tiistai 23. marraskuuta 2010

Top 20 SNES Games

For he's a jolly good platform.
I'm a day late because of some late night co-op sessions in both LittleBIGPlanet and Resident Evil 5 with my friend, but I couldn't pass big, albeit late congratulations to what I see as the greatest console of all time, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which turned 20 yesterday. That's a big number, and I wanted to do my part in the global "remember the SNES" phenomenon by choosing 20 of the best gaming experiences I remember on the SNES. Converse, reminisce, enjoy, and here's waiting for the behemoth's 30th b-day.

Quintet / Enix, 1995

This RPG was exported from Japan a bit late, so I don't blame you if you don't remember it - so late that like many SNES games that weren't supported by a huge promotional budget or fanbase set by a predecessor, it wasn't released in the U.S. at all. Terranigma was never too beautiful to watch, either, but personally, I think this action-oriented RPG obviously influenced by Zelda, and conceived by the creators of ActRaiser had more attraction to it that the critically acclaimed Secret of Mana, which I have always thought to garner in so much praise just because it was a Square game released at a capital time.

19. F-ZERO
Nintendo, 1990

One of the most curious things about the Super Nintendo was that many of its greatest games were released within its first year on the market. Today, launch titles don't stand for much, not anymore; the big wigs want to concentrate on the sales of the platforms on the wing of their technical values, not the games. Well, the Japanese release of the Super Famicom coincided with the release of Super Mario World and another, whole new game called F-Zero - a revolutionary futuristic racing title that went on to influence Sony's WipEout series, and took every graphical advantage of the SNES' new Mode 7 chip. I would imagine the plan was more or less to make a technical demo, surely enjoyed by a small audience and admired by everyone else for its graphics, but F-Zero turned out quite the hit.

Quintet / Enix, 1990

Due to its very sensitive theme considering the times and Nintendo of America's policies, ActRaiser could've easily been exclusively released in Japan. However, I guess non-Japanese testers let the game pass with such flying colours that liberties had to be taken to make the game available in both the U.S. and Europe. It would be nice to know how stupid Nintendo perceived players to be, since no false translations can hide the game's religious tone. I'm not a religious person myself, far from it, but I've got to admit that playing God and fighting satanic hordes in ActRaiser is damn fun, and we get to do some city building simulation in the between of our sweaty battles using the form of an ancient warrior. The cross between a straightforward action game and a city sim, of course, makes ActRaiser one of the most innovative games on any platform, ever. Too bad the sequel sucked ass; ActRaiser could've been a great franchise, and today, less retarded restrictions would probably make it feel a whole lot more authentic.

Shiny Entertainment / Playmates Interactive Entertainment / Virgin Interactive, 1995

The first one drove you crazy, the second arrived to drive you downright insane. Still, you couldn't get enough of Earthworm Jim's surreal humour that lifted the use of slapstick in video games to whole new levels. With Earthworm Jim 2, the developers corrected people's false idea about them being somewhat normal human beings by raising the bar of completely irreverent humour in a genuinely fun, but admittedly furiously difficult action-oriented platformer. You just had to see each twist and turn, as hard as the road might've been. I've always hated cows for no apparent reason, but Earthworm Jim 2 prompted me to have a little more sympathy for them. A somewhat underrated classic, this one.

Blizzard Entertainment / Interplay, 1994

Speaking of underrated classics. Before conquering the whole world of online role-playing with games like Diablo and especially World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment created two games which many consider Super Nintendo's finest: The Lost Vikings, and Rock 'n' Roll Racing (which was very close to make it to this list). On their heels, came Blackthorne, also known as Blackhawk. Praised by many critics, the game didn't sell too well, for one reason or another, and never got a sequel of any sort. To me, the story of a young warrior come to reclaim his throne on a planet infested by aliens, armed with a custom-made broken shotgun, is a memory that never fades, one of the reasons being that Kyle made using a shotgun look so cool that shotgun has remained my weapon of choice in just about every game that has come after it. Blackthorne easily whipped the asses of many cinematic platformers of its time, like Flashback and Out of This World, due to its complex, yet a lot more comfortable control scheme, it just got the short end of the stick when it came to sales. Too bad.

15. NHL '94
Electronic Arts / EA Sports, 1993

19 years, the equal amount of games, and NHL '94 still stands as arguably the most entertaining game of them all. Well, maybe not if I'd plug the game in now and take it for a spin - I'd probably turn to NHL 11 in no time. NHL '94, however, remains the foundation of the actual NHL series; it was the third game, but with it, EA Sports created a standard they have at least tried to live up to every single year. The PS2 version of NHL 06 included NHL '94 of all games, with an updated roster, and even in 11, there's a choice to switch the button scheme to match that of '94. That should give some sort of an idea of the impact this game made among sports fans. Me and a few friends used to play the shit out of this game, when it came as a freebie along with my SNES. Of course, we also cursed the hell out of each other and our douche techniques. Good times.

Rare / Nintendo, 1994

Shigeru Miyamoto's firstborn was sold to the British to exploit, much to Mr. Mario's dismay, and this is what we got: the most technically advanced game anyone had seen or expected to see emerge in the next three or four years. A smoother-than-a-buttered-snatch platformer with an absolutely killer soundtrack - which was bundled with the game on CD in some countries - monkeys, pirates and great humour. What could go wrong? Nothing, back in '94. When its phenomenal sequel came out, Donkey Kong Country's true face was shown. It was kind of a simple and generic game, not too different from a bulk of platformers that came even before it, it just sounded and looked a lot better. However, it was also so fun to play in its time that it still remains a classic, even with all the flaws that were uncovered not too long into its release. And yes, it is still fun to play. And, it has stolen so many hours of my life and given them so much meaning, that I would feel guilty for not including it in the Top 15.

Square, 1991

Even if the official English translation of the game (even renamed Final Fantasy II in North America to create some well-known confusion) is a watered-down, ridiculous bundle of crap full of grammatical and contextual errors, Final Fantasy IV is still a landmark game that rebooted the Final Fantasy franchise in the 16-bit generation, with incredible gameplay and importance of storytelling that remained in the series for the longest time. Also, it's absolutely worthy to note Nobuo Uematsu's revolutionary soundtrack, that made Cecil Harvey's decision to abandon his old life as a dark knight to become a Paladin, and save the world from a Lunarian invasion, feel so much more epic and dramatic. Yes, epic and dramatic even in spite of the bad English script. I just can't emphasize it enough.

Nintendo, 1992

The most popular of all Mario's sidesteps from the platform genre is definitely Super Mario Kart, a go-kart racing game based on the Mario universe, and starring everyone's favourite characters. The first game is still considered by many purists the only true Mario Kart; while that's far from the truth in my opinion, it is still almost as entertaining as it was when it came out. Its technical accomplishments should not be disregarded, either. The game actually ran on the original Mode 7 engine so smoothly that Nintendo found it very challenging to convert it into a Wii Virtual Console game. Imagine that.

Intelligent Systems / Nintendo, 1996

The most annoying thing about this game is not its overflowing level of syrup and cuteness, it's the way Nintendo expected it to sell more if they named it after Tetris - although it has nothing to do with Tetris at all, except for the fact that it's a puzzle game. Since it came out so late, it didn't sell too well (even with a legendary title to support it), but it was praised by many critics and I personally consider it to be the best puzzle game that came after... well, Tetris. Based on a Japanese game called Panel de Pon, Tetris Attack is actually a Mario-related game, which continued the tradition of puzzle games starring characters from the Mario universe; in this case Yoshi for the third time. It looks pink and sounds irritating, but plays out like a dream. Begin playing, any mode, and you'll be hooked in no time.

Capcom / Nintendo, 1993

One of the best, and of course, earliest examples of how a reboot can truly help a dying franchise. Mega Man X spun off from one of the most popular series' of 8-bit games ever created, and in my honest opinion, became the cornerstone of the franchise. It introduced a whole new, interesting scheme that focused a bit more on telling a sci-fi story, and the ability to really upgrade your new incarnation of the Blue Bomber with tons of hidden items besides the usual weapons inherited from bosses. It's too bad the X series quickly went down the same repetitive road as the original brand of Mega Man games, but the first game is still an incredible action platformer with some equally incredible music, that not only stood up to the standards set by Mega Man 2 and 3, but created whole new ones.

Intelligent Systems / Nintendo, 1991

In 1989, Will Wright created a home computer game called SimCity, in which players could just lay back and create their own cities from scratch. Of course, the price we all had to pay was to take care of the citizens' wellbeing all throughout the year, help them cope with different natural disasters and the price of taxes. SimCity was a revolutionary title that no one ever believed to work on a platform like the SNES. SimCity was definitely not a port, it was Nintendo's very own version of the home computer classic, that became a classic on its own and was never even remotely compared to the original game. This was one console game which you could manage all by yourself, just the way you wanted, and moreover, just lay back and build your empire at your own pace.

Konami, 1991

An immortal classic, a bad game with great music, a good game with notoriously high difficulty... how to return to the glory and balance of the first one? Well, the first step is to remake the first game. Then, add in the greatest musical pieces in the whole series, including the best tunes of the second game. Take the difficulty of the third game, tone it down slightly so the game wouldn't border on impossible. Decorate the cake with some Mode 7 graphics and all-around awesome, minor but useful new gameplay features, and you've got Super Castlevania IV - a most definite cornerstone of the Castlevania franchise and a game that symbolizes everything it used to stand for at its best, before Symphony of the Night changed the formula radically, in better and worse.

Rare / Nintendo, 1995

Just a year prior, Rare and Nintendo collaborated to make the most technically advanced platformer ever seen... and they blew the top off it with Donkey Kong Country 2. Even today, the graphics are breathtaking, the music - if possible - is even better than that of the first game, and the gameplay - again, if possible - is even more smooth and leaves no good reason for the player to blame the game if something goes terribly wrong. Something will most definitely go terribly wrong, since Donkey Kong Country 2 is one of the most difficult games on the SNES. That fact, of course, just enhances the attraction in this case.

