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The lasting impact of Nobuo Uematsu and the music of Final Fantasy

06 July 2020, 07:00

Influenced by Western role-playing games like Ultima, along with the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, the Final Fantasy series has grown from its humble 8-bit beginnings in 1987 to become one of the most well-known gaming series on the planet, complete with books, Hollywood movies, TV show spin-offs and more.

You, the star of the show, journey through a fictional fantasy/sci-fi world, amassing allies to eventually save the world and beat the big bad, and there's often some crystals, chocobos (giant yellow chickens to you and me) and a guy called Cid along the way.

Aside from that, the mainline games aren’t connected to each other, so you won't have missed anything from not playing the first 14 games if you decide to leap into the latest entry. The same can be said of the series' scores - they share a few common elements, such as the Prelude, Opening, Fanfare and Chocobo themes, but pretty much stand entirely on their own.

So what makes this game series' soundtracks so special? The lead composer for many of the Final Fantasy games, Nobuo Uematsu, is the best place to start.

Arguably one of the greatest videogame composers, the self-taught Uematsu (pictured above in a recent documentary by Square Enix) joined Square in 1985 in his mid 20s as a stop gap before intending to move on to film music production. However, after composing for games like Genesis, King's Night and Aliens, he was soon asked by director Hironobu Sakaguchi to write for Final Fantasy. The game, released on the Famicon/NES in December 1987, unexpectedly become a major commercial success and Uematsu went on to provide full scores for the next eight games; co-composing on the tenth (2001) and eleventh entries (2002).

After forming The Black Mages (2002-2010), a cover band specialising in Final Fantasy songs in hard rock-/prog-rock style, Uematsu departed from full-time work at Square Enix in 2004, forming his production company Smile Please, and then a record label, Dog Ear Records, in 2006. After The Black Mages disbanded in 2010, he established a successor band, the Earthbound Papas, which covers Final Fantasy and other game series tracks. He still contributes as a freelancer to several developers including Square Enix, most recently working on the main theme "Hollow" for the Final Fantasy VII Remake.

The long-awaited Final Fantasy VII Remake, released in April 2020, features adaptive music, taking Uematsu’s original melodies and adding instruments and arrangements, as well as several new compositions. Most remarkable of all is that though the game only covers a quarter of the original story (more remake parts are planned), the developers included tracks from across the whole of the original FFVII as collectable items throughout.

One of the Final Fantasy soundtracks’ lasting impacts have been the many video games concerts they’ve spawned. The success of the series’ official concert series (including the Dear Friends, Distant Worlds, Final Symphony tours), which have featured guest appearances from Uematsu and toured worldwide, have had a major part in popularising video game concerts (pictured above: Distant Worlds Concert, London). Part of this mainstream acknowledgement arrived in 2012, when Uematsu’s "Aerith’s Theme" from Final Fantasy VII became the first of two videogame songs to be included in the Classic FM hall of fame.

Uematsu's influences are as wide-reaching as the games themselves. You have the use of cinematic leitmotifs in the vein of John Williams, James Horner and Hans Zimmer, but also input from classical composers like Bach, Chopin, Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Ravel and Stravinsky, all of which are topped off by a love of 70s prog rock, jazz, and Celtic music.

Yep, you heard that right - prog-rock. Uematsu lists Yes, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and King Crimson as important influences for some of his themes, along with other 70s pop and rock artists like The Beatles, Elton John, Jimi Hendrix and Kraftwerk. And once you know that, you’ll be hard pressed to not hear echoes of those powerhouses, whether it’s the hypnotic riffs and synths, the folk-style, melancholic acoustic numbers, or the catchy, jazzy percussion.

Unlike many other fantasy games, which lean heavily on classical composers, such as the Dragon Quest series (Koichi Sugiyama), Uematsu's love for rock, pop and electronica definitely shines through and adds a more modern twist to the genre’s musical conventions.

Aside from influences, one of his key strengths are his memorable character themes, not only channelling sentimentality and emotion to great effect, but re-used and remixed in the form of leitmotifs resurfacing during key narrative points. Finally, he has the uncanny ability to produce incredibly catchy melodies, perhaps owed to the hardware restrictions he faced when first composing.

