Secret of Mana (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1991’s Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan under the title Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, had been one of developer Squaresoft’s first forays into real-time action RPGs instead of their turn-based bread and butter. Very much in the style of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy Adventure had been a successful Game Boy release but director Koichi Ishii had seen potential in the design for a much more ambitious product, leading to Seiken Densetsu 2 for the Super Nintendo, released in 1993. Originally meant for the SNES’s abandoned CD add-on, and downsized accordingly to fit on a standard cartridge, the game was bright, colorful, action-packed, and featured groundbreaking drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer–all in the context of an expansive and slightly goofy high fantasy adventure. Ultimately released as Secret of Mana rather than Final Fantasy Adventure 2 outside Japan, the game was and remains well-reviewed and popular despite–or perhaps because of–a rushed, barebones translation that localizer Ted Woolsey claimed nearly killed him.

Squaresoft veteran Kenji Ito had scored Final Fantasy Adventure and was initially attached to Secret of Mana as well. But in the explosion of creativity at Squaresoft in the 16-bit generation (which saw 22 games released in less than 5 years for the SNES alone), Ito was badly needed for the Romancing SaGa series, and instead the assignment went to a new and untested hire: Hiroki Kukuta. A self-trained musician like many on Squaresoft’s staff, Kikuta had an eclectic career before joining the company, with scores for anime and artwork for manga among his many projects. After being rejected by his first choice in the game industry, Falcom, Kikuta was able to impress Squaresoft’s musical majordomo Nobuo Uematso with his enthusiasm for progressive rock (a genre near and dear to Uematu’s heart) to land work as a debugger and sound effects designer. In the AAA development environment of today it seems almost unthinkable for someone so new and untested to be given such a major project to score solo, but the atmosphere within Square at the time was such that Kikuta got the gig after Ito bowed out in much the same way that Yasunori Mitsuda would be handed Chrono Trigger two years later.

Kikuta approached the project in a very hands-on manner, creating his own sound samples rather than relying on those fashioned by Square’s synth programmers in order to maximize the potential of the SNES’s SPC700 sound chip. this resulted in a soundscape that was considerably more lush than that of many contemporary games, at Squaresoft or otherwise, at the expense of having to surrender parts of the sound channels to sound effects from time to time. The composer also explicitly sought to reflect the game’s duality between silly and serious–it does, after all, feature a soul-destroying lich, a visit to Santa Claus, a floating techno-fortress of death, and long-distance travel by cannon–through the use of two different musical styles that both mixed the sensibilities of 16-bit game music with the pop tunes that had gotten Kikuta hired in the first place. That duality between the weird and the wistful would wind up being the defining trait of Secret of Mana‘s score.

The wistful half of Kikuta’s compositions are led by the game’s most prominent theme and certainly its most popular: “Fear of the Heavens” (also translated as “Angels’ Fear”). Inspired by Balinese music as well as natural ambient noise, the track opens with what can be interpreted either as whistling wind or whalesong before moving into a simple echoing piano melody. It’s gradually joined by other instruments as the soundscape–and the title screen it accompanies–opens up. The effect is arresting–especially to players in 1993–and goes a long way toward explaining the score’s enduring popularity. This most popular track is a bit of an oddity in that it lacks most of Kikuta’s contemporary touches; the field theme “Into the Thick of It” is probably more representative of the score as a whole, combining an acoustic guitar with a melody for doubled woodwinds and synth voices. The later “A Curious Happening” is a similar potpourri mix of a contemporary bass and hi-hat with rhythm guitar and doubled woodwinds and accordion (!) with synth voices in support.

Those wackier compositions that make up the other half of Kikuta’s score use many of the same instruments and techniques with a somewhat greater emphasis on pop backbeats. For instance, the game’s primary town theme “The Color of the Summer Sky” is all prominent backbeats against peppy, poppy woodwinds and synth accordians with prominent keyboard and mallet accents, all of which would become Kikuta’s trademarks in future projects. “Dancing Animals” and especially “The Little Sprite” are some of the best examples of this same mix of quirky melody, contemporary instrumental choice, and overall affable wackiness that’s especially notable for its complexity of rhythm and percussion. The conclusive and joyously upbeat “The Second Truth From the Left” is probably the ultimate enjoyable exemplar of this style. For all the same inspirations that he and Uematsu drew on, the two men’s styles are immediately distinguishable; in fact, Kikuta’s use of percussion and rhythm is so distinctive that even in his later and more obscure projects it’s typically immediately distinguishable.

