Without a doubt, Final Fantasy is home to some of the best video game music ever composed. Every single game in the series is packed to the brim with standout tracks and to try and condense all these masterful melodies into something as banal as a list is, quite frankly, doing them a disservice — that said, I’m going to attempt it anyway. I would, however, preface this article by reminding anyone reading that all Final Fantasy games (spin-offs included) individually have at least ten songs that could fill any ‘top x’ list. I have chosen to limit myself to five tracks in an attempt to preserve my sanity; given free rein, I would have something to say on almost every composition. I have also imposed the rule to not pick more than one track from one game, only because (due to personal bias) I would almost certainly choose pieces exclusively from the PlayStation era Final Fantasy titles, which I seem to have done anyway. Those games are my nostalgic Achilles heel and all it takes is looking too long at their title screens to make me cry like a baby. It is also worth noting that, yes, almost every track featured below is composed by the virtuoso Nobuo Uematsu, but plenty of incredibly talented people have also contributed music to the series and we can’t forget the likes of Yoko Shimamura, Ryo Yamazaki, Masashi Hamauzu and many more. Let’s kick things off with one of the absolute best battle themes ever to grace the PlayStation 1.
1. J-E-N-O-V-A — Final Fantasy VII
Be prepared to hear the next admission repeated ad nauseam, but how on earth do you pick only one song from Final Fantasy VII? It truly was a close call between The Prelude, Opening — Bombing Mission, Tifa’s Theme, Aerith’s Theme, (goddamn) One-Winged Angel, but in the end I kept on coming back to J-E-N-O-V-A. People often point to Final Fantasy VI as the first game in the series that truly moved away from high fantasy, and they’d be totally correct. VII, however, was the first to introduce a truly modern-day meets quasi-sci-fi aesthetic. From its still relevant eco-centric plot to Cloud’s mind-bending journey of self-discovery, Final Fantasy VII does an incredible job of expanding on the darker thematic elements introduced in its Super Nintendo predecessor. One of the game’s defining features is the terrifying alien presence, Jenova — a parasitic extra-terrestrial entity that serves as a major antagonistic force throughout. Jenova’s cells, through experiments conducted by Hojo, have been infused into several characters in Final Fantasy VII and she gives ‘birth’ to the iconic villain, Sephiroth. Jenova is a shadowy force behind the scenes, the seed that sowed the corruption slowly spreading throughout Gaia. It is only fitting then that almost every fight with Jenova (or, more specifically, her weaker manifestations) are accompanied by a song that is equally sinister and bombastic. J-E-N-O-V-A hits players with that kind of hard-edged, metallic synth that feels a million miles away from the lush green fields and fantastical adventure of previous entries. There is a clear, uncomfortable otherworldliness to this song. Jenova, as a creature, seems truly alien to the player — her thought process and motives a mystery (if it even has the faculties to think and feel like humans do). The spacey synth only lets up to make room for a brief triumphant swell of piano and trumpet, an exciting interlude in which the player is allowed to feel a giddy sense of empowerment. Yes, this monster is an unknowable evil, but you can still stand toe-to-toe with it and, just maybe, push through to victory. J-E-N-O-V-A manages the impressive feat of capturing the best thematic qualities of Final Fantasy VII in a single song and, most importantly, does it while being as catchy as they come. Also, the Final Fantasy VII:Remake version of the song? Oh my God.
2. Matoya’s Cave — Final Fantasy
Speaking of catchy tracks, I don’t think anything can beat the original game’s classic tune Matoya’s Cave. An earworm in every sense of the word, the song bounds along with a bouncy, magical step that exudes pure confidence. I accept that my love for this song might be purely personal, but the way it lilts and flows, oscillating between adventurous and ever so slightly melancholy is immediately appealing. It is absolutely the standout track from Final Fantasy and the very first song I think about when the game is mentioned (even above the Main Theme). The only other piece that even comes close is Cornelia Castle, which is a contemplative, sad little ditty that nicely complements the royal abode in which you first hear it. The best thing about Matoya’s Cave is the fact that we have several excellent versions of it to enjoy. The original 8-bit NES composition is instantly memorable in so many ways, striking in its layered complexity and I never tire of hearing those synth keys run over each other, filling every inch of audial space. The hugely popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV also brings its own unique version of the song (featured in the expansion Heavensward), which turns the 8-bit bop into a grand, harp and string-laden atmospheric masterpiece — a beautiful rendition of Uematsu’s original composed by Yukiko Takada and Masayoshi Soken. The Dissidia spin-offs also come equipped with their own battle-centric arrangements of Matoya’s Cave, but the absolute best version has got to be found in the PlayStation 1 (or Wonderswan Color, if you want to get contentious about this) remake of Final Fantasy. A straight improvement over the original, the PS1 version acts as a sort of best of both worlds, halfway house between the two arrangements that sandwich it: retaining the inherent catchiness of the original while having the advanced audio quality and instrumentation found in XIV. You can even hear the origins of the strange bagpipes that the MMO version confidently employs. Matoya’s Cave, by today’s standards, might appear like a footnote but is in fact an important piece of Final Fantasy history — a composition that was present for the genesis of the entire series.
