Final Fantasy XIV Shadowbringers has been receiving near-universal praise for the quality of both its story and its gameplay, making it one of the best Final Fantasy games of all time - but it's not the highest-rated in the series, according to Metacritic. That title belongs to an underappreciated classic that, were it not for a weird release date that saw it arrive just after the PlayStation 2 shook up the console world, probably would have been more of a commercial success than it already was. That's right - Final Fantasy IX is actually the highest rated game in the series.
For those who have played FF9, that's probably not a huge surprise - many fans tend to agree that it's at least one of the best titles the franchise has ever produced, although it's a divisive topic given just how many entries into the series there are. While people often remember the weird, deformed graphical style of FF9 in a less nostalgic way, at least part of that comes down to the fact that the game was released as a PS1 title months after the PS2 had debuted with significantly improved graphics in all of its releases. For a series that had made a name for itself in pushing the boundaries of graphics - believe it or not, FF7 in all of its blocky glory was an absolute stunner in its day - having FF9 fall well short of PS2 games' aesthetics certainly hurt initial reception of the game despite selling over 5 million copies eventually.
FF14 Shadowbringers actually borrows pretty heavily from some of FF9's narrative beats, too. Without getting too deep into spoilers, FF14 Shadowbringers sees heroes from different worlds attempt to save their own people by sacrificing those they consider "lesser" to themselves. That element was a major underlying thematic concern of FF9 right down to the different worlds element, and even the villains - Shadowbringers' Emet Sech and FF9's Kuja - share personality traits and mannerisms. For those who loved Shadowbringers and want more of that style of storytelling, FF9 is a strong choice as a follow-up.
Beyond the comparisons, though, there's a reason FF9 has withstood the test of time. It assembles perhaps the most eclectic cast ever produced in a Final Fantasy game, and does so in a way that emphasizes their weaknesses rather than their strengths. No single party member is really the "chosen one" this time around - they've all had their struggles and their faults, and to survive they need to work together rather than depend on one hero chosen by the divine. It was a bold choice when the game released in 2000, nearly two decades ago, and remains one today. The bright and colorful character design, steam punk and fairy tale-inspired world, and underrated ability customization system all helped establish FF9 as one of the greatest of all time - or the greatest, according to Metacritic.
Of course, FF14 Shadowbringers is also incredible - the game wouldn't have over 16 million players if it wasn't. The margins between these two games in the categories they thrive in are slim at best. FF9 sits at a 94 overall rating on Metacritic; FF14 Shadowbringers comes in just below it at 92, tied with FF10, FF12, FF7 (with FF7 Remake waiting in the wings), and FF6 Advance for second place. In a franchise that has frequently produced some of the greatest JRPGs ever made, there's an argument to be made for all of these titles and more as the best Square Enix has ever produced.
That's for another day, though. For now, it's simply worth pointing out that for all of the well-deserved praise FF14 Shadowbringers is receiving, it's not even the highest-rated Final Fantasy game in franchise history. That's not a slight against Shadowbringers - it's a reminder that any fan who missed FF9 when it first released in July 2000 to give it a shot now that it's been ported onto the Nintendo Switch and other platforms. FF9 somehow remains one of the most consistently underappreciated Final Fantasy titles, and as the highest-rated Final Fantasy game, that simply shouldn't stand.