Final Fantasy III Soundtrack (Pixel Remaster), 2021, Nobuo Uematsu / Various
To its credit, Final Fantasy II was a daring departure from its predecessor’s best-selling formula. Unfortunately, FF II‘s gameplay innovations were poorly executed, while the game’s narrative turned into an endless series of fetch quests. For Final Fantasy III then, Square handed the reins back to series founder Hironobu Sakaguchi. And just like Final Fantasy had been a refinement of concepts introduced by Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy III took after the monstrously successful third instalment of its fiercest competitor franchise. To be more precise, FF III introduced a richer job system that gave the gameplay an immense amount of depth. Combine that with a vast world to explore, and the game easily stands as the series’ greatest 8-bit instalment. It’s all the more astonishing then that the Pixel Remaster port is the first time Western audiences got to enjoy FF III in its original 2d version.
Equally, the Final Fantasy III soundtrack ranks as Nobuo Uematsu’s best chiptune score – far larger in scale than its franchise predecessors and showcasing Uematsu’s assured handling of the NES’ sound capacities. Of course, just like the game itself, Uematsu’s score remained relatively little-known, compared to other Final Fantasy soundtracks. One of the reasons might be that Final Fantasy III saw relatively few ports to other platforms – which also meant fewer opportunities to arrange the score for more powerful sound chips. Notably, none of the soundtrack arrangements for the game’s Nintendo DS, mobile phone or PSP ports could hope to match the creativity of the Final Fantasy I and II PS1 ports – which would form the basis of all future arrangements of those works, including the Pixel Remaster releases.
That means that the Pixel Remaster version of the Final Fantasy III soundtrack doesn’t have a set template to work with in the same way as FF I and II. Combine that with richer source material, and it’s probably no surprise that this score emerges as the most ambitious of the three NES Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters – the one that dares to stray the farthest from the original. Of course, that’s a relative measure. The FF I and II Pixel Remasters were essentially terrific sound upgrades and could have hardly stuck much closer to existing arrangements. Also, the Final Fantasy III soundtrack rarely deviates from the lavish, high-fantasy orchestral style established by those earlier games.
There are structural similarities as well – like the FF I and II remakes, this version of the Final Fantasy III soundtrack achieves its extended run time by simply repeating material while cladding it in new orchestrations. And FF III’s arrangements take the same approach as earlier games – thickening textures while adding instrumental colours and tasteful counterpoint that doesn’t distract from Uematsu’s glorious melodies. As on the Final Fantasy I Pixel Remaster, the arrangers do a stellar job (the credits list the same ten artists as FF I). At the time of writing in August 2021, these Pixel Remasters are easily the best-orchestrated game scores of the year, with a command of the ensemble’s expressive capacities rarely seen in contemporary game scores.
So how far exactly does the Final Fantasy III soundtrack stray from the NES original in its Pixel Remaster version? A handful of pieces are genuine reinventions of their source material – and often, that’s when this version of the score improves the most on the NES original. On the 8-bit platform, both “Road to the Summit” and “Gishal’s Veggies” showed promise, but were simply too short to make a lasting impression. The Pixel Remaster adds significant amounts of new material – and “Road to the Summit” suddenly turns into an inspiring, upbeat march that balances its bombast with just the right amount of light-hearted liveliness. With its complex woodwind arrangement, “Gishal’s Veggies” recalls the more buoyant side of Hitoshi Sakimoto’s Final Fantasy XII. Previously a short game over tune, “Requiem” turns into a Baroque-inspired lament, overlaid with plaintive choral voices.
However, the Final Fantasy III soundtrack’s Pixel Remaster makes its most significant changes not to the music’s structure, but to the mood of many compositions. It’s probably also this aspect of the score that will prove most divisive – for the best example, look no further than “Eternal Wind”, Final Fantasy III’s much-beloved world map theme. Backed by an intriguing arpeggio with an irregular stop-start progression, “Eternal Wind” was an unusually ethereal overland theme for an 8-bit RPG, featuring one of Uematsu’s most complex and long-spun melodies. The Pixel Remaster turns the cue into a sweeping pop-orchestral piece whose swooning romanticism does away with the original’s subtlety and idiosyncratic approach. Importantly though, there’s no denying that taken on its own terms, “Eternal Wind”’s new version is a success.
