Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, Hitoshi Sakimoto, Takeharu Ishimoto…Final Fantasy (FF) has been graced by a wealth of talented composers from a variety of origins. Uematsu was never formally educated in music, while Hamauzu grew up in a family of musicians. Ishimoto started as a synthesizer operator for FF X. Together, their work among others has enhanced the experience of the series itself while enduring after the console turns off. Few game series can lay claim to such consistency in music. Main themes, battle themes, area themes, character themes, FF has stunning pieces for every category. Some are lighthearted, some are tense, and some are emotional (after all, what series is better known for killing off its protagonists?); there’s hardly a feeling for which FF music cannot accompany.

I have listened to and immersed myself in a great many FF pieces, and have had an enjoyably difficult time attempting to identify a Top 10 for the series. To be honest, I have not played every single FF game (but has anyone played Mystic Quest?), and nor have I listened to every piece of the series’ music. But no ranking comes from full knowledge of the subject, though I have listened to pieces ranging from fan favorites to those rightfully forgotten.

For this list, each game (including spin-offs) could have only one representation, with Honorable Mentions given to pieces that would have made the Top 10 if not for this restriction. Piano collections and orchestrations were also given consideration. I should also mention that I do not listen to music so much as I experience it, so descriptions are heavily filled with emotional and visual interpretation. Without further ado…

Final Fantasy Tactics has one of the most inviting opening cinemas, both in its presentation and music. Images of the zodiac fade in and out accompanied by a timeless tune. The Intro Theme starts mysterious, as if all is not as it seems, certainly relevant for the numerous betrayals evident in FFT’s plot. A chime transitions to a rhythmic melody, one of the few memorable ones that the series has produced, its light notes dancing and mesmerizing. I could just lose myself in this part of the piece. It slowly turns honorable, slightly alluding to the strain of the conflict revealed in the game. Courage is another sentiment that comes to mind, characterizing Ramza’s attempt to conquer evil despite being branded a heretic. The piece fades before introducing the main theme, itself motivating and worthy of merit. Certainly this theme helps introduce the player to the game, but the transition to it is rather abrupt. The first part, on the other hand, never grows old.

The opening cinema for the PSP version of FFT is even more spectacular, with the scene evolving as the Intro Theme progresses. Two dimensional artistry blooms and springs up, really giving the impression that the story is coming to life. The music may not have changed, but the cinema emphasizes the aura of the piece, at once enigmatic and prideful. Perhaps even more remarkable is that the piece, much like the rest of FFT’s soundtrack, was not performed by an orchestra; instead, a synthesizer created it. For the Intro Theme, I would be hard pressed to think that an orchestra could deliver a better performance.

The title would suggest this piece evokes reminiscence, and it does, but it would not seem to be congruent with the location. Fallen souls lie in the earth of the Nabreus Deadlands, but A Land of Memories more reflects the flora and mist that have arisen since. Surely this piece appeals to exploring places that have changed dramatically from years past. If Ashe could forget that she was traversing the eradicated home of her slain husband (you, like me, probably had to look this up), and instead reflect on how things have changed, then this piece would make sense in the game. Of course, we don’t know what Ashe was feeling, because there is no dialogue in the Nabreus Deadlands and FF XII is far more act than emotion!

Regardless, the introductory harp and percussion presents inquiry, as if to say “Haven’t I…been here before?” The lush melody from the strings evokes a feeling of timelessness before seamlessly transitioning to brooding poignancy delivered by the brass. This part appeals to the discovery of things unsettling and mysterious, illustrative of the unending and unyielding fog that shrouds the Nabreus Deadlands. The final melody captures both sentiments, remembrance and rumination, wandering until the end. In that respect, the piece expresses the paradox that often consumes rediscovery: nostalgia contradicted by unsettling change. The lack of a definitive finish is fitting: for we can never truly know what has happened in the time since. I also find the piece appropriate for the area’s designation as a side quest. Such tasks often present curiosity and strenuous challenge, and A Land of Memories illustrates both.

The plot of both Dissidia games can be forgotten with scarcely a fan insulted (do all-star games ever have a coherent plot?), but the main theme presents an odd paradox: a slightly dull fanfare plays before an uninteresting battle theme, with chords building and falling in pitch that sound like they’re beating around the bush. I can see it befitting a battlefield, but only a generic one, though Dissidia’s zone of combat would certainly count as an example. Fortunately, Lux Concordiae takes that fanfare of Dissidia’s main theme and spins it into gold. Starting with a soothing harp, the chorus builds before descending into sheer beauty. The violin accompaniment completes the piece, conveying a sense of divinity appropriate for the scene in which it is played. Truly this piece is about the chorus, and would be absent almost all splendor without it. I would like to hear an extension of this piece, for its lone weakness is its meager length. Only the orchestral version of Sea Breeze from Dragon Quest IV can lend itself to greater beauty.

