Week One: Personal Experiences
Week Two: Our Heroes
Week Three: Best Song Ever
Week Four: Gameplay Wallbangers
Week Five: The Big Bad
Week Six: Ridiculously Broken Attacks
Week Seven: Title Logos
Week Eight: Chocobos!
Week Nine: Battle Music
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.
I talked a little about each game’s soundtrack back in Week Three, and now it’s time to talk about it a little more. Music is important in video games, sure — but is it so important that I should devote two of my thirteen entries to the subject?
If the Final Fantasy series were anything other than RPGs, I’d say no, probably not. But being RPGs, the player spends a lot of time fighting. It’s fair to say that, if you were to take a random point in any playthrough of any Final Fantasy game ever attempted, there is at least a 50% chance you will see combat. That’s just how the genre works.
Most FF soundtracks have dozens of songs, but since the player is spending half his time fighting, one song is going to simply dominate all the rest: the battle music. Bar none this is the track you will spend much and more of your time listening to. Or you’ll mute the sound and listen to your iPod or something instead, I guess. Point is, this track has got to have some staying power. This week’s list is ranked in ascending order of how much time I spend thinking about plugging up my ear-holes while listening to each game’s respective fight theme.
Final Fantasy II: Battle Scene 1 (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:42
Once again Final Fantasy II languishes at the bottom of the list. It starts out promising enough; there’s plenty of energy, even if the melody is a little goofy. It starts to fall apart about twenty seconds in when the melody is replaced by an annoying series of squeedlies. Then, at about 0:25, the song stops completely. I mean absolutely stops. If you have your ear right up against the speaker you might be able to perceive some very muted bass noises, but outside of that it’s just three solid seconds of silence followed by some more annoying squeedlies.
“Squeedlies” is a word I pretty much just made up, but I am confident that anyone listening to this song will know exactly what it means.
The very first time I played FF2 was on an emulator. This was back in the late ’90s when emulation was still an imperfect art, so it wasn’t uncommon to plug in a ROM and get some wacky garbage. No fooling, the first time the battle music stopped for three seconds I thought I was experiencing some kind of strange emulator glitch, possibly related to the translation patch I had applied. No, that’s not the case; the song is just terrible. Also, to add injury to insult, battles in FF2 take a good deal longer than most other entries in the series… much longer than the forty-two seconds the track actually lasts. And there are plenty more of them. Can you say “monster closets”? I knew you could.
It keeps coming back around to those gorram monster closets. They really are the heart and soul of FF2.
Final Fantasy V: Battle 1 (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:34
Fortunately FF2’s battle theme is the only one I’d really call “bad”. Final Fantasy V‘s battle theme isn’t unpleasant to listen to, it’s just… short. In fact, it’s the shortest in the whole series.
The song starts out on a high note: the rising notes overtop the traditional “dun dun dun” intro about blew my mind the first time I heard them. The main melody is a little trumpet-heavy, but that’s just FF5’s style. My favorite element of the song is the bassline, especially when it picks up that fun gallop when the melody moves into its sustained note section.
Then it starts over. It will probably do that two or three times per fight, at least.
The ideal battle music is the one that lasts exactly as long as the fight it accompanies. If FF5’s fights were only 30-second affairs, I would have no beef with this track… but RPGs with 30-second battles are rare and beautiful gems. FF5 is not that game. In this game, a fight that concludes in 30 seconds is in a heck of a hurry and, like FF2, there is a stronger emphasis on fighting than other games in the series. If you’re in love with the job system (the game’s strongest virtue) you will do a lot of grinding. That means the same 30 second battle music, three times per fight, stretched across however many fights it takes you to get Lenna and Faris to master Red Mage. Yeah. Keep that iPod close.
Final Fantasy IX: Battle 1 (listen)
Time Until Loop: 1:14
The good news is Final Fantasy IX‘s battle theme is over twice as long as FF5’s, which lessens the chance you’ll become fatigued with it. The bad news is that about half the length of the track is build-up.
