VGM Entry 50: Final Fantasy Legend III

VGM Entry 50: Final Fantasy Legend III
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

1991 might have been the finest year for classic Game Boy music. I really can’t say until I advance a bit further along in this project, but even beyond the best of the best, the average score seems to have really picked up the slack. I’d have rambled on about the virtues of such titles as Bomber King: Scenario 2 (Blaster Master Boy in North America) in 1990, but in 1991 their above-average quality isn’t quite enough to merit extensive discussion.

One soundtrack that definitely does not earn its keep is Final Fantasy Adventure by Koichi Ishii. A weak effort for such a lofty name, Final Fantasy Adventure did, unlike the Legend series, carry the classic monicker in its original Japanese version, at least as a subtitle. But if Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, that is, the prequel to Secret of Mana, was a musical disappointment, it wasn’t Square’s only Game Boy venture that year.

The other, Final Fantasy Legend III, or SaGa 3 in Japan, is my favorite Game Boy soundtrack, and one of my favorite game scores in general. Not all of the songs are original to it. The title theme for instance has been around since the start of the series. But it’s never sounded quite like this. Nobuo Uematsu sat this project out, as did Kenji Ito. Instead a new name in gaming music took the job: Ryuji Sasai. It was only his fifth video game composition, and I am fairly certain you’ve never heard of the first four. I hope you’ll remember this one.

Quality song-writing is certainly the first step. Ryuji Sasai was a rocker at heart, but unlike say, the earlier works of Yuzo Koshiro, his songs here are properly restrained. They all have a certain pep to them that the first two SaGa games lacked, but they never go overboard. But I think the most compelling part of his work here is the arrangement. A lot of video game soundtracks leave me wondering whether the quality or lack thereof of the youtube samples impacts the apparent quality of the original music to a significant degree: To some extent Final Fantasy Legend III almost sounds enhanced. But I noticed it on youtube; I noticed it on the ost; I noticed it on my own Game Boy when it first came out: There’s been no doctoring here. The sound quality in this game is just phenomenal.

I mean, plug in some headphones and just listen to the way these sounds lock into each other. Even the generic town theme is just massive. The drums pan all over the place without ever making it obvious as they do in say, Belmont’s Revenge. That accompaniment rolls in the left ear while the bass switches between the middle and the right, and the main melody prevails over all. With such rich and complementary tones, the actual effect is to create a sound that completely surrounds and encompasses you.

Every track employs this same means to perfection. “Theme of Another Dimension”, the airship music, has an amazing amount of depth. All of the elements of the song have a physical position, and their motions are the driving forces behind the music. You can feel the engine running in the bass and the wind rushing by in the percussion, some clouds breezing past at the 15 second mark.

My favorite Final Fantasy Legend III song is “Holy Ruins”. I would like to think it speaks for itself. The music to this game impresses me as much now as it did twenty years ago, and I think if Ryuji Sasai had kept on composing for the Game Boy he would have really made a name for himself. As things turned out, he didn’t. This was his only Game Boy composition to the best of my knowledge, and after scoring Final Fantasy Mystic Quest the following year he would disappear until 1996. Why other Game Boy composers, even the best, largely failed to capitalize on the potential for depth that he achieved here is beyond me, but his innovative arrangements brought the system to life in a way I have never heard before or since–at least, outside of the modern day chiptune scene.

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