The second time the chorus sings the melody, though, the phrase “Wake up, smell the roses” pops into my mind. It sounds a little like Edvard Grieg’s “Morning Mood”, as if waking up to calming nature. “Lux Concordiae” also translates from Latin to “Harmonious Light”, with the lyrics translating to worship of Cosmos as the goddess of harmony. The piece certainly delivers on its title, but I’m not entirely fond of the reverence for a character as bland as Cosmos. Yes, she’s some divine creature, and yes, it makes sense for the scene, but the lyrics should have excluded her.

What would a list of top tier Final Fantasy music be without the opening theme of the original game? Throughout its numerous renditions, the opening of FF I always brings to mind a journey. The first half is a march with a constant rhythm that never fails to evoke nostalgia for the past adventure and charm for the next one. The second half with its longer notes evokes a sense of timelessness, as if the journey will never lose its meaning. The piece as a whole conveys perseverance and reflection when played slow, and a celebratory and triumphant romp when played moderately fast. Reconceive the opening of FF I for any emotion and it will still return that sense of journey. And isn’t that what Final Fantasy is all about? To feel that sense of awe and wonder that comes with each area, and yet realize the culmination of experiences that has brought about the moment. There is no better piece than the opening of FF I to accompany the confluence of such sentiments.

Perhaps the most exciting rendition appears in FF XII, as part of the file load screen. Few would think that such a place would lend itself to inspiration, let alone even merit music, simply because it’s a reminder that you’re playing a video game: what, I have to watch my file being loaded (and trust me, FF XII files can get large enough to take a while) as if my adventure has to be prepared for me? Such length here, though, is welcome. The introductory brass impresses the epic atmosphere of the game before the FF I Opening takes it away. Truly its majestic strings and proud trumpets sound enchanted and triumphant.

Pride.

The Rebel Army Theme. No other melody can so singularly convey the array of emotions evoked from pride. It is a march that lends itself to integrity and prevailing perseverance. The violins begin slow and moving, bringing to mind honor and loyalty to one’s own values. Soon the brass comes in, awakening and resolute. The persistence of the melody is soon accompanied by the chorus, adding greater harmony to the determination of the piece. The latter half of the piece is nearly identical to the first, only with more force. It’s a little underwhelming, not only in its slight redundancy but also because it does not benefit from the introduction of the brass and chorus like the first half. Still, the Rebel Army Theme is a venerable piece all its own.

This rendition was played as the finale of a concert (in 1997!), highly appropriate given the emotions it evokes. In the liner notes, Uematsu compared the concert to seeing his daughter leave his arms to marry a rich guy. An odd metaphor nonetheless, but certainly Uematsu’s work had graduated to greater esteem.

The Rebel Army Theme returns in the Distant Worlds 2002 medley and as its own piece in the piano opera for Final Fantasy I-III. Both renditions (and to a lesser extent, the original version), though, sound like generic marches, moving too fast to allow appreciation of the melody’s depth while sounding uninspired. Given the Rebel Army Theme’s similarity to the Opening of FF I, I’m surprised that these renditions could not capture a different air. Unfortunately, there have been few other renditions of the piece, a real shame given its age and aspiration.

The culmination of a journey. To look back in reminiscence…and yet feel calming relief from fulfillment. The Ending Credits from FF XIII expresses both sentiments, especially in its first 40 seconds. It starts with lush percussion, woodwinds, and strings that fall as if in reflection, and then rise as if eased. The piece then turns melancholy, appropriate for the following theme of “The Promise” that recalls the departure of Serah that began the journey. The primary theme then returns but in a more prideful manner, portraying the feeling of triumph that comes with a finale. But, the piece has not forgotten the wistfulness that the end presents, with the violins emphasizing that the journey is indeed over. The repetition of the primary theme, this time with more force, instills the thought that every event, every experience, has brought this moment to consciousness. The montage that played alongside this piece furthers this sentiment, playing through all the important scenes of the game.

