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By otakuman5000 On 26 Jul, 2012 At 10:49 PM | Categorized As Editorials, Featured, NINTENDO, Old School Otaku | With 2 Comments

No GravatarA hardcore gamer used to mean someone who played a variety of games because the welcomed the challenge and different game play experiences that the world of gaming offers.  Today the so-called hardcore gamer is someone who is loyal to a gaming genre or franchise and doesn’t want to play anything that is not gritty and dirty. They are also people who are so loyal to their favorite consoles or gaming genre that everything that is not what they like, are regarded sub-par and not worthy of a single look. This contrast could be the fault of the game makers who are after the next big game or there is truly no creativity in gaming anymore.

Back during the mid 1980’s through the mid 1990’s Nintendo could basically do no wrong. Nintendo had some of the best companies in the world working on some of the best games in the history of video games. The Game Boy was the best-selling handheld gaming device in history. Most Hardcore gamers had the Nintendo Entertainment System, The Super Nintendo and a Game Boy and enjoyed the games on all three platforms.

Now in the mid 1990’s The Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation consoles were released and brought CD based Gaming to the mainstream. Those consoles changed the way video games looked and sounded with the advanced CD technology in the hardware. The hardcore gamers were seeing games in a whole new light. Then came the Nintendo 64 system, and that is the day the love died for most hardcore gamers.

Deny it if you want, but when Nintendo announced that they did not choose the CD format because of loading times and they were going to stick with cartridges some fans abandoned them. Some of the “hardcore” gamers never went back. In the eyes of the hardcore, Nintendo dropped the ball and they were from that day on, a generation behind. However, in the grand history of video games, the Nintendo 64 was a gaming marvel. If not for the N64, there would be no Goldeneye 007, Super Mario 64, Super Smash Brothers,  The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time or Mario Party. These are games that broke the mold as far as game design and game play mechanics.

Super Mario 64 is the blueprint for all modern platformers.

Super Mario 64 was the blueprint for the 3D platformer.  Goldeneye 007 single-handedly brought the first console first person shooter into the mainstream, until Halo on the original Xbox. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time helped mold the 3D action adventure genre into what it is today. Super Smash Brothers and Mario Party both were a phenomenon like no other and they have both spawned numerous clones. However some hardcore gamers couldn’t get past the cartridge hump. Which, in this writer’s opinion, doesn’t make them hardcore at all. With that being said, let’s move on.

Enter the GameCube. Now this was the last time that a Nintendo console was technically comparable or superior to the competing consoles. The PlayStation 2 and Xbox dominated that generation with the third party support. The GameCube had great games like Resident Evil 4, Resident Evil Zero and the remake of the first Resident Evil game. They also had Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, Killer 7, Skies of Arcadia Legends, Metal Gear Solid: Twin Snakes, and the Metroid Prime series.  Other games like Super Mario Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess would have been included in that list, but those are not considered hardcore because they are not M-rated.

This is one of the best GameCube games you didn’t buy.

Next is the first lightning rod of all the hardcore Nintendo hate, The Nintendo Wii. Now it is a popular saying among gamers that the Wii console is for your grandmother, little kids or casual gamers. This author begs to differ. The Nintendo Wii DOES have some hardcore games, you just need to open your eyes and look. Games like Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, Madworld, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Donkey Kong Country Returns, No More Heroes, and many more. Most of these games were overlooked by the so-called “hardcore gamers” because these were franchises that were not established. That is the fault of the gamers not being willing to try anything new.

Another Wii game many of you slept on.

Let us turn to the Nintendo 3DS/DS.  This is one of the highest and fastest selling handhelds in history. With that being stated, The Sony PlayStation Portable was considered the handheld for hardcore gamers. The Nintendo DS outsold the PSP in the US at a ratio of 4 to 1. The thing about the DS/3DS was the fact that many of the classic gaming franchises we consider hardcore we released on the device.  Titles like Contra, Metroid, Castlevania, Chrono Trigger, and The Zelda and Mario series helps keep the DS/3DS in the hands of the hardcore gamer who likes true portable gaming. The unique game play styles the DS/3DS gives us is one of the main reasons the handheld does so well.

