The Man Who Was Zidane (Part 1/2)

09._final_fantasy_ix

(Note: I am going to spoil a fifteen year old game)

Final Fantasy IX is the most Chestertonian RPG game. That, I think, puts its finger on why I find this game to be so compelling as an adult. I feel that, having lived to see them, the corpulent man of letters would have dismissed electronic RPGs in favor of their pen and paper origins; but short of uncovering the manuscript of a high fantasy novel penned by the man, this is about as close as we’ll get to a G. K. Chesterton RPG.

But I’ll return to that point in a bit. IX is also compelling for the more simple and laudable fact of it being a game of superior craftsmanship. It is true that there are a couple of ideas that are poorly implemented, but this is overall a stellar example of the JRPG genre.

The Playstation era Final Fantasies follow an unusual trajectory. For good or ill, VII provided the template that most JRPGs hence would follow. VIII then proceeded to completely ignore its predecessor’s template, while IX deliberately hearkened back to a pre-VII, indeed, even pre-VI JRPG paradigm.

Gone are the steampunk, cyberpunk and pseudo-modern stylings of recent entries: medieval European flavored fantasy makes a big comeback here. Gone are the skill systems that reduce the playable characters to interchangeable ciphers: IX returns (in modified form) to the idea of distinct character classes.

Some changes are less of a return and more of an unusual diversion: while Final Fantasy (and most games in general) had been pushing towards increasing realism in its art-style, IX deliberately chooses an exaggerated, cartoony aesthetic. The game looks more Disney than anime. More Harry Potter than LOTR.

The story goes like this: in the fantasy world of Gaia, the kingdom of Alexandria has been making the kind of military overtures which suggest that things are about to get unpleasant. The reigning queen has become strange and menacing in her ways. The regent of the neighbouring nation of Lindblum decides to have the Alexandrian princess taken to him in order to protect her from the queen. To do so, he hires Tantalus, a traveling cabal of thieves/classically trained actors, to kidnap her. Included in this group is Zidane, the teenaged protagonist of the game. The plan is to snatch her up while putting on a performance of, “I Want To Be Your Canary.”

The kidnapping plot covers the first hour of the game. And you can see some Chestertonian characteristics right at the outset. Chesterton, to both the delight and chagrin of many readers, liked to rely on paradox and inversion as both a plot and rhetorical device. He comes across as fascinated by the divide between appearances and reality, and how people come to reason out the truth (which is perhaps why he wrote so many murder mysteries).

While it would merely be subversive to have the hero be a rogue who kidnaps the princess instead of rescuing her, it is Chestertonian when it turns out that the aim of the kidnappers is to rescue the princess after all. Having a guild of thieves would be standard fantasy – but having a group of actor-thieves, such that there is some doubt as to which identity is primary, is Chestertonian.

There is also something to be said about the tone of the game. Most people remember IX as one of the most lighthearted and charming entries in the series. But the story is actually quite dark, melancholy and reflective. Similarly, the seriousness of Chesterton is often cloaked by his bouncy, vivacious style, his sense of humor,  and the absurd situations he throws his protagonists into – until the absurdity becomes more nightmarishly surreal.

I’ll return to this train of thought in a bit; for now I’d like to introduce the characters.

Your Heroes

Zidane_Tribal_characterZidane Tribal
Thief

I’m already a decade older than this kid – and I’m not old at all. In contrast to the angsty/stoic protagonists of the previous two entries, Zidane is a chirpy guy who fancies himself a ladies’ man. It later turns out that he’s actually an alien created for the purpose of wiping out/assimilating all life on Gaia who happened to get misplaced when he was young. One of the villains also tries to rip his soul out immediately after this revelation, which is kind of a rough deal, but he gets over it pretty quickly. I like his can-do attitude.

Garnet_White_MageGarnet Til Alexandros XVII
White Mage/Summoner

Unlike most plucky princess characters, Garnet actually has a good reason to get the heck out of her castle and go incognito. Although a bit on the naive side, she remains one of the more level-headed and resourceful characters. She finds the responsibilities that have been thrust on her to be hard, but still sees them as her responsibilities, which is refreshing. Then at one point she becomes so stressed out that her actions in combat start to randomly fail, temporarily making her the most loathsome character in the party. She gets better.

Much like Zidane, she also has a secret origin story: she’s actually one of two survivors of an ancient clan of summoners who was orphaned at age six. The real princess Garnet (whom she closely resembles) having mysteriously died, the royal family decides to adopt her.

Also also: eventually falls in love with Zidane. Unlike VIII, which was marketed as a love story, their relationship actually grows in an organic manner and makes sense. Their back and forth throughout the game is pretty amusing.

 Vivi_Ornitier_characterVivi Ornitier
Black Mage

A kid who secretly sneak in to see Tantalus performing and winds up getting accidentally kidnapped by them too. It turns out that he’s actually an artificial golem created to be a war machine and with a lifespan of about a year. He’s dead by the time the epilogue rolls. This is kind of a rough deal, but makes him arguably the most poignant character in the game. Having a very childlike character contemplating mortality and violence is just heartbreaking.

