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?
HOW WAS THIS EVER PUBLISHED?