These highlights are from the Kindle version of Final Fantasy IV by Sebastian Deken.
Nobuo Uematsu wrote the prelude for Final Fantasy (FF1) in under three minutes, as a filler track, to satisfy a last-minute request from the game’s director. If he had been in my theory class, it might have gotten completely lost among the work of me and my classmates, like a pearl in a bag of marbles. But Uematsu’s prelude is unquestionably a pearl—a masterpiece of simplicity. It brings a lump to the throat of a generation of gamers.
The music from Final Fantasy VI (1994) sits high in today’s large, diverse pantheon of video game soundtracks, and for good reason. It effortlessly quilts disparate styles and genres to create one world from many. It’s accessible, quirky, and affecting. The game’s iconic opera scene—an unforgettable pinpoint in the timeline of game history—stays with players in a way that few other scenes manage. The game’s music regularly tops critics’ and fans’ picks, ranking above games that have outsold it by a factor of ten or more.
On January 7, 1983, the Washington Post published a piece by critic Joseph McLellan, “Pac-Man Overture in G-Whiz”—likely the first-ever published game music criticism. “Play it again, Tron,” he starts.
In a well-stocked and busy game center, the music is semi-aleatory and polytonal: many different musical events happening together, more or less at random. If you listen closely, it sounds like the kind of thing that you have to buy tickets to hear in the haunts of the post-avant-garde.
To simplify a complicated, subjective history of music: Western music, with its most familiar-to-us signposts, began to take form during the Renaissance. To me, earlier music sounds slightly misshapen—not ugly, sometimes quite lovely, but usually a little alien. Like Medieval manuscript illuminations, early music can be stunningly ornate—but bless those monks, they just couldn’t figure out how to draw faces. The sea change in Western music’s sound roughly coincides with the introduction of the printing press to Europe—around 1440. The first sheet music printed with movable type cropped up a few decades later—and gradually, printed music and music-related texts became easier to disseminate. That dissemination of ideas helped to homogenize and advance, over time, the sound of European music.
The Gutenberg press of video game music was the Famicom, released in Japan in July 1983, then in the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in October 1985. It was a hugely popular console—it ultimately sold over 60 million units around the world—and helped the video game industry recover from its 1983 crash. Games once again could be distributed and played widely, like those scores printed with movable type.
The NES has two square wave channels and one triangle wave channel, meaning it can play three tones at once—just enough to create clear harmonic progressions. It also has a generator for “noise,” typically used to emulate percussion or create sound effects complementing onscreen action. As a bonus—cartridge space permitting—it has a fifth channel for recorded sound samples.
In the rare case that music played throughout gameplay, it was usually monophonic—a single tone with no harmony—and in a lower register. You can hear this kind of background music in Kung Fu (1985) and Donkey Kong (1986). A short bassline—rarely exceeding ten seconds in length—thrums underneath the sound effects.
Dragon Quest (1986) was a milestone for video role-playing games. It welcomed newcomers to the genre by simplifying the mechanics of tabletop and early computer RPGs. It did away with job classes and fantasy races, pared down character stats to a select few, and limited the party to a single character.
DQ1 became an archetype for an entire genre—the Japanese role-playing game, or JRPG. JRPGs were slowly distinguishing themselves from Western RPGs by focusing on strictly enforced narratives, more cartoonish graphics, and (typically) simpler mechanics. The JRPG exploded in popularity in the decade that followed, eclipsing its Western counterpart to dominate 90s console RPGs.
DQ1 was also an important advancement for video game music: composer Koichi Sugiyama’s work added sophistication, and an impressive pedigree, to the industry’s small but growing library of scores. Sugiyama is the world’s oldest game composer, born in 1931—28 years before Nobuo Uematsu.
Nobuo Uematsu wears glasses and a scruffy mustache; these days, his wiry salt-and-pepper hair is usually pulled back in a ponytail and sometimes dressed with a jaunty handkerchief. He loves the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. The first record he ever owned was Elton John’s Honky Château. He brews his own ale and is confident he has seen ghosts. He embraces and lives his dad-rock truth: In 2002, in his 40s, he formed a prog rock group called the Black Mages, which played covers of the music he composed for the Final Fantasy series—as close to a garage band as a man of his stature could possibly get.
Uematsu was born in 1959 in Kōchi, Japan (today, less populous than Tulsa, Oklahoma). While he enjoyed music from an early age, he never studied it formally. He taught himself to play guitar and piano by ear, at the relatively late, post-prodigy age of eleven or twelve. As a teenager, he wrote for and played in a rock band with friends from school, but his parents wouldn’t permit him to study music in college. Still, he knew he wanted to make a career of it.
