Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

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On the heels of their wildly successful RPG Final Fantasy V in 1992, developer Square immediately began production of a sequel for the same platform, the Super Nintendo. Over a year of brisk development, a complex tale emerged with fourteen playable characters, more than any game before or since, larger and more detailed sprites and field graphics, and extensive use of Mode 7 graphics. In many ways it was the ultimate evolution of Final Fantasy V‘s style, with a straightforward first half and an open-world second. But above and beyond that, the resultant Final Fantasy VI features more pathos than all its predecessors combined, tackling weighty issues like suicide, teenage pregnancy, war crimes, and more. Its heroes actually fail to save their world and have to spend half of the game dealing with the consequences of their failure–tempered with plenty of lighthearted character moments, of course. The game was a fantastic success and has since been ported to a variety of post-SNES systems; more crucially, unlike Final Fantasy V, it was given a lovable Ted Woolsey translation and a release in the USA under the title Final Fantasy III. As a result, it influenced a whole generation of US game developers and echoes of its themes and steampunk aesthetic resonate to this day.

Nobuo Uematsu was no longer Square’s sole resident composer by 1994, giving him the freedom to devote all of 1993 to music for Final Fantasy VI while leaving other projects to fellow staffers. He tackled the project enthusiastically, writing a much longer score than any he’d penned for previous games and responding to the game’s steampunk/1800s look with a score that includes several rich classical influences. Richard Wagner’s Teutonic operas were a natural fit for the game’s story of godlike creatures interfering in mortal life and the ascent of characters to godhood (if not quite draining the gods’ power to run machines and having an insane jester be the one to so ascend), but Uematsu also looked to his beloved prog-rock groups–many of whom had themselves been influenced by Wagner and his contemporaries–for inspiration as well. Thus one can hear echoes of Queen and the rock operas of the 1970s and 1980s as well, resulting in a score that’s a fascinating melange of influences and instruments, with (synth) orchestral elements alongside guitar, synths, and the closest the SNES was able to come to human voices in 1993. Uematsu himself would later say that after finishing the score he could retire from game music with no regrets.

With fourteen player characters, and two villains to boot, Uematsu responded by adapting the Wagnerian leitmotif in a John Willams vein, giving every character their own theme and often one or two variations thereon. This thematic diversity is unprecedented, with very few games past or present attempting anything like it; Uematsu himself never attempted the same level of theme and variations even in his later leitmotivic Final Fantasy scores. There is no main theme as such, but “Terra’s Theme” serves as the closest equivalent, with the largest number of variations dominating the first part of the game where the amnesic magic-user Terra serves as a player analog. “Terra’s Theme” serves as the first world map theme, presenting a hauntingly sad melody on panpipes with synth orchestral accompaniment, but the melody is introduced in a more subdued oboe version with militaristic snare at 2:32 in “Opening Theme.” A gentle piano rendition in “Awakening” is closer to a true theme for Terra based on its usage in the game, and listeners are treated to a bittersweet full synth orchestral reprise at 7:46 in “Ending Theme” and again on solo flute at 16:46 as the character manages to survive the end of all magic in her world. Uematsu also gives “Terra’s Theme” interesting twists in “Save Them!” with the theme in counterpoint to brassy action music at :32, and twisted into an anguished form at :12 in “Metamorphosis.”

The gambling airship pilot Setzer has a surprisingly heroic theme in C major that, interestingly, is reprised extremely frequently throughout Uematsu’s score. In addition to “Setzer’s Theme, which takes up the melody on brass, there is a heartbreaking version in A major for solo piano with acoustic guitar accents in “Epitaph,” representing the character’s lost love. The first airship theme, “Blackjack,” returns the theme to brass with an optimistic, opulent air for the flying pleasure palace, while a tender reprise in C major can be found at 1:28 in “Ending Theme.” Bold and triumphant strains of Setzer’s theme dominate the latter half of “Ending Theme” during the game’s credits, providing resounding accompaniment to his airship’s triumphant sendoff. Similarly, “Locke’s Theme” presents a heroic theme for an antihero, giving the thief/treasure hunter a heroic string melody with rambunctious percussion accompaniment, a reprise in tragic mode for the character’s own lost love in “Forever Rachel,” and a reprise in the “Ending Theme” at 6:36. The latter represents some of the most complex counterpoint Uematsu ever attempted, cannily blending Locke’s theme with that of his new love, Celes, as the music deftly switches from one theme to the other. Reams more could be written on each theme and its reprises, especially in the astonishing 21 minutes of “Ending Theme” which runs through every one of them in sequence; from the Morricone-esque whistles of “Shadow’s Theme” to the resounding cello of “Gau’s Theme” there’s nary a weak link to be found.

