Nostalgia in video games (in particular here, Final Fantasy IX) is a tricksy thing. Subject to the sort of whimsical dreamlike confessions of love reserved for a childhood crush or friendship. Games of the 32-bit era are especially hit and miss to return to. An age of 3D gaming's awkward formative years. Where only a select handful have survived the intervening years with their dignity intact (which is, of course, the secret to surviving your adolescence).
Nostalgic and Magical
The PS One trio of Final Fantasy titles sit somewhere in the middle. Time has not been all that kind to the in-game visuals. The passing of time much like the scars left behind by the graphical acne. Yet nearly everything else tends to be done well enough to remain somewhat relevant to modern tastes. Each has a special something that appeals to (or aggrieves) Final Fantasy fans. Revisiting this trio should still be relatively pleasant, but a few touches of modernity wouldn't go amiss. So when Final Fantasy VII got a PS4 release, it not only brought across the improved visuals of the PC port, it added in some handy modifiers to alleviate some of the more laborious aspects of a now-two-decade-old title.
Final Fantasy IX has appeared on PS4 as well, with VIII and XIII now the only remaining PlayStation era Final Fantasy's not on Sony's current gaming juggernaut (Remedy the former already Square-Enix!). Personally speaking, it's my second favorite in the series. In hindsight, it feels like the last hurrah of classical Final Fantasy. With the future tech magica of VII and VIII replaced by a more traditional Medieval European aesthetic with a few steampunk-esque flourishes (itself heavily influenced by the very first Final Fantasy).
Murder on Zidane’s Floor
Our hero is the lion-tailed Zidane, a cheerier, more rascally lead than the stone-faced Cloud and Squall. From the off, there's a humour and warmth to this Final Fantasy that's utterly infectious. Despite being centred on a war between nations, the introductions to the main cast are handled with a lovely mix of exposition, jokes, and set pieces. Zidane's troupe of bandits starts the game preparing to perform a play as a ruse for kidnapping Princess Garnet of Alexandria. They are successful, but the comedy of errors that occurs in the lead up to that makes for a wonderful opening, incorporating the play itself into teaching the combat system and furthering the story.
The tone is light during these opening moments. Yet despite the cheerful demeanour and big-headed character design, Final Fantasy IX has a darker side to rival anything else in the series. Zidane, Garnet, and their motley crew become embroiled in a greater threat to the world than the war. That’s from Kuja, a character seemingly connected to Zidane. As events unfold, there's plenty of grim moments, shocking revelations, sights of wonder, and tender heartbreak. All swept up in the delightful visual style and high hit-rate humour. To put it in swifter terms, it's a really bloody good Final Fantasy.
Steiner Days, Moogle Nights
The trouble is, revisiting it after such a huge expanse of time, when neither of us have the same youthful glint in our eye nor quite the same enthusiasm, means the return has a chance of being the game nostalgia equivalent of an awkward silence. I really don't want to do the painful charade of forcing myself to admire it like it was the turn of the century. Back when I was rake thin and not in need of a regular shave. Happily, much like the Final Fantasy VII PS4 port, IX has some little tricks up its sleeves. And it makes the reintroduction as pleasant as I could want.
FFIX of old didn't respect your time, and in truth, back then it didn't have to. We were young, brimming with free time, and happy with a select few games. Final Fantasy IX in 2017 is more accommodating, Final Fantasy IX in 2017 cares about your likely crowded schedule. The story is the part I personally want to relive the most. The rest? Not so much. I just want to hang out with Zidane, Steiner, and the gang again. So the beauty of Final Fantasy IX here is it gives you shortcuts that let you focus on exactly what you like about the game.
Want to get out of certain pain in the arse boss fights quickly? You can just switch 9999 damage mode to kill most baddies in a heartbeat. Bored of being interrupted by random encounters as you traverse the map? There's a toggle for that. Want to speed up the AP meter in battle? It's there. You can shave huge chunks of time off your time in a guilt-free fashion. It's a feature I think more games of that era could do with when they jump to a modern platform.
A Doorway to Yesterday
It's a great way to revisit games that you regard fondly. Though they don't entirely hold up to the standard you had for them back in the day. Sure, there are those who do enjoy early polygonal titles regardless of any decline in technical quality, and hell, I even have one or two that I'll happily play unaltered (Resident Evil 2). But having that option to nullify the more decrepit aspects of a fumbling, ambitious era and mainline the best nostalgia juice? In lieu of a remake, it's a fine alternative.
The result? Final Fantasy IX is an old friend I was happy to spend time with, even after all these years, because it understood time is not on our side anymore. That's the kind of friend we could all do with.