Now, the second lightning rod of Nintendo hate, the Wii U. A console that is not released yet, but already has the hardcore gamers generally dismissing Nintendo. Some gamers have even suggested that Nintendo set the gaming generation out because in their eyes Nintendo is dead and buried. More suggest that Nintendo go the route that Sega has gone, third-party developer. Both are nonsense, in this author’s opinion. What most of these gamers don’t realize is the Wii U is made for us core/hardcore gamers. It has HD graphics for the graphic whores and even a new pro controller for traditional game control. After Nintendo gave you all that now you are complaining about the games. Have we become a nation of whiny gamers? That is for another editorial by this same author.

Hardcore Gamers think this is the only cool game for the Wii U.

Now with all of that said, the hardcore gamer still questions the relevance of Nintendo. While their consoles and companies of choice have been playing catch up with the innovation of Nintendo, now the hardcore are throwing stones and the Wii U and now at the 3DS. This practice is sad by this author’s standard. While Nintendo is finally catching up to Microsoft and Sony on a graphical level, Sony and Microsoft have not caught up to Nintendo on an innovative level.  So is the Wii U the console that will both innovate and satisfy the graphic whores? It will probably not. One thing it will do is get even more people enjoying the gaming experience in other ways than currently available. As previously stated, the thing about the Wii U is that it was made with the hardcore gamer in mind. This is the Nintendo console for you. The fact the Nintendo made a Classic Controller Pro is proof of that.

Hopefully this editorial doesn’t come off as a fan-boy rant. It is not intended to seem that way. All companies and consoles deserve their shine and when a segment of society bashes them without an informed opinion, it is not fair. The bottom line is, Nintendo has always had the games and the audience. Many of you have grown up with Nintendo.  The problem is many of you are not growing with Nintendo.  Nintendo never abandoned the hardcore gamer, it is the other way around.

This game is not considered a hardcore game. Why not revisit it and see for yourself?

No GravatarI’ve been a gamer for a very long time. So long, in fact, I can’t even remember exactly when I started. I know it was in the late 1980s, when my parents gave me an NES for Christmas, and progressed through hand-me-down Atari systems and a scavenged SEGA Genesis. It played out in arcades and at the houses of friends until I finally bought my own PlayStation. It continues to this day in portable form, and on the internet. Gaming runs in my blood, and has been a powerful force on my life.

So it comes as no surprise that some games have had such influence on myself that they have, in their own ways, pushed my life off one course and onto another. That might seem a bit extreme, but it’s true. There’s a lot in my life I owe to games, be they stress release, “moral” support, academic achievement or just plain entertainment. What follows is a list of ten games that have had more impact than most others, but by no means the only ones that have resonated with me. These were there at the right time and hit me in the right way to change something and set me down a new path.

Everyone has their own list. This one just happens to be mine.

1: Final Fantasy VII: This one will always stick with me. While I had cut my proverbial teeth on Final Fantasy back in the late 80s or early 90s, it wasn’t until I played Final Fantasy VII that I knew what a quality game truly was. As used to sprites and spinach green screens, the fact that fully 3D polygonal characters existed blew me away. I was a Sephiroth fanboy, I had a crush on Aerith and Tifa. I played this game three times in the span of a year, and it was the main reason I bought a PlayStation (because the PC version kept crashing at the Crater).

Now this game was hardly flawless, I see that more and more as time goes by. And it does not hold up as well as other games in the series do, despite what the fandom might insist. And the “Compendium” wasn’t much more than fan-service without the interaction that other “fan-servicy” installments in the series have had. But that doesn’t change the fact that this game did change my life. It was my gateway into the wide world of RPGs. It was the first game I ever debated and analyzed. It formed the core of a lot of what I do today. Which, for me, is more important that the replay value.

Plus the music was kind of awesome. And still is.