The traditional FF battle intro is an iconic bass riff partnered up with some rhythmic percussion. Sometimes this riff maintains itself throughout the song, and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s how the first few seconds usually go. FF7 and FF8 didn’t use this opening… nor did they use the traditional FF fanfare melody. In fact, those two games did a lot of things differently than the first six. This is why “returning to form” was such a big element of FF9.
I guess they decided to really hammer that point home by making you listen to the opening bass riff twice. Then, just as you think the song is about to start in earnest, twice more. The melody then kicks in, but it’s a fake-out: the next four measures end with a sustained note, during which the bass riff takes center stage yet again.
Only now does the song really become something unique — but at this point we’re forty-seven seconds in. We’re over halfway to the loop now, and… lo and behold! The whole bass riff thing starts all over again every time the song rolls over!
Now, I don’t have anything against the “dun dun dun” intro. I quite like it in fact! I just don’t want to be bludgeoned with it. The other games that use it have the good sense to open the fight with it, then skip it on subsequent loops. It’s there for the fade-in, and that’s all. Perhaps they figured since FF9’s battles take ten times longer to load, the intro should be ten times longer as well? I’m not sure what the thought process was here.
Final Fantasy VII: Let the Battles Begin! (listen)
Time Until Loop: 1:13
As I said, Final Fantasy VII foregoes the traditional opening. In its place a perfectly suitable composition of synth strings and what sounds like a drummer beating on a tambourine. This lasts a few seconds, just about long enough to load the battle scene, then the horns kick in. They get louder and louder, building up and up, until…
Oh wait. Back to strings and tambourines. Hmm.
Actually, this happens a couple times. The horns build up some adrenaline, just to squander it and melt back into percussion hits. As a result, fighting in FF7 often feels like you’re halfway to getting somewhere. My favorite part of the track is the whistling section that comes in about fifty-five seconds… but by this point it’s clear the song’s already done everything it was going to do.
Perhaps the constant feeling of build-up wouldn’t be so bad if the horns didn’t drown out just about every other aspect of the song. Not even my enjoyable whistles are safe.
Listening to this track on the OST, you don’t get to hear the single most prevalent aspect of FF7’s battle music, which is the running sound effect that plays every time a character begins executing an attack. This shuffling sound is so loud and occurs so often that the track seems incomplete without it.
Final Fantasy I: Battle Scene (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:47
“Define ‘nostalgia’.” “That’s easy. The battle music in Final Fantasy I.” “Oh.”
That about sums up how I feel about this song. In fact, allow me to indulge in a little story. It was my birthday, in fact… my ninth or tenth. My father was leaving town to tend to some family business, and my mother was driving him to the airport. He arrived with my birthday gift: my very own copy of Final Fantasy, a game my brother and I had already played to death, thanks to friends who owned it and video rental stores and what-have-you. We couldn’t play it right away; we had that whole airport business to attend to, which meant a long drive across the bridge and back.
So we sat there in the car and sang it. Picture the two of us in the backseat of Mom’s Pontiac, me holding the maps and booklets that came stuffed in the box: “Fi! Nal! Fan! Ta! Sy!”
I can neither confirm nor deny my having done this from time to time in the shower throughout my adult life.
I’m trying to make a point here, which is this: does FF1’s battle theme qualify as good music? Well, it certainly beats FF5’s, by about fourteen seconds. And it clearly beats FF2’s as well, to which it is objectively superior. As to the rest, my judgment is so rose-tinted that I don’t really feel I can speak on it with any amount of clarity. What say we just stick it about halfway through the list and call it square, eh?
Final Fantasy XI was the first game in the series to use… what’s a good term for this? Context sensitive battle music. There’s one track for fighting while solo, one for fighting while in a group, one for fighting while in a group inside a dungeon, and then one or two each for the various expansion worlds. Being a grind-based MMO, you’re going to hear a lot of these songs. Tis the nature of things.