Nintendo, 1990

My first time with the first SNES game ever created was almost just as relevant as many other first times in my life... almost *makes a mile wide smile with an obvious hint of arrogance*. While us Europeans were just getting used to the fresh-out-of-the-oven Super Mario Bros. 3, the Japanese were already enjoying the hell out of an enhanced version of arguably the greatest 8-bit game ever made. Super Mario World remained one of the greatest and constantly enchanting games for the SNES right up until the end of the console's commercial lifespan. Today, its greatness has perhaps even more meaning to me than it ever had, as I watch how Mario fanboys are drooling, crapping and dying over the Super Mario Galaxy games, which in my honest opinion, are some of the most overrated games the world has ever seen. Every time I make this statement, people are saying "oh, you just hate Mario". DEAD WRONG. I was a Mario fan once, and still am to some extent, because of games like Super Mario World. Know the best part about it? It got a sequel.

Intelligent Systems / Nintendo, 1994

Here's one game that I never expected anything out of. I never liked the original Metroid, I had never played Metroid II because I didn't have access to a Game Boy, and skipping ahead just a bit, I hate Metroid Prime. Then again, Super Metroid is like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, in 2D and set in outer space; I never liked any Zelda games a whole lot besides A Link to the Past, either. Super Metroid is one captivating experience that everyone should have at least once in their lives. Although there's no dialogue or narrative besides Samus' famous monologue in the beginning, the game was one of the first games I ever played that told a genuinely gripping visual story, and supported a great gameplay experience with the smoothest flowing action ever seen. The excessive amount of backtracking to get the tons of items hidden on Planet Zebes by using your upgrades to your advantage is the game's greatest flaw, but it's also one of the things that makes the game the experience it is, in some twisted way. Nevertheless, Super Metroid is one of the best action games ever made.

Nintendo, 1995

Five years of sidestepping into other genres on major consoles Nintendo put Mario back in his place on Yoshi's back, although in a less traditional way - this time, Mario was a helpless infant, who Yoshi was implored to take back to his brother, and ultimately his parents, across pastel-coloured plains that were much more difficult to get by than they looked. Ironically with Mario's founding father Miyamoto out of the actual designers' way creating Super Mario 64, Nintendo was able to pull off one of the most unique and best Mario titles ever. Yeah, Mario's constant cry for help was murder to the ears and the cuteness of the graphical design might've hurt your eyes to some extent, but the game was and still is a technical marvel, and a one of a kind gameplay experience.

Nintendo, 1991

As I already mentioned, I never had any special love for the Zelda series. Especially the much acclaimed Ocarina of Time is, in my opinion, one of the most overrated games ever released. The first Zelda game was actually the first game I ever experienced on the NES; of course I liked it back then, just like any other game. Especially the golden cartridge was fancy to look at. As a player, I didn't understand what the fuss was all about. I guess buying A Link to the Past (or Zelda III, if you prefer) was my brother's idea, since he liked both of the NES titles. To my surprise, it was a great game, and still stands as one of the 16-bit monster's finest roars, and one of the most replayable games of its type as well. No Zelda game that has been released since gives off the same warm feeling. This is, of course, a wholly personal issue, it seems.

Square, 1995

On the heels of the success of Final Fantasy VI, Square took a little time off from their favourite son, to work on a mixture of Final Fantasy leftovers and a whole new, vast concept built around the myth of time travel. The result was the epic known as Chrono Trigger. Focused on a group of unlikely allies come together across time to fight an ancient evil that destroyed the world in 1999, and developed by Square's "Dream Team" comprised of their finest, Chrono Trigger was a shock to critics and gamers alike. No one had ever seen time travel taken on as extensively in a video game, much less an RPG. To some (quite deranged) hardcore fans of Final Fantasy, the game might lack unusual and surreal elements made standard by Square's flagship and therefore be somewhat of a weak link in Square's catalogue, but all of us others love the game. There's not a game quite like Chrono Trigger out there.

Square, 1994

Well, what game do we have here? All who have read this blog should've known by now that without a doubt, in my mind, Final Fantasy VI is the greatest 16-bit game we have had the chance to play. Actually, us Europeans DIDN'T have an official, law-abiding chance to play it for the longest time, before Square and Nintendo brought us the very welcome Final Fantasy Advance series. I was many steps ahead of the Advance - I first played the game on an emulator in 2001, and immediately fell in love with it, and it wasn't too long until I got a genuine copy of the slightly enhanced version of the game for the PlayStation. Final Fantasy VI was the last and best game of the godlike franchise's 16-bit generation, the perfect combination of every concept created for an RPG before it, and... well, I'll just say, it's too bad they don't make Final Fantasies like this anymore. The next installment in the franchise turned out the very best, but that's a whole different story I'll get to when I congratulate the PlayStation on its 20th birthday in 2015. :)

sunnuntai 21. marraskuuta 2010

REVIEW - Final Fantasy X (2001)

Genre(s): RPG
Released: 2001
Available on: PS2
Developer(s): Square
Publisher(s): Square, Sony Computer Entertainment
Players: 1

During the development of the great Final Fantasy IX, another monster was already on its way despite people's beliefs of the last game for the PlayStation to be the very last game in the whole Final Fantasy series. This "other game" was called Final Fantasy X, and not only was it the tenth game in the series, it was anticipated to be such an audiovisual breakthrough that it could have been called "X" instead of "ten" anyway. Hironobu Sakaguchi, who was no more than an executive producer for the game, was very concerned of his beloved brainchild taking a turn on the new PlayStation 2 with voiceover work, and many other practical changes that defied standards some of which were set by the first game way back in 1987. The writers and designers pressed on despite some extra difficulties they were sure to spawn for American translators, and in terms of gameplay, they boldly went where Final Fantasy had kinda been before, but in ways they were sure to piss off some long-time fans of the stalwart series. I hated the game when it came out, but when I finally bought it just because I had no other game in mind to get for my then-new PS2, I fell in love with it since I saw past the small, quite irrelevant nuisances that had plagued my mind since when I first started the game. Granted, the story isn't perfectly crafted throughout, but it basically takes the vintage Final Fantasy storytelling to a one-off direction I like very much in style. The game introduces some of the greatest characters in the franchise, and incorporates some really complex, cool ideas - most of which are influenced by features in the earlier games - that make it last as a game. It looks more than a bit commercial and polished to the hilt, once again the biggest minigame takes up a whole lot more space that it's due for, but make no mistake about it: as a whole experience, Final Fantasy X is one of the most essential games in the series.

Sins of the father or something like that

James Arnold Taylor : Tidus
Hedy Burress : Yuna
John DiMaggio : Wakka / Kimahri Ronso
Paula Tiso : Lulu
Matt McKenzie : Auron
Tara Strong : Rikku
Alex Fernandez : Maester Seymour Guado
Gregg Berger : Jecht
Andy Philpot : Lord Braska
Michael McShane : Cid

Auron watches as Zanarkand gets blown to shit.
He knows what's happening and why. Will he
tell you? Unlikely.
Tidus is a young athlete, a Blitzball player competing in his verbally abusive father Jecht's constant shadow even ten years after his death. On the night of Jecht's memorial tournament, Tidus' home city of Zanarkand is completely destroyed by a mysterious force majeure called Sin. Devoured by Sin himself, Tidus regains consciousness one thousand years in the future, and through a string of events, he ends up joining forces with a deeply religious group of people guarding the life of a young summoner on her pilgrimage to the ruins Tidus once knew as his home, Zanarkand. As his allies march to rid the world of the now dominant Sin, Tidus learns the ways of the new world and the reasons to why he was chosen by Sin - and at the same time, he finds himself falling in forbidden love with the young woman he's sworn to protect.

Until now, I have begun every Final Fantasy review with a lengthy story and character analysis... and, I'll make no exception with Final Fantasy X. Every time Final Fantasy has moved over to a new platform, the first game has been some sort of a reboot of the franchise, and again, Final Fantasy X is no exception. Gone is an evil empire, be it a mega-corporation, a literal empire or whatever form it once took... that's how it seems in the beginning, at least. Many classic Final Fantasy themes take a whole new form in this game. At first the plot seems very simple and the world is at peace - there's just a demonic force beyond human control plaguing the land, and even the most sinister groups in the world are definitely against it instead of on its side. Our hero is kind of just like in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure, there are assholes, lots of 'em - but none of them really want to piss on your mission, as no one is a fan of Sin. They just want to test or bully you for one reason or another. This is probably why most bosses and enemies during the first half of the game are simply monsters created by Sin's indefinite appetite for destruction.

However, all of the game is not this simple; ever since storytelling became the series' forte, have you seen a simple Final Fantasy game? There are many strong themes in the game that might've been considered more or less taboo in the days of old: man against machine, daddy issues, racism, and on the forefront, the most sensitive theme of them all, religion vs. anti-religion. At times it feels like the writers tried to squeeze in a little more than they could chew, and as always, some perhaps minor but crucial elements of the storyline are lost in translation. Let's say it takes you 70 hours to beat the game; you'll perfectly understand the first 40, but as the tempo picks up and all information really starts to overflow as too many loose ends are taken care of at once - and some are totally ignored - I bet you'll find yourself watching the credits with your mouth open and wondering what the fuck just happened. The ending is beautiful, for sure - one of the best endings I've ever seen in a video game - but when you finally decide to go at the game again, you'll pick up lots of stuff from the very beginning that was never fully explained. The writers clearly wanted to create a mystery, a series of mysteries, but they forgot that every mystery should have a solution. And before you ask, no - the sequel wasn't a collective solution, either.

I guess we pissed off the wrong ancient fiend.
Yevon's teachings are this game's Christianity, and just about every storyline thread involves Yevon in one way or another. The storyboard designers did a fine job in capturing the essence of religion in general: it has its benefits when it comes to unity among people, but it isn't the answer to everything and frankly, most restrictions and rules that religion creates are completely against common sense. Some Christian and perhaps other religious groups have apparently criticized the game for degrading and making fun of them, turning young players into atheists, and making believe everyone who has faith in some higher power is at some level of insanity or even evil. Personally, I don't see any point to the accusations; I think all religious subjects in the game are handled with unbiased dignity. In my view, there's a clear line between Yevon and people whose insanity spawns from something completely other than their religious standpoints. Well, everyone sees things in different ways - isn't that what religion is all about?

