As a westerner, one of the quirky things about Japanese gaming news is how they slavishly focus on the music and artists. In western publications, they might get a mention in a preview and a paragraph in a review, but other than that we tend to focus massively on a title’s look and gameplay. Japanese articles and forums will spend pages discussing one piece of art and how it evolved from the last game or a snippet of the soundtrack and how it lives (or fails to live) up to their expectations.
Game sales rise and fall on the appearance of a series’ original musician or their return. Yes, successful western musicians become famous and in-demand, but Japanese composers become legends and their works are played by full orchestras to packed tours around the world, even for relatively niche games.
Final Fantasy & Its Music – 30 Years and Going Strong
Perhaps the logical starting point for this series is Square’s Final Fantasy, a saga of the Light Warriors, now over 30-years old and still going strong. The music for the Nintendo NES original Final Fantasy was composed by Nobuo Uematsu. Over time, the game has been updated and rereleased on many formats, with remixed soundtracks, but the original remains the benchmark. You can try it now in its original glory if you can find one of the Mini NES consoles.
Those starting rising and falling chords of the introductory menu inspired generations of gamers to commence another saga, with the series now stretching to 15 core titles. The game managed three NES titles, three Super-NES games before finding a home on the PlayStation. With the games appearing out of sync with much-delayed western releases, our culture focuses on the later titles, but it is in the early games that the series really builds the foundations for what we know and love today.
Over time, the themes have evolved and expanded as audio technology improved as the bit count and audio fidelity improved. Listen to these battle themes across the series that get progressively more inspiring, urging characters to wave their swords, staffs or shields and charge at the enemy.
Between this and its sister series Dragon Quest, Square have sold tens of millions of role playing games, and inspired both Japanese and western developers to make the music fit each scene or segment, rather than just rambling on with a few tunes across the game.
Final Fantasy VII and VIII were perhaps the series’ high point in popularity terms, as the massive adventure sprawled across three PlayStation CD-ROMs. The new console took gaming mainstream and this massive adventure, became a global phenomenon, but the advent of CD technology didn’t see Nobuo Uematsu jumping straight into CD quality recordings. These would have slowed the game down and impacted loading times, so instead he upped the quality of 16-channel MIDI tunes for a cinematic approach to audio.
The harmony of cinematic graphics, cutscenes, in-depth world building and gorgeous audio built a legacy that remains to this day, with the recently announced Final Fantasy VII remake treating the original’s sound with kid gloves to avoid pissing off the fans.
Nobuo Uematsu left Square in to 2004, and other composers have taken up the mantle. Such is the depth of these compositions that a few years back, the music from the series took a world tour to celebrate the 25th anniversary.
While fans will argue over their favorite pieces of music from the series, Final Fantasy creates a new legacy with every title. As the game gets more cinematic, we’ll ignore the series’ busted flush of a movie in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it is hard to tell the themes apart from the latest Hans Zimmer and you have to wonder who is influencing whom. Whatever your gaming or musical tastes, there’s no denying the fact that Final Fantasy is worthy of its legend.