Final Fantasy IX is the last truly great entry in the legendary RPG series. Now, this is not to say it's the best of all - that's a separate argument the fanboys can tussle over elsewhere. However, FFIX is far superior to the last four instalments in the seemingly never-ending Final Fantasy franchise.
Consider. It was the last game to feature an accessible fighting system that didn't require a degree in WTF-onomics. It was backed by an emotionally charged but well-told story that played out with unique, lovable characters - ones that didn't feel as if they'd been assembled from a 'create your own JRPG' kit.
Take Zidane. In a twist on the familiar miserable, angsty FF hero, this monkey-tailed thief is a genuinely optimistic chap. Whether attempting to woo every lady within flirting-distance or looking after downcast mage Vivi and frail Princess Garnet, he comes across as genuinely caring. In fact, so good hearted is Zidane that he risks his life to save antagonist Kuja from being crushed. Heroic. We'd have left him.
Sadly, IX was also the last time the development team included the Godfathers of Final Fantasy - original creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, character designer Yoshitaka Amano and musical legend Nobeo Uematsu. While the recent games have brought in some talented replacements, the loss of three such central fi gures nevertheless shows. The games that followed lack that certain spark.
Sakaguchi was responsible for the original concept of FFIX, and has since claimed it as his favourite entry in the series - it was closest to his ideal view of what Final Fantasy should be. We agree, as after the futuristic worlds of the two preceding games, IX's return to the original medieval setting was like coming home. It re-introduced twee villages, steam-punk airships and feuding kingdoms that defined the series in the first place.
It's well crafted, too. After FFVIII's rather confusing Junction system, which requires an encyclopaedia to properly explain, IX returns to a simpler, but still addictive, formula. Battles hark back to the fourth game's Action Time Bar method, which is a fancy way of saying 'turn-based battle'. Characters can also enter Trance mode for unique special abilities - such as being able to cast spells twice or carry out more powerful attacks.
Character classes are also back, meaning each member of your team has a set role - Vivi is the black-magic wielding mage, Steiner the sword-waggling knight and Garnet the summoner. Classes prove a refreshing return, as they make battles far more varied and require a little more involvement from you when putting together a fighting team.
Each member of your party plays an important role outside of battle, too. And you can't help noticing that, unlike with the recent Final Fantasy games, every character is a heartwarming protagonist - you don't feel you're following some stroppy emo hero with his/her faceless supporting cast.
Whether it's warrior Freya's search for her missing, presumed-dead partner, or knight Steiner's fading faith in the sovereignty he's dedicated his life to defend, each character is full of life and intrigue.
Saddest of all is timid mage Vivi. Underneath his oversized hat is a head full of wonder about who he was and where he came from. His eventual discovery that he is in fact a manufactured doll with a short life span is a terrible moment, compounded when he's confronted by others like him - they're brainwashed, and killing the civilians of Burmecia. Although he does eventually find peace, his closing narration confirms his time on this mortal coil is almost up. Gah. Thanks for twisting that knife, Square .