Bogleech Monster Reviews:
Final Fantasy IX
Written by Jonathan Wojcik
With its colorful, whimsical style and weird characters, Final Fantasy IX has always been tied with VI for my favorite entry in the wildly popular series, its setting more reminiscent of Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal than the grittier, anime-inspired direction taken by so many other fantasy games. I've been meaning to discuss some of its more interesting creature designs for years now, and I'm hoping to shrink my rather massive to-do pile over the course of this summer. These are just some of my favorite monsters from one of my favorite games, and I might be tackling more console RPG bestiaries in a similar fashion!
The Prison Cage
To start off with one of the game's earliest boss battles, the only dialog in the game directly pertaining this thing is "what the hell is that?" and it's a pretty reasonable question. This bulbous plant creature uses the leaves on its head as a cage for its victims, carrying them around to feed upon bit by bit. It's a creepy, disturbing lifestyle beautifully complemented by the monster's sickly, fungoid appearance. I love its gross little pores, toad-like skin and bizarre lips, overall looking like a cross between the Otyughs from Dungeons and Dragons and some sort of dying stinkhorn mushroom. What I also really like about this creature is the complete lack of green in its color scheme; like several real parasitic plants, it probably lost its ability to photosynthesize.
FFIX's art team put a lot of cool, original twists on even the most conventional fantasy creatures; we all know a traditional Chimera is just a monster with three different animal heads, usually some combination of lion, goat and reptile, but here, those three heads are just outgrowths of a central reptilian beast with a face somewhere between an anglerfish and a giant salamander. Eerily, its two upper animal heads are also blind, with horns where their eyes ought to be, and its massive "true" head inflicts disease through its bite.
Quale are a pretty odd and interesting "race" featured only in FFIX, and one of them, Quina, can join your party. Egg shaped, with creepy little clown-eyes and giant, dangling tongues, their silliness belies pretty horrifying feeding habits, seeing as Quina can just up and devour almost any monster in the game, of almost any size, presumably after stabbing it with his gigantic spork. Sadly, fans were pretty harshly divided on whether Quina was endearing or obnoxious, and we haven't seen the likes of the Quale since.
The Feather Circle
Seemingly a cross between a stingray and a clione or "sea angel," the Feather Circle is one of eight creatures in the game with both a normal and "friendly" version to encounter. Significantly rarer and accompanied by silly music, the "friendly" monsters each request a specific item and offer different prizes in return. In this particular case, the "friendly" feather circle is honestly the more ominous looking, with its complete lack of a mouth, staring little eyes and visible organs.
The Worm Hydra
I don't have a whole lot to say about the worm hydra. I couldn't have left it out, but it kind of speaks for itself, a whole bunch of giant slimy annelids fused together into a multi-headed quadruped. I'm surprised I don't see that many other invertebrate-based hydras, especially when the original legend itself is thought to have been a misinterpretation of an octopus or squid.
Agares and Gargoyles
Always encountered together, the Agares is some sort of spell-casting demon who animates gargoyles as minions in addition to his arsenal of destructive magic. By far the most fascinating thing about Agares, of course, is his somewhat comical, somewhat unsettling, entirely dapper design. Completely eyeless, his winged head is dominated by a visor-like mouth and a row of long, needly lower teeth that bend in entirely the wrong direction. How does this guy eat? What does he eat? I guess it's probably just souls, or something, unless he uses his teeth to dig up clams like a walrus. And then just suck out their souls.
Giant, monster antlions have been a Final Fantasy tradition since almost the beginning, though most newer titles ignore what an antlion actually is and don't even put it at the bottom of a giant sand vortex. In IX, the monster dwells in a proper antlion pit-trap, and is normally a "peaceful" creature until driven mad by some bad stuff going on. Plot spoilers. Funny thing is, it's at least the second time in the series that a giant antlion was friendly before something else pushed it off the deep end. Why does this keep happening!?
Designwise, I like this antlion's blood red face and maniacal little yellow eyes. It has the feel of an old wooden demon mask.
