The Worst Strategy Guide Ever Made

The Worst Strategy Guide Ever Made

Pop quiz: does the name “PlayOnline” make your blood boil, or at least cause one of your eyes to start twitching? No? Lucky you. If it does, you might be familiar with the worst strategy guide in video game history.

This article has been edited since its original publication in May 2015, in honour of Final Fantasy IX coming to PS4 this week.

Back in 2000, when the Internet was going through awkward adolescence and nobody really knew what to do with it, some top executives at Square, the company behind Final Fantasy, decided that they needed to bolster their online presence.

To do this, they built a multi-purpose web “portal” called PlayOnline — a website that they’d use to share RPG news, sell merchandise, and facilitate membership for the upcoming online game Final Fantasy XI.

In those days it was tough to get the word out for a site like that, so Square’s decision-makers had a brilliant idea: they’d advertise PlayOnline in the official strategy guide for Final Fantasy IX, which came out in November of that year. “Hey,” someone at Square must have thought. “Why don’t we put additional tips and tricks on the website?”

Something went horribly wrong, though, and anyone lucky enough to spend ~$US20 ($25) on the official Bradygames strategy guide found that every page of the book was covered in blue boxes like this:

You see it, yeah? The main text, on the left, gives you brief descriptions about what to see and do, while those blue boxes on the right tell you all about how much MORE there is to see and do… if you go visit PlayOnline.

Again, every page looked like this. Instead of walking players through the game and giving them strategies — like, you know, a strategy guide — this FFIX guide spat up vague descriptions for everything — bosses, sidequests, secret weapons — and commanded readers to go to PlayOnline for the rest.

Those abominable blue boxes covered every margin of the book, endlessly reminding FFIX players that the guide was incomplete. Today, this would be annoying; in 2000, when dial-up still ruled the realm and you needed to hog up the phone lines to get on the web, it was infuriating.

Even back then, gamers recognised that this was an iconic piece of history: the worst strategy guide ever printed. As one Final Fantasy fan, Lynn, wrote on a message board back in 2001: “Yes, I’m ROYALLY pissed off. I feel that I’ve spent my money on something that is virtually worthless. Learn from my experience.”

It’s fun to take a look back at gaming history, even if it is a bit painful for those of us who actually spent money on this thing. So let’s look back at some excerpts from THE WORST STRATEGY GUIDE EVER MADE:

Things are painful from the getgo; the guide starts out with these character pages, which are generally interesting and helpful until they start hinting at all the cool things you’ll find online but not in the $US20 ($25) book of tips you just bought.

By the way, I’m not kidding when I say that every page looks like this.

Tetra Master, the card mini-game in Final Fantasy IX, isn’t quite as good as FFVIII’s Triple Triad but is still fun to play. A competent strategy guide would be sure to include detailed tips on how to master it.

By far the most egregious sections of this strategy guide were the ones that teased secrets but wouldn’t even tell you what they were.

Is it just me or is clickbait way worse when you can’t actually click on it?

GameFAQs was around at this point, by the way. You could’ve just gone there.

The hardest thing about writing this strategy guide must have been coming up with all the different rephrasing.

The funniest part of this one is that the boss’s name and description is on the next page, even though they won’t tell you how to find it. (For more tips on beating the boss, of course, you should check out PlayOnline.)

Why include side quests in your walkthroughs when you can just put them on the internet?

Fun fact: I once tracked down the author of this guide, Dan Birlew, and asked him how all this happened. He wouldn’t say. (“I do not comment on books/games that old. Please direct your queries to BradyGames.”)

I’m actually not sure what this is referencing. Too bad I can’t find out on PlayOnline. 🙁

Pissed off that you bought this strategy guide but it won’t actually tell you how to do anything? Make sure to check out PlayOnline.

God, look at all that empty space. At this point, why even bother printing a strategy guide?



  • lol, to be honest the content on the playonline site wasn’t bad, but that guide was horrible. Glad I never wasted my money on it.

    • Yeah I remember browsing the PlayOnline site back when FFIX was new and it had some really useful info on hidden game mechanics, things like keeping Phoenix Pinions in your inventory giving a small chance of Phoenix auto-summoning when your party is wiped out. I think other items boosted summon damage too.

      But damn, I’d never seen that guide before, that’s hilariously bad.

      • I thought the way you could change what Carbuncle cast on the party by changing the item Eiko was holding was fantastic, too.

