Final Fantasy IX (Nobuo Uematsu)

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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.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Final Fantasy XI (Nobuo Uematsu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Kumi Tanioka)

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Final Fantasy XI was Square-Enix’s first large-scale venture into the massively multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) market, though inexplicably the developer chose to make the game an actual, numbered Final Fantasy as opposed to a side title or gaiden. The resulting game completely gutted the famous narrative drive of the series in favor of a repetitive online quest structure with an odd, if innovative, auto-translation feature to allow Japanese and foreign audiences to play on the same servers. Released in 2002-2003 and thereby beating rival World of Warcraft to the market by over a year, the game required extensive additional hardware for the PS2, an internet connection, and a monthly subscription to play; its concurrent release on Microsoft platforms made it one of Square-Enix’s first multiplatform releases as well. Despite its total abandonment of all but the most superficial aspects of Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy XI performed fairly well in the marketplace and remains online and available; many longtime series fans were disappointed by the new format, though, and Square-Enix wouldn’t produce an all-new single-player Final Fantasy for five years.

One benefit of making Final Fantasy XI a part of the main series was that it gave series composer Nobuo Uematsu the opportunity to write music for the game. Uematsu was in the midst of winding down his involvement with Square-Enix at the time, and alongside Hanjuku Hero 3D Final Fantasy XI would represent his last large-scale work with the company before leaving it to become a freelancer. As such, like Final Fantasy X before it, Uematsu chose to collaborate with other Square-Enix staff composers Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka for the score. Mizuta was perhaps best known for stepping into Yoko Shimomura’s shoes with mixed success on Parasite Eve II, but had worked for Capcom for years beforehand; with the departure of many of Square-Enix’s superstar 80s and 90s composers in the 2000s, he would become one of the company’s most prominent staff musicians. Tanioka had done some work for Square’s Chocobo’s Dungeon spinoff series, but she would be best known for her subsequent work on the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series for Nintendo platforms.

Uematsu’s contribution was far, far more limited than in Final Fantasy X: he wrote only ten tracks of music, and only nine original pieces if one discounts his adaptation of the preexisting “Prelude.” Tanioka wrote a comparable twelve tracks, leaving the remaining twenty-eight to Mizuta, who would go on to write the music for all subsequent Final Fantasy XI expansions, leaving him the dominant musical voice in the game.

This is a pity, as Mizuta is simply unable to create music as interesting or varied as his co-composers. There are some highlights, notably the heroic march he provides for “Hume Male” and the Mitsuda-esque “Voyager,” performed on an acoustic guitar. But most of the remaining tracks are forgettable, and tend to fall into predictable patterns–acoustic guitar backing with woodwind melodies. Mizuta’s battle themes are slightly more effective but still very perfunctory, with the requisite brass and percussion but little in the way of melodic development or character, which is especially appalling considering the series’ strong record in that area. The nadir of Mizuta’s work is the unbearable “Castle Zvahl,” a ponderous nine minute gothic piece that utterly fails to justify its running time. Mizuta also fails to adapt Uematsu’s main theme–or any of the veteran composer’s themes, for that matter–preferring instead to mix “The Prelude” into some of his tracks.

Kumi Tanioka comes off much stronger, particularly in the suite of town music she writes. “The Republic of Bastok” is an album highlight, mixing claves and percussion with a lively woodwind theme to create a bustling and industrious atmosphere. “Metalworks” is a more subdued take on the same idea, and is similarly strong. Tanioka also adapts Uematsu’s main theme in “Fury,” a strong arrangement that emphasizes brass and percussion and adds an electronic beat. She pens her share of dull tracks too, such as the plodding “Gustaberg,” and several of her pieces seem inappropriate–note the heavy electronic backbeat in “Elvaan Female.” Though not without significant weaknesses, Tanioka distinguished herself well; fans will note strong stylistic similarities between her work on Final Fantasy XI and her strong later scores for the Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles series.

Uematsu’s musical contribution is by far the strongest, which is unsurprising given his greater experience. His main theme, which is fully orchestrated with a live choir and Esperanto lyrics, is far and away the album’s best piece, opening it in such a spectacular style that everything that comes after is something of a letdown. The theme is so strong that Mizuta’s refusal to adapt is it perplexing, though Uematsu contributes several strong variations of his own in “Recollection” and “Repression.” “Ronfaure,” familiar to many people because of its inclusion in the Dear Friends concert series, is also noteworthy, especially the melancholy second half. And “Airship,” an emotional and wistful piece for acoustic guitar and electronics is sublime, among the composer’s best tracks–appropriate, since was virtually the final airship song Uematsu ever wrote. Uematsu would return to Final Fantasy and MMORPGs with his score to the dire Final Fantasy XIV, though that product’s horrible reception and eventual reboot meant that most of his contribution was minimized and no comprehensive soundtrack album was ever released.

Final Fantasy XI is therefore decidedly mixed; Naoshi Mizuta’s work is generally dreadful, while Kumi Tanioka provides some excellent tracks and Uematsu gives a solid effort with several songs that can stand proudly alongside his finest. As with all Final Fantasy albums, Final Fantasy XI is most easily available through an importer on an online download, and acquiring a new or legitimate copy can be an expensive proposition–whether it is worth the cost or not will have to be left up to individual buyers. Its a few excellent tracks may be enough to make you overlook the dullest and most forgettable Final Fantasy score yet.

