Regardless of your opinion on the current Final Fantasy games, (or Square Enix in general) everyone can agree that the newer games are becoming less and less like the classic RPGs so many people cherish. This is understandable because times have changed and more importantly some of the original creators are no longer involved with the series, so it makes sense they won’t feel the same.
A problem arises though when long term fans of the series no longer enjoy the direction the developers are taking Final Fantasy, the games themselves are no longer earning the critical praise they once were and the attempts to “attract new fans” to the series is not proving successful. It seems Square Enix wants to return Final Fantasy to it’s former glory, but are not sure of the right way to do so.
Recent attempts from the developers at Square Enix seem to have been based around trying to emulate what made Final Fantasy VII so popular. Unfortunately the idea that Square Enix seems to have about why everyone loves Final Fantasy VII in the first place is far from the actual reason from the fans themselves.
So is there a better option? Well as much as Final Fantasy VII is my favourite RPG of all time, I think Square Enix should instead look to Final Fantasy IX and its design as a way to create a Final Fantasy that everyone can enjoy.
I have been recently replaying through Final Fantasy IX and the first thing I noticed is how well it bridges the gap between the older 2D games of FF1-6 and (at the time of its release) the modern 3D games of FF7-8. Final Fantasy IX had the soul and character of the SNES games, but utilises the graphics, mechanics and gameplay systems expected of the modern hardware it was designed for. Hironobu Sakaguchi has stated that Final Fantasy IX is the “closest to (his) ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be” and having played all of the single-player titles in the main series it is easy to see why.
The other thing I noticed was how many features Final Fantasy IX incorporated that I think are missing from the newest iterations in the series. Final Fantasy IX returned the series to a more medieval fantasy setting after the futuristic worlds of the games that preceded it and it was a breath of fresh air. Imagination ran wild as instead of using trains or cars to travel world, you could ride on the back of the giant insect-like Gargants through tunnels and instead of having all the characters being humans, you had a variety of different races such as anthropomorphic rats from Burmecia or faceless Black Mages. Final Fantasy IX’s world was full of interesting locations that were new, inventive and a joy to discover. Not only was it artistically beautiful, but there were so many secrets to uncover, which encouraged exploration and curiosity.
The other area Final Fantasy IX excelled in was its characters, and more importantly their growth and development. Playing the game again, the attention to detail with each character is exceptional. When you entered a new place the party would split up and you could find them off doing their own thing. Vivi would be wandering around like a lost child, while Steiner would be in the weapon shop checking out the latest armour. Without spoon-feeding the player, you could understand what made these characters tick and it made them all the more relatable.
Of course the story itself also did a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life. For all the action packed moments such as the mid-air chase through South Gate or the epic battle of the Eidolons between Bahamut and Alexander, Final Fantasy IX had just as many quiet heartfelt ones such as Vivi talking through his fear of death with one of the Black Mages or when Zidane tells Garnet the reason why he decided to go with her at Madain Sari. Not only were the main characters developed well, but many of the non-playable characters had their own story arcs and even the main antagonist Kuja is introduced early and stays all the way to the end, dealing with his own mortality. The strength of Final Fantasy IX narrative lies in the fact that its characters deal with real human emotions; fear of death, loneliness, identity, self worth and belonging. While more recent games have featured stories with needlessly complicated plots, the relative simplicity of Final Fantasy IX made it all the more human.
This straight forward approach to design also worked in the gameplay systems. While newer customisation and battle systems seem to strive to be a complex as possible, Final Fantasy IX made them simple and effective. Equipping weapons, armour and accessories let you learn new abilities and every character had a unique skillset that made experimenting with different party combinations and strategies fun and engaging. Instead of having all your characters as blank states that could be switched around interchangeably, you had to change your strategy on the fly depending on which characters were currently accessible, forcing the player to learn how to best utilise each character effectively. Final Fantasy IX is one of the only RPGs where I regularly changed my party and used different combinations depending on what part of the story I was up to.
Many see Final Fantasy IX as a reflection on what the series used to be, but it should be also seen as the perfect blueprint to move the series forward while staying true to its spirit.