After he finished college in 1981, he was desperate to break into the music industry—a tall order for someone with no connections and no formal training. He sent out demo tapes indiscriminately, day after day; if he couldn’t be the most talented or the best connected, he reasoned, he would at least be the most persistent.
The technological limitations he faced, especially on the NES, may have actually worked in his favor—in spite of the strict limits they put on his sound. “I think that the more limited people are, the more ingenious they begin to get,” he told the Red Bull Music Academy Daily, “so maybe I actually enjoyed thinking about how I could make rock music with three sounds, or how I could make classical-sounding music. It was like a game to me.”
“The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self,” wrote Igor Stravinsky in his book Poetics of Music. “And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”
FF1 outdoes its counterpart in girth, complexity, range, and—though it’s subjective—enjoyability. DQ1’s score comprises eight unique pieces of music, mostly sticks to two voices, and is overall pretty somber. Fanfare-anthems bookend the game, and cheerful music plays in villages—but the player spends an overwhelming majority of time listening to tense or windburned music, as in the battles, dungeons, and overworld. FF1, on the other hand, crosses the finish line with nineteen unique pieces of music, pretty consistently uses all three tone-channels, and takes the listener all over the emotional map: cheerfulness, anxiety, excitement, depression, and resolve.
“There’s rhythm and there’s melody,” he says in a 1994 interview. “Rhythm only reaches the body. Melodies, however, do reach one’s soul.”
“I love progressive rock,” he said in a 2011 interview, “because you can put any genre of music into it.” Indeed, prog rock’s influence on his work is sometimes baldly apparent. Compare, for example, Boston’s “Foreplay / Long Time” (1976) to FF5’s “Battle at the Big Bridge” and FF6’s “Dancing Mad.” Or try comparing “Dancing Mad” to the three-movement, organ-heavy “Three Fates” (1970) by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Tchaikovsky’s influence is less explicit. Certain musical moments in Final Fantasy do recall his Romantic-era sensibilities: The last section in FF6’s “Cyan” resembles the love theme from Romeo and Juliet.
Uematsu’s pastiche encompasses more than rock and classical. He burgles from everywhere. No genre is safe. As a case study: Every FF game from FF2 onward incorporates his Chocobo theme—which accompanies characters as they ride giant land-birds, a cross between an ostrich and a marshmallow Peep. Almost every recurrence of the theme is plunked into a new genre: samba, bluegrass, techno, mambo, chiptune, surf rock, mod, and Dave Brubeck-like quintuple meter. In his 16-bit games alone, he invokes sea shanties; Scandinavian, Celtic, and East Asian folk music; ragtime; West African drumming; industrial; rockabilly; and Viennese waltz.
In the World of Balance, about two decades before the game begins, a political force known as the Empire—headed by Emperor Gestahl and his flunky clown-mage, Kefka—gained tremendous power. Gestahl was interested in acquiring and weaponizing magic power so his empire could crush, conquer, and rule the world. To do this, he located the portal to the world of the Espers, the race of beings at the heart of the War of the Magi, who had withdrawn from the human world to stop the bloodshed once and for all.
FF6’s director, Yoshinori Kitase, said in a 2013 interview with Edge magazine: “We began work on Final Fantasy VI with the idea that every character is the protagonist of the story. The idea was to transform the characters from mere ciphers for fighting into true characters with substance and backstories who could evoke more interesting or complex feelings in the player.”
FF6’s soundtrack spans three compact discs, totals 61 tracks, and clocks in at a little over three hours—massive in comparison to its peers.
The little chunky avatars in FF6 are detailed enough to resemble cartoon people while avoiding, by a long shot, the uncanny valley’s downward dive into pseudo-human creepiness. The uncanny valley describes a low point in an object’s trajectory towards human resemblance: Somewhere between the peaks of “cute because it’s not so human” and “indistinguishable from a person” is a wide, disturbing gulf, the nadir of which is the 2004 film The Polar Express. When games aim for photorealistic characters, our brains fixate on their imperfections, on any hint of alienness. But games like the Mario series, and the 80s and 90s FF titles, provide enough physical detail to convey humanness while avoiding the downhill train-crash of Tom Hanks’s most unfortunate cinematic endeavor.
