To retro is not enough
When I was in eighth grade in 2000, I had a lot of trouble with school. It’s a familiar story. I had been popular as a younger kid because, while I was a good student, I cursed before the other kids knew what the word “fuck” sounded like and had a lot of video games. As I got older and the currency of popularity switched from shock and comedy to attractiveness and suavity, my stock plummeted. I became the awkward kid who played weird Japanese games to escape from reality.
Compound this with a teacher who absolutely did not like me. It’s always an absolute shock going from being a smart kid who’s been on the good side of every teacher to being the one she hates for no good reason. Every day became a quagmire of dreading being called out because I wasn’t perfect while other kids got away with everything.
I developed stress illnesses. I got sick nearly every other week, and the weeks I wasn’t sick I was plagued by crippling pains caused by perpetual nervousness. I missed about a month of school that year.
But I still played video games. It had been a rough year for them, though. Chrono Cross, Majora’s Mask, and Baldur’s Gate 2, sequels to my favorite games ever, had come out and none had thrilled me. Vagrant Story was the first Square game I hadn’t adored in a long time.* My favorite ones were Kirby 64 and Star Wars: Podracer, which had been fun little games but nothing earth-shattering.
The one I longed for, though, was Final Fantasy IX.
Final Fantasy had long been the killer app. I had been a Genesis kid as a child, and I still have vivid memories of Phantasy Star IV, the Genesis’ best RPG. But while I was playing that, my cousin would tell me at family gatherings about Final Fantasy III, and I was envious. I’d pick up copies of Nintendo Power in the bookstores my family frequented and Final Fantasy III became the object of my affections. Eight year old me had bought a SNES solely for that game, and it didn’t disappoint.
All told, the SNES Final Fantasy II and III made me love the Japanese RPG. When Final Fantasy VII was released, the excitement rivaled mine for Super Mario 64, for Ocarina of Time (my Genesis roots quickly dissolving in a sea of more compelling games). I bought Brave Fencer Musashi exclusively for the Final Fantasy VIII demo, and despite modern opinion I did, and do, laud that game up with the series’ greats. Final Fantasy IX promised a return to the classic elements of the series, and while I liked the direction it was going I was far too young not to buy into the hype. People said it was a return to form, and I had visions of the SNES games floating around in my head.
Final Fantasy IX came out in the fall, in November. School was more agonizing than usual, and after I got off the bus I got my parents to drive me to the local EB Games. The thrill, the rush of getting your hands on the newest, greatest game is a feeling that can’t really be replicated as an adult. You try and you try, but in the end nothing’s ever that exciting anymore**. But that November day, I was excited. I was over the moon. I plunked down a few weeks worth of allowances, and I walked out proud owner of Final Fantasy IX.
There was one problem, though. When I finally powered up the game on my Playstation, I didn’t like it. My first playthrough lasted up until the part where the party is separated and one group goes off a desert on a continent where you can’t use magic. I quit around there, but it was really a gradual giving up. Nothing about the game grabbed me. Sure, it was neat having a traditional black mage as a main character, and it was damn pretty, but there wasn’t any meat to it. “Where’s the Junction system? Where’s Materia?” I remember asking. “There’s nothing happening in this world.”
It left me with a profound sense of despair. This was supposed to be the game, the Final Fantasy to wonderfully cap off the Final Fantasies on the Playstation, like Final Fantasy III had been the star of the SNES trilogy***. It was supposed to be so much better than this, this game that was just memories of things that had been.
I give Final Fantasy IX tries on almost a religious basis, now, hoping that one day I will love it with the fierce fire it’s fans have, but every time the same thought attacks me: this is a game designed to remind me of better games. I see its scenes and in my mind I imagine the saga of Cecil from Final Fantasy II in Mysidia, the epic early party split in Final Fantasy III, even that first march to fight Garland in Final Fantasy. I don’t think of Final Fantasy IX, because it was trying to tell stories I had imagined so much better as a child. Its only goal is to modernize that retro feeling.
In a lot of ways, Final Fantasy IX destroyed that innocent joy I’d felt in video games. No, rather, it pushed me past it. It taught me that no matter how hard, how long we fight it, things change, and the only thing a sane person can do is accept it and move on. If this was what Japanese RPGs wanted to do, then I could play something else. I could play Western RPGs, I could play first person shooters, I could keep playing Starcraft and Diablo 2 with my friends. Of course I could still play the Japanese RPGs that appealed to me. But more than that, I could become a different person who had different interests, different ideas core to their being.
It’s corny to say a video game, especially one you didn’t like, made you a better person, but I’m going to out and say it: Final Fantasy IX made me a better human being because I didn’t like it. It was the final straw that pushed me firmly into reality, into “adulthood”, and I appreciate it for that, even though I didn’t particularly like it.
And the narrative will not change. I’m pretty sure I will never enjoy the game, but nearly every year I give it another chance, just to see if my brain is ready to walk down the avenues of nostalgia. And every time, I realize that no, it’s not. There’s still so much out there to see. The world changes, and we will change with it. And we always have our memories.
*I realize I’ve just shat on four of the most critically acclaimed games ever. My opinions have changed. It took me until the summer after my sophomore year in college to truly appreciate Chrono Cross. It took me until this past December (and a lot of D&D games) to appreciate Baldur’s Gate 2. Vagrant Story and Majora’s Mask are on the list, and some day I’m sure I’ll love them, too.
**Of course I would release this article after the release of Skyrim, the game that has come closest to replicating that feeling. Of course.
***Even at that age, 14 in 2000, I knew there was a Final Fantasy V, and I was determined to play it. It’s not one of my favorites, but it’s a reasonably solid game.