Nobuo Uematsu has lived a rather interesting life.
Not ever musician gets to live the dream of being a famous composer or rock star, many of them play small gigs and burn out or must find a day job. Many others end up working for movies and television, or worse, advertising. Some, end up working in video games.
Uematsu started his career with Square in 1985, and while he has worked on many, many, video game soundtracks he is best known for his work on the Final Fantasy series. Despite the restrictions of 8-bit games allowing only a handful of different sounds and therefore notes to be available, Uematsu was able to create many very catchy and impressive short tunes that would naturally be repeated over and over during game play. It is a unique challenge that most musicians never face, creating a short, maybe thirty second instrumental song, with a maximum of eight notes, that needs to be enjoyable to hear in repetition a multitude of times. In the modern era, many would know and agree that this is a talent worthy of respect, but it took decades for Uematsu, and the uncanny music industry he was involved in, to be recognized.
As video games advanced, Uematsu was able to produce more and more elaborate songs for the soundtrack of Square’s games, and this perhaps best heard by the natural changes to the “Crystal Theme” or “Prelude,” this jingle is included as the opening song to every Final Fantasy game and has become something of a tradition for the series, and with every incarnation Uematsu modifies it just a little, added a little bit here and there. Thankfully someone has compiled them all into one video:
All Crystal Themes:
It is difficult, maybe even impossible, to pinpoint the moment when Uematsu had broken through. At what point did the soundtracks of Final Fantasy, or perhaps another game, connect with people in a powerful enough of a way to earn Uematsu and the entire profession of video game musician credence? Final Fantasy Seven was the most popular in the series and was the first to have fully orchestrated songs, so that seems like a logical point, but a lot of Seven’s popularity stemmed from the unprecedent success and popularity of Final Fantasy Six, arguably the best game on the entire Super Nintendo Entertainment system, and partially because of a famous opera scene when a very nearly opera song was created with the limitation of 16-bit computer programming. The game’s prior has amazingly popular songs as well, but Final Fantasy Ten was the first in the series, on the PlayStation 2, and the first that felt like a full fledged interactive movie, and its soundtrack was absurdly popular. What was the breaking point for recognition from the fans of the games and what was the breaking point the generally music listening audience?
We may never know.
But what we do know is that it happened.
In 2002 Uematsu decided he would take his popular video game songs from the Final Fantasy series on the road, as a mother fucking rock band, appropriately called The Black Mages. It was a logical next step for his musical career. The Black Mages would release four studio albums and eventually transform into the Earthbound Papas which tours like The Black Mages did, but have not released any albums to date.
In 2011, at least I think it was 2011, the impossible happened, multiple Final Fantasy songs were entered into the Classic FM Hall of Fame. The popularity of Uematsu and his video game music had become so mainstream that his songs were now considered among the greatest pieces of modern classical music, which is great, because there are.
This is where the story reaches the final arch of Uematsu adventure. I do not know if Uematsu dreamed of being a great composer or rock star and had to settle for writing music for video games, or if his ambitious in life were more mundane and temperate in his youth, nonetheless he accomplished everything a musician could hope to accomplish. He had a successful career doing something different with his talents, but from there he was able to become a rock star, as well as a world renowned classical composer. Uematsu is the Beethoven of video game music.
All of this, and the song of the hour has had no mention. For me, the music of Uematsu, and Final Fantasy, have a similar appreciation, popularity and power to the games from which they stem. Every Final Fantasy game is different and everyone has a different favorite, but the debate about which game in the series is greatest often comes down to two by die hard fans, Six and Seven.
As stated before Final Fantasy Seven is to this day the most popular, whether or not it sold the most copies, most everyone will agree it is the most popular; but that does not make it necessarily the best. Final Fantasy Six was lightning, it pushed the Super Nintendo to it’s limits and was revolutionary in every aspect of RPGs. Fourteen playable characters, all with unique abilities, personalities and back stories. Sixteen-bit spirits that had multiple stances and movements that enabled them to emote every possible emotion. A story that was highly interesting, an unforgettable villain, great game play, and yes, an excellent soundtrack. It is highly possible the only reason Final Fantasy Seven was so successful was do to the excellence of Final Fantasy Six. By riding the popularity of it’s predecessor and receiving a huge marketing campaign that was fueled entirely from Six’s successes, Final Fantasy Seven became the most popular of all time in the series.
As you can tell, I am firmly in the Final Fantasy Six camp. Perhaps I am biased, the time in my life when I had the most time to play video games was the heyday of the Super Nintendo, so I may always be more in love with that system and its games than anything else.
|Cloud and Aeirth - |
by Yoshitaka Amano
“A love that will never be, and a hatred, that always will.”
That was how they advertised Final Fantasy Seven. It was a powerful single sentence that revealed a lot of what to expect in Final Fantasy Seven. The love interest would be lost, and the villain would never be forgiven.
When we examine the list of the most popular songs by Uematsu, many from Final Fantasy Seven take the front stage, notably the antagonist, Sephiroth’s theme “One Winged Angle” or the tragic love interest, Aerith’s theme appropriately called “Aerith’s Theme.” The hatred that would always be and the love that could never. A lot of people cried when Aeirth died.
|Terra - by Yoshitaka Amano|
I never thought of Terra’s theme as exclusively hers. It first plays when you reach the overworld map, so I always thought of it as Final Fantasy Six’s “Overworld Theme,” but apparently it is Terra’s. This is possibly my favorite song from Final Fantasy Six, and in turn is possibly my favorite Final Fantasy song.
To be honest, a heavier reimaging of Terra’s theme is what really makes me love it so much. I have had a very difficult time tracking down the creator of this remix, but I believe now to be someone called Ailsean, and it is called “Terra in Black.”
Terra in Black:
There is a fun parallel here. The two magical women of the two most renowned Final Fantasy games have themes that have stood out, at least to me, as the two best songs by Uematsu. The more spoken game of the two having the more known sorceress and theme, but an undying and endearing fan favorite keeps the other preposterously popular. In the end I cannot really choose between the two, so let us have both, Terra and Aeirth the mystical women of the two most important Final Fantasies, and their beautiful themes given to us by man living the music dream.
Until next month, keep on rocking in the free world.
- King of Braves