The Final Fantasy series is one of gaming’s crown jewels. Say what you will about individual games, quirks and tropes of the series or core gameplay mechanics—it can’t be denied that the fan community is incredibly vibrant both in terms of the wider series (which saw its 83rd release with World of Final Fantasy and will soon get its 15th mainline entry) and for particular titles and eras of Final Fantasy.
If the series has a ‘golden era’, it spans 1994 to 2001: from the release of Final Fantasy VI on the Super Nintendo to Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. During this time, Nobuo Uematsu was the series’ lead composer (audio lead since the original game in 1987), producing arguably the world’s most cherished video game music—the ‘John Williams of VGM’, if you will.
We thought it would be fun to pit two mega-fans against one another to fight the corner of two of Uematsu’s best scores:
The adjudicator? Let me introduce Yolo the chocobo…
So equip your materia, prep your junctions and let battle commence…
TQ: Final Fantasy games tend to start in the middle of the action and it’s Uematsu’s almost operatic music that gets you all geed up, from clicking “NEW GAME” to the moment you can first control the character.
This cue is brilliant because it starts with the simplest of melodies—which you just know is going to come back at the very last moment of the game. Clearly inspired by Blade Runner’s opening scene where Vangelis’ huge synth sounds introduce us to a dense, dystopian cityscape, the opening track of Final Fantasy VII builds to a bombastic crescendo before taking a minor turn and then driving on into a thrilling, bass-driven track punctuated by orchestral hits and short brass and woodwind runs. I can’t remember being so excited by a game than when I played this for the first time.
Housden: This is one of the most iconic pieces in video game history. Just hearing those opening choral bars makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It builds into a glorious climax—as good as John Williams’ Dual Of The Fates [from Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace]—and is the perfect accompaniment to Squall’s and Seifer’s opening fight (which was groundbreaking CGI at the time).
Uematsu draws from Carl Orff’s ubiquitous O Fortuna (from Carmina Burana—you’ll know it when you hear it) and, in comparison, holds its own as a fantastically exciting choral work that sets the scene perfectly.
Yolo: Final Fantasy VII’s opening artfully takes us from tranquility to tense Active Time Battles, but nothing packs a punch like Final Fantasy VIII’s opening cinematic—downright flabbergasting at the time and still impressively grandiose.
Housden: Ah, the background to many an hour spent hunting for the requisite parts for everyone’s ultimate weapons… This piece holds a great mystique, with its striking pizzicato strings and other-worldly synth melody, yet it keeps you moving at the same time.
TQ: When you very first hear the world map music for Final Fantasy VII, it sounds like it starts in the middle of the piece—a huge, shifting mini-symphony, the likes of which we hadn’t heard in a game in 1998. Since this nearly seven minute track cycles (and the game remembers where you were during it), it is key to creating the awe-inspiring illusion that this is a massive world you’re exploring.
Frankly, it’s one of the best pieces ever to feature in a video game and the main melody is burned into the minds of several generations of gamers.
There’s a beautiful orchestral recording by the Distant Worlds orchestra, as well as a calming piano version from the Piano Collections album.
**WARK! WAAAAARK!!!** [Yolo needs some greens]
Yolo: Final Fantasy VIII’s Blue Fields feels like one of the most mature and restrained Uematsu pieces up to this point in his career and continues the trend of brilliant world map music in the Final Fantasy series. But… Final Fantasy VII’s Main Theme is one of the best pieces ever to feature in a video game and the main melody is burned into the memories of multiple generations of gamers.
TQ: During the middle of the game, you end up going on a date in the Gold Saucer with one of your fellow travelling companions (who this is exactly depends on how you play things). It [ahem] climaxes in a sweetly innocent, romantic cable car ride during which this arrestingly pretty tune plays. Interrupted by Fireworks opens with an arpeggio harp—arpeggios being a hallmark of Uematsu’s Final Fantasy scores—and interweaves different variations of the Main Theme melodies on glockenspiel, flute and clarinet against a strings counter melody.
If you’ve endeavoured to have Aeris/th join you, she comments: “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” And indeed it is a beautiful moment, in some ways more touching when you know what’s going to happen to her later on. It might not be as grand as Final Fantasy VI’s opera sequence but it is unforgettable nonetheless.
Housden: For me, this piece will always represent what it sounds like to fall in love. I think I played this game for the first time when I was 13 or 14 and I remember being completely captivated by Squall and Rinoa’s relationship. A huge part of that was this absolutely beautiful song by Uematsu which is weaved throughout the game in various iterations, starting during Squall and Rinoa’s dance at the graduation ball (Waltz for the Moon) and popping up throughout with tracks such as Julia, My Mind and of course culminating with with the full-blown orchestral ballad, Eyes On Me.
However, it’s the beautiful orchestration of Love Grows which makes it the stand out choice.
