In honour of the legendary Nobuo Uematsu's 57th birthday, we thought it would be rather appropriate to talk about the pieces of music that we feel have had the greatest impact on us, both musically and also personally.
In this piece, you'll find five picks from myself, Lauren and Jared, each with an explanation as to why we feel they are some of Uematsu's best work. I would add though, that choosing only five was extremely difficult. This feature was meant to go up two days ago for his birthday, but we've been toiling so much that we had to keep delaying it! There are so many other tracks we wanted to feature, but we would have been here forever, such is the depth of Uematsu's classics catalogue.
Anyway, without much further ado, here are our favourite tracks from Uematsu-san.
Darryl's Picks | Lauren's Picks | Jared's Picks
Darryl's Top 5 Uematsu Pieces
Final Fantasy I, Chaos' Temple
Within the original game's original soundtrack there are quite a few standout tracks, but Chaos' Temple is one that always resonated with me. It's one of the first tracks you hear in the game, playing as you attempt to save Princess Sarah from the clutches of Garland, but even now it's one that I would happily listen to over and over.
What's good and bad about this piece is that it served as a great distraction from the task laid out. When entering the Temple and being faced with Garland, I couldn't help but think... yes, I could save Princess Sarah, but I could also sit here and enjoy this beautifully crafted melody. (Note: yes, I may have slightly exaggerated my initial thought process).
In later versions of this theme, notably Dawn of Souls and Final Fantasy Origins, this beautifully crafted melody also features a complicated, multi-layered backing. It's only when you try to break the track down that you can truly appreciate everything it holds. With its initial harmonised ostinato, that then gets harmonised further, through to the strong, deep accompanying bass, there is already plenty of depth. When you then add in the over-arching melodies, you get a track that is one of the best in the 8-bit era, but also stands the test of time extremely well.
If you haven't heard it, I also implore you to check out the Symphonic Suite rendition that appears towards the end of Scene V (below, start at 5:20).
Final Fantasy II, Rebel Army Theme
Building upon the musical work done on Final Fantasy I, Nobuo Uematsu brought some fantastic composition to audiences for Final Fantasy II. This is personified by Rebel Army Theme, one of the strongest and most powerful pieces in the Final Fantasy franchise.
What I love about this piece is that there is no build-up. As soon as the piece starts, you are hit by a wave of melodic notes that never relents, but also never wanes in quality. It presents a sense of purpose and belonging, and in later versions of the same theme, this carries through even more so with the addition of strings.
Again, this was also a track featured within the Symphonic Suite, but in a more sombre fashion. As you listen to Scene VII, I encourage you to close your eyes and feel yourself swell up with pride over anything you have ever accomplished in life.
Final Fantasy VII, Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII
Before I get onto talking about why I love this piece, I would add that had I not played Final Fantasy VII on PC originally, my love for this piece might not be quite as strong. You see, I'm a bit of a stickler for sound quality and I was fortunate enough to be able to modify the sound samples used by the game's score by playing on PC. It meant the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII in its original form, for me at least, sounded a lot better than it does within the PlayStation version. Now, that's not to say the PSX version is bad, but when you can utilise much nicer string samples, it adds a whole extra dimension to this piece.
To me, the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII is the definition of melancholy. After leaving Midgar, you feel liberated, ready to explore this vast new world. What you're then greeted with is a piece of music that radiates uncertainty for the first 49 seconds. It was strange and still is a little eerie. However, what happens after these first 49 seconds further adds to the piece's allure.
Moving away from its melancholic roots, the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII ventures forth with a positive, powerful key change that builds and builds. Gone is the sense of uncertainty, instead replaced by a certain confidence that builds and builds to a crescendo at 2:37.
Should you spend enough time on the world map, the piece then changes tone again. It's now utilising heavy, weighted notes playing off each other in a purposeful manner. It's perfect, in a way, as you've spent a good 4-5 minutes plodding around at this point, worrying about the state of the world and whether you can save it. But wait, what's that? More hope for a better future right at the end of the piece?... Oh, maybe not.
