You know how everyone has that one game that was an instrumental part of them growing up? Final Fantasy 9 is that game for me (though Pokemon and RollerCoaster Tycoon get honourable mentions). While technically it isn’t my favourite in the series anymore - FF14 gets that title - it’s the one that means the most to me when I look back to my younger years. It’s also turned 15 years old in America this week (It was released in Japan first on July 7th) so now feels like the perfect time to reflect on my feelings about the game and how they’ve changed over the years.
Coming from the EU (the land of stupidly late release dates), I didn’t get my hands on FF9 until months after everyone else. Heck, I didn’t even play it on the right console, instead I played it on PS2 at the start of 2002, back when the internet wasn’t a ‘thing’ and no one understood the concept of memory cards until well after you realised you couldn’t save any games without one. I was 14, confused, and deeply unhappy at school. I needed a distraction.
FF9 came at just the right time for me. Images of the huge city of Lindblum and its gate sliding open to reveal houses quirkily tumbling into one another and airships trundling along had me instantly hooked. Zidane’s tale of adventure and self discovery while dealing with the evil that Kuja inflicts upon the world of Gaia is as classic as Final Fantasy gets, and the Medieval-inspired fantasy world still holds up well today thanks to the high level of detail in the background art and incidental dialogue. It’s one of those worlds where it feels like people actually live there.
But over the last 15 years I’ve changed, and so has the way I view the characters. They used to be older than me, peers to look up to, and now they’re just kids. I hated Garnet when I first met her. At first glance she was nothing more than a damsel in distress who was too posh to speak like a normal person, so I had no sympathy for her. I had also named her after one of my ‘frenemies’ at school, so maybe that had something to do with how my opinion of her soured, but Zidane was cool with his dual daggers and Vivi was adorable, so Garnet’s whininess was a small price to pay for a chance to explore the Mist continent.
Now that I’m older and have experienced a bit more of this life thing, I view her completely differently. Her internal struggle of caring deeply for her Mother, but not agreeing with the path she’s chosen is, something I can now relate to. What I initially brushed off as a flight of fancy with some monkey-tailed boy I now understand is her doing whatever she can within her power to follow her heart and do the right thing. I thought she was weak for becoming mute after failing to protect her home city of Alexandria 15 years ago, but today I can fully appreciate the all-consuming sorrow and guilt that drove her to such a reaction.
I can even appreciate the motivations of rusty knight Steiner who’s just trying to do what he thinks is best for his charge even if that’s not what she wants - a scenario that flew way above my head at 14. He was once just an old man who got in the way and smelled like pickles, but now I realise he’s a deeply caring father-figure who bravely goes against everything he’s ever known to do what’s right.
It’s a strange feeling realising how my perspective has shifted so much, and it’s even stranger how it’s completely changed a game like Final Fantasy 9 for me. How I understand and relate to it when I play through it now is completely different to what it was when I was still a teen. Back then it was the perfect bit of escapism, somewhere I could retreat to to avoid the ridiculous school politics of accidentally wearing the same top as someone else on no uniform day, but now it feels so much richer.
Ok, so the goggles of nostalgia definitely help to see past all of the ageing cracks (random battles can get bent), but I’m still finding new things every time I play. Right at the start of the game when you’re pootling around the city of Alexandria as Vivi you get the chance to poke around in people’s houses. The first time I played FF9 this was the perfect chance to hoover up as much gil as I could before moving on to more exciting battles. When I played it again earlier this year, I started paying attention to the people who lived there after nosing around the modest home of an elderly lady.
I looked under her bed. “Found Grandma’s savings of 9 gil.” A wave of guilt crashed over me. I’d done the same thing so many times before, but it was the first time I truly noticed it. Turns out I’d been a bit of a dick all of these years. After that I couldn’t stop noticing these things, like how the Red Mage drinking in the tavern is struggling with depression and the waitress is aspiring to be a manager so she can fix her crumbling workplace.
It’s added a whole new layer to the game for me to appreciate, one that I just didn’t understand all those years ago because I didn’t have the experience I needed to relate to it yet. It’s a completely different game for me now. The twists in the story seem that bit more shocking, and the sadness is that bit more heartbreaking when you’ve grown older and had the time to experience more of such things.
Looking back at FF9 the one thing I’ve realised is that my fondest memories of it are all rooted in who I was and what I was going through at the time. While the Final Fantasy series may be filled with singular tales, everyone’s experience of them is different. Everyone has a different favourite, a different defining moment that encapsulates the series for them. When reminiscing about those games that were so instrumental to you growing up, you can’t help but look at yourself and reflect on how it was able to get its hooks in you in the first place. Final Fantasy 9 itself hasn’t changed, but I have, and I love that those changes are reflected in how I play it.
It’s also had me thinking about all of the other things I’ve missed, or the games I’ve discounted in the past. I never quite connected to Final Fantasy 7 in the same way so many people of my generation did, I just didn’t ‘get’ it. But with the HD Remake now on the way I’m looking forward to uncovering those same little secrets that only the passing of time can uncover.