So I'm finally done with FF9, right up to and including the optional superboss. Normally this would be the point where I verbally tear it down like I did with FF8, but Square didn't give me all that much material to work with in comparison. So I'm just going to share my opinion on the game (not that you care, but I'm still going to do it because I can). Spoilers are involved, so here's a jump.
As I just said, this one holds up much better than FF8 did, and I'm both mystified and mortified by the latter's reputation being seemingly superior regardless.
First, the protagonist. Zidane stands in stark contrast to the mopey and confused Terra, Cloud and Squall and the irritating douche Tidus as an upbeat, straightforward, likable, even humorous hero. Well, to me anyway. I'm fully aware that this isn't the consensus, and that all these others outdo Zidane in sheer popularity. Guess what? You're wrong. No question about that, out of all the Final Fantasies I've played Zidane is by far my favorite protagonist. Granted, I don't know all that much about Firion, Vaan and Lightning, but I get the feeling that for once the bar is set relatively high.
Then there's the character growth system (hey, I never said the order I'd tackle the subjects in would have any kind of logic to it). It felt like an expansion of the esper system from my beloved FF6, not only in that all your equipment dictates which skills and abilities you learn, but also because you're led to make more involved choices in what to wear. In FF6 espers were basically only used for teaching spells and giving stat boosts because I can count the useful summons on one hand despite there being THIRTY-ONE of them, so it was just a matter of learning the spells you wanted (and, if you're as dedicated as I am, swap them around before every level up so you get the appropriate stat boost).
Here, however, you're often given the choice of wearing more powerful items right off the bat, or equip something weaker and learn a certain ability. Ultimately the choice depends on how much you want said ability. For instance, depending on your sidequesting tendencies, you may get Amarant's Kaiser Knuckles before the weaker Avenger - but the latter is the first of only two items to teach Demi Shock. So, how much do you want Demi Shock? Considering what it does, probably not all that much, so Kaiser Knuckles it is. On the other hand, still depending on your sidequesting, you may get Freya's ultimate weapon, the Dragon's Hair, before the Holy Lance which teaches Dragon's Crest - quite literally the only reason why you'd ever want to use Freya. So screw the ultimate weapon for now, I'll learn Dragon's Crest first (especially since it makes the regular attack more or less obsolete anyway), then re-equip the Dragon's Hair.
Okay, so these two decisions were pretty easy to make, but there are still quite a few that make you think. Especially when it comes to bringing Eiko up to speed when you first get her - you're near the end of disc 2 at that point, yet she can learn boatloads of spells and abilities you might need from equipment that's been obsoleted since late disc 1.
There's one aspect of character growth, however, that is quite occult because it's never mentioned in the game, and it's related to the boosts to the four core stats you get from equipment. For example, let's say you're wearing a Holy Miter, which gives you temporary boosts of +1 to magic and +2 to spirit, and these go away when you unequip the item. But is that all there is to it? No. In keeping with the FF6 esper parallel, if you level up while holding stat-boosting equipment, you'll also get a permanent boost of a fraction of a point that corresponds to the magnitude of the boosts you get. For example, that same Holy Miter would give you 1/32 of a magic point and 2/32 of a spirit point every time you level up with it equipped. It doesn't look like much real estate when worded like that, but you have five equipment slots and quite a few level ups to play with.
Now then, what about the story? As I've said before, it's definitely nowhere near the most important thing on my mind when judging a game, except when it feels like my mind is being insulted. Still, I managed to get very much into it, and at only one point did I feel the game was slapping me in the face (you all know what I'm talking about, more on that in a second). So from a storytelling perspective, mission accomplished.
And since it's much easier to complain about what was done wrong than to praise what was done right (just assume I really liked the rest of the game more than enough for me to point out specific parts or something), that slap in the face. You all know. Starts with N and ends in -ecron. Seriously, where the hell did THAT come from? That was spoiled for me back when the game was new, and now that I got to play the game for myself I understand the complaints perfectly. What, did they feel that a final boss that ISN'T a hundred feet tall for a change is inadequate? I mean, sure, the main theme of the game is the inevitability of death, which it exploited a lot better than the sham FF8 tried to pass off as a love story, but you would've thought Kuja, who through his actions throughout the game and the agony he felt when discovering his own mortality, would've been perfect as a final boss in keeping with that theme. What, did they love Necron's attack pattern so much that they just had to throw it in? Then why not just give Kuja a second form or something (third if you count his regular appearance)? Sure, it's clichéd and overdone, but it's still better writing than introducing a new character right after you beat the main villain.