If there was ever a piece of music that epitomised the game it was relating to, the Main Theme of Final Fantasy VII is it.
Also, for those of you who were wondering, here's a slightly different sounding version of this amazing piece of music, using the Yamaha XG soundset. It's not quite how I heard it way back when, but it's close. Oh, and if you have the chance to listen to the Reunion version of this piece, you really should, it's sublime.
Final Fantasy VIII, The Landing
Without wanting to get too gushy, The Landing from Final Fantasy VIII is the piece of music that awakened my latent interest in music as an entire artistic form. Despite Final Fantasy VII having a gorgeous soundtrack, the music didn't speak to me in the same way as Final Fantasy VIII, and despite listening to plenty of music throughout my life, none of it appealed to me in a great way. Likewise, although I had taught myself to play the keyboard, I had no real urge to do anything with this ability.
Listening to The Landing changed everything.
Having played the Final Fantasy VIII demo, which if you weren't aware featured a different version of The Landing, there was a certain degree of familiarity with the scene. However, the way the whole scene plays out in the game is very different. Accompanying strong visuals, The Landing plays as Balamb set off on a mission to Dollet. I distinctly remember landing on the beach and being blown away, to the point where I didn't progress much further and just sat in awe, before compelling my to drag my keyboard closer to my TV so I could soak it all in while learning to play the piece.
I had wanted to learn to play pieces of music before, that's how I taught myself to play in general, but it was nothing more complicated than Beverly Hills Cop or the One Must Fall 2097 Theme. The Landing is a tad more difficult, but it didn't matter. I sat there, listening to the piece repeat and repeat, learning every nuance of it. I'd never learnt a piece that required two hands before, but with The Landing, I was dogged, I wanted to create those harmonies even though I didn't really know what they were.
It might sound strange, but such was my desire relating to this piece, that within 6 months I had gone from being a musical drop-out at school, always achieving low grades, to taking it as a qualification option at school for further study amongst some students who had been playing instruments for years. I also put forward my version of The Landing as a "original piece I'd written" to help convince the teachers I wasn't insane. I was quite fortunate back then that nobody really even knew what video game music was, and they certainly had no idea who Nobuo Uematsu was.
Sorry, I haven't spoken too much about the piece itself on that one!
Final Fantasy XI, Opening Theme
I'm not sure there are many who will agree with this assertion, it's rare that people even appreciate that this piece exists despite it appearing as one of the tracks at the original Distant Worlds in 2007. However, I'm happy to go on record as saying that I feel this piece is Nobuo Uematsu's one of, if not his greatest accomplishment as a composer.
Set as the backing of the opening movie, the piece starts with the famous Prelude before transitioning into a hopeful piece about the grandeur of the enlightened races. There's nothing all that enamouring about this phase, it's what happens afterwards that makes this piece special.
Deciding to use Esperanto as his language of choice, Nobuo Uematsu too the piece into story choral piece that still sends chills down my spine. What happens at 2:43 is pure magic. Pulling everything together, we are left to bear witness to a passage that is both haunting and uplifting in its execution. I will admit, that some of this is also down to the brilliance of Shiro Hamaguchi, but the power of this piece cannot be denied. When this section fades away, we are left with another that is just as powerful due to its softer tones and beautiful string work.
While other pieces may be better representations of Nobuo Uematsu as a whole, I feel that the Final Fantasy XI Opening Theme highlights the small melodic nuances that have helped to make his pieces so memorable, while also showcasing the immense depth of his talent. There are many Final Fantasy pieces that have brought me to tears when accompanying emotional scenes, but this piece has the ability to do it based on its sheer musical prowess.
When further complimented with the amazing vocal work that appears in "Distant Worlds" (the Ending Theme from Chains of Promathia), it becomes a powerful juggernaut that cannot be stopped! Not that I have to sell anyone on the brilliance of Susan Calloway.