There are often times when the Kikuta’s twin styles, the wistful and the weird, commingle as one might expect, and most of these are related to the most important moments of the game’s lengthy plot. The game’s joyous first flight theme, “Flight into the Unknown,” swirls together backbeats and bass guitar with a moving string melody, while its second flight theme, “Prophecy,” mixes the same elements but replaces the backbeats with a cascading flute melody and the bass guitar with staccato mallet percussion and synth voices to quirky yet chilling effect. A percussion-heavy remix of “Into the Thick of It” in “Can You See the Ocean” is notable as well, as is the chillingly off-kilter chiming and chanting of “Ceremony” where the Balinese influence on the score is at its most evident.

As there is no distinction between field and battle, Secret of Mana has somewhat fewer battle themes than its contemporaries. The primary theme, “Danger,” has an ultra-serious and percussive first half that has its only melody in string slashes and bass, before moving over in its second half to a surprisingly upbeat and quirky melody–Kikuta’s wistful/weird in a nutshell. The final battle theme, “Meridian Dance” is much the same, offering a melody that’s like a twisted if surprisingly optimistic version of the “Fear of the Heavens” theme over urgent percussion and bright synthy brass. the penultimate boss, the Dark Lich, gets its own battle theme in “The Oracle,” a beefed up and synthetically enhanced version of “Ceremony” that uses sped-up chanting voices and the original’s music-box melody alongside electric pulses for an utterly compelling–and unsettling–mix. While Kikuta’s work is always very melodic, these rearrangements are the closest he gets to Uematsu’s more traditionally thematic and leitmotivic structure from the Final Fantasy series.

Interestingly, Kikuta’s work was singled out to the extent that it enjoyed one of the very first releases of a Japanese game soundtrack–and indeed, a game soundtrack of any kind!–in North America. A reprint of the Japanese release was made available to American buyers in December 1994, alongside Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI, through Squaresoft of America’s catalog as one of only three soundtrack discs released in that format (the third was Secret of Evermore). The American disc is identical to the Japanese Seiken Densetsu 2 Original Sound Version released a year earlier, and they both suffer from the same problem: as single platters, both are overstuffed with 44 tracks of Kikuta’s music, meaning that his compositions only loop a single time. This doesn’t effect “Fear of the Heavens,” as it never looped in-game anyway as such, but does hobble many of the other tracks that badly need room to breathe. A 2011 box set re-release in the vein of the Kingdom Hearts Complete Box simply reissued the same single disc without expansion. Short of playing the original game or seeking out its emulated SPC700 music files, the only source of fully looped music from Secret of Mana is the controversial 2012 re-release/remastering Secret of Mana Genesis, and that’s a shame–even if you approve of Kikuta’s rather limited changes to the music, it represents less than a third of the original tracks. And, of course, it goes without saying that anyone who can’t stand the 16-bit synth quality of the SNES era need not bother listening, though to be fair Kikuta’s work is among the best and clearest that generation has to offer.

Despite those problems on disc, Secret of Mana remains a refreshingly spirited and creative work, one that even 20 years later is instantly recognizable for Hiroki Kikuta’s unique sound and highly recommended as such. Thanks to the success of the project, Kikuta would go on to score two more games for Squaresoft, Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995 and Soukaigi in 1998. Frustrated with the lack of direct control he had over projects at Squaresoft, though, Kikuta would leave in favor of work on his own project, Koudelka, the failure of which led to long years in the wilderness for the composer and a lack of major assignments. Even if he had retired completely from scoring after 1993, though, Kikuta’s musical legacy was secure–there hasn’t been a game in the Mana series since that hasn’t referenced his work overtly or indirectly, and he continues to have a cult following among lovers of video game music to this day.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy VIII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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Final Fantasy VIII was Squaresoft’s followup to its breakout hit Final Fantasy VII, which had been a tremendous success in its native Japan and and even bigger smash abroad, bringing countless new gamers to the RPG format. As a result, no expense was spared on the new game, which featured the most advanced CGI cutscenes of its day, impressive, fully-textured ingame graphics, and a massive marketing push. The game also took exactly the wrong lessons from its predecessor by amping up those same animated cutscenes without providing a coherent world for them to occupy or likable characters to inhabit it. As a result the game has aged badly, with the lack of effort put into streamlining the confusing battle system or fleshing out the paper-thin characters and plot painfully apparent as once-dazzling visuals now seem trite and faded. It’s a stark contrast to the simple graphics and endearing characters that had been hallmarks of the Final Fantasy series up to that point, and sadly the developer would make the same mistakes again in the future. For all Final Fantasy VIII‘s failures as a game and as a followup to Final Fantasy VII, though, the game was nonetheless successful though it fell far short of its predecessor’s widespread appeal.