2: Chrono Cross: Yes, that’s right, Chrono CROSS. Because while I admit that Trigger is, was, and always will be, a superior game, I never would have played it if not for this one.

Chrono Cross was the game I played after beating Final Fantasy VII for the third time. I had bought it because of the rave reviews and the lush environment and colorful graphics the game possessed. Indeed, Chrono Cross is one of the loveliest games ever,  even today, and it still has what I consider to be the best soundtrack of any game I’ve ever played. But much like Final Fantasy VII changed my perception of what a console RPG could do, Chrono Cross changed me opinion of what a GAME could do.

I loved everything about the mechanics in this game. I loved how you could avoid enemies, how you only really needed to down bosses, how you had a huge pool of characters to choose from (even though I only ever used Serge, Kid and Glenn). This game embodied the pinnacle of what Squaresoft could create if it wanted to. Few have even come close to providing the enjoyment and satisfaction that Chrono Cross did. Even fewer have made me go misty-eyed at the ending. And even fewer than that have been sequels to games that were amazing in the first place. This game saved a Spring Break during the most stressful period of my life, and while I haven’t played it since, I can still recall it with perfect clarity.

That, and it did force me to play Trigger…

3: Final Fantasy IX: I played this game over the course of Winter break in 2001, and on the first run through, I didn’t think it was anything special. The characters were entertaining, the story was more developed than the previous two installments in the series, and I appreciated the philosophy that was sprinkled about four discs.

But what made me truly appreciate this game was the foundation it laid. See, this was the game that got me to think deeper about the media I enjoyed. More than just talking about gameplay, this was the game I first started ruminating over. As I’ve previously written, I loved the ties to existentialism present in the game. I loved how the actions and reactions of the party were less idealistic and more based in primal fears. I loved how the world interacted with itself. Final Fantasy IX for me was less a game than an experience, and one that I needed to repeat. It wasn’t until those future plays that I realized how much depth the game had. And I had no idea the direction it would send me in the future.

4: Super Mario Bros 3: The original love/hate game. I loved the world design. I loved the different “suits” a player could wear (even if all you really needed was Raccoon). I loved the scope and depth of the story, which for a platformer was something rare. You weren’t just looking for the Princess or beating up everything on screen, you actually had a quest, one that got progressively more challenging with each successive world. It made all those enemies you were stomping on or hurling fireballs at seem to mean something more than points or coins. It redefined what a platform action game could be.

It also made me throw my controller in despair. How were you supposed to beat some of those levels (especially in worlds 6 and 7, and most of 8). Doors to nowhere, running down the clock? Happened a lot. Enemies jumping out of the water to eat you? Yep. Mini-bosses that were almost impossible to hit? Check and mate. SMB3 was as infuriating as it was enjoyable. And while I never did beat it (at least, not without a Game Genie), that never stopped me from trying.

Oh, and don’t forget to hold “up” after beating Bowser.

5: Rival Schools: The entire game can be summed up as a 3D Street Fighter set in High School. The game never reached the same level as some other fighters in it’s generation, but for me, this remains the ONLY fighting game I was ever any good at. And for good reason- I spent every single day after school at the one arcade that had it (really more of a game store with the machine in the back), dumping in quarters and sampling every team until I had seen all the stories, downed the secret final boss a hundred times, and gained the respect of having beaten all comers over the course of the summer. It was the one, and only, time I ever could brag about my skills in a fighting game, and when summer was over, so was my tenure as champion.

At least until I got a Playstation, and it started all over again.

6: Megaman 2: I was supposed to buy Mario 2, but the store was out of it. Then I looked at Dr. Mario, but something didn’t feel right. In my 10 year old head (at least I THINK I was 10), I wanted to buy a game, but which one? I was too impatient to wait for more copies of the game I came in for, and all the others just didn’t click. And then I saw Megaman 2. It was a full $5 more than I had with me. But it looked interesting. Some other kids said it was a good game. And my mom, God bless her, gave me the extra cash. I wish she hadn’t.

