Despite having been reared on Nintendo consoles, the mainline Final Fantasy series has, aside from a few spin-off game exceptions, given Nintendo’s hardware a wide berth for more than 20 years. When the vintage 16-bit era of JRPGs came to a close, Final Fantasy VII saw developers Square Enix (nee Square) cosy up with Sony and its PlayStation, and pretty much never looked back.
Things are shifting slightly now though. With 2016’s Final Fantasy XV a multiplatform success, mobile devices ripe for peddling older titles on, and the Nintendo Switch console proving the perfect place to breathe new life into yesteryear's greats, vintage Final Fantasy games are making their way to Nintendo’s lead machine for the first time in decades.
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Sure, they’re ports and remakes of older titles, but what a line-up developer Square Enix is offering: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy X / X2 and Final Fantasy XII, as well as spin-offs Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition, World of Final Fantasy, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles are all headed to Nintendo Switch this year.
The first to land is Final Fantasy IX, out now, which I turned on yesterday afternoon and couldn’t stop playing until the early hours, 20 years after I first played it. It’s as captivating as ever – Square’s year 2000 attempt to bring its high fantasy, quasi-medieval style up to date for the 32-bit consoles of the day. I’d call it the Disneyfication of JRPGs with its monkey boys and bright-eyed, floppy-hatted wizards, were it not for Square’s eventual literal Disney RPG, Kingdom Hearts. The initial impact of Final Fantasy VII aside, Final Fantasy IX is arguably the best RPG of its generation.
Which is what makes the half-hearted Nintendo Switch port so frustrating.
You see, this isn’t a ground-up build of Final Fantasy IX but instead a reworking of the recent PC and PS4 versions, which were themselves based on the disappointing iOS and Android versions.
These editions were rife with annoyances not present in the original game. Noting that the touchscreen is not used in the Switch version, it still features an oversized, ugly interface designed to be tapped on mobile phones and tablets, as well as a font that misses the ‘ye olde time’ feel of the original. It’s plainly clear the lack of attention that’s gone into porting the game at the character naming screen, where you’re told to avoid using emoticons…
Likewise, the game launched with a bug that’s plagued all modern remakes of Final Fantasy IX – one that sees the wonderful, looping overworld map music kick off from the beginning every time you enter a battle. Remember, this is an old school JRPG, so random battles occur regularly. That means that rather than hearing a great piece of gaming music composition, you’ll quickly grow weary of hearing the same few bars over and over again.
Admittedly, there have been some attempts in these ports to improve the quality of life of these older titles whose sometimes arcane systems could be a turn-off for new players. For the most part these are welcome, but even they come with some annoyances. Hit the pause screen and you can turn on “cheats” that overpower your attacks, beef up your stats and combat attack times, switch off randomised battles and make the game run at a high speed to blitz through slower areas. But with the touchscreen unmapped and some face buttons not used, having to pause to access these and switch them off when not in use (especially the speed changing effect, which makes anything outside of battles unplayable) is a real frustration.
One of the best things about this new version of Final Fantasy IX is the improved designs of the character models. They’ve seen a big resolution bump, and look far more detailed than their original counterparts. But the static backdrops have been given no such care and attention. It’s particularly frustrating given the efforts put in by hobbyist modders on the PC to refine these classic scenes. Head over to PC Gamer to see how modders are using AI to upscale pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. Some have even been working to make these true widescreen games, rather than having to put up with the borders added to the remake to fill a 16:9 display. If a single fan can produce these results, can’t an entire team at Square Enix give these classic games the spit and polish they deserve?
And why no global, anywhere, anytime save state option? The Switch is useful in this regard as its sleep mode can hold a state in waiting while sleeping, but of all the “cheats” that could be implemented, this is one that would have genuinely modernised the game, and has been part of emulated versions of the title for a decade or more. Instead you’re stuck with specific save points, which feel very outmoded and inconvenient.
Still a classic
Reservations about the care this port has been given aside, Final Fantasy IX remains a stone-cold classic of a JRPG, and one that shouldn’t be missed on the Nintendo Switch. Being able to bring a lengthy title like this out and about with you, before settling in for a longer dedicated session at home is likely just what I needed to finally finish this game after having owned it on four platforms over just shy of 20 years.
But the fact that myself and others are willing to play these classic titles again and again shouldn’t be taken for granted by the developers. Considering its the first time the classic Final Fantasy titles have made their way to a Nintendo console, I’d like to see a bit more effort from Square Enix to tidy things up on the forthcoming ports in the series due later this year.