The last of three Final Fantasy titles released for the PlayStation 1, Final Fantasy IX was a game that harkened back to the series’ roots, with characters and a story filled with references to earlier games. With a lighter tone (albeit with plenty of darkness) and more character-based humor–and stronger characters–the game was a reaction to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII and the last time that anything like the steampunk setting that had defined the first six installments of the series would appear in a single-player game. The title was a success, though somewhat less so than its immediate predecessors, confirming that the move toward more realistic character models and extensive cinematic action that had begun with Final Fantasy VIII would continue through Final Fantasy XV and the series’ foreseeable future.
Returning for his ninth consecutive Final Fantasy was Nobuo Uematsu, sole composer of all eight previous games int he series, whose participation had never really been in doubt. Despite generous development time of nearly a year, Final Fantasy IX proved a challenging project for the composer, who single-handedly penned an astonishing 160 tracks of music, clocking in at over five hours once looped and pressed to disc. Uematsu had never written anything so massive before, and in fact the score remained his longest project until the only partially released Final Fantasy XIV over a decade later. The game also proved to be his swan song as sole composer for the series; Uematsu’s participation in future Final Fantasy titles dwindled to nothing leading up to his departure from Square-Enix for freelance work; some sources have attributed this move to exhaustion after such a daunting project.
Final Fantasy IX saw Uematsu returning to the leitmotif style he had abandoned in the previous game, and each member of the game’s primary cast receives a signature theme, almost all of which are further developed with variations. The low-key, pizzicato “Vivi’s Theme,” for instance is interpolated into the vibrant and wacky “Black Mage Village.” The rousing “Quina’s Theme,” replete with pounding tympani and woodblocks, is the basis for the far more subdued “Qu’s Marsh,” while the tragic Renaissance “Freya’s Theme” is adapted into a whole series of increasingly heartbreaking modes. Oddly, the game’s main character is provided with an upbeat leitmotif in “Zidane’s Theme,” but Uematsu never offers a strong reprise of that buoyant melody. The villainous Kuja is particularly well-served with the omninous piano-based “Kuja’s Theme” and the pounding, menacing “Immoral Melody” being excellent counterparts to the well-developed sorceress theme from the previous game.
Uematsu provides further melodic material with the game’s main theme, which weaves in and out of many tracks (such as “Over Those Hills,” the final world map theme in the entire series) but which curiously never receives a full concert performance on the official album, and the haunting Terra motif, a harp arpeggio distantly related to the Final Fantasy “Prelude” that appears in “Terra” and “Bran Bal, the Soulless Village.” The composer also makes explicit references to earlier games in the series, bringing back his chocobo and moogle themes and the complete unaltered “Victory Fanfare” in addition to rearrangements like “Gulug Volcano” (a piece 8-bit enthusiasts will recall from Final Fantasy I).
Since Final Fantasy IX is lighter in tone than its predecessors, Uematsu imbues the album with some of his quirkiest and most off-the-wall tracks, like the aforementioned “Black Mage Village” and the delightfully kooky “The Frog and the Scoundrel.” Unfortunately, this light tone also means that the game’s battle themes leave something to be desired: while temporary, event-based themes like “Hunter’s Chance” and “Feel My Blade” are delightful, the meat-and-potatoes tracks suffer. The final battle themes are among the weakest in the series (though they are easily eclipsed by those in the later Final Fantasy X), while the normal battle theme is limp. The dark, aggressive “Boss Battle” makes up for this somewhat, but winds up being overused; unlike the other games in the series, there are no themes for more pivotal battles, and there’s nothing to compare with the potent battle music of the previous game.
Uematsu’s original idea for Final Fantasy IX was a mix of authentic Renaissance instruments without any of his usual instrumental creativity. This style was so far out of his wheelhouse that he found it impossible to continue, but the tracks that he did write in that style make up a good deal of the album’s filler. His quasi-medieval tracks like “A Place to Return to Someday,” “Oeilvert,” or “Esto Gaza” run toward dull ambiance. The “Oeilvert” theme in particular is overused despite its weakness, leading one to see why Uematsu abandoned that sound in mid-production for something much more vibrant. And while some of Uematsu’s music in the medieval vein is beautiful and liting (“Evil Forest,” “Dali Village”), much is underplayed and frankly boring (“Treno,” “Daguerreo”). It’s worth noting, though, that even at its most dull, the synths are crystal-clear, easily rivaling Chrono Cross for the best synthesized sound that the PS1 could conjure.
On album, the score has a somewhat unusual history; four discs of score were released as the Original Soundtrack just before the game’s launch in 2000, featuring 111 tracks and about 280 minutes of music. Most of the fully orchestrated music that played during the game’s cinematic sequences was left off, as were a few tracks from the game proper. These leftover tracks were gathered up and released four months later as a separate, fifth disc, called Final Fantasy IX Plus and featuring an additional 42 tracks with about 75 minutes of music. Even at five discs, much of the music is not looped, meaning that it plays only once before fading out instead of the industry standard twice–a further indication of just how massive and exhausting a work Uematsu turned out.
Still, if you’re a fan of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, Final Fantasy IX stands as his most massive solo work as a Square-Enix staffer, complete with high quality synth and thematic diversity. Despite the presence of many comparatively dull tracks and filler, Final Fantasy IX remains a strong album overall, and a worthy swan song to Uematsu’s involvement with the series.