He’s also a marvel of animation: Vivi waddles just like you’d expect an awkward kid would.

Final-Fantasy-IX-4Adelbert Steiner
Knight

Basically what you’d get if you wanted to rewrite Inspector Javert as a comic relief character – at least in the beginning. Alexandria is something of a matriarchy, with a mostly female army. Steiner is captain of the Knights of Pluto, the only male division. Fiercely devoted to protecting the princess, Steiner is in something of a, “my country, right or wrong,” mindset for most of the game. It’s only when the Queen attempts to put an end to Garnet’s shenanigans by executing her that Steiner begins to rethink things. By the end of the game he’s just this really cool knight dude wearing clanky armor.

Freya_FFIX_ArtFreya Crescent
Dragoon

My personal favourite. Freya is a Burmecian rat…person(?) who is in search of her long lost love, Sir Fratley. She likes to be the deadpan snarker and straight man to a lot of Zidane’s antics. And she gets an entire story arc devoted to her and her people – which ends up in both of their kingdoms getting trashed by Alexandria and Sir Fratley turning out to be an amnesiac. After this, she is largely forgotten by the plot, which is just a shame, only to be rectified by my 60,000 word fanfic….

 IX-art-quinaQuina Quen
Blue Mage

Sex unknown. Purpose unknown. Barely cognizant of what’s going on, and mostly interested in eating, but still handy in a pinch. Quina is about what you would get if your dog could talk, and was some weird….doll thing? S/he can be one of the more lethal character if you get him/her to eat the right things.

Eiko_Carol_character

ChibiusaManga

Eiko Carol
White Mage/Summoner

The other survivor of the summoner tribe. Eiko is supposed to be six years old, but acts more like a teenager. Comes with a pet moogle thing that hides in her pocket or something. Frequently found dangling helplessly in spite of her immense powers. Has a crush on Zidane. She is pretty much this game’s version of Chibiusa.

Amarant_Coral_characterArmarant
Ninja

At one point, Queene Brahne sends this giant rooster man to take you out, but he winds up joining you because….he wants to understand Zidane better….? Honestly, this guy’s the most underwritten playable character in the game, seemingly there for the sake of rounding out your party. Supposedly learns a few lessons about teamwork as the game progresses.

Dastardly Villains

brahneQueen Brahne

Garnet’s adoptive mother, and the principal evil of the first half of the game. In spite of her goofy looks, she’s an incredibly effective villain who succeeds in decimating pretty much every other kingdom in the game. She’d likely have succeeded in her plans of world domination, were it not for the fact that she’s actually a pawn of Kuja, who promply roasts her when she outlives her usefulness. Touchingly, Garnet still cares about her even after the attempted execution, and the two get a deathbed reconciliation.

Zorn&ThornZorn and Thorn

Two evil court jesters in the employ of Brahne. They provide the time-honored henchman role of frequently being a nuisance for the heroes. They’re actually two halves of a monster called Meltigemini, which looks even more freaky than they do.

KujaKuja

The real villain of IX. Kuja is a narcissistic jerk who dresses like a stripper. Initially, he poses as an amoral arms dealer, but he’s actually, like Zidane, an alien created for the purposes of destroying life on Gaia. Again, his ridiculous uber-bishounen appearance hides a man who is extremely effective and ruthless in getting what he wants. But it turns out that his actions are part of an elaborate revenge scheme against….

9_garlandGarland

A being created by the Terrans to oversee the restoration of their planet while their souls sleep in some kind of suspended animation. That restoration just happens to involve the wanton destruction and assimilation of life on other planets, including Gaia. He is the creator of both Zidane and Kuja. Both of them hate his guts for different reasons: Kuja resents the fact that he was created to be a mindless slave and would rather be the head honcho; Zidane just thinks that Garland is an immoral bastard.

He has the same name and a similar character design as the villain from the original Final Fantasy, and in my headcannon I’d like to think that they’re the same person.

Necron-artNecron

The real ultimate super-duper final boss of the game. He is the embodiment of death and despair which Kuja wakes up at the climax. In true Final Fantasy tradition, you’re not even aware of this guy’s existence until you have to fight him (in the underworld, no less). Although it makes no sense plot-wise, it makes for a cool and symbolic final showdown.

Miscellaneous

Regent Cid

The ruler of Lindblum. Although his wife has transformed him into a large insect with a handlebar mustache for being a reckless adulterer, he is otherwise a pretty trustworthy authority – almost generically so. Like most guys named Cid in Final Fantasy, he eventually gives you an airship.

Beatrix

A knight in the employ of the Queen. Her ferocity and skill is supposedly the stuff of legend, and indeed the game allows her to beat you up three times before she defects to your side. Unfortunately you can only use her in battle a total of two times. By the end of the game, her and Steiner are a couple, and there’s even a cute sequence where the two of them are kicking ass and taking names together.