Other examples of stylistic streamlining abound. Uematsu used phase-shifted square wave channels on cues like “The Boundless Ocean” and “Elia, Maiden of Water” to achieve iridescent textures – which the Pixel Remaster turns into fairly conventional, but yet again perfectly executed orchestral renditions. Other tracks like “The Hidden Village of Fargabaad”, “Hyne’s Castle”, and “The Forbidden Land Eureka” were full of subtle emotional shades – melodically beautiful, but with tension, agitation and foreboding bubbling underneath the surface. Again, the Pixel Remaster doesn’t have much time for such ambiguities. “The Forbidden Land Eureka” turns into the franchise’s convincing take on Remote Control tropes – including staccato chorals voices – while “The Hidden Village of Fargabaad” focuses on the earthy character of its location with rustic woodwind leads against warm strings. Most of these rearrangements work a treat – but they don’t replace the NES originals or emerge as the definitive version of the score.
Of course, the arrangers also often choose to stick quite closely to the source material – sometimes while trying hard to overcome its limitations. In its original version, “Hometown of Ur” was pretty, if also rather static and somnambulistic. The Pixel Remaster version provides precisely what was required – more instrumental colours and some subtle counterpoint to make the music less monotonous. “Return of the Hero” – a triumphant march – naturally makes a stronger impression once arranged for full orchestra, communicating all that swaggering grandeur far more convincingly now. “Living Forest”’s chromatic arpeggios and glissandi hinted at the mysterious, otherworldly effect Uematsu was aiming for. However, it’s really only on the Pixel Remaster version that the piece makes its full impact, clad in smartly chosen acoustics that suggest a vast location hidden behind walls of fog.
Elsewhere, the arrangers don’t have to work very hard to make an impression. Tracks like “Sailing the Enterprise”, “Flying the Enterprise”, and “The Huge Battleship Invincible” already had an infectiously joyful quality on the NES, and the arrangements expand upon this with consummate skill. What’s astonishing throughout these cues – and the entire soundtrack really – is the sheer beauty of Uematsu’s melodies. Transposed sensitively to the right solo instruments and rendered with appreciably life-like sound, the composer’s melodies lines are often drop-dead gorgeous and underline Uematsu’s reputation as one of game music’s greatest melodicists. Listen to the boundless energy of “Ending Theme”s middle section, which sounds like a test run for Final Fantasy VI’s own, glorious ending theme – this is game music at its most soaring and adventurous. FF III’s Pixel Remaster might sand away some of the NES original’s quirks, but the reward is another excellent orchestral fantasy score.
- 01 - The Cave where the Crystal Lies Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:28
- 02 - Opening Theme Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:29
- 03 - Hometown of Ur Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:48
- 04 - Eternal Wind Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:48
- 05 - Jinn's Curse Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:19
- 06 - Return of the Hero Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:01
- 07 - Road to the Summit Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:23
- 08 - Sailing the Enterprise Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:40
- 09 - Living Forest Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:18
- 10 - Village of the Ancients Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:51
- 11 - Gishal's Veggies Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:01
- 12 - Hyne's Castle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:45
- 13 - Requiem Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:06
- 14 - Flying the Enterprise Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:09
- 15 - The Boundless Ocean Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:53
- 16 - Elia, the Maiden of Water Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:37
- 17 - Town of Amur Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:08
- 18 - The Hidden Village of Fargabaad Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:07
- 19 - The Megalopolis of Salonia Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:19
- 20 - The Submarine Nautilus Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:25
- 21 - Underwater Temple Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:59
- 22 - Dorga and Unne's Mansion Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:55
- 23 - The Huge Battleship Invincible Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:08
- 24 - The Forbidden Land Eureka Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:46
- 25 - Crystal Tower Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:17
- 26 - Ending Theme Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 7:06