  • Do you think it was originally written properly, and then the PlayOnline people just came and ganked all the good stuff out? It sure feels that way.

    • I think that is a safe bet. At the time Bradley had some great strategy guides, then they dropped this pile of poo

  • Oh wow, I’m glad I’d never even heard of this thing before. I can only imagine how awful it must have been to spent money on something that says “please use our website instead”

  • I was in year 8 and I saved all my pocketmoney in to buy this piece of shit book. It tells you nothing! I missed out of so much because I had basically no access to the internet. I still have it as a reminder to NEVER buy a strat guide again. WHY DID YOU BRING THIS UP!!

  • I have this book still. It is, in fact, the worst strategy guide I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve seen quite a few. (Bethesda probably make the best ones.)

    The really criminal thing is that most such guides come shrink-wrapped so you couldn’t even tell how rubbish it was until you bought it.

    Also, the rear cover makes the PlayOnline stuff sound like a cool extra, rather than a cruel strategy to gank the page count. It dedicates a full quarter of the back page to a long vertical boxout praising PlayOnline, with something like triple the word count of the rest of the page, excluding the copyright notice.

    The only map in the entire book was a whole-world map on the last page.

    Actually, I tell a lie. The last page was an ad for Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The second-last page was an ad for FF9 merchandise. The third-last page was an ad for the sound track. And the fourth-last page was basically blank, for player notes.

    While there is a one-page table of contents, there is no index.

    The cost of this 200-odd page volume, in which a quarter of each page was dedicated to references to PlayOnline, was $30.

    If I remember correctly, I played FF9 up until a particular point, then bought the strategy guide. Then gave up. To be clear, I didn’t just have internet access at the time; I worked for an ISP.

    • The really criminal thing is that most such guides come shrink-wrapped so you couldn’t even tell how rubbish it was until you bought it.

      I think their theory is that if it’s just sitting on a shelf, people will just flick through it to find exactly what they want and not buy. More strange to me, is the fact that some MMOs like WoW had their own printed strategy guides… despite expansions, biweekly patches, etc which made the pages obsolete almost as soon as it rolls off the printers,

      • I also have the printed strategy guide for Diablo II. It was probably outdated after the first patch (since all the skills get adjusted regularly).

        The Everquest strategy guide for Planes of Power is also outstandingly useless. Somewhat famously, not all zones were ready at the time of the expansion’s release, so the devs deliberately blocked zone progression until the new zones were ready. How the strategy guide writers were supposed to write about zones that did not yet exist I will leave to your imagination.

        However, it doesn’t match the sheer gall of the FF9 guide, which was in many ways an extended advertisement for the online service. (Except for the bestiary, which was mostly OK.)

  • HOLY CRAP. You’ve put me into full nightmare memories. I always buy a guide with my FF games and this one is as evil as is claimed. What’s even worse than what is shown here is that the PlayOnline pages STILL didn’t have all the information a guide-user needed. It was STILL possible to miss certain one-time events or fail them because they were not mentioned.

  • Reminds me of every Youtube walkthrough ever.

    “Oh, but FIRST we’re going to go over here. Now we’re going to listen to me babble for 30 minutes. Now i’m going to show you this area from 72 different camera angles instead of just telling you where to go. Now I’m delving into tengential nonsequiturs.”

  • I remember my first walkthrough. My sister printed me a FFVII walk through when I was 11 to help me finish the game. Over 200 pages in a folder.

    • You seem to be assuming everyone looks at them straight away. Back when they were relevant I’d buy guides with new games but wouldn’t look at them until my second playthrough when I was looking for things I’d missed.

    • I had the guidebook for my first run through FF8 – much, MUCH better than the FF9 one, by the way – and it really enhanced the experience.

      For the record, I did not even glance at the walkthrough part, but it had bestiaries with all kinds of stats and stealing / card info that really came in handy. Also lots of world-building stuff that I really dug.

  • And Square Enoc has not improved since. They still insist on being a jarring presence upon themselves and continue to almost make awesome products that are compromised but “clever” shit like this. And ridiculous titles with pseudo Latin words like Duodecim and Exicidivious or whatever the shit.

  • I got the game and this for xmas one year…this guide was/is cancer. I was like, “the whole point of buying the guide was to AVOID having to go to gamefaqs for every friggin missed detail!”, AUGH!

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