Lauren's Top 5 Uematsu Pieces
Final Fantasy VI, Dark World
It's a very simple overworld theme, but very effective at helping you acclimate yourself with the current state of the world in Final Fantasy VI after Kefka has brought about the World of Ruin by moving the Warring Triad out of alignment.
It's a very unsettling tune that plays as you explore this new unsightly World of Ruin and I just can't stop myself from loving it, it's such a beautiful song in all its creepiness. Starting out with that wonderful wind effect, the piece starts off in earnest with some simple, dark chords. This is then built upon with a slow, thought-out melody and some sporadic tubular bells. It doesn't sound all that compelling, but it is just perfect.
When it was decided that Nobuo Uematsu would join Arnie Roth for a rendition at Distant Worlds, I won't lie, I did let off a little squee. I was also rather spoilt, as I got to see their version of it at A New World too!
Final Fantasy VIII, Force Your Way
I don't exactly hide my love for Final Fantasy VIII and that same love also extends to the soundtrack. It meant choosing between Force Your Way and Man With The Machine Gun was very hard, but I'm sorry Laguna, I've sided with Squall on this one.
As a huge fan of progressive rock this piece is right up my alley. There's a real sense of urgency that comes through and yet I also just feel so badass when listening to it while playing. It's more than enough to get me ready for the fights ahead.
What this piece also does well is highlight just how awesome a good organ is. With strong chords at the beginning, it also comes back later for some serious solo action. The section that starts at 1:07 is right up there with anything else Nobuo has composed and that's why Force Your Way is easily my favorite boss theme from any Final Fantasy.
Final Fantasy X, Seymour Battle
SEYMOUR!!! Seymour Battle is the very essence of everything I love about Nobuo Uematsu's begrudging battle themes. It's not quite up there with Force Your Way, but if I had to choose, I'd say that this should have been the final fight the characters of Final Fantasy X had to take part in. I can easily see this tune carrying the party through as the last battle tune we hear before the ending cutscene.
What's great about this particular theme is that it has so much personality. From the bold beginning, through to the bombastic percussion, this piece just oozes it. And just when you feel like the tune has finished, it just keeps going and building. I just can't imagine a better song than this to kick Seymour's butt to.
Final Fantasy IX, Moogle Theme
Alright, based on my previous picks this one might seem a bit out of left field, but hear me out.
Since appearing quite some time ago, the Moogle Theme has been through quite a few different guises, and this is my favourite of the lot. It's a simple theme, but it's also rather cute, quirky and damned adorable!
I just can't help myself. Every time I hear this theme, I feel a huge desire to just go and squeeze the crap out of something. Thankfully I now have my own little baby Moogle, so she is the (hopefully) willing recipient!
Final Fantasy X, Via Purifico
When I was playing through Final Fantasy X on my initial run, I felt that this was one of the worst parts of the game as you got stuck only using Yuna in battle. There is a rather distinct part of my mind where I remember hating running around the halls of Via Purifico, but loving every second of the area's theme, I was so torn!
The piano is just so hauntingly beautiful and made me wish there were more purely piano tracks in the series. This was also part of its charm however, as despite the Final Fantasy X original soundtrack also featuring To Zanarkand as another prominent piano piece, the styles couldn't be more different.
For the Final Fantasy X HD original soundtrack, they ended up replacing it with the version from the piano collections. They are both glorious pieces, but there's a big part of me that still prefers the original piece, it just suited the mood better.
Jared's Top 5 Uematsu Pieces
Final Fantasy III, Eternal Wind
Final Fantasy III is easily one of the most difficult games in the franchise for me, yet it has one of the most soothing and encouraging overworld themes I have ever listened to. In fact, I credit this song for being able to reach the very end of the game.
From the first cave I entered, all the way through to the Crystal Tower, my time was spent level grinding either weak enemies with insignificant experience points or foes who could destroy my entire party with two or three blows. Yet each time I returned from death or escaped a difficult battle, I was greeted by Eternal Wind.
