As you may or may not know, I've never played FF9 before now. I just finished the Festival of the Hunt and walked a bit to pick up Quina. I'm not reading any strategy/spoilers as I go, but I figure that due to Dissidia and FFRK, most of the main plot beats I already am vaguely aware of. What I want to write about real quick is the Festival of the Hunt, and how FF9 pulled off this weird out of nowhere event in the plot so much better than 7 and 8 do when they stray from the main plot. So, spoilers ahead for 7, 8 and 9.
The Festival of the Hunt has everything you'd think I'd hate about a forced sidequest. A forced sidequest, by the way, is a bit different from the sidequests I talk about in 7/8. These are events that interrupt the flow of the game, but don't really add much to it. A lot of the events from leaving Midgar fit into this, but they usually try to tie in some character building.
It isn't particularly interesting. It comes out of nowhere. It slows the main plot progression, and to really make the most out of it, you have to already know what's going to happen to min/max or cheese it. Unlike the fight in front of the nobles, you don't get to keep re-doing it until you feel you did as well as you could. So, this seems to have a lot going wrong for it. But, FF9 made it work.
The first reason is that, while it takes us away from the main plot, it does it at a time that the plot feels paused for the player. It isn't like in FF7 where the Wutai side quest comes up after you get the Tiny Bronco when the plot is in full swing. In fact, one of the best times to go there is... right after Aeris dies, because you've just received a pile of equipment with no materia slots. The pacing is all wrong! That is NOT the time for wacky ninja hijinks!
FF8's card queen sidequest is even worse, since you probably can't complete until you learn time compression is a thing and the world is in peril. A lot of the other sidequests involve exploring the world, which doesn't become available really until after the Garden is attacked [if not later.] So, again, the sidequests interrupt the flow of the game. We've just built up to a conflict, but Squall needs to say "Time out," to go find some cards.
With the Festival of the Hunt, Zidane, Freya and Vivi join it because the plot is safe right now. Garnet is at an allied country. The Black Waltzes are defeated. Alexandria, if they are planning anything nefarious, are still at peace with their neighbors. Cid is setting up a chance for Garnet to talk to her mother to hopefully end everything peacefully. This is a PERFECT TIME for wacky hunting hijinks!
Not only that, this forced sidequest gives us insight into a lot of our characters, which other RPG's fail to do with their sidequests. Zell, for example, gets incredibly little characterization through the whole game. We could have easily scrapped some of the scavenger hunts for a sidequest with Zell. Zell, for example, is our only non-Rinoa main character with something close to family, and we NEVER build on that.
In contrast, just from the Festival of the Hunt, our four core heroes in FF9 all have their character traits reinforced. Garnet is distracted and mission focused; Steiner refuses to leave her side and encourages Vivi. Zidane is self-centered but good-natured ["What do I want? Gil! ... and a date with the princess."] But, the most interesting character we build on is Vivi in a very minor way. When asked what Vivi wants if it wins, Vivi asks for a card.
This reinforces what we've seen from Vivi. He wants to in some ways be like the kids he saw in Dali, and he still doesn't know who or what he is. We've never seen Vivi really all that interested in the card game, but he's the one who asks for it if he wins. It is probably a happy accident, as the game designers probably just put that reward in there for the player to have a choice what they want, but it gives another quick insight into Vivi's mind without having to hit us over the head with his character, like we get with Zell and hot dogs.
We get it Zell. You like hot dogs and are an immature surfer dude with 'tude. Tone it down a notch.
The other thing I like about the sidequest is all three of the rewards, from a metagame-y stand point, have merit. A chunk of gil is really helpful, especially early in the game [arguably the only point in any Final Fantasy where money matters.] The ring that Freya wins (which is what I got) is a good power bump for a physical character, and you're guaranteed to always have one in the party at this point since Zidane is there. Vivi's card is important if you care about the card game. So, unlike other forced sidequests, like the FF6 banquet, you don't feel like you have to soft reset to get the best reward from it. You can get any of the three you want, and then move on.
I'm not far in to FF9, but I do like it a lot so far. The pacing and the depth of information they have with a very superficial script has impressed me, and this is coming off the rather dense with meaning 7 and 8, it was probably a huge breath of fresh air when it was first released.