There was never any real doubt that Nobuo Uematsu would return to the franchise; Final Fantasy VII had made him legions of new fans worldwide, and the new game’s higher budget meant that his efforts would be far more realistic, devoid of the tinny synth that dogged that game, at times making it sound worse than Final Fantasy VI a whole console generation earlier. Working directly with a Roland SC88 synthesizer and programmer Keiji Kawamori, Uematsu created a clear and high-quality synth sound for the game that stands up to other high-quality efforts like Legend of Mana or Vagrant Story released for the Sony PlayStation shortly thereafter.

At the same time, Uematsu would abandon the leitmotif-based structure that had been the cornerstone of his two previous Final Fantasy scores, instead opting for a smaller number of overarching themes and strong incidental scoring. Implicitly recognizing the banal shallowness of Final Fantasy VIII‘s cast, Uematsu swapped his John Williams approach of individual character themes and variations for a Jerry Goldsmith methodology of fewer themes to represent story concepts. He develops three major themes throughout the work: a snarling theme for the game’s villainous (if ludicrous) sorceress villains, a lush love theme for the juvenile romance between the two main characters (such as they are), and an upbeat friendship theme to represent the main cast as a whole (lazily identical backstories and all). In many ways–and again, much like Jerry Goldsmith–Uematsu’s score is forced to do much of the heavy emotional living where the game itself cannot.

Building on the success of his “One-Winged Angel” from Final Fantasy VII, Uematsu often gives his prominent and powerful sorceress theme a resounding choral backing with Latin lyrics, based around the nonsense words “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.” It opens the powerful “Liberi Fatali,” anchors the menacing “Succession of Witches,” and appears in full in the track “Fithos Lusec Vecos Vinosec.” This choral sensibility is one of the album’s great strength, and the live singers’ voices enliven the otherwise synthesized tracks they appear in. The sorceress theme is given plenty of airtime in instrumental tracks as well, snaking through some of the game’s most pulse-pounding battle sequences before being sent off with a solo piano in the contemplative and gorgeous “The Successor.”

Uematsu’s prominent love theme is based on the pop song “Eyes On Me” which he wrote with lyricist Kako Someya for Japanese pop sensation Faye Wong (with English lyrics in all its incarnations in game and on disc). One of the more unfortunate side effects of Final Fantasy’s explosion of popularity was the inclusion of pop songs, which first appeared in this installment of the series and have since been present in most major releases since. They have never really fit in, despite being penned by Uematsu, and the banal “Eyes On Me” interrupts the otherwise lovely (and fully orchestral) “Ending Theme” in addition to its solo outing. The love theme is far more effective when interpreted as an instrumental, and it serves as a main theme of sorts. The attractive solo piano “Julia” first introduces it, reflecting the conceit that the song was composed in-universe about one of the characters. Uematsu references it in music-box form in the soft “My Mind,” twists it into a triumphant fanfare in “Blue Sky,” and otherwise has a field day with the strong melody separate from the unnecessary pop song that is its raison d’etre.

Finally, the game’s band of hollow but attractively rendered characters is given a friendship theme to provide warm pathos where their antics cannot. The early “Balamb Garden” features the first outing of this theme, alternating with a melody specific to that track; its later appearance on a mournful guitar in “Where I Belong” is a direct reference. “Tell Me” puts the theme through a more melancholy but equally lovely variation, while the theme gets its longest and most complete outing in the beautiful “Ami” which begins as another piano piece on an album stuffed with them before adding additional layers of orchestral synths. While it is often the most low-key of Uematsu’t themes, the friendship theme is perhaps the most satisfying and sunny overall.

The incidental scoring independent of the album’s main themes is quite strong, and Uematsu’s style is prominent enough to tie the pieces together without explicit thematic references. He goes about his task with aplomb, creating tracks as diverse as the gentle, melodic “Fisherman’s Horizon,” the acrostic “Breezy,” and the delightful, string-based “The Mission.” Even though the game lacks a proper airship, Uematsu even turns in a rousing airship theme in the form of “Ride On.”