The cast of playable characters is once again a very impressive lot; some of my major problems with them doesn't stem from what they are like in person. It's the voice cast that leaks, but more about that and the reasons why an experienced cast like this fails to deliver a seamless show, later. Since Final Fantasy X was developed at the same time as its predecessor, I can't help finding some probably unintentional likenesses between the characters in these two games. Tidus is very much like Zidane, even his development as a character is similar, only Tidus' basic personality never changes. He's kind of reckless, confused and easily irritated, but always an optimistic ladies' man. Once quickly settling in his new home, he retains his positive nature, and he doesn't take too much of a slide when discovering some horrible truths about the world around him, either, unlike Zidane whose personality changed completely for a moment after he found out the truth of his origin. A nice change, but on the other hand, a small hint of Tidus' dark side would've made him a little less annoying, perhaps. Yuna... well, Yuna's a great character. A classic case of the shy, sensitive, but extremely talented mage, who toughens up like cement over time. At some points, she's a little oversensitive. There's this extremely obnoxious rival of hers called Dona, who appears for the first time a couple of hours into the game, to make fun of Yuna and her supposed "need" for a whole group of guardians, whereas she has just one (literally) dumb muscle to follow her around. Yuna politely responds with something like "Lady Dona, I ask of you... please leave us at peace.", while she SHOULD say "Fuck off, bitch! I'm off to save your ass from Sin!" Most of the time, it seems like Yuna doesn't quite understand how much her mission means to other people, or her remarkable talent passed on to her by her father. She just swallows up all the shit poured down her blouse by disrespectful douches like Dona, who would probably shit herself just standing next to the most unimpressive Sinspawn. Final Fantasy games have long been known for their constantly tough female characters...

...So we have Lulu to balance out Yuna's sensitivity and continuous failures to stand up for herself. Lulu is an amazing combination of one of the greatest cleavages ever seen on a female video game character (Tifa beware!), ice cold attitude and some deadly black magic. Unlike many of her male peers in previous games, Lulu has a few soft spots, and she's not really quite as tough as she makes believe, she's simply in denial. Well, at least she's not like Squall in Final Fantasy VIII; she doesn't say "Get the hell away from me" and then think to herself "Please don't go...", she usually at least thinks to mean what she says, she's just not quite at terms with her soft side. She's a fascinating character. However, the best character of the game takes the same kind of cold demeanor a little further - that's Auron. He knows just about everything, but rarely says it. He talks a lot, but mostly in riddles. He intentionally causes a heap of trouble to the whole group, but only if he knows it to be to their ultimate advantage. He never explains these incidents, he lets the consequences explain things for him. Kind of like Jack Bauer. Or Jack Sparrow. Plus, he's a monster with a sword. Auron might just damn well be my favourite character in the whole Final Fantasy series, right after my obvious choice of Cloud Strife - and the mystery surrounding this embittered middle-aged man revered as a legend among all guardians is one of the main reasons why the story is so fascinating, no matter how many holes get punched into it. And as to how Auron's mystery slowly unfolds... it's beautiful, just beautiful.

BLITZBALL. One of the most horrible minigames
ever. Thankfully (and unfortunately) it's featured
in one of the greatest games ever.
Rikku borders on being annoying. She clearly follows the path laid out by obnoxious teen characters such as Yuffie and Selphie, but the one thing that saves her and makes her a delightful character in my view is the main theme of racism that is most evident in the case of her and her kind. She's one of the Al Bhed, who speak in a different language and can be considered terrorists, blasphemers, even satanists to some extent - since their objective is to stop summoners from fighting Sin at any cost. However, the Al Bhed's true purposes are completely different from what people think they are, they are a misunderstood race. Rikku is a fascinating character in her own way. She has those moments which make you think of your bare hands squeezed around her neck, but a fair share of good moments, too. Plus, she's hot. Seriously hot. Another representative of a different race is Kimahri, who is one of the Ronso tribe - strange humanoid mixtures of lions and unicorns. Kimahri turns out to be another very good character, but his personal trait of not being very communicative naturally leaves him aside. Sometimes it seems he shows up in different scenes only to remind the players of his existence.

Last we have Wakka, who's brought on as a very central character but I decided to leave him last since he's really the weakest link of the cast in my view. He's simply not interesting, and his neverending, annoying babble about the rules and regulations set by Yevon, his little brother, Blitzball, the Al Bhed and their unholy machina really gets on one's nerves sooner or later - he even speaks in an exotic accent that drives the nail even deeper right off the bat. There's not even a quest that strictly involves him, counting out the infamous Blitzball tournament for now, most of the time he's just Tidus' sidekick, even while Tidus himself is not the best lead character we've seen in the series. The only thing Wakka's good at as far as the dialogue is concerned is cracking cheap jokes on enemies as well as the rest of the group.

Cid makes a vintage appearance as a tough talking, but warmhearted master engineer of the Al Bhed, who I don't want to spoil too much. This is one of my favourite Cids in the series, possibly second only to his counterpart in Final Fantasy VII. After being found in just about every corner in Final Fantasy IX, moogles take a well-deserved vacation from the fray, but Lulu uses some moogle dolls as her weapons. Chocobos show up as battle steeds, and of course, according to tradition, there's a chocobo sidequest, which involves training and finally racing your very own chocobo. Not quite as tedious or time consuming as in Final Fantasy VII, I can tell you. Instead it takes about 30 minutes of your precious time.

Like in many Final Fantasy games, the final boss isn't necessarily who you think it is. It has always been somewhat of a problem for the developers to really sink the prime evil in - they have managed to do better, and worse. The first case I've heard an actual group of fans criticizing a Final Fantasy game because of this problem was in Final Fantasy IX. Yeah, bringing in Necron during the last two minutes of the game was kind of a "WTF?" moment, but I kind of expected something like that after Zemus and Ultimecia. Final Fantasy IX was a tribute in both good and bad, so it figured. Besides, Kuja still remained the main villain-to-hero in my books. Well, in Final Fantasy X the potential main villain's a little too obvious from the very beginning, so some kind of complications are definitely expected, and they will come, in large numbers. You will most definitely have to fight Sin, but it is not the end, I can tell you that much. Seymour is a character who you'll know to be a villain from the very first time you see him, even if he's sold as the golden boy of the people and even temporarily joins the party at one point. He has that sinister gayness Kuja made popular, that villainous look in his eyes, and of course, long hair, blue instead of silver though. He's an obvious creep... yet still not necessarily the big cheese.

I guess I'll mention a couple of more things concerning the characters before I really start reviewing the game. Most of the game, and most means well over a half of it in this case, is a flashback; it's no spoiler, since the very first cutscene makes it very clear. The characters you see in that opening scene are your playable characters, and you'll net them all in, or at least meet them during the first two hours of gameplay. No surprise characters well over 30 hours into the game. First, this game is thematically more about (unlikely) companionship and problems within groups than any other Final Fantasy game, and second, rounding out the party in the beginning of the game gives everyone a fair share of development, in terms of both gameplay and characterization.

Last, I've done this in just about every review even if it wasn't necessary, but I'll still do it anyway: I'll talk about the classes. I'll go into the specifics of character development and customization later, but the bottom line is that all of the characters in Final Fantasy X are able to learn any spell or ability, like in Final Fantasy VI and VIII. However, they do have specific classes; more correctly, almost everyone is a combination of several traditional RPG classes. There's an Expert Mode in the international version of the game that removes even this restriction, but even after beating the game twice, I prefer Standard Mode for many reasons. More about that later, as well. Tidus is a combination of a Warrior and a Time Mage, an obscure class returning from the days of Final Fantasy V, this time to stay. Yuna is a White Mage, and more prominently, a Summoner. Kimahri is a strange, but functional combination of a Dragoon and a Blue Mage. Rikku has the basic traits of three different classes: Thief, Ninja and Chemist. Auron and Lulu are the only two characters who have only one class, Samurai and Black Mage, respectively. Oh yeah, and Wakka? He doesn't have a class at all, at least not a traditional one. Further proof of filling in a gap for a sidekick. All of the characters' special talents are so unique, that I'll have to go deeper into them once I get into gameplay. We're in for a long review... as if it hasn't been one already.

Which way to the ladies' locker room?
The graphics looked incredible when the game came out, and technically speaking, the game still looks good. The vast 3D environments create a whole new feel to the game and I like the way the cutscenes are seamlessly tied in to the game itself, most of them even feature dialogue. In-game NPC's look retarded up close, and some of the playable characters look very different than their FMV counterparts. Simply put, in the game the guys look Western and in the cutscenes, Eastern, as they're supposed to, seeing that this is more of a Japanese game than any other Final Fantasy; a lot of the central themes and settings are influenced by Asian culture and folklore. So the graphics are OK, we have to keep in mind that the game was one of the first truly major PS2 titles, and it's huge in size. Again, you're in for about 70 hours of gameplay at the least - if you decide to go for full completion, you're in for many, many tens of hours more. There are a lot of sidequests and superbosses to be conquered, even if the game seems more linear than a one-way street at first and throughout the pilgrimage chapter. The thing that bothers me the most about the game's look is the commercial overtone. It's not really a graphical thing, it's a choice by the developers. The awful title screen features the name of the game not once, not twice, but three times, and an address for the game's official website, as well as a PlayOnline.com logo. This, and the overtly polished style of some graphical key features make the game look like promotional material, or a lengthy technical demo from time to time.

A well-known fact is that Final Fantasy X was the first game in the series NOT composed by Nobuo Uematsu alone, due to the ridiculously large soundtrack he was asked to complete while he was still working on Final Fantasy IX and Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies. Many key pieces such as the prominent theme "Zanarkand" and the death metal (you read right) maelstrom "Otherworld" are of Uematsu's creation, and songs he went on to record with The Black Mages, but a lot of the music is written by Masashi Hamauzu, who previously worked on the spin-off game Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon, and Junya Nakano, who previously worked on the Front Mission series. No wonder the soundtrack is a mixed bag. There are some really, really awful techno and electro tunes that don't fit the bill at all. Not quite as horrid as the whole wretched thing they call the "soundtrack" of the sequel Final Fantasy X-2, but it gets pretty low from time to time. Still, there's lots of good stuff to be found. Not necessarily classic, but at least true to the franchise at hand. "Suteki Da Ne" is the vocalized track (read: promotional hit single in Japan) this time around, and like the title implies, it's sung in Japanese. Nothing really wrong with it, actually. I like it more than "Eyes on Me", but it's not quite as inspired as "Melodies of Life". It shows up at a good point, though. Besides "Zanarkand", "Hymn of the Fayth" is another oft-recurring theme in the game; it has become very popular through the years, and it almost equals to the classic Final Fantasy victory fanfare in the sense that it's a song that you inexplicably find yourself humming while cleaning the house and stuff like that. And yeah, it has lyrics too. Even eight years after the game's European release, I'm still working on memorizing them, even if they're in Japanese as well. If you haven't figured it out already, I can't understand Japanese for shit.

