The first Final Fantasy game was released in 1987, and as of November 29th the main titles (namely the numbered entries) number 15. While some people have been with it from the beginning, my first encounter with the series was the ninth installment. This is the story of that encounter, from the beginning. It was an encounter that still resonates with me today; Final Fantasy is a part of my leap through interests that has stuck with me.
Around the end of 2001, my dad borrowed all sorts of games from a friend of a friend of his named Jerry. While I would normally just watch my Dad play everything from Metal Gear Solid to Resident Evil (with mixed feelings of interest and terror, depending on the game), one game case caught my eye. It featured five distinct characters on a backdrop resembling a castle, with the title taking up the empty space above them: Final Fantasy IX.
It was one of the few games we were borrowing that I was allowed to play. The rest were either multiplayer games, party games, or horror games with a rating beyond my 13-year-old self. I had been on the hunt for something new that I could play for a while by then. I’d been limited to our NES and Sega consoles. Finally I’d found something modern that I might be comfortable with.
The game’s genre fit me like a glove. Everything from the story to the characters drew in my imagination and drained most of my free time. Whenever I played, I lost myself to the sounds, the adventure, and the easy-to-learn battle system. Hours were spent following Zidane (whom I renamed Ryan) and company through the world of Gaia, watching as, slowly but surely, a story unfolded that was a lot deeper than I expected.
I was a freshman in high school at the time, so there were times when I couldn’t play. Homework, chores, family, and even my own dad using the PlayStation all conspired to come between me and Zidane’s journey. At 4 discs, playing Final Fantasy IX was a massive endeavour that I was determined to see through to its conclusion. Along the way, I watched my Dad start his own file, and even piqued my sister’s interest in the style and genre over the Christmas holiday.
It was a doomed relationship. In 2002, Jerry’s commitments changed and he ended up moving, and all of his games left with him, Final Fantasy IX included. After 30+ hours of playing on and off for almost half a year, the game I’d devoted so much time to was gone.
I found myself missing the story, the characters, and the whole experience of being part of it as I played. I had just finished the third disc. I watched Zidane have a sort of identity crisis about who he thought he was compared to what his creator had built him to be before his friends were able to bring him back to his senses. This emotional journey was quickly followed by the game’s main villain (who would eventually become my all-time favourite character in any Final Fantasy) finally going mad and destroying Terra.
The hole the game left in me was huge. I had spent so much time in that world with these characters, and now it looked like I wouldn’t be able to see it through to the end. Out of everything I’d experienced in the game up until then, the part I recalled the most clearly at the time was the music that played during Zidane’s crisis. The song, which I found out later was called "You’re Not Alone!" had given me a sense of hope during that dark moment in the game. I felt physically that everything would turn out okay and that Zidane would be all right. Now, with no game to continue, all I could do was cling to the vague memory of the music. I wanted to stay in the world of Gaia so badly, that I eventually tried to find music that sounded something like "You’re Not Alone!"
Eventually, I found a song that I thought sounded like it. "The Last DJ" by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers played on Q92 while I was doing homework. It wasn’t the same song, in fact it’s nowhere near, but to my failing memory it was like playing Final Fantasy IX all over again because it made me experience that feeling of hope again. "The Last DJ" still holds a special place with me, not only because the song itself is good, but because of how it made me feel when I first heard it. It reminded me of Final Fantasy IX.
But this was the radio, and fleeting is almost too light a word, thanks to DJs who don’t name the song that played. I heard it once, then it disappeared, until someone was able to identify it for me. With some help from either my mother or my sister, I was eventually able to listen to "The Last DJ" regularly, and that kept the feeling of playing Final Fantasy IX alive.
My birthday came and went. My disappointment at not getting a copy of Final Fantasy IX was palpable, but at 14 years old I had enough things to keep me busy. When it came to Christmas, we used to open some gifts at midnight with Uncle Mike, my paternal grandmother’s common-law partner, and the rest the next morning. This was so we’d have that “Christmas morning” magic to keep the myth about Santa alive. That year, probably around 12:30 a.m. I unwrapped a copy of Final Fantasy IX.
I was very close to unwrapping two copies of the game. Since it was on my birthday/Christmas list, both my dad and sister were looking for it. PlayStation games were becoming hard to find with the release of the PlayStation 2 the year before so neither of them could find it in time for my birthday. However, both had apparently found it for Christmas. Every year we chose someone who would be in charge of handing out gifts, and that year my sister had been chosen as the “elf”. I found out later that she’d been saving her wrapped copy to really surprise me. When I opened the copy from my parents, she had to hastily hide her own. This resulted in her owning a copy of the game, which she ended up enjoying immensely. To this day, she blames me for getting her into the series.
Finally getting back into the game was like coming home. Getting to the last boss, Necron, gave me a sense of accomplishment after having struggled with Trance Kuja before him. Good thing, too, because when the final cut scene froze on me and refused to load, that feeling is probably what stopped me from throwing the controller across the room.
I held onto the hope that it was just bad luck and that it couldn’t possibly happen more than once. Ah, the naivety of youth. I beat the game again with the same result, and my parents heard about it for days after. Mom tried to fix it with a do-it-yourself resurfacing kit and I tried for a third time again after, but still nothing. Every attempt was a long, almost painful commitment that I hoped wouldn’t end in the game over music. It sometimes did, but other times I was able to get past Trance Kuja to Necron before I lost. If I got lucky enough to get past both, it still froze.
Salvation was to be had at a small store where we used to rent most of our games post-Jerry. It was called Games Expert. They had a disc resurfacing service. It was worth a shot.
That shot worked. Finally being able to see the end of the game almost had me crying. When the credits started to roll, that’s when the tears happened. That was when I knew that this series was special to me. The soundtrack is still one of my favourites, and "You’re Not Alone!" remains my favourite song from any Final Fantasy game. It was one of the first games that really made me laugh, cry, and scream, and it was that experience that cemented Final Fantasy IX as one of my all-time favourite games. It put Squaresoft (now Square Enix) high on my list of great game developers, and I always look forward to games that share the title of Final Fantasy.
I still own my copy of Final Fantasy IX, and while it’s been loved, it’s still in great condition. Somewhere on one of the two PlayStation memory cards we own, my original file is still around for me to play and look back on. Would I try to beat it again? Probably not on that file, but if I really wanted to, I’d have a much easier time with it.
Catherine Arbour is a Professional Writing student with a background in animation and a bias towards fantasy. She frequents as many conventions as she can, mostly in the Ottawa area. When she isn’t writing, she can be found playing video games, reading, or knitting as part of the Spiritual Centre’s Knit ‘n’ Knatter.