Final Fantasy VI (Nobuo Uematsu)

Cover

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

Advertisements

Paper Mario (Yuka Tsujiyoko)

Cover

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