Final Fantasy VIII’s battle and action themes are particularly noteworthy, especially the standard battle theme, “Don’t Be Afraid.” Normal battle themes have long been Uematsu’s weakest tracks, often much more bland and modernistic than the surrounding music, but “Afraid” takes an effective classical approach, underscoring the brass with racing staccato strings and strong percussion. The boss battle theme “Force Your Way” is more modernand innovative, setting a Hammond organ, synths, and electric guitars against an orchestral backing to great effect. The larger-scale battles are album highlights, particularly “Premonition” and the climactic “The Extreme,” both of which interpolate the sorceress theme and build from soft beginnings to explosive action statements. The final sequence of the game, an unbroken series of “Premonition,” “The Legendary Beast,” “Maybe I’m A Lion,” and “The Extreme,” rivals “Dancing Mad as Uematsu’s finest moment in action scoring, giving the nonsensical battles the music accompanies a strong set of gravitas.

For anyone looking for a variety of strongly thematic and innovative music in Nobuo Uematsu’s distinctive style, and doesn’t mind the composer’s total abandonment of the leitmotif structure he used in the two previous Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy VIII is a must-have irrespective of the weak game it accompanies. It is Uematsu at his best, refusing to rest on his laurels and crafting engaging new music that in many ways takes his previous achievements to the next level–it is, in many ways, the composer’s finest all-around Final Fantasy score. The superior synth is a great boon to sensitive listeners as well, making the music much more palatable and accessible and a good choice for series novices looking to sample it. Though Uematsu would contribute to further games in the series in whole or in part, he was never quite able to equal or top his musical efforts in this game or its two predecessors.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Kingdom Hearts was announced out of the blue in 2001, the idea of a Squaresoft/Disney collaboration that would blend Final Fantasy with Mickey Mouse was met by disbelief, uncertainty, and bemusement. But against all odds, the action RPG turned out to be a superior product and a smash hit on release in 2002–not only reaching platinum status itself, but spawning a franchise that continues to this day. Not bad for a project that started as an elevator pitch, only possible because Squaresoft and Disney shared the same office building in Japan!

When fans first heard that Squaresoft composer Yoko Shimomura had been assigned to score the project, reactions were mixed. While Shimomura had had success bringing new life and creativity to established worlds through her work on Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, many feared that the album would be overrun with the poor-quality arrangements of Disney themes that many Disney-only titles suffered from. Luckily, this was not the case, and Shimomura developed Kingdom Hearts into her greatest score to date both on album and in game.

Anyone who was afraid that the entire score would be terminally cute has only to listen to the complex and dark tracks that begin and end the two-disc collection. Built around heavy choral use and the Italian word “Destati” (literally “Awaken”), tracks such as “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-,” “Fragments of Sorrow” and the climactic “Guardando nel buio” are filled with gothic atmosphere and powerful instrumentation. That same gothic feeling is present to a lesser extent in several other fine tracks, like the organ-dominated “Forze del Male” and the fan-favorite “Hollow Bastion,” which features stunning harp work.

Of course, being a Disney game as well, not everything is gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the arrangements of Disney tunes are both sparse and well-done. In fact, it’s quite nice to hear some familiar tunes (like Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Sherman brothers’ bucolic Winnie-the-Pooh) in-game, and the borrowed tunes are all arranged to fit in nicely with Shimomura’s originals.

The original, lighthearted tracks are generally excellent, from the Russian-sounding “Monstrous Monstro” to the kooky “Merlin’s Magical House” and the jazzy, laid-back “Traverse Town.” The Traverse Town battle theme, “Hand in Hand,” is easily an album highlight, action-packed but sad and hopeful at the same time, and has been extensively arranged in this and the sequel album. Also of note is the lovely, understated piano title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” which went on to be a series staple, and the wonderful orchestrated tracks at the beginning and end of the album.

In fact, there are almost too many highlights to list, and nearly every track is looped twice for maximum enjoyment. On the other hand, the synth programming (by Ryo Yamazaki) is sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stellar, the equal of any other PS2-era game, but it falters at other times, especially where brass is concerned. The album, like its sequel (with the regrettable Takeharu Ishimoto operating the synths) but to a lesser extent, could have used a better synth programming.

