Final Fantasy VI Soundtrack (Pixel Remaster), Nobuo Uematsu / Various, 2022
A few select video games acquire an almost mythical aura, something that elevates them even beyond the status of a classic. Few gamers would doubt that Final Fantasy VI is one of those rarefied works. You could argue that the game didn’t reinvent its genre or presented radically innovative gameplay concepts. However, what Square’s young developers accomplished – flying high on the success of the company’s previous SNES hits – was the perfection of the JRPG genre formula. In some ways, this was a work of mad, unbridled ambition, determined to present as dramatic and sweeping a narrative as 16-bit technology allowed for. After all, how many games – before or after – would see the antagonist actually destroy the world, witness one of the main characters desperate enough to throw herself off a cliff, and insert a ten-minute opera sequence?
Said opera house scene was but one indication of how important music was to realising the developers’ high-flying vision. Thankfully, series stalwart Nobuo Uematsu matched his colleagues’ ambitions every step of the way – creating what, by general consensus, is one of the greatest game scores of all time. Indeed, the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack is a quantum leap for Uematsu – and you can see why he would have said in retrospect that “Final Fantasy VI was a sort of ending point” for him and that he felt he “could quit doing game music with no regrets”. Of course, previous Final Fantasy scores had been excellent as well. However, Final Fantasy VI took the quality of Uematsu’s compositions, the depth of his thematic work, the strength of his melodies and the subtlety and richness of their emotional effect to new heights.
To a degree, simple figures already provide an idea of Uematsu’s monumental accomplishment. He and other RPG composers had deployed leitmotivic constructs before, but never to the degree that the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack does. Uematsu writes more than a dozen recurring, stunningly versatile motifs, weaving almost all of them together during “Ending Theme” – its run time of 22 minutes far beyond the conventions of game (and film) music. And it’s in no way a case of quantity over quality – Uematsu’s melodic inspiration has never been stronger than here. A comparison with Ennio Morricone (and his best works) feels apt in several ways. Neither composers’ works exhibit much of a focus on dense contrapuntal structures or other technical complexities. Instead, they rely on their creators’ unparalleled melodic instincts and ability to wring every ounce of emotion and gravitas out of the instrumental colours they use so judiciously.
Given the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack’s elevated status then, it’s safe to say that anticipation for its Pixel Remaster ran high – particularly since the score had never received any significant update since the 1994 release of the SNES original. Throughout previous Final Fantasy Pixel Remasters, the arrangers had mainly stayed close to Uematsu’s original compositions while enhancing and embellishing them to usually winning effect. Given Final Fantasy VI’s impeccable pedigree, it seemed likely that the arrangers would approach the task with greater respect for the original score than usual, leading to fewer experiments and changes – and that’s indeed the case. Then again, you could argue that even if the arrangers simply presented the soundtrack as a sound upgrade of the SNES score, you would still end up with a masterpiece.
A significant number of pieces on the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack indeed take this particular approach (give or take a bit of reorchestrating) – and it’s hard to bear any grudges. There’s little innovation to the Pixel Remaster’s version of “Opening Theme”, but the improved synth quality highlights just how elegantly the piece moves from the almost cosmic to the profoundly personal within just a handful of minutes. “Gau”’s solo cello melody is as gorgeous as ever, while the arrangers take the gushing melodicism of “Celes” to genuinely operatic heights. And of course, there’s the legendary opera scene, arguably stronger now that its classical ambitions are realised through far more life-like synths. Not surprisingly, all eyes were on the arrangement of “Aria de Mezzo Carattere” – and apart from the irritatingly flat performance of the English lyrics, the new arrangement keeps things straightforward, wisely staying out of the heart-rendering melody’s way.
As on previous Pixel Remasters, the arrangers lengthen the run time of some compositions by repeating them in new orchestrations before hitting the loop – something that happens on the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack as well, but less often so. On several occasions, the results are stupendous. The obvious highlight here is “Kefka”, already in its SNES incarnation one of game music’s smartest, most multi-faceted musical character portraits. The Pixel Remaster takes a satisfyingly cerebral approach to arranging this depiction of a mad, violent clown hiding behind a pompous facade. While the cue’s first run-through feels tamer than the SNES original, that’s only because the arrangers add a new narrative arc, throwing in percussion effects and nervy strings around the main melody as if the music (and its protagonist) turn increasingly unhinged. Other longer tracks like “Locke” and “Setzer” take their already pronounced swagger and heroism to rousing new heights.
Other pieces on this Pixel Remaster make more or less subtle changes to the mood of their originals. The addition of violin and accordion to the second run-through of “The Day After” gives the track a surprisingly romantic yet fitting Mediterranean feel. “Searching for Friends” changes character more drastically during its repeat, moving from hopeful to outright bombastic in a transition that feels natural and unforced. Then there are cues like “Forever Rachel”, “Catastrophe”, and “Final Dungeon” simply add a bit of new material. Outright reworkings of the kind occasionally seen on other Pixel Remasters are absent on this version of the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack. “Mines of Narshe” showcases why that’s a bit of a shame – the way the arrangers expand on its breathy, cavernous atmosphere by adding an entire new noir jazz section makes for the soundtrack’s most creative moment.