Celes’ theme is the centerpiece of the game’s trademark opera, a 16 minute stretch that employs synthesized (wordless but synched to Japanese lyrics) vocals for a sequence in which a character takes the place of a prima donna. There is a definite influence of Wagner and Verdi in the portentous “Overture,” the tender variation on Celes’ theme in “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” (“Aria of Half Character,” presumably a reference to the character impersonating an opera singer) the overwrought “The Wedding” and the goofy “Grand Finale?” battle track. There’s no denying that the synth opera voices sound a little tinny and silly to latter-day ears–it was 1993 after all–but they do an excellent job in spite of their limitations. Taken together, the opera excerpts represent Uematsu’s music at its most comic but also its most classical, and presages the increading use of live voices in the series, in both as choral or classical and ribald pop modes.

Final Fantasy VI‘s insane jester villain Kefka and the Empire he works for (and later kicks to death) get a theme each. Kefka’s is a prancing and deceptively lighthearted comic dance that shows up in fragments in “Last Dungeon,” and “Dancing Mad” while the Empire receives the polar opposite, a dour and serious motif that ranges from martial (“Troops March On”) to ominous (“Under Martial Law,” “The Empire Gestahl”). The pick of the villains’ music, though, is the game’s battle themes; while both the electric guitar of “The Decisive Battle” and the aggressive tympani and orchestral fury of “The Fierce Battle” are notable, the “Dancing Mad” final boss suite towers over them all. Tipping the scales at over 17 minutes, “Dancing Mad” is divided into four distinct movements that each loop twice, corresponding to a different tier of the final boss and running the gamut of styles from classical opera to prog rock. The first tier reprises earlier material from “Opening” and “Catastrophe” into a fully orchestral mode with breathing noise accents and operatic voices for the most aggressive music in the game, while the second lets loose with synth opera vocals, percussion, and organ. The third tier is, of all things, an extended fantasia for organ with interpolations of “Kefka’s Theme,” not really menacing at all but impressive and abstract all the same; the final tier unleashes progressive rock with interludes of mournful voices and laughter and more fragments of the villain’s theme. It all flows together wonderfully despite the diversity of styles, and serves as an excellent lead-in to the 20 minutes of glorious thematic reprises that bring the score to a close with “Ending Theme.”

The major impediment to enjoying Uematsu’s work is, as with virtually all his pre-Final Fantasy VIII scores, the sound quality. The SPC 700 sound chip in the SNES was among the strongest synthesizers of its console generation, and sound programmer Minoru Akao and sound engineer Eiji Nakamura worked with Uematsu to wring everything they could out of it. For the time, the sound is excellent, in places even stronger than the MIDI Final Fantasy VII, and the music uses an impressive variety of specialty instruments from bagpipes to mouth harps to the aformentioned synth vocals. Final Fantasy VI‘s synths also have a rich reverb like Final Fantasy IV, eschewing the dry sound of Final Fantasy V. But the fact remains that the music is synthesized, obviously synthesized, and this will be a fatal blow for many listeners regardless of the quality of the underlying melodies. There have been rearrangements, of course, but none of them has ever matched the mix of the original: orchestral remixes give short shrift to Uematsu’s electronic and prog-rock influences, synth remixes neglect the fine orchestral lines, and even the most faithful live arrangements aren’t able to get the volume balance quite right, with some instruments drowning others out. The technical complexity of re-recording the score–which would involve recording and mixing every section of the orchestra and every line of synths separately and mixing them together–is probably too daunting, though. A few other irritating quirks–mostly brief sound effects–also mar a few tracks.

Upon release, Final Fantasy VI was a big hit for Square, and so was its score. Several arrangement albums were released before the year was out, including an orchestral album, a piano arrangement, and a full 23-minute live recording of the opera scene. This acclaim extended to the USA as well, where Square put out a deluxe 3-CD set identical in content to the Japanese release under the title Kefka’s Domain. Though available only via mail order, it was one of only three CDs released by Square during the 16-bit era (alongside Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore) and both it and the Japanese pressing remain readily available domestically or through importers. Uematsu’s score is, in strict musical terms, probably the most creative and complex of his entire career; it’s certainly the most thematic. And for all its crazy-quilt of musical influences from Queen to Wagner to Morricone, Final Fantasy VI is able to craft disparate elements into a unique and compelling whole. It was, and remains, Uemastu’s career high and the finest score of the 16-bit era and the Final Fantasy series as a whole.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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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