It's Final Fantasy IX's 20th anniversary today and what better way to celebrate one of the best Final Fantasy games ever made than to have a good old-fashioned sing-song? I'm not just talking about bellowing out the game's celebrated end credits theme "Melodies Of Life" either. I mean a proper celebration of one of Final Fantasy IX's enduring legacies: its superb, nay, one might almost say legendary soundtrack.
Because let's face it, even 20 years on, this is still one of the all-time greats of video game soundtracks, and arguably one of composer Nobuo Uematsu's best bodies of work. So happy birthday, Final Fantasy IX. Here are nine of my favourite tunes to celebrate.
Something to Protect
Man alive, I love this tune. A rollicking, upbeat rendition of Beatrix's theme, Roses of May, Something to Protect plays toward the latter end of Final Fantasy IX when Beatrix finally decides she can no longer follow evil Queen Brahne's orders and teams up with Zidane and co to defend her city from the villainous Kuja and to help Garnet escape from Alexandria castle. It's a triumphant moment, not only for Beatrix (who's also one of the coolest characters in the Final Fantasy series) as she comes to her senses, but also for grumpy Captain 'Sir Rustalot' Steiner, who finally gets over his rivalry with his superior to fight alongside her. It's almost as good as the game's other one-time battle theme, Festival of the Hunt.
Festival of the Hunt
Speak of the devil. And I mean that literally, too, as Festival of the Hunt plays during the titular beast-battling competition in the streets of Lindblum. The festival only lasts for 12 minutes in total, but during that time you'll need to fight tooth and nail to defeat as many monsters as possible to claim the title of Master Hunter. But it's not just some silly title you're fighting for. Zidane makes a bet that the winner can also go on a date with princess Garnet, while Final Fantasy IX's second coolest character and long-term party member Freya is hoping to emerge victorious so she can find her long lost love, Sir Fratley. There's a lot on the line in these 12 minutes, and the music only ups the stakes even further.
Aboard the Hilda Garde
Quite possibly one of the best airship themes in the entire Final Fantasy series, the first time you hear the opening chords and tinkling trills of Aboard the Hilda Garde is a big moment in Final Fantasy IX, and once those electronic horns kick in, you're off. I always enjoy a good airship theme, but this one made me never want to touch down on solid ground ever again. It's just beautiful, soaring high on adrenaline and fuelled by a sense of hope and optimism that everything might actually be okay at the end of the day, because cor, would you just look at the size of this flying boat? Kuja ain't got nothing on us, pal, we're untouchable.
Bran Bal, The Soulless Village
A little more sombre than some of Final Fantasy IX's other village themes, but Bran Bal is just so darn dreamy I could listen to it for hours and hours. And I have, trust me. You only visit it once in the run up to Final Fantasy IX's big climax, but it's here where Zidane learns who he truly is and where he fits into the wider world. It's a fraught time in the game's story, but man, what I wouldn't give to spend just a little bit more time there and drink in its gorgeous oboes and soothing harp strings...
Then again, if I stayed in Bran Bal for all eternity, I'd never get to listen to quite possibly my favourite Final Fantasy IX tune, Not Alone. One of the most powerful moments in the entire game, this plays when all of Zidane's mates rally round him in his time of need, each fighting alongside him in a series of battles to remind him he is indeed not alone and that his friends are here to help him every step of the way. I remember getting properly choked up when I first got to this part of the game all those years ago, and even now it still sets me off a bit. Everyone's just so gosh-darned lovely and I want to give them all a big (socially distanced) hug.
A true classic, this one. A throwback to the very first Final Fantasy's Mt. Gulg theme, this track is pure, musical nostalgia distilled into a modern, toe-tapping nugget of joy. Another track I could listen to for hours (and have), Mount Gulug is one of the great location themes. It's mysterious, upbeat, and its running quavers feel like the aural equivalent of craning your head every which way to see where its cavernous passages lead. And then those synthetic pan pipes chip in and you can't help but bang that head along to the beat. It's a good 'un.
Ukulele de Chocobo
The ukulele is probably one of the most preposterous instruments in the history of creation, but cor does it make for a great chocobo theme. I love how Uematsu has toyed with his chocobo music over the years, remixing and rearranging it in a variety of 'de Chocobo' renditions that all sound utterly unique yet entirely of the game they belong to. I also adore the cheeky little "Kweh!" sound effect thrown into the middle of Ukulele de Chocobo, which automatically makes it ten times better than Final Fantasy IX's other chocobo theme, Aloha de Chocobo.
Black Mage Village
When you first hear Vivi's Theme at the very beginning of Final Fantasy IX, it's a cute, almost clumsy sounding tune that perfectly befits its titular black mage. He's a shy, childlike sort of soul, old Vivi, and he spends a lot of the game worrying and feeling guilty about the way other black mages are treated in the world. Eventually, he stumbles on the Black Mage Village, where his musical motif goes absolutely bonkers. It feels at once both utterly alien and completely recognisable, like the bold evolution of everything he could be if only he was a little bit more confident. But you quickly learn that Vivi isn't like other black mages in this village and that his destiny lies elsewhere. He's got to struggle on and come to terms with his place in the world like everyone else in your party, and you let out a sigh of relief when it's eventually time to leave the Black Mage Village behind.
The Darkness Of Eternity
Kafka and Sephiroth eat your heart out. There, I said it. Kuja's final boss battle music is just the absolute BUSINESS. That organ. Those foot stomps. That bangin' electronic keyboard solo. Woof. Kuja's Theme had always felt villainous and cackling whenever he showed up in earlier segments of the game, with its excessive use of the minor key and those insistent, running piano notes, but this... This pumps everything up to a hundred, adding an evil bass line and smashing that piano for a walloping guitar. And then, halfway through the piano busts back into the joint and goes mad, pushing further and further with its chords and key changes until it all collapses on a knife-edge and it gets swallowed back up by that urgent bass line. Pure and utter magic.
Do you have any favourite Final Fantasy IX tunes to celebrate its 20th anniversary? Shout about them in the comments below. And as a bonus, here's the real best track from Final Fantasy IX's soundtrack: a 30 second instrumental version of Melodies of Life Square Enix made for a 2001 Coca Cola advert. You're welcome.