While I'm on the subject of the story, there's another subject that I have no strong feelings one way or the other for reasons I'll get to in a moment, but that I still want to bring up nonetheless: certain plot points weren't explained all that well despite being established as canon in other publications. The reason for that was rather obvious, they wanted to avoid burying the player under even bigger walls of text than we already got, which is great in a way because sometimes you just want the damn cutscene to end already so you can get back to playing. And since I'm a gameplay kind of that, I can get behind that. However, at the same time, if I'm going to follow a story and get invested in the characters, I'd like to be able to understand them better, hence why I'm more or less neutral on this issue. (I'd like to know, which side are you on?)
The leftovers from the plot that didn't make it into the game's script are explained in greater detail in a 600-page brick known as "Final Fantasy 9 Ultimania". It's rather hard to describe, it's not really a strategy guide, even though it contains, among other things, all the kind of stuff you'd find on GameFAQs, Final Fantasy Wiki, etc. short of an actual walkthrough. One such plot point that went underexplained in the game is the reason why Garland built Zidane (and later Mikoto) to begin with - he deemed Kuja more or less a failure since because he was created as is, he never experienced childhood, and as a result his emotional growth was stunted, preventing him from entering a Trance without the subterfuge he ended up using. As a result, Garland created Zidane as a child to rectify that mistake, and elected to use Kuja until Zidane would come of age. Now wouldn't you have liked to know these little details when you played the game? Without having to go through a 600-page brick that never got out of Japan, at that?
Oh, and I guess no FF9-related rant would be complete without a word on how it's an obvious love song to the NES and SNES days. The moment you get into that first battle and hear the classic random encounter intro that went AWOL in 7 and 8, you know exactly what you're in for. References to the first game in particular are plentiful, such as the appearance of the Four Fiends, having a villain named Garland, and of course the black mages. On the subject of these guys, playing through the game made me realize just how powerful nostalgia can be (though as a Pokémon player I should know that already). Why do I say that? Because had Vivi's character not come with a classic black mage packaging, I'm pretty sure the word "crybaby" would be heard a lot more when people try to describe the character. Of course my assessment could be off, but that's the impression I'm getting. He does have his moments, though, and grows past his trials, so at least there's that.
While I'm on the subject of classic FF jobs, one thing that's worth bringing up is how each character has a specific skillset they can't step out of, unlike in 7 and 8 where everyone could do almost everything. I like this because it gives characters a much stronger sense of individuality, and makes you feel like everyone has the potential to be important. The latter is only in theory, however, because in reality the balance between the characters is completely out of whack. I could go on a full-blown rant about that, but I'd rather not, because I'd be going on all day, if you've played the game you know perfectly well how OP some stuff can get.
In fact, that OP-ness causes the difficulty curve to be flat-out crazy. You may have had a different experience from mine, but for me, surprisingly enough disc 1 was the hardest disc, and it kept getting easier after that. Of course Trance Kuja, Necron and Ozma are kind of bitches, but I ended up just muscling past everything with instant-9999 Thievery, No Mercy (since Amarant was in my party every chance I had until then), and Dagger and Eiko alternating between party upkeep (hate Curse and Grand Cross so much!) and Ramuh/Holy spam whenever I had a lucky break. Ozma itself was a letdown, since I managed to beat it with the same party at the same levels I used to beat the final bosses, though of course I altered my abilities and equipment a bit as needed... and got a lucky break with Phoenix when Meteor annihilated my whole party. (Eiko OP, ban to ubers ASAP pls.)
Well, I said just about everything I wanted to say... kinda funny how it turned out, though. I kept saying "this is great, BUT..." the whole way through, even though I really enjoyed the game. Then again, you've seen the kind of rant I can do when I don't enjoy a game, and it's a far cry from this one, let me tell you that. So on that note, bye bye!