Monday, September 21, 2015

Final Fantasy 6: Music

[NOTE: This article has an absolutely enormous amount of song links. You may want to reserve reading it for a time when your ears are available.]

Though not a rule, I generally don’t review current, popular games here on this blog. The reason for this is the same that I’m confronted with trying to talk about Final Fantasy 6: Everything I could say has already been said. The music of Final Fantasy and series composer Nobuo Uematsu is some of the most publicly beloved in all of video games. For many people, Final Fantasy 6 is the highlight of his musical career. In spite of my love of game music and some previous experience as a musician, I’m no music critic. Far more qualified and knowledgeable people have spoken on these songs. No matter how I try, this post will never be anything close to definitive. It may not be all that deep or insightful.

But sometimes, as someone who produces creative or critical content, you just have to accept that. I’m not writing this post to be the one true post to rule them all. I’m writing it because I love this music, I want to share this music, and I want to talk about this music. With any luck, what I lack in technical knowledge can be made up for in enthusiasm.

So first, let’s follow up that introduction with a second one.

“Oh, no yeah that’s cool. I love introductions. Who even needs real content, let’s just have an article full of those.”

The Early Songs of Final Fantasy

Before I gush about the music of Final Fantasy 6, some history might help. Nobuo Uematsu composed the music to every Final Fantasy game up through Final Fantasy 10. Even when people look back on his earlier days, response is positive. The themes of Final Fantasy 1-5 still teased memorable melodies and a great range of moods out of the limited hardware of the day. It would take some time to go through each previous soundtrack, and they don’t vary enough that it’s necessary. But to give some context to FF6, we’ll take a quick look at the most iconic (and consequently only US) releases prior: FF1 and FF4.

The music of the original Final Fantasy isn’t fantastic. The tracks are quite short, there aren’t many to go around, and they feature just 3 channels of rudimentary sound. In terms of composition, they’re very simple. There’s little variation in the level of volume, and likewise the tempo never changes. In spite of this, and the clear improvements of later games, there’s something to appreciate here. For example...

[NOTE 2: The links for these first songs are all exactly 3 minutes, despite this being ridiculously long for these short loops. Unfortunately, it was this or picking a playlist with sound issues, apologies.]

The Prelude is a theme remixed in the title of every Final Fantasy game, and it’s incredibly straightfoward. But the echoing arpeggios illustrate just how iconic the very simple sounds of the game can be. The Prologue, which would become the central theme of early Final Fantasy games, is still a nice tune. However, compared to later, more dramatic renditions, the limited space and quick tempo find it lacking. Theme’s such as Corneria Castle manage to slow the pace down a bit, but we see the price of that in how bloody short it is. It sounds fine the first time, but the lack of variation and 20-second loop really wear on you. Some songs like Gurgu Volcano work more at a pace more naturally suited to the chiptunes of the NES. There’s still not much depth, but it’s catchy.

When you listen to the music of Final Fantasy 4, there’s clear improvement. Part of this is due to the expanded capabilities of the Super Nintendo, but the difference is striking enough that I’d say Uematsu has also improved as a composer. A clear example is hearing The Prologue, which has already come quite a ways from the original version. There’s not just more realistic sound, but more build-up, more contrasting highs and lows, which give it a grander, fuller feeling. Take a listen to the Lunarian’s Theme. You know what you’re hearing that wasn’t in the NES music? Silence. The booming bass notes are given time to reverberate, to breathe. The tempo in songs is more varied as well. Listening to the tune of Edward’s Lute you can hear not just the volume but the speed of it rising and lowering. The music of FF4 also fits a wider range of moods than before. The tone of those previous songs are wildly different from the tense action of the Boss Battle Theme, or the upbeat goofiness of the Chocobo Theme.

So the individual songs grow more engaging and emotional from FF1 to FF4. On top of that, music used a wider range of instruments, fit a larger selection of moods, and drew inspiration from more musical genres. All the same, the soundtrack of Final Fantasy 4 isn’t perfect. It has some limitations, plenty of songs aren’t classics, and there’s room for improvement. Fortunately, Nobuo Uematsu didn’t stop improving. This brings us at last to Final Fantasy 6.

