Final Fantasy III Soundtrack (NES), Nobuo Uematsu, 1990
After the release of Final Fantasy II, developer Square found itself in a peculiar position. Not many studios would start experimenting with a successful formula that had just saved them from financial ruin. However, that’s precisely what Square did after Final Fantasy, handing over the reins for its sequel to newcomer Akitoshi Kawazu (future mastermind of the SaGa franchise). The result was a divisive game whose compelling gameplay experiments were ultimately poorly implemented. For Final Fantasy III, Square decided to take no risks, returning to many of the story tropes and design elements that had made Final Fantasy so popular. However – apart from a much larger game world – the developers made one crucial addition: a job system that allowed gamers to swap the protagonists’ character class on the fly, allowing for far greater customisation and gameplay depth.
Naturally, Nobuo Uematsu returned to compose the Final Fantasy III soundtrack. His score for the first game in the franchise had been a significant step up from his previous NES soundtracks and established him as one of the 8-bit era’s most talented melodicists. Final Fantasy II had been a bit of a step back, delivering less memorable material that even the game’s 2021 Pixel Remaster couldn’t salvage.
Thankfully, Uematsu comes roaring back with Final Fantasy III, delivering his best and most extensive chiptune score. Clocking in at nearly one hour, this is one of the most extended NES scores out there. While its scope is not as massive as, say, genre competitor Dragon Quest IV, Uematsu’s soundtrack more successfully adapts its ambitions to the limited 8-bit hardware. What helps set the Final Fantasy III soundtrack apart from its predecessors is Uematsu’s greater mastery of the NES sound chip’s capabilities. This allows him to build a surprisingly intricate, beguiling sonic world with usually only three sound channels (he rarely uses the noise channel on this score).
Such assured handling of the NES sound chip is evident right from the start. To underscore its location’s glistening nature, “Crystal Cave” presents its lead melody as a series of tremolo notes – not too different from Western chiptune composers of the time and their use of arpeggios to create a fuller sound. “The Boundless Ocean” might be the Final Fantasy III soundtrack’s most remarkable display of technical virtuosity and resulting ability to conjure elusive, mysterious realms. The track’s phased two pulse channels create shimmering, fascinating harmonies that underscore not the motion of the waves, but instead the surreal nature of a world entirely covered by still waters. Other location tracks like “Elia, the Maiden of Water” and “Town of Water” use similar effects to present some of Uematsu’s most expansive, elegant melodies clad in extraordinary harmonies.
Other compositions on the Final Fantasy III soundtrack display a similar interest in sonic experiments and emotional contrasts. “Castle of Hain” is a surprisingly tense castle theme, foreboding in its unpredictable lead melody and restless accompaniment – an impression that interestingly enough won’t leave even when the cue’s B section introduces a more expected air of nobility. “Salonia” presents a more heightened version of the same mix, moving from threatening undercurrents and syncopated rhythms to convincing displays of grandeur. Such emotional complexity extends to some of the score’s warmer cues as well. Take “Time Remains”, which starts as another idyllic town theme. However, its initially reflective mood soon turns into something more pained when one of the pulse wave channels becomes wispy and elusive, combining with the second melody lead in sharp harmonies that express loss rather than introspection.
It’s another striking example of Uematsu’s assured use of technology to shape his compositions and allow them to touch listeners through unexpected timbres and melodies. Other creative highlights include fan favourite “Eternal Wind”, Final Fantasy III’s overworld theme. The cue doesn’t communicate a sense of swashbuckling adventure or awe at the unfolding vistas. Instead, “Eternal Wind” starts with an irregular arpeggio line that intrigues with its unexpected yet catchy stop-start progression. Off-beat rhythms ultimately back an airy, wistful melody lead that paints the image of an enigmatic yet alluring world waiting to be explored. “Jinn, the Fire” is quirkier still, with its seemingly aimlessly bassline and sudden accents, before Uematsu creates a dialogue between the two melody leads that evokes a vaguely middle-eastern atmosphere. Again, the chromatic harmonies he deploys conjure a heady effect, making for a surprisingly spell-binding listen.
Of course, often enough, Uematsu is also happy to simply write straightforward, beautiful melodies. Particularly the travel-related cues allow the composer to write in his most upbeat register. “Sailing Enterprise” is a charming little ditty that doesn’t overstay its welcome, while “Go Above the Clouds!” and “The Invincible” go one step further. They soar through the skies on propulsive, bouncy rhythms and instantly memorable melodies – powered by hooky pop influences on “Go Above the Clouds!” and sounding more measured and heroic on “The Invincible”. “My Home Town” doesn’t cover any new ground as far as these sorts of tracks go, but its gracefully developing, laid-back melody is enough to carry the composition. Uematsu’s more developed technical skills also benefit a melody as well-worn as the “Opening Theme”. Thanks to little details like carefully crafted accents on the melody’s notes, that famous tune is richer and more moving than previous scores.
What of the battle themes? They don’t take up much of the Final Fantasy III soundtrack’s run time but still manage to make a strong impression. Interestingly enough, their punchy percussion and riding rhythms remind more than a bit of the NES Mega Man soundtracks. Uematsu folds such science fiction-inspired sounds effortlessly into his densely packed fantasy action music that surprises with its skittish, trembling energy and sometimes biting melody lines. Finally, a score of such scale requires a grand finale, and Uematsu delivers with “The Everlasting World”, his longest and most complex chiptune composition. Its triumphantly racing middle section feels like a dry run for Final Fantasy VI’s ending piece, joyously rushing through its material and benefiting from Uematsu’s strongest contrapuntal writing to date. As impressive as its Pixel Remaster was, the Final Fantasy III NES original still remains a required, more original and daring work.
- 01 - Crystal Cave Uematsu, Nobuo 1:39
- 02 - Opening Theme Uematsu, Nobuo 1:55
- 03 - My Home Town Uematsu, Nobuo 2:27
- 04 - Eternal World Uematsu, Nobuo 2:20
- 05 - Jinn, the Fire Uematsu, Nobuo 1:17
- 06 - Shrine of Nept Uematsu, Nobuo 1:13
- 07 - Sailing Enterprise Uematsu, Nobuo 1:15
- 08 - Time Remains Uematsu, Nobuo 1:45
- 09 - Castle of Hain Uematsu, Nobuo 1:42
- 10 - Battle 2 Uematsu, Nobuo 1:41
- 11 - The Requiem Uematsu, Nobuo 1:06
- 12 - Go Above the Clouds! Uematsu, Nobuo 0:59
- 13 - The Boundless Ocean Uematsu, Nobuo 1:53
- 14 - Elia, the Maiden of Water Uematsu, Nobuo 1:44
- 15 - Town of Water Uematsu, Nobuo 2:02
- 16 - In the Covert Town Uematsu, Nobuo 1:54
- 17 - Salonia Uematsu, Nobuo 1:40
- 18 - Deep Under the Water Uematsu, Nobuo 1:52
- 19 - The Invincible Uematsu, Nobuo 1:26
- 20 - Forbidden Land Uematsu, Nobuo 1:04
- 21 - The Crystal Tower Uematsu, Nobuo 1:14
- 22 - The Dark Crystals Uematsu, Nobuo 1:44
- 23 - This is the Last Battle - Part 3 Uematsu, Nobuo 1:19
- 24 - The Everlasting World - Part 1 Uematsu, Nobuo 1:18
- 25 - The Everlasting World - Part 2 Uematsu, Nobuo 2:44
- 26 - The Everlasting World - Part 3 Uematsu, Nobuo 4:08