An easy thing to forget today is the technical mastery required to produce engrossing songs on early consoles like the Famicon/NES (pictured above: the Famicon/NES 1.79 Mhz 8-bit microprocessor). The audio on the Nintendo Entertainment System was restricted to a mere five simple channels - two pulse waves (melodies), triangle wave (simple bass/percussion), white noise (metallic effects/percussion) and digital sample (audio/effects), plus memory limits. The restrictions meant many early tunes were heavily melodic, though sound programmers used a lot of audio tricks to get around the limitations, such as using arpeggios to simulate background chords.

There was a massive leap forward with the Super Famicon/SNES (1990), with channels increased from 5 to 8, larger memory allowing for longer, more varied tracks, and more control over channel volumes, allowing for a more natural fade out of notes. An even greater step came with the introduction of CDs on consoles like the PlayStation (1994) – 24 channel digital audio arrived, and the technological barriers between game composers and musicians were finally been torn down.

Despite all these the restrictions, Uematsu managed to produce stunning tracks with a lot of variety, and most impressively of all, many are still being used today, albeit it at a higher bit-rate!

So let’s head back to where it all began...

Final Fantasy I (Famicon/NES, 1987)

This groundbreaking role-playing game may have been limited in the scope of its graphics, size and story, but its music was remarkably impressive. In Final Fantasy I, you can see the melodic DNA of Final Fantasy music – the first iterations of some of the most long-running themes in computer game history - like the upbeat "Main Theme", the triumphant "Fanfare" and the sublime "Prelude".

The opening "Prelude" – the first thing you would have heard after rushing home to try out your latest cartridge – is a masterpiece of minimalist sound work. Composed in a last minute dash to fill a newly-added intro scene, this 52-second piece went on to be mainstay of the series for over 30 years. The minimal, yet haunting Bach-esque arpeggio does its best to mimic a harp, with two pulse channels, one purposively 1/8s late to give the impression of a delay effect.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy I Playlist.


Final Fantasy II (Famicom, 1988)

The second Final Fantasy is often overlooked both in terms of the game (with its divisive level system) and its accompanying score, not least for the fact it was never initially released outside Japan. That said, it shows Uematsu becoming more familiar with the hardware, with a greater range of instruments and audio tricks, giving the feel of a more orchestral sound.

This stirring, Baroque-style track, which builds to a triumphant fanfare, is centre stage in the second entry in the series. It’s also rather reminiscent of much of the original Star Wars soundtrack (itself influenced by Holst, Eglar and more), which given the plot similarities in the story, may not be such a coincidence.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy II Playlist.


Final Fantasy III (Famicom, 1990)

Much like its predecessor, only receiving a Japanese release has stifled the popularity of this entry, though Square Enix did eventually remake the whole thing in 3D some 16 years later on the Nintendo DS. Our loss indeed, as FFIII is undoubtedly one of the high points of NES-era scores. Not, only does Uematsu serve up complex melodies and harmonics, but introduces character themes, or leitmotifs – where small sound phrase or melodies would accompany a character’s scenes. This concept, long popular in films, would soon become an a major part of the series, as well as video game soundtracks in general.

This peaceful, melancholic piece has the honour of being the first character theme in the series, for the ill- fortuned Maiden of the Temple of Water. While it may be a set of simple arpeggios and a delicate melody line, there’s a stunning simplicity, and it set the stage for similar contemplative character tracks in future games, such as the themes for Rydia (FFIV), Relm (FFVI) and Aerith (FFVII).

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy III Playlist.


Final Fantasy IV (Super Famicom/SNES, 1991)

Final Fantasy IV, the first entry of the Super Famicon/SNES was a major step towards what the series would be known for today - intriguing plots, dramatic twists and character development, all helped by the better graphics and audio capabilities of the new machine. The bass lines sound better than ever, and were even given a shout out in the comic and feature film of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010). (Final Fantasy IV was known as Final Fantasy II in the US as it was the second in the series to be released there).

Uematsu continued to pioneer with more leitmotifs, not just for characters but also themes, such as the stunning "Theme of Love" for both Cecil and Rosa , while the increase in audio channels meant a step forward towards the realistic sounding instrumentation. The Irish Celtic influences are strong on this score, with more harps and pipes – Uematsu even composed a FFIV Celtic arrangement album, Celtic Moon, in the same year as the game. More recently, William Carlos Reyes has produced a stunning classical guitar arrangement cover album of some of the top tracks which is essential listening.

