Saturday, October 15, 2011

Final Fantasy 9's Strategy Guide

Back in the day, printed strategy guides used to be a pretty standard game accessory. You bought the game, you played it, and if you just couldn't get past a certain part and didn't have any friends to ask how to get through it (or if you just couldn't be bothered to try), you went out and bought the strategy guide. This was back in the days of the SNES and Sega Genesis.

The internet changed this. Dramatically. By the time the Playstation 1 was in full swing, "teh intarwebz," to use its scientific title, was filling with walkthroughs, FAQs, and random tips and tricks dispersed on forums. At present, there are multiple locations a mere few clicks away for any given game out there that can pretty easily tell you everything you want to know about that game. Hell, you can often find a complete walkthrough available on GameFAQs for games that haven't even come out yet, because people will write them based on the original Japanese version released months before the US gets it. Even in extreme circumstances where some aspect of the game hasn't been addressed in an official walkthrough, you have quick and easy access to other people via forums, chat programs, and God knows what else--you're never in a position where you can't find a friend who can help you with a certain part of a game.

I know there are still physical walkthroughs sold nowadays, and God bless whoever's still doing it, because I have no idea how they stay in business. I guess they must really go all out on aesthetic appeal and target games that are complex enough that they can make the whole walkthrough look impressively huge to tempt buyers--I know I saw a Final Fantasy 13 one recently that was thicker than some college textbooks. But I'm pretty certain that the business must be a lot smaller than it was, and is likely to keep dwindling.

Now, back in late 2000, the fan-made walkthrough process was not quite as streamlined as it is now. But if it's in its fully-formed adult life now, it was at least in its competent teen years then. If you needed to know specific game information about pretty much any title, particularly one as popular as, say, Final Fantasy, you could find effective information quickly and easily. There were really only 3 reasons for a person to get a walkthrough for a popular video game. They were:

1. No reliable internet access. Hey, a lot of people still weren't really online at that point. Hell, there are still a fair amount of people in the present who aren't.

2. The aesthetic and/or collector value. Some people just LIKE to look at a page more than a computer screen when they read something. In many cases, I'm one of them (though not in this one; to me a walkthrough is a walkthrough, electronic or paper). They just wanted to get their answers from a physical guide.

3. They happened to walk into a game store on the day that the store was getting rid of its old walkthroughs that weren't selling, and were offered the pretty good deal of 7 game walkthroughs for 1 cent.

That 3rd one there was considerably less common than the beginning 2 reasons, though; I can only really confirm it having happened once. But anyway, the major reasons I can think of, in 2000 AD, to buy a physical strategy guide revolved around lack of internet and preference for paper. Remember this.

So, enough introduction paragraphs. Let's actually try talking about the subject of the rant. For every major Final Fantasy game that comes out for over a decade, there has been an Official Strategy Guide released for it. In 2000, it was Final Fantasy 9's turn, and Brady Games was the one to release the official game guide for it. At first glance, it seems good enough...decent-looking cover, thick enough that it's probably pretty comprehensive, promises that it's the official strategy guide on the front, which must mean that it has everything inside you could possibly need to know about the game. Right?

Alright, so we go along...acknowledgement page, table of, what's this? 3rd page in, there's the introduction, and then a section entitled "Using This Book." A quick glance will tell the reader that the "key element" in this strategy guide is its ties with PlayOnline, a website in which you type a keyword, as indicated by the book, and get detailed information about that part of the game, be it an item, location, boss, or something else. The next page gives a visual representation of what the PlayOnline keyword boxes in the guide will look like.


Moving on, the next pages cover the basics of gameplay, expanding with superfluous jabber and charts into a half dozen pages what a tiny instruction manual managed to adequately explain already. But oh well, not important.

Ah-ha! Having done with basic information, it's time to get on with the specific info! Here come the character pages! Time to learn about the characters of the ga--wait, what? What is this?

Since you are (probably) not looking at the guide yourself, allow me to describe what I see here. The page starts with the main character, Zidane. There is a brief explanation of who he is and what kind of stuff he equips. There is then a section called "Stealing Items," which very lightly touches upon Zidane's ability to steal from enemies, and...that's it. Where's the information about his other abilities? He's got quite a few. They just mention in passing that he has other ones. But what are they? They don't list any of--oh, wait. The blue PlayOnline box on the side is saying something. It's saying that if you want to know anything substantial about what Zidane, the character you'll be using almost from start to finish in this game, can do in combat, you'll have to go to the PlayOnline site to find out. Yes, the guide whose purpose for existence is to help you to play the game effectively will not tell you of the capabilities of the character you'll be using.

Oh, no, wait. Characters, plural. ALL of the characters' pages have PlayOnline password boxes where the actual information on their skills should have been. In some cases, there are multiple instances of PlayOnline boxes withholding essential data for a single character.

