About That Final Fantasy IX ‘Children’s Cartoon’…
Somehow last month marked the twenty-first anniversary of Final Fantasy IX. Twenty-one years! Now some of you might be thinking, ‘And? So what?’ Others currently skimming through these words may have been born after FFIX launched on the Playstation, and a small number of you, wherein the jurisdiction of the United States is concerned anyway, can now legally purchase alcohol!
What’s more, Zidane Tribal and Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, assuming they wed and created a big, beautiful family following the events of yesteryear, when they prevented the destruction of the crystal of life and saved the universe or… whatever, in theory have children that are older than they were as globetrotting heroes of the many strange and diverse races of Gaia. That’s right, if the passage of time in the world of FFIX parallels our own, our favorite monkey-tailed thief with an outsized libido matched only by his self-confidence is now in his forties.
As Keanu Reeves would say, ‘Whoa… Dude.’
Alright, I don’t know why I felt the need to interject a random Keanu Reeves reference here but the point is: for many of us, FFIX represents the pinnacle of the series and its twenty-first anniversary means that it’s also really… old. A further implication for those of us who were first mesmerized by the game as snot-nosed youngsters, wily teenagers, or even fully responsible adults back in the day is that… we are really frickin’ old now too.
But as great as Final Fantasy IX continues to be—and no doubt its re-release on the Nintendo Switch in 2019 introduced it to scores of newcomers—that’s not what this article is about. Indeed, I’ve already sang the game’s praises to high heaven when I dedicated roughly 2,000 words to eulogizing its impact on me as a twelve-year old whippersnapper back in the summer of 2000, and again when the Switch port arrived a day before my thirty-first birthday. For me, there are few gaming moments that rival the euphoria and nostalgia I experienced in replaying this classic for the first time in nearly twenty years, permanently cemented by my prevailing opinion that even in our current generation of role-playing games, FFIX remains, by all practical definitions, the perfect JRPG.
If you haven’t played it, umm… why the double capital FF not?
Again though, that’s not what this article is about.
What this is about is the announcement made in late June by the French animation company, Cyber Group Studios, that Final Fantasy IX is set to be adapted into an ‘adventure animation series primarily aimed at 8-13-year-old kids and family audiences.’ If upon initially hearing this news you felt a visceral reaction erupt within the depths of your bowels, you likely fell into one of two camps: either you found yourself elated at the prospect that a beloved video game from two decades ago is receiving a revival of sorts, or you winced in horror that its resuscitated form is being reduced to a cartoon made for children. For my part, I was in the latter group.
The ‘FFIX’s Characters Appear “Too Kiddy”’ Debate Settled
In the first place, and as I wrote in my above-mentioned panegyric to the series’ finest iteration—no, I didn’t stutter—one of the criticisms of FFIX that I’ve heard over the years, oftentimes by people who couldn’t allow themselves to get into it all, was that its character designs were ‘too kiddy.’ To be fair, this is somewhat understandable as one of FFIX’s character designers, Toshiyuki Itahana, has himself stated that he previously ‘worked for a toy-maker, mostly doing character designs aimed at children.’ Even so, I always pushed back on this disparaging assessment, believing the characters’ stout, colorful, and eccentric attributes, perhaps most accentuated in Adelbert Steiner and Quina Quen, to be more of a callback to the stubby, fantastical designs of the franchise’s previous entries, before the darker, more realistic tones that accompanied the releases of Final Fantasy VII and VIII.
Alas, it seems as though this debate has finally been settled once and for all and I have officially lost it. Yes, FFIX’s characters were apparently designed with an audience of ‘8-13-year-old kids’ principally in mind.
Fine. It doesn’t matter. Nothing can change how I feel about Final Fantasy IX. But there are additional reasons as to why I was so personally scandalized by the reports of a FFIX kids animation series… at first.
The ‘Bastardization’ of FFVII
I’m probably in the minority with what I’m about to say, but I’m actually not a fan of the endless spin-offs and redesigns that Square Enix’s most profitable IP, Final Fantasy VII, has received. When the developer first decided to turn individual entries into episodic narratives spanning multiple sequels, as they did with Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XIII, aside from sneering at what struck me as a cockamamy title in something like ‘Final Fantasy X-2,’ I was indifferent towards the concept. These were FFs that I never really got into and the attempt by a multi-billion yen video game company to cash in on its most lucrative brand was only to be expected. So long as the games didn’t suck and people enjoyed them, what should I care?