Regardless of how much time was spent in a frustrating battle, the song both calmed my gamer rage and encouraged me to not give up. With its promise of adventure and reward, I would take a deep breath and try again with a smile on my face ready to grow stronger and conquer my enemies. The version that later appeared in the Nintendo 3DS remake is also just as satisfying.
Final Fantasy IV, Rydia's Theme
When you listen to a character theme, you expect it to in someway express who this character is and what they are like. Palom and Porom’s theme tells you of a pair of energetic and rambunctious twins, Steiner's Theme is about a large but clumsy man, and Red XIII's Theme portrays a proud warrior. Then there's Rydia's Theme.
There are so many emotions and feelings conveyed in this song: sadness, loneliness, and pain; but then there's also hope, love, forgiveness, and even closure. All these things are a part of Rydia’s growth in Final Fantasy IV from the time the cast meets her as a child to when she grows into a young woman. Most character themes show you one, maybe two, aspects of a character, but Uematsu portrays so much more about Rydia in roughly one minute.
Even when compared to the more modern compositions of the Final Fantasy franchise, none of them quite describe a character to me like Uematsu did with Rydia's Theme.
Final Fantasy X, Hymn of the Fayth
If there's one thing that can be said of the Fayth, it's that they know how to produce creative, yet reverent music!
While the lyrics themselves make no real sense, there is a way to decipher it to Japanese which can then be translated to a holy message. "Pray to Yu Yevon. Dream, Fayth. Forever and ever grant us prosperity."
While simplistic, the song, when sung by the Fayth, feels heavy with awe and respect to Yu Yevon. What I truly find impressive is how there are no instruments in any of the Fayth's songs, yet they each feel complete with vocals alone. Though the religion of Final Fantasy X may be a fallacy, the Hymn of the Fayth makes it feel real when I walk the halls of the temple of each Fayth and listen to their hymn of devotion.
Final Fantasy VI, Dancing Mad
Dancing Mad has something that I absolutely enjoy in video game music: transitions. In the final battle with Kefka, there is a tower that you traverse that contains several tiers. Each tier holds a different boss or group of bosses each with their own theme.
Instead of a separate track being made for each tier, the tracks transition seamlessly from one to the other. They are each different, yet feel like they belong together. As you conquer a tier, the music grows more chaotic or, in this case, maddening with the organ and vocals perform at their fullest.
My favorite part remains the final tier where Kefka descends from the sky looking like a painted deity from the Renaissance age. However, while the music has a 'heavenly' sound to it, it still retains the sound of madness that perfectly describes the villain Kefka.
Dancing Mad is a complex song, especially from the time of the SNES, that makes me appreciate the kind of work that goes into video game music.
Final Fantasy IX, Melodies of Life
Ironically, what first attracted me to Uematsu's work was the absence of lyrics in his music; yet Melodies of Life, a lyric heavy song, remains one of my favorite pieces.
In reality, I should not like this song. I've never been a fan of love songs and the bird analogies feel silly. But what makes this song so great to me is that I find it believable and true to Garnet and Zidane of Final Fantasy IX. It took time, but they did truly fall in love with one another.
When unfair circumstances separated them, Garnet continued to wait for Zidane. Towards the end of the game, you can see from the expression on her face that she is in pain from a broken heart. She still loves him, but there is no sign of his return. Melodies of Life is her song to him. She speaks of her love for him, memories of their laughter, and, of course, their song.
Even though these lyrics are cheese laid upon cheese, I can't help but be sucked in and smile at remembering what happens Behind The Door.
So that rounds out our selections. What are your favourite pieces by Nobuo Uematsu? Lets us know in the comments!
Also, if you love video game music and want a slightly different take, please be sure to check out Final Symphonies - We Love Video Game Music. I was featured in this video as part of the Final Symphony concert series last year and if you have the opportunity to attend, you really should!