Liner Notes IX: The orchestral flair of Breath of Fire

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(Editor’s note: From Dragon Quest to Suikoden, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame music.)

I could sit here and type endlessly about the brilliance of Nobuo Uematsu’s work on Final Fantasy IV – VI, or how in-depth Koji Kondo’s Super Mario World compositions really were, but those are instances of SNES music that have been endlessly praised and examined for nearly two decades.

One particular score that holds up as highly as the others is Breath of Fire. Developed and published entirely by Capcom in 1993, with a North American localization handled by Squaresoft a year later, it marked the company’s first foray into a JRPG market already being dominated by the likes of Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

As a personal fan of the Breath of Fire series, you can see why its epic score, diverse cast of characters and a world filled with dragons, sorcery and conflict, would make a very strong impression on six year-old me.

Given that Capcom was already a champion of videogame music with series like Mega Man and Street Fighter under its belt and Breath of Fire was their first RPG, it’s no wonder they wanted to go all-out with the score.

Several members of Capcom’s in-house music team, Alph Lyla, were eager to contribute to this title. Yasuaki Fujita took lead composing duties, with Mari Yamaguchi, Minae Fujii, Tatsuya Nishimura and Yoko Shimomura making some small contributions.

Breath of Fire’s music is largely classical and orchestral in nature. For Fujita, the main concept behind the music was “piano concerto,” in which a piano is accompanied by a whole orchestra. This is immediately evident with the first few tracks you’ll hear in the game, such as the dramatically moving “White Dragon” during the prologue and “Blood Relation” which hits you with its wondrous Chopin-like arpeggios the moment you begin a new game.

“The Dragon Warrior” 

Before any of that prologue business, the player is treated to blue-haired protagonist Ryu’s entrance onscreen followed by a violent strike of lightning that’s brought down by raising his sword. The scene then shifts to the game’s title screen, where the logo glows as an incredibly triumphant piece plays. There are some incredible build-ups here, with a particularly beautiful flute section and several layers of piano, string, and brass.

It’s hard to skip the title screen when something so epic is playing.

The intense “Black Dragon” plays during a fight between Ryu’s sister Sara and Jade, one of the main villains of the game. The track serves as the theme for the villainous Black Dragons, who set fire to the peaceful White Dragons’ village in the beginning of the game. It’s a track filled with despair, and sticks out in my head for its sudden sting at 0:35 followed by a frenetic use of strings.

“Fate” 

Piano concerto lends itself well to some really somber-feeling pieces, and tracks like “Premature Death” and “Fate” fit that bill perfectly. Due to this track playing during moments where the subject is Sara, it’s often considered her theme. Search for it on YouTube and you’ll find a bevy of renditions of its sad melody.

“Starting the Journey ~Breath of Fire~” 

Now here’s a tune that six-year-old me couldn’t stop humming. “Starting the Journey” acts as the game’s first world map music and is essentially the big theme of Breath of Fire, having also been featured in the second game. A shame they didn’t continue using it in subsequent entries, though.

It’s worth noting that this track, composed by Mari Yamaguchi, helped Fujita out of a slump he was having during the project. Yamaguchi would take over after Fujita had left prior to the game’s completion, but nevertheless it’s wonderful to think that a defining track of the game would inspire one of its main composers.

Breath of Fire was one of the first RPGs to feature changing world map music. After certain pivotal events in the game occurred, the music for exploring the overworld map would change to fit the new tone of the story, and it made for a refreshing surprise. “Distant View” and “Expedition” are those particular tracks, and continue that adventurous feel of “Starting the Journey” in their own way.

These thematic changes would come full circle when the first theme returns at the end of the game after Ryu winds up back in his hometown.

“Battling” 

What’s a JRPG without good battle music? Breath of Fire handles that just fine, with “Beginning of Battle” serving as the normal battle anthem during the first half of the game, with “Battling” taking its place after that point. Both are kept interesting with rapid flurries of string and wind instruments and a steady drum beat that divulges into some occasional hi-hat, crash and snare play.

The game’s diverse catalog extends even to its dungeon and town music. “Ancient Ruins” is a bit funky thanks to a standout bassline and blaring trumpets. “Deep Forest” too is noteworthy for its emotive qualities and catchy beat.

“God’s Footprints” 

In “God’s Footprints,” the melody toes the line between soothing relief and an air of mysteriousness thanks to its interesting shifts and a piano that jarringly trails off. You’ll hear this often in the dragon ruins scattered throughout the game’s world.

Speaking of dragons, the track “Memories,” which plays in the Dragon God save shrines throughout the game, was the sole contribution of Tatsuya Nishimura, which explains why it’s so unique to the rest of the soundtrack.  Mega Man X fans will notice some familiar sounds here.

Just as the dungeon music features a various assortment of tracks, so does the town music. “Secret City’s” use of pizzicato and low brass and woodwind give it a playfully mysterious feel that make it oddly fitting for a town that’s home to a bunch of lock-picking thieves.

The melancholic and aquatic “Trade City” is the only track in the game that JRPG veteran Yoko Shimomura composed for. Shimomura explained that at the time, Capcom had divided the team into two, with one half focusing on arcade music while the other handled console music. Shimomura belonged to the arcade section, but had a strong desire to compose for RPGs (hence her jump to Square), and so according to VGMdb.net she practically pleaded with the chief of staff to let her compose at least one track for the company’s flagship RPG.

With such a remarkable score, you’d think that Breath of Fire’s music would be given a live orchestral treatment, but this has sadly never happened. A few talented artists at Overclocked Remix have shared their own notable renditions of a few of the game’s tracks years ago, but that’s pretty much it. It’s truly one of the most under-appreciated soundtracks of the 16-bit era.

Capcom was aware of how magical the music to their games is, and in 2006 had released a near-complete eleven-disc collection in the form of Breath of Fire Original Soundtrack Special Box. If you ever find a copy of this rarity, let me know so I can splurge all my zenny on it.

Top Five Tracks:

  1. “The Dragon Warrior”
  2. “Starting the Journey ~ Breath of Fire”
  3. “Battling”
  4. “Fate”
  5. “God’s Footprints”

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate with aspirations of joining the game industry. I have a strong love of games and their music. When not serving as Associate Editor for Pixelitis,net and a writer for Game Music Online, you'll see him working on a game music drum cover project entitled "VGdrum" and managing his Breath of Fire Facebook and Twitter fan pages.

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