Translation used to be a huge problem in the North American localization of Final Fantasy up until the seventh game. Now it's adapting the essence and form of the Japanese script and dialogue to English, and apparently, it's hard. The American voice actors were forced to speak in a rhythm and tone just about only the Japanese can to match the Japanese lip sync to some extent, and create official pronounciations for words that have been there for ages in text - Chocobo is a prime example - and they ended up sounding quite damn horrible. It's not just these things, but the NPC's sound just as retarded as their facial expressions look. A huge bulk of the voiceover work sounds forced, irritating and totally uninspired. It sounds like people were literally dragged from the street to record some random parts. Well, the main cast is a group of some renown in these circles. James Arnold Taylor, John DiMaggio (BENDER!!!) and Paula Tiso all have central roles, but that doesn't automatically mean they all do a great job. Even Bender - who actually voices both Wakka and Kimahri - fucks up, but perhaps he's just got the wrong characters to interpret. Matt McKenzie, who does Auron's voice, is most definitely the one to listen here, but I have come to the conclusion that since Auron usually talks softly and slowly, and most of the time his lips are hidden behind his large collar, McKenzie didn't have the same difficulties with the aforementioned rhythm/tone stuff as most of the cast. Same goes for Gregg Berger, who usually speaks from afar and/or with his back turned to the player; he does a great job as Jecht, another absolutely fantastic character. Oh yeah, one more thing on the downside. Why in the hell do most of the people in this game laugh and sigh so fucking much? Here's especially looking at Yuna and Tidus, and their infamous "LOL scene" (literally) quite near the beginning of the game. The game doesn't really shine when it comes to voiceover work, but this one scene is an epitome of bad voice acting... and a bad idea from the writers, at that. Ghastly!

So far, from an audiovisual angle, Final Fantasy X hasn't quite proven to be the game that it was promised to be. However, the gameplay's magnificent and there are so many unique details and features that bring the game victory. Like I said, I hated the game first, and still the first two or three hours aren't too impressive, they're actually quite damn dull on subsequent playthroughs. What I'll do differently this time, is that I will go over the events of the first few hours - in the most non-spoiling way possible - to provide some sort of a feel on how much Final Fantasy X differs from its predecessors; those persistent bastards still saying every Final Fantasy game is the same ol' shit can go fuck themselves, since that's as far from the truth as can be. I will introduce some key features of the game on the go, try to keep up with me.

First up, you get to choose a sort of a difficulty level, which is a definitely a first for the series. Like I said earlier, it's not only a difficulty level, but a fun level as well. In this game, most of your party's development happens on a board called Sphere Grid. You see, in this game, there are no experience points. It's kind of like in the Famicom classic Final Fantasy II, then, but this time, the development of each member is all up to you outside of the battle, whereas in Final Fantasy II you were kinda forced to just fight on and see what happened to your characters in terms of perks and traits. You gain AP instead of EXP this time around, and you use the AP to advance on the Sphere Grid. So, the difficulty level only concerns the structure of the Sphere Grid. The Standard Grid - the only choice in my opinion - is built logically for each character and the class(es) they are in. Simply advancing on the board, maybe taking a few sidesteps when allowed, will allow you to create the most balanced party possible and max out their stats. To gain different abilities and perks such as HP+, you need AP to be able to advance on the board, as well as different kinds of spheres to activate ability nodes on the board. These spheres are also gained mostly from battles. After a member of your group has finished his or her own course on the board, in other words, gained all of his or her own abilities, it is advisable to open the locks on the board with special Key Spheres and go circling around some other character's Grid section. After finishing a character's own course, you are perfectly free to develop that character in any way you wish; the basics should be fine and balanced by that point, so you can't fuck anything up too bad. The Sphere Grid is fun to use, and the way EXP and AP are melted into one in this game is quite clever. It doesn't really change anything, you'll still be leveling up as always, only the perks that come with leveling up are up to you to decide.

The Expert Grid, which was not in the original Japanese version of the game, takes away all boundaries. The natural course for each character remains, but at times, you'll find yourself forcefully steered off the path you have to take to teach your characters all of their own abilities first. It's not actually difficult to use Expert Grid, even if you're a first timer, but you have to know what you're doing and not just take every branch you see. It's confusing rather than really difficult to use. AP flows in less numbers, too. There are dozens of empty nodes, and like I said, it keeps steering you wrong all the time. Of course it may be just me, but I want logical development for each character. The fun of complete character customization from the beginning definitely comes second to practical gameplay in my view. Just use the Standard Grid. It's time consuming just figuring out which way to go after each step in this mess.

Just look at that cleavage. Praise be to Yevon.
We start by controlling Tidus for a short while in a wide, complete 3D environment with the camera fixed on the character. The first thing you'll notice is that there's a minimap available to you at all times, which is handy in the soon-to-be huge environments. Then we are given the option to name Tidus - which seems kind of odd in a game that has voiceover work. As it soon turns out, no one ever mentions Tidus by name in spoken dialogue; he's always referred to as "young man", "him", "the star player of the Abes", or whatnot. We get a huge dose of the bad voiceover work right off the bat. I really don't know and don't want to know where they got the additional cast from. The NPC's sound fucking terrible. OK, so after a scene, we're "free" to roam the fancy streets of Zanarkand. As it turns out, there's only one straight, one-way street for us to walk along. It is notable that we can't do anything but walk, run or talk to the text-only NPC's at this point; the menu can't be opened. Almost everything in this game has a short or long tutorial, every single piece of action. Usually, they show up in certain situations, like in previous games. If you want more information, there are also tutorial panels for you to inspect later on in the game, and there's also information on some constantly needed features in the main menu, once you have access to it. The game would be murder to the brains if everything was laid out right from the start. It gets really, really complex, which is the exact reason for the incredible length of this review; there's so much important stuff to say that becomes crucial later on in the game. The rhythm this game sinks all the stuff in to the player is extremely comfortable. Sure, having such a narrow variety of features at your disposal in the beginning may make the first few hours feel dull, but you'll be thankful for the tutorial rhythm in the end, believe me.

After the ill-fated Blitzball game - which, thankfully, is only a cutscene instead of a stupid minigame that it soon becomes - Tidus meets Auron in the crowd. The moment this guy makes his entrance, we know that he's phenomenal. Soon after that, the first battle takes place. Jumping ahead a bit - the battles at this point could be from any Final Fantasy game aside from the different Time Battle system - once there are more than three members in your group, you will notice that the battles have changed, drastically. OK, so first of all, Conditional Time Battle replaces Active Time Battle that has been there since Final Fantasy IV, which is a huge change to die-hard fans; casual fans probably won't see much difference. The main difference between the two systems is that all of the characters on the screen including the enemies are put in order, usually from fastest to slowest, and they attack in that order. There is no time bar, and sometimes it might even be that if Tidus, for example, has a higher speed stat than Wakka, he can execute two commands before Wakka even gets a turn. It's a little hard to explain, but you'll get the idea by playing the game. What's perhaps even more notable in terms of gameplay is that everyone gets a fair turn; you can take all the time you want to plan your attack without having to flip through your potential dozens of abilities while getting your ass kicked the whole time. If you're a pro you can even check the turn order and carefully plan ahead up until the next round of commands. I like this system a lot, and although hearing about this system might make you think "ah, so the game is a fuckin' breeze", believe me when I say it's not as easy as it seems. It has some really tough spots. Not to mention sidequests, I'll get to them later.

One difference that each player will most definitely realize is that you can and must change the party at any time, DURING BATTLE. There are many groups of enemies especially in the beginning of the game made up of grounded animals, Flans and flying enemies. Animals are Tidus' specialty, Flans pretty much beg for getting their formless asses blown away by Lulu's black magic, and flying enemies succumb the easiest to long range attacks, which are cheapest to execute by using Wakka. In the between, you might need Kimahri to suck in some Blue Magic with his Lancet ability, and Yuna's assistance in white magic and perhaps even some summoning action. Moreover, every member of the group (note: group, not party) gets AP as long as they execute at least one action in battle, so you should just keep circulating them in each battle. This is another one-off renovation I like a lot; not all people do, because it's against tradition and the effective development of your whole group requires constant character switching in even the most unpractical moments, or battles some characters have absolutely no use in. I understand these feelings, but I think the ends justify the means. I almost forgot, that by finding the exact weak spot in each enemy and taking advantage of it in each battle usually results in an Overkill, which is a traditional Critical attack, but succeeding in an Overkill grants more AP after battle, so it really has use this time around. Get three or four Overkills in one battle and just watch the AP flow. This time, you also get AP from boss fights, and you can Overkill bosses too.

Aboard the airship with no name.
Before I go on with what happens next, let's take a look how the characters behave in battle, and a few new key features. I think it's pointless to go over any standard class-specific abilities, you must know how they basically work if you've ever played a Final Fantasy game before. Overdrives and Aeons, however, are a whole different story. Well, neither one of them is a new feature. Overdrive is the new name for Limit Break, and Aeons are this game's equivalent to Espers, Eidolons, Summons, whatever you previously knew them as. How these things work is something totally different, I would even go as far as to say mindblowing. Each character has his or her own series of Overdrives. Yeah, so what's new? Each character's way to execute an Overdrive is completely, radically different from each other. Most of them are like mini-mini-minigames, while Rikku's Overdrive is Mix, in which the player is given complete freedom to mix any two items found in the inventory and see the exciting result. Yuna's Overdrive is a more powerful Aeon attack than usual, and Kimahri uses Blue Magic in his Overdrive state. Overdrives can finally, again, be carried over from battle to battle and used at any time the player so wishes. It doesn't end there. This time, you can do absolutely anything while avoiding to use the Overdrive, since there are three different menus in battle. One's reserved for Overdrives and Trigger Commands (just a minute), one is the standard menu and in one menu, the classic ability to change weapons and armour on the go returns after last seen in Final Fantasy VI. Wait, there's more. There are Overdrive modes, which can be learned in battle, by meeting certain accumulative criteria for each character. This means taking damage isn't the only way to fill the Overdrive meter. For example, if you use Tidus to attack a lot, you'll gain Warrior for him, which enables him to gather up Overdrive energy whenever he damages an enemy. If you heal a lot of allies by using Yuna, you'll gain Healer, which means Yuna will gain Overdrive energy each time she heals an ally. You can switch Overdrive modes at any time in the field. Cool, huh?