Megaman 2 was my original frustration. I loved this game, so much that I would play it for hours each day. And mostly play the same 3 levels. Megaman 2 was ridiculously hard for me, with my bad reaction time and low patience. The number of times I threw my controller for this game was higher than any other two games combined (Mario 3 included). And yet I couldn’t stop playing. Cheat codes warped me to the final level, and even when that was too much, I kept playing. Grinding extra lives on the Metalman stage became routine. Obsessively hoarding Energy tanks for later was my only way of surviving half the time. But unlike Mario 3, which I never finished, this one I did. Once. And only once. And then I never played it again. Because I really didn’t need to.

But every now and then I hear the music from the opening part of Dr Wily’s Castle, and I think “maybe…”

7: World Of Warcraft: What can I say about this game that others haven’t? It’s a way of life. It’s more addictive than drugs. It’s gobbled up 4 years of my life. It beat television, three console systems and even hanging out with friends (especially on Lich King raid nights). For something so simple, it’s been a force in my life that has impacted me more than any game ever could.

I didn’t want to start playing. The idea of subscription gaming seemed wrong to me- spend a lot of money for a game, then keep spending money for the right to play it. Something just didn’t add up. And then a friend let me borrow his account. 22 levels on a Night Elf Druid was all it took. I loved the non-linear gameplay. I loved the interaction. I loved my guild. I spent four to five hours a night playing it, and full days when I wasn’t at work (and then eventually while I was AT work too).

And then it got boring. And my guildmates stopped playing on my server. And in October 2008 I left it behind, convinced I was done and that I could move on. Until a year later, and Wrath of the Lich King pulled me back in. Collectively, I’ve played this game more than any other game I own. I might have even played it more than all my other games combined. And while I’ve finally quit yet again, I still feel that I will be back with the next expansion. Maybe.

8: Portable Castlevania: This was the reason I bought a GBA. And a DS. And, if tradition holds, will probably be the reason I by a 3DS. While I was a longtime fan of Castlevania 3 on the NES, I skipped out on pretty much every iteration of the game until Circle of the Moon came out, and I discovered somewhere along the line that they had all turned into action RPGs. Circle of the Moon was THE game I played in summer 2001. It was the only GBA game I even owned until late that year, and I adored every second, right down to the painful grinding and almost impossible difficulty of Dracula himself (hint- summon the bloodsucker to death).

In June 2002, I came by an import copy of Harmony of Dissonance, and like Circle, it became THE game of those hot months, stealing me away from my job and forcing me to complete “just one more stage” before moving onto anything. The fact I didn’t understand any of the dialogue was of no consequence, as I blazed through the game more than once that year, then went back and played Circle for good measure.

And in 2003, Aria of Sorrow repeated the process. I once told a friend that “it’s not summer without a Castlevania,” so used to the games as I had become. Even when no new game was released in 2004, I just took the time to play the old ones again, and remember those good old days. While the series lost a lot of its luster after the transition to the DS, and gave me a few ultimately forgettable experiences (only Portrait of Ruin got replayed. Once.), I still recall the anticipation I had for the next year and the next game as June approaches.

9: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic- The reason I bought an Xbox. I’m not quite the Star Wars fan I once was, but the idea that I could choose my side in the game, and do whatever I wanted over the course of the story was very appealing. I wanted to be the bad guy. I wanted to take my lightsaber and carve up anything in my path. So I went and did it. Fulfilling fantasies I had for almost 10 years, KotOR is still the best Star Wars franchise game I’ve every played. The attention to detail and mechanics that BioWare put into crafting a truly open-ended console game that had a better morality system than Fable could dream of was also the first game I ever beat, then immediately restarted (and I mean immediately, as in a minute or two after defeating Malak) and played through again. Not even Final Fantasy can boast that, despite it being the most played series of games I own.

This game has such strong appeal to me, I can even forgive the debacle that was KotOR 2.

