Week Three: Best Song Ever
SPOILER ALERT!! This feature by its very nature contains spoilers for every Final Fantasy game. If you don’t want your cherry popped, make sure to skip the bits about games you haven’t played yet.
Of all the many topics I’ll be discussing during this project, none plumb the depths of my ignorance the way music does. I know virtually nothing about the technical or compositional aspects of music. I’m not even sure “compositional” is a real word or what it means. In fact, I lack the ability to speak on the subject in finer terms than simply, “This song sounds good to my ears.”
Basically, this entry will feature a lot of different ways to say “This song sounds good to my ears.”
When it comes to soundtracks, every Final Fantasy game is not created equal. Individual tracks range from unlistenable to amazing, sometimes all within the same game. I considered a wide variety of criteria when trying to identify the best track from each game, and the criteria didn’t always remain the same. “Sounds good to my ears” was an important one, of course, but I also took into consideration the actual use of the track within the game; I gave weight to tracks the player was likely to hear all throughout the game, rather than tracks that played only once during a cutscene. This made picking tracks from FF8 and FF13 particularly difficult.
Also important was how well a track represents the game it’s from. FF games have a wide variety of themes and gameplay styles, some suited to certain types of music more than others. Finally, there’s that every-pesky measure of personal bias thrown into the mix. If I’m attached to a particular scene or event, I’m more likely to enjoy the music from that scene or event even if there are better tracks to be heard. These two reasons conspire together to leave FF9′s best track off the list entirely.
I spent hours picking, re-picking, shuffling, ordering, re-ordering, re-re-picking and re-re-ordering this list until I got it into its current state. And it’s still by no means final; if I hadn’t decided to put a dot on it and move on to other things, I’d probably still be finagling with it. I could probably revisit this topic for Week 11 or 12 and come up with an entirely different list.
So here they are: the best music tracks of the FF series, rated very rougly from worst-best to best-best. There’s a YouTube links to the each song for your listening enjoyment; these will open in a new tab.
Final Fantasy II: Ancient Castle (listen)
It’s now time to hate on FF2 some more, or as I like to call it, “the whipping boy of the FF series”. I’m determined by the end of this project to give every entry some time at or near the top spot, but I might have to literally contort reality to get FF2 up there.
Ancient Castle is played during the castle dungeons of FF2, the first of which is Kashuon Keep, a place so haunted and mysterious that its own prince admits he doesn’t know his way around.
FF2′s soundtrack is quite a bit more experimental than FF1′s simple chiptune melodies. I don’t know if they had a new sound chip to play around with or what, but the whole thing sounds more like someone getting their bearings in a new medium than a competently-designed soundtrack. Case in point, the momentary warble on some of the notes in Ancient Castle is pretty pervasive throughout the game. I appreciate the complicated harmonies, though, because I remember what most game music sounded like in the 80s. RPGs tended to be a cut above most other NES soundtracks because (I believe) the lack of sound effects on game maps gave the designers an extra sound channel to work with. Many tracks in FF2 use this extra muscle to no good end, but Ancient Castle puts it to work with a lilting secondary melody and a barely-present bassline.
I do wish there were a bit more song, but I suppose dungeon music didn’t need to be longer than 20 or 30 seconds in FF2, what with it constantly being interrupted for the (notably awful) battle music.
Ancient Castle already matches its scenes rather well, but the effect is even better in the remixed version from Final Fantasy Origins and Dawn of Souls. The song has a more hollow sound to it, and the melody works especially well during the second loop when its played on string instruments. Just as the original FF2 sounded too big for its own britches, so too does most of its remixed music; it’s as though they tried to fix the already botched soundtrack by twisting it into a lot of different configurations, none of which really fit. Ancient Castle, though, sounds the way it feels like it was always intended to: like you’re shining light into a dark, crumbling place no one has seen in years.
Final Fantasy XII: Giza Plains (listen)
FF12 exists as part of the Ivalice Alliance, a collection of games defined in part by their distinctive soundtracks, courtesy of composer Hitoshi Sakimoto. Where most FF games have music with strong melodies suitable for short loops, Sakimoto’s work often has a more ambient, background-y quality to it. This has made for some stunning soundtracks over the years — I happen to be partial to Final Fantasy Tactics and Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter myself — but they often lack the definitive punch more typical of video game music.
