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