If you missed last week’s installment, check here for the five worst Final Fantasy soundtracks.
As the middle ground, it’s easy to mistake this as a throwaway part of the ranking—neither the hallowed top ranks nor the bowels of Final Fantasy. It’s the leftovers from those categories. A holding space.
Or is it?
Personally, this is the section of ranking that was not only the most difficult, but also crucial and contentious. I knew these scores would be here. But even as I wrote their ordering shifted, arguing for just a slight edge over their companions.
This is the border, the liminality, this is where the skirmish happens. Neither the “best” nor the “worst,” they are the most interesting. These are the Final Fantasy soundtracks that demonstrate not only the failure of ranked lists, but also their potential utility as a critical and rhetorical tool.
Why is it that we feel the impulse to rank anyway? Why does another person’s supercilious ordering instill such polarizing emotions? Why must we look knowing our own position is just as likely to be inflexibly in opposition?
I don’t know. I do it too. The drive is strong.
It doesn’t matter where you or I or anyone places anything in a hierarchy. They’re fake. But they move us to respond regardless of knowing that. Even when they happen internally. This list is as much an exercise in self frustration as anything else.
There’s a thousand ways to approach writing about games and their soundtracks. Placing them in historical, mechanical, or autobiographical context. Sometimes we talk about the hardware limitations and sociopolitical environment.
The point of this exercise is not to strong arm a point of view as the New Truth, but to harness all those impulses and conflicted emotions, the nostalgia and the appreciation, the things we adore and detest and see what shakes out.
These soundtracks are neither the best, nor the worst in Final Fantasy. And because of that they’ve afforded us an opportunity to talk about what makes a good soundtrack, what makes a good Final Fantasy soundtrack, and the often arbitrary regards we assign things.
It’s not the best of the SNES final fantasies, but it’s a solid performer. Uematsu is hot off IV and gearing up for what many consider his best work (they’re wrong, but I understand why they think this).
Songs like “Sealed Away” simultaneously echo and presage, pulling from well-trod motifs both in JRPG and traditional composition. But it’s when the central melody breaks into a phrase that evokes palm-muted guitar that Uematsu hints at future sonic landscapes and palettes. It’s a strong, even jarring textural moment in an otherwise rote piece.
“Harvest” has him returning to directly quote his Celtic inspirations, with a generous helping of SPC700 handclaps.
In some ways, Final Fantasy V is Uematsu at his most playful. There’s enough technological capability in the sound subsystem, and IV has given him familiarity with it to experiment with understanding, while retaining constraints that later gen consoles would remove.
The “Huh!” sample in “Mambo de Chocobo” is a prime example. But tracks like the ones previously mentioned, the chaotic overly orchestrated “Run” and the percussive and exclamatory “What,” gesture to the expanded sonic palette and sequencing freedom the SNES gave Uematsu.
V is Uematsu showcasing his interest in bass and organ-heavy rock in a way that would finally bear real fruit in VII. You can’t fuck with “The Battle on the Big Bridge”—still one of the entire series’ most solid bangers.
Neither as enduring as IV or as envelope-pushing as VI, V holds a middle ground by circumscribing the liminality of Uematsu’s career with solid melodies, a fantastic understanding of the strengths of the S-SMP, and an undeniable use of sick bass riffs.
Also…That Gilgamesh track. Just damn.
A lot of people think of XII as filler. And they’re not wrong. It’s not the big resonant character themes that dominate so much of Uematsu’s work. Nor is it specifically a cinematic or narrative score either. Much of the soundtrack isn’t particularly memorable. In these regards, yes, there is a great deal of “filler” happening here.
Hitoshi Sakamoto gets deep into his brass orchestrations. He doesn’t shy away from string ensembles. There’s quite a lot of bells, and woodwinds too. Chimes shimmer out through the low sweeps of cello and rumbling of horn. When people talk about FFXII, Star Wars comes up. The comparison is obvious aside from the clear story beats and character direction. The soundtrack definitely evokes John Williams compositional and orchestral ideas. It’s also easy to draw parallels to Jerry Goldsmith. Perhaps nowhere is the influence of the two of them as obvious as in the Sandsea theme.
But it’s too easy and reductive to draw the line there and move on. To say this is tepid filler that’s perhaps unaware of its cinematic orchestral undergirding.
Because for every track that may seem lackluster—there’s a Tomb of Raithwall.
Or the Cerobi Steppe.
Or The Salikawood
Or Eryut Village, and so on.
Unlike many Final Fantasy soundtracks, XII is as detached from it’s contexts as it is tethered to them. When composing, Sakamoto cited a desire to focus on the emotionality of the spaces in the game rather than thematic and character motivation. He did this to prevent game changes from affecting his work (wise, give Final Fantasy’s development), but the unintended consequence is a soundtrack freed of the hyper specificity of something like IX, which, as friend, colleague, and Paste contributor Cameron Kunzelman pointed out, is all but unlistenable extracted from its context. These are songs threaded with the emotional interiority of their spaces much in the way Majula does in Dark Souls 2.