There are also a few duds, generally repetitive pieces like “No Time To Think.” The “Kairi” tracks are also somewhat weak; as the only character theme per se, one would expect more varied performances, but the three such tracks are largely identical. Another annoyance is the fact that several tracks were left off the release, particularly the dark, brutal “Another Side, Another Story” and “Disappeared.” With a little creative rearrangement, there would have been room on the album for these and the remixes of Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as well–instead, fans have to seek out the rare Final Mix or expensive Complete Box albums for these songs. And the pop songs that open and close the album are forgettable fluff, notable only for their skillful arrangement into instrumental themes elsewhere.

Still, when all is said and done, Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts is truly remarkable, and easily a career highlight. The album is everything video game music fans could hope for, and brings a level of maturity to the wonderful game itself. And while Shimomura would return for all subsequent sequels to some degree, the original Kingdom Hearts remains her best work for the franchise. It’s a highly recommended purchase For anyone willing to give a strange hybrid of Disney and Japanese styles a chance, and the resulting music is enchanting and among the strongest of Yoko Shimomura’s career.

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Final Fantasy XIII (Masashi Hamauzu)

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Despite a prolonged development period lasting from 2004 to 2009, Final Fantasy XIII met with mediocre to hostile reviews upon its release. Despite a strong story, it was criticized for being linear (even by the series’ already linear standards), with an agonizingly long setup, irritating characters, no towns or sidequests to speak of, overly copious and melodramatic cutscenes, and a number of narrative jumps that seemed dictated more by existing assets to be stitched together than any overarching plot. In short, it was a return to the excesses of Final Fantasy VIII by much of the same team behind the latter game.

One area in which the team was different, though, was in the music department. Nobuo Uematsu had long since left Square-Enix to freelance, and his energies were occupied by a number of projects during the protracted development (including several Mistwalker titles and the ruinous Final Fantasy XIV), while Hitoshi Sakimoto had gotten the Final Fantasy XII gig based on his previous relationship with that team (and the games’ overlapping development periods ruled him out as well). To pen the music, Square-Enix turned to one of the few composers still working for them full-time, and one of the few who had scored more than one mainline Final Fantasy title: Masashi Hamauzu. With major portions of Final Fantasy X and all of Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII, the experienced and innovative composer and arranger seemed tailor-made for the assignment.

Like Sakimoto for the concurrently-developed twelfth installment, Hamauzu brought his own distinct style to the table with little or no modification, and the listener’s affinity for that style will, by and large, color their perception of Final Fantasy XIII. Hamauzu makes even less of an effort to give Uematsu’s themes a token place in his score: except for the Chocobo theme, there are no Final Fantasy themes in the game in any form. At the same time, the budget allowed, for the first time, a full live orchestra and chorus to be employed for nearly every track: the full power of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Warsaw Philharmonic Choir were at Hamauzu’s disposal for the project.

One would expect, given his rejection of most of Uematsu’s themes and his previous experience with Final Fantasy X, that Hamauzu would create his own themes for the project and adopt a similar style of brass and piano dominated action music. And, to an extent, the composer does: though never much of a thematic writer, usually preferring to use tone rather than theme to link his work together, Hamauzu conjures a very attractive main theme in “The Promise.” Initially on the piano, the theme is eventually put through a variety of paces and variations, from chipper (“In the Sky that Night”) to low-key (“The Archylte Steppe”) to pop vocals (“The Sunleth Waterscape;” see below). His themes for the main characters are a somewhat more mixed bag. The main character, Lightning, receives a string-led tune that is surprisingly classical and gentle, for instance, while the character of Sazh is saddled with a lame attempt at loungey jazz fusion. The militant Fang has a wonderful percussive and brassy fanfare, while the perpetually annoying Vanille is given a dour but attractive piano tune; the cocky Snow is saddled with the worst of the bunch, a limp attempt at a rock instrumental.

The game’s nebulous villains, the l’Cie, have a choral theme that is tied directly into some of the best music on the album. Introduced in the moving “Ragnarok,” the theme explodes into a truly satisfying battle theme in “Fighting Fate,” which offers the same lyrics sung in a frenzy against impressive apocalyptic brasses and thunderous percussion. It’s essentially Hamauzu’s take on the orchestral and choral fury that characterized Uematsu’s old final boss themes, and it succeeds beautifully. The game’s main battle theme, “Blinded by Light,” is similarly an adaptation of Lightning’s theme into a battle context, and despite some occasionally distracting shrillness from the violins, succeeds at being both engaging and pulse-pounding, without wearing out its welcome like many of the series’ other main battle themes often have.

