Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Final Fantasy games defined by one song (Part 1)

A long ago in the far-off land of 1987, a fledgling video game production company called Square released what would be their last game on the Famicom (NES to us in the west). Clearly history didn't work out the way they thought it would because FF13 just came out not too long ago and we're already being bombarded with screenshots and trailers for the fourteenth installment.
Aside from some brilliant gameplay and fun graphics, Final Fantasy boasted some wonderful music from the mind of Nobuo Uematsu. He has composed hundreds of unique songs for 13 of the series' installments beginning with FF1.
As fans of the series will tell you, each game has its unique flavor. The characters always stand out and the music is always fresh and sets the mood perfectly. I'm willing to bet that you could play Uematsu's music on the radio and pass it off as classical and people would eat it up.
With so many great songs, some just become fused with the very essence of the game. Naming a Final Fantasy will immediately spark a tune in the mind of the fans. Sure, the Victory Theme or the Crystal Theme or the Chocobo Theme are all great (and all playing in your head right now), but they're used in all of the games, so they won't be included on this list. Also, each game has its own battle theme and boss theme, so it'd be easy to use those. But who said I liked it easy? I'll be using music used only in the specific games that define the game for me. For me, these tunes are as follows; (Please note, I won't be doing every FF game. They're all great, but these are my favorites)

Final Fantasy
Matoya's Theme

Final Fantasy takes all of the fantasy cliches we know and uses them to its advantage. We all know the rescue-the-princess scenario. We've read it for years, it's been force-fed to us by Disney, and even Super Mario did it. Any NES game that had you save a princess ended shortly after the deed was complete. However, Final Fantasy made it the first quest. After that you were free to roam the world by airship, boat, and even canoe. One of the oldest fantasy cliches is the old, evil witch. When the party stumbles upon Matoya you expect to find a new enemy. The dark, foreboding music seems to invite this feeling. However, only a few moments in you realize that this music is cheerful. And Matoya is a friendly character who needs your help. This character interaction sets you off on your real quest. Matoya and her backwards-talking brooms invite you to a gaming world where not everything is quite what it seems and puzzles and characters lie in every part of the map. Matoya and her crystal help set the stage for the whole Final Fantasy series.

Final Fantasy IV
The Lunarians

I know I'm skipping ahead by a lot, but I never played FF2 and 3 enough to really do them justice. Instead of trying, I'm going to move ahead and get to the meat of this article.
Where Final Fantasy played with fantasy cliches, Final Fantasy IV helped create new ones. The man with no knowledge of his past, the love triangle, the villainous brother, the ninja womanizer. Ok, maybe not all of those are real. Final Fantasy IV was a story about changing one's station in life while respecting the past. Cecil is a Dark Knight who works for the kingdom of Baron. He is treated like a son by the king and has a family of his own in Kain, Rosa, and Cid. However, Cecil comes to realize he has no identity. He hides behind the mask of the Dark Knight, is afraid to show his emotions to Rosa, and is quickly becoming the king's go-to man for striking without asking why. Cecil finally begins to question the direction his life is taking and he asks the king why he must fight civilians and rob the all-important crystals. For his change of heart, Cecil is ordered from the castle on a mission that will brand him a traitor to his country and a fearful symbol of oppression to everyone else.
The game, itself, reinforces the idea of change by placing us, yet again, in a fantasy world and using the narrative scrawl as the journey begins. Final Fantasy IV sets us up for another swords-and-sorcery adventure.
Midway through the game, Cecil must scale the Mountain of Ordeals in order to shed his Dark Knight persona and become a warrior of light; a Paladin. He tosses aside the mask he hides behind and shows his true face and flowing purple locks. The mysterious light he meets there calls him his son, sending Cecil on a journey of self-discovery. This journey eventually takes him to the moon where he learns that he is half alien. In this scene, the Final Fantasy series breaks with tradition and opens up a new world of opportunity. They fuse fantasy with sci-fi and scribe one of the great video game stories of all time. "The Lunarians" is the music that underscores his adventures on the moon. It is a song of mystery and enchantment. It inspires a feeling of discovery and vulnerability.
It comes as no surprise that Cecil embraces his new life and uses his experiences to return home and rule Baron. Like the Final Fantasy series itself, Cecil has become the keeper of fantasy and sci-fi and has embraces the family he has always known while accepting the family he never did.

