We’ve looked at the “worst” five Final Fantasy soundtracks, and then explored the strange and inconsistently wonderful middle ground. And we finally arrive at the end of our ranking: the best of the best. The cream of the crop. The top five.
In looking back over this final ranking, I can’t help but feel that it is too safe, too obvious. This doesn’t change that this is where I’m at with this franchise now, or, as I said last time, that this couldn’t change in an instant. But the top five perhaps will always feel a bit safe, inflexible. This is where historical context and cultural relevance bang heads against compositional craft and emotional resonance. In some ways, these are the scores that can only be here without indulging in self-deception or the deliberate goal of putting them lower.
Ranking and canon are conceptually difficult. They can be useful tools, but they have massive limitations. One must be cautious with them, immensely skeptical. Even as a communal exercise, these are things that have most often served the purpose of gatekeeping and establishing fake objectivity, to create an opposition of real value (most frequently born from racism, sexism, etc). Hierarchies are fraught at best.
Here I’ve chosen it as a means of thinking about what Final Fantasy is, how it has evolved, and taken root in various areas. How each soundtrack attempts different things and either succeeds or fails. Taking a construct to artificially pressure my thinking.
I can joke about this being Definitive. And I have approached this from that rhetorical and critical posture. But in the end it is not. There is no definitive ranking, only a prompt to explore that which is important to me, and for you to explore what is important to you—whether you agree or push back.
Ranked lists, canons, and hierarchies are at their most useful when we push on them, when they become inflection points for discussion. They are at their best when they give us something to dismantle.
Here are the five best Final Fantasy soundtracks.
The first Final Fantasy is eclipsed by later entries where more time, money, and capability allow Uematsu and others room to freely explore these worlds, characters, and narratives. But this is the first one. It set the standard and established melodies that would endure and be iterated and explored for decades to come, across dozens of games. It would launch symphonies, and sell albums, becoming seared into the hearts of millions for a generation, and waiting to be uncovered by subsequent ones.
Final Fantasy’s soundtrack proves that a sublimely crafted melody can enrapture even with the crudest of hardware. And there are no melodies on this soundtrack that fail in this regard.
When I think of Final Fantasy VIII, the song that comes to mind is actually “Blue Fields.” The staccato plinking of strings against sporadic and deep cumulonimbus rumbles like elephant steps. There’s a melody with a warbling, percussive, and glassy vibrato of steel drums with enough reverb to transform the sound entirely. And always the plaintively hopeful melody and countermelody of reeds. It’s definitely a Final Fantasy song, but you almost wouldn’t know it, if you heard it out of context.
While Uematsu has mentioned artists like Emerson, Lake, & Palmer and Elton John serving as (palpable) influence, what is equally undergirding this soundtrack is a keen ear for the compositional traditions of Classical composers like Doménico Scarlatti or a continued fixation on Stravinsky. And of course, “Liberati Fatali” is a bold attempt at out Orff-ing Carl Orff, because Uematsu still hadn’t gotten over “One-Winged Angel.” Though, breaking with JRPG tradition, there is far less Maurice Ravel throughout.
Final Fantasy VIII is a more focused and practiced soundtrack than either VII or VI, but no less expansive. This is a sweeping game of child soldiers, sorceresses, the bonds of friendship and love. It’s no less a Romance than any Final Fantasy before it, and as such, it requires a majestic bold score to contain the bursting emotionality of the narrative.
Nowhere is it more successful at this than in those moments where it is at its most gentle, like the simple piano ballad of Julia’s theme or the jazzy (but still sinister) “Salt Flats”.
VIII is a triumph of mood in tonal restraint, focused less on dazzling with slick arrangements and a wild arrangement of styles. Though not without Uematsu’s signature playfulness, or capacity for bombast.
Despite composing 51 of the 91 tracks in Final Fantasy X, I don’t think of this as an Uematsu score. It’s actually when he gets out of the way and lets Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu take over that the world of Spira opens up and shows how vibrant and delicate it can be.
With one exception: the stripped-down acoustic guitar of “Sight of Spiral” is incomparable.
That being said, X comes alive in the breathy ambient moments like Nakano’s “Phantoms” or the shimmering swirls of “The Summoning.”
There’s a vibrance to Hamauzu and Nakano’s BlitzBall related themes that almost (ALMOST) make the minigame worth it.
The themes from Besaid, Luca, and Guadosalam pulse with their own delicate energy. Macalania Woods filters distant light through leaves in bells and strings, as a constant droning heartbeat keeps time. Each evocative in ways that Uematsu is often much too forceful a composer to navigate as adeptly.
Chosen because they would work well within the sonic landscapes Uematsu creates, X in practice is much more an example of how well he fits in and around their compositions.
Where X is a refreshingly chill, often sedate, melange of jazz and ambient styles commingling with solid (if oversold) Uematsu theme work, it’s the companion soundtrack of X-2 that picks up the cool synths and runs away into a dense pop-tinged wilderness of Ryuichi Sakamoto-esque melodies and Herbie Hancock-suffused J-Pop riffs. The gentle solemnity of X flips to its tonal contrapuntal in the hands of Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguch.