FF6’s characters are drawn chibi style, sometimes referred to as “super-deformed,” meaning that their heads, torsos, and legs are in equal proportion, similar to Mario’s.
One would think that, with limited pixel space, he would have pushed for the characters to appear as human as possible—knowing that, even with the team’s best efforts, they could never fall all the way into Ro-bob Hoskins or Lou Al-bot-o territory. Instead, they lean into their technological barriers and create the weird little nuggets we’ve learned to love. They chose this spot on the curve of the uncanny valley intentionally: the equal head-torso-leg proportion, the large forehead, the chubby arms—these recall the look of infants, beings we are evolutionarily trained to adore. That feeling of adoration, protracted over 40 hours of gameplay, slowly transforms into attachment. Not quite real love—chibi love.
“It’s a little sad that Final Fantasy VI was the last chibi Final Fantasy game,” Uematsu said later in our exchange. “I wish I could have done one or two more with the same atmosphere.”
To paint Shadow through music, Uematsu pays homage to Ennio Morricone’s work, specifically from the Dollars trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). He mashes up elements from each of these three movies’ theme songs (the omnipresent whistle, the strum of a guitar, the mouth harp) to create an instantly recognizable reference that captures Shadow’s withdrawn, prickly personality, recalling Clint Eastwood’s iconic stone-faced screen presence.
A Fistful of Dollars was an unlicensed remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), about a dark-robed ronin. This cowboy music, repurposed for a mysterious ninja, traces a line back to Kurosawa, who himself borrowed heavily from American Westerns.
The Magitek Factory’s theme, “Devil’s Lab,” also gives an immediate sense of place. Uematsu’s use of synthesizers to indicate artificiality and evil, and to hint that a confrontation with Kefka is on the horizon, is front-and-center. The piece begins with a steady beat of industrial sound effects—mechanical clicks and anvil-like clangs—then a killer bass-synth riff (figure 3.5). It may be the stankiest groove in video game music history, rolling and locking like someone doing the robot.
The Phantom Train delivers souls from the material world to the afterlife. Early in the game, you accidentally board it while it’s parked at its platform in the Phantom Forest, then you must find a way to get off the train before it reaches the afterlife. Only when the train delivers you back to your origin in the woods do you see how grim it truly is: You are forced to watch the murdered people of Doma slowly file aboard.
EarthBound, released in Japan about four months after FF6, features a Blues Brothers–like band called the Runaway Five; helping the band (and watching them play a set) is a required part of the game. In many respects, this sequence is similar to FF6’s opera—though it strikes me as a much less risky move.
Broadly held cultural notions about opera as highly intellectual and inaccessibly beautiful may contribute to the scene’s aesthetic success by leading the player to believe that something extraordinary is about to happen.
FF6’s opera voices are actual recordings of people singing, but storage capacity on SNES cartridges necessitated compromise in audio quality. The voice samples are stretched to their limits: They’re compressed to a relatively low quality, and they further lose fidelity as the SNES hardware manipulates the samples up and down the scale.
Music can help us navigate and survive the social Thunderdome we call adolescence, determining in part who our friends are, how we interact with the world, and how we begin to carve out our adult identities. The growing independence that comes with our ascent to adulthood means we can increasingly forage for our own music and define our own tastes.
We remember our adolescence and young adulthood disproportionately to the rest of our lives—a psychological phenomenon called the reminiscence bump. During this same period, puberty can make our emotions virtually explosive. The collision of these two phenomena means our hormone-addled brains document our most awkward years with laser-cut clarity.
The Los Angeles Philharmonic had barely hung up its coat at its new home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall—that silvery mishmash of deflating polyhedra designed by Frank Gehry—when it suddenly found itself party to a weird side-quest in the history of classical music: On May 10, 2004, it became the first-ever American orchestra to put on a concert of video game music. That concert, “Dear Friends – Music from Final Fantasy,” featured Nobuo Uematsu’s work exclusively (only one piece from Final Fantasy VI made the cut: Terra’s theme).
A 2015 album of arrangements of Uematsu’s work, Final Symphony—based on the music of FF6, FF7, and FF10, and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Eckehard Stier—topped the iTunes classical charts in at least ten countries and reached the top five on both the Billboard classical charts and the Official UK Charts.
FF6’s opera scene—still humbled by its synthesizers and warbly diva—was the real inflection point, not just for the Final Fantasy series but for the way we think about video game music as a whole. This was the first time a video game sat the player down in the dress circle and said, “Shush. Listen.”