By Thomas Quillfeldt
Some 35 years old, the Japanese role-playing game genre doesn’t seem to have dimmed in popularity, with 2016 seeing the flagship JRPG series, Final Fantasy, enjoy its 84th game release (depending on how you count the numerous spin-offs, re-releases and mobile titles). Of course a major element that keeps fans coming back over and over is the music—that familiar sonic comfort blanket that envelops us when we enter a peaceful town, encounter a thrilling battle or enter a mysterious dungeon.
We had a quick whip round various members of the game music community—podcasters, composers, concert promoters—to see what their most beloved games and tracks were.
Thomas Böcker & Jonne Valtonen – Final Fantasy VII (1997)
“Final Fantasy VII is very close to my heart. It always felt very attractive to me because of the story which was mature for its time, which covered all sorts of emotions in one game. The first time I saw it was when my brother played it at home and it captured me right away.
“I love the piece 'Words Drowned by Firework' as it is such a beautiful, romantic piece which stands in stark contrast to the dark, somehow depressing, game world.”
Jonne Valtonen – Principal composer and arranger, Merregnon Studios Gameconcerts.com/jonne-valtonen
“Final Fantasy VII is one of those few games that made me really feel a sense of loss. Later, studying the game more closely for our Final Fantasy VII symphony [one of the suites in Final Symphony], it just strengthened this feeling for me. Somehow the game just gets under my skin, despite having a similar setup to other JRPGs (e.g. character tropes including the reluctant hero, the calculating villain, the comic relief, the caring woman, the tough woman; as well as the existential threat to the whole world).
“My favourite piece is 'Aeris’s Theme'—I think it´s one of the best that Nobuo Uematsu has written.”
Lori Syngajewski – Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Clarinetist & artist, Materia Collective @lsyngajewski
“Final Fantasy VII was the gateway JRPG for me. It was the first game that I picked up where I was sucked into the story rather than the gameplay. I was just blown away by the depth of storytelling (for a video game!). 'Aeris's Theme' and 'Opening - Bombing Mission' will always have a special place in my heart.”
Leon Cox – Secret of Mana (1993)
“My first JRPG is probably still my favourite – Square's Secret of Mana. During the dark winter of ’94, I picked up a battered, second-hand copy (the game had only been released here in the UK in November 1994, but someone had already either finished it or tired of it). My girlfriend (at the time) and I played the game obsessively until we had both completed the epic saga, although for some reason neither of us wanted to use the real-time simultaneous co-op feature. The flat echoed with the sample-laden sounds of Hiroki Kikuta's phenomenal 16-bit score, albeit sadly piped through the tinny, tiny mono speaker of a portable TV.
“My favourite piece of music from the game (and one of my favourite pieces of all time) remains the astonishing, mysterious yet joyful, 'Into the Thick of It', which still promises great adventure while retaining its uncanny power to conjure me back to that era, half my lifetime ago.”
Kate Remington – Chrono Trigger (1995) & Earthbound (1994)
“One of the aspects of music for JRPGs that never fails to amaze me is how much music the composers had to write for each of these games. The soundtracks for Chrono Trigger by Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu and Earthbound by Keichi Suzuki and Hirokazo Tanaka are lengthy explorations of a huge variety of Western music.
“What I love about the soundtrack for Chrono Trigger is that the music is an integral part of the story, adding a dimension to the locations and characters. 'Kingdom Trial' is a great example of a cue that creates a rich sense of place and action. In his notes about writing the soundtrack, Mitsuda explained that he follows the philosophy of balance in the universe, for example good and evil or major and minor. In 'Kingdom Trial', he subtly shifts between major and minor, from hope to despair. Although the orchestration is limited, it's easy to imagine the orchestral instruments that could bring this track to life.”
“'Silent Light', one of the tracks that Nobuo Uematsu wrote to complete the score, is another favourite of mine. The simplicity of the melody, the delicacy of the writing and the flow of 3/4 time give a lot of forward motion to this cue. 'Ruined World' is a powerful cue as well. The ambient wind sound and haunting metallic percussion make visiting this landscape almost unbearably painful. This cue seems to me like a precursor to the desolate ambient music in Fallout 3 and 4.
“And the soundtrack for Earthbound is so ahead of its time! The music actually figures into the adventure and that provided Suzuki and Tanaka all kinds of freedom to create cues that can reference anything—and they do! There's the Reggae-inspired 'Friendly Neighbors', which reminds me of UB40, or 'Enjoy Your Stay', a wonderful beguine. Listening to Earthbound again, I realise just how complex and diverse the score is. I also remembered that the soundtrack is 22 years old and not by Disasterpiece! It's THAT contemporary-sounding.”
Joshua Taipale – Chrono Trigger (1995)
“Chrono Trigger was my first ‘real’ JRPG. I really loved how the plot went to great efforts to focus on the characters and their interactions—everything about it is so masterfully crafted. I loved all the music, but 'Corridors of Time' stands out to me because when I first heard it (upon seeing 12,000 BC for the first time), it came as a total surprise. I just sat in front of my screen in awe before I remembered I was playing a game.”
Mark Robins – Final Fantasy VI (1994)
“I remember paying £63 in 1995 for an import copy of Final Fantasy III (as Final Fantasy VI was called back then on the American SNES)—that’s well over £100 in today’s money and the most I’d ever paid for a game. But it was student money well spent.
“I’ve never played a RPG with such a deep and well-rounded ensemble cast. Every character was just perfect and they all had their own backstories to discover; there was no single hero and I loved them all. But mostly I loved Locke and Terra. I wanted to be Locke so badly—he’s a treasure hunter and DEFINITELY not a thief—and I always thought he should have ended up with Terra rather than Celes. The whole game was magical—how could they fit an adventure so epic on a cartridge so small?
