Liner Notes X: The battle-hardened themes of Final Fantasy

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(Editor’s note: From Grandia to Lost Odyssey, 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.)

Although the 3DS’ Theatrhythm: Final Fantasy has been out for a good five months in North America, I’ve only started playing it now. And boy is it a nostalgia trip.

As I blasted through the game’s timeline of thirteen Final Fantasy titles, memories of my wonderful times with the Final Fantasy series permeated my mind. Nobuo Uematsu’s (and many other’s) work on the series is such an integral part to the Final Fantasy experience. Going along with that is its penchant for amazing battle music.

Great-sounding battle music is integral to any JRPG. You’re going to be engaging in countless battles throughout the game, so the tune you’ll be forced to listen to better be enjoyable. Thankfully in Final Fantasy‘s case, the battle themes never disappoint.

Let’s face it, you can’t lump the entirety of the Final Fantasy series’ battle, boss and final boss themes into one article or list. Consider this to be part one of a three-piece feature dedicated to covering the series’ rich library of monster-fighting music.

So assign your best job classes, strap on that materia, junction those spells, and update your sphere grids: it’s battle theme time.

Although Uematsu is lauded for his wondrous orchestra-infused pieces, he still wanted to be seen as a rock musician. The style and pace of these battle themes served as the perfect outlet to hone that rock n’ roll power. The influence had by the likes of Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Deep Purple, and other progressive rock bands is apparent throughout the games’ battle theme history.

Final Fantasy’s battle themes hinge on offering strong, upbeat melodies. Much like how chocobos, airships, Cid, and moogles all eventually became series staples, the bass intro to Final Fantasy I through VI (and later IX) was an integral part of kicking off a normal fight. 

Final Fantasy’s “Battle Scene” was the first to begin the onslaught, and it proved to be instantly memorable and impressive given the limitations of the Famicom’s sound hardware. Due to these limitations, Uematsu was guided by Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi in crafting parts of the first game’s music.

Final Fantasy II’s “Battle Scene 1″ continues providing a memorable melody, with bigger moments of desperation thrown in. The way the notes “tumble down” at the end before it loops adds a nice sort of unexpected cliffhanger to the whole package.

Final Fantasy III’s “Battle 1″ is notable for being the first of the series’ battle themes to feature percussion. Chiptuney bass drums, hi-hats, snares and toms add a nice extra layer to the whole mix. The harpsichord-like backup to the main melody adds a classical flair to it.

“Fight 1″ – Final Fantasy IV 

Would I bash my head against a wall when I got into my billionth random encounter in the Sylph Cave and the Lunar Subterrane? Yes, but this music made much of the pain go away. Blame nostalgia if you want, since IV was my first Final Fantasy, but this track is easily one of my favorites. This marked Final Fantasy’s entry into the 16-bit era, and I’m sure the upgrade in instrumentation and layering (such as that awesome string accompaniment) blew the socks off many a FF player in the early 90s.

“Battle 1″ from Final Fantasy V may very well be one of the more underrated battle themes of the series, given that it hasn’t received as much attention in terms of covers and remixes. This may be due to its brevity, already looping at 34 seconds. Nevertheless, you can’t deny how groovy that bass guitar is.

Things get much more fast-paced in Final Fantasy VI’s “Battle Theme.” The drums are given more of a rock edge to them, the bass is even more rhythmic, and a distorted guitar sound backs up the prominent trumpeting and stringplay.

Final Fantasy VII not only marked the first time the series jumped ship to a new home on the PS1, but it also broke away from a few other traditions, like the bass intro fans were so accustomed to hearing in the battle theme. “Those Who Fight” continued the work of Final Fantasy IV in ushering in a new age of improved instrumentation. The track’s build up to a very epic and climactic brass and wind section easily make it a stand-out and fan favorite. Little nuances like the addition of industrial hammer-and-anvil sounds were a neat touch that were quite fitting for the game’s new, more futuristic look.

“The Man with a Machine Gun” – Final Fantasy VIII 

I often associate “grand” and “dramatic” with Final Fantasy VIII’s “Don’t Be Afraid,” which made me feel like it was part of a film score. Although live renditions of the track have given me chills in the past, I have to hand it to “The Man with a Machine Gun,” which tickles your ears with its spine-tingling techno synths whenever you take control of Laguna in the game’s flashback sequences.

“Battle” – Final Fantasy IX 

In the days of 56k, you had to wait a really long time to hear an audio clip. So when I came across audio of Final Fantasy IX’s “Battle,” which hadn’t been released in North America yet, I ecstatically waited for the whole thing to buffer before listening, and man was I wowed. My musical loins pulsated to its classic bass intro, which served as a nod to the series’ roots. IX’s battle theme is much more sprightly and whimsical than its predecessors, which made it an overall joy to listen to every time that screen turned into a swirl.

“Normal Battle” – Final Fantasy X 

Final Fantasy X continued the bouts of perkiness, although with a far “synthier” approach that was brought together with some great, introspective-like orchestral moments. It’s hard not to like this one or the orgy of keyboard-playing that explodes following the build-up.

Final Fantasy XI’s music marked the first time a majority of a main Final Fantasy title’s score was written by someone else. Despite Uematsu’s smaller role, composer Naoshi Mizuta crafted some excellent battle themes. My experience with XI is severely limited, but the game’s first “Battle Theme” among a plethora of others remains a memorable one thanks to its fast tempo and ever-increasing drama.

Although Hitoshi Sakimoto’s compositions for Final Fantasy XII are splendid, the game had no reoccurring “normal” battle music thanks to the lack of a screen transition from the field to a battle. Due to this, it will be skipped (but not forgotten in the future).

“Blinded by Light” – Final Fantasy XIII 

Hearing a Final Fantasy battle theme for the first time is always a momentous occasion, and when I heard XIII’s for the first time, I was completely taken aback by how beautiful it was. The climactic entry of the violins following the heightened tension created by the rest of the orchestra (and distorted guitar) sends shivers down my spine every single time I listen to it. With XIII, composer Masashi Hamauzu proved that excellent battle music in a Final Fantasy doesn’t always need its original master.

Say what you want about pre-A Realm Reborn Final Fantasy XIV, but we can at least agree that the music, which sees the return of Uematsu, is quite good. Despite my very limited time with the game, “Beneath Bloody Banners” serves as a great battle track that’s like a mishmash of Uematsu’s classic Final Fantasy and his more recent outings with Mistwalker.

Did you agree with my top five picks? Am I nuts for not picking VII’s battle theme in my Top Five? Should I give X-2XI, XIII-2 and XIV’s soundtracks more listens? Sound off in the comments, but not before I summon Carbuncle.

Top Five Tracks: (that were impossible to pick, by the way)

  1. “Blinded by Light” from Final Fantasy XIII
  2. “Battle” from Final Fantasy IX
  3. “The Man with the Machine Gun” from Final Fantasy VIII
  4. “Fight 1″ from Final Fantasy IV
  5. “Normal Battle” from Final Fantasy X

Awesome FF Battle Theme Remixes:

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Author: Patrick Kulikowski View all posts by
Patrick Kulikowski is a Rutgers University graduate and Pixelitis writer. In addition to being a gamer for over 19 years, he is an avid drummer and enjoys working on his VGdrum videogame music project. He also doesn't cling to just one platform. Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, the PC market, he loves it all.