10: Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor- There are game addictions, and then there are games that BREAK addictions. Devil Survivor is one of the latter. And the addiction it broke was Pokemon. Specifically, the Platinum version.

Pokemon was the addiction that replaced Warcraft. After a few months of casual gaming (which included LeafGreen, if anyone is interested), I read some stellar reviews of Pokemon Platinum, and decided to give it a shot. Day one, after buying a new copy from the local Gamestop, I spent 10 hours catching and leveling Pokemon. Day two was little better. By the middle of summer (specifically, Anime Mid Atlantic weekend 2009), I had broken the 100 hour mark, setting a new record in single play on a game for me. And I had no intention of stopping anytime soon. Until Devil Survivor.

It was my first MegaTen game. It remains my favorite MegaTen game. I logged at least any many hours in it as I did in Pokemon. I fused all the demons. I saw all the endings. I restarted the game a dozen times, playing through the same early stories just to get the extra endings. I fought, then fused, Lucifer himself. And then, having done everything one could do, I put it away and haven’t played it since. Nothing wrong with the game at all- I loved the story and the characters, and the heavy reliance on mythology and religion. The battle system was tactical, but not too tactical. Strategy was simple to formulate and execute. New Game + made the future plays extremely easy, and gave me a huge power-trip.

But what I love the most about this game was it knew when to end. It had a point where you were finally done, and were satisfied. No way to develop an addiction, but by mimicking the methods of other similar games (read- Pokemon), gave enough to help break one naturally.

I will never play this game again. I don’t need to. But I also will never sell it.

So there you have it: my list. What’s yours?

By Charles On 4 Jan, 2011 At 10:06 PM | Categorized As Best Game Ever, Editorials, Featured, Old School Otaku, Reviews | With 2 Comments

No GravatarGiven the general trend of today’s games emphasizing style and image over substance, it’s not exactly surprising that a lot of “old” gamers have found themselves going back to some of the gems of yesteryear. Some have even just plain forgotten that there was once a time when games had powerful stories, imagery and emotional depth that set them apart from flashier fare. Unfortunately, as graphics processors increased in complexity and character models became more intricate, games started moving away from their old standards and embracing newer fare.

Take a journey back ten years, to the end of the road for the Sony PlayStation, and there you will a find a game that might have been one of the last to truly mix a compelling story, relate-able and interesting characters, and just enough image to make it a true representation for what gaming could accomplish. Now, a full decade after its release, the game can still stand up against the best of what the modern generation has to offer, with excellent replay value and a lighthearted experience.

And did I mention, it was released by Square?

Final Fantasy IX could have been the biggest thing ever to grace the Playstation and was certainly highly anticipated. Coming off the best selling Final Fantasy VIII (still one of the most played titles in the series), and following several of the best-selling games in RPG history, Final Fantasy IX had all the makings of another instant classic. Yet, when you ask the general gaming public about the game, most are unaware of it, or have simply not bothered to play it. Those that have, speak highly of what they took away from it, but it never had the impact or reach of its predecessors. However, it touched many of those who played it, and many of those players count it as the most repeatable of all the Final Fantasy games.

If someone turned the Globe Theatre into a ship, it’d look like this.

When it was released, Final Fantasy IX was heralded as “a return to the fantasy that made the series so popular.” Whereas some of the more recent entries had gone further and further down the road of science fiction, with big weapons, space travel, and heavy scientific themes, Final Fantasy IX was a fantasy game in the truest sense of the word. At a time when very few of the gaming public knew what “steampunk” was, Final Fantasy IX was using it to tell a compelling story set in a colorful, deep world populated my the types of interesting races and nations that had once graced all their games. Steam powered airships flew in the skies, rolling hills and vast oceans graced the world below, blades and magic replaced guns and rockets, and music was quaint and fitting. Exploration was a huge part of the game, and a very real sense of awe seemed to permeate the places even the Mist could not.

Don’t let the sword fool you, he only uses it to “remind himself how to feel,” and chop the occasional hot dog.