Put another way: I’ve never whistled Giza Plains in the shower.
Let’s look at some of the differences between FF12 and other RPGs, though. There’s no separate battle scene, for one; the player spends most of his time wandering the vast maps of the game, fighting monsters and amassing treasure. Parties in FF12 regenerate resources over time, so it’s possible to explore a single area for hours. You’re meant to get lost in this game, much in the same way a player can wile away his time in a single battle in Final Fantasy Tactics, or in a series of corridors in Vagrant Story. That’s why Sakimoto and FF12 are such a good fit.
The goal here, I’m sure, was to develop music the player could hear endlessly without really having to listen to or focus on. That’s the real beauty of Giza Plains and most of FF12′s background music: you don’t really have to notice it if you don’t want to. The song can exist on a forty minute loop without sending you racing for your mute button. Imagine yourself listening to any other song on this list for forty straight minutes. How many would stand up to such pressure?
There’s a lot happening in this song. It has reserved, quiet sections that give way to pounding drums, which in turn give way to an uplifting string part befitting of the clear blue skies you’re adventuring under. This is one of the earliest areas the player explores, so it was important for the song not only to stand on its own but set the tone for the rest of the game… and the rest of the soundtrack as well. It does so admirably.
Final Fantasy I: Sailing Ship (listen)
I will forever have a soft spot for uncomplicated chiptune melodies. There was a kind of culture to them, back in the day: the desert level always had a Middle Eastern flair to it, the ghost level always sounded like something from a silver screen monster flick, and the cave level was always harsh drums and strong bass. The water level, in this equation, was always this light, airy tune… which brings us to Sailing Ship.
There’s a lot of ocean to cover in FF1, and the game by and large gets out of your way while you’re covering it. Encounter rate while on the water is reduced, so it’s possible to hear a full loop in between fights. (It’s just as possible to crash into one after the first three notes, too, but that’s what the word “random” means.) This is a nice bonus in a game with a lot of great tracks you only get to hear if you’re standing perfectly motionless in the game world.
One of the nice little perks of FF1′s vehicles is the game’s devotion of one of the NES sound channels to a non-musical purpose. While sailing around you not only get this fun little ditty, but also the sound of waves breaking against the hull of your ship. This is really impressive stuff for the late 80s, you understand. (They botch this later by drowning out the airship melody with a loud swishing propeller sound effect, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Final Fantasy V: Clash on the Big Bridge (listen)
FF5′s soundtrack makes many of the same missteps as FF2′s does. It’s over-eager to spread its wings, tries to stretch itself into new territory that often doesn’t work very well. It has neither the simple charm of FF4 nor has it yet learned the lessons required to match FF6. Middle Child Syndrome seems to hit the series pretty hard each hardware generation. FF5 does have some genuinely beautiful tracks, but a large percentage of its soundtrack — say, oh, almost all of its area and battle themes — is dead in the water.
Then there’s Clash on the Big Bridge.
Right away, and I mean within the first two seconds, you understand exactly what it is you’re listening to: you are in a great deal of danger. The song, like the action on the Big Bridge, is quick, frantic, and relentless. It’s not just your average, run-of-the-mill danger, though. It’s something unique. When FF4 did scenes like this, it just used the regular boss music. Well, you’ve already heard FF5′s boss music by the Big Bridge; this is the next level.
Ah, but let us not forget, Clash on the Big Bridge is also associated with an individual character. Only one villain had had his own theme music before now, and it was a somber organ number which, while ominous indeed, was utterly ineffective as battle music. Gilgamesh was a new kind of villain: a recurring wisecracker who is as bumbling as he is violent. It’s fitting, then, that his song has some playful elements along with the bite.
And if you hear the very hint of something heroic in there? Well, that’s just an endgame spoiler waiting to happen.
Fun fact: I came very close to picking the FF12 version of this song for this list… and would have, if it were more indicative of FF12′s soundtrack as a whole.
Final Fantasy IX: Something to Protect (listen)
Speaking of heroic pseudo-villains, FF9 had Beatrix frustratingly tucked away in its supporting cast. She shares Something to Protect with Steiner during a series of battles partway through Disc Three. The song starts by redefining Beatrix’s theme as a theatrical action piece, then abruptly shifts gears to be more remniscient of Steiner’s oafishness. What is that, a basoon?