Mizuta: starstar

Tanioka: starstarstar

Uematsu: starstarstarstar

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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Secret of Evermore (Jeremy Soule)

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Secret of Evermore was Squaresoft America’s lone foray into game production. Despite top-notch production values (including use of some pre-rendered elements in the game’s backgrounds) and the same engine that powered the popular Secret of Mana game, Evermore failed to find its audience, and Squaresoft America was reabsorbed into its corporate parent not long after. Composer Jeremy Soule has since carved out a name for himself, providing stirring orchestral and ambient scores for such high profile games as Prey, Knights of the Old Republic, Guild Wars, and the Elder Scrolls series. Secret of Evermore was Soule’s first-ever foray into game music, and it would offer him the opportunity to work with the most advanced synth of the Super Nintendo generation.

On disc, Secret of Evermore is split into two halves: the first eight tracks are arranged, and feature far better synth than the subsequent eleven. They also offered Soule a larger palette for his themes, which he takes full advantage of in arranging “10 Print Hello World” and “Greek Temple.” “10 Print…” is easily an album highlight, a stirring overture for brass and strings that bears only the faintest resemblance to its SNES counterpart, while “Greek Temple” blends orchestral and electronic effects to create haunting yet busy music. Curiously, many of the remaining arranged tracks are rather dull, and do not seem to merit the attention they were given — why rearrange the dull “Merchant Theme,” or the ambient “Ocean Theme?”

The SNES-era tracks are a different matter entirely. The mood is primarily dark and moody, as opposed to the generally more upbeat arranged tracks, and this darkness makes for some excellent melancholy music. Tracks like “Puppet Song,” “Freak Show,” and “The Scientist” exude mystery while remaining highly melodic and enjoyable, while the non-arranged “Greek Temple” tracks are more subdued but equally potent (except for some unfortunate synth effects in the first one). Whether or not you can stomach their sound is entirely up to your tolerance for retro gaming sounds; while Soule’s music is perhaps the most technologically sophisticated ever to grace the SNES, its inherently 16-bit nature will doubtless give some with little patience for that era’s video game synths powerful headaches.

There are also some lighter tracks, most notably the kooky “Tinkerer” and swirling “Ending Theme,” which adhere to the score’s darkness even at their most slapstick. Unfortunately, there are also several ambient tracks, like “The Rat’s Chamber” and “Quicksand Field” that develop little more than a menacing atmosphere. Still, on the whole, the SNES-era tracks are stylistically consistent and enjoyable, despite the omission of several tracks (such as the haunting “Hector’s Camp”) from the disc entirely despite its official “Complete” monicker.

Sadly, the Secret of Evermore Complete Soundtrack is nearly impossible to come by at reasonable prices. It was only issued directly by Squaresoft America, and therefore saw a very small number of copies manufactured before the publisher’s demise left it completely out of print. As such, the relative benefits the score offers have to be weighed against the exorbitant prices the album commands (as of this writing, $200 and up). Still, if you can find a copy for a reasonable price — especially if you’re a Jeremy Soule fan — it is a highly interesting listen despite its weak points.

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Vagrant Story (Hitoshi Sakimoto)

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Vagrant Story is a game that’s been largely forgotten by the gaming public despite its pedigree as a Square Enix title. It’s not hard to see why; the game is extremely uneven, moving from almost cinematic action to large periods of running about with no clear purpose, and its battle system is extremely complex and unintuitive. Most people who bought it never made it past the first dungeon.

Yet there is one bonus to slogging though: composer Hitoshi Sakimoto’s score. It’s an incredibly dark and baroque piece of music that rumbles with power and mystery even during its most upbeat moments. The music serves as something of a tone poem, taking listeners deep into a haunted city and impressing upon them the danger and beauty inherent in the undertaking.

The score is built around a few key innovations and motifs. The “main theme,” such as it is, is used relatively sparsely, mostly at the beginning and end of the game, with short reprises in the middle. A few other melodic ideas are constant from track to track, but there’s no real leitmotif structure at work. Instead, Sakimoto relies on instrument choice to provide consistency, especially in the form of distant metal-on-metal hits to provide a sense of the echoing depths of the city, and the harp, which might represent the shafts of sunlight peeking through the ruins. There’s also a strong atonal influence in some areas, most notably “Rosencrantz,” whose howling brass seems to be inspired by Elliot Goldenthal.

Standout tracks include the lengthy beginning and ending suites, especially the battle theme that develops near the end of the intro. The melodic “Snowfly Forest” contributes an atmosphere of strangeness in its beauty, and “Undercity” is strongly reminiscent of Danny Elfman in its portrayal of a spooky envirion. The atonal music is best represented by the pulsing, tribal fury of “Tieger and Neesa” as well as the howling “Rosencrantz” and “Abandoned Mines ~ Second Level,” which uses metal hits and a children’s choir to establish a gothic, almost hellish mood.

The album’s PS1-era synth is generally good; echo effects were added to the mix during the mastering process that helps disguise the lack of depth in the recording. Even those who can’t stand synthesized music are in for a treat: the album climaxes with a fully orchestrated rendition of the main theme, played by a full symphony orchestra.

The only minor drawbacks to the album are the fact that many of the best songs, especially battle tunes, don’t loop. This is especially unfortunate in the case of “Dullahan,” “Ogre,” and the two final battle themes. The two remixes at the end of the album are awful and unnecessary; I’d much rather have had more looped tracks.

All in all, Vagrant Story, despite its synthesized nature, is an enormously complex and satisfying musical journey, and comes highly recommended to anyone who can find a copy. Regrettably, though, with the demise of DigiCube and the proliferation of bootleggers (especially on eBay) makes this a difficult feat. Beware the later reissue, though: the album has been remastered, and the echo effects removed, resulting in a much drier and more artificial-sounding recording. Highly recommended for fans of dark and gothic music, as well as fans of Richard Wagner, Danny Elfman, or Elliot Goldenthal, who are looking for a complex and lengthy listen and can tolerate PS1-era synth.

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