[Finishes up his chinwag with his large stable-mate, Fat Feathers, the chunky chocobo]
Yolo: This one is no contest really, even if Mr Housden is cheating with a five-in-one pick. As charming as my date with that beefcake Barrett was, Eyes On Me is a total tearjerker, especially as part of the epic ending to Final Fantasy VIII.
Housden: No other track on the game quite captures that feeling of sweaty palms tightly gripping the PlayStation pad, caught up in the final throes of a desperately intense boss battle, unsure whether the final blow will fall to you or your adversary. The background to many a rage quit the world over but beloved nonetheless.
TQ: J-E-N-O-V-A gets the pulse racing, especially during what is a tough boss early-ish in the game (Jenova Life). There’s a weird, otherworldly disco vibe to this track but it’s the progression through the different sections and fantastic chord sequences that makes it so heroic and exciting. It’s full of hope and inspiration whilst still underpinning the idea that Jenova is a super alien, hell-bent on destroying you and the planet.
Yolo: Force Your Warrrkk! is a classic Uematsu pulse-pounding track, reminiscent of a lot of his live rock music with band The Black Mages, but J-E-N-O-V-A is a killer track to battle bosses to.
TQ: A JRPG without good village/peaceful town music is like Magic FM with no Luther Vandross: soulless. This is one of my very favourite Uematsu pieces, in particular because of the stunning version on the Piano Collections: Final Fantasy VII album.
Ahead On Our Way—not the most dynamic piece within the game itself—is a warm bath of a tune; a constant, soothing loop of serenity. It’s doubly effective on the occasion of a new player to the game arriving at Kalm after realising that their journey will stretch well beyond Midgar—that this is (apparently) a wide world of possibility. Kalm welcomes you with open arms, the perfect peaceful town.
Housden: Over the course of the Final Fantasy series, quite atypically for most RPG’s, the town music has been less than memorable for me. Final Fantasy VIII rectifies that with aplomb and many of the stand out pieces from the entire game are town themes.
I found it incredibly difficult picking for this category with so many incredible tracks like Fragments of Memories, Balamb Garden, My Mind, Where I Belong and Breezy. But Fisherman’s Horizon is probably my all-time favourite piece of Final Fantasy music. The melody is absolutely beautiful and it’s backed up by a typically amazing harmony from Uematsu, creating a tonally stunning tapestry. The one criticism you could have of Final Fantasy VIII‘s score is that it gets slightly weaker in the second half of the game. However there are some spectacular individual tracks which come close to stealing the entire show and this is one of them.
[Gazes longingly at a rather attractive golden chocobo that has just wondered by]
Yolo: Mr Housden is right: Final Fantasy VIII simply nails the ‘peaceful town’ vibe time and again and foremost among those tracks is Fisherman’s Horizon. Do yourself a favour and check out the choral version on the official orchestral album FITHOS LUSEC WECOS VINOSEC: Final Fantasy VIII.
Housden: This is the sorceress Edea’s theme… it still sends shivers down my spine. A character who we’re introduced to as being the very embodiment of evil, this creepy anthem plays as our heroes carry out a grand plan to assassinate her at the climactic end of disk one. The harpsichord and folk percussion were great instrumental colours to use for a witch’s theme, along with the amazing choir and a dark, brooding harmony. It created a great anachronistic effect, which ties in with the strange time travelling story arc we encounter later on in the game.
Funny thing is, ‘Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec’ sounds like a darkly meaningful Latin phrase… but it’s actually a nonsense anagram of the words ‘succession of witches’ and ‘love’.
TQ: When President Shinra turns up very early in the game to derail Avalanche’s plans, you know you’re in for a grand adventure involving something called Mako and an impressive chap called Sephiroth. And, frankly, Shinra’s theme tune is deeply awesome: a thudding metallic beat, a thumping low piano note and an operatic choir leave you in no doubt that these are some bad dudes who are going to wreck the planet for corporate gain.
Just like with the original Star Wars film, Final Fantasy VII’s music is absolutely crucial to the early stages of the story, hinting at a much wider picture than what you’re seeing at a given moment. True, 32-bit JRPG music was generally less sonically subtle than 20th Century orchestral film scores (the Final Fantasy VII development team restricting Uematsu to the PlayStation’s in built sound chip rather than let him work with CD-quality audio); and these tracks can get tiresome after you’ve heard the loop for the 50th time, but they were brilliant at setting the mood and peerless at the time.
Yolo: Last one, I must get back to **WARK!!!** As clever as Edea’s dramatic theme is, Shinra is an organisation of complete bastards, totally deserving of a deep, dark and dangerous track to underpin that.
Yolo: Nobuo Uematsu was on fire for the whole of the 1990’s and pretty much everything he composed for these games was gold. Arguably, Final Fantasy VII has the more playful score, whilst Final Fantasy VIII nails the emotions—both are exceptional and very special to a whole load of video game fans.
If you’re a big ol’ fan of Nobuo Uematsu and Square JRPG music, you might want to check out Laced Records’ and Merregnon Studio’s deluxe vinyl and CD releases of Final Symphony and Symphonic Fantasies, featuring music from Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.