3. Besaid Island — Final Fantasy X
Composed by Masashi Hamauzu, Besaid Island manages, like J-E-N-O-V-A. to capture all the unique features of Final Fantasy X’s story and atmosphere. This track, which plays during a sequence early in the game, accompanies Tidus and Wakka as they make their way through the song’s lush, tropical namesake. Fuzzy, reverberating synths sound like they’re being fed through an ocean filter, complemented by rich, evocative piano. The whole song gives off the distinct vibe of decaying technology — like an old computer slowly giving up the ghost. It reminds me somewhat of the best of Grandaddy, a fantastic 90’s indie band who hit the exact same notes with their seminal album The Sophtware Slump. It dealt with the encroaching problems of modern tech in its time (the year 2000). Y2K clearly inspired Jason Lytle as he penned the album’s songs and I think it’s safe to say that a similar influence was felt upon the plot of FFX, which deals with concepts like the passage of time and the collapse of advanced cities due to environmental change (and a giant monster, but that’s a little less poetic). Besaid Island has an enamouring melancholy to it, a true sadness that permeates the entire track. Here is this wonderful, sun-kissed island, but all around you are constant reminders of those who came before — that which has been lost. It is hard to put into the words the effectiveness of this song; like a dreamy, lazy swim through a warm sea of nostalgia, tinted with a slight bittersweetness. It is no wonder that musical artists have sampled this track, with new-age rapper Lil B using it as the backdrop for his surprisingly moving I Love You. The man knows a good tune when he hears one. The HD version of the song, featured in the re-releases of X, is good but doesn’t quite have the same effect as the original. In a series full of seriously moving music, Besaid Island might be the standout emotional piece.
4. Evil Messenger — Final Fantasy IX
Evil Messenger might be the Uematsu track that embodies his love for prog rock the most with a riff that feels almost copy-pasted from Kansas’ Carry on my Wayward Son. A scintillating, menacing mix of droning organs, crashing drums, wailing guitar and wild keyboard solos, this piece is the absolute perfect penultimate boss song. I love the opening sequence, the dirge of anticipation that leaves you questioning where things will go next. Players might have expected the intro to lead into something akin to One Winged Angel, or even Dancing Mad, an epic, choir lead waltz of pure evil. Instead (and perhaps matching Kuja’s more morally ambiguous role as villain) we’re treated to an awesome and intricate hard rock banger. The build-up eventually leads to an unaccompanied and deliciously crunchy riff, the standout element of the song and something you’ll be humming to yourself forever and a day. The song is multifaceted in its strengths though and runs the entire emotional gambit, often following loose threads of notes into entirely different genres. I particularly enjoy the slow piano deconstruction that appears halfway through and towards the end of the song, which sounds more like a theme suited to a royal princess (before rollicking back into that insane riff). It all matches the song’s subject, Kuja, perfectly — a flamboyant, preening pretty boy who has some unresolved emotional issues. The track is pure fun all while complementing the darker themes of the story. It stands out far more than the song that follows it, which while interesting in its chaotic nature, is not particularly memorable (much like the final boss itself). Final Fantasy IX is a throwback that deftly combines the best fantasy elements of the first games in the series, with the mature storytelling of its later titles. Evil Messenger is as much a kick-ass celebration of the series roots as it is the soundtrack to a serious battle for the fate of the world, toeing the line between anticipation and dread in a way only Uematsu can.
5. Eyes on Me/Love Grows — Final Fantasy VIII
This one is kind of cheating, only because Eyes on Me, as a composition, has several different arrangements within Final Fantasy VIII. The track Julia, for example, is a piano-centric version of the main song, while Waltz for the Moon imagines the theme as a ballroom piece. Every version of the track is beautiful, but none more so than the understated, elegant Love Grows and the monumental tearjerker Eyes on Me, sung by Faye Wong. Obviously, your mileage with Eyes on Me will depend entirely on your personal relationship with the game and your feelings towards its central romance. I am a huge fan of VIII and the relationship between Squall and Rinoa (as I have previously written about here) and find Eyes on Me to be evocative, moving and the audial highlight of the entire plot. For some, however, it is pure cheese, the video game equivalent of Titanic’s My Heart Will Go On — overwrought, overly emotional and lacking substance. Cue Love Grows, which has all the benefits of Uematsu’s gorgeous musical arrangement, without any of the actual lyrics (if you’re one of those freaks who doesn’t cry at Faye Wong’s version). Both arrangements of the song are iconic and play during some of the game’s best moments, highlighting the personal, clumsy love our protagonists share. The song moves at a deliberately slow pace as it weaves its amorous strings through a swirling dance of teenage heartache. The piece is inextricably linked with every facet of Final Fantasy VIII, and I would even go as far as to say that the song is Final Fantasy VIII. Nothing else could better represent the experience and even though I adore tracks like Maybe I’m a Lion (my favourite depending on what day of the week you ask me), how could I pick anything else? It was also the first vocal track to be used in a Final Fantasy game, still, for my money, the best of the bunch. Love Grows and Eyes on Me are heart on their sleeve songs about two emotionally stunted youths learning to love each other in the face of great adversity — I love them unequivocally, sentimental fool that I am.
Usually, this is where I’d list several songs that didn’t quite make the cut, but in the interest of continuing to churn out content like a robot that runs entirely on Twinings, please keep an eye out for future articles in which I list even more Final Fantasy music. If savvy enough, I’m sure I can stretch this concept out to triple-digit figures if I keep writing about five tracks at a time — look forward to that.