FINAL FANTASY IX / Squaresoft / Sony PS1
FF9 ditched the wangst and ridiculous animu/J-Pop hybrid fashion sense of the two prequels, much to nearly everyone's relief. It took on the trappings of the old games - rigid character classes, a more traditional Active Time Battle system with no complicated Materias or Junctioning schemes, even a little Black Mage running around in robe and straw hat as a party fixture. What it didn't ditch, however, was the very rigid and linear "lead you by the nose from set-peice to set-peice" structure that the previous two games operated on. Oh, World of Ruin, how we long for you.
FF9's story is better by default for being less emo and having less jerkass characters wearing belts in retarted places ... but that still doesn't make it particularly great. It's this sort of rattly mess of contrivance that has only a couple of standout characters and basically no standout moments; I completed the game back in 2001, and when replaying it in 2012 for this review I couldn't remember one goddamn thing about it, even as it was unfolding in front of me. I might as well have been playing it for the first time. Main character Zidane is just Locke rewritten a little younger, without the "comatose girlfriend" angst, and with a monkey tail pinned to his butt. Love interest Princess Garnet/Dagger is a walking trope. Steiner is a trope too, but at least he's good for comic relief; Vivi is easily the most compelling character, but a lot of that probably has to do with the fact he so easily lends himself to merchandisible plushie form. The handful of other characters are basically irrelevant tack-ons; if it's been more than 3 years since you've played the game I bet you can't name them or even really remember what they look like. The more lighthearted and comic tone is a refreshing counterpoint from the Wangstimu of both the prequels and many other JRPGs of the time ... but it also leads to an almost complete lack of dramatic tension, as the story is clearly "serial" style where you know the cutesy heroes will find some way to PEW PEW PEW their way through every challenge in the end without any major damage. A story like this needs good characters to zoom in on and a compelling world to explore to overcome the predictability and saccharinity, and unfortunately FF9 has neither (see Skies of Arcadia instead for a game that actually managed to pull this dynamic off.)
More of a problem than the characters/writing is simply how goddamn sloooow the game is, with even more painful battle load-in times than the previous two games. This is also exacerbated by a higher encounter rate than anything since the NES games. The game's ATB system also works such that there's these significant blocks of time where everyone is just kind of standing around staring at each other, with nothing possible to happen. The slow pace extends out of battle to the game's nominally rigid on-rails structure; you're often at a point where all you can really do is run tediously across the overworld from one area to another (getting ganked by aforementioned ridiculous encounter rate along the way), or fish about in some town finding semi-obscure progression points. It takes clear until Disc 3 to get a real sense of freedom to explore the game world and a sense of self-determined agency in doing so.
I guess it can all be charming, if you like that sort of Disneyified, Kingdom Hearts-ish sort of thing. It wasn't at all to my taste, but I don't knock it down a peg due to aesthetic preference, but to simply being so slow, rigid and so often unengaging and non-interactive. If you aren't into the whole Disney-serial thing, there's just no reason to care. The art has held up poorly; as with FF8 there are some pretty hand-painted backdrops that look fantastic in HD, but the polygon work just looks worse the more you zoom in on it. Uematsu feels this was his best soundtrack, but I don't know if he wasn't just putting on the Brave Corporate Face to cover for the fact that burnout was starting to show. Only a handful of tunes are really memorable and that's probably more because I've heard them on Jimquisition a few times now. Aside from being slow-paced the gameplay leaves little to complain about ... but little to get particularly excited about either.