The Final Fantasy fandom isn't exactly a unified front. As a matter of fact, Square-Enix, – the developers of the series – made it this way by having each installment be a radical departure from its predecessor.
While Final Fantasy VII might be a postmodern game about rising up in a cyberpunk hellscape to prevent environmental catastrophe, Final Fantasy VIII tells a love story of soldiers fresh out of the academy. Final Fantasy XI made a point of competing with MMORPGs like of World of Warcraft, but its sequel exists as a single-player experience, evoking Star Wars aesthetics, the same way that film evoked Kurosawa's.
Each Final Fantasy game is a different beast from the others, sometimes only being similar to its sister-games in name only. As such, fans are more inclined to latch on to one particular game rather than the series as a whole. The hardcore elders of gaming might hold the first iteration in high regard, while the new wave flocks to games like X or XII.
But one game in this series has the power to unite the entire fanbase. One game creates an experience all its own, then seasons itself with the little things that made every other game in the series great. That game is Final Fantasy IX, and while it may be overlooked by the more casual fans of the series (though not by us, in our recent ranking of them all), anyone that invests their time and their emotions in this game sees instant dividends.
10. The Art Style Is Both New And Nostalgic
Stack Final Fantasy IX against its contemporaries, VII and VIII, and you'll easily notice which one sticks out. While the former two strive for a more '90s-anime art style, IX goes entirely the other direction with a more cartoony and fantasy inspired aesthetic. This carries through not just in the characters, but also the environments, to create an ensemble that immerses the player in the fabulous world of Gaia.
Much of this comes from FF IX's origins as a side-project, made to reflect on the series' origins rather than continue the grungy drama of its two predecessors. The game had even been developed in Hawaii, setting even its inception in another country. This was a project in the hands of a nostalgic producer, and a crew of tanned programmers who would come into the office after spending the mornings surfing.
The outfits and art evoke a simpler time. The black mage Vivi, for example, looks like a fully rendered version of the original black mages from the 8-bit games in the '80s. Freya, the dragoon, dresses very similar to the forgotten red mage design, and princess Garnet even dons the classic white mage robe for a moment in the opening.
Having come right after VII and VIII, with their cyberpunk grime and LED ridden futurism, it feels like the first breath after a coma when seeing IX's classic airships pulling into walled kingdoms, as armored guards patrol the city streets below. It comes across as one of the few games aware of its aesthetic roots, and celebrates them rather than shuns them.
Final Fantasy IX does the impossible when mixing old-school art with the graphical capabilities of the PlayStation, and shows just what those 8-bit towns looked like in the imagination of the kids playing Final Fantasy I on their NES in 1990.