Not so Final Fantasy is a tri-weekly column dedicated to all things Final Fantasy; from specific aspects of specific titles, to the universal features that set Square Enix’s inimitable JRPG series apart from the rest.
To this day, I can’t start a new playthrough of any Final Fantasy game and not smile the first time I hear the familiar melodic chimes of the prelude or the throbbing beats of the battle theme, as memories of summers spent locked indoors exploring the worlds of Cloud, Squall, and co. come flooding back.
After all, music is a quintessential part of the experience – as important to the series as the multi-layered plots, colourful characters, and strategic turn-based combat (well, that last one was until recently, anyway). Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, without Nobuo Uematsu and his successor’s peerless scores, Final Fantasy just wouldn’t be the same.
With that in mind, over the course of the next two editions of ‘Not so Final Fantasy’, I’ll be shining a light on my favourite piece of music from each mainline title, explaining, as briefly as possible, why they deserve a place amongst the video game musical elite. Starting with part 1: Final Fantasy’s I-VII.
I – Prelude
The Final Fantasy anthem for many, ever since it debuted alongside the 1987 original, this (or a variation thereof) has always heralded the start of Square’s latest JRPG adventure.
While it’s not necessarily the best in terms of objective quality – which, in a series renowned for its incredible music, is hardly a criticism – ‘Prelude’ is a superb piece in its own right, embodying the medieval high-fantasy setting of the early games whilst also capturing the spirit of adventure that permeates every inch of these wonderful worlds. An achievement that’s all the more impressive when you consider that, not only was it designed for the classic 8-bit NES, it was actually something of an afterthought; an eleventh-hour addition composed in a matter of minutes by the incomparable Nobuo Uematsu to jazz up the file select screen.
Remixed, remastered, and co-opted perhaps more than any other track in Final Fantasy history bar ‘Swing de Chocobo’, ‘Prelude’ is surely one of the most recognisable pieces of video game music ever committed to disc.
II – Revivification
I’ve listened to the Final Fantasy II soundtrack a number of times since I first completed the PlayStation port a few year’s back and, though it’s extremely short by modern standards, I’m always astounded by its unquestionable quality and surprising variety.
During the approximately 35-minute run-time, there are a number of brilliant pieces worthy of consideration. The beautifully tranquil and relaxing ‘Town’; the intimidating grandeur and militaristic pageantry of the ‘Imperial Army Theme’; and the original ‘Swing de Chocobo’ – a delightfully jaunty tune that tells the player everything they need to know about these strangely charismatic bird-horse hybrids.
Impressive as they are, however, the game’s outstanding track remains ‘Revivification’.
Like FFVII’s ‘Lifestream’ or X’s ‘Moonflow’, ‘Revivification’ possesses a sombre undercurrent and an air of mystery that’s utterly captivating. It’s not a particularly long or complicated piece of music, and it’s not all that prominent during the course of the adventure itself, but the few brief seconds it plays are some of the most enchanting in the entire game.
III – Eternal Wind
If I’m being totally honest, I’d have to say the Final Fantasy III soundtrack is probably my least favourite in the entire series. Though some of the more recent, post-Uematsu scores haven’t exactly blown my socks off (I’m looking at you XII and XIII) when compared to the games that came before and after it, FFIII just sounds a little bland.
That’s not to say it’s completely absent of charm. Apart from anything else, I don’t think Uematsu could actually make a genuinely poor soundtrack if he tried; but I digress.
Among a handful of enjoyable pieces there’s one that stands head and shoulders above the rest: ‘Eternal Wind’.
Like all the series’ best overworld themes, ‘Eternal Wind’ perfectly ignites the player’s thirst for adventure and discovery. It’s optimistic and rousing, subtly nudging the player onto the next stage of their journey, yet possesses the kind of solemn undertone that makes them long for a peaceful inn and a brief moment of respite from the numerous hordes of monsters, dungeons, and forsaken castles that dot the landscape.
‘Terra’s Theme’ from FFVI and ‘Main Theme’ from FFVII might be more recognizable to casual fans, but ‘Eternal Wind’ does more than enough to earn a place amongst this mighty company.
IV – The Dreadful Fight (Battle with the Four Fiends)
As undeniably fantastic as his earlier work is, with Final Fantasy IV, Uematsu really found his feet as a video game composer.
There are so many phenomenal pieces to choose from, in fact, narrowing it down to just one has proved extremely difficult. The melancholy, sci-fi-inspired tones of ‘The Lunarians’, for instance, is stupendously good and I find myself listening to it regularly. While ‘Red Wings’, ‘The Final Battle’, and ‘The Airship’ are all capable of withstanding comparison to some of Uematsu’s very best work.
All the same, I’ve always had a soft spot for ‘The Dreadful Fight’ or ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’, as it’s more commonly known.
Notable for its epic scale, relentless tempo, and sudden variations, ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’ provides the perfect musical accompaniment to one of the most significant stages of protagonist Cecil’s journey when, having fought his way to the top of the Giant of Babil alongside his party of loyal companions in an effort to destroy the towering mech and scupper the heinous plans of villain Zemus, they’re set upon by the Four Archfiends once more; triggering a decisive, four-part battle that could well determine the fate of their world.
More importantly, despite its relative brevity, ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’ is arguably the first of the uniquely extravagant, grandiloquent themes that would come to define every encounter of this nature in all future Final Fantasy titles. Making it, perhaps, one of the most influential pieces in the history of the series.