There’s a quote about the soundtrack of FF6 which I remember to this day, from Uematsu himself in an interview. Sadly I couldn’t find the interview again, as there are so many interviews, concerts and retrospectives on the man that it’s difficult to find a specific one from years ago. Assuming my memory isn’t lying, what Uematsu said was that Final Fantasy 6 was the first game he could retire satisfied after finishing. This neatly sums up my feelings on the music of FF6.

Some of the greatest songs in the series came from FF7 through FF10, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what my favorite soundtrack is between them. But FF6 was the first game to enter that debate. Though the games before had their moments, none of them are contenders for best Final Fantasy soundtrack, let alone best soundtrack of all time. Music is subjective and your mileage may vary, but I think FF6 is a genuine contender for those titles. So massive preamble aside, let’s go song-by-song through some of my favorites, starting with...

Character Themes

Every single one of the fourteen playable characters has their own musical theme. These musical themes vary wildly in mood and style, and the characters wouldn't be half as memorable without them. Even more surprising than a Super Nintendo game dedicating 14 songs just for playable characters is the fact that they’re all good.

Terra’s Theme is probably the best place to start, as she’s the first playable character. Her theme also doubles as the main theme of the game, which you hear as you traverse the overworld. This version of the song is less about Terra and more about the first half of the game as a whole. It’s high adventure in the form of a massively memorable melody.

Coin of Fate is the theme of brothers Edgar and Sabin. More specifically, it’s the melancholy version we see when they reminisce about their past together. It really brings the emotion out of an already well-done scene. The first half of the song has the feel of a solemn music box, with isolated trills of notes ringing in the silence. In the second half I particularly enjoy the reverberating bass notes and sustained strings.

Cyan’s Theme provides contrast from the previous tunes in an eastern sound representative of the serious old samurai it belongs to. The latter half of the song has a majestic, flowing force to it while keeping the baseline of the drums and bells. And like all themes in this game, there’s a strong underlying melody.

Shadow’s Theme shows further variety with completely different instruments from the previous songs. A laid back guitar riff, a twanging string and a wandering, whistling lead combine for a tune that wandered straight out of an old western. A fitting piece for the silent, wandering mercenary it represents.

Mog’s Theme is interesting because as one of the secret party members, he has almost nothing going for him. With only a few lines in the entire game and no impact on the greater plot, he barely qualifies as a character. And yet effort was still put into giving him a catchy and unique sounding theme. A punchy, rhythmic drum beat contrasts with upbeat, flowing flute sequences, the background punctuated with plucking of intermittent, tangy strings. For someone so insubstantial otherwise, it nearly conjures a character out of thin air from the music alone.

Area Themes

The Mines of Narshe is one of the first songs in the game, and a great introduction to the games area themes. Though perhaps not as iconic as the character themes, it still grants some personality to what’s otherwise just a mining town in the middle of frozen nowhere. It reminds me a lot of some Final Fantasy 7 songs, with melancholy strings and a jazzy bassline. It differentiates itself with a tinkling piano and an interestingly placed breathing sound, bringing to mind the icy, empty mines it scores.

The Veldt offers something near opposite of the mines. It uses tight tribal beats and short, sharp strings to paint a picture of the open, sun-drenched savanna. The song has got a great groove going for it, and I particularly like the percussive breakdown it throws down before the end of the loop.

Phantom Train offers a unique song for a unique locale. You’d think a haunted train car would be filled with creepy atmospheric noise or wailing spirits. This tune takes a different direction. We start out with a pretty nice imitation of train tracks for the Super Nintendo, which fades into a single, haunting piano line. (At least I think it’s a piano of some sort, old sound fonts can make it hard to tell sometimes). The silence it leaves is suddenly filled with a big, booming waltz, which somehow fits the setting perfectly. My favorite part remains the piano though, whose relative silence stands out against the noise when it returns at the end of the loop.

Devil’s Lab is one of the more popular tunes on the FF6 soundtrack, if the amount of remixes I’ve heard are anything to go by. It’s easy to see why, as it’s one of the catchier melodies with a very distinctive sound. The massive magical factory it scores is well represented with mechanical clangs and beeping beats. The horns and strings are perfectly positioned to blend with the more electronic noise for a very steampunk sound.

Kids Run Through the City is the last area theme I’d like to share, not because it’s some stand-out track for a strange, unique part of the game. Rather, I find it heartening because despite being the standard village theme used most in the game, it still sounds great. The calm and steady guitar, dual flutes and strings all combine for a peaceful, idyllic melody appropriate for nothing out-of-the-ordinary. And when nothing-out-of-the-ordinary is this pleasant, it’s extraordinary.