I think it would have been more relevant, though, if the montage ended with Vanille and Fang falling from the sky instead of Snow and Serah’s carnival ride. The Ending Credits may contain “The Promise”, but its allusion to wistfulness appeals more to the finale with Vanille and Fang. The piece also lacks a definitive finish, perhaps mysteriously hinting at a continuation of the story (which, all things considered, did not happen in FF XIII-2). Nonetheless, the Ending Credits is a tour de force that captures the magnificent power and emotion of journey’s end.

It’s been a long day, and you put away your tools of the trade before settling down to rest. Servants of the Mountain would be a highly fitting piece to play. The introductory chord speaks to the finish of hard work, gradually building before a single string of notes expresses calming reminiscence, as if realizing perseverance from the difficulty of the day. The melody then builds to present triumph in its abrupt and forceful notes. It improvises before speeding up and touching on three emphasized notes that speak to overcoming challenge. The piece then cycles through until the end. Servants of the Mountain expresses at once satisfaction from hard work, and at once relief from the burden. Just to hear it is gratifying.

The original version is also remarkable, presenting a different tone. It is melancholy and tribal, entirely fitting for Mt. Gagazet. I believe the piece would work better in FFX if it was played during battles as well, similar to Colorless World from FF XIII. It would establish the struggle of conquering the mountain, both in its cold and challenge from vicious creatures.

Hamauzu revealed in the liner notes for the piano collections that he intended to transform each piece while still recalling their origins. Certainly he achieved his goal here, with the piano version perhaps appropriate for surviving Mt. Gagazet. This piece also remains one of the few to be vastly different from its original version, and yet with its similar chords achieve a refreshing feeling. I especially appreciate these sorts of interpretations (another example would be Gerudo Valley from the Zelda 25th anniversary symphony) because they give novel impressions of the melody, also implying the possibility of other conceptions.

-Honorable Mention: Zanarkand by Nobuo Uematsu. To dream and keep dreaming, and to inquire into the soul; that is Zanarkand.

Nothing makes an excellent first impression in video games like a captivating title theme, an effect almost entirely dependent on the music itself. While preludes benefit from complementary cinema, a single artwork for title screens allows the music to take center stage. In my experience, the main theme of Xenoblade Chronicles stands as the epitome, with Wishes not far behind. Wishes begins with a single, awakening piano note, followed by ascending and uplifting chords. The violins soon bring in the harmony, instilling a sense of modest hope before introducing the primary melody, a surprisingly simple C–D-E-F-G. FF XIII-2 may have lacked a sensible plot, but the main chord of Wishes expresses the unassuming yet deep motive of Serah: to see her sister again. Wishes is as much realization of hopeful possibility as it is encouragement from vision. To open your eyes and look to the horizon would be to hear Wishes play.

Wishes returns in three renditions elsewhere in FF XIII-2. Two of them sound sort of butchered, one because of the added lyrics and the other because the winds give a weak interpretation of the primary melody. The last one, found in the Closing Credits medley, is just as moving and deserves its own individual orchestration. It’s not terribly different from the original version, yet gives a more poignant impression. Pianos and strings introduce the composition, but instead a French horn soon takes the main melody, beautiful all its own. It conveys the tragedy of losing Serah, and yet recognizes the hope for her rebirth as a seeress. The strings also take the melody like in the original version, slightly more aspiring this time around. In both renditions, Wishes is truly stirring to hear.

-Honorable Mention: Win or Lose by Naoshi Mizuta. The best piece of jazz music I’ve ever heard, with excellent saxophone and piano work. It just makes me want to dance.

At once representative of the emotionless and uncompromising stare of Cloud Strife, who witnessed the brutal deaths of both his best friend and one of his love interests before him, and at once conveying the waking hope the cast has for defeating Sephiroth in spite of Aeris’s passing, the piano rendition of FF VII’s Main Theme is blended juxtaposition at its finest. The brief extension of the first note could be articulated as the admission of guilt, with the following chord characterizing slow yet freeing acceptance. The repetition of the melody speaks very much to the enduring difficulty of and lessons learned from regret. But the piece’s gradual emphasis on uplift comments on how growth in character slowly but surely becomes the victor. In that respect, the Main Theme of FF VII draws a parallel to the quieting yet remarkable moments of life. Unfortunately, the last section, however mysterious, is not nearly as remarkable as the main melody, and it perplexes me as to why they are both part of the same piece. I often skip to another track upon its arrival.

