Serotonin: Final Fantasy IX, and nostalgia versus time

October 12, 2013


My girlfriend and I often play games together. It’s a good way to pass the time in the fall and winter months. When we can’t go for hikes, or kayak in Victoria’s beautiful inner harbor, we settle for placing lightning towers in Dungeon Defenders or doing a second playthrough of Borderlands 2. Like most experiences in life, ours with games are enhanced when enjoying with others.

I was delighted when I recalled that Final Fantasy VI had a multiplayer option and was available for purchase on the Wii Shop Channel. I was even more pleased when Kyla kept commenting on how much she was enjoying the game. Though I’ve played through FFVI a half-dozen times in my life, it never gets old. The soundtrack’s melodies are unforgettable; Terra’s theme has to be one of the catchiest, most powerful songs ever to grace our ears. The controls are tight, and the characters are appealing. The story doesn’t cop out, takes risks and is ultimately as satisfying as anything you’ll find in modern games. As the years go on, FFVI continues to have a place among the best ever.

I was thrilled that we could play cooperatively. Sure, it was just battles, but Kyla was a lot better than me at landing Blitzes and we could enjoy the story together; me for nostalgia’s sake and her for seeing it for the first time. How can one character show more emotion in a pixel-sized wink than most characters do today in big-budget cutscenes?

That’s part of the magic. I wanted to emulate that magic, so I did some digging on other cooperative RPGs. We’d already blazed through both Borderlands games (twice), so I started looking for other Final Fantasy games that allow for co-op, which led me to Final Fantasy IX.


Final Fantasy IX is great. One of the swan songs for the PlayStation, and was critically acclaimed for its story and particularly for the characters. Vivi Ornitier remains my all-time favorite character from the entire series, and Adelbert Steiner is a close second; the way his armor rattles when he jumps up and down still cracks me up. He has an amusing rivalry with the main protagonist Zidane, something we didn’t often see in previous titles. It sheds the futuristic look and feel of VII and VIII and returns to its roots: pure fantasy. Sure, you have cannons and airships and measures of steampunk technology, but you won’t find a floating city like Esther, or a techno slum like Midgar.

The massive, multi-district city of Lindblum is about as colorful and pleasant as a medieval town gets. Burmecia is truly a sight to behold, a town constantly showered by rain and covered in magnificent-looking cobblestone paths. Treno is one of the more creative places to explore, and one of my favorites. It’s always night, people are always gambling and there is no middle class. The elite wealthy spend their time dressed up, complain about the lower class and spend their cash on items at the auction. The poor live their lives in the slums around the city, eager to earn or steal whatever they can.

There’s a great sense of wonder in the game. Backgrounds are pre-rendered and still look fantastic today. There’s a reason fans have been clamoring for an HD remake of Final Fantasy IX for years: the images, colors, backdrops, cities, spells and monsters are all full of imagination. You could tell the developers had a very specific design in mind, and they nailed it.

The battle system is where nostalgia meets its greatest enemy: the present. Beloved games from our past don’t always agree with our current expectations. Do me a favor and don’t play Goldeneye 007 anytime soon; it’s better in your head. This is a common trend among first-generation 3D games, and they can hardly be blamed. It was new technology at the time; Super Mario 64 was awe-inspiring upon first glance, but you look at it today and can’t believe this is what wow-ed everybody. I warned Kyla that Final Fantasy IX, now almost 13 years old, would have load times that the SNES game didn’t have. This might hinder progress a bit. No problem.


But I forgot how bad the load times are. When I was playing it 13 years ago, I didn’t have that much on my plate. I was in high school and had a lot of free time. No job, no rent, no girlfriend. I had all the time in the world. Which is probably why I didn’t mind waiting for all the battles to load at sloth speed. It takes about fifteen seconds from running into a enemy and the battle actually starting. If your active time bar starts at the beginning due to an ambush, it can take up to 25 seconds before you get to even select a character.

It takes less than three seconds for Final Fantasy VI to begin a battle, and about that to exit the battle screen and go back to where you first standing prior to the start of the fight. FFIX takes… longer than that. It’s a good thing the rest of this game is good, because the constant waiting for the battles to load is a barrier I’m not sure we’re willing to overcome.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it didn’t happen with crippling frequency. It also crushes any momentum of interest you might have. If you’re bored in a dungeon, chances are you’re not going to be heavily motivated to keep going, because every hallway is filled with impossible-to-dodge fights that take forever to load. At least in this one, you aren’t at the mercy of the Guardian Force summon videos from Final Fantasy VIII. It’s too bad, but it’s true. I can’t recommend FFIX until there’s a lightning-quick HD remake that gets rid of the technical grind.


We never really know which games are going to end up as timeless classics. Many movie experts will look back at the list of Oscar winners and shake their head in disbelief. What were they thinking? Here we have a more complicated example; very few would claim FFIX is a bad game. Vivi’s philosophical journey about who (or what) he is stays with you. I can’t help but feel a truckload of empathy for this little engine that could. He trips all the time, is a head shorter than nearly everybody, doesn’t know who or what he really is, barely has a family and is put down like the evil black mages who wear similar clothes. Yet he retains his persistent, positive attitude and commendable loyalty to Zidane and company.

The loading times are just too much. It doesn’t make the game unplayable, but it doesn’t warrant a recommendation to newer players who have never experienced it. This is the kind of game that is screaming for a remake: updated with faster, better technology but retaining the unique spirit of the original. Currently, nostalgia is losing to current expectations, but I’m willing to be on the losing side. I just need a little help from Square Enix.