By Alex Schmitz
Final Fantasy is one of the most historic and well known series in gaming. It has been innovative not only in game play and storytelling, but also in gaming soundtracks. The legendary composer for most of the series, Nobuo Uematsu, has performed this music in orchestras around the world. I will be highlighting two great tracks from each numbered game in the series to show the breadth of the series’ musical accomplishments.
(Editor’s Note: Want to listen to the track? Click on the song name!)
Final Fantasy I
Also known as the “Prologue” or the “Main Theme,” this track plays in almost every Final Fantasy game and is considered the theme for the series as a whole. It reminds me of music from a graduation ceremony or a wedding. Though it has been remade many times, there’s something about the original version that brings us back to an earlier, more innocent time in gaming history.
Also called the “Prelude,” this classic track has reappeared in many games in the series. As you might expect, this piece is associated with the various magical crystals used throughout the series. It’s a simple up and down march of notes, yet it suggests such mystery and magic.
Final Fantasy II
Though it’s one of the less popular titles in the series, II had some nice music and this piece tops them all. It is a counterpart to the “The Imperial Army”: where this theme is the leitmotif of the protagonists’ party, the other is the motif for the antagonists of the game. It’s not too upbeat and has a hint of sadness in it, yet it still inspires you to fight against the forces of darkness.
Final Fantasy II debuted these famous yellow birds as well as their famous theme. It’s another piece that has appeared in almost every game in the series. Even this simple first attempt captures the happiness and upbeat nature this theme would come to be known for.
Final Fantasy III
Uematsu is famous for composing soul-crushingly sad character pieces for many of the Final Fantasy women. This piece is no exception. Even in it’s simple 8-bit form, it feels melancholic and beautifully tragic.
Also called “Legend of the Eternal Wind,” this theme plays over the world map screen. This orchestra fully realizes the beauty and grandness of this track. It reminds me of the music from a Hayao Miyazaki film, which is certainty an outstanding compliment.
Final Fantasy IV
As the musical leitmotif for the relationship between Cecil and Rosa, this theme captures both the beautiful, happy heights of love as well as the tragic lows. This Nintendo DS version amplifies the emotion with added instruments and audio quality.
Also known as “Cecil’s Theme,” this track plays whenever your party is in an airship. You can tell Uematsu was enjoying the increased specs of the SNES allowing him to be more ambitious. The drums in the background gives the feel of a military march up until the crescendo of the song near the middle where everything gets cranked up to 11.
Final Fantasy V
Also known as “Clash on the Big Bridge” or “Battle with Gilgamesh,” this is one of the most iconic battle themes in video game history. It’s unique opening melody leads into one of the most upbeat exiting themes in the series. Many people remember this battle as much for the music as they do for its difficulty and the unique character of Gilgamesh.
This is the main theme of the game, and for good reason. It was the first main theme in the series to not be used as an overworld theme, but was rather the background theme for the intro of the game. Something about the way it begins with the trumpet blasts pitching higher really gets me exited to begin an epic quest.
Final Fantasy VI
This piece is used multiple times throughout the game, most notably as the overworld theme and as the opening theme. It remains one of the most popular themes in the series and has been rearranged multiple times throughout the years. The haunting flute melody really carries this piece. It’s mysterious and sounds fantastical, as it should, yet it also foreshadows that this game is not going to be as happy-go-lucky as some of the previous entries in the series.
When this game came out in 1994, it was unheard of for a video game track to last eighteen minutes and incorporate 4 distinct movements. This final boss theme perfectly represents the game’s insane villain with the use of pipe organs and a chorus. It’s an epic track that inspires fear and awe as it winds through its musical movements. “Kefka’s Theme” almost made this list because it captures the character’s insanity, but “Dancing Mad” encapsulates Kefka’s malice and overwhelming power.
Final Fantasy VII
Perhaps one of the most iconic video game themes of all time, it personifies the coldhearted villain Sephiroth. It is ridiculously popular and overrated, kind of like Sephiroth himself. Nevertheless, it impresses me every time I hear it and remains one of my favorite tracks for any villain. This version is from the film Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children.
Also called “Aeris’ Theme,” this fan-favorite has been officially adapted and arranged nearly a dozen times. I’m pretty sure everyone on the Internet knows why this piece makes grown men cry. It’s arguably the saddest theme in the series and one of the most beautiful tracks in video game history.
Final Fantasy VIII
Though VIII has some of the best battle themes in the series, none of them can compare to this one. It only plays during the dream sequences when the player controls Laguna (who, appropriately, uses a machine gun,) yet it stuck out in players’ minds because it’s so catchy and iconic. The electronic beats and fast pace energize this piece, getting even the most lazy RPG fans pumped up and ready for battle.