The adorable, lovable OGLOPS are something I wish had become a staple of other Final Fantasy titles; you never fight them, but they're seen and mentioned a number of times throughout the game. Resembling fat, four-limbed cockroaches with cartoonish skull-heads, they're apparently one of the most hated "pests" in the whole world FFIX, widely regarded as disgusting, filthy and creepy. Not words I would use to describe something so goofy and delightful, and I'm frankly surprised anyone has time to be creeped out by bugs in a world crawling with magical, murderous ghouls and dragons.
This strange, apparently living (haunted? Cursed?) tombstone doesn't battle directly, but opens up to release evil doppelgangers of the game's main characters. Now, in an unusual deviation from similar copy-cat monsters in other games, the Epitaph doesn't just replicate what it sees, but randomly copies characters you've recruited whether or not they're actually with you in the fight. This is important, because any character actually hit by their own doppelganger will take 9,999 points of damage, dying instantly at any level. You just have to hope that the clones don't match up perfectly with your current party, or you could be fairly thoroughly screwed. Interestingly, the Epitaph will immediately die if you use a "soft" on it, the item that normally cures you of petrification. I guess it turns into a pile of meat.
The Sand Golem
This crudely humanoid heap of sand doesn't look that interesting at first glance, but if you look carefully enough at its little red "heart," it's obvious that the golem is just held together and controlled by a tiny, pitiful little blob-thing. It's a great twist on the classic golem, and I do believe it's appeared this way in a couple of other Final Fantasy games. You have to wonder whether these little guys are "natural" or are themselves magically created by some other, unknown party.
"Grimlock" is a popular name for a variety of monsters scattered around popular culture, and seems to have first cropped up in Dungeons and Dragons as a ripoff of H.G. Wells' "Morlocks," though it was later popularized by a giant, robot dinosaur. According to Final Fantasy IX, however, a "Grimlock" should apparently be three colorful balls with teeth and awesome jackets, and I'm inclined to agree. Each ball has different stats and abilities, and whichever one's on top will be the one you have to fight directly. Adorably, some translations of the game decided to call this monster "M&M&M."
Dear god. I've seen a lot of things named after the frumious bandersnatch from Jabberwocky, but something about this nightmare spawn feels like the frumiousest of them all. The contrast between its ridiculous, poofy-tailed, flappy-eared bunny-dog body and ghastly, demented, noseless face is one of the creepiest things I've ever seen in this series. The soullessness of those little eyes, the ravenous delight in that saw-toothed smile...this is the hound that guards the gates of the uncanny valley itself, and I wish I had ten of them. The only thing that could possibly make the Bandersnatch any scarier is if it were just freaking huge.
(Oh wait. It is.)
Another big, furry beast with a creepy face, the Wyerds are a bit more on the "gloomy and pitiful" side than the Bandersnatch's "hungering for children's souls" look, but raises its own haunting questions with its bizarre, unexplained behavior. Appearing exclusively in a windy network of ice caves, the Wyerd actually speaks when it attacks, but only one of two phrases: either "the wind lays out my path" or just "get out of my way." Why do these seemingly intelligent creatures mindlessly follow these underground breezes? Why do they look so miserable about it? We'll never know. Also curious is their frustrating ability to switch hit point totals with their opponent, and are the only regular enemy in the game with a maximum potential health of 9,999. Fortunately, they'll only get up to that amount if they swap with a maxed-out character....or if you accidentally throw one of your full-healing items at one.
This is actually the same little basilisk we've been seeing in Final Fantasy games since the beginning, and they're always a delight with their maniacal faces, dangling tongues, frog-lizard bodies and goofy head-feathers. They really do look like the unnatural, magical lovechild of a rooster and a snake, or is that only the cockatrice? I think there's a lot of crossover between the legends, anyway. IX's version seems to exaggerate the cartoonish madness of this classic design, especially in the eye department. I don't think any previous iteration had quite the same hypnotic, perfectly circular chameleon eyes, which also kind of look like the cups from a brass brasierre. Hilarious. It pains my soul to the core whenever a Final Fantasy game goes with some "scarier" reptilian beast for their "basilisk." I think this may have even been the last classic-style FF basilisk. Was it? I hope you can prove me wrong.