Amid a set of stunning tracks like "Troian Beauty", "Welcome to Our Town" and "Within the Giant", this was one of the toughest picks, but it can only be "Battle With The Four Fiends (The Dreadful Fight)". Much like the fierce battle it accompanies, this amazingly tense number throws everything at the listener — thumping kettle drums, chaotic strings and booming horns, all topped off with a speedy, yet funky bass riff.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy IV Playlist.


Final Fantasy V (Super Famicom, 1992)

Despite being often ignored due to its muddled story and high difficulty, the fifth entry’s score takes the fourth’s push into character themes and takes it further with its prominent main title track, as well as experimenting with more rock influences for the battle sections, most famously on "Battle on the Big Bridge" and "The Last Battle". Again, the US and Europe missed this on its initial release, which was eventually available as part of an anthology on the PlayStation in 1999.

This cheerfully upbeat anthem is a tour-de-force of opening tracks, with its main melody echoed through the game, such as in "Four Hearts", "The Day Will Come" and "Lenna’s (Reina’s) Theme", with its superb and surprisingly realistic slide bass riff. [Ignoring the riotously fun prog-rock-styled "Clash on the Big Bridge" is just a Sin I’ll have to live with].

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy V Playlist.


Final Fantasy VI (Super Famicom/SNES, 1994)

With its large cast, detailed plot and vast world, the last 2D entry in the series was at the top of its game, and had a score to match. Pushing the hardware to its limits, you get a full feel of what ‘cinematic’ game soundtracks could sound like before CD audio arrived, and the game even features an opera! While you might be tempted to try out the orchestral re-arrangement, stick with the original 16-bit.

The star of show has to be the Baroque-inspired, organ-led chaos of "Dancing Mad", which plays as you fight the battle the crazed final boss that is Kefka. Split into four movements, it runs for an incredible 18 minutes – almost unheard of at time due to memory limits. While the first three movements build suspense and lend heavily on classical tropes, the last movement ditches Bach for prog-rock goodness with a thumping bass, trippy riffs and fast-paced percussion.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy VI Playlist.


Final Fantasy VII – (PlayStation, 1997)

The brave new world of 3D graphics, CD audio and Full Motion Video (FMV) ushered in arguably the most famous Final Fantasy, number VII. For many in the US and Europe, this was their first Final Fantasy, and what greater way to be introduced to Uematsu. While the score is adept in matching the story’s rollercoaster of emotions, with countless light-hearted, nostalgic and inspiring songs, it is undoubtedly the series’ darkest, most ominous soundtrack. On tracks like "Mako Reactor", "Shinra, Inc" and "Those Chosen By the Planet", Uematsu plays up the dramatic, with menacing brass bells and heavy percussion all adding to a terrifying sense of foreboding.

And of course, we can’t forget "One Winged Angel", the grandiose classical rock opera containing the series’ first vocal track – a booming latin chorus dedicated to the antagonist. FFVII’s incredible success, with spin-off titles and films, which left fans hungry for a remake, finally released in April 2020 on the PlayStation 4.

Completing a journey he began with his first character theme for "Elia, the Maiden of Water" back in 1990, Uematsu reaches the apex of this reflective style of song with "Aerith’s Theme". Taking parts of the operatic "Aria di Mezzo Carattere" from Final Fantasy VI, this bittersweet lullaby flits between major and minor keys, balancing optimism and nostalgia with darker tones warning of what’s to come. If there’s one track that is inextricably tied to the moment in the game it’s most famous for, this is it.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy VII Playlist.


Final Fantasy VIII – (PlayStation, 1999)

This rebellious sibling of the series threw out the tried-and-tested magic system, ditched the world-ending stakes and went for a more realistic romance drama, and its music is no different. The character themes which had become a cornerstone of the series were discarded for general emotional leitmotifs.

There’s a move towards pop, jazz and electronica, as well as orchestral music, while lengthy FMV sequences allowed for even more cinematic audio and visuals. We also see the first commercial pop ballad by a famous artist, Faye Wong, in the form of "Eyes On Me", a feature that would become a hallmark of later games. [There’s even an side quest to form a band and play a festival].