“'Terra’s Theme' is my favourite of all of Nobuo Uematsu’s tracks. So simple and yet so powerful, it is the ultimate march towards redemption. I’ve always loved video game music, but it was hearing the original orchestral arrangement of this that set me on the path to starting ClassicVGMusic and championing video game music in general. Without Terra’s Theme there might not be ClassicVGMusic, and without ClassicVGMusic I think life would have been very different for me. It has quite literally been a life-changing game.”
Lauren the Flute – Final Fantasy VI (1994)
“Final Fantasy VI captured my heart and never let it go. I love Nobuo Uematsu's use of character themes (which is at least a little reminiscent of how John Williams uses themes). My favourite track is 'Forever Rachel'—there's just something about it that breaks my heart every time I hear it.”
Pete “Noob” Boyle – Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (2008) / Persona 4 Golden (2012)
“Persona 4 sticks in my mind as one of my favourite JRPGs. I was initially drawn in by the beautiful, colourful graphics and by it being set in a school. After picking it up for a paltry £6 during a PlayStation Network one Christmas, I jumped in despite not having played a JRPG since Final Fantasy VII back in the day (for shame!); Persona 4 blew my tiny little mind away. The colours, the characters, the story… and the music!
“Persona 4’s music is quite simply sublime, with each piece eminently recognisable—none more so than Junes Theme. So catchy and joyful, this piece is constantly referenced throughout the game as well as playing at a location that pass through countless times during a playthrough. It’s not often that you get such a catchy tune in a game that you have to sing along, but speaking with friends about Persona 4 regularly sees them singing it at me! The game will always be a classic and Junes Theme will forever stay happily lodged in my brain”... **Goes off humming**
David Housden – Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
“Final Fantasy VIII is such a nostalgia-fest for me, as I first played it when I was 14 years-old (an impressionable age!). It’s also my favourite game score of all time and the bar to which I hold the entire series. Final Fantasy VII, IX and X all have beautiful moments and hold a special place in my heart but none quite have the same consistency as Final Fantasy VIII. Hearing this music for the first time had such a profound effect on me, it was the catalyst for my career, as I decided then and there that I wanted to be able to try and create something similarly beautiful and affecting for audiences.
“'Fisherman's Horizon' is probably my all-time favourite piece of Final Fantasy music. The melody is absolutely beautiful and it's backed up by a typically amazing harmony from Nobuo Uematsu, creating a tonally stunning tapestry.”
Viking Jesus – Xenoblade Chronicles (2010)
Journalist; producer & arranger, Materia Collective @VikingGamesLive
“It's so very hard to pick a favourite JRPG but Xenoblade Chronicles fits the bill the best. Maybe it was because it came at a time where most JRPGs were feeling stale or uninspired, but that game just hit all the right notes for me. It's also the only JRPG I've ever replayed because I loved it so much (I don't have a lot of time, so if I play an 80+ hour game TWICE, that really says something. It had a great story, characters, incredible world design and a simple to pick up—but tricky to master—combat system.
“Not to mention the amazing soundtrack which featured virtually every style of music I've ever enjoyed including my favourite non-boss battle theme of all time: 'Mechanical Rhythm'."
Frederik “Blip Blop” Lauridsen – The Legend Of Heroes: Trails In The Sky / Second Chapter (2004 & 2007)
“Part of what really made the games special for me is how the plot slowly and mysteriously develops. It's hard to truly appreciate until, in the second chapter, you learn about the real puppeteers behind events up to that point. The games do recycle some classic JRPG clichés (I could live without some of the teenage romance) but overall, they have decent combat mechanics, a really good story as well as well-written and diverse characters. I can’t wait for the English language port of the third and final chapter, scheduled for 2017.
“The soundtrack is composed by ‘Falcom Sound Team jdk’ (Hayato Sonoda, Wataru Ishibashi and Takahide Murayama). It isn't among the very best JRPG soundtracks, but it still does have some great standout tracks. My favourite is probably 'Fateful Confrontation'—an epic boss battle theme which plays when you fight some of the baddest of the bad guys. What makes it so great is that the track is essentially the culmination of another piece of music ('The Enforcers') that plays during earlier encounters with these particular bosses. When 'The Enforcers' plays, you know shit's about to go down. But when it's 'Fateful Confrontation', it's on a whole other level.”
Marty Strauss – Super Mario RPG (1996)
Producer & arranger, Materia Collective Materiacollective.com/marty_strauss
“I don't know how to begin talking about my love for Super Mario RPG, except by stating that I don't remember anything before Super Mario RPG! I guess that's how nostalgia works: by striking when you're vulnerable. Nothing can ever beat the wonder and amazement I felt playing this game, my first RPG, on my older brother's SNES9X emulator.
“Although Yoko Shimomura's soundtrack is fantastic, my favourite track is 'Fight Against Culex', which is actually Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy IV boss theme—Square and Nintendo produced Super Mario RPG together. The collaboration made the game quite unlike any of the games in the series that came after.”
Thanks to Sebastian Wolff and the Materia Collective for conducting a quick poll of their favourite JRPGs—it seems like there hasn’t yet been a better period for the genre than Square’s 1994-97 output. Tallied responses:
- Chrono Trigger (30 responses)
- Final Fantasy VI (18)
- Final Fantasy VII (14)
- Final Fantasy IX (13)
- The Golden Sun series (9)
- Earthbound, Kingdom Hearts, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Xenogears, Xenoblade Chronicles (6)
- Final Fantasy Tactics, Star Ocean: the Second Story (5)