I still have a little trouble believing Final Fantasy IX on PC is real, even as I play it. Unlike Square's other PlayStation 1 Final Fantasys, IX never got a PC port back in 2000. The company's archival practices in the PlayStation era were notoriously spotty, and as years went by and (nearly) every other game in the series showed up on mobile and PC, a modern port of IX seemed less and less likely. But here it is—and given what they had to work with, Square Enix and Silicon Studio Thailand have built a surprisingly good PC port of Final Fantasy IX, which could easily become a great one with a couple patches and help from modders.
FFIX's PC port includes most of the basics of a modern Steam release: achievements, trading cards, controller support in addition to keyboard/mouse controls, and cloud saving. But a couple of these are strangely implemented. Instead of using Steam Cloud and syncing data across systems automatically, the game has a built-in upload/download tool for a single save file. Locally, you can save up to 140 files across 10 "slots" that seem like memory card holdovers.
Controller support has two issues. One: when using a controller, there's no true analog movement, but rather slightly awkward 8-directional movement. My guess is this is a result of how the game was ported to support WASD controls. Two: when starting FFIX with a controller already active, a bug causes a constant input in a single direction, making the game unplayable. This is easily fixed by launching the game first and then plugging in the controller. These controller bugs should be fairly easy for Square Enix to fix with an official patch.
The keyboard and mouse controls in FFIX are surprisingly comprehensive. Unlike many PC ports of older console games that don't support mouse in the menus, the mouse controls here can do everything. You can navigate menus, select actions in combat, and even navigate the environment point-and-click style. Sounds weird for a JRPG, but it works surprisingly well. This includes clicking on the "!" bubbles that pop up to talk to characters. Pro tip: the jump rope minigame is way easier with mouseclick than with a button input.
Keyboard controls accept movement on both the arrow keys and WASD, and the same buttons can be remapped on both keyboard and controller: Confirm, cancel, menu, cards, camera rotation, fix camera, perspective.
On top of all this, Square added some optional "boosters" to the recent mobile port of FFIX that are the same in this version. Note that the controls for these are not customizable through the game's config menu. The boosters are: 9999 damage, no random encounters, full battle meters, auto attack, fast forward (entire game runs at much higher speed), level/stone max (hit level 99), gil max. Note that the last three here are irreversible choices, while the first three can be enabled/disabled from the pause menu or in battle.
Graphics and presentation
PlayStation games mostly ran at a resolution of 320x240 pixels, with a few special cases running as high as 640x480. This is obviously a huge problem for a game like FFIX, which mixes 3D models, pre-rendered video backgrounds, and FMV sequences. How do you render all of these things at modern PC resolutions? The answer in this case is: you don't. Square has done a fantastic job with the 3D models and FMV, but the pre-rendered backgrounds suffer tremendously in the upscaling process.
There are no graphics options in IX except a barebones launcher on boot that lets you choose resolution and windowed mode.
The FMV sequences look shockingly good in this PC port. They're completely unchanged from the originals and obviously look dated compared to today's CG animation, but they've been re-rendered at a far higher resolution, which I'm assuming is native 1440x1080 (Square maintained the 4:3 aspect ratio). I ran FFIX at 2560x1440p and could detect a bit of artifacting and loss of detail in the FMV at that resolution, but at 1080p this is about as good as it could possibly get. Bless whoever at Square Honolulu (which created the FMV sequences around the same time it was making The Spirits Within) archived the assets for these videos.
FFIX's 3D models properly scale with resolution and look crisp even at 1440p. While the textures on random NPCs are apparently low resolution and blurry when scaled up, the major characters have redrawn textures that, on the whole, look fantastic. In close-ups, the redrawn textures have a bit of a vectorized look to them, but the style fits IX's exaggerated character models well. This feels like it's about as good as it's going to get without a full-on remake with higher-poly models and far more detailed textures across the board.
If only the pre-rendered backgrounds could have fared as well. I don't know if Square has forever lost the original assets for the backgrounds, or whether re-rendering all of them for modern resolutions was simply too difficult a task for the scope of this port. Whatever the reason, the backgrounds have been run through a filter to upscale them instead of being recreated, and the results are painful. High detail backgrounds suffer the most, and all of the backgrounds are blurry, making the sharp 3D models stand out strongly in contrast. The two styles no longer gel.
The FMV is at its worst when it transitions between video sequence and pre-rendered background, because movement highlights the pixelization and loss of detail in these videos. The second screenshot above is a quick example.
If it's possible for Square to one day dig up the original high resolution art and re-render these backgrounds the way Capcom did with Resident Evil, I hope they will. But I don't expect that to happen. For now, IX is best played on a smaller/lower resolution display or on a TV far away from your face. On my 27-inch 1440p monitor, I found playing the game from about five feet away helped smooth over the loss of detail of the backgrounds. Playing on a 1080p TV would lessen the issue even more. A 1080p monitor right up in your face, though, is a recipe for sadness.
The UI overall looks great: clean and sharp, though I miss the personality of IX's original font. The worst change is the character naming screens, where the sans-serif font and white background look garish and unstyled.
Old fans may not care for the new battle menu, which is oversized (presumably as a result of the mobile port) and obscures more of the screen than the original. We'll see if modders go after this one.
Square Enix recommends a Core i5 2520 2.4GHz CPu, 4GB of RAM, and at least an Nvidia 8600 GTS or Radeon HD 4650 graphics card to play the game. The 8600 GTS came out in 2007, and I'm pleased to report that the FFIX runs fabulously on modern hardware. I played several hours of the game on my laptop with an i5-6200U CPU and Intel HD Graphics 520, and never saw performance dip in battle, cities or on the world map.
Unfortunately, Square hasn't undertaken the major work that would be required to make the entire game run at 60 frames per second or an unlocked framerate, and battles are still sluggish thanks to lengthy animations. A modder on Neogaf has also created a mod to up the battle speed's framerate to 24fps; since game logic is tied to animation speed, this will speed up how quickly battles play out. If you want slower battles but faster animations, set the in-game battle speed to its lowest setting and use this mod. There's also the fast forward option if you want to run everything at lightning speed.
I haven't experienced any crashes or other issues, but I've seen multiple reports of graphics glitches like the world map not appearing. This seems to be related to current Nvidia drivers, and will likely be fixed in the near future.
The one glaring issue with the FFIX port, aside from the low resolution backgrounds, is its audio. The music sometimes has a tinny, static-y quality that sounds inferior to the original version. According to another Neogaf poster, who compared the game's audio playback with a soundtrack version on Youtube, poor audio sampling is to blame here. The end result is music that sounds compressed, which is a shame—FFIX has a wonderful soundtrack.
Hopefully this is improved with an official patch, but I wouldn't be surprised if modders get there first, and make it possible to play audio files from a soundtrack folder instead of the audio assets that ship with the game.
Final Fantasy IX isn't a perfect port, but it's far better than I expected. The audio issue and control bugs should be fairly low effort to patch, and the bigger problems like slow battle animations and low-res pre-rendered backgrounds were likely never going to be fixed without a complete remake.
The overall state of the port makes me hopeful that a small but dedicated mod scene pops up around IX to fix and improve its weaknesses, then to actually mod the content of the game. Final Fantasy IX is one of my favorite games ever made, but I know it has its weaknesses. Modders, if you're reading: that Trance system sure could use an overhaul.