The Trigger Command is a cool little feature that takes advantage of the new cinematic 3D style of the battles by adding in interactive environments. For example, if an enemy is just too big or strong for you to take on like a gentleman, there's usually some sort of gadget nearby you can use to your advantage. Doing something else during a battle than taking the enemy head-on requires a Trigger Command. It also applies to talking to enemies during battle, from which you'll usually gain some sort of a temporary perk. Just choose Trigger Command whenever it appears, and there should be some sort of a verb, like "Use *background item*" or "Talk" available to you. It's always to your definite advantage.

Last, for now, although it skips ahead a lot from where we left off in the story, the Aeons. When you first played Final Fantasy VII and saw the first 3D incarnations of Ifrit and Shiva, did you ever think it would be cool to control their actions yourself? Well, now you can. Whenever you use Yuna to call an Aeon, that Aeon actually replaces the party and you have full control over him or her. The Aeons have their very own battle menus and HP/MP, as well as their own Overdrives. In the case of the classic ones the Overdrives are the special attacks they had in the earlier games; Ifrit has Hellfire, Shiva has Diamond Dust and so on. In addition, they have another medium special attack that doesn't require MP. As you probably guessed already, you can use the Aeons as long as they stay alive, or until you decide to dismiss them manually. This game ditches most tradition, as there are very few returning creatures from earlier games, actually just one alongside Ifrit and Shiva. There are some cool new summons, and as per usual, some really weird but extremely powerful shit usually obtained through some surreal sidequesting.

Back to the story. So, Auron and Tidus beat up some Sinspawn, and Tidus ultimately ends up unconscious while Zanarkand literally falls to pieces. When Tidus comes to, we find ourselves in the middle of an ocean. There are some pieces of ruins here and there, and we have to swim and navigate to find a stone bridge for Tidus to cross by foot. From the looks of it, swimming's going to be a big part of the game, but it really isn't. There's a lot of swimming in the beginning of the game and there are a few lengthier sequences later on, but aside from a couple of bosses and a few treasure chests hidden beneath the surface, the only purpose of these sequences is to get from one point to another in a quite linear fashion. Which is good, since the swimming controls really aren't too good and even in your complete party there are only three people you can use in underwater sequences. I'm not really sure why the developers bothered with the swimming.

From these very ruins, you will find the first Al Bhed primer. One of the "whoa" moments on the first playthrough is the realization that to really understand the Al Bhed, and the ancient messages they have scribbled on walls all around the world, you need to learn their language one letter at a time. There are a few Al Bhed characters that speak perfectly fine English, those being the most important characters you need to converse with during the game, of course, but most of the lesser NPC's babble in a strange language that kind of sounds like English, but it isn't English. Every one of our 26 alphabets equals to one Al Bhed letter, and you need to find all of the primers to read their dialogue and their cryptic messages in full English. Fun, but tedious on subsequent playthroughs? Nuh-uh; the dictionary takes up a minimal portion of the PS2 memory card in itself and you can load it on subsequent playthroughs without having to find each letter again by using an orb that is found in a few places around the world, including these ruins we are in. Now that's good thinking by the developers, and some fine use of the technology at hand.

After perhaps the most tedious boss fight you can't win *slash* short fetchquest sequence *slash* cutscene combination, we find ourselves on a ship where no one likes us. Sometime later, Sin attacks again, and we're in a whole different place where we were before. The sun is shining, the people are nice (and, there ARE some people), and we can visit a shop for the first time. As you probably noticed before, in this game you don't need Tents to recover your HP/MP at save points, all your stats are recovered automatically when you reach one. Being able to equip weapons and armour is still a breath away, but maybe I should skip a little, to have this review done at some time.

Will these two lovebirds finally be able to get
it on? Stay tuned.
So, there are no accessories, and there's a reason for that. After a certain point in the storyline, you'll be able to customize your weapons and armour with different stat boosts, status immunities, effects and so on, by using different items and loot you find on the field or treasure chests in battle (!), steal from enemies or gain as rewards. I can't even begin to explain how complex and ultimately cool this feature turns out towards the end of the game, when you, among everything else, have access to the most powerful custom effect in the game, which as you might have guessed, is called "Ribbon". Every time you get a new item used for remodelling, a potential effect turns up on the Customize list in the main menu. You should check it every once in a while to see what kind of monster you can turn your pathetic sword or armguard into. Aeons' abilities can also be modified, this feature is introduced a bit earlier in fact, but I must say I don't know much about it. You use the same items to teach the Aeons abilities that are available to members of your group. I've never seen any point in using this, and I have beaten this game, as well as two superbosses. I guess it's just there for show, or for highly clever buffers, the kind of bastards that write walkthroughs for GameFAQs who sometimes make even the most simplistic boss fights sound like strategist's nightmares.

The weapon and armour system has two sides to it that I don't like. The fact that most equipment can be customized and therefore remodelled to whole new pieces takes away from the joy of getting a new weapon or piece of armour that was always present in Final Fantasy VII and IX, above all other games. All of the equipment bear the same basic strength, the perks are just different. Also, you get so much fine equipment just by fighting regular enemies instead of really having to work for new toys. What's worst is that there's an inventory limit for weapons and armour. It's not as bad as the inventory limit for mana in Final Fantasy VIII, but it will get on your nerves in many ways towards the end of the game since you'll gain more and more equipment from those everyday fights.

Adding up to the difficulty of the game is a series of puzzle-ridden catacombs called the Cloisters of Trials. Almost every major location in the game has one, at least nearby; it's part of Yuna's pilgrimage, and these Cloisters must be passed to advance in the game, as well as gain a new Aeon for Yuna to abuse. Three secret Aeons are gained differently, but this is the main way. Cloisters are located in the sacred Temples of Yevon. Most of them are basically beaten after a lengthy period of the good old trial and error, but they get pretty difficult as the player is prompted to find a hidden treasure in each of them. For the record, I don't think I've ever found the treasure in the Bevelle Temple without a walkthrough; I probably could, but the Cloister itself is quite damn difficult (or just confusing) and time consuming. You will either love or hate the Cloisters. Let's just say they're not my favourite parts of the game, but I guess Square had to do something to keep up the general difficulty level set by the last two games.

Well, that's about it, actually. I don't want to spoil the story any further, and all of the most essential stuff has been explained. Let's take a look at the world and the prominent minigame before we go. Final Fantasy X is the first game in the whole series that doesn't have a world map for you to roam around freely. You advance in a linear fashion for a good part of the game. Each time you get a new destination, a world map and your mandatory route are shown in the style of the Indiana Jones movies. However, fans of airships luckily haven't been forgotten and once you gain a ship, you'll be able to navigate a stationary world map and travel anywhere you please, be it a location you've already visited during Yuna's pilgrimage or a potential place to do some sidequesting; of course, you can also try your luck against Sin and all that comes with it any time you wish. The game gives the player just the right amount of freedom he/she needs, at the exact right time; your stats should be perfectly fine to take on anything by that time. The sidequests range from the usual superbosses and cool crusades for rare stuff, to extremely cool monster hunting, to admittedly frustrating "look what I did!" type of wankery. A perfect example would be the infamous Thunder Plains sidequest for Lulu's Celestial Weapon; you need to dodge 200 bolts of lightning in a row to gain access to it. If you haven't played the game, it's kind of hard to explain, but you'll definitely see what everyone's rant is all about once you witness it yourself.

So, last we have Blitzball. Blitz, blitz, blitz. I guess having yet another incarnation of a card game would've been in the way of Square's evolution, but creating Blitzball was one of the worst mistakes ever. Seriously, I would've rather been without a minigame at all. What's worse than the game itself is the way the storyboard designers made the sport such an important part of the plot, and botched some really good scenes with images of that damn ball like it was some kind of a sacred relic. Blitzball is kind of like water polo meets soccer, only a bit more gay. I don't want to go to any specifics, but basically, it's like playing a really retarded and uncontrollable EA Sports game in a Final Fantasy setting. There's a bit of manager simulation as well, as you are given the chance to improve your players' stats, their abilities and your roster in general. New players are hired by approaching NPC's and pressing the Square button, just like challenging them to a card game in the past. Blitzball can be played any time via save points. I know there are people out there to whom this all sounds so damn cool, and some who sincerely enjoy the game, but to me, that one game in the storyline is perfectly enough. Here's a spoiler: the only true purpose of playing Blitzball is gaining Wakka's Celestial Weapon. That's not reason enough for me to bear this abomination of a minigame. I'd go back to Tetra Master any day.

One doesn't just walk into Zanarkand.
The Standard and Expert Grids don't have much difference in terms of general difficulty, at least not in my view. For a casual, but level-headed player, the game is admittedly easy. The storyline features a couple of really tough bosses, but you can definitely prepare for their most devastating attacks with minimal effort in excessive level farming and some smart equipment customization. Once you learn all there is to the advanced features of CTB, you can definitely learn to use the system to your further advantage even in the toughest situations. Even if you don't, the final boss is a pushover. He is such a pushover that it kind of pains me to see this game come to one of the most beautiful conclusions ever witnessed in video game history. Well... in turn we have some of the most difficult sidequests in the whole series. I'm not talking about the simply frustrating ones - there are some really TOUGH sidequests to be conquered. Ultima and Omega are back, admittedly easier than ever, but still hard as steel. Shinryu is also back, perhaps not as vicious as in Final Fantasy V but a hundred times more difficult than his Nova Dragon incarnation in the previous game. After pissing off some wrong people, you will have the option to face a "dark" version of your every Aeon - and you must face some if you wish to revisit some locations. As if kicking these guys' asses wasn't enough, you will afterwards have to deal with Penance, this game's Ozma. You will definitely need some good luck and determination if you're aiming to finish this game to one hundred per cent. Don't let the ease of the main route fool you.

The pros of Final Fantasy X definitely overshadow the cons, and beyond. The game is always fun to play. Screw Blitzball, rape the bad voiceovers, fuck Wakka; this game is the closest to a masterpiece the series has come besides VI and VII. It has so many threads of customization that it's always fascinating to try out some new strategy. To me, at least, the game is one Final Fantasy title in which I have never felt some sort of a routine coming on, after the first 20 hours it's always like a new, different, fascinating game, like "so what shall we try next?". Being able to finally conquer some of the most difficult sidequests eight years since I first played the game - I have beaten about 75-80% of the game - ...there doesn't exist much stuff that's more rewarding. Final Fantasy X is an excellent game... and unfortunately, the last truly essential, traditional Final Fantasy game.