A surprisingly large portion of the game’s music is action thanks to the fact that 2/3 of it is essentially an extended escape cutscene with random battles, and when he follows his old Final Fantasy X template, Hamauzu produces some impressive music. Songs like “Saber’s Edge” recall “Attack” from the latter with their engaging mix of subtle electronics and brass; “Forever Fugitives,” in particular, sounds as if it could have been ripped straight from the best portions of Hamauzu’s work from that game. Later tracks like “Eden Under Siege” or “Start Your Engines” work just as well, the latter being a fine attempt to combine unobtrusive electronics with orchestra and melody in a naturalistic, Uematsu-esque way.

But there are also a large number of strange misfires–“Defiers of Fate,” for instance, bookends excellent orchestral writing with brain-numbingly bad attempts at electronic rock music. “Hanging Edge” pits a rambling, shrill, almost avant-garde violin against a brass line rewritten to sound almost jocular despite the bizarre contrast it makes with the images onscreen, for instance. And “Eidolons” sounds all but identical to Hamauzu’s wretched “Challenge” from Final Fantasy X, using repetitive bass and squealing electronics to try, and fail, to generate a semblance of tension. These are among a number of places where Hamauzu seems unable to restrain his own natural tendencies toward the obnoxious avant-garde, despite the fact that they simply don’t suit the game as well as his other compositions. Perhaps the best example of this is “Nascent Requiem,” the final battle music, which pairs the obnoxiously upbeat piano part from the composer’s earlier “Decisive Battle” with bouncy mallet percussion and woodwinds into a themeless and counterintuitively jolly mush.

Worse: although every Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VIII has had an obligatory pop song attached, this game outdoes all others in misguided attempts to appeal to pop audiences. “The Sunleth Waterscape,” for instance, is a bouncy adaptation of Hamauzu’s excellent main theme ruined by the addition of a ludicrous disco beat and truly awful pop vocals. The addition of intrusive electronic beats and dreadful singing (either in the original Japanese or in the English versions available elsewhere) is a terrible one, spoiling tracks from “Will to Fight” to “Sulyya Springs.” Especially disappointing are the vocals over “Chocobos of Cocoon,” as the Chocobo theme is the only vestige of Uematsu’s themes to appear in-game. The song has the potential to be a Uematsu-esque confection on par with “Golden Saucer” but for the ruinous squawking that enters on the second loop. The other adaptation of Uematsu’s theme, “Chocobos of Pulse,” is thankfully an enjoyably straightforward big band adaptation along the lines of “Brass de Chocobo” from Final Fantasy X.

Masashi Hamauzu’s Final Fantasy XIII has to be viewed as a mixed proposition in the final equation. On the one hand, he was able to adapt his Final Fantasy X approach to create some resoundingly powerful and fully orchestral/choral music and several interesting themes, neither of which is his usual bailiwick outside of the latter game. On the other, by rejecting Uematsu’s themes in favor of stubbornly clinging to more avant-garde or bizarrely pop-oriented tendencies, too much of the music is too florid, too jarringly inappropriate, or slathered with awful singing to be appreciated by anyone but Hamauzu’s most diehard fans. Despite its mixed reception, Final Fantasy XIII would go on to receive two sequels; the fact that Hamauzu returned for only a small portion of each is perhaps the best assessment of how he succeeded with this major assignment.

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Final Fantasy X-2 (Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi)

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The ending of Final Fantasy X was perhaps the most downbeat and open in the series so far, with the fate of the major protagonist left essentially unknown. It was therefore less surprising than it might otherwise have been when Final Fantasy X-2, the first-ever sequel to a Final Fantasy game (if one discounts the bizarre, awful anime OVA Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals) debuted two years later in 2003. The game divided fans, offering an incredibly light and jokey fanservice tone that seemed inspired by Charlie’s Angels and copious reuse of existing assets from Final Fantasy X alongside a return of the Active Time Battle system and Job System (after a fashion) from earlier games.