You can just…listen to it. Unhindered by the baggage of the videogame it’s drawn from.
Okay except for “Kiss Me Good Bye.” You can’t listen to that. It’s just…bad.
By the time XI arrived we’d already had several entries to question what a Final Fantasy even is. What are the hallmarks, what defines the series?
Tactics was a weird diversion into strategy gameplay. VII and VIII gave us worlds filled with modernity, themes of capitalism, bioethics, and private military companies (and the academies that feed them). We moved from chibi sprites borne of Amano’s self-conscious fixation on European elegance to Nomura’s popstars.
XI is an MMO, and really, it’s more of a visual DIKUMUD than anything. For the first time Final Fantasy allowed you to build a party of actual friends, and grind for hours and hours and hours. There are crystals and world ending evil, corrupt nation-states, titanic boss fights, Chocobos, and winding dungeons. But is it a Final Fantasy? Nothing complicated this question the way XI did.
How do you score that? Well, the obvious answer (and one that has plagued the franchise from its earliest days) is to borrow the motifs established previously and embellish them. But you can’t remix the Prelude forever.
Final Fantasy may have had us listen to the same songs for dozens of hours, but XI gave us songs for hundreds and hundreds of hours. MMOs are long. And with no real characters to lean on (a protagonist is you!), and lacking a more linear narrative structure, location themes bear the weight of all the musical resonance.
Nobuo Uematsu, Naoshi Mizuta, and Kumi Tanioka scored the original OST with Mizuta eventually taking over wholly for subsequent expansions. And despite Mitsuda being too busy with Xenosaga, “Voyager” absolutely shares a musical lineage with Chrono Cross.
Perhaps what is most noteworthy about XI’s soundtrack is its gentleness. Sure, there are moments of epic excitation, but this is background music. Lo-fi beats you can wait around to grind Valkurm Dunes to. The quiet renfaire jam of Ronfaure, the harpsichord and string chamber music of Ru’lude Garden, or the simple KK Slider acoustic guitar of the Mog House.
Where other Final Fantasies require a measure of assertion to power players through 40 hours of constant narrative and statistical progression, XI wants to be inhabited. Crafting, wandering walkways in Juno, or talking with friends in a virtual world need a different touch.
Masashi Hamauzu. #MicDrop. Honestly, let this guy do more.
This soundtrack has a dozen vocal tracks. The first entry abandons any connection to previous Final Fantasies. No “Prelude” and the Chocobo theme is so unrecognizable that Uematsu doesn’t even get an acknowledgement. But it is tremendous in its own right.
The sequels are also fantastic, though less even. Bringing in Mitsuto Suzuki and Naoshi Mizuta for XIII-2 and Lightning Returns breathes an imperfect life into the trilogy as a whole.
Sometimes it doesn’t work, but not often. And the reconnecting of previous Final Fantasy songs in new arrangements is not unwelcome.
Okay, some of the vocal tracks are…not good. This is a fantastic messy experiment in texturing an entire universe in sound. It’s chaotic and messy and fails stunningly at times. There’s also the issue of Sazh (who is a Black man with a fucking bird living in his Afro) being saddled with an extremely conspicuous jazz theme, even when that theme slaps. It’s problematic at BEST. But then, so is Sazh.
Still the vast array of styles and genres work swirl around one another in delightful ways, building up an entire universe to situate the most gigantic of Final Fantasies inside of and complicating the totality of XIII.
XIII is, at its core, a showcase of masterful composition. Phrases are constructed with an indelible understanding of genre and the steadiest of hands. And this is probably its greatest weakness. It never truly achieves the heights of other entries. But even at its nadir, the strength of Hamauzu’s musical understanding and intuition works both contextually and apart from the game. When Hamauzu is at the top of his game (and he is often) he is an untouchably accomplished composer.
The capstone of the middle five, this is arguably one of my most personally conflicted rankings. There’s a world where VI takes home the gold without question. If I made this list months ago, or a week from now, it could be entirely different by shifting just this one entry.
Which is why I’ve put it here at number six. On the threshold between the contentious middle ground and the stiff and expected top ranks. This is a hungry soundtrack by a vicious composer.
And it belongs here, where the real scrappers are.
Is this Uematsu’s best work? His best from the SNES era? No, but this was him going out in spectacular fashion.
If Final Fantasy V was Uematsu’s epic training montage, VI is him in the final round of the final bout with the preppy blonde bully. Battered, bloodied, and at a career point where he could have valiantly thrown in the towel… this is Uematsu summoning every last bit of technical and compositional knowledge he could bring to bear with the S-SMP and leaving it all on the field.
From a dazzling arrangement of genres and sonic palettes, he somehow pulls together a cohesive score that from its most tragic to it’s silliest phrases is a complete and cogent musical thought. Blazing rock organ progressions slam into weeping harp and synthetic flute. The capricious oddity of Kefka’s theme crescendos into the monstrous stand-alone rock opera of “Dancing Mad.” It shouldn’t work together, but it does.
This is Uematsu showing you how to win.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.