Developer Squaresoft had earned a following with their Final Fantasy series of role-playing games for the Nintendo and Super Nintendo systems, but it took their defection to Nintendo rival Sony to take them into the stratosphere. The company’s first Playstation effort, Final Fantasy VII, was like nothing gamers had ever seen: movie-style FMV cutscenes, pre-rendered backgrounds, and fully 3D character models and battles. The game’s plot, an epic spread over three CDs and stuffed with endearingly goofy characters alongside dark and mature themes, earned it an instant following. Virtually every plot-driven RPG to follow owes something to the title, and it was a massive sales success both in Japan and abroad, fondly remembered today even as its presentation and aesthetic seem increasingly quaint. As later entries in the series became increasingly cinematic and driven by the need for spectacle over character, Final Fantasy VII is arguable the pinnacle of what the late developer had to offer.
Even as several key members of the Final Fantasy team swapped out for the project–Tetsuya Nomura’s leather and belt-crazy character designs supplanting Yoshitaka Amano’s wispy ukiyo-e ones, for instance–director Yoshinori Kitase and producer Hironobu Sakaguchi brought composer Nobuo Uematsu back to the franchise. The self-taught musician Uematsu had been with Squaresoft since 1985, and had written the scores for every one of the previous six Final Fantasies as well as contributing to side projects like Chrono Trigger. His previous score for the series, Final Fantasy VI, had been extremely well received for its integration of elements as diverse as classical opera, Wagnerian leitmotif, and progressive rock, and Uematsu was to build on this sequel score using many of the same pieces. Indeed, Uematsu’s approach is very similar in terms of construction, with the score built around a main theme with individual themes and variations for each major playable character (aside from, oddly, the main one) and prominent villains. He built on the operatic elements of the previous title by utilizing live voices for the first time in the series in one pivotal sequence, though overall the Wagnerian rock-opera sound that distinguished Final Fantasy VI is toned down in favor of a more eclectic approach.
Uematsu’s main theme, not associated with any one character, appears in the eponymous track as the world map music, and is surprisingly lengthy and ambitious: unlike his map themes past and present, with a loop of 1-2 minutes, a single loop of Uematsu’s main theme takes six and a half minutes (!). Its opening phrase, especially the first five notes, are reused and referenced across many other tracks, while the extensive variations in the map theme itself run the gamut from pastoral to triumphant to darkly troubled. It’s a very symphonic and ambitious piece, something Uematsu would not attempt again for future main or map themes. He adapts his “Main Theme” into a number of other tracks befitting its place: the beautiful “Holding My Thoughts into my Heart” gives the melody to an oboe set against scintillating harps and mallet percussion, while the game’s airship theme “Highwind Takes to the Skies” gives the theme a resounding, triumphant, yet bittersweet outing. It’s a sign of the theme’s strength that nearly all its adaptations are album highlights.
For the game’s characters, Uematsu returns to the leitmotif structure that he first used in Final Fantasy VI, giving the major characters and major villains each a theme and variations thereof (aside from the main character, who might be more associated with the “Main Theme”). The busty heroine and possible love interest Tifa is given a surprisingly sensitive theme that belies her status as a bruiser, a tune based on one of Uematsu’s lovliest early compositions, “Town of Alm” from Final Fantasy III. Oddly, the theme isn’t adapted until it forms a resounding part of the final cutscene track, “World Crisis.” Barret, the hotheaded Mr. T wannabe rebel leader with a robotic gun-arm, gets a delightfully pompous but optimistic military march in “Barret’s Theme,” one that is interpreted in a far more morose vein for “Mining Town” and “Mark of the Traitor” for scenes detailing the character’s tragic backstory. The Final Fantasy VII incarnation of Cid gets a soaring march of his own in “Cid’s Theme,” with elements thereof appearing in “Highwind Takes to the Skies” and “Stealing the Tiny Bronco” with a full-on morose adaptation for the character’s dashed dreams of spaceflight in “Launching a Dream into Space.” The bizarre and mysterious Red XII’s theme is an arrangement of “Cosmo Canyon” set against quizzical synths; both tracks have a very energetic tribal feel to them, reflecting the location’s status as close to nature and a nexus for hippies. The optional character Yuffie gets a surprisingly sunny theme that’s twisted into the mischievous “Stolen Materia” and subtly into the pan-Asian “Wutai.” The other optional character, Vincent, gets a baroque nightmare of a theme in the aptly-named “The Nightmare Begins” while the bizarre Cait Sith is given an upbeat leitmotif full of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, Hammond organ fun; neither theme gets any variations at all. And, of course, much ink has been spilled over the character Aeris’s theme, both in its original warm and uplifting form in “Flowers Blooming in the Church” and in its tragic, heartbreaking outing as “Aeris’s Theme.”