By 2003, Nobuo Uematsu had left Square and was freelancing, producing music for a wide variety of media at a languid pace (perhaps to make up for his massive output during the previous years); it’s therefore little surprise that he didn’t return for Final Fantasy X-2, or indeed any Final Fantasy, for nearly a decade. More surprising was the absence of Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano, who were still with Square at the time and had no active projects; perhaps the jarring tonal shift between Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy X-2 precluded their involvement. In their place, the duo of Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi were brought in. Both had been with Square since the 1990s; Matseuda had done well-received work on Bahamut Lagoon and some prominent additional music for Chrono Trigger, while Eguchi had been primarily active as an arranger. The official album credits don’t specify which tracks were the work of Matseuda and which were from Eguchi; it’s therefore not clear to what extent they worked together on all of the music.

The elephant in the room relates to thematic material: absolutely none of the themes from Final Fantasy X or the Final Fantasy series at large is reprised in whole or in part by Matseuda and Eguchi. The one exception is a few bars of Uematsu’s Chocobo theme in “Chocobo,” but they are buried and mutilated almost beyond recognition. Essentially, the music reflects the tonal shift of the game: the often dark, weighty, and ambient music of Final Fantasy X is cast aside in favor of bouncy, upbeat tunes clearly influenced by 1970s caper movies (and, yes, Charlie’s Angels). This break is understandable, if disappointing: Matseuda and Eguchi scored the game they were given, one that often barely resembled the original despite using many of the same locations, enemies, and character models.

“Yuna’s Theme” typifies the new approach for the game. With electric keyboards, wah-wah guitars, Hammond organs, and a drum set, it’s a bouncy slice of 1970s funk melody, lightly contemporized. Its urban sound couldn’t be further from Uematsu’s sweet and innocent “Yuna’s Theme.” “Rikku’s Theme” is much the same, very pop-ish and light even in comparison to Uematsu’s lazy-Sunday original. Much of the music follows this same basic template: melodic, light, and full of 1970s funk accoutrements.

Some pieces dial back the funk elements in favor of melody (“Mi’hen Highroad”), and occasional acoustic elements will be more prominent than keyboards in the mix (“Mushroom Rock Road”). There are plenty of cases where the electronic and funk prove irritating, like the grating synth stew of “Thunder Plains,” the cheesy Japanese classical influences layered atop “Anything Goes For Leblanc,” and the thick layers of disco cheese slathered over “”We’re the Gullwings.” And the less said about the obligatory pop songs “1000 Words” or “Real Emotion,” the better–they are in the same dire league as “Otherworld” and “Suteki Na De” from the original (though they are at least available in English). Don’t expect much recurring thematic material, either; Matseuda and Eguchi are content to let tone and instrumentation provide cohesion rather than recurring themes.

Eventually, the story of Final Fantasy X-2 takes a slightly darker turn (though never even approaching that of its predecessor), with Matseuda and Eguchi providing “straight” music for some scenes. Much of this music is built from the same basic building blocks as the remainder of the score, but with the electronic elements dialed down and the brass moving from funk fanfares to action blasts. The “straight” music provides some of the best and some of the weakest material, with pieces like the intriguing organ-led “Vegnagun Awakes” co-existing with anonymous ambient muck like “Disquiet.” The game’s rather confusing villain, Shuyin, is given a menacing theme for wailing electric guitars and orchestra; a bit underwhelming on its own, it is nevertheless the thematic basis for many of the darker tracks in the game.

Action music is a similarly mixed bag. The game’s three main battle themes run the gamut from the same sort of bouncy funk (“YuRiPa Fight No. 1) to completely anonymous noise (“YuRiPa Fight No. 3, the game’s standard fight music). For the final sequence of the game, Matseuda and Eguchi adapt a straight posture for the twin “Ruin” and “Their Resting Place,” both generally relying on frantic brass hits and string runs to try and build an apocalyptic tone. “Their Resting Place” is perhaps the pick of the battle music, combining Shuyin’s theme with mild electronics and a strong melody alongside the brass hits. It’s surprisingly dark and effective, and a much better final boss theme than either “Overworld” or “Decisive Battle” provided for Final Fantasy X.

In the end, how much you get out of Matseuda and Eguchi’s work for Final Fantasy X-2 will be directly proportional to how much you are able to embrace the game’s tonal shift and the music’s complete break from Final Fantasy past and present. There is certainly plenty of attractive bouncy caper music, and even some moments of darkness here and there, but ultimately it’s hard to shake the feeling that the music could have been something more than the sum of its parts, and that Matseuda and Eguchi didn’t fully take advantage of their opportunity here. Perhaps the brass as Square-Enix felt the same way; despite doing yeoman’s work for X-2, Matseuda and Eguchi have not had a major assignment since. And while future Final Fantasy sequels would generally have a lighter tone than the originals, none would depart so far from the tone and tenor of the original (or its music) as X-2.