The situation surrounding Final Fantasy VII hits me differently. I have nothing bad to say about the feature film, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (apart from finding it kind of boring and pointless), the short anime, Last Order: Final Fantasy VII, or the several console and mobile game offshoots already released or still in the oven: Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VII: The First Soldier, Final Fantasy VII: Ever Crisis, and last (at the moment) but certainly not least, Final Fantasy VII Remake and the seemingly indefinite number of updates and follow-ups Square Enix has planned for it from now to eternity.
I’ve never played any of these games nor do I feel a need to do so. FFVII on the Playstation (and now on the Switch) told a complete, if not totally cohesive, story which left me more than satisfied. And though every one of the games I’ve just enumerated might be absolute masterpieces, I can’t help but feel that the clear financial incentive for Square Enix to slap the words ‘Final Fantasy VII’ on as much software as possible has amounted, in some small measure, to a bastardization of the original’s legacy.
It’s sort of like when your favorite rock band decides to reunite after years of dormancy but without their frontman or lead-songwriter—Sublime with Rome, Queen with Adam Lambert, or The New Cars are a few of the countless examples that come to mind—it’s by no means a perfect analogy, I admit, but the gist is the same: sometimes it’s better to simply let the past remain in the past, the work of art or its moment in time being as irreplicable as it was glorious, in part being what it was because of when it was.
This is one of my concerns about an FFIX revival, even if merely in the mould of an ‘animation series primarily aimed at 8-13-year-old kids.’ A greater fear that I have is that, whether or not the show is any good, it will spawn an infinite trove of new excuses for Square Enix to churn out any and all products with the ‘IX’ logo plastered front and center. Again, these hypothetical releases might not be awful, yet they won’t be the original; they won’t rival its perfection. No, they can, by definition, only tarnish it.
You know, because if something is perfect, no improvements can be made to it. It’s like when Socrates argues in Book II of Plato’s Republic that ‘surely a god and what belongs to him are in every way in the best condition,’ posing the question to his interlocutor, Adeimantus: ‘Would he change himself into something better and more beautiful than himself or something worse and uglier?’
‘It would have to be into something worse,’ Adeimantus replies, ‘if he’s changed at all, for surely we won’t say that a god is deficient in either beauty or virtue.’
‘Absolutely right,’ says Socrates, to which I also concur. Now substitute ‘a god’ in the preceding paragraph with ‘Final Fantasy XI’… See my point?
Perhaps I’m not convincing anyone with this line of reasoning. Then let me put forth one other area of concern.
The ‘Grown-up Themes’ of FFIX
Beneath the ‘kiddy’ exterior of FFIX’s ensemble of characters lay some of the best and most provocative writing that I’ve met in the series, confronting harsh themes of reality such as the depravity of war, the juxtaposition between a ruling class that treats geopolitical conflict like a chess match, casually inflicting a genocide upon untold thousands which it views as little more than a statistic, and the devastation that bears down on living, breathing populations whether targeted or just caught in the middle of conflict. It presents issues like environmentalism and the interconnectedness of all nature, along with the symbiotic relationship between a planet and the species that inhabit it. It touches upon xenophobia in more ways than one; existential dread and the search for meaning in the thralls of a life that is, to quote a more recent philosopher, ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ It deals with questions of personal identity and how the manner in which we relate to our present selves is inseparable from our pasts, or more specifically, our ability to recall it. The game examines the importance of family, friendship and loyalty; explores the bonds of love, coping with loss, and finding redemption.
I could go on but I won’t belabor the point. I’ve occasionally considered that an article exploring the ‘philosophy of Final Fantasy IX’ could make for an interesting case study, especially comparing and contrasting the wellspring of optimism that resides in a character like Zidane versus the all-consuming narcissistic nihilism that propels Kuja; or the dialectic of the creative principal as represented by the Crystal in stark opposition to the misguided aims of Necron: to reduce all things to oblivion. It could even be fruitful to analyze the way in which the game portrays how living beings strive for individuality amidst a need for camaraderie.
Say what you will about the game’s overarching narrative—it’s as convoluted and full of holes and unanswered questions as JRPGs come—but its handling of character plot lines, specifically how the main protagonists’ story arcs unfold as the adventure proceeds, is in my view perhaps the richest of any JRPG that I’ve ever played.
Which brings me back to the Final Fantasy IX children’s cartoon. How is it going to approach these characters? What, if anything, needs further elaboration? Most importantly of all, is it possible to do any aspects of their deftly constructed personal narratives—setting Quine aside—justice? To honor them without diminishing the significance that they hold for many of us ardent FFIX partisans?