What’s most interesting about Steiner and Beatrix as characters is that their personalities only overlap in their devotion to Alexandria and its crown. Their methods and mannerisms couldn’t be more different: Beatrix is cold and efficient, bordering on cruel, while Steiner is cartoonishly emotional about his duties. It’s difficult to envision two such characters working well together, just like it’s difficult to imagine two very different songs coming together in a way that doesn’t come off as forced. That’s what’s so lovely about this track, and the scene it’s played in: Beatrix has been the unflinching villain, Steiner has been the butt of every joke… but now they’re both knights in service of their young queen. They do, indeed, have something to protect.
If you leave it on repeat, the song starts to sound very… out of place. Similar to how a word loses its meaning when you repeat it enough, so too does this song seem to shed its facade of heroism. It even begins sounding… hopeless after the sixth or seventh time it rolls over into the low horn section. And you will hear it six or seven times, because this scene is very long. Though their resolve doesn’t weaken, it becomes clear that the knights themselves cannot keep their fight up forever. They are literally fighting an endless swarm of monsters and they know it is unlikely either will survive. But that’s not the point, is it? They’re Alexandrian knights. Surviving isn’t their job.
Whether all that is built into the song, or whether I’m just projecting because of the emotional scene backing it up, I can’t say. Perhaps neither song nor scene work without the other, and that’s why you’re listening to Something to Protect instead of You’re Not Alone.
Final Fantasy VII: J-E-N-O-V-A (listen)
Ever since the games started focusing heavily on their storytelling aspects, battles have come in four tiers. You have your run-of-the-mill random encounters, your boss fights at the end of dungeons, and of course the multi-form final boss at the end of the game. Somewhere in between “regular boss” and “final boss”, though, you have the “big boss”. The one you know isn’t just some end-of-cave mook. The one hooked directly into the plot. The appropriate music to use for this fight is something a bit more epic than the regular boss track, but not so epic that you feel it should be followed with a credits roll. Nobuo Uematsu apparently understands this very delicate line very well, because he knocked it out of the park four times in a row between FF4′s Dreadful Fight and FF7′s J-E-N-O-V-A.
“Out of the park” comes in degrees, though, because J-E-N-O-V-A is far and away the best of these. It starts out similar to Clash on the Big Bridge: the player knows within three seconds that he’s been sized up by something a step above anything he’s fought so far. Something clean from another world, even. The first few rounds are set to the desperate rush of drums and cymbals as the boss rains down whatever ZOMG-super-attacks it has in its repertoire.
But there is light! At precisely the one minute mark the song takes an uplifting turn as the horns kick in and give the player a chance to breathe. Even the weird, alien opening sounds muted as it comes back in minor key just in time for the loop. By this time the player is likely battered but not broken, ready to get some heal spells queued up, eager to organize a counter-offensive. The pace of the song continues throughout the fight: otherworldly opening, crushing and oppressive middle, then somewhat hopeful for the last few bars.
That narrow glimmer of hope is important, I think, especially in the “big boss” music, and is utterly lacking in Dreadful Fight and even Clash on the Big Bridge. Those songs don’t have pressure valves; they just rain down on you. If their only job were to let you know how deep in the shit you were, well, mission accomplished. But J-E-N-O-V-A switches it up and gives the heroes something to fight back with.
Plus, it’s just hard to beat that killer opening. FF7 had already upped the stakes on its own cyberpunk motif with the wicked guitars at the start of its regular-joe battle music. To top itself again, from such a different direction, is magic.
Final Fantasy VIII: Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec (listen)
First off, yes, I know what happens when you re-arrange the letters in the phrase “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec”. No, that is not even remotely the coolest thing about this song.
FF8 came out right around the time voice acting was starting to become a thing in console games. Well, sure: disc-based media was just hitting its stride in our market. It also came out around the time most RPGs were playing with anime cutscenes, and we know what that means: lots of terrible voice acting. Final Fantasy was still resisting that trend, for which I was very much thankful, but I was nonetheless apprehensive about the series’s future upon hearing tracks like Eyes on Me and Futhos Lusec Wecos Vinosec.