The title means “Fated Children” in Latin. Uematsu would open the Dear Friends-Music from Final Fantasy concerts with this piece, calling it his favorite because it was his first experiment to combine a choir and orchestra. It’s a standout piece among all Final Fantasy music because not only is it the first fully orchestrated Final Fantasy track, but it has an epic choral part and is the best piece from Final Fantasy VIII.
Final Fantasy IX
It’s a short, melodic piece based on the D Dorian mode and is contrapuntal in nature. Despite its lack of length, the theme has been included in many official arrangements and compilations and played several times during live performances. This title theme is not one of the more popular tracks in the series, but it embodies Final Fantasy as a whole. Whenever I hear it, I see the opening title screen of Final Fantasy IX in my head and remember my adventures with that terrific game. It’s very simple, yet very beautiful.
I won’t spoil the moment, but let’s just say this music plays during a pivotal moment for the main character. It’s still beautiful even without having nostalgia for the original scene. For a theme that’s only used once, it had a pronounced effect on everyone who played the game. The music doesn’t loop either; it’s two minutes of unique, moving music. This piece demonstrates what Uematsu can do with a variety of more unusual instruments.
Final Fantasy X
This main theme plays during the opening of this PS2 classic and at important plot points. Uematsu got the idea of the tune for the opening theme from a flutist he consulted for help. Much like another sad piano theme earlier in this list, “To Zanarkand” is regarded as one of the best pieces in the series and stands up as one of the best video game tracks ever.
The title means “Isn’t it Wonderful” in Japanese. Sung by the Japanese artist RIKKI, this is perhaps the best of the vocal songs in the series. It even reached the top ten Japanese music charts. Uematsu struggled when composing this romance theme and was searching for a singer with a unique, soft voice. I certainly think he succeeded, creating a song that I can honestly call unique and new.
Final Fantasy XI
This track’s slow pace and peaceful melody definitely match the beautiful woodland region it’s named after. It reminds me of another great peaceful town theme, “Border Village Dali” from Final Fantasy IX.
Another great vocal piece, this time sung in English. Though Final Fantasy XI had multiple composers, the two I’ve chosen were both composed by Uematsu. Singer Izumi Masuda has an amazing range and is able to hold high, powerful notes for long periods of time. If that wasn’t impressive enough, there’s a full orchestra and choir backing her up.
Final Fantasy XII
“Epic” is a word that gets thrown out a lot these days. It loses some of its meaning when it’s used too frequently. However, I can confidently say that this theme is indeed epic. The heavy march is backed up by a full choir belting out beautiful yet intense notes of battle.
This battle theme begins grandly and carries that feeling all the way to the end. Whenever the chimes appear in the background, it creates a rather unusual tension building sound. Around the one minute mark, this reaches a crescendo and for a moment, it sounds more like something out of a horror movie than a battle theme. For uniqueness alone, this track makes it on the list.
Final Fantasy XIII
This piece reminds me of another famous opening theme, “Bombing Mission” from Final Fantasy VII. They both have a mysterious, mechanical buildup before the main melody comes in. And boy does this melody shine. The full orchestra gives this theme power along with the beauty of the notes. Near the end, the melody fades and it returns to the simple buildup from the beginning of the track.
This track plays during most of the boss fights and combines piano, drums, and trumpet to create a sweeping theme that changes multiple times before it reaches its crescendo. While it works well as a boss theme, it’s melody is dramatic enough that it feels like it could be used as a love theme.
Final Fantasy XIV
Composed by Uematsu as the main theme for XIV and sung by American musician Susan Calloway, this theme has a lot of variety. It starts with a choir chant but quickly transitions to Calloway singing with a quiet acoustic guitar in the background. Then the choir returns with more force than ever, followed by Calloway rocking out with an electric guitar, drums, and the choir in the background. It ends with Calloway and the choir singing a cappella, ending one of the most interesting themes ever used in the series.
One of the field map themes in XIV, this track combines some quiet piano with some chimes, violins, and cymbals to create a remarkably peaceful theme. Once again, Uematsu shows us that simple tracks can sometimes be the most beautiful.
Obviously there are many other great Final Fantasy tracks out there that I didn’t have time to list. If you enjoyed what you heard here, search them out! Nobouo Uematsu has done a terrific job with this series throughout the years and is up there with Nintendo’s Koji Kondo as one of the masters of video game composing.
Alex Schmitz is a Film major in the Honors Tutorial College at Ohio University. He hosts Shredded Cels, an anime podcast, at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/tech-heads-avw-productions/id476169958 and writes for ZeldaInformer.com. Follow him on Twitter @DarthSchmitz to read his writing and hear his opinions on gaming, movies, and pretty much anything that comes to his mind.