One of the biggest complaints about the previous game (or two, depending on how you viewed Final Fantasy VII) was its heavy reliance on graphics and Full Motion Video over  story, which was one of the leading aspects that set the Final Fantasy series apart from others. Indeed, much of Final Fantasy VIII centered around crafting some of the best video sequences of any game at the time, and truly made the graphics stand out. Unfortunately, at the same time, all those fancy pictures lacked a solid story to connect them. There was little to no character development, the main actors were all stereotypical (especially the “emo protagonist” Squall Leonheart, who seemed to lack all emotion whatsoever), and the exact identity of the villain was murky most of the way through. Despite being built as a game centered around “an epic story of love,” most of the time the game suffered from horrible cliches, idealized characters and stark contrasts between good and bad.

Final Fantasy IX was an almost complete reversal of this trend. Not to say that the graphics were sub-par. Quite the contrary, the graphics were amazing. But this go around, each character was given time in the spotlight, their motivations were complex and individually motivated, and each one seemed to have a solidly scripted personality, dialogue, ‘voice’ and actions. The world the characters lived in was equally as varied, as different nations existed on multiple continents, sometimes tenuously side by side, and they each had their own traditions, taboos and histories. There was still the general idea of conquest floating around, but this time international relations and politics actually appeared. Each nation had it’s views regarding other nations, had its own perceptions of the world, and those who inhabited it with them. And when it came to exploring the frontiers, there was a definite dichotomy between what was clearly urban, and what was not.

Adding to the flavor of the game were the insertions of random cutscenes called “RTE” or “Real Time Events,” which often showed what other members of the party were doing at that point. Since much of the first half of the game was split into two parties traveling along two separate geographical and story-based routes at the same time, it was interesting to see able to see what the others were doing, and emphasized that these were important characters, and not just “meat shields”. There were also plenty of “hidden” RTE events that had to be unlocked, uncovered, or were themselves Easter Eggs dropping references to previous games in the series (as with the early-on insertion of the ship’s band playing the Shinra March from Final Fantasy VII to help “liven the mood”).

It also gave Mecha wings, but we’re not going into that.

The world was truly large, and truly magnificent. I remember saying once to a friend that Final Fantasy IX gave us back our World Map, and it did. Not since Final Fantasy VI was a world map so fully developed, and not since VI was it so necessary to traverse it. Random encounters were welcomed, as enemies changed from zone to zone. Rivers, mountains and fields were all unique (there’s that word again), and varied from region to region. There were dedicated grinding zones, powerful rare monsters, and even noncombat encounters like the “Ragtime Man”, who quizzed you for gold, and the “cute monsters,” who asked for ore/gold/whatever in exchange for massive experience. Leveling was a joy no longer reserved for dungeon or town zones, and it was appreciated, and undertaken greatly.

Part of the appeal of leveling lay with the dynamic of “Crystal Skills,” which were specific abilities assigned to your character that could be activated by inserting “crystals” into the skill slots. Each one offered a different bonus: Jelly, for example, prevented “Stone” status, “Clear-Headed” prevented Berserk and “LoudMouth” warded Silence, but there were also skills like “Auto-Regen” which kept health up. While some of the skills were restricted to armor at first, over time they could be learned by the characters and became part of a permanent inventory. And believe me, these skills were necessary in later levels. (One of the truly great “swindles” in the game itself came at the end boss, who could wipe the entire party with incredible ease, simply because the wrong skills were equipped going in. This was incredibly frustrating, and not obvious either, as I needed a guide just to handle him.) So, of course, the grind to obtain levels and gain new crystals became more and more important, especially when the action shifted, and the secondary party came onto the scene with sufficiently lower levels than the party you were just using.

The Tantalus Players: this is what unlimited wardrobe budgeting can get you.

