(Editor’s note: From Breath of Fire to Ys, 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.)
In a Japanese role-playing game, boss battles tend to be some of the most pivotal moments in the story. The boss is the encounter that players need to take a little more seriously than one of its minions. In the words of Emeril, the intensity gets “kicked up a notch.”
In this week’s continuation of my three-part series on Final Fantasy’s battle music, we’re going to focus on those catchy rock-oriented boss themes that moved us to take on the insurmountable odds. To save the world.
And rest assured, when the stakes are high and the chips are down, composers Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, and Hitoshi Sakimoto have got it covered.
Although subsequent remakes of Final Fantasy and its sequel house a few great boss themes here and there, it wasn’t until the Famicom’s Final Fantasy III that the series began utilizing a recurring boss theme for its more challenging battles. “Battle 2″ is a notable first foray for the series’ boss music, fulfilling the sort of dramatic emotions one may have when squaring off with its difficult bosses. Its climactic break out in which the main melody references the world map music, “Eternal Wind” is one of the track’s highlights.
“Fight 2″ from Final Fantasy IV
Final Fantasy IV’s “Fight 2″ remains one of my favorite Final Fantasy boss themes, thanks to my ongoing nostalgia for the series’ first 16-bit foray. I had the odd opportunity of playing FFIV after having experienced the fight with Culex in Super Mario RPG, so listening to this track play during the battle with the Mist Dragon and realizing its origins blew my little third-grade mind away. The theme kicks off with that signature bass intro, albeit in a faster tempo and supplied with a quick, dramatic sweep of the orchestra. The track screams desperation, never letting up in its passion.
FFIV was the first game in the series to use more than one boss theme, with “The Dreadful Fight” being designated for those battles in which Cecil and crew were pitted against the Four Fiends. I love the use of the kettle drum and crash hits in tandem with the orchestra, and the sense of impending doom it creates.
“The Fierce Battle” from Final Fantasy V is interesting in that it builds up to a lot of tension only to explode into something that’s almost hopeful-sounding. It’s a great way of making the player know that they have a shot at persevering.
“Clash on the Big Bridge” from Final Fantasy V
One of the more popular battle themes in the Final Fantasy series, “Clash on the Big Bridge” plays like a fast and bombastic Deep Purple song. I instantly fell in love with this one the moment I heard it play when fighting Gilgamesh and his cohorts. It kicks off with a quick pace of arpeggios and a rapid flurry of drums, followed by a horn section that plays one of the most memorable melody lines in the Final Fantasy series.
Sakimoto would later take this hallmark Uematsu piece and create a wonderfully orchestrated version of it that acted as Gilgamesh’s theme in Final Fantasy XII. The part at 1:11 where the orchestra furiously plays a latter section of the track (complete with glockenspiel backup) is simply too good for words.
“The Decisive Battle” from Final Fantasy VI
Final Fantasy VI’s “The Decisive Battle” kicks off with that desperate feeling you typically get from a boss theme, but like “The Fierce Battle” from FFV, it builds up to an empowering melody line that enables the player to take charge. The percussion at play here is really impressive, the hi-hats and snare combine into a technically flurry that still perplexes me to this day. I’d go so far as to say that the percussion really is one of the best aspects of this track. Without that and the backing rhythm, the main melody wouldn’t really have the same weight to it.
FFVI’s “The Fierce Battle” (not to be confused with FFV’s) is remarkable for its despair-filled, orchestral flurry of an intro. Add the fact that it’s first heard when facing off against the terrifying Atma (Ultima in the re-translation) Weapon, and you’ve got yourself one of the most intensely epic boss themes on the SNES.
“Those Who Fight Further” from Final Fantasy VII
With the improved instrumentation of the 32-bit era, Uematsu pulled out a balls-out rock track for Final Fantasy VII’s boss music. The track begins with a synthesized electric guitar riff that would be permanently etched into the memory of many a FFVII fan. Everything from the harmonizing synth lines, the rapidly thumping bass guitar, and the backing orchestra towards the end of the track create something that can still elicit a tingling chill down my spine.
Speaking of which, FFVII’s other incredible boss music, “J-E-N-O-V-A” is another excellent piece of art, with its chilling intro synths heavy reliance on brass and wind to convey a very serious tone, while still building up to something triumphant.
“Force Your Way” from Final Fantasy VIII
Continuing on, Final Fantasy VIII’s “Force Your Way” is a fantastically energetic theme that features some excellent background synth arpeggios. The keyboard patches used here would make Emerson, Lake & Palmer proud. The shifting tempos and the mid-song build-up to its dramatic orchestral finish make for one of the most satisfying conclusions to a battle theme.
“Premonition,” which first plays during the showdown with Edea at Galbadia Garden, starts off haunting and slow but then builds into a moderately-paced and grand theme. Those who have pranced about FFVII’s world map a lot will notice the reference to that game’s theme in the track’s intro. Adding a motif from “Liberi Fatali” is also a nice touch.
I’ll be honest: with the excellence of FFIX’s battle music, I was expecting something epic for its “Boss Battle,” but was admittedly a little let down. It’s not a bad track by any means: it effectively creates the sense of seriousness one would expect with boss music, but next to the series’ other entries, it’s not as notable. I would probably say the same regarding Junya Nakano’s “Enemy Attack” in Final Fantasy X, but that has a really epic and intense outro.
Masashi Hamauzu’s “Challenge” is easily one of the best boss tracks in FFX. Not only is it appropriately-titled, given it plays during some of the game’s toughest encounters, it’s also ridiculously intense with its sustained notes and heavily distorted guitar that fuse with the orchestra. Man that battle with Seymour at Mt. Gagazet sucked.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Final Fantasy XI or XII’s soundtracks, considering how little I’ve played of either. I will say however that FFXII’s “Boss Battle” is grand and very reminiscent of John Williams’ scores for Star Wars.
“Saber’s Edge” from Final Fantasy XIII
“Saber’s Edge” completes our retrospective on Final Fantasy’s boss music, and may very well be one of the best boss themes of the series. This one requires repeat listenings to understand its grandeur. It starts off in a militaristic manner, with marching snare and soft-playing orchestra. Spurts of dissonant and descending piano playing add a feeling of imbalance and uncertainty to the piece. The player is then treated to a heroic-sounding section of brass.
At 1:45 the track gets a magnificent boost in tempo which builds it up to what you would expect to be the climactic moment ten seconds later. That point however only builds it up even moreso, unleashing the most amazing and hair-raising moment of the whole track at 2:05. The strings and brass soar high and it all cascades into something more subdued before looping all over again. What a brilliant track. What brilliant boss themes.
Top Six Tracks (picking only five was an impossible feat):
- “Clash on the Big Bridge” from Final Fantasy V
- “Fight 2″ from Final Fantasy IV
- “Saber’s Edge” from Final Fantasy XIII
- “Those Who Fight Further” from Final Fantasy VII
- “Force Your Way” from Final Fantasy VIII
- “The Decisive Battle” from Final Fantasy VI
Awesome FF Boss Theme Remixes:
- “Clash on the Big Bridge” by The Black Mages
- “Force Your Way” by The Black Mages
- “The Decisive Battle” by The Black Mages
- “Those Who Fight Further” by The Black Mages
- “J-E-N-O-V-A” by The Black Mages
- “Battle with the Four Fiends” by The Black Mages
- “The Decisive Battle” by Powerglove
- “Battle 2″ from Final Fantasy III (Nintendo DS, arranged by Tsuyoshi Sekito and Keiji Kawamori)
Also check out:
- Final Fantasy XIII’s “Opposition to Fate”