To clarify: I like both of these tracks. But at the time, I thought it would pave the way for voice acting in the series… and I had just played Mega Man 8. So yeah, I was worried.
Similar to J-E-N-O-V-A, Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec is the herald of a new layer to FF8. Disc One is basically the Dawson’s Creek of JRPGs. Sure there’s a little military mumbo-jumbo mixed in, but for the most part it’s angsty teenagers learning about life and love etc. Enter Edea, looking fresh out of an 18th century masquerade. Characters refer to her as “sorceress” with completely straight faces. Folks around her fall into a zombie-like trance. Suddenly this isn’t a game about trains and machineguns anymore; there is enchantment here.
Cue cultish chanting. Cue crashing gongs.
Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec is poetry. It starts out as the ritualistic sound of witches around a cauldron. As the song goes through its various melodies it begins to resemble more of a hellish contemporary waltz… a ballroom of people all dancing to Edea’s machinations. That’s precisely what Edea represents: an ancient evil from an older world, using the modern tools of politics and technology to achieve her goals. The voices in the song aren’t so much lyrics as they are instruments, which is just how a puppeteer like Edea would have it.
Final Fantasy XI: The Federation of Windurst (listen)
Trying to pick a favorite song from a soundtrack you haven’t heard in its entirety is troublesome. I’d heard a great deal of FF11′s soundtrack back when I played it, of course, but nowhere near all of it. I since have heard all of it, but rolling through a YouTube playlist isn’t same as listening to and becoming acquainted with a song during the course of gameplay. I said at the outset that I am utterly unqualified to consider a piece of music as music. So if you want to know which song from FF11 or its various expansions is the most technically sound, has the best balance of instruments, the most enlightened composition… well, I’m here to disappoint you.
But I do knows what I likes, and I likes The Federation of Windurst. I played a tarutaru, after all, and Windurst was home. The sprawling mass of rivers and trees, the endless dirt paths and wooden docks… yes, I knew every stone of that place once. Every MMO has capital cities, and by all rights Windurst is one of the worst from a purely navigational standpoint. But it was my first. A great deal of my first few weeks with the game were devoted to exploring all of Windurst’s nooks and crannies, and that rhythmic xylophone kept me company the entire time.
I fell in love with Windurst, and every time I hear this music I want to go back there.
Graduating from FF11 to City of Heroes and then to World of Warcraft was natural for me as a gamer; I wanted more from an MMO than FF11 could give me. One thing those games weren’t able to give me, though, was a stellar soundtrack. After a years or so with WoW I downloaded a WinAmp add-on and programmed it to replace all the songs with equivalents from FF11. I had recently forsaken the crowded, laggy hole of Ironforge for the purple… uh… purpleness of Darnassus, and found that The Federation of Windurst was a perfect fit.
I also discovered that WoW had utterly failed to instill in me that sense of “I’m home!” that FF11 had, years before. Ironforge is all shops and quests, an ocean of yellow !s to be batted down. Windurst was a place. I lived there, as my Mog was so happy to constantly remind me. Truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have stuck with FF11 as long as I did if not for Windurst. Bastok always struck me as too gritty and brown, San d’Oria too stuffy and proud. Windurst is childlike, friendly, and welcoming… and most importantly, green. If there were another add-on to replace Darnassus’s purple, I would have been home in truth.
Final Fantasy XIII: The Sunleth Waterscape (listen)
Lyrics-as-instrument is still a relatively new concept… to me at least. I can name on one hand the games I’ve felt have had vocal tracks used effectively outside of credits rolls or striking choruses. (There was Grand Theft Auto, of course, but I’m not entirely sure that counts.) The obvious weakness here is that looping vocals just sounds very artificial. Who could sing the same verse or two over and over and be taken seriously? Eventually though I did start hearing the technique used well in games like Persona 3 and Blue Dragon. The trick, I believe, is to ensure the vocals stay in the background, letting the actual music remain the star. Allow the player to hear the words without really understanding they’re words. That way you end up focusing on the game and not what some dude is belting out in the middle of your boss fight.
The Sunleth Waterscape is a track that utilizes FF13′s main theme as the basis for area BGM. It’s a lovely piano melody laid overtop a consistent beat, creating a very positive atmosphere that works well with the gorgeous nature-esque scene it’s set to. (Just in time, too, considering the player has just spent a few hours in a junkyard.) Then, somewhere in the second loop, you realize that there’s a woman singing somewhere. It doesn’t really matter what she’s singing; just the sound of her voice is enough when blended with the other instruments.