Distinct in tempo and approach but drawing from the same sonic palettes as its predecessor, X-2 is at times an intensification in recapitulation. And while the vocal tracks may be A LOT, the raucousness matches the girls’ road trip vibe with a much needed shift after the heartbreaking and elegiac caravan of X. This is in many ways a very successful Persona soundtrack filtered back through Final Fantasy. And together the two form as tight a union as the games they inhabit.
And as for the vocal tracks, well, it’s hard for anything to measure up to “Suteki da ne?” Which might be Uematsu’s only really successful vocal piece. Yeah, I said it.
IV opens with nearly the same ferocity of VII, but it’s martial, imperious, the violence of authority, the voracious hunger of power and expansion. This soundtrack is one that Uematsu admitted was difficult—moving to new hardware while offering new possibilities also meant growing pains. It’s not flush with frenzied abandon like VI or the experimental flexes of V.
The soundtrack to Final Fantasy IV is elegant and effective. Neither ostentatious nor mundane, these more expansive melodies build on tried and true compositional techniques as new hardware is explored and understood.
There’s a reason this soundtrack got a rearrangement album called Celtic Moon. It’s dripping with the musical influence of Hibernia. Where V and VI would find Uematsu exploring organ and bass, IV is expansive in its use of harp samples, expressive strings, and a variety of woodwinds. Waltzes figure prominently to lend a sense of otherworldly mystique, and steady drumming grounds the score with insistence.
IV’s soundtrack unfolds more like a stage production’s musical accompaniment than a cinematic or even traditional game score. There’s a sense of drama and punctuation to both individual pieces and the work as a whole. Uematsu hasn’t yet moved to tone pieces that flit throughout the emotional beats, and can be repurposed as necessary, but his character and place theme work is also less fixed, more flexible. And every one of them is a near masterpiece.
There are three truly incredible openings in all of Final Fantasy: the slow, menace of VI, the totalitarian rawness of IV, and then there’s VII.
Few games open as hard as Final Fantasy VII. And no other Final Fantasy comes close. This is it. And Nobuo Uematsu fucking brings it!
Where were you when you first saw the flower girl that zoomed way out into a flyover of the giant industrial tumor called Midgar, before it slammed into a train station as “Bombing Run” kicked in with its full, rumbling ferocity?
I was in my wood-panelled bedroom that my mother graciously had painted over in gloss black, staring at a 17” RCA TV with faux wood trim reclaimed by me during her divorce. Door closed, towel shoved under, and the volume cranked just up to the point where the tiny half-watt speakers began to clip.
And then the game broke. Right as the first scripted combat phased in. The disc was fucked up. I had that opening loop stuck in my head all night and into the next day of 9th grade, waiting to sprint to Babbage’s the second the final bell rang to get a replacement.
Once secured, I stayed up into the morning as the cacophony of ecoterrorism morphed into the tragedy of a disaffected boy who forgot how to connect with other people learning slowly how to stop being full of his own bullshit. And all the way through to the end, there was the constant presence of Uematsu at the peak of his prowess.
Is there a bad song in this soundtrack? No. There are only ones that are less appealing. Ones that suit their moment without consideration for out-of-context listening. But every song is solid, exactly what it needs to be, except for when they go beyond and absolutely demolish other game soundtracks.
Few boss fights go as hard as “Those Who Fight Further.” You have to go to the Genesis’ beat ‘em ups to find more danceable beatdown beats than “J-E-N-O-V-A.” And while “One Winged Angel” is a personal let down with its boring attempts at “What of Carl Orff, but Metal?” it’s undeniable that fans of the series love it.
But it’s not just the ripping battle tracks. VII brings together all the lessons in melodic construction that Uematsu has practiced over his 15 years of scoring games to this point. In VII he has both the understanding, technological capacity, and an often underutilized sense of restraint when necessary.
I could talk about the ways in which the emotional core of this game is most accurately communicated through Tifa’s (not Aerith’s) Theme. That even the titling of these songs only enhances the understanding of the game and the music. Or how this is Uematsu’s strongest Main Theme since the original Final Fantasy.
But let’s talk about Cosmo Canyon. Which is probably the most perfectly matched track to its location. Cosmo Canyon is the motor lodge in Nowhere Arizona that marks the middle of a long road trip. There’s a big cartoon Indian announcing food, novelties, and vacancies in neon. “Get your photo with the Chief!” a handwritten sign announces. $5. The chief is an old, leathery white guy on an old, leathery couch covered in cheap dreamcatchers ($10 each) made from recycled soda bottle plastic. He’ll put on a fake headrest and give you “a genuine Indian arrow” to hold. But they’ve got vacancies. And you’ve been driving for hours.
Final Fantasy is often a road trip narrative. And while X-2 is arguably most successful in this regard, and XV is the most obviously literal, VII’s trip across a weird hallucination of an America culminates in this moment. In the fake NDN Village of Cosmo Canyon.
Uematsu nails it. The theme from Cosmo Canyon creaks its way out of a cheap speaker system while you stock up on Slim Jims and Diet Coke the next morning. You can buy the disc in the “Gift Shop” (a back corner filled with tacky approximations of Native wares). All of this, and the weariness of a long trip, but also the anticipatory excitement of getting back on the road are expressed sublimely in this one track.
VII is Uematsu at his peak.
It is perfect.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.