The Gimme Cat
We already talked about those rare "friendly" enemies, and Gimme Cat fits all their initial criteria: it doesn't normally attack you, it has the trademark "friendly" battle music and it asks you for items. Unfortunately, the little bastard doesn't give you anything at all in return. He's a phony! You probably shouldn't have trusted a "cat" that looks like it was designed in crayon by a baby vampire. It probably doesn't have one feline bone in its body, if it even has bones at all. It could be a cat-shaped, bat-winged mollusk for all we know. I like how there's a mousey toy tied to its tail, too; did it do that itself? Does it play with it, or does it just think that somehow completes its "cat" disguise?
Throughout the game, you'll repeatedly have to battle a pair of nasty, creepy little jester twins named Xorn and Thorn, who do all the nasty, creepy little things you expect from jester twins, like speaking in rhyme and finishing each other's sentences. It's in our very last encounter with the duo that the creep factor is cranked up to 11,000, as they fuse together into this towering, slimy, fleshy abomination that breathes clouds of disease. Especially creepy is that we're only given one vague explanation, from the game's main villain: "they're not really twins."
Yeah, that clears everything up. Yeesh.
"Friendly" enemies aren't the only rare monsters that dole out rewards; if you're lucky enough, you might also run into Ragtime Mouse, a dancing thingamadoodle who asks you a series of trivia questions regarding other monsters, characters and items. This would be weird enough in itself, but seriously, what is he? He has a torso like a pink pumpkin, spiny flesh-sleeves, feathers on his elbows, a head like chattering dentures and a single, bobbling eye-stalk. Where did he come from? Why trivia questions? About the only question he raises that can even be answered is his nonsensical name, which was supposed to just be "Ragtime Mouth."
In one of my old-as-ass site articles, I declared this thing one of the weirdest monsters in the history of Final Fantasy and quite possibly the history of console role-playing games. Years later, I have yet to reconsider this position. It's a whole house - or at least a sort of shack - walking around on about sixteen tiny horse's legs, with no apparent place for horse bodies or heads to fit in. It has a gigantic cannon sticking out of it, a giant fish tethered to a giant anchor draped over its roof, and it's all topped off with a cute little flower box in the window.
Why? How? What?! Who built this? Are the legs actually part of it? Is it really named "Armstrong?" Who named it? Is Armstrong the name of something living inside it? Is it the same Armstrong every time you encounter it, or is this a whole "species?" These are, of course, all rhetorical questions. It would be interesting to hear a canon explanation, but I doubt one exists, and none really need to exist. The mystery of Armstrong is just part of the appeal.
My personal favorite enemy in the game isn't as intriguing as Armstrong or disturbing as the Bandersnatch, but you know how I feel about pitiful, slimy malformities. Every little thing about the Abomination is perfect; the protruding, goofy teeth, the total lack of a lower jaw, the single, baleful eye off to one side, and of course all those creepy, flexible fingers draping down it like a lovely hairdo. It doesn't do much of anything but inflict "silence" status (an inability to cast magic) by slapping you with said fingers, but it could honestly do nothing but sit there and slobber and I'd still want to smother it with cuddles and tiny kisses on the top of its head. It would look right at home in some of my favorite children's horror manga, or maybe slithering around the world of Yume Nikki. The best part? This goofy thing is as tall as a person. How wonderful would it be to put a cute little hat on it? Give me a million of them. I think this would be my low-rank minion of choice as a video game villain. My goomba.
The Black Mages (some spoilers!)
While I usually like to end these with my single favorite monster, I thought it might be more appropriate to close this off with IX's most memorable and lovable denizens - one of which, the adorable little Vivi, is one of its most important characters. The shadowy-faced black mages have been an icon of the series since its beginnings, but in most games, their Jawa-like faces were just a stylized way to indicate a human in face-concealing clothing. Boo. It was only with the ninth game that they finally saw fit to make these cuties a "species" in their own right, actually scarecrow-like artificial beings created as magical weapons!
We never find out much about the inner workings of these guys - what's really inside them? Straw? Gas? Pure magic? - but we do eventually find out that they can reproduce on their own, and in fact, pretty prolifically, which almost makes up for the earlier revelation that they only live about a year or two. Whatever they're made of and however the hell they multiply, I'm just glad Square gave us black mages who really just have glowing eyes in faceless voids.
If only I could figure out how to pull that off myself.