Our Favorite Characters: Final Fantasy IX’s Zidane Tribal and the Essence of Virtue

Final Fantasy IX is my favorite. After years of devouring this series in nearly every way possible, of falling in and out of love with it, I always look back on IX the same way. Final Fantasy IX doesn’t get nearly as much attention as its older siblings do, or even some of the younger ones. It isn’t as dismissed as the second game by a long shot, but it does often have an “odd man out” vibe. A lot of that is due to how little it fits in among both the “modern” titles in the series, and the classics. It exists in its own little pocket of aesthetic and tone, and a big part of that is protagonist Zidane Tribal. His personality and motivations are drastically different from those of his peers, making him the driving force of Final Fantasy IX’s unique flavor.

The Sly Eagle Doesn’t Kill at Whim

final fantasy 9 psone classic

Despite some extremely dark shit that goes down as Final Fantasy IX progresses, the game has an overall reputation for being more lighthearted compared to the two before it. Both Cloud and Squall’s adventures are much more immediately grim; even though both of those games have their fair share of camp, both feature thoroughly grumbly protagonists. Zidane on the other hand, is much more jovial from the get-go. He hits on women, cracks hella jokes, showboats, and goes out of his way to be friendly with people. But more importantly, he goes out of his way to help people.

Just look at how everything starts. Zidane and the Tantalus Troupe come to the kingdom of Alexandria to kidnap princess Garnet, who ends up running into them during her own attempt to run away. She asks Zidane to kidnap her, and he obviously agrees. But it isn’t just because that was his initial goal, and it isn’t because he’s, you know, into her. Like he tells her later on in the game when she finally asks “why?” he tells her “because I wanted to.” Zidane’s whole schtick, his primary motivation in life, is helping people in need.

Zidane is a selfless meddler. He places himself in situations at the risk of his own well-being, almost without thinking about it, if someone he deems vulnerable is in need. He leaves his adopted Tantalus family to save Garnet in the Evil Forest. He does everything he can to help Vivi, from rushing headfirst into battle with the Black Waltzes, to constantly offering him life advice. He rushes to Burmecia with Freya, immediately pushing his current situation to the backburner. In the end, he even turns back to attempt saving Kuja, one of the baddest villains in Final Fantasy history, from certain death. He’s like Superman, if Superman had like, a tail and killed people and stuff.

Angel of Death

final fantasy 9 zidane not alone

Like Superman, Zidane is actually a sort of accidental immigrant from another planet (unlike Superman, he isn’t aware until much later in the story). But as an orphan, as someone who had to figure out a personal definition of what “home” means, he has insecurities about loneliness. Hence, the skirt-chasing and whatnot. This all comes to a head during the “You’re Not Alone” scenes, in which Zidane learns the truth about who he is and loses all sense of his self. He goes on a blind rage, leaves his friends, and falls into an intense, depressive episode. Of course, the power of friendship is ultimately what snaps him out of it.

But it isn’t just “friendship” in that abstract “this is how we poke fun at anime” sort of way. Zidane, who struggles constantly with crises of identity, comes to believe that he really is nothing but an empty vessel. But when all his friends stubbornly come to his aid, reminding him of all he did for them along the way, he finds a renewed sense of self. Zidane’s core Zidane-ness is his ability to protect people he cares about; his essence is his virtue.

Sure, he’s not the most wholesome or squeaky-clean hero out there, but Zidane Tribal is one of the most genuinely good persons in all of Final Fantasy. He isn’t cartoonishly virtuous, or grim and sullen, he’s just a person with a deep understanding of the inherent value in helping people, in making connections and protecting them at all costs. Zidane isn’t the chosen one, or a super soldier with a dark past, the leader of a resistance movement, or anything like that. He doesn’t even really have special powers despite his cosmic background. He’s just a dude (with a tail), an orphan who lived his life mostly via circumstance until he met Garnet. What drew me to Zidane’s scenario was not just the surface-level optimism that set Final Fantasy IX apart from the rest of the series. It was also that character-driven theme of virtue for the sake of itself, a self-driven selflessness you don’t often see in stories like these.

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