Final Fantasy IV Soundtrack (Pixel Remaster), 2021, Nobuo Uematsu / Various
True, Square‘s Final Fantasy had been a milestone in RPG history, refining concepts introduced not long before by Dragon Quest. Sequels Final Fantasy II and III were among the best-selling RPGs of their generation, offering gameplay innovation (FFII) and what’s maybe the 8-bit era’s most polished, expansive role-playing game (FFIII). However, it was really with Final Fantasy IV that the franchise joined the ranks of gaming’s most hallowed and revered titles. Final Fantasy IV was a massive influence on the development of the entire RPG genre, particularly through its focus on dramatic storytelling and fleshed-out characters. The game’s legacy as a trailblazer seems secure – there’s a good reason why it keeps appearing on various “best games of all time” lists on both sides of the Pacific, clearly beloved by generations of gamers.
Reading retrospective reviews of the game, a big part of its nostalgic attraction is clearly Nobuo Uematsu’s soundtrack. As one of game music’s greatest melodicists, Uematsu would have found the SNES and its improved sound capacities a boon. After all, the new hardware allowed for far more expressiveness, colour and timbral richness. Like the game itself, the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack remains immensely popular. This was the first Final Fantasy game to receive its dedicated arrange album (1991’s Celtic Moon), and several Final Fantasy IV compositions appear on the Distant World albums.
To some degree, it’s not a big surprise then that the game’s Pixel Remaster soundtrack doesn’t rock the boat and stays closer to the original than the NES Pixel Remasters scores did. In their quest to arrive at a lush orchestral sound, those remakes inevitably had to work harder, fleshing out arrangements and adding counterpoint. Since the Final Fantasy IV SNES compositions feature a much fuller sound than the NES tracks, the arrangers can often get away with making relatively few additions to Uematsu’s originals. The same point applies to the shorter run time of the compositions on this Pixel Remaster soundtrack. To compensate for the short duration of the NES cues, the arrangers usually added more repeats of the material, clad in new orchestrations. Now working with the longer SNES pieces, the same artists obviously felt such (usually delightful) padding wasn’t required anymore.
Such reverence for the source material works fine as long as the compositions you’re working with are substantial enough. Of course, that applies to most of the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack. Particularly the battle tracks benefit from the punchier sound of the Pixel Remaster that puts a greater spotlight on the cues’ revving rock elements powering heroic trumpet leads. “The Dreadful Battle’ is the standout here, one of the franchise’s most tumultuous and best-developed battle tracks. “Mystic Mysidia”’s playfully industrial touch is even better served in the new arrangement, thanks to denser, more colourful percussion layers and the decision to pass the lead melody to a wiry solo violin. And “Epilogue (Part 2)” does a fantastic job at taking the Final Fantasy theme through several variations that grow bigger and bigger, but never repetitive – a magnificent showcase of the strength of Uematsu’s melody.
None of this is to suggest that the arrangers of the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack’s Pixel Remaster slavishly stick to the source material. At times, the arrangers create subtle, yet tangle shifts in mood through their choice of lead instrument. On “Rydia” – another classic Final Fantasy IV track – the lead now lies with a reedy flute that has a thinner, more weathered tone than the original’s warm orchestral flute. It’s an intriguing choice that transforms the cue, although whether the result is preferable over the SNES original will be a matter of personal preference. The most innovative reworking here must be “Troian Beauty”, and it’s hard not to wish the arrangers displayed such creativity more often. What used to be an oboe-led, idyllic waltz first turns into a country-tinged piece (replete with fiddle lead and acoustic guitar) and then into a lavishly arranged pop ballad full of delectably swooning strings.
However, there are also many occasions when sticking close to the source material does not serve the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack’s Pixel Remaster well. Truth be told – while Uematsu’s work undeniably has its fair share of standouts, this score is not an unqualified masterpiece. “Ring of Bomb”, “Cry in Sorrow (Part 2)”, “Melody of Lute”, “Suspicion”, “Golbez, Clad in Dark”, “Somewhere in the World”, “The Lunarians”… they all fail to overcome a general impression of dreary repetition and thin material. Other cues like “Hey Cid!”, “Tower of Zot”, and “The Tower of Babel” are capable and establish their respectively jolly and enterprising moods effectively, if in ultimately perfunctory fashion. And since the arrangements on this Pixel Remaster rarely deliver new material, their regurgitations of compositions that already failed to impress on the SNES are doomed to fall flat too.
Thankfully, these compositions don’t come to dominate this soundtrack, but they do ensure that this Pixel Remaster registers as a lesser work than the Final Fantasy III remake. To the arrangers’ credit, they take a few stabs at writing new material or rescuing mediocre tracks. “Theme of Love” is one of the few compositions that elaborates on its (gorgeous) original, elegantly passing one of Uematsu’s most heart-rendering melodies from instrument to instrument while adding new counterpoint on solo cello and dainty woodwinds. On the SNES, “Mt. Ordeals”, “Long Way to Go”, and “Final Battle” suffered from stiff, repetitive rhythms. The Pixel Remaster mercifully fixes these issues. It does so either by creating a more varied, flexible rhythmic accompaniment (“Mt. Ordeals”, “Long Way to Go”) or by throwing everything and the kitchen sink at the music to make it more dramatic – sample the newly-added choir on “Final Battle”.
Again, not all of these changes work out. Key arrangements like “Prologue” and “Main Theme” come off less well compared to their SNES originals. In its Pixel Remaster version, “Prologue”’s unflinchingly bombastic renditions of the Final Fantasy theme become overbearing at some stage. On the SNES, “Main Theme” presented a complex mix of emotions – adventurous and romantic, yet still wistful, its calm, floaty nature meshing in intriguing ways with the underlying rock drums. The same instrument feels intrusive on the Pixel Remaster arrangement, dashing the delicate balance of elements that made the SNES cue so fascinating. All things considered though, this port of the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack is still the best version of Uematsu’s SNES debut – greater things were yet to come, but there’s much to be savoured here already.
- 01 - The Prelude Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:28
- 02 - Kingdom Baron Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:45
- 03 - Theme of Love Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:29
- 04 - Welcome to Our Town! Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:44
- 05 - Fight 1 Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:01
- 06 - Chocobo ~ Chocobo Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:02
- 07 - Into the Darkness Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:56
- 08 - Fight 2 Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:20
- 09 - Rydia Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:14
- 10 - Castle Damcyan Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:36
- 11 - Mt. Ordeals Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:54
- 12 - Fabul Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:11
- 13 - Mystic Mysidia Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:53
- 14 - Long Way to Go Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:23
- 15 - The Dreadful Fight Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:35
- 16 - Troian Beauty Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:37
- 17 - Samba de Chocobo! Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:37
- 18 - Land of Dwarves Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:56
- 19 - Illusionary World Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 1:51
- 20 - The Big Whale Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:21
- 21 - Another Moon Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:19
- 22 - The Final Battle Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 2:44
- 23 - Epilogue (Part 2) Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 4:32
- 24 - Epilogue (Part 3) Uematsu, Nobuo / Various 3:37