Mechanics aside, I mentioned earlier how the story of the game set it apart from previous outings into the Final Fantasy world. Well, for the first time in a long time, we were introduced to not one, not two, but three main characters who guided us through the game. Zidane Tribal, the monkey-tailed rogue who we first see in the opening sequence plotting a kidnapping, was one of the truly great Final Fantasy protagonists, and not just because he wasn’t the silent type with a bad memory. No, Zidane was funny, mischievous (he grabs the Princess’ rear at one point early on with the remark “Ooh, soft!”), noble, loyal and humble. Yes, he also didn’t know too much about who he was, but he truly didn’t care (well, he sort of did, but there were more important things to do than dwell on the past). He wanted adventure, but he also didn’t forget his family and friends. And the one point in the game where he does succumb to an assault of self-doubt, he needs not only the support of his friends, but the power of his own will and drive to push forward and protect what he loves, to break the curse and continue on. A radical departure from previous “flawed” heroes who fought because they had nothing better to do, or because they were forced to “by the story.”

For her part, Princess Garnet til Alexandros (or Dagger, as we know her throughout the game…or as her REAL name, which requires an event to unlock), is yet another strong willed female lead, but this time she actually leads, instead of fawning over the male lead and following him everywhere. Early on she’s in charge of her own life and has her own needs, and she’s not afraid to run off to get what she wants. Her own story, one of a false family, broken memories and a mother totally given over to the acquisition of power, drives more of the story than most female leads do in these games- she’s not a secondary character by any means. And when she falls in love with Zidane, you feel like she truly has, and indeed knows what love is, rather than some wayward girl. She is developed, intricate and willful, and not to a fault.

Then there’s the strange case of Vivi the Black Mage. He is the first character you get to control, he acts like a child, is innocent and curious, and his own search for who and what he is in many ways influences the journeys taken by both Dagger and Zidane throughout the game. He’s far more cautious than either of them, far wiser at times, and possesses a great power that he fears to use. He looks up to those he sees as stronger than him, and respects his friends greatly. Vivi’s quest leads him to confront one of the most primal of human fears- mortality- and, though he has some slip-ups along the way, he faces his fears and comes out the stronger.

Adalbert Steiner: Dutiful, loyal, selfless…and in need of new armor.

The supporting cast of the game may not receive the same degree of treatment when it comes to story development, but they certainly are not ignored (something Final Fantasy VIII did frequently to anyone who wasn’t named Loire), and each gets at least one scene devoted to their backstory. The sole exceptions: the knight Steiner, who serves as Dagger’s guardian, and the bounty hunter Amarant. But in their cases, this is more than acceptable. Steiner doesn’t need any exposition as to why he serves Dagger, because it is plain from his actions that he both takes his duty seriously, and that service to the crown was a lifelong dream. And what he trades off in backstory, he makes up for in interactions with General Beatrix later on. As for Amarant…his is a story best left unanswered. It makes him more mysterious that way.

But what would a game be without a little heavy material? In fact, a good deal of Squaresoft games were often defined, an remembered fondly, for their often more “heady” attributes. Would Final Fantasy VI have been so widely acclaimed if Kefka hadn’t been so insane? Hell, Sephiroth stole an entire concept from Jewish Mysticism and made it the defining quality of his character. And I think Chrono Trigger did more to warn again the dangers of time travel than H.G. Wells (or for that matter, Doctor Who) could have imagined. But after the glory days of the SNES had long ended, these kinds of heady themes seemed to die off. That is, until one of the developers of Final Fantasy IX decided to get philosophical and read some Nietzsche (or at least some Camus).

Anyone else want to criticize our “pyntie-hets?”

I point often, when I discuss the game, to a certain scene that I think makes Final Fantasy IX such a memorable game. After the parties have managed to reunite and escape from the main continent, already embroiled in war as it was, they find themselves lost int he middle of a forest, surrounded by a colony of the same Black Mage dolls they had been fighting all along. And little Vivi, as impressionable as ever, finds his way to the town’s makeshift cemetery. And this was where the game takes a turn down a road that both sets it apart from all the other games in the series, but also shapes the rest of the story, right up until the final battle.

Ian Malcolm: “Life finds a way…to kill you.”

