys them. Admittedly, it’s pretty bizarre with the disproportional bodies and the more “kid-orientated” type graphics. However, one shouldn’t let those get to them. It’s almost infuriating to me to hear someone say they stopped playing the game because they couldn’t stand the character design. In my opinion, those people are rather shallow and they cheated themselves out of a great game. Sure, it’s stylized…but that’s all it is. If they didn’t like bizarre styles, how can they claim to like the latest games in the series that have come out, especially since all of the costumes seem to emphasize heavy ornamentation and accessories on the hips and shoulders while leaving the torsos bare, as well as making all costumes “assymetrical”? That’s no more bizarre to me. Plus, if there’s one lesson we should have all learned from the “Mother” series, it’s that you shouldn’t mistake something that’s made “cartoonish” for being childish.

In terms of gameplay itself, I think it’s pretty solid. Representative of some of the best mechanics from the PSX era for RPGs. It took foundations for a 360 degree RPG established by Final Fantasy VII and improved upon them more than Final Fantasy VIII did. Sure, the graphics may be a bit dated now…but so are the graphics to things like Mega Man and Mario and people still play those without complains. The series was trending toward “difficult-yet-non-rewarding” side quests/games at this point, such as the games in Alexandria, but the “big” side quests (Fixing Mognet, Chocobo Hot and Cold, etc.) offered a good balance of fun, good-yet-not-impossible challenge, and lovely rewards.

I enjoyed two things in particular about the battle system. One was the inclusion of four characters at once as opposed to the trend towards three. That in and of itself was a touch of nostalgia. But moreover, I enjoyed how characters had “jobs”. The nice thing about a character being of a certain “job” or type meant they were almost always useful in a situation, but if they weren’t you had to investigate what their strengths and aptitudes were and how you could use them. Contrast this to Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, where characters are, effectively, placeholders. The only thing that ever really sets them apart is limit breaks (the best ones of which, of course, are always on the main character). The worst part is that it started to bleed over into the characters’ personalities in Final Fantasy VIII, to which most characters were only defined by “that annoying thing they do” as opposed to being someone likeable. But it also made your choice for who should be in your party effectively a matter of “whose color scheme do you like the best?” Or who happened to be able to equip a weapon that was useful. The job system helped set out a personality in and of itself. By giving a character a “job”, you already have something to work with to give them a personality to work with.

I love the world in which it takes place in. It’s a return to the woefully underused steampunk setting that was present in Final Fantasy VI as opposed to pure medieval or the cyberpunk or dystopian settings that became popular afterward, before the series just decided to kind of make its own bizarre setting from X onward. I get the feel that the world is “fleshed out” and “complete”. I always had a “bare bones” feeling in the PS2 generation games and onward, because I felt the developers were devoting so much time and energy to making the world as “complete” as they could in terms of, say, a movie setting in the places you were in, they neglected everything else. Before, the games created the illusion that what you were walking into was only a small slice of a “big picture”. But with the push to make RPGs less RPG-like and more “world”-like came the idea that you had to be able to interact fully with everything from the perspective of the character.

In my opinion, that was too much of a stretch for the developers. By working so hard on making everything visible to the player as opposed to being able to create a world where the player could “fill in the gaps”, I get a sense that something is “missing” in the later games. By comparison, Final Fantasy IX’s world seems “fleshed out”, and is probably an advantage given by not having a more advanced system to feel the need to add those things.

The music was good as well. In my opinion, the new “style” of RPG that began in Final Fantasy X began to destroy Uematsu’s work, although it had begun to slip with Final Fantasy VIII. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Final Fantasy VIII’s songs are good and memorable…but he seemed to begin to “slip”. With the PSX and the desire for FMVs and cutscenes, Uematsu had to write more “background music”…a heavy number of songs that were designed to play only during scenes and not be “reusable”. In a sense, a limited number of songs is better to me because it forces an existing melody to be “adaptable”, and that’s where the magic happens in video gamers of yesteryear…people making what little they have go farther in beautiful ways. Yet a lot of Final Fantasy VIII’s music seemed almost like things you would hear on an elevator rather than something to be recalled. The same happened in Final Fantasy IX, but not to such a bad extent. Plus, he bounced back to put some more “exciting” music in Final Fantasy IX. Final Fantasy VIII had some…but not a lot.