I won’t go through each of them in turn; that’s outside the scope of this article’s purpose. If you were to listen to them all, though, you’d notice they all start just about the same way: a very particular rhythm punctuated with strong percussion hits. Though the tracks vary wildly in theme and instrumentation, I believe the thing with the intros is intentional. Psychologically speaking, an MMO player needs to know precisely when he’s entered combat, and that’s exactly what these songs accomplish. I quit FF11 long before Treasures of Aht Urghan hit, yet I still recognized its fight music as fight music, despite never actually fighting to it.
The first of these two tracks, Battle Theme #2, is the one I spent most of my FF11 tenure listening to. The second, Mercenaries’ Delight, is the one most current FF11 players spend their time listening to. It’s definitely in their favor that they’re both reasonably good tracks.
It’s tough for me to get a good read on how well this music works in the context of FF11. Even back when I was playing it, my character’s role didn’t involve engaging the enemy. My job was to sit back with my healing macros and wait for the puller to start screaming about the train of goblins he was bringing back to us for some reason.
Final Fantasy VIII: Don’t Be Afraid (listen)
Time Until Loop: 1:29
Final Fantasy VIII‘s battle theme is actually seems quite similiar to FF7’s to me, conceptually speaking. Fast percussion-y intro, lots of build-up. And like FF7, there are some spots where the build-up leads directly into a softer percussion section. Here, though, the transition takes place with a crashing cymbal, so it doesn’t seem quite as jarring.
Maybe… maybe a little too much of that same cymbal, now that I’m listening to the song on a loop. Still, though, thank goodness for it.
The song uses a couple interesting tricks to keep it from getting boring, too. It repeats its various sections a few times each, but it adds and removes elements during each pass. This time the horns are falling, this time they are rising; the strings are muted on one pass but heavy in the next, then pick up the spotlight on the third. The goal of these little changes and mix-ups, I believe, is to mask the loop.
And it works. I originally listened to over two minutes of this track before I realized it had looped. That’s an impressive feat for a video game track. It’s been years since I’ve spent thirty minutes or more in an FF8 fight drawing endless stocks of Curaga or Aura or what-have-you, but I bet the clever composition of this track is part of what made it bearable. In fact, just noticing this aspect of the song prompted me to bump it up a few places on my list. Well played, FF8.
(Note: The Man With the Machine Gun isn’t nearly as important nor as great as everyone seems to think it is, and it accompanies stretches of game that probably shouldn’t have made it into the final release. I’m only mentioning it because if I don’t someone else will do it for me in the comments.)
Since I dislike Final Fantasy X and enjoy Final Fantasy X-2 this spot on the list is always tricky for me. My natural inclination is to talk about FF10-2, since that’s the one I like, and I have to remind myself that I’ve got a particular structure to stick with here, which bums me out because I have to talk about stupid ol’ FF10 instead.
This week the temptation is too strong to resist. I love FF10-2’s battle music. There’s no real melody or form to speak of; it’s just one dude wailing on an electric guitar while another dude bangs away on random solid objects within his reach. The result is pure chaos, and man, if there’s a better term to describe FF10-2’s battle system I sure don’t know what it is.
Not that I should run FF10’s music down! It’s very good, and for many of the same reasons as FF8’s: a lot of different sections, each with its own little collection of switch-ups. It sounds slower, though. More reserved. Thoughtful, you might say, and again, that’s a great term to use to describe FF10’s battle system. FF10’s battles are about taking your time, examining the game state during each round, considering your options and choosing the best one. FF10-2’s battles are about hammering the buttons as fast as you can because what are you waiting for, we don’t have all day here, hurry up and pick Firaga before those slimes and birds eat you to death.
The real star of both games’ fight themes, though, are the little quips and sound bytes you get from your characters. Neither game has good or even decent voice acting, understand. When you take the characters out of the cutscenes and condense their dialogue down to smarmy wisecracks, though, everything suddenly clicks into place. Wakka’s “Booya!” is just about synonymous in my head with critical hits, anymore. FF10-2 upgrades the idea; instead of isolated quips, the team will actually trade banter while they’re fighting. “Dr. P is in the house!” “Stop that.” Haha, classic.