Graphics : 8.8
Sound : 7.8
Playability : 9.7
Challenge : 9.0
Overall : 9.5


GameRankings: 91.84%

The first Final Fantasy game to spawn a direct sequel.

The last Final Fantasy game released with series creator, executive producer Hironobu Sakaguchi on Square's payroll. He worked on the sequel Final Fantasy X-2 in the same capacity, but left Square before its release, right after the company merged with Enix.

A large part of the dialogue was recorded without the voiceover actors even seeing footage of the game. They recorded most of the dialogue based on Japanese voice samples.

The first game since 1990's Final Fantasy III in which the playable characters don't have last names. "Ronso" is the name of Kimahri's tribe, not his last name per se.

The battle against Overdrive Sin and Yu Yevon is very reminiscent of the battle against Lavos and Lavos Core in Chrono Trigger

Tidus and Wakka make cameo appearances in the introductory level of Kingdom Hearts. Yuna and Rikku make their own in the middle of Kingdom Hearts II, as mischeavous fairies, but this appearance refers strictly to their very different roles in the sequel Final Fantasy X-2. Auron even becomes a temporary member of the party in the Colosseum stage in Kingdom Hearts II.

Tidus and Jecht are rivals in Square Enix's all-star anniversary game Dissidia - Final Fantasy, released on the PSP in 2008.

keskiviikko 10. marraskuuta 2010

REVIEW - Final Fantasy IX (2000)

Genre(s): RPG
Released: 2000
Available on: PS1
Developer(s): Square
Publisher(s): Square
Players: 1

With Final Fantasy VIII, Square reached their commercial peak. Although response to the game's very different take on the basics of the Final Fantasy franchise was very mixed, the game sold like bread within its first few days of release. Producer Hironobu Sakaguchi and director Hiroyuki Ito, returning from Final Fantasy VI, were faced with the question "where to go from here?" They had built up the Final Fantasy legacy for years, with different stories ranging from the warriors of light seeking crystals to bring peace to the world, to ecoterrorists assaulting a sinister company to prevent their dystopian world's destruction, to lovestruck academic combatants taking on a time travelling sorceress. As Hiroyuki Ito and Yoshinori Kitase were finishing up work on Final Fantasy VIII, Sakaguchi approached them with an idea of a tongue-in-cheek RPG that would pay homage to all the different stories and legacies of the previous Final Fantasy titles - the concept was partly of his own creation, but he had also taken note of fans and other game developers' wishes. After a while, the concept was applied to a game that began to take the form of Final Fantasy IX, the last Final Fantasy game of the PlayStation generation - Final Fantasy X was already in development for the new PlayStation 2. Final Fantasy IX turned out to be Sakaguchi's favourite of all the Final Fantasy series, which is perhaps why he decided to leave all of his beloved franchise in the hands of his trusted colleagues in the near future; he might have believed to have reached his personal climax. Fans were spread into at least three different groups. Japanese fans who knew everything about the series were taken by the game's great humour, especially the allusions to earlier games. Others, who had only played two or three Final Fantasy games before, didn't get the game or the "step back" of replacing the realistic human characters of the previous game with anime princesses, mages and knights, and all the sci-fi marvel with a regular "save the princess, save the world" story - but they still loved the game. The third group just hated the game, as they had equally poor knowledge of the game's true meaning, and to them, Final Fantasy stood for something completely different. They just couldn't feel the game. In my opinion, Final Fantasy IX was a brilliant final chapter of the franchise's massive critical and especially commercial run on the PlayStation, an amazing return to form after the disappointing Final Fantasy VIII, the funniest and perhaps best translated game in the series... in short, it's another definition of Final Fantasy at its very best.

Here's to the old school

A band of thieves disguised as a travelling theatre group is hired by an unknown party to travel to the kingdom of Alexandria and kidnap its princess, Garnet, on her 16th birthday. As the thieves soon find out, it is the princess herself who wants to be kidnapped. Her surprising co-operation doesn't make the actual kidnapping any easier, as she is persistently followed around by her oblivious bodyguard, a middle-aged knight named Steiner, who indirectly causes the theatre ship to crash during the thieves' escape from Alexandria. As Garnet goes missing after the crash, Steiner has no choice but to co-operate with Zidane, an agile and smooth-talking young thief with a crush on the princess, and a sensitive but gifted black mage named Vivi, who ended up on the ship by accident. The more the unlikely allies advance, the more they uncover of the princess' reasons to leave her kingdom behind, and a plot for world domination somehow related to her mysterious inner powers.

Games in the Final Fantasy series are rarely possible to describe using a single word, but Final Fantasy IX is an exception: it is _fascinating_. Forget everything that you learned about Final Fantasy as a game by playing Final Fantasy VI, VII or VIII. Final Fantasy IX might be a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the whole series counting in these three games, but its main purpose is to remind people that the stories of the Final Fantasy universe used to relate to something completely other than political stand-offs and sci-fi. The game is full of obvious references to all the previous games, or strangely familiar nuances that are almost unrecognizable. The plot? Well, it starts out as simple as it can possibly be: save the princess. Yet, it advances fast, and ultimately takes a form that involves a being from another planet plotting world domination, dwarves (RALLY-HO!), dragons, a silver-haired villain with a god complex, four jewels infused with magical power, and of course, a love story - an old-fashioned, well-developed one, not the obnoxious teen romance force fed to us over the course of the previous game. The development of the storyline shadows the development of the Final Fantasy series, don't you think?

Vivi is one of the most endearing video game
characters ever.
Although it's tongue-in-cheek, distinctly humorous in nature even in its most serious moments, and mostly a traditional fantasy game, Final Fantasy IX tells yet another compelling, well-written story in itself. The translation is phenomenal and smoothly paves the way to the franchise's new voiceover generation. The cast of characters is the biggest surprise. There's a fat, loudmouthed freak and not one, but two kids, and to my surprise, I'm not annoyed by one of them. Each playable character, counting some occasional stand-ins, is a unique, fascinating individual that goes through some sort of coming-of-age process during the course of the game (with the exception of the simpleminded Quina, who is a classic, intentional filler character, and funny as hell), and subliminally reflects on a major character of the franchise's past. However, I'm not going to stretch this review to eternity just by going over every reference to earlier Final Fantasy installments, you'll have to spot them for yourselves; I'm going to handle the game just like any other Final Fantasy game.

For the most part, you'll be controlling several different parties in their own scenarios, kind of like in Final Fantasy VI. Some characters are out of commission for very, very long periods of time, and it isn't until the end of Disc 2 when you can decide your party for yourself for the very first time, and that time there's only one character that inevitably gets left behind. Usually, you travel in a group of four like in every game that came before Final Fantasy VII - the developers really pushed PlayStation's capacity to its limits. In another blast from the past, playable characters show up several tens of hours into the game and on later discs, instead of joining your party in the early goings, or in small groups of people. This of course leaves more developmental space for some characters than others, but the developers did their very best to bring out the flesh in all of the cast. Smoothing out the process of character development is ATE, Active Time Event (clever), a series of optional scenes that allows the player to see what passive characters are doing while your active party is out on a quest.

In its own way, the cast of Final Fantasy IX is the ultimate in its demanding league. This might have something to do with the fact that the characters are so deeply influenced by characters that we all love, but I believe it's because of some unique refinements made on this game and its story's behalf. At first, the game doesn't have a main character of any kind. It's kind of like in the first Final Fantasy game, once it kicks off; you have two thieves, a black mage and a knight searching for a princess. The story quickly evolves and already during the course of the first disc, the main character of the whole ordeal seems to change all the time, due to the different scenarios, at least. Nearing the end of the game, Zidane, who you've been controlling for the most part of the epic adventure, is indeed confirmed to be the prime motor of your group, and the individual whose very origin is the source of all the events taking place on Gaia, and who bears the strongest links to the main villain(s) of the story. Before saying too much, I'll just introduce you to the main cast. Since Final Fantasy IX is a traditional Final Fantasy game in 3D, the traditional classes are brought back, however they're still not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the game - counting out some suggestive pieces of dialogue - probably because they have proven to be very restrictive in the past.

Zidane Tribal is a Thief, very similar to Locke Cole in Final Fantasy VI - kind and helpful without any particular reason, especially towards women. He's also a reverse version of Cecil, Cloud and Squall; he starts out really friendly and carefree, but goes through some very dark self-searching phases in the later parts of the game, and needs to decide on where his allegiance lies. Captain Adelbert Steiner is a Knight, hard to compare to any character of the past but he strikes me as kind of like an unlikely mix of Cyan from Final Fantasy VI and Barret from Final Fantasy VII - he's unspeakably stubborn and loyal to his kingdom, so loyal that he has lost a good amount of common sense while in servitude. He has but one cause in life, and he's willing to sacrifice absolutely everything for it. His constant banter with the razor-sharp Zidane provides us players with some of the greatest laughs we ever had in this whole series; once again, praise the translation.

Together, Eiko Carol and Vivi Orunitia are like Palom and Porom in Final Fantasy IV. First of all, they're both children. One's a White Mage, one's a Black Mage. One's loud and openly selfish, one's a lot more controlled and thoughtful. They develop a strong friendship after a rough start, which makes the subliminal connection to the mage twins even more noticeable in my view. Alone, Eiko is very similar to Rydia from the same game, as she's a child summoner from a village that was destroyed by fire and has strong, conflicted emotions towards her "saviour". Vivi shares some of Rydia's mental traits, such as fearful denial of his great powers, although alone he is all but a living testament to the Black Mage class in the first three Final Fantasy games.

The incredibly hot - in a cutesy anime sort of way - girl formally known as Princess Garnet til Alexandros, but who is referred to as Dagger most of the time, is a White Mage and I guess she could be most easily compared to Terra Branford from Final Fantasy VI. She's constantly doubting herself, she's not necessarily who she and everyone else thinks she is, and she goes through the most devastating self-searching phase and multiple crises in the game... so devastating that they actually affect her performance in a negative way during gameplay, which is quite cool on paper. In look, she could be Tifa's twin. Grr. Hot.

