Sixteen years ago, following the massive success of both Final Fantasy VII and VIII, Final Fantasy IX was released as the last FF title for the PlayStation. Overshadowed by the games that came before it and the revitalization of the franchise that came with Final Fantasy X just a year later, FFIX has always played second fiddle to its brethren. But no longer. Finally, with updated graphics and gameplay, FFIX has been released on Steam to the delight of those who have played it and fallen in love with its story and lovable cast of characters.
This review will mostly focus on how the Steam version differs from the PS1 version from sixteen years ago, and the many improvements that have been made. The most prominent update is the much-needed graphical overhaul. At the time of its release, FFIX had some of the sharpest visuals around, but by today’s standards, the original is a blurry mess of pixelated confusion. The Steam version solves this problem in glorious fashion. Every character, both playable and not, and indeed nearly every single moving object has been completely revisited and given new life. The new character models have crisp, sharp edges and facial features, bright colours, and detailed animation. It really is a breath of fresh air after playing the original for so many years. Some of the quaint, renaissance-era feel is lost in the transition, though. In the image below, every aspect of this scene is improved, except for the ground textures. Instead of being able to see each individual stone on the ground, the surface has become muddled, which is disappointing. But if I have to sacrifice floor textures for great character models, I’ll take that offer any day.
There are a few instances when an important character stands next to a pre-rendered NPC that technically is just a background image and therefore didn’t receive very much attention in the upgrade department; these moments look truly horrendous. The clash between the more-or-less unaltered PS1 graphics and the new, smooth PC visuals is striking and impossible to ignore. Luckily, these instances don’t occur very often and don’t detract from the game in any important fashion.
In addition to upgraded graphics, each playable character has also received new or enhanced artwork in the game’s menu. This may seem like a small thing, but some of the original artwork is confusing, and sometimes doesn’t even look that much like the character. The new art, like the new character models, feels clean and fresh.
The battle menu that appears on screen during each and every fight has also changed, and has done so for the better. Gone are the bulky and blocky menus that took up a third of the screen. They have been replaced by a minimalist, mostly transparent menu system that allows you to view the battle screen more clearly, and appreciate the new character models at all times since they are no longer covered up by giant lists of commands.
Another big change to the game that may seem simple is the expanded use of the famous action marker (indicated with a large exclamation point) that appears over your characters head when they stand nearby an object that can be interacted with. In the original version of the game, this marker appeared near treasure chests or hidden items; things that need attention brought to them. Now, every single item, shop, NPC, and location triggers the action marker, indicating that you can talk to or otherwise communicate with that person, item, or whatever it may be. For some, this may seem handy and it actually adds a lot of functionality to the game, indicating every person that can be spoken to. But for me, it felt overdone. I don’t think there are any NPCs in Final Fantasy IX that can’t be interacted with, so I can safely assume that, should I want to talk to someone nearby, I can do that without the aid of an action marker.
An additional marker now appears over the heads of NPCs with which you can play Tetra Master, a card-based mini-game. I love this addition. Rather than talking to every single person twice to see if they would like to play cards (which is what you have to do in the original) I now know beforehand whether or not they’ll accept my challenge, and cut to the chase.
One of the challenges in remastering a game as old as Final Fantasy IX is dealing with the antiquated 4:3 aspect ratio. The game is now presented in just a slightly more widescreen image, but the change is not a big one. To compensate for the lack of widescreen, stylish grey bars now flank the gameplay screen. I didn’t expect to end up with a widescreen ratio for this version, so I am not disappointed by this. Some may prefer to just have plain black bars on the side, or maybe even to stretch the image to a 16:9 image. However, neither option is readily available in the Steam version, though this will most likely be available through mods at some point.
Lastly, one other big addition to the game comes in the form of its Game Boosters, which are, essentially, built in cheats to make the game easier. These boosters are optional, and include the option to instantly level every one of your characters to their maximum capacity, to instantly learn new abilities upon obtaining new equipment, to max out your gil (that’s in-game money, for the un-initiated), to disable random encounters, to run the game at three times its original speed, to make all your characters’ attacks to 9999 damage, and to instantly fill each character’s Trance meter. Trance is similar to the Limit Break component of Final Fantasy VII; it boosts all of your characters stats and provides new abilities for a short time. Veteran players may abhor the addition of the Game Boosters, but for those who are new to the game, don’t enjoy level-grinding and just want to enjoy the story, or have played the game hundreds of times and just want to get through to the end, the Boosters are an invaluable tool to aid your quest.
No gameplay or story changes have been made to Final Fantasy IX during its jump to PC, other than the aforementioned Game Boosters. The plot and dialogue remain exactly how they were, save for a few very minor translation improvements. This is wonderful, because the story of FFIX needs no improvement. At its core, rather than providing an addictive and action-driven narrative like other FF titles, FFIX is a game that really is all about the characters. Whether you’re a fan of the hero, Zidane and his relentless optimism, Dagger, the Queen-to-be with a list of shortcomings, or the young Vivi and his search for the meaning of life, Final Fantasy IX provides rich and enjoyable gameplay that makes it one of the best RPGs of its time. And now, with its many updates and upgrades, it can also be one of the best RPGs of today.
As Good As it Gets
For a sixteen year-old game, Final Fantasy IX holds up extremely well with its aesthetic and minor gameplay changes. We won't get a better version than this one.