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

Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

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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.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

Paper Mario (Yuka Tsujiyoko)

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Super Mario RPG had been a late-life hit for the Super Nintendo. It had combined Nintendo’s trademark characters in a light role-playing adventure that mixed in new characters and an element of timed button presses courtesy of the RPG specialists at Squaresoft (of Final Fantasy fame). A sequel seemed like a no-brainer…until the Nintendo 64 console arrived and Squaresoft jumped ship to the rival Sony Playstation, throwing the in-development Super Mario RPG 2 into doubt. Not only could Nintendo, who had handed off development to subsidiary Intelligent Systems, no longer use any of the original characters Square had helped develop, but the N64 lacked the processing power to render the vast new game in full 3D. Intelligent Systems took the creative route of revisualizing the game in a papercraft world, turning the N64’s weakness into a strength, and the game (renamed Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario elsewhere) turned out to be an engaging and surprisingly deep RPG adventure like its predecessor, frequently cited as one of the best games on the platform.

Yoko Shimomura had written the best score of her career thus far for Super Mario RPG, but as a full Squaresoft employee at the time, there was no chance of her return. Instead, Intelligent Systems handed the assignment to one of its staff composers, Yuka Tsujiyoko, whose primary work before then had been for the Fire Emblem series of hardcore tactical RPGs. In many ways, Tsujiyoko came from a similar place as Shimomura: extensive experience with generally dead-serious RPGs thrust into the role of writing a lighthearted and jokey score with full license to use the iconic Mario themes penned by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.

Tsujiyoko incorporated far more of Kondo’s themes into her work than Shimomura had; Paper Mario is in fact suffused with classic Mario tunes from the NES and SNES generations, some openly, others so subtly that one might miss it on first listen. She also began the score with a very light touch before gradually moving into more straightlaced and even occasionally even downright serious music before ending with a parade scene that served as a sonic recapitulation of the music that had gone before. One can’t deny that the resulting score feels every inch a Mario score, and a Mario RPG score at that.

However, Tsujiyoko’s music suffers throughout from an extremely thin presentation. Large sections of the music are only one or two musical lines, sounding very stark and isolated even as they try to be quirky and fun. She’s also not able to make a significant impact with original thematic material; the music tends to shine its brightest when Tsujiyoko is referencing Kondo’s classic tunes. When Tsujiyoko’s own original compositions take center stage, they generally feel like too little musical butter scraped over too much musical toast.

Part of this is, of course, not Tsujiyoko’s fault. The N64 was theoretically capable of playing a variety of music formats: PCM, MIDI, even MPEG, with a theoretical maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. But with the space on the Paper Mario cartridge limited to just 20 megabytes, sound quality was the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more game data, leaving Tsujiyoko and her synthesizer performer/sequencer “vAin” to struggle with some of the lowest-grade synth on the N64. This is both one source of and an aggravating factor for the aforementioned tinniness and thinness that is the major hallmark of N64 music and Paper Mario. At times, the sound seems less lush and well-synthesized than that of the SNES–while the older console had less raw capability, its SPC700 chip allowed music to be stored in only 64 kilobytes, preventing the kind of pilfering of resources and marginalization on the N64 despite even greater space limits.

That’s not to say that, whether due to lackluster composition or technical issues, that Tsujiyoko’s music for Paper Mario is a total loss. The lovely music box “Mario and Peach’s Theme” opens and closes the game with synthy fairytale charm, for instance. The late-game sequence including “Crystal Palace Crawl,” the battle theme “Freeze!” and the lovely group of tracks from “A City in the Stars” to “Sanctuary!” are all able to make the best of technical limitations and show some of Tsujiyoko’s compositional chops; it’s not hard to get the impression that she struggled somewhat with lighthearted music but is more in her comfort zone with relatively serious music in the Fire Emblem vein.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, Paper Mario is probably the weakest Mario RPG soundtrack. It is also, perversely, the only game in the Paper Mario series to have a soundtrack: a two-disc set was put out in Japan alongside an incredibly rare American release with identical contents that was available by special order from Nintendo Power. Neither set includes all the music in the game, both suffer from failing to properly loop the music they do present, and both have become sought-after collector’s items in their own right (much like the game they represent). As for Tsujiyoko herself, she would return with fellow Fire Emblem composer Yoshito Hirano to pen Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube; that score, free from the constraints of the N64, is far superior and as yet unreleased. The first and only available Paper Mario score, on the other hand, will probably only be of interest to dedicated collectors and diehard fans of the game.

Rating: starstar

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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