The vocal part makes the track sound active, as opposed to passive, is what I’m getting at. Because while you are in a beautiful waterfront landscape, you still need to keep on your toes. There are monsters afoot, and hidden passages to find. This is neither a cutscene nor a liesurely nature walk.
Searching for The Sunleth Waterscape‘s lyrics turns up gems like “Chase that tender light” and “Are you ready to define the mists inside your heart?” Which, okay, is pretty bog-standard J-Pop cotton candy nonsense. When I played through this scene I recognized the part as singing, and the words as English, but couldn’t determine what was actually being said. That was enough to make this a memorable track for me, and getting the vocal part right is what very much sets it aside from the rest of FF13′s soundtrack.
Besides, some of the lyrics actually work: “Waves of a new day / Clear all the gloom away“… well, that’s just what Sazh and Vanille are trying to do in this scene. A 50/50 split between nonsense and fitting lyrics isn’t bad for a jRPG, especially considering my favorite vocal track from some other game simply goes “Oooh yeah, da da dat dow, da da dat dow, baby baby baby.”
Final Fantasy III: Eternal Wind (listen)
Orchestral music is fine, but I find it much easier to identify with chiptunes. I was an NES kid, after all, and spent my formative years shunning the Top 40 in favor of video game soundtracks. It should come as no surprise, then, that the top of my list is overcrowded with tracks from early in the series.
I mentioned earlier in the post that NES music had a culture to it, and players had preconceptions going into the game what various tracks would sound like. I also mentioned that FF2 had a pretty lousy soundtrack overall, which sounded more like the composer was throwing things at the wall to see what sticks than making real, enjoyable music. The end result is that FF2 had a lot of tracks that didn’t fit that NES music culture, not the least of which was its sad overworld theme music. Overworld music was supposed to be energetic and lively, damn it!
That’s not what made FF2′s overworld suck, you understand; it sucked enough all on its own. The point is they tried the same thing again in FF3, and this time it clicked. Eternal Wind is the most beautiful music ever composed in 8-bits. It fits its game better too, because unlike FF2′s Main Theme it doesn’t try to be too clever for itself. It’s a sad song, but it has a fast and somewhat uplifting harmony to it. It’s still subversive, but not so much that you forget what you’re supposed to be listening to.
It’s long for an 8-bit track, too. More and more elements make themselves known as you listen to the song… which is similar to how FF3′s overworld unfolds. You start out somewhere small, then move to somewhere a little bigger, and just when you think you’ve defined your boundries you go even further. FF3 has a sort of detached overworld to it that comes apart in layers as you progress in the game. It’s a complicated map that keeps its secrets closely guarded; the typical chipper NES-style overworld simply wouldn’t have sufficed.
And yet, for all that, it’s still not the best overworld song in the series…
Final Fantasy VI: Searching for Friends (listen)
Quick, name every game you think of that fits this description: “You get halfway through, then the world gets destroyed. Then you keep going.” Oh, and while you’re at it, compose a music track that fits the sentiment exactly.
Searching for Friends is the same kind of melancholy, meandering tune as Eternal Wind, but unlike its forebear it has a melancholy context to it as well. The world of FF6 really is a sad, ruinous place. The sky is painted forever with twilight, the ocean is a lurking mass of grey sludge. There are no continents, just chains of shattered islands. Perhaps worst of all, the player’s party is split up. There comes a point in FF6 where the game simply says, “Okay, here’s your airship. Somewhere in this giant obliterated mess are the people you care about.”
And like Eternal Wind, it has the fast percussion bit that keeps it from being dragged down too terribly much. In fact, I’ve always felt like the percussion sounded a bit like somewhat muted airship rotors. Unlike FF1, which drowned its airship music out with relentless helicopter sounds, FF6 puts them just on the edge of perception. It’s as though your airship could be idling there, its pilot unsure where to go or what to do.
I bet a lot of players have spent a good deal of time idling in their airship or otherwise flying around aimlessly. I know I have. A destroyed world you’re meant to go down and explore? It’s… kind of a lot to take in.