Although outstanding as the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack is, it’s not perfect – even though its many highlights far outshine the few missteps. As on previous Pixel Remasters, the arrangers manage to salvage a few cues that previously fell short, although the artists don’t seem to be trying as hard as on Final Fantasy V. The brassy pomp and circumstance of “Edgar & Sabin” wasn’t the original soundtrack’s most inspired moment, but the Pixel Remaster’s punchier and more colourful orchestrations help the cue overcome this issue. The same approach benefits the previously rote “Troops March On”. On the SNES, “The Wedding Waltz – Duel” was somewhat fragmented, but its various short sections feel far more fully-fledged on the Pixel Remaster. And not that the ultimate section of “Dancing Mad” was initially lacking, but its furious, rhythmically head-spinning progressive hard rock update is a far more stunning showstopper.
Unfortunately, not everything is gold on this Pixel Remaster. One can forgive the arrangers for not turning gimmicky tracks like “Techno de Chocobo”, “Slam Shuffle”, “Spinach Rag”, and “Johnny C. Bad” into masterworks. Equally, the first two sections of “Dancing Mad” remain a series of grand, pseudo-operatic gestures rather than fully shaped compositions. More problematic are cues like “Shadow”, “Blackjack”, “Another World of Beasts”, and “The Fierce Battle”, which on the SNES original made a strong impression – but the arrangers manage to make these compositions worse, something that very rarely happened on previous Pixel Remasters. The culprits are repetitions that make hardly any changes to the material or orchestrations, turning these pieces into slogs that outlast their welcome – a waste of beautiful material. Elsewhere, arrangement choices like the more prominent, overbearing organ ostinato chords on “Dark World” achieve the same monotonous effect.
That means this version of the Final Fantasy VI soundtrack isn’t quite the triumph it could have been. Then again, it gets most of what it attempts right – and if the result is something as awe-inspiring and downright epochal as “Ending Theme” and its never-ending parade of melodic delights, it’s hard to feel cheated. Put simply, this Pixel Remaster – by and large – does what game music fans hoped it would do: take one of the greatest game scores ever composed and make it even better.
- 01 - Opening Theme Uematsu, Nobuo 4:17
- 02 - The Mines of Narshe Uematsu, Nobuo 6:37
- 03 - Awakening Uematsu, Nobuo 2:00
- 04 - Locke Uematsu, Nobuo 4:00
- 05 - Battle Theme Uematsu, Nobuo 2:03
- 06 - Edgar and Sabin Uematsu, Nobuo 2:44
- 07 - Kefka Uematsu, Nobuo 5:29
- 08 - Mt. Koltz Uematsu, Nobuo 5:10
- 09 - Shadow Uematsu, Nobuo 1:49
- 10 - Troops March On Uematsu, Nobuo 2:07
- 11 - Cyan Uematsu, Nobuo 2:28
- 12 - The Phantom Forest Uematsu, Nobuo 3:18
- 13 - The Phantom Train Uematsu, Nobuo 2:57
- 14 - Wild West Uematsu, Nobuo 4:38
- 15 - Gau Uematsu, Nobuo 2:42
- 16 - The Serpent Trench Uematsu, Nobuo 4:21
- 17 - Kids Run Through the City Uematsu, Nobuo 2:47
- 18 - Celes Uematsu, Nobuo 2:57
- 19 - Save Them! Uematsu, Nobuo 4:19
- 20 - The Decisive Battle Uematsu, Nobuo 4:09
- 21 - Terra Uematsu, Nobuo 3:58
- 22 - Coin Song Uematsu, Nobuo 3:15
- 23 - Forever Rachel! Uematsu, Nobuo 3:40
- 24 - Overture Uematsu, Nobuo 4:00
- 25 - Aria de Mezzo Carattere Uematsu, Nobuo 5:11
- 26 - The Wedding Waltz - Duel Uematsu, Nobuo 5:11
- 27 - Grand Finale Uematsu, Nobuo 3:10
- 28 - Setzer Uematsu, Nobuo 3:48
- 29 - Blackjack Uematsu, Nobuo 2:53
- 30 - Stragus Uematsu, Nobuo 2:16
- 31 - Relm Uematsu, Nobuo 2:42
- 32 - Another World of Beasts Uematsu, Nobuo 2:48
- 33 - Catastrophe Uematsu, Nobuo 3:34
- 34 - The Fierce Battle Uematsu, Nobuo 2:28
- 35 - The Day After Uematsu, Nobuo 4:37
- 36 - Searching for Friends Uematsu, Nobuo 4:24
- 37 - Gogo Uematsu, Nobuo 2:09
- 38 - Epitaph Uematsu, Nobuo 2:55
- 39 - The Magic House Uematsu, Nobuo 2:28
- 40 - Umaro Uematsu, Nobuo 2:46
- 41 - Last Dungeon Uematsu, Nobuo 3:52
- 42 - Dancing Mad (Part 3) Uematsu, Nobuo 3:43
- 43 - Dancing Mad (Part 4) Uematsu, Nobuo 0:35
- 44 - Dancing Mad (Part 5) Uematsu, Nobuo 5:24
- 45 - Ending Theme Uematsu, Nobuo 22:07
- 46 - The Prelude Uematsu, Nobuo 2:50
Uematsu helped define the standard JRPG sound, and having grown up long afterward, I don’t have any nostalgic attachment to it – and so Uematsu’s FF’s usually aren’t my favorites. Sakimoto’s FFXII and Hamauzu’s FFXIII are. But VI (and its three PlayStation successors, to a lesser extent) are the exceptions. It’s the apotheosis of the basic style Uematsu had been developing and it reaches its ultimate form here. Afterward, first with Front Mission on the SNES and than with FFVII, he started branching out in different directions; and even when he returned to that basic style with FFIX, it almost never hit the heights it did here.
