The tones of Square’s 1994 16-bit RPG masterpiece Final Fantasy VI contributed toward my then 13-year old self going down the irreversible path from gaming fan to true gamer in more ways than I could at the time have guessed or predicted. Long-time series composer Nobuo Uematsu, with this soundtrack’s purely instrumental chiptune music, managed to reach such a multitude of emotional highs and poignant lows that, to this day, it still stands as a crowning achievement of his own career, and a milestone in video game music in general.
The Final Fantasy VI soundtrack was, for me, the first time I have ever let a game transcend the space from my console-and-television setup into my real life. Until this point, music in a video game was, at best, something to hum along with as it repeated ad nauseam or, at worst, something to be ignored as best as possible or even muted altogether. It was a component of the game, not to be separated from the overall meta-experience; no more, no less.
But Uematsu’s score changed all that for good. For the first time, I considered video game music as something to be enjoyed outside of the confines of the game it was written for. Moreover, the music of Final Fantasy VI quickly became the first time I considered video game tunes as real music, on par in quality with any other music I was listening to. The Final Fantasy VI soundtrack (at the time known as Final Fantasy III: Kefka’s Domain in the States) was the first video game soundtrack I ever purchased. It also marked the first occasion for me to purchase an item online, as it wasn’t sold in stores, and the internet was still in its early public stages in those days. So, using my parents’ credit card (which I had to immediately pay them back for using my limited allowance), I agreed to the “shipping and handling” costs, and patiently waited out the “2-3 weeks processing” until my package arrived at the door. It was worth it.
The mammoth musical experience features a separate theme for each of the game’s cast of playable characters – fourteen in all, the most of any game in the series to date! Many of the game’s locations also received their own individual themes, and I – as well as a legion of others – will still have vivid recollections of specific in-game moments and events when hearing a particular song, even now, almost twenty years later! The songs are just that memorable, and quite literally burst with memories of gaming greatness: the foggy mystery of exploring the caves of Narshe for the first time; the hilarious yet stomach-twisting foreboding of a river-raft encounter with Ultros; the free-spirited thrill of your hair whipping in the wind when taking to the skies in your high-powered beast of an airship; the utter desolation and heartbreak of a lost soul who has been stripped of friends and family, left alone on a deserted island, ready to leap to their doom and end it all. Despite having replayed the game several times over the years, this is one case where a replaying is really not necessary – the music suits each moment so perfectly that simply putting the discs in and listening is enough, and I am transported back to that first time I heard them from my SNES cartridge.
The many individual moments are certainly memorable, but they are merely scratching the surface of the true extent of Uematsu’s musical genius in this soundtrack. Some truly amazing moments await listeners as the characters perform in a lengthy opera late in the game, complete with unique songs composed especially for the cut-scene, like the “Aria di Mezzo Carattere”, which includes a synthesized version of a character’s voice, performing the song along to the lyrics displayed on-screen. Not to be outshone is the game’s climactic battle, during which the 17-minute “Dancing Mad” is heard, featuring a version of the villain’s theme adapted into an organ cadenza. Finally, actually completing the game comes with its own reward: the “Ending Theme” is the ultimate song for any ensemble cast, taking each of the fourteen characters’ individual themes and blending them together, one after another, in a beautiful tour de force feast for the ears, lasting over twenty minutes total!
Uematsu has continued to compose beautiful music, both for subsequent Final Fantasy games as well as otherwise, and has certainly created songs since then that can be considered musical gems. But Final Fantasy VI truly represents a complete, masterful body of work, one in which no song can really be singled out or elevated beyond the rest; a soundtrack that has to be taken as an all-or-nothing celebration of music. It is not just one of the favorite soundtracks of fans of the composer or the series, but of gamers as a whole, period. And that’s no fantasy.