Up until now, all of the things I described are essentially things that were good in Final Fantasy IX, but aren’t enough to really make it “stand out”. In fact, other games might have done them even better. Personally, to say something good about Final Fantasy X, I liked how it gave you the “best of both worlds” in the sphere grid system, starting off the game by making every character have their own job and enemies they were good at killing, and then as the game got late you could start making characters bleed into other categories. Better yet, Final Fantasy X introduced the lovely “team swapping in battle” feature which is the best thing I like of the battle systems in the later games. And while Final Fantasy IX, in my opinion, hands down, had the best FMVs of the PSX era…naturally they would only get better as the hardware developed to handle improved software. Also, being an old schooler, I drank in the nostalgia big time, but I understand that’s not for everyone.

I also figured the game was fairly complete in terms of extras. It had its rare enemies and encounters. It had superbosses that are nightmarish even to this day, including the “legendary” Ozma. So one shouldn’t believe that just because it was nostalgic that it simply threw in its past successes and let them substitute for anything new or improved. Yet still, this isn’t necessarily anything “wonderful” about the game.

Yet what truly sets this game above and beyond any other one in the series is that it’s the most effectively character driven one in the series.

I say “effective” because it’s definitely not the only character driven game in the series. In fact, that’s pretty much been the name of the game ever since Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII was all about Cloud (and possibly Aerith)…the first psychotic protagonist in the series. Final Fantasy VIII was all about Squall…possibly Squall and Rinoa, but mostly Squall. Final Fantasy X, naturally, was all about Tidus and Yuna…again, more about Tidus than anyone. Yuna would be the focus in Final Fantasy X-2. To an extent, all other characters, character interactions, personalities, needs, wants, and desires are simply “scenery” or “props” for those main characters.

And in those games, since they’re focused mostly on a character, those parts of the plot are pretty much focused on love. Final Fantasy VII…not so much, but the relationship of Cloud and Tifa was a big part. Most of its is Cloud “getting his head together”, but the reason Tifa is inevitably able to help him with that is because something is happening between them, not to mention what eventually caused Cloud to lose his mind ultimately stemmed from a desire to be someone Tifa would adore. Squall and Rinoa are more obvious, and Tidus and Yuna…definitely. (On a side note, was that whole stupid sequence in the water supposed to be them having metaphorical sex or something? I thought that was dumber than the infamous “HA-HA-HA-HA” scene.)

And granted, love is a big theme in Final Fantasy IX too. But it isn’t the central theme. Neither is the theme something so obvious or “world shaking” (at least, on the outside) as matters in other games. It’s a theme that would seem to be unusual for a game where the ultimate goal is to save the world’s past, present, and future from destruction:

“People find the place where they belong in others.”

That’s what the whole game is about, and repeated in character after character. And it’s something everyone thinks about at some point: “What is my meaning? What’s my purpose here? Where is it in this world that I ‘belong’?”

Spoilers Follow From This Point Onward.

Zidane is the main character, but he’s not who the game “starts” with. It starts with Vivi, as if to drive home the main point of the game. Vivi is a prototype bioweapon, not truly “alive”, compounded from the refuse of souls into the body of a child, and basically an experiment by Kuja to try and see if he could reproduce the process that made him on a different scale. His sole “true” purpose was simply to see if he could even be made in the first place, before a long line of other bioweapons like him could be made who “exist only to kill”. He’s wondering what his meaning is. He’s reminded constantly by the reactions of others that most of the world sees him as only a weapon of war, not as an individual and not something to be loved or accepted.

Throughout the game, the antagonists think of Vivi as little more than a “doll”…a “prototype model” who has no purpose other than one day to shut down and die. And indeed, he knows he will inevitably “shut down”. He knows he has no other real family or connections. In effect, that means that the only thing that should matter to him is his own existence…whatever enables him to live the longest before he dies.