It’s fantastic. In terms of qualitative consistency, on a track to track basis, I don’t know of another game score that has such a high baseline quality level. Uematsu’s finest achievement, and one of vgm’s finest.
Simon Elchlepp says
Absolutely agree on your observations regarding stylistic development and melodies. Most composers would be happy to have just a few pieces with such strong melodies on their soundtracks – that fact that Uematsu keeps churning them out here, track after track, is astounding. The only other SNES RPG score with similar consistency that comes to mind right now is Mystic Ark – that one is a close second for me (if more styled like classical music than FFVI).
Thanks for this review. I hadn’t heard this soundtrack before. Spot on with your Ennio Morricone observation, that effortless way they leverage a melody just hits in the right place
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed the review!
Are you going to be putting uo the rest of the songs? Personally i heard the new slam shuffle and would like to be to listen to it since alas it is impossible to find on youtube.
Simon Elchlepp says
The playlist is a best-of compilation, rather than the entire score. However, you can download the music rip from the game at https://vgm.hcs64.com/ – just requires installing Foobar and installing the right plugin to play the music files.
I realize it says its for android but im having trouble getfing to actually play the files.
Simon Elchlepp says
The way to play the files is to download the required music player (Foobar) onto your computer (not sure if it would work on a mobile) and install the required plugin to play the files. To find the right plugin, just google the file name extension and how to play it in Foobar.
As of mid-March 2022, al the Pixel Remaster soundtracks are available to purchase on e.g. Apple Music. You could pick up Slam Shuffle there for uh, I’m not sure exactly how much. Less than $2 I assume.
The new version of Slam Shuffle is indeed great. And while I appreciate these articles, Mr. Elchlepp, you seem to have a pretty clear bias toward sweeping orchestral themes over more upbeat songs with quirky instrumentation. “Unfortunately, not everything is gold on this Pixel Remaster. One can forgive the arrangers for not turning gimmicky tracks like ‘Techno de Chocobo’, ‘Slam Shuffle’, ‘Spinach Rag’, and ‘Johnny C. Bad’ into masterworks.” Man, the new versions of all these songs are great! And so is Shadow’s theme, in my opinion.
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for this – yes, great to see that the Pixel Remaster soundtracks are finally available for purchase (although why Square waited this long, to the point where everybody will only be interested in FFVI and most people will have forgotten about say the excellent FFI Remaster is anybody’s guess).
I do indeed enjoy sweeping orchestral themes – but the same goes for quirkier stuff, as witnessed by several reviews on this website (Catacomb Snatch, Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!, Knockout City, Tamashii no Mon – Dante Shinkyoku yori etc.) I don’t mind that some track on the FFVI soundtrack are quirky (although they are stylistically jarring, surrounded by mostly orchestral compositions). I just find that their brand of quirky isn’t that interesting. For example, ‘Johnny C. Bad’ and ‘Spinach Rag’ are pastiche – fun genre emulations, but not much more than that. However, as always – that’s ultimately just my personal opinion and if you enjoy those tracks, more power to you! I do like Shadow’s theme – it’s just that the remaster adds more repetitions of the music, while barely making any changes (other than a faintly audible contrapuntal line underneath the melody during the repeat). Thanks again for reading!
Is this doable on mobile?
I have to say I’m disappointed that the Mines of Narshe doesn’t have the “exhale” sound at the end of each measure, and replaced it with a percussion hit. The original sound was always so iconic for me – it evoked the feeling of walking through a cold mountain town and seeing your breath in the air. The jazzy saxophone also makes it feel more like a rainy noir city instead of a snowy mining town. Odd choice.
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for your thoughtful comment and fair point – the original does have a unique atmosphere, thanks to Uematsu’s original orchestrations (on a side note, I somehow always associated that track and the exhale sound with the mines rather than the town of Narshe itself, probably because of the sample’s cavernous sound). I was glad there were at least a handful of tracks where the arrangers went “okay, where else can we take this music?” – even though in this case, they ended up in a less creative place than the original. I must say I wish there had been more tracks on this remaster that had taken a bit of creative licence.