See, the Black Mages were made as weapons. Given nearly limitless power and unleashed on the world by Square’s second best mentally-unstable megalomaniac “advisor” Kuja, they were never meant to be sentient. But of course, as Ian Malcolm put so well, “life finds a way” and they manage to come to their senses in time to run away from bloodshed and try to create simple lives for themselves. And then they start dying. They don’t really understand what death is, just that they “stop moving,” at which point they need to be “put in the ground.” Watching these killing machines try to contemplate the concept of death, often with about as much clarity and understanding as a five year old, puts the rest of the game into perspective. And it also gets you to start thinking. Death is one of those ideas that makes even grown adults tremble with some primal fear, and now we see it through the eyes of the truly uninitiated. It can be very haunting at times, and sobering at others, depending on the player’s views of the unknown.

As the rest of the game unfolds, mortality (and more precisely, the fear of it) begins to play a much larger role. We find out that Kuja himself is afraid to die, we see the Black Mages (and even Vivi) switch sides simply to gain a few more years of functionality. We see the characters confront death in their own lives, be it parents or friends, or even their own impending fate. Destruction on a wide scale is unleashed, in the name of survival or simply “if I can’t live, then nobody else can either.” They fight through the fortress of Pandemonium, surrounded by chaos itself. And dragons, one of the original monsters of human mythology, make an attempt to halt progress with a display of power (an numbers) in what is easily the most cinematically satisfying cutscene Final Fantasy has ever produced.

Final Form Trance Kuja: Still the least threatening Final Fantasy villain of all time.

Still not deterred by their foes, the characters enter into the primordial memories of the planet itself in pursuit of the obsessed Kuja. They even find their way into the eternal hearth of life itself, the Crystal World from where all things came and return.There they find Kuja, consumed by his anger and fear, ready to destroy the crystal. They manage to defeat him, but not before he throws a temper tantrum and smites them all with his “Ultima” spell. And it winds its way down to a final battle against, all things, Death itself (embodied in the idea of the Necron, said boss who can wipe you if you’re unprepared). It is here we find what might be the best scene in the entire game: the four party members you are NOT using for the final battle give their own lives to revive the four members who are active, based entirely on who they have the strongest relationship to, in essence sacrificing themselves so their friends can push forward and save the universe. And after all is said and done, Zidane’s answer to the question of “All beings are born to die, so why do you fight the inevitable?”: “Because we can.” How very simple, hopeful, and not just a little bit existential- fighting against death because life, however fragile, is still life, and the memories and relationships we create while we live define who we are and how we are remembered. Cue the violins, break out the champagne and enjoy the last fifteen minutes of exposition. (Die hard gamers will also spend repeated views trying to find the Easter Egg for two previous Final Fantasy titles. Tip: pay close attention to the soliloquy during “I Want to be Your Canary.” )

Maybe I’m reading too much into the game, but that scene, the culmination of four discs of interactions and relationships between eight almost completely unrelated characters, hammered home something important: life goes on, best we can do is go with the flow and enjoy the ride. The message resonated so strongly (not to mention the compelling actions of those playing the story out) that it got me to play through the game far more times than any other RPG I own, and I still play it at least once a year to remind myself of how enjoyable the game actually was.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Final Fantasy IX was a game you slept on, or missed. It generated enough buzz to become a Greatest Hit, after all, and even today I bump into cosplayers at cons who appreciate the characters of Kuja, Zidane and Dagger. But it still sold fewer copies than any of the other Playstation Final Fantasy titles, and it’s resale value today lags far behind the juggernaut of Final Fantasy VII. Still, it gathered some of the highest ratings of any Final Fantasy, and left those who did play it generally pleased. Throwbacks to previous titles in the series, interesting characters, deep storylines, fun and memorable music and a simplified battle system (simplified, but not simple) helped the game become something truly enjoyable in the long run.

It’s not a hard game to find, even now. So if you haven’t played this one, do yourself a favor and do so. I still do. Each and every year.