Uematsu’s approach to the game’s villains is more subtle than the rock-opera theatrics of the previous game. The game’s primary villain, Sephiroth, is given a dirge-like motif in “Those Chosen by the Planet” full of moaning synth voices, roiling percussion, and tolling bells. It’s a menacing piece primarily played for atmosphere in some of the game’s most pivotal and disturbing moments, and Uematsu occasionally breaks the piece apart into solo drums and chimes in-game (though not on the soundtrack). For the secondary antagonist, the ineptly brutal megacorporation Shinra, Uematsu uses many of the same pieces–heavy percussion and synth choir–hinting at the deep connection between the two villains. “Shinra Company” has more layers and more synth, though, with its shuffling two-step and moaning voices deftly capturing both its evil and its ineptitude. The theme gets a Muzak interpolation in “Infiltrating Shinra” for their corporate headquarters and its own delightfully pompous and quirky military march in “Shinra’s Full-Scale Assault” with further references in the dire “Mako Reactor.”
The battle themes on display in Final Fantasy VII also have important differences from those in Final Fantasy VI. Uematsu’s normal battle theme, “Let the Battles Begin!,” abandons his usual battle ostinato with its characteristic ascending arpeggios for a much more modernistic sound driven by synth brass and strings with pounded tambourine and metal hits to provide rhythm and a whirling woodwind interlude. Notably, Uematsu also abandons all but the opening notes of his 6-game-old victory fanfare, replacing it with a driving percussive piece (though the full fanfare is heard during the game’s chocobo races elsewhere). The boss battle theme, “Fight On,” combines the electric guitar from the previous game with the same metallic percussion as “Let the Battles Begin!” with a healthy dose of Hammond organ (Uematsu’s first use of the instrument, which would come to dominate his battle themes for the game’s sequel) and only a modest synth orchestra presence. The music for the game’s special event battles is among its most notable innovations: the synthy and pulse-pounding “J-E-N-O-V-A” uses descending electronic pulses set against brass and off-kilter melodies to suggest science gone horribly awry, while the later “JENOVA Absolute” rearranges “Let the Battles Begin!” into an even more percussive and hard-edged form, with a desperate piano and brass interlude that’s not to be missed. Uematsu arranges the villain’s theme into the final two battles; for the penultimate “Birth of a God” he returns to his usual battle ostinato with Hammond organ and a powerful interlude consisting of “Those Chosen by the Planet” over a bed of synths. The game’s final battle takes that even further, rearranging “Those Chosen” into a slashing percussive aria set against Latin lyrics sung by a live choir of Squaresoft employees (including future Dirge of Cerberus composer Masashi Hamauzu) in both an echo and expansion of “Dancing Mad” from the previous game.
Aside from one or two dud tracks (“Trail of Blood,” “The North Cave”), the score’s overriding weakness in the face of all its melodic strength and instrumental creativity is its use of MIDI. The Playstation platform offered the opportunity for a greatly improved, even CD-quality sound or even a greatly enhanced synthesizer sound–as would be shown by Uematsu’s own later efforts. Other Square projects that came out the same year, like Sakimoto and Iwata’s Final Fantasy Tactics (which came out less than six months after Final Fantasy VII) showed the possibilities inherent in evolving synthesizer technology, making Uematsu’s decision to use MIDI seem even worse in retrospect. The MIDI sounds are competent for electronic effects and percussion, but wind up making Uematsu’s brass sound incredibly tinny–at times, the music’s sound quality is audibly inferior even to that of Final Fantasy VI‘s SPC hardware-based sound despite the quantum leap in technology between the two titles. This primitive MIDI sound will serve as an insurmountable barrier to many listeners, and it’s unfortunate that Uematsu’s brilliant melodies and groundbreaking fusion of disparate elements often winds up sounding so muffled and tinny. Some key tracks wound up being arranged and upgraded later, but sound quality remains the single greatest bugaboo for Final Fantasy VII.
Squaresoft, through its ill-fated DigiCube subsidiary, gave Final Fantasy VII a full 4-disc soundtrack release a month after the game bowed in 1997. While the physical version was a Japanese exclusive, its ubiquity makes it relatively affordable for Western fans; a later iTunes release made it digitally accessible to American audiences for a first time (albeit at a premium price). While several tracks from Final Fantasy VII would be arranged by Uematsu and others for future projects, the composer had no hand in the game’s sequel titles, which received better-synthesized but extremely disappointing scores from Masashi Hamauzu and Takeharu Ishimoto. Uematsu’s own follow-up, the animated Advent Children, was also a disappointment, squandering its resources on a lazy combination of reused music from other albums and limp new music with very few of the original’s themes adapted or expanded in a satisfying way. The lack of a proper full arrangement, recreating Uematsu’s innovating combination of orchestra, electronic, and progressive rock elements in crystal-clear and (where appropriate) acoustic elements still galls even after almost two decades. Still, the music’s creative and melodic strength and its undeniable influence on later composers and compositions make it an essential listen for fans of the medium and a key part of the game’s astonishing success.