Searching for Friends isn’t my favorite track from FF6, but there’s no better example of a song that so well encompasses what the game is about. There may be no better example in any video game, anywhere. If this track had appeared in some other game, in some other context, it wouldn’t have been the same. Here again we have a song that doesn’t work without its surrounding content, and that content is bolstered all the more thanks to the beauty of the song.
Final Fantasy IV: Fight 2 (listen)
I picked on Dreadful Fight earlier because it lacks an release valve, but there’s another reason it doesn’t make the list: Fight 2 is simply the greatest RPG battle theme ever composed. Before FF4 boss fights were difficult, sure. Important, absolutely. But not epic. FF4 upped the ante on what you should expect from your boss fights. It was no longer enough to pile on as much damage as you could while that one guy kept you healed. No, these fights were like puzzles. You want to hit the boss, but not while it’s transformed. You want to avoid killing this part of the boss. The key to winning is casting this particular buff on the boss.
If a boss was killing you in FF3, you changed jobs and came back. If a boss was killing you in FF2 or FF1, you went out and leveled up some more. But if a boss was killing you in FF4 it was because you hadn’t yet figured out what to do. And by the way, while you’re fumbling around? The boss is taking you apart piece by piece. There are bosses in this game with one-hit-kills set on their counterattacks, bosses that explode into multiple smaller versions of themselves, bosses that can heal themselves to full HP at will. You’re gonna need that release valve before it’s all said and done.
My favorite thing about this track is how similar its beginning is to FF4′s standard fighting music. The two songs quickly diverge, of course, but that first striking note and the iconic bass riff are firmly in place. The two types of battles are connected at that one place. And why not? The beginning of each fight is the same: you have all your resources, you’re in good shape, you’re sizing up the bad guy. The regular battle music doesn’t go immediately to as dangerous a place, though. Both songs are designed to emphasize action, jazzing the player up for the new battle system… but only one lets them know how much trouble they’re actually in.
This final point might just be me talking, but hear me out: FF4′s sound effects are an important part of Fight 2. FF4 doesn’t have the wide variety of sounds the later 16-bit games did, so you ended up hearing the same effects again and again — often multiple times within a battle. The stony grind of dragon’s breath, the clacking of ice and the crash of lightning, the twinkling of cure spells, the double ding!s of Haste… all these things sound like they’ve been woven into the song, giving each individual boss its own unique soundtrack. Or… I’ve just played this game way too much. Heh.
Final Fantasy X: At Zanarkand (listen)
At Zanarkand is the loveliest music ever composed for use in a video game. Ever. It’s simply transcendent. I say this as a man who is usually not one for simple piano ballads.
FF10 has a terrible story headed up by two dreadfully unlikeable characters. I could fill up pages with a list of flaws the rest of the game has… but that’s a culmination of the 84 hours after you first hear At Zanarkand. Here’s how FF10 starts: a group of people, obviously brought together by some terrible task, sit camped on a hillside overlooking the ruins of some ancient civilization. Their weapons are left in an untended pile: they are safe, for the time being. Nobody is speaking — there is nothing to say. They are simply sharing a moment of quiet with one another. It is clearly the calm before the storm.
A teenaged boy stands up and places a comforting hand on the shoulder of a young woman, only for a moment. He then climbs the hillside for a better view, taking it all in. He asks you to listen to the story of how he got to this place, with these people.
Fade to title. Then the game starts.
This haunting, singular piano melody accompanies the entire scene, and the music says everything the characters are, at this point, unable to. It’s sad, so you know they’re sad as well. It’s poignant, so you know they’ve been through hell to get here. It’s wearying, so you know it’s been a long road. You can spend the entire game remembering this scene, knowing where the road will eventually take the party. I dare say you’re meant to.
Yes, the game then spends the next however-many hours completely destroying the effect. The point is that the effect worked to begin with. The point is that the game starts out by building your trust in what it’s about to do.
This whole article has been challenging to write, due mainly to the lack of musical instruction I outlined in the opening paragraphs. I find I simply don’t have the words to properly describe At Zanarkand. It… sounds good to my ears.
And with that, I’ve managed to give FF10 it’s time in the top spot. Phew! Now I need some ideas about what FF2 does better than any other game in the series, and I’ll be home free.