Final Fantasy V
Clash on the Big Bridge

I promised no battle themes, but this one gets a pass. Where Final Fantasy IV was a serious tale of self-discovery, Final Fantasy V was light on story, but heavy on gameplay. All you need to know about FFV is that it involves four heroes trying to save the world from an evil sorcerer. In some ways the game seems like a parody of Final Fantasy IV. It's lighthearted and it's fun. What the game lacks in deepness or story or character it makes up for in gameplay. Final Fantasy V has some of the best gameplay in the series.
It really says something when the most memorable character in a game isn't in the main party. In fact, Gilgamesh doesn't appear until 1/3 through the game as the villain's bumbling sidekick. He has a penchant to one-liners, swords, and terrible puns. Gilgamesh's stay as the ineffectual villain begins when Bartz and company travel to Galuf's world, following the villain Exdeath in order to make sure he remains sealed in his forest prison. It makes sense in context. Kind of. After Galuf saves Bartz, Faris, and Reina, the quartet escape Exdeath's castle and head toward Galuf's castle, Val. On the bridge, they are ambushed by the comical Gilgamesh, who begins his stint as the Goldfish Poop Gang for the game. Gilgamesh eventually becomes a likable villain who is punished by Exdeath for being the pushover he is. Gilgamesh eventually redeems himself by saving the heroes at the end of the game.
"Clash on the Big Bridge" is what Final Fantasy V ends up becoming; an awesomely goofy but sometimes serious celebration of RPGs.

Final Fantasy VI
Dancing Mad

Perhaps Uematsu's magnum opus. Dancing Mad is the icing on the cake that is Final Fantasy VI. Fans are often split between FFVI and FFVII as their favorite, often leading to internet arguments about which is the superior game. Though I side with VI, VII is still great fun.
Final Fantasy VI is the game that really took the Final Fantasy series to the next level. It gave us a tragic story, an interesting villain, and great battle mechanics. It also moved the environment from the old-school fantasy realms to a steampunk stage that would set the mood for Final Fantasies to come.
Dancing Mad is first head on the opening title screen. As the logo appears, the synthesized choir sings before leading you into the first scenes. You won't hear that again until the final battle. Dancing Mad takes the player on an adventure. Like the rest of FFVI, Dancing Mad goes through several changes. It sounds like the archetypal villain-on-an-organ theme that we've come to expect, but then, as the player whittles away at Kefka's monument to non-existence, the song changes. It comes in stanzas, adapting itself to the image on screen. The demon has the ominous breathing and organ, the second part becomes a playful yet terrifying chorus among the many humanoid characters, the third sounds like something out of a church with a heavenly choir and the appropriate figures in the foreground as beams of light shine through the overcast sky. When the party rises above the cloud they are treated to an evil rock and roll, again on the organ. Kefka's final stand invokes villainous stereotypes, modern instruments, and even a riff on his own in-game theme song.
Speaking of theme songs, Dancing Mad continues after his death and leads the player on a musical travelogue through each of the game's fourteen main characters before it all builds up to the finale and the Final Fantasy main theme. It's enough to bring tears to anyone's eyes after spending so much time with a group of characters that you've learned and lived with for over a year of their lives.
What is Final Fantasy VI? A story of the struggle of life. Each character overcomes his or her hardships in order to face true evil. FFVI features the protagonists at the lowest point of any of the FF games. Kefka wins. He completely destroys their home planet and everyone must suffer through it and struggle to live. Ultimately FFVI teaches that the human struggle to preserve itself and live is something of beauty. We must always strive to go on, even when the madness sets in.

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