Now, if you continue onwards, you'll find some pages about the abilities for each character, which DOES list out what abilities the character can learn, and what they do. But still the PlayOnline boxes are holding hostage any detailed information about these abilities, such as, for example, their power, the amount of MP they use, how/where to learn them and how much time is required for the learning process, and so on. If you want detailed information, or, to quote the guide, "a complete list of each character's abilities," you have to put the guide book down and go online for it.

It pretty much just goes downhill from this point. No matter what information you're looking to obtain from this guide, you'll only find, at most, half the story in its pages, with all the details having been kidnapped by the infernal PlayOnline blue boxes. Desire detailed locations for the game's weapons? Gotta look online. Want to know what characters learn from Accessories? Also online. Have an interest, for some unfathomable reason, to better understand the Tetra Master card minigame? Every goddamn aspect they list has had some of its information relocated to PlayOnline.

And things get REAL bad when they start the actual walkthrough itself. Want the guide to give you any information about where to upgrade your party's equipment when you reach a new town? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know where special hidden items are located in any given dungeon/town/whatever? Go to PlayOnline. Want to know anything at all about the Frog Catching and Chocobo Digging sidequests? From what I can see, you have to go to PlayOnline for any knowledge of them beyond their names. Want to know what rewards you could get from the Stellazio Coin sidequest? Go to PlayOnline. Need any strategy for dealing with a boss that's more complex than "Use strongest spells with mage, heal with healer, and steal with thief?" Go to PlayOnline.

Basically, if you want to know anything about this game more complicated than what general direction to have your character walk in next, there's a 50-50 chance that the guide's gonna tell you to go online to find out.

I'm sure you all can see the problem with this. Namely, that the STRATEGY GUIDE that you PAID for doesn't actually have the information you need and is telling you to go ONLINE to find it. There is so goddamn much wrong with this. For starters, how about the fact that you paid for NOTHING. This guide was sold at the regular rate a strategy guide was sold for, yet had consistently incomplete strategy within it. If this had been a car, you would have paid full price for a car with three quarters of its engine missing. There would be LAWS in place that this transaction would violate!

Next, how about the fact that the only reason to buy a walkthrough by the time of FF9's release, as mentioned above, was because of either an inability to go online or a choice not to? As I mentioned, online game assistance was well-established by the year 2000! People buying this strategy guide for any real purpose were doing so because they wanted to see tips INSIDE the book they were buying. So, not only is it a rip-off because it doesn't actually do what it's supposed to--give all-inclusive information about the game--but it's a rip-off twice over because the paltry substitution for the information, its PlayOnline codes, are things that the only large group of people buying it didn't want or couldn't use.

To compound this idiocy, consider the marketing strategy here. Short-term, obviously Squaresoft was hoping that this would make people come to their site in droves, which would give them easier access to fans for future marketing purposes. Long-term...hell, not even long-term, just slightly-less-short-term, BradyGames was publishing a guide book that encourages, nay, requires its readers to become more familiar with the concept of finding information online by typing phrases into search boxes. BradyGames was essentially training its customers how to FIND INFORMATION ONLINE FOR FREE. Who the HELL was it that OK'd the idea of exposing the company's dwindling audience to its greatest threat?

And lastly, to finalize all this idiocy, the goddamn PlayOnline website? It hasn't had Final Fantasy 9 information on it for years now. Yeah, after all that, the strategy guide's pass codes can't be used any longer. Not exactly a product that endured time's test, here.

Yeah, so, overall, the FF9 strategy guide is one of the more unforgivably stupid and blatantly dishonest parts of SquareEnix's history--which, considering what company we're talking about, does say quite a lot. It's a farce of a product, it's transparent that it was made without any thought whatsoever of what the consumer might want or need, it's not even worth the paper it's printed on since the site dumped the FF9 data, and it taught readers how to find their information without having to pay for a strategy guide in the future so the companies wound up screwing themselves over worse than they did the players. It's a miserable, stupid failure on all sides. There's exactly one piece of useful knowledge to be culled from this entire guide: don't trust Square.


  1. Ecclesiastes says:

    The worst of it all is that Final Fantasy IX is a game with several shitloads of secrets, making it a game well worth playing alongside a comprehensive resource if you enjoy at least the bulk of it.

    Yay for 2011 and smartphones, I guess.

  2. The greatest RPG of all time. With all due respect to give FF9, Final Fantasy 9 has broken all barriers first. A complex and compelling voice. A story with an unmatched depth and sophistication. And a masterly style of art that was nothing short of beautiful.

  3. You know has there been any square guides that have actually been good.

    1. The ones Nintendo Power published. Obviously only for the games that wound up on Nintendo systems.

  4. howdy doody boys and girls

  5. That was fucking fantastically explained. I couldn't have said it better myself. Those assholes owe me $15 and a lot of time. Then when you want to use it now? Can't. Codes are gone and that shitty site is full of FF11 garbage.

  6. I remember watching a video about this when I was 15. People were pissed. I couldn't give less of a shit since I never buy strategy guides. What's the point of playing a game if you just follow instructions instead of playing? Games aren't fun when they turn into procedures.