V – Battle with Gilgamesh (Clash on the Big Bridge)
Easily one of my favourite tracks in any video game, everything I said about ‘Battle with the Four Fiends’ and then some applies to this sublime piece of music.
It’s as energetic as ‘The Man with the Machine Gun’ or ‘Still More Fighting’ and as epic in scale as ‘One Winged Angel’ or ‘Liberi Fatali’ – even though it’s only played during the handful of relatively straightforward encounters between the party and charming, comic-relief villain Gilgamesh. Combined with a relentless pace that adds real impetus and a genuine sense of grandeur completely at odds with the magnitude of the challenge itself, ‘Clash on the Big Bridge’ is unmatched anywhere else in Final Fantasy V. Not even ‘The Decisive Battle’ or ‘The Evil Lord Exdeath’ can compete with it in terms of pure quality, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if players back in the day, at a time before YouTube and Spotify remember, drew out the battles with Gilgamesh just to have a bit more time to appreciate this early classic.
Honestly, if you’ve never heard this absolute gem before, you owe it to yourself to rectify the situation ASAP; especially if you call yourself a true Final Fantasy fan.
VI – Dancing Mad
Some might be put off by the sheer length of uber-villain Kefka’s signature tune – clocking in, as it does, at a staggering 17-minutes. However, there’s so much variety and class in those 1020 seconds, it feels like you’re listening to a full orchestral score rather than a single track.
The early stages are slow and ominous, representing the overwhelming difficulty of the task at hand as the party come face-to-face with a bona fide living God, before erupting into life with a mixture of rhythmic choral chanting and the wonderfully rich timbre of unsettling organ music, as the game’s rag-tag band of heroes ascend the chimerical tower that is World of Ruin Kefka.
Then, having reached the top of this semi-organic monolith, the music slows down once again and adopts a more measured blend of the preceding elements: a moment of insidious calm before the clouds burst and, with expert choreography, the pace quickens to a staccato beat more akin to traditional Final Fantasy boss music, punctuated here and there by Kefka’s maniacal laugh, and the real fight begins.
A tour de force of composition, ‘Dancing Mad’ probably doesn’t get the attention or recognition it deserves – overshadowed, as it so often is, by ‘One Winged Angel’ and the like. Yet, it’s easily one of Uematsu’s most impressive pieces in terms of pure, unadulterated musical skill, creativity, and versatility.
VII – Cosmo Canyon
The final leg of today’s musical odyssey is perhaps the most controversial. I think we can all agree ‘Cosmo Canyon’ is a gorgeous piece of music, but I imagine, in a game filled to the brim with outstanding melodies and pulse-quickening pseudo-rock ballads, many would have identified ‘One Winged Angel’, ‘Aerith’s Theme’, ‘Jenova’, or ‘Still More Fighting’ as Final Fantasy VII’s premier composition.
Be that as it may, I have to be true to my own feelings and opinions on the matter. That being the case, I can’t look any further than ‘Cosmo Canyon’ – three-and-a-half minutes of bliss I’ve adored since childhood.
It’s a simply brilliant piece of music the resonance of which fluctuates with the player’s mood. To those feeling nostalgic, it’s sorrowful and wistful; to those desperately in need of a morale boost, it’s inspiring; to those worn out by a day of hard work, it’s relaxing and restful. For me, personally, it even serves as a reminder of Earth’s natural beauty, fragility, and the importance of preserving it against the manifold human-made environmental disasters that threaten to overwhelm it; not just for our own sake, but for the sake of the millions of species with whom we share our home.
Within the context of the game itself, meanwhile, ‘Cosmo Canyon’ is no less powerful and indeed, the first time we hear it is at a critical narrative juncture. Having tracked Sephiroth and the Shinra across the entire Eastern continent and over the ocean to the lands in the West, the party’s arrival in the naturalistic paradise of Cosmo Canyon marks a point of no return for Cloud. It’s during his exploration of the idyllic mountain village and his discussions with Bugenhagen – Final Fantasy’s equivalent of Yoda or Gandalf – that Cloud finally understands just how much of a threat Sephiroth and the Shinra pose to the planet, and, more importantly, why the onus is on him and his friends to do something about it.
He’s no longer motivated solely by the need to uncover the truth about his past, although the two are in some ways linked, or where he fits into a world that’s been unremittingly hostile to him throughout his young life. From this point onwards, his outwardly self-centred and introverted demeanour gives way to a selfless desire to save the planet from these competing threats.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, as fundamentally great as the ever-changing tones of ‘Cosmo Canyon’ are, this glorious piece of video game music also helps to denote the point at which Cloud matures from a typically angsty, 90s anti-hero into a complex, well-rounded protagonist worthy of our compassion.
Well, there we go. I realise I’ve had to pass over countless examples of magnificent music during the course of this list (FF’s VI and VII alone boast literally dozens of tracks I could have waxed lyrical about for an age and a day), but that’s what comment sections are for, isn’t it? To cover for the writer’s shortcomings and, in an ideal world, engage in a bit of respectful discussion about our shared experiences and passions. So yeah, feel free to leave your thoughts at the bottom of the page.
Otherwise, all that’s left to say is be sure to return in three-weeks’ time for the second and final part of this whistle-stop tour through Final Fantasy’s musical history, when I’ll be taking a closer look at the best music from FF’s VIII-XV.