Music of the ORBS: Final Fantasy (Part 1)
First passes and rough drafts as the journey begins
In 1987, Final Fantasy was released by Square in Japan for the Famicom. In 1990, it was released in North America for the Nintendo Entertainment System, following the success of the first Dragon Quest game (localized as Dragon Warrior). Nintendo of America handled the localization and threw everything they had behind the game, including dedicating the entire October 1990 issue of Nintendo Power to a full strategy guide.
Like many kids with older siblings, I didn't get to play the coolest new games when they came out, and I certainly wasn't allowed to play anything like Final Fantasy, where I could all too easily delete a save file or sell
Masmune to a shopkeeper. But I got to watch my brother play, and I got to read all of the magazines, manuals, and strategy guides I could get my hands on. (It didn't hurt that after I'd read the strategy guides my brother had a free tip line handy.)
All this is to say that I did not actually play this game for many years after it was released. It was something I watched, listened to, thought about, incorporated into my own fantasy life, but never actually participated in. Since then, of course, I've played it numerous times – on the original cartridge, on the Game Boy Advance re-release, randomized in an emulator – but in a way what I'm doing here is the most authentic way for me to experience the game. To observe it as an aesthetic artifact, to think about it and appreciate it, and to make my own fun.
Shall we begin?
Technical notes (song titles + versions)
These songs do not have titles in game. I am using this track listing as a reference, but if a song is better known to me under another name, I'll prefer it.
There are several versions of the soundtrack online. The nature of the NES sound hardware is such that there is no such thing as a "perfect" digital representation of this music. I am using a fairly bare-bones version I found on YouTube, preferring it to various remastered and cleaned-up versions. Ideally I would like to capture these tracks and upload them myself, but I don't know how to do that yet!
The humble beginnings of the most enduring theme in the series. Second maybe only to the "Victory Fanfare" in its familiarity to fans, the Prelude is the theme that just means "Final Fantasy". In this first appearance, though, there isn't much to it. It's an arpeggio. A pretty arpeggio, but still just an arpeggio. It's just intro music, after all, setting a mood while you read the premise of the game. Most players are going to skip right past it after the first time, anyway. We'll have to wait for later games for it to be used in more dramatic contexts and to gain the lush, wistful ornamentation that makes it whole.
Another recurring theme for the series, less common than the Prelude but certainly no less memorable. I've always thought it kind of sounded like graduation music, like the "Pomp and Circumstance" they play at Fantasy University. That's essentially how it's used in the game, too: it plays after you complete the opening quest and cross the newly opened bridge into the main part of the game.
The execution of the song on this hardware is pretty shaky. The arrangement really needs a silky-smooth legato of a type that I've never heard on the NES, and the attempt makes the notes seem wonky and a bit drunk. The next time this song shows up is on the SNES, and it's sobered up by then.
That said, a lot of that audio jank simply didn't come across at the time. The NES audio came over a noisy RF adapter, and you sure as hell weren't getting 5.1 Dolby out of whatever hand-me-down TV it was hooked up to. If you could even hear those wonky notes, you probably wouldn't care, because the sheer fact that the song was there was special. This is an era when games rarely had a structure more sophisticated than "play through increasingly difficult levels until you win or die". It was still quite common for games to end with no more ceremony than "Thank You For Playing! Please Challenge Again!" (Even flagship computer RPGs sometimes ended that way.)
In that context, it was quite remarkable that Final Fantasy took the time to pause and recognize the player for completing the game's first challenge with a special narration screen. The Prologue theme in this context conveys both victory and anticipation – "well done, but you're just getting started". (EarthBound does something similar with "You've Come Far, Ness", although later in the game.)
The first overworld theme in the series, played when you're traveling between towns and dungeons. There's a few important practical considerations for an overworld theme. First, it needs to loop smoothly, and the loop needs to be long enough that you don't go out of your mind listening to it. It also needs to sound OK if you're only hearing the first few bars over and over again, because this game has a lot of random encounters. Going beyond mere practicalities, the theme has to be propulsive, adventurous, but not too aggressive. This isn't a "time to kick ass" theme, it's a "what happens next?" theme.
This tune does the job well. It's mildly hummable but not so catchy that it drills into your ears, it makes good use of the strengths and weaknesses of the hardware, it has a jaunty rhythm. The loop is a little short, but because of the aforementioned random encounters you're not going to hear it too many times. It also has a little bit of wistfulness lurking behind the adventurousness, which is a common trait of Uematsu's overworld themes.
Movies and TV shows have traditional structures, and the writing of scores tends to shape itself around those structures. Opening themes, credits themes, character motifs, love themes, and so on. Songs will be written for a specific purpose, according to audience expectations about what type of songs fit what purpose. (And, of course, audience expectations exist to be subverted.)
Video games also have these structures, generally depending on the genre or type of game. Often the music is structured along what the player is doing or where they're doing it. You have battle themes, dungeon themes, overworld themes, conversation themes, minigame themes, and of course town themes.
Of all the typical varieties of themes JRPGs call for, I think Uematsu's true genius lies in his work on interior themes (dungeons, castles, towns, etc.) and his most remarkable talent is for writing songs for peaceful, boring villages that aren't themselves boring. This song isn't quite there yet. Some of the harmonies tend towards soporific, and the loop is short. But the plucked melody behind the "strings" is quite interesting and pretty. This piece is a lot more nuanced than it needed to be.
It's a pretty tune, but it makes me want to go to sleep almost immediately. (It might also be that it's approaching midnight as I write this.) There's an interesting back-and-forth pulse that really makes me want to hook it up to a NES soundwave visualizer, though.
This being the opening area of the game, isolated from the rest of the world (until you rescue the princess), and locked down (until you retrieve the Elf's key), the sleepiness of the song could be understood as metaphorical. (Hat tip to my friend Drew, who made this point.) My understanding is that Uematsu composed most of these songs without much detail from the game available, just general requests like "town song", "battle song", etc.
Perhaps the only song on this soundtrack better known than the Prelude. I know people who have never touched a JRPG in their lives, who wouldn't know Cloud from Squall or Celes from Aerith, who know that this jingle means "we won". This version of the Victory theme has a cool-sounding arpeggio before the fanfare. (This is where I remind you that I'm a computer programmer who likes music but has zero formal training, so sometimes my analysis won't get much beyond "it sounds cool" or "it sounds pretty".) After the fanfare, there's a brief loop. I believe this is the only song on the soundtrack that has that structure.
This tune arrived fully formed, probably the only recurring theme on this soundtrack that did. Sometimes it's just the fanfare that gets used, with the loop being replaced.
Thanks for reading this first entry in "Music of the ORBS". We're about a third of the way through the Final Fantasy OST. Battles, airships, shops, and more to come in Part 2!