Final Fantasy 9 has the largest ensemble cast in JRPG history
JRPGs are created by their characters. You may have outlandish worlds to explore and dense combat systems to learn, but if the personalities behind every passing moment don’t hold their own, you might as well throw in the towel. It matters more than you think.
Bravely Default 2 is a perfect example of a cast that falls short. The game’s gorgeous visuals and the brilliance of the engaging combat, but the characters it expected me to fall in love with were so boring that I didn’t even bother to see it through to the end. Eternal Sonata, Resonance of Fate and all Star Ocean games of the last 15 years are also guilty of this shortcoming.
Final Fantasy has rarely fallen victim to boring characters and outdated worlds, with Square Enix understanding that each entry should feel fresh, exciting, and subversive to everything that has come before it. Granted, I’ll never be an 8 or 13 super stan, but I can still look at all they accomplished and understand what the team was aiming for.
Although they didn’t gel with specific entries, they were still so easy to enjoy as thousands of other fans gravitated towards them. Whether it’s a mainline entry, sequel, spin-off, or bizarre side project, Final Fantasy very rarely fails when it comes to exemplifying its own creativity. There’s a reason it remains the biggest JRPG franchise on the planet, a household-recognized name that its publisher is always keen to continue to build on.
In a series filled with highlights, Final Fantasy 9 will forever be my favorite. It’s a love letter to an older era in modernized genre history with timeless visuals, a heartfelt narrative, and a cast of characters each with interesting stories to tell. I know it’s considered sacrilege to put this masterpiece above other entries of the same generation, but for me it creates a comfortable atmosphere and a fantasy world that none in the series have. could never match. It’s what made me fall in love with JRPGs, and a game I return to again and again and again with a warm affection for its brilliance.
But why are its characters so brilliant, and what makes them more etched in my memory than Cloud, Squall, and Tidus? Final Fantasy 9 isn’t quite as austere, ditching cyberpunk and spiritualism in favor of a more traditional take on the genre. Gaia is a world of ancient magic, entrenched royalty, and disparate cultures all living on different continents with their own climates, beliefs, and worldviews. The game might start on the streets of Alexandria as a festival looms, but the next few hours will see us traveling the world in pursuit of a much greater destiny. Small beginnings are key, especially for a tale like this.
Zidane and company plan to kidnap Princess Garnet and throw the kingdom into chaos, while Vivi is a depressed dark mage who just wants to have a good time for once in her adorable little life. Steiner is a knight with unwavering loyalty to the throne, while the aforementioned princess fears that her destiny as a legendary summoner will only harm those responsible, as her power is abused by those responsible. All of our main characters have a place to go, and the first few hours do an impeccable job of bringing them all together.
But this isn’t an article about the game’s opening – although I totally need to write it now – but rather about the set of characters who all stare fate in the face and live to tell the tale. . We see demonstrable growth in Zidane as he transforms from a petty thief to a heroic warrior who must confront his own origins. Princess Garnet begins the game as a sultry princess, speaking with royal deliberation until the whole world teaches her to appreciate ordinary people better and where exactly her kingdom has failed.
Steiner is a stubbornly loyal knight who believes his queen could never be wrong, so obsessed with keeping orders and keeping the peace that he neglects the wars that break out right in front of him. We start the game hating his guts, but fall in love with this goofy, gullible character as he embraces a heart of gold. Vivi is a dark mage who doesn’t know his past or even how he was born, but watching him recognize his own humanity while staring the very nature of his existence in the face is both tragic and rewarding.
Final Fantasy 9 may look cute and cuddly on the surface, but it hides so many emotional character arcs and darker narrative elements that serve an overarching story with so much to tell. Square Enix loved to analyze the existential nature of our own state of being in the early 2000s, and that’s arguably more prescient today than it was then. Even the faces introduced much later in the game like Eiko, Beatrix, and Amarant hide stellar stories waiting to be unearthed, while the comic relief figures in the form of Quina still have plenty of substance.
If you load up Final Fantasy 9 and don’t touch anything while the game lingers on the main menu, a short montage of character portraits will begin to play. These are accompanied by quotes that summarize each party member’s journey, highlighting the personal goals they hope to achieve as well as the obstacles that stand in their way. The main theme is called Place To Call Home, a distillation of everything this game stands for, and how we follow a motley crew of undesirables looking for belonging in the midst of a world trying to push them aside. at every turn.
It’s spot on and sits above the rest of the series for me because it combines all of the greatest elements into one package that just can’t be matched. There are so many moments in this game that I’ve memorized, and now that I’ve spent an entire article talking about it, I need to reinstall this classic before I fall in love all over again.
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