Final Fantasy I & II / All Sounds of
All Sounds of Final Fantasy I & II
H25X-20015 (1st Edition); PSCR-5251 (2nd Edition)
December 21, 1988; March 25, 1994
Buy at CDJapan
The Final Fantasy series is, at this moment, a veritable institution. It is the console RPG franchise with most worldwide success, even with people that are unaware of what an RPG is. But even veritable institutions have a beginning, and this series started with a humble game the success of which was probably not expected by anyone involved. One of those was Square’s composer Nobuo Uematsu, whose score was one of the highlights of the game, and of course he, alongside most of the original team, was again involved in the sequel. Although a lesser success than the first one, Final Fantasy II was enough of a hit as to consolidate the series into a viable franchise, and its music into a staple of game scores. Eventually the soundtracks for both games, in all their unarranged chiptune glory, got released in this album.
I just said it, but I will say it again: this is an album of chiptune music. Except for the two arranged pieces that bookend it, of course, but those are there mainly to add colour and variety and I don’t consider them integral to the soundtrack, even if, aurally, they might be the most pleasant tracks (provided you have not developed an allergy for late 80s digital synths, and I assure you many people have). This poses a difficulty both for the composer and for the reviewer; for the composer because all he can work with are the purely structural elements of melody, harmony, rhythm, and so on, having a limited palette of timbres available, which means also that every piece must be distinct and noticeably different, as the common option of reusing a tune with a different instrumentation is not feasible. For the reviewer because he also cannot use instrumentation to describe the tracks, so no mentions of lush strings or pastoral flutes here. Hence why in this review I will have to go into discussion of chord progressions, harmonic structures, form, background textures, pitch ranges, tonalities and so on. Be warned that I am purely an amateur and a dilettante with respect to music theory, so the more musically trained among you might cringe from time to time with my descriptions, in which case I apologize most humbly.
Among the common elements between the two soundtracks I can find a strong emphasis in melody (which is almost a given for old school chiptune music), most of them eminently hummable, usually built on common harmonic progressions and song structures. The influence is decidedly Western, both pop and classical. Most pieces are constructed in such a way as to make the looping of them sound natural, for example by avoiding the use of perfect cadences which would make it sound like the tune was landing and taking off continuously. The instrumentation is quite consistent, mainly using the two square wave channels of the NES sound module for melody and counterpoint or for melody and arpeggios, and the triangle wave channel for basslines or the occasional arpeggio; although the listener will hear that in the score for Final Fantasy II there are some small adventures in timbre, most relying in simple time-shifting effects to give melodies an eerie, cantabile ambience. The noise channel is not used and there are not any percussive sounds, so when an agitated or excited mood is needed the rhythmic elements are purely given by the bass lines and the chordal accompaniment.
However both scores are also very different from each other and the reason for it really boils down to one thing: the mood. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that in the Nintendo era “the odd numbered Final Fantasies were gameplay oriented and the even numbered were story oriented”, but it’s true to an extent. Although the heroes of Final Fantasies I, III and V managed to save the world in the end, at times it was felt like your real purpose in life was to find new and exciting ways of gaining experience and make use of your character’s job abilities. Just compare your parties in those games (which even in FFV really are a mostly non-changing quartet of blank slates) with the revolving door parties of very different characters in FFII, IV and VI. Musically this is true as well, as the comparison of the “happy-go-lucky” overworld themes of I, III and V with the moody overworld themes of II, IV and VI would quickly demonstrate.
Thus, the music of Final Fantasy, while serious (there’s a line between “happy” and “goofy”), is mainly uplifting, quick-paced, and jubilant. In contrast, the music of Final Fantasy II is much more somber, melancholic, slow and oppressive. There are exceptions to both rules, of course, but even when our Final Fantasy II heroes are safely walking though a town, the music never let us forget that the world is in serious trouble; and when our players are deep into a dangerous dungeon, the music of Final Fantasy usually seems to highlight the bravery of our heroes while the music of Final Fantasy II sometimes gives a genuine sense of dread. Compare, if you wish, FFI’s “Gurgu Volcano” with FFII’s “Imperial Army Theme”.
Thus, being the first two scores for the Final Fantasy series, and helping codify the two main moods the franchise would explore in the future, these had a deep influence in how the music for the series would develop. Aside from the obvious contributions, i.e. the recurrent themes like the Prelude, Final Fantasy theme, Chocobo theme, Victory fanfare, or battle music intro riff, some of the conventions followed here, while not exactly invented for these games, would eventually become defining traits. These include the overworld theme being used to convey the main mood of the game or storyline, the final dungeon’s music designed to be as much as encouraging as it is dreadful, and the friendly towns and caves expressing how you’re in a place that, while affected by the events taking place in the world, offers you the security that while you’re there you have nothing to fear. From the basic foundation laid by these two soundtracks, the main evolution would come from increasing the particularization of the themes — different themes for important areas, characters, etc. which, although not present here, will slowly appear beginning already with the third game on the franchise (but that’s another story which must be told in another time…)
A quick note about the presentation of the music on the CD. The chiptune tracks are mostly made to loop twice before fading out, and there has been a noticeable amount of reverb and equalization applied to make a slight simulated stereo sound (like those “electronically processed stereo” pop albums they issued in the Sixties), although it’s subtle enough to not annoy the listener.
It’s extremely difficult to give a final verdict on this album, since the very good points it has to offer, like memorable melodies and solid compositions, are a bit offset by its drawbacks such as the shortness of the tracks and the bad sound quality. However it is a very notable effort and a worthy opener for the subsequent offerings of Final Fantasy music — as such I am going to give it a moderate rating, to which you can safely add a point or two if you’re willing to disregard its obvious aural hindrances. But, as far as NES chiptune soundtracks go, this is one of the very best.
Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!
Posted on August 1, 2012 by Jaime Vargas. Last modified on August 1, 2012.