Tantalus

The band of thieves/actors that Zidane initially belongs to. They actually form something of a B-plot which occasionally intersects with your own adventure. They’re a good example of what IX is really good at: depicting a world where things are happening even in your abscence.

To be concluded in part two.

(Images courtesy of the Final Fantasy Wiki and Google Images)

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The Man Who Was Zidane (Part 1/2)

  1. Pingback: The Man Who Was Zidane (Part 2/2) | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

  2. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    I have never played this game, but I love how Josh W shows how Final Fantasy IX asks several philosophical questions. Also, he describes it as the most Chestertonian RPG, which I find fascinating. The title of this series should instantly remind you of Chesterton’s most cryptic novel.

  3. Pingback: Not so final thoughts on IX | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

  4. Samuru says:

    This is such a great game, from wayyyy back when. I loved all of it, and at the time it came out the graphics were amazing. The music is so memorable, and so were some of the characters (SOME!). Thanks for writing this up.

    • Josh W says:

      Thanks! I kinda never got around to writing about the music (my article’s long enough as it is), but I do think it’s one of Uematsu’s better efforts.

  5. Lazarinth says:

    Played this game when I was a teenager, took me 3 tries to get through it. Not because I found it ‘hard’ but because I found the story suggested too much urgency to make sense within the context of the slow game play. Still trying to figure out if Garland from 9 is an ‘alternative world’ Garland from the first Final Fantasy.

    • Josh W says:

      My pet theory: FF1 takes place on a different world which Garland was messing around in before he set his sights on Gaia and constructed Kuja to do his dirty work for him.

  6. Lazarinth says:

    He does seem older in IX but that leaves his relation to Chaos left open (Dissidia maybe?). I like to think his armor might be related to the armor of the Judges from FFXII considering how similar they look.

  7. Jman7 says:

    Zidane/Garnet is not a well written love story, fathe game consteadly makes the love story out to be the main focus when it really isn’t, (such as the main theme being the love song “Melodies of Life” which plays consteadly throughout the game, even serving as the world map theme, the game has that whole “book ends” thing with the “I want to be your canary” play, which has no real connection or forshadowing to the story, other than a REALLY loose connection to Zidane/Garnet, but the love story in the play was a much better one than the actual one, because Marcus and Cornelia had actual chemistry and devotion to each other, and one of them didn’t consteadly wagnst and care more about her Kingdom and Crazy mother whom she knew was becoming dangerous yet made stupid decisions and abandoned Zidane and her friends and almost got them all killed with no concern and got intire cities blown up, and she dosn’t get called out on any of this when they should rightfully be furious with her, and the other wasn’t unfazed or didn’t NOT feel guilt over what happened to her lover, and how no matter what he does he can’t protect and stop these things from happening to her.

    It was all really forced, and so was the whole Terra plotline, Garland, Kuja’s backstory; “attempts” at “Sympathy; and Heel Face Turn, and Necron.

    And the video game ads also mostly play the love song and generally show the love scenes, which is HUGE false advertising).

    At least Squall/Rinora had actual Chemistry and Focus. I think the Best FF love story’s would be Squall/Rinora and Tidus/Yuna, and the worst would be Zidane/Garnet.

  8. Jman7 says:

    Also the Whole “Symbolism” thing dosn’t justify Necron’s appearance, the only reason Necron even exists is to be a really lazily written excuse for Kuja to pull an incredibly forced and undeserved Heel Face Turn, the writers basically just used something forced to make something else forced LOOK slightly less forced.

    Kuja is just an overhyped and unintentionally Unsympathetic charater, who gets a Karma Hoidini.

  9. Jman7 says:

    Queen Brahne is also a overhyped character whom is really Generic and Clichè with an equally Generic and Clichè motivation that makes no sense and is unrealistic, (her intire motivation was that she was just Greedy), she is not affective nor interesting, and her apperance sends out the unfortinate implication that ugly people are evil.

    Frankly I think Beatrix should have been the Queen and Garnet’s adoptive mother, she should have been a DECONSTRUCTION of the previous fake main antagonists (Emperor Gestahl, President Shinra and that other president from FFVIII, she would have been more complex, her relationship with Steiner wouldn’t be so forced, and her motivation would have been that she was tricked into thinking that ALEXANDER could be able to bring her biological daughter and husband back to life (which would have actually explained why she was after the ALEXANDER gems) and after Kuja’s lies are revealed she feels guilt and wants to atone and becomes one of the main characters and eventually hands the crown to Garnet.

    There is actually a fanfic that has this called “The Thief and his Princess” which has a MUCH better written love story for Zidane/Garnet.

    The only interesting Antagonist was Garland but he gets shafted to the side because of IX’s terrible writting and Pacing and has to play second fiddle to much more Clichè characters, and he just mostly spouts exposition.

  10. Pingback: ultimate top fifteen tee vee game list | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

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