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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal)

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Destined to go down as one of the largest cinematic flops in history, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a disappointment to series fans and neophytes alike, and nearly bankrupted Squaresoft, leading to its merger with perennial rival Enix not long after. Fans of the Final Fantasy video games were dismayed by the lack of continuity between the games and the film; aside from a Cid and a vague lifestream-esqe concept, it was totally unrelated to the franchise. Even in the context of games that regularly reinvented themselves and only ever shared certain thematic details and concepts, the dark science fiction thriller Square produced seemed a tonal mismatch, as if they had taken exactly the wrong lesson from their previous games and decided to make a 90-minute Final Fantasy VIII-style cutscene. Fans hoping for a film version of Final Fantasy VII, and sci-fi fans with little to connect them to the concept, stayed away in droves.

This feeling of disconnect extended to the film’s score as well; those same fans were dismayed to see composer Nobuo Uematsu’s name missing from the marquee. Uematsu had scored every main game in the series himself with striking music rooted in the vernacular of popular songwriting with a fantasy twist, but 2001 would ultimately be the year he began to disassociate himself from Final Fantasy, collaborating with others for the first time on Final Fantasy X and foregoing The Spirits Within entirely. Yet, in retrospect, the decision makes sense; Uematsu himself will freely admit that he is not cut out for film scoring, and his muddled effort on the later Advent Children animation stands as a stark example of this. The producers instead hired American composer Elliot Goldenthal, best known for his muscular sci-fi work on blockbusters like Alien 3, Demolition Man, and Batman Forever.

Goldenthal had never played the console Final Fantasies, and made no attempt to bring any of Uematsu’s themes or styles to the big screen. In light of the nature of the film, with its tenuous connection to the franchise as a whole (there really wouldn’t be room for anything other than “The Prelude” or perhaps “Final Fantasy” in the film itself), this decision was a wise one. Instead, the composer brought an extremely varied and complex sci-fi sound to the film, building on his pedigree to produce a dark and gothic score that mixes a chorus and pounding percussion with lighter and more melodic moments. Many of Goldenthal’s trademarks, like whirling strings (as heard in the opening track), wailing bass (“Code Red”), and towering dissonance (“Toccada and Dreamscapes”) are in evidence as the composer sought to support the bleak images onscreen.

The score’s main theme is much lighter and more mystical, led by woodwinds for a much earthier sound than the rest of the score. Heard in “The Kiss” and “A Child Remembered,” this theme is largely seperate from the rest of the material until it joins the more dissonant and thunderous sound in the stunning “Adagio and Transfuguration” before forming the basis of “The Dream Within.” It is perhaps the closest that Goldenthal would ever come to writing a traditional love theme, and it shows that despite his proclivity for avant-garde symphonics, he has the capacity for immense tonal beauty when he wants to write it.

Goldenthal’s carefully-produced album pares the score down to 50 minutes of highlights, with relentless action balanced out with occasional statements of the love theme. The music is almost entirely acoustic save for an electronic pulse in “Dead Rain” which serves as counterpoint to a downbeat and minor-key version of the love theme, and Goldenthal throws a large choir into the mix often. The choral histrionics in “Dead Rain” and “Zeus Cannon,” are perhaps the closest that Uematsu and Goldenthal come to the same inspiration, with both men clearly inspired by Wagner to raise an immense wordlessly choral ruckus. The final rock song is completely out of synch with the rest of the album, but not entirely wretched.

With Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Goldenthal produced a film score, not video game music. Anyone looking for Uematsu’s sound–or that of most other video game composers, for that matter–will be disappointed. Fans of powerful, complex music–and fans of Goldenthal himself, of course–will be delighted with the album, which stands out as the best part of the film. Not only that, but The Spirits Within also offers Elliot Goldenthal’s powerful style in a more tuneful and conventional presentation than many of his more experimental works; it completely lacks the occasionally schizophrenic nature of works like Titus and plays down the raw atonality as compared to Alien 3.

Ultimately, listeners’ appreciation of Goldenthal’s distinctive style, and how much they mind the absence of Nobuo Uematsu’s characteristic Final Fantasy sound, will color their response to the music. Taken on its own terms, it is perhaps the composer’s finest and most accessible work.

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