Final Fantasy III: Battle 1 (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:44
As much as I love the old stone age chiptunes, I’m honestly a little surprised one of the NES games made it this high on the list. Of course, that was true during the previous music post as well, wasn’t it? Back in the days when new consoles were actual notable upgrades from previous ones, you had this interesting phenomenon where the last batch of games to be released did things probably nobody thought was really possible. It’s amazing to play a game like Final Fantasy III and imagine a time when the cutting edge of the technology was something like Metroid which couldn’t figure out how to scroll the screen along more than one axis at a time.
Despite being a few seconds shorter than FF1’s music, it feels like there’s more to FF3’s; they pack more song into the small space they had. FF1’s battle theme is pleasant, but you can still break it down into individual beeps and boops. FF3’s is undeniably music. (Beepy music, sure, but music nonetheless.)
My first exposure to this song was actually a 20-some minute long MIDI medley of all different sorts of music from the first seven FF games. FF7 was still brand new at the time, and with it the realization that there were in fact FF games I hadn’t played (horror!). This meant about half the medley was foreign to me. The FF3 battle music was always one of my favorite parts, though, even though I had no clue what it was or where it came from. (Speaking of said medley: hellooooo 1997!)
The DS remix of this song doesn’t do it any favors. The main melody, instead of being one cohesive synth instrument, is split up into horn and flute parts. The horns, of course, are too heavy for the flute, and the sections that held the original track together just can’t bear the weight. Just goes to show that better tech doesn’t necessarily equate to better music.
Final Fantasy IV: Battle 1 (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:50
Those rose-tinted glasses I mentioned earlier have a very strong fondness for Final Fantasy IV as well, as I’m sure you well know. Stepped back and looked at objectively, though, it has a great deal in common with FF3, at least as far as graphical and musical resources are concerned. FF3 looks and sounds like a game that pushes the NES to its absolute limits. FF4 looks and sounds… well, like FF3, except with the limits removed. So in a lot of ways FF4 is the logical extension of an entire generation of FF games; the realization of dreams un-realized on the more limited system.
What this means is it doesn’t really break new ground. It took what came before and it tweaked it, polished it up, showed it off on the new stage. So it is with the battle music: a main frantic melody with a strong bassline underneath it, just like FF3 — but better. The music is still undeniably beepy, but the composition is sound.
I really only have one complaint about this song. Years ago I noticed that one sound channel in the B-section seems to completely drown out everything else out; you can hear this bit about twenty-one seconds in. Once I noticed it I couldn’t notice anything else, and now I hear it every single loop, whether I want to or not. A milder, more reserved note would have done a lot to improve the song, I think. They got that chance with FF4DS, of course, but they went and blew it. Not only didn’t they fix that one awkward note, but like FF3DS they tried to improve the soundtrack by complicating it — and that’s not what was wrong. No need to re-invent the triangle wave here, people.
Final Fantasy VI: Battle (listen)
Time Until Loop: 0:58
While typing this article I had my buddy Dan in AIM window as a sort of musical consultant. Whenever I was trying to identify a particular instrument or get my terminology right I would bounce it off Dan, and he would give me a boost in the spots where I was most ignorant. When I asked him what he would call the “underlying grumbly bit” at the beginning of this track (the part that makes up the trademark “dun dun dun” intro) he responded that it was the SNES’s crippled sound chip trying to be an electric guitar. It doesn’t sound like an electric guitar to me; that’s neither here nor there. The reason I wanted to point out that grumbly bit is because it makes the battle music in Final Fantasy VI unique when considered along other tracks in the game.
That’s sort of how FF6’s soundtrack goes, though. Its techno doesn’t really sound like techno, its rock can’t really pass as rock, and the less said about its opera singing, the better. For all its failed experiments, though, the soundtrack is by and large incredible. FF6’s battle music is much closer to FF7’s than FF5’s. Clocking in at almost a full minute the song evolves through several distinct sections, rising and falling in just the right spots. Where FF3 pushed the NES to its limits by creating something like real music with its sound chip, FF6 does the same by making something quite complex with hardware that probably was never intended to initially work in that direction.