Despite some superb action scene pieces like "The Landing", "Never Look Back" and "Only A Plank Between One and Perdition", and the unforgettable final boss themes, the ultimate track has to be the whimsical, serene and jazzy "Fisherman's Horizon". A piano and woodwind seaside theme that lives and breathes the ocean, it’s the perfect accompaniment for the calm before the storm in terms of the plot.

It’s also a kindred spirit to the breezy, tropical island themes like "Arni", "Sailing", and "Guldove" that fellow Square composer Yasuni Mitsoda produced for Chrono Cross, released only nine months later.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy VIII Playlist.


Final Fantasy IX (PlayStation, 2000)

A love-letter to the bygone era of traditional fantasy FFs and RPGs, this title leans heavily on Renaissance instruments ("A Place to Call Home"), as well as taking influence from everything from Flamenco ("Vamo'alla flamenco"), ragtime ("Dark City Treno"), and ambient music ("Ice Cavern").

This project was Uematsu’s largest to date, comprising an incredible 160 tracks, unheard of at the time, and may be behind Uematu’s stepping back on the next title. Overall, FFIX’s score revels in its nostalgia, not only for the past in terms of arrangements, but also in the inclusion of throwback nods to earlier tracks from the series. As with VIII before, we see a vocal ballad as a lead theme song, this time "Melodies of Life", sung by Emiko Shiratori, though it doesn’t feel too out of place as the general melody appears throughout as a romance leitmotif.

This remarkably hard-hitting anthem takes an already emotional part of the game to new heights with its synth bass and banjo intro slowly building to a rousing distorted guitar and synth choir filled chorus. Absolutely fitting for a scene where the antagonist painfully overcomes deepest despair after a gut-wrenching revelation to eventually rejoin his abandoned friends and battle onward together.

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy IX Playlist.


Final Fantasy X – (PlayStation 2, 2001)

Launching on the PlayStation 2, the tenth game, the first not entirely composed by Uematsu, boasted entirely 3D graphics, motion capture and most importantly – voice acting. The introduction of vocals may have brought a new level of realism, but meant that the soundtracks began to take a step back. With characters’ voices jostling for attention, the score is forced to be more minimal and can no longer take centre stage during dialogue scenes.

That said, the soundtrack, co-composed by Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakon does not disappoint. Uematsu brings a memorable set of character and battle themes, while Hamauzu in particular crafts ambient, synth-led atmospheric pieces that fit the Ryukyuan-inspired setting perfectly. The vocal theme, "Suteki da ne?" (Isn't It Wonderful?) comes courtesy of Amami folk singer RIKKI, and is easily Uematsu’s best vocal pop song to date.

This fan fave is piano ballad simplicity at its finest. The relaxed, waltz-like melody treads similar territory as Aerith’s theme, ebbing between optimism and sorrow, but sustaining momentum. A perfect accompaniment for the in media-res opening with characters awaiting their final journey, and well used throughout the game in "Movement in Green", "A Fleeting Dream", and the sublime string version in the "Ending Theme".

Check all the honourable mentions in our Best of Final Fantasy X Playlist.


Of course, there are several more main entries in the series with outstanding soundtracks (FFXII in particular), but it’s a fitting conclusion to the bulk of Uematsu’s work. We also can’t ignore his stellar work with Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi on Chrono Trigger (1995), Blue Dragon (2006) and Last Story (2011), the first of which he worked on with fellow Square composer Yasunori Mitsuda. Mitsuda deserves a whole article for himself, but go check out his Xenogears (1998) and Chrono Cross (2000) soundtracks for some stunning traditional and Celtic-inspired electronica. For a more recent recommendation, try out the Keiichi Okabe and co's spectacular scores for Nier (2010) and Nier: Automata (2017).

Will we ever see another game composer as prolific as Uematsu? It’s a tough call, but I’m hopeful. However, I do think that his talent for a powerful, catchy melody was in some part a result of the technical restrictions he faced. With only a few sound channels up your sleeve, you get creative, and that’s exactly what happened here over the course of the games. That, and the fact many computer games were essentially silent movies until the 2000s meant sound took centre stage, and was lucky enough to back up the story beats with emotion to fill in the text-based dialogue scenes. But regardless of whether you choose to listen to the original sound versions, orchestral rearrangements, piano or guitar collections or electronica remixes, you’ll be in for a well-deserved treat.

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