VGM Entry 22: Final Fantasy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Final Fantasy also lacks much of a kick. Nobuo’s decision to not use any drums might have seemed surprising, had Koichi Sugiyama not done the same thing. Much like Sugiyama, Uematsu was able to craft songs which were memorable and struck a pleasant balance among the available tones. Both artists successfully mastered the positive aspects of the Nintendo’s cleaner tones.
Final Fantasy doesn’t need much of an introduction. It’s worth noting that it was fairly lengthy for its day, with nineteen full songs. Garudoh did a fine job of capturing all of the best tracks in this collection. The songs which appear here in order are:
(0:49) Final Fantasy Main Theme
(1:40) Overworld Theme
(2:17) Battle Theme
(3:08) Undersea Shrine
(5:04) Gurgu Volcano
(5:49) Matoya’s Cave
(6:30) Temple of Chaos
I think it would be easy to be a little critical of Nobuo Uematsu’s work, considering how much better his later soundtracks became. One can easily point to later improvements in “Main Theme”, for instance, to say that the original was a little bland. But if you turn to tracks that were not improved upon in future games, “Gurgu Volcano” for example, you can tell that the originals were valuable in their own right. Where Zelda II felt to me like a prototype for a desired sound which the Nintendo was unable to produce, Final Fantasy feels like a finished project.
You will also probably get the distinct impression that Uematsu was inspired by Sugiyama. At least, I did, but this may simply be a consequence of the decision on the part of both musicians to not use a drum track. Uematsu actually had a slightly longer history of writing game music. Koichi Sugiyama started this career late in life, composing his first two game scores, Dragon Quest and Wingman 2, in 1986 at the age of 55. Uematsu’s first soundtrack, a DOS game called Genesis, came out in 1985. The difference is slight, but by the end of ’87 Sugiyama had only one more composition on the books–Dragon Quest II. In that same span of time Uematsu managed to accumulate a staggering repertoire of thirteen.
I couldn’t find samples from either artist’s first soundtrack, but if you listen to King’s Knight, a Square game composed by Uematsu and released for the MSX in 1986, you can tell that Final Fantasy was no epiphany. It might have been his first recognized and highly acclaimed work, but it was not his first good one.
Uematsu and Sugiyama were acquainted at an early stage though. In an interview on nobuouematsu.com, he states that “Koichi Sugiyama is a big boss of game music. I think he was the first person to really pay attention to my works.” Whether this came before or shortly after the release of Final Fantasy, the two were certainly aware of each other’s work.
My best guess is Sugiyama did influence Final Fantasy, but not in regards to song-writing. That talent came naturally to both of them. Rather, I get the feeling Uematsu may have taken some tips from Dragon Quest on how to effectively arrange these types of songs for the NES medium. I suppose if you got an opportunity to interview Uematsu it would be a petty question to ask, but I’m curious all the same.
Perhaps Nobuo Uematsu is still guilty in some capacity of letting the NES sound limitations get the better of him. The sort of stuff he made his career writing worked just fine in King’s Knight, but the NES just didn’t have the capacity to take it all in. Some of the best NES artists dealt with these limitations by allowing the system to dictate the musical style; they approached the NES as an instrument rather than a medium through which to present music existing independently of it. I suppose I’ve said that a lot at this point. Perhaps MSX2 version of Final Fantasy will make it a little more clear. Micro Cabin released the port in 1989, with their sound programmer Tadahiro Nitta handling the new arrangement, not Uematsu himself. Nevertheless, it sounds a lot better than the original in my opinion, and I think it might be a more honest interpritation of the music than Uematsu’s own finished product. If Uematsu had been composing for the MSX in the first place, his music would have made a lot more sense. But the counter argument is fairly obvious; if he hadn’t composed Final Fantasy for the NES the way he did, this MSX version would have never existed.