The original rendition of FF VII’s main theme, as well as its nearly identical Distant Worlds version (production values aside), bring to mind rebirth. They sound illuminating and moving, most fitting for Cloud’s realization of his identity as separate from Zack. The piece’s melody returns in the credits for Advent Children and Crisis Core, but its most triumphant rendition comes in the credits for the first Dissidia. Trumpets give a rousing interpretation of the melody in celebration of the end of the game. The wide and effective application of FF VII’s main theme truly adds to its prominence.

-Honorable Mention: Aeris’s Theme (Piano Version) by Nobuo Uematsu: One of the most heart-wrenching pieces I’ve ever listened to, expressing such loss with a descending explosion of emotion. Oddly enough, the Advent Children version sounds more powerful than the Piano collection version.

Imagine this: You’ve been experimented on for the past four years, have just finished off your antagonist, and simply wish to reunite with your loved one. But the corporation that messed with your DNA wants you dead as part of a cover-up. Such is the situation that befalls Zack Fair. Outside Midgar, a legion of soldiers confronts him. But what does Zack do? He smiles and gazes wistfully, shaking his head in recognition that this is the end. He affirms to himself before charging into battle one last time.

And what better a piece to accompany the climax? The Price of Freedom not only complements the scene but perfectly characterizes Zack, transcending the fight itself. A melancholy yet striking violin first enters, as if in remembrance of Zack’s motive to find Aeris. The following acoustic guitar expresses the feeling of unending that must fill Zack as he fights, tireless and breathless as he is. Soon the electric guitar takes the melody, instilling a sense of unfailing pride. Four times over it mesmerizes. But the violin that started the piece is not forgotten, quietly playing in the background as a reminder of why Zack fights. Then, the electric guitar fades out, as if Zack has realized that he cannot possibly win. And yet, Zack still fights, with the piece cycling back until it reaches the ultimate moment: release. The electric guitar explodes with one liberating note, followed by a chord that expresses a similar sentiment. It is, as if Zack has embraced his fate. The acoustic guitar ends the piece and departs without fading, as if saying “Farewell” to Zack without letting go of his memory.

But perhaps just as remarkable is that the title of the piece originates from a quote from Zack in the game, one that sounds quite natural in its scene before the final fight: “Boy oh boy. The Price of Freedom is steep.” Indeed, Zack. And you paid the price.

-Honorable Mention: Why (Remix) by Takeharu Ishimoto: Ever had a bad day? The first strum of the acoustic guitar feels like relief from admission of mistakes, with the following guitar work motivating.

I must admit. I am partial to music that appeals to melancholy and pride, and it may have very well decided the pieces of this list. Regardless, I would be hard pressed to think that any of them could fail to appeal, but there are plenty of other pieces from Final Fantasy that deserve merit: Terra’s Theme, Unrequited Love, and Memoro de la Stono, to name a few. I also admit that my lexicon of music may not be entirely accurate, so please excuse any incorrect attributions I may have made.

…but where to go from here? Perhaps we should first hope that Final Fantasy does not fold, for the occupation with the Lightning saga has alienated many a fan and halted the development of other, more creative works like Versus XIII. Of course, let us also not forget the travesty that is FF XIV, or that its new version will come far too late into the PS3’s life cycle.

Currently, the future of Final Fantasy’s music mainly rests on the talents of Ishimoto, Mizuta, and Mitsuto Suzuki who are employed by Square-Enix. Uematsu, Hamauzu, and Sakimoto have formed and run their own recording labels though are open to freelance work. Mizuta and Suzuki will be working on Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII, with Hamauzu hired as the primary composer. Given the trio’s exemplary work in FF XIII-2 (just forget about the lyrical pieces…), I am excited to hear more of their compositions, but am a little discouraged with the preoccupation with Lightning’s leitmotif as featured in Crimson Blitz. It may be the only piece yet released for LR: FF XIII’s soundtrack thus far, but the leitmotif was rather dull in FF XIII and does not sound very inspired here. Certainly it will be around, though, given the emphasis on Lightning who also appears to be the only playable character.

But, if the history of the series has proven anything, there is reason for hope. The expansion of Final Fantasy music into jazz, as well as the unconventional use of instruments in certain themed pieces (e.g., pianos in Saber’s Edge, a boss theme), speaks to the audacity and ingenuity of the series’ composers. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Final Fantasy music is its propensity for introducing striking melodies, ones that can be reconceived to evoke different emotions and yet never fail to grab the individual. I look forward to what’s next.

List by Juxtaposition7 (04/10/2013)

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