But he doesn’t…because he manages to realize that in spite of his own hurt and confusion and fear, there are things more important than him in the world. He realizes that even if it costs him his own life, and even if he never gets any love or appreciation for it, he can help people and has to help them. When he decides to help stop the Iifa Tree from producing Mist, he knows full well that the existing Black Mages, his “kind”, will die shortly and can’t reproduce. His own hope for survival of his “species” is for it to continue. But he realizes that the “right” decision, even if it’s harder, is to stop the Mist so that no more people will die as a result of his kind being made as weapons.

In the end, Vivi found meaning in his own existence not in extending his own life, but in preserving the lives of others.

(And I have always been of the opinion that if you did pull off that little straw hat, you’d find a little boy (possibly with yellow shining eyes) staring innocently back at you.)

Vivi is the biggest example, but it’s really prevalent in all of the characters. Everyone in the game is looking for a purpose…a place where they can feel they belong. Some are more profound than others. Garnet/Dagger, for example, is looking for her own identity…becoming a queen not because that’s what was “expected” of her or what she was brought up to become but because she realizes she has to be. In effect, she’s trying to make her own identity for the first time in her life. Steiner is much the same, in many ways…for the first time stepping out from his “role” and his perfect, ideal, flawless-form version of how the world and his position in it is and trying to aspire to something he wants. Amarant defined his entire purpose in his life by his particular set of rules, and when they are violated he found himself without any meaning, so much to where he wanted to die rather than live as someone who “violated his own code”. Freya dictated her life by her devotion to her lover and her devotion to her country, and suddenly is faced with a situation where she no longer has either. Eiko is desperately seeking attachment…someone who she feels can be with her and not be “lost” as she lost her family. Even Quina is trying to become a true gourmand by learning whatever it means to be a true gourmand.

Aside from that, the theme is present in the Black Mages themselves very strongly. When the Black Mages become sentient and form their own village, they eventually learn that they are doomed to die, and only have a short time to live. They’re so desperate for more life that, even knowing deep down in their heart of hearts that Kuja will never give them more life, they allow the fool’s hope to turn them to serving him. The Black Mages that stay behind, however…do so because they realize if they perserve their own lives, they’ll forfeit the life of the baby chocobo they are trying to raise. A bit childish…yet also profound. In the end, they realize that rather than try to cling to their own mortality on a fool’s hope, that it’s more important that they try to bring a future to something else. In effect…they found a purpose in something besides themselves.

Then there’s Zidane. Zidane himself, aside from being an anti-hero who nevertheless isn’t your traditional grim, brooding, depressed figure as the previous “anti-heroes” had been, but rather a lech and a drunk, ended up being the bioweapon that was meant to bring about Gaia’s destruction itself. He spent the entire game more or less taking on the goal of trying to be “responsible” for everyone, to help everyone sort through their problems and keep everyone’s spirits up. Then he learns his true purpose…learns what he was “destined” for…and for a time it makes him feel like he’s indeed just a drone himself, who exists “only to kill”. He doesn’t feel he doesn’t need anyone at this point…he feels he doesn’t deserve anyone, if he was built to kill everyone. Yet it’s at that point that he realizes he was never “operating in a vacuum” when the others come to his aide. The whole time he made a “connection” to others…that just as he helped them find their purpose, he found purpose in them as well, and eventually it proved to be a two way street. He learned, just as Vivi did, that he is not defined by where he came from but by what he does with his life.

That brings us to the corollary of the main theme of that game: defining your own purpose rather than letting others define it for you. And that also brings us to who is ultimately the main character of the game…both the antagonist as well as the “protagonist” in a way…Kuja. One of the biggest mistakes DISSIDIA made was reducing his character to something so shallow and flat.

On the outset, Kuja is simply an annoying bad dresser who performs lots of villain cliches and generally makes an ass of himself. Playing the game the first time, and even the second, I wanted him dead just to shut him up. Only when you take time to think about him does he prove to be probably the most complex villain in the entire Final Fantasy series.

