Final Fantasy I Soundtrack (Pixel Remaster), 2021, Nobuo Uematsu / Various
So much has been written about the original 1987 Final Fantasy, its influence analysed in such detail that there’s little to add. Like many other early Square titles, it was modelled on an earlier game – in this case, the enormously successful Dragon Quest. However, against the odds, Square managed to actually improve on the source of its inspiration, with a grander story, lusher presentation and more accessible – or just less tedious – gameplay. What’s more, Final Fantasy brought JRPGs to the attention of Western console gamers, many of whom would have never played anything like it before (unless they were familiar with computer RPGs). The rest, as they say, is history. Even though the Final Fantasy franchise’s popularity arguably peaked in the late 90s and early 00s, it remains a commercial juggernaut and one of gaming’s biggest IPs, with each new mainline release a tremendously expensive blockbuster title.
Even more towering might be the franchise’s influence on the world of game music. Of course, partially that’s because several Final Fantasy scores rank among the best game music ever produced. But there were other factors at work, too. Compared to their biggest rival – the Dragon Quest franchise – the Final Fantasy games have always consciously highlighted their outstanding production values – including Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtracks. They played an indelible part in evoking the vast worlds Square created for each Final Fantasy title. It also helped that these soundtracks were attached to games that saw immense success outside of Japan (again, different to Dragon Quest). Lastly, the franchise’s popularity peaked when online music distribution began to take off, making the music accessible to new audiences. In short, few franchises have done as much to introduce new audiences to the wonders of game music as Final Fantasy.
Square has never wasted an opportunity to capitalise on its successes, and so Final Fantasy I saw its fair share of ports to other platforms. Of course, that also meant there were several opportunities to upgrade the original NES soundtrack. Interestingly though, none of the arranged scores stray far from Uematu’s 1987 work and, as a result, differ much from each other. It’s unfortunate there’s no information on who wrote the arrangements for the 2002 PS1 port of Final Fantasy I, since the subsequent releases for Game Boy Advance, PlayStation Portable and now Steam simply adapt those PS1 arrangements for their respective system capacities. Things don’t get much clearer with Final Fantasy I Pixel Remaster. Its credits confusingly list a whopping ten arrangers, which seems unlikely for a score that simply reprises existing arrangements. Maybe the credits refer to all of the first three FF pixel remasters as a whole.
Long story short: this version of the Final Fantasy I soundtrack won’t surprise those familiar with any of the non-chiptune versions of the score. Thankfully, this 2021 release of what is by now a well-familiar work still warrants our attention. While the arrangements themselves are old hat, they have never shone as brightly as they do here, thanks to the improved, almost life-like synth quality. Such increased fidelity is welcome, thanks to the intelligent approach that the PS1 port’s arrangers took (and whose work is essentially replicated here). Their work is a bona fide example of how to take a chiptune score and turn it into an orchestral delight, while always staying close to the (sonically limited) source material.
All that the arrangers do is to transpose Uematsu’s often wonderful melodies and transpose them to a fitting solo instrument or instrument group, while tastefully adding some counterpoint, as well as colourful orchestrations. Track lengths are extended by simply repeating the material with different instrumentations. It’s a conservative, unobtrusive approach that works thanks to the strong backbone of these compositions – Uematsu’s tunes. They are not yet as magnificent as his later SNES works, but they already hint at Uematsu’s melodic genius that would fully blossom on later Final Fantasy games.
Mind you, staying this close to the source material also has its risks – mainly when the 1987 original doesn’t give the arrangers much to work with. Even this port of the Final Fantasy I soundtrack can’t make the dreariness of “Opening Demo” or the obnoxiously repetitive “Dungeon” interesting. On other occasions, the arrangers seem to strain in their efforts to turn the material into something grandiose. “Main Theme”’s melody is as adventurous as it is brief, which meant the NES original was somewhat short on substance. The remake overcomes this issue by throwing particularly rich orchestrations at the tune – making the three straight reprises of the melody just bearable. Arguably, “Ending” is a significant improvement on the melodically pleasing, but ultimately dull NES version. However, the arrangers’ increasingly histrionic and insistent renditions of the same two melodies come dangerously close to feeling overblown – although the piece ultimately still satisfies.
Most of the time though, the remade versions of the Final Fantasy I soundtrack improve on what was already a strong work in its chiptune iteration, emphasising its strengths and adding timbral and rhythmic flexibility that wasn’t feasible on the NES. “Ship” and “Airship” already featured exciting melodies, but went as fast they had come, while particularly “Ship” was stuck with an inflexible, intrusive ostinato accompaniment. The arrangements – simply by repeating the material more often and cladding it in richer colours – do away with these issues, maintaining “Ship”’s spirited touch and turning “Airship” into a brassy, boisterous extravaganza. On other occasions, it’s evident that Uematsu’s original material may just not suit the NES platform, but can make quite an impact when performed by the right instruments. “Battle Scene”’s staccato repetitions didn’t impress that much on the NES, but once clad in roaring power metal orchestrations, the cue works a treat.
Of course, where the Final Fantasy I soundtrack was firing on all cylinders on the NES, the arrangers don’t need to work very hard to turn these compositions into orchestral delights whose melodies persistently enchant. On “Opening Theme”, the warm, noble Final Fantasy theme is taken through a series of smart variations – from intimate to pompous – while easily wearing each repetition of its unforgettable melody. Fan favourite “Matoya’s Cave” shines in a woodwind-heavy, earthy rendition that also gives the piece a stronger sense of development via a more dramatic B section. Ending the soundtrack with a bang, “Last Battle” benefits from source material that seems to betray Uematsu’s prog-rock inspirations. Of course, the arrangers audibly relish the opportunity to tackle such a multi-faceted original and throw everything they have at the music to create a breathlessly entertaining, joyfully bombastic metal/orchestra mix.
Lastly, there are also a few surprises to be found on the Final Fantasy I soundtrack, despite the arrangements’ generally straightforward nature. On the NES, “Gurgu Volcano” featured one of the score’s most creative, snaking melodies. The arrangements take such complexity as a springboard for some experimentation, moving the melody into the background while playful wooden percussion layers dominate. Finally, a new section for various woodwinds takes the cue to its optimistic finale. “Menu Screen” grows from a short tune in waltz metre into a fully-fledged composition, once again carried by bucolic woodwinds. “Corneria Castle” would have been a winner anyway, given the original’s moving, succinct melody. However, the added Baroque-inspired string counterpoint and a new passage that carefully prepares the ground for the track’s climax make this piece a spectacular reinvention. Unless a minor miracle occurs, this is the definitive version of one of game music’s most influential works.
- 01 - Opening Theme Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:41
- 02 - Corneria Castle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:56
- 03 - Main Theme Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:25
- 04 - Chaos' Temple Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:55
- 05 - Matoya's Castle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:57
- 06 - Town Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:23
- 07 - Ship Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:27
- 08 - Underwater Temple Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:14
- 09 - Menu Screen Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:16
- 10 - Airship Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:52
- 11 - Gurgu Volcano Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:06
- 12 - Floating Castle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:30
- 13 - Battle Scene Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:37
- 14 - Dead Music Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:47
- 15 - Church Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:04
- 16 - Inn Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:39
- 17 - Derelict Keep Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:28
- 18 - Boss Battle A Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:06
- 19 - Last Battle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:48
- 20 - Ending Theme Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 5:18