The Rest

For contrast, let’s look at something Final Fantasy 6 isn’t utterly fantastic at. I don’t think Final Fantasy 6 has the greatest battle themes of the series. I would probably grant that to another game like Final Fantasy 7. There’s something in that soundtrack more suited to getting your blood pumping for a fight; every battle theme in it is incredible. That isn’t to say the fight songs in FF6 are bad. I quite like the frantic strings and head-bobbing drums and bass of its Boss Theme. Not to mention I’ve already given a passionate diatribe on the game’s final boss theme, Dancing Mad, in a previous article on gaming’s best organ music. (At a couple years old the writing is dated, but it gets the point across). So in spite of a couple great songs, there’s one part of the Final Fantasy 6 soundtrack that isn’t the best it could possibly be. No yeah, that really was the extent of my criticism this article.

Save Them brings back the gushing praise with an exuberant, fast-paced tribute to heroics. It has a feel of swashbuckling adventure to it, with its speedy strings, boisterous horns and bombastic crash cymbals. My favorite part of the piece is where it brings in a brief, energetic version of Terra’s theme. This is called a leitmotif, a recurring musical theme associated with people or ideas. It gets used a fair bit in these later Final Fantasy games. Lots of the character themes in FF6 get melancholy variants for appropriate scenes, and/or brief appearances in other songs. In the first half of the ending, there’s even a massive mix of every character theme that plays as each of them gets a small scene. It’s wonderful, but probably a bit lengthy to show here.

Johnny C. Bad is a terribly stupid and also awesome thing to name a song. It’s lighter fare, a jaunty bar tune with a catchy, swinging piano melody. The active snare drums give it a nice energy, and the mid-song bass breakdown is also pretty fun.

Aria di Mezzo Carattere is a song with enough fans that I’d be remiss to skip it. Partway through the game a series of events forces our heroes to take part in a full-on opera. The opera features several songs, but this one is the most remembered. Some may be put off by the imitation-vocal noises, which were somewhat limited by the hardware of the day. That being said, this really is a strong composition. It has a proper sense of pacing, building over time and hitting just the right tone for the ending. Beyond perhaps the voice the instruments are effectively used and hold up well. And the melody itself is extremely memorable, later doubling as the performing character’s theme.

There are so many more songs I could share. When I enjoy a game’s music, I go through song by song, only downloading the ones I could listen to many times over. Typically this isn’t even half, especially with larger soundtracks. But sitting on my computer is well over 2/3rds of the FF6 soundtrack, nearly 50 songs. I’ve repeatedly enjoyed them all. This is a wonderful collection of music, and even though I couldn’t share most of them, I’ve tried to show as much depth and variety as possible. Hopefully you found something you enjoy in there.

I don’t know where it would rank exactly, but I count Final Fantasy 6 among some of the best musical scores I’ve ever heard. I’m not alone in this feeling either. Overclocked Remix, one of the most popular sources of video game remixes, did an album on FF6. Called Balance and Ruin, the album was the largest they’ve ever done. Featuring 74 tracks and nearly as many participants, it remixes every song from the game at least once and contains over 6 hours of music. Given its scope, I thought I’d point it out and mention a quick sample of some remixes I enjoyed.

Remember when I said Shadow’s theme sounded like a western? Well A Fistful of Nickels takes that premise to it’s logical, bombastic conclusion. The original Phantom Train a grim, austere waltz. Yet somehow the song is tonally transformed into a toe-tapping train tune in Gobble, Snarf, Snap. My last recommendation is an ambitious, emotional combination of several sources. Every part of FF6’s famous opera scene is remixed in the Bohemian Rhapsody-esque odyssey that is The Impresario. If any of these interest you enough for more, the entire album is free, along with thousands of other game remixes on

And with that, our winding musical journey together draws to a close. Final Fantasy 6 isn’t perfect. The combat and gameplay are filled with flaws, and the story has some issues in execution. But the memorable characters and outright fantastic music impressed upon me why so many people love this game. As a final parting note, I’d like to share with you it’s version of the first song of the series, The Prelude. I could say plenty about it, but I won’t. It’s beautiful, and that’s all it needs to be.

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