Kuja is essentially a bigger version of Vivi. A genome prototype…designed only to see if something “could be done”, to begin to carry out a function, and then to be replaced and discarded when done. However, Kuja grew angry at this and decided to forge his “own” purpose…to prove himself better than his own creator and the “greatest life form”. In doing so, he could definitely say he was the “better model” and not just a prototype. As a result, he is like a parentless child determined to force the “parent” that abandoned him in favor of another “child” to acknowledge him as the greatest.

Everything about Kuja, from his actions to his speech to his dress, can be understood in this vein and interpreted as such. Kuja, ultimately, is not a man or even a true malevolent evil overlord. He’s a confused, unguided child struggling to make an existence for himself and stumbling along the way. He laughs and gestures and makes long speeches and huge boasts because he’s imitating what he sees is the behavior of someone who is in control and knows who they are. He speaks in eloquent terms because he’s trying to mimic someone who is sophisticated. That’s why he hangs out in Treno…to observe nobles and try to be more like them since everyone looks up to them. He makes a grand palace for himself filled with baubles and decor not because he has any use for it, but because he thinks that gives him “status” and “prestige”. He is more than happy to talk continuously to someone who will listen to him…because that makes him feel important. After all, nothing pleases a child more than to feel like someone is interested and fascinated by them. When threatened and scared, he has to go into a childish bout of self-soothing to keep from breaking down emotionally, and, if that doesn’t work, he has to throw a tantrum in a vain attempt to remove what is making him feel frightened. Even his odd attire shows a simultaneous desire for independent identity (white feathers as opposed to golden brown fur) as well as confusion about who he is. The reason Kuja is likely androgynous in dress is because he likely doesn’t even fully know his own gender identity. It would not surprise me at all if Kuja was, in reality, a pansexual who was not “assigned” a gender when he was made (he IS a prototype, after all), and therefore simply takes whatever clothes suited him at the moment.

Because of this, for all his boasts, evil, wickedness, and snideness, I ultimately can’t bring myself to hate him as much as I’d like to…because I ultimately realize this is not an adult I am dealing with…but a child desperately trying to be a man. That’s why Kuja is ultimately a bit tragic even from a cynical perspective. He hated and spurned the Black Mages so much, including Vivi, when the fact of the matter is Vivi, even if he’s not nearly as powerful as Kuja, ultimately found greater purpose, greater fulfillment, and a greater legacy than Kuja ever would. The very Black Mages he thought so little of ultimately found more inner peace and completeness from tending a baby chocobo than he did destroying Terra.

Perhaps that is indeed what made him have the Heel Turn Face at the very end…realizing that if he destroyed the Crystal in Memoria, he would gain nothing except childish and ultimately useless venting of rage. After his defeat, perhaps he lay there and wondered what would have happened had he not been defeated. As he made that last defiant comment: “I’m dead anyway.”, he suddenly realized: “…That’s right, I am dead either way…and I always would have been. But if I had my way…there wouldn’t have even have been a memory of me left…” He realized, at last, that if he did something to help someone else besides himself…that that meant he would mean something good to them…would be something worth remembering…become someone important to someone else. And finally, even if he still hated Zidane deep down in his heart of hearts, he realized that saving him was his last chance to truly “exist” even after he died.

The one thing I dislike about the game is the “next to final act”…Memoria itself. It felt like the story was solid enough before they started introducing a great deal of metaphysical mumbo jumbo. Plus, if you have a background in astronomy like me, it makes you kind of giggle to think that there is one relatively tiny crystal floating in the cosmos that if you destroy it will nullify all creation, especially if the individual trying to do it, for all of their power and ability, is infinitely smaller than scum on the edge of a speck floating in midair. Maybe destroying Gaia would have made sense, but anything beyond that is pure hyperbole.

Yet in spite of that, from above, the depth of the message of what it means to belong somewhere, and how that message can resonate even without the standard fare of a “world crisis” present in Final Fantasy games, easily makes this game the best in the series to me.