Color me skeptical. And still, despite my reluctance to embrace the inevitable changes that are bound to affect my perception of these characters when the new series debuts, some consideration over the past month has caused me to soften my adversarial stance.
A Possible Cause For ‘Zidanean Optimism’
Perhaps all of the fuss that I’ve made up to this point about Cyber Group Studios’ upcoming animated series will prove much to do about nothing. What if, at the end of the day, the backdrop of FFIX is utilized to little more purpose than the establishment of a setting focused centrally on the race of furry, koala-esque creatures known as Moogles? Aye! I can see it already! The premise of the show revolves around the ‘Mognet mail service’ and the humorous travels of one rambunctious furball on a quest to deliver letters! That sounds fun, right?
Or maybe the ‘adventure animation series’ won’t avoid FFIX’s central cast of personalities altogether but rather narrowly hone in on a time and setting that has next to no impact on the canon as it presently exists. Yes, that’s it! Using Dragonball as its model, the show reveals the early days of Zidane’s childhood, when a burly, bearded pig-man named Baku, the leader of a nomadic band of thieves that use a traveling theater company called Tantalus as their front, discovers the otherworldly, monkey-tailed boy and decides to raise him up as his own. Hilarity ensues as a young, mischievous Zidane tries to fit in with his new crew, depicting the misadventures that he, Blank, Ruby, Marcus and the other Tantalus members find themselves in as they attempt to pull off ever more elaborate heists!
I’m not trying to pitch ideas or anything but here’s another while I’m at it! The FFIX cartoon takes place years after the momentous happenings of the video game, as much time having passed in Gaia as in the real world. Set in an era when peace and prosperity reign supreme, the adventure gives us an intimate glimpse into the parenting lives of Zidane and Garnet as they raise children (Zidane Jr.? Princess Garnet the 18th?) who are as equally intrepid and rebellious as their now slouching, middle-aged father and mother once proved to be. Eh… on second thought, pass on that. That idea sounds terribly lame.
The only notion that I’m trying to convey here is that the further the show strays from its source material, the better. By all means, place your fairy tales in the world of Gaia, the cities of Alexandria, Lindblum, wherever. Saturate us with all the black mages, moogles, chocobos, rat-faced people, pig-faced people, and whatever the Qu are, to your heart’s content. I’m sure children will be especially enamored by that. Just please, for the love of god, don’t try to tinker with the essential narrative, or worse, do so in a manner that removes all of the seriousness hidden beneath the light-hearted guise of the original for the sake of cheap, childish laughs. I’m sure the correct balance that needs to be struck in all of the relevant areas I’ve mentioned, from its inclusion and handling of specific characters to its expansion of different narratives and themes, can be pulled off, even if the series is intended to appeal to a younger audience, or the entire ‘family.’ It’s a tall order but not an impossible one.
Finally, it is in that part of the press release that I find a modicum of hope. I’ve pondered on several occasions who on earth this animated series is really for? Cyber Group Studios says it’s ‘primarily aimed at 8-13-year-old kids and family audiences.’ Does this mean that they’re developing it with us thirty-somethings (and older) in mind too, who were the ‘8-13-year-old kids and family audiences’ who played through the original game on the Playstation? I have to think so, and that gives me a sliver of Zidane’s optimism that they’ll pull off the improbable and deliver a source of entertainment and work of art that can appease even the most critical of FFIX lovers.
I’ll be one of those critical watchers, believe me. But I’ll also be open-minded. We know virtually nothing about the show at this juncture, neither a vague window for its release date nor the platform on which it will appear. Thus, I can’t really judge it, despite the tsunami of thoughts and feelings it has stirred within me.
And of course, the concerns I’ve laid out still stand. I sincerely desire nothing less than to see Final Fantasy IX become Square Enix’s next Final Fantasy VII. That’s unlikely but it’s always possible if the show is somehow a runaway success.
But should that day arrive, one thing is certain: that will be a damned good excuse to write another article about one of my favorite games of all time!
What about you? Did the announcement of a Final Fantasy IX ‘children’s cartoon’ kindle the kind of response that whirled around in my head these past few weeks? Do you disagree vehemently with my judgement on the direction that the Final Fantasy VII series (yes, we can call it that now) has taken? Do you like Korean B.B.Q. and do you think a plate is worth 70 gil?
Whatever your thoughts, use the comment section below to sound off!