There's not one, but two Shadow/Vincent influenced bad-asses in our merry troupe. Freya Crescent is a Dragoon, now relocalized as Dragon Knight. She's like a woman in a trenchcoat version of Kain's (Final Fantasy IV) armour. It's hard to find a comparison, but she has some Vincent in her in the sense that they're both looking for a lost love, which is their only soft spot in contrast to their tough, soft-spoken, kind of rude nature. "The Flaming" Amarant Coral is a Monk, and an epitome of his sort - an extreme version of Shadow, if you will. Amarant starts out as a villain, but it is revealed in due time that he's actually pursuing the party out of pure curiosity of the human nature, since he doesn't have one. He's openly rude, even inhuman at times, he loves to start fights, and perceives some extremely volatile situations as merely amusing. It's no secret that I absolutely love this guy. I just wish they'd given him a bit more screen time and dialogue. Can't have it all, I guess.

Last but not least in our cast of playable characters (I can't believe how long this review has been already without one word about the specs of gameplay!), is Quina Quen, who is the mentioned classic filler character in the vein of Gau. He's (or she's?) a Blue Mage, and for the most part, an optional character. You will, however, want to keep Quina close as long as possible, since (s)he is the source of some of the greatest comic sidekick shite in the game. (S)he eats, all the time, and the only reason why (s)he even bothers to leave his/her beloved swamp to save the world with the party, is the possibility to learn of all the different food around the world. His/her method to learn Blue Magic is also based on this endless appetite.

That is some serious subliminal messaging, right
there. Speaking of which... take note of the
numbers carved on the sides of the fountain.
There are four additional characters who you'll be able to control on a few occasions to keep the stacks even, but I won't go into them, I'll leave some room for surprises. Cid shows up, of course he does, this time as a very influential man with an incredible engineering skill, but also a rather embarrassing handicap which prevents him from being able to work at a 100% for the most part of the game. Chocobos and moogles have bigger parts than ever, and this time, I fully enjoy their presence - more about both of these series staples later. The main villains of the game are influenced, just like the main cast of the game, by villainous characters from Final Fantasies past. Kuja is introduced in the end of the first disc, and although it might seem at one point like he would be overthrown by another, even more sinister-looking villain whose identity I would like to but will not reveal, he remains as the big evil of the game from there on out. He's like a combination of Kefka and Sephiroth, two of the greatest villains in the franchise, injected with a huge dose of gayness. You read right. He's totally gay; sorry if I offended someone, but even a character in the game takes note of Kuja's true colours! This doesn't make him a bad villain, in fact he's great, but he would've been better with a tad more completely unique personality, and even a little evidence of being a man. As if the literary quotes, the constant giggling and hair stroking weren't enough, that cutscene in the end of the second disc... yuck. Well, this other guy I mentioned would've been my choice for the main villain, right down to his name. And that's that. The critically obese Queen Brahne makes for another great, yet very disturbing villain, who kind of represents the whole of Shinra Inc. from Final Fantasy VII.

OK, well, I've analyzed the plot and the characters and made enough references of my own to the earlier games in the series, so now it's time to go over the game itself. First I'd like to say that like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX has a lot of flaws, but it's the kind of game that should be reviewed as a whole experience based on what the player primarily feels for the tens of hours that just slip by while he's entangled in this fascinating story. I will go over the game's pros, as well as its notable cons, but I want to make it perfectly clear that Final Fantasy IX is nearly a masterpiece, even if it sinks incredibly low at its worst. Read on, and perhaps you'll get the idea.

Final Fantasy IX was one of the last major titles released on the original Sony PlayStation, and as you might know, it was produced in conjunction with Final Fantasy X, set for release a year later on the new PlayStation 2 system. When Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VIII came out, people firmly believed that these two games explored and sealed the outer limits of the PlayStation's capacity. They were wrong. Final Fantasy IX spans four discs, just like the previous game in the series; yet, it sports EVEN better graphics, more impressive technical specs from all standpoints and more FMV cutscenes. The discs, however, are relatively short, each is about 5-10 hours long on a casual playthrough; the game pays back for the short length of the storyline and its supposed linearity with a vast amount of free exploration on the later discs, sidequests and minigames. All that is on show in this game, and the capacity its different gameplay features take up, makes its length totally comprehensible; the game looks PHENOMENAL. It still looks fantastic - it's the one game in the whole series released before Final Fantasy X that I would never care to see remade. It's colourful, smooth and stylistically grand. The best looking game on the PlayStation, bar none.

The music is comprised of many tracks that Nobuo Uematsu seems to have intentionally written to kind of remind us of some classic Final Fantasy tunes, yet they're still very different and fresh. For example, the bass-driven intro of the battle theme featured in games I-VI returns after six years of downtime. If you listen to the melodic title track carefully, and add in a little more tempo, you might find that it bears a slight similarity to the battle theme of Final Fantasy II, which is my favourite out of all the battle themes in the series. Last, some songs are taken straight out of earlier games. The new president's welcoming march from Final Fantasy VII makes an appearance, as well as a song from the still obscure Final Fantasy III. The original music composed for the game is nothing short of amazing; definitely a huge step up after the arguably lackluster soundtrack of Final Fantasy VIII. The emotional folk tune "Rose of May" is probably the best known song, and definitely a favourite of mine as well. "Melodies of Life" is the nearly mandatory vocalized song.

Going into gameplay, let's go into field work first. Besides the fact that most of the game is scenario-based and you will have to manage several different parties on different quests up until the point they permanently join forces, the game basically plays out like any other Final Fantasy game. The cities are huge, complex and fun to explore, once again a sign of the newfound desire to exploit the PlayStation as the cities were relatively small and/or tube-like in the two previous games. Same goes for the dungeons, they're a bit more like actual dungeons in the vintage RPG sense than before, in actual size, at least. A new feature that you'll be introduced right after assuming control is what I like to call the "!?" system. An exclamation mark appears above your character's head each time you find a treasure or another item of interest. The question mark gives you multiple choices of action, like "Pull lever", "Push lever", "Leave it alone". I shit you not: there's TONS of stuff in this game, found just by examining every corner and edge in the game - some really good stuff at that, like thousands of gil just lying around, excellent equipment, cards for the new card game, or key items for sidequests. I see this cornerhounding as one of the greatest unique features of Final Fantasy IX. Why? 'Cause I have done this in every other previous game, I still do, and usually it makes no sense or difference. For example, in this game, you can fill several categories of cards in your inventory without having to play a single game. ...Which would be a relief, at that. More about the new card game later.

The vintage shops are back, after that awkward self-service in Final Fantasy VIII, in which the weapon shops were replaced with instructions for weapon remodelling and item shops that all sold the same materials. However, this system has been somewhat fused to the classic shop 'til you drop style. The item shops sell the same stuff throughout the game, however their variety expands as you progress, to more efficient healing items. There are shops which sell weapons and armour, but very few accessories. Accessories are mostly found in the field, and they're also synthesized. SYNTHESIZED is the new word on the street. Synth shops are kind of like unified weapon/armour/accessory shops, in which you have to pay some small amounts of gil to gain access to more powerful equipment, but you'll also need parts for them - weaker pieces of equipment. This is how the system of Final Fantasy VIII should've worked. There's a dastardly amount of different equipment in this game, and there is a very obvious reason for that, revealed in due time. However, for the most part synthesizing everything on sale is extremely easy, since running out of money in this game is very unlikely, and all the synth shops are so close to weapon and item shops. If you're missing something you need for synthing, you can simply write yourself a shopping list, backtrack a few steps into the closest store, buy everything you need and return to finish up the forging of your new toys. As an idea, the synth shop is amazing, and luckily, the developers realized this and continued to work on it in the later titles.

The battles are a lot less tedious than in Final Fantasy VIII, and summoning, as important as it turns out to be for the storyline's sake, is not nearly as important in battle as it was in the previous game - all but crucial, to be frank. However, the party is extremely slow to follow your commands. It might be an intentional old school thing, I don't know; it's not that big of a problem, but it takes some getting used to in many ways. The enemies are a fine mix of the most disturbing original enemies ever seen in the series, as well as some bonafide classics such as Ochu, Bomb, Sahagin, and of course, the little bastard Goblin, who shows up in a few different forms. Something that might prolong the battles even more than the occasional halt your party comes to in taking commands, is the series of catches the game throws in your face. First off, stealing. Most enemies carry regular items such as Potions, Ethers and Phoenix Downs, but the bosses, there are nearly no exceptions, carry weapons and pieces of armour (four at maximum) that you might not see on sale in any shop for the next ten hours. Zidane can "see" these items upon gaining the Detect ability, and seeing an item like Mythril Sword in the beginning of the game is an opportunity just too tempting to pass, depending on the player, of course. However, success rate in stealing is no longer based on mathematics, but solely on luck. This means, that if you've got a knack for looting stuff, you might find yourself fighting a real bastard for an hour even though you could've easily finished the job in two minutes, just because he won't let go of the final item in his possession... which is usually the most valuable one.

The second catch is Quina's Eat/Blue Magic ability, which is very helpful at a point in the storyline in which you have nothing but your items to depend on if you want to cure or protect yourself. Learning Blue Magic is relatively hard. Quina learns new spells by eating enemies while they're in a critical state. You have to keep track of the enemies' remaining HP and figure out marching orders and strategies for dozens of them (there's a LOT of different Blue Magic) to be able to eat them. Yeah, it's fun, but it's less fun when there are small, annoying enemies that can cast a status effect beyond your control, like Berserk, on Quina, and therefore piss on your opportunity to get a blue spell that might or might not exist. It's not fun fighting these little bastards over and over again, over one spell that might not even have any actual use, it's just there for completists. Moreover, little bastards that are overkilled by even a slightly stronger physical attack, which forces you to use mages to attack if you want to take advantage of their abilities.