My favorite part of this track is a pair of bass notes just before the loop. You can hear them right at 0:57. The bassline is very strong early in the track, you see, and much more subtle later on. Having a couple of heavier bass notes line up before the loop rolls over helps make the transition more seamless. That seamless transition is going to be important when you’re up all night farming Brachiosaurs for Econimizer drops.
Final Fantasy XIII: Blinded By Light (listen)
Time Until Loop: 1:17
This track starts out pretty tame. It’s the same slow-to-build song that’s been plaguing FF battle themes since FF7. The entire first section after the intro is kind of a write-off, actually.
But then, bam!, 0:37. The strings come out of nowhere, and can just about knock you out of your chair if you’re not prepared for them. The strings climb and climb, getting more and more tense, until you can imagine their vibrations shattering your Crystariums. Then, quick as they arrived, they die away, replaced by a freight train of percussion and the inevitable loop.
This song is like a roller coaster. It drags you up and then drops you. No lie, I use that 0:37 section as my ringtone.
Final Fantasy XIII‘s battle music meshes with the action onscreen in a way no other battle music in the series really has. There was a period of time just after my arrival on Gran Pulse where, if I managed to get Lightning Hasted quickly enough, she would pull off that awesome mid-air backflip kick shot just as the strings kicked in. It was beautiful. It was correct. In the realm of video games, actors and music simply do not work together. It’s just not possible — until it is. I want to know how they accomplished it.
Blinded By Light is also notable for being the one and only time in the series where the battle theme is also a character’s theme music. And of course this makes total sense: Lightning is a soldier, and fighting is all she knows. Of course the battle music is going to be “hers”. And somehow this high-octane melody works just as well as a soothing piano track. I want to know how they accomplished that, too.
Final Fantasy XII: Half the Soundtrack
Back in the previous music post I said that Giza Plains was the best song in Final Fantasy XII… not so much because the song itself was anything fantastic, but more because of what the song represents: a continuous game world with no solid boundaries between “combat” and “exploration”. FF12 doesn’t have battle music, see; your fight theme is just the music of whatever map you happen to be fighting on.
FF12 is not the pioneer of this particular practice. FF5’s Clash on the Big Bridge and FF6’s Protect the Espers! were both used to great effect as combination combat/map/cutscene music at various points in the game. There was a strong line between “this is a regular dungeon” and “this is an important dungeon”, and if you transitioned into a battle without hearing the music change, you knew you had crossed it.
Hell, I remember playing Chrono Trigger for the first time and thinking, “This game doesn’t need separate battle music.” Turns out, I was right.
FF12’s music aims more at being ambient than melodic which, again, is perfect for a game that isn’t swapping its music tracks around every couple minutes. You can listen to tracks like Dalmasca Westersand, or Salikawood, or Mosphoran Highwaste for thirty minutes or more without really hearing everything they have to offer. This is a case of “feature not bug” — the game was purposely constructed so you’d spend that much time on its maps.
And isn’t this an inherent weakness in the “one size fits all” battle themes of the previous games? Why should fighting in the desert feel the same as fighting in a dank cave, or within eyeshot of the ocean, or aboard the enemy’s flagship? They’re mechanically identical, of course, but just like FF5 used Clash on the Big Bridge to make otherwise common battles seem more urgent, so does FF12 use its wide variety of map themes to give each of your many hundreds of battles its own subtle, unique flavor.
So there you go. If you stick all these songs on your iPod you will officially have half of every FF soundtrack by volume. It’s really unfortunate when an RPG has poor battle music. I won’t name names, but I’ve played a couple, and it really does eat into my enjoyment quite a bit. Fortunately most FF games dodge that bullet… I probably would not enjoy the series as much as I do otherwise.
In any case, I promise I won’t try to talk about music anymore. We’re through those woods. I think next week it’s time for something a bit sillier, wouldn’t you say?