Quina can learn Blue Magic easier with the use of Cook, which brings us to Trance, this game's equivalent of a Limit Break. OK, so let's take a brief trip back in the franchise. In Final Fantasy VI, Desperation Attack, as Limit Break was known back then, was a very rare occurrence and it rarely happened at a moment it would've had some true use. In Final Fantasy VII, DA became Limit Break, it gained its own meter which filled each time a character took damage, and it could be carried over from battle to battle as long as the character didn't die, but with the cost of his/her normal physical attack. In Final Fantasy VIII, using Limit Breaks admittedly became way too easy. The characters could randomly use Limit Breaks instead of normal physical attacks as long as their HP remained critical; the Limit Break could easily be accessed by skipping the character's turn until it appeared. Well, Trance is wholly different. The Trance meter fills each time the character takes damage. Check VII. It can be used instead of a physical attack, which is however stronger than usual. Check VIII. It can't be controlled in any possible way, and it can't be carried over to another battle in any way. You might find yourself blowing a housefly to oblivion with Solution 9, 'cause you have no choice. Check bullshit. Trance is useless. OK, so if you're in luck, you may reach Trance in a very difficult boss. Especially Zidane's Trance state is very useful, he has some amazing special attacks, while some characters like Steiner just unleash stronger normal attacks than usual. But, since Trance is "do-it-now-or-repent-later", it kind of breaks up some fine plans from time to time. Trance can be used as long as there's some hostility left in the Trance meter, in other words you can unleash two or three attacks under Trance's influence at a time. Be aware, though, that EVERY action and turn you take under Trance's influence counts; if you use a Potion, it counts and depletes the Trance meter. I have found great uses for Trance, especially in Zidane's case... but I think I can count them by using five fingers. And finally, just that one finger. Trance sucks. Why couldn't they just bring back the Limit Break from VII?

Hey, mogster. There a toilet around here?
Magic shops. Learning spells as you go. Jobs. Espers. Materia. Junction. Every time you think that the designers of Final Fantasy have developed the last great idea for character development in terms of gameplay, they come up with something that bears a similarity to all the different ideas of the past, but it's still new, different and interesting. In this game's case, to make the system look old, but feel new, had an even deeper meaning, of course. The simplest way to put the system is to say that it effectively combines all of the systems applied to each preceding game, with the exception of Final Fantasy II, which was totally different from every other game and which broke just about every rule of a traditional role-playing game anyway. In Final Fantasy IX, all your characters' different abilities, aside from the specialties granted to them by their classes such as Steal and Jump, are learned via equipment, including magic and summon spells. It sounds very weird indeed, and I acknowledge the problem of having to use weak or status-degrading weapons, armour and accessories at even the latest parts of the game to teach your characters everything they are able to learn, but surprisingly it works; also, it gives you all the more reason to go out of your way and get every piece of equipment in the game, as hard as it might be... with the exception of Excalibur II, Steiner's ultimate weapon, which "can" be gained after finishing the most retarded sidequest ever. If getting from the first screen of the game to the final doorstep of your final showdown in 12 hours (!!!), which is a little over a half of the time I usually spend with the first disc, is your idea of how to play and enjoy a Final Fantasy game, then you might like this "quest". Getting back to the subject, this system gives every piece of equipment the extra boost of "personality" that has been missed in most games. Of course, there are also different status effects applied by many pieces of equipment, but they won't work unless you equip your character with the Add Status ability.

As long as you have a certain weapon, armour or accessory equipped on a character, you can make use of the ability/abilities (auto or command) that they're assigned to teach that character, but they aren't permanent until they have been learned via gained AP. After learning a command ability, the character can use it at any time, but auto-abilities, such as immunities to certain status effects, HP/MP+, the ability to use a Potion whenever the character takes damage, and so on, will have to be equipped. Of course, you can't build a superman who's immune to everything right off the bat or an unstoppable killing machine. Equipping abilities is managed by different kind of AP. Let's say Zidane has 37 of these kind of points. Some better auto-abilities might consume tens of points. The characters cannot exceed the limit assigned to them, but it can and will increase along with their experience level. Assigning abilities is very easy at first, it's a no-brainer that you want everyone to be immune to Poison/Venom, but it gets hard really fast, as the different abilities keep piling up. At some point, you might want to keep your party in good balance by, for example, making one character immune to Trouble (a new status effect, EXTREMELY annoying), Zombie and Poison, one to Slow and Stop, one to Confuse and Temperature (another new one), one to Stone and Blind, and so on. It's pretty cool, all in all, but demanding to do efficiently. Believe me, Final Fantasy IX is not nearly as easy as it might seem at first.

Saving is a little different than before, as well as the use of Tents in general. Tents can be used in battle to heal one character, but there's also a handicap inflicted as punishment. Therefore they should be used as a last resort in battle, and in my view, only where they're supposed to. Enter moogles. You will encounter many different, more or less amusing moogles on your trip, and they're in charge of saving and your safe camping. The moogles also run a mailing system called Mognet, and of course, you're their assigned mailman. Delivering all the different mail between moogles is kind of a sidequest, but more of a humorous filler for completists. On the world map, which you'll reach in a couple of hours into gameplay, you need to use a Moogle Flute to summon Moguo, who manages all the saving and camping on the map. There are a few more special moogles in the game. Stiltzkin is a wise traveller that might sometimes accommodate you with a few items for a set price, a few regular moogles run a Mogshop that sells both items and equipment, and finally, we have a moogle called Mene who runs his own business in a couple of secret locations around the world, involving chocobos.

Our gorgeous damsel in constant distress.
Are you familiar with a children's game called Hot 'n' Cold? It's a game in which your friends hide an item and you need to look for it, by listening to your friends. Cold = you're far from the item, getting warmer = you're close to the item, hot = you almost have it. Chocobo Hot 'n' Cold is exactly that, and I've gotta say that I haven't spent this much time even playing Triple Triad in Final Fantasy VIII. For a small fee, you can go treasure hunting with a chocobo called Choco in small, secluded areas. Usually, you just find small items or gil, but as Choco "levels up", he may find Chocographs, or pieces of them. Chocographs are stones that describe locations on the world map. If you can find them in the same manner as you hunt for treasures in the different Chocobo zones, you find some usually incredible stuff; tons of items, cards or good equipment. Even that's not all. Choco levels up even further by finding these treasures, and changes colour each time he does level up, up until he turns, you guessed it, into a gold chocobo. Not only can you travel absolutely anywhere on the world map by using a gold chocobo, using one is also the only way to reach the most devastating superboss of the game, Ozma. You thought there were no sidequests? Oh, there are plenty!

Also relating to the infamous Ozma in a way I will leave to your own exploration, is the inclusion of friendly enemies. There are two kinds of friendly enemies. The other one's a version of an enemy called Ragtime Mouse, who hosts a pop quiz, asking you totally random questions about the history of Gaia - answers are usually found on plaques and statues scattered around the world. Upon answering correctly, you get some gil and good spirit. The other kind is a series of notably different versions of enemies, asking you for some items, like Magic Pot demanding an Elixir in some Final Fantasy games. Upon fulfilling their wishes, they shower you with lots of AP, and if you're able to find and please them all (some of them are well hidden), you'll at least have a chance against Ozma. These kind of small things make Final Fantasy IX so fascinating, despite of its faults. Of course, we're almost done, but haven't gone over the most serious fault of the game yet. That, my friends, regardless of your personal opinions on the matter, is Tetra Master.

Tetra Master replaces one of Final Fantasy VIII's greatest strengths, the magnificent and beneficial Triple Triad card game... with a semi-fun, but utterly useless and in relation to that, quite damn force fed card game that you luckily MUST play only once during the storyline. Whereas it was damn fun to collect those Triple Triad cards, travel around the world looking for the most rare ones and on top of all, gain some irreplaceable traits by trading the cards for some amazing items that increased your chances against even the hardest bosses in the game, Tetra Master is of no benefit. It is a method of passing time, lots of it, and nothing else. Rare cards show up at a complete random. Cards can also be found, gained from battles, Hot 'n' Cold and by doing well in some other, minor minigames. Unlike in Triple Triad, where every card had predefined points and traits, in Tetra Master it's completely random. Two versions of the same card can be completely different, including their "HP/MP", which most of the time makes no difference - it's still random whether you win or lose. I don't want to go to the specifics of the game and how it works, you can check the rules up from somewhere else if you wish, but basically it's quite similar to Triple Triad. It's just the randomness and non-benefit that make it so damn dull; it's still annoyingly addictive, of course it is, if you're a completist trying to get all of the hundred different cards, but if you're like me, you'll feel somewhat guilty of challenging people into a game. It's so based on luck and random chance, that I can't help but wonder why in the hell this game overshadowed the excellent Triple Triad and went on to become a free online game on its own for the next decade. Well, it's not as bad as Blitzball when it comes to minigames on a relative forefront in a Final Fantasy game, I'll give it that.

Alexander and Bahamut solving their differences,
or actually their masters' differences. Make no
mistake about it: the game is candy to the eyes,
even after ten years.
As stated, Final Fantasy IX is a quite difficult game. Not just because of some vintage superbosses that are known to have had even seasoned fanboys begging for mercy, but also due to the challenges it sets to certain type of players, who want to loot everything there is to loot, for example, or people who can't take the new character development system to heart for one reason or another. On top of that, there are some quite challenging quests to be conquered in the storyline as well, in which the difficulty level is mostly based on the fact that your party is predefined; sometimes, you have to strictly rely on raw power and weak healing items without the benefits mages provide, or on the contrary, just one physically talented combatant and three mages. The game was made for you fans to stay on your toes and in the game until the release of Final Fantasy X.

Despite almost taking a dive every now and then and not quite being able to live up to the best of the games it pays tribute to, Final Fantasy IX keeps a TRUE fan - not just an avid player of Final Fantasy VII and VIII - in a stranglehold. So maybe you didn't quite understand it when it came out. Have you gotten familiar with all the remakes of the old games that have surfaced during the decade? If you have, I suggest you dig up Final Fantasy IX and see what you think of the game and its "childish" story today. I've always liked the game; but nowadays, I can almost mention it in the same sentence with VI, VII and X. An absolute gem, a true haymaker from the final days of Sony's firstborn.

Graphics : 9.8
Sound : 9.4
Playability : 9.0
Challenge : 9.1
Overall : 9.2


GameRankings: 93.32%

A quick remake of the game was rumoured in 2001, but soon scrapped. Square designer Takeshi Arakawa has said he would love to make a sequel to the game.

Series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi's favourite Final Fantasy game.

Only two of the playable characters are undisputedly humans.

Vivi Orunitia makes an appearance in Kingdom Hearts II as a possessed Struggle competitor.

Zidane Tribal (voiced by Bryce Papenbrook) and Kuja (voiced by J.D. Cullum) are rivals in Square Enix's all-star anniversary game Dissidia - Final Fantasy, released on the PSP in 2008.

The Final Fantasy Wiki has a quite comprehensive (yet not perfect) list of all the references made to earlier Final Fantasy games here.