The music of Final Fantasy VI's battles
Making everything feel grand and vital in its own way was central to Final Fantasy VI's score, and its many, many battle themes were no different.
This column is “The music of,” in which I’ll go into detail on the soundtrack or a piece of music from a video game. Previous entries in the series can be found through this link.
Context is a significant part of what makes Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack still wow today. There was so much attention put toward not just fitting in a song that would work for a given moment or scenario, but instead ensuring that new songs perfect for those moments were created instead, songs that would come to represent a location, character, town, or situation so well. It’s not that the composers for previous role-playing games had no interest in doing so: hardware limitations were often in play in a way that kept soundtracks shorter, and possibly even more limited.
March 1989’s Phantasy Star II, for instance, was an early Sega Mega Drive/Genesis title, and was at the time of its release the largest console game ever: it had to make some cuts in various places to fit its static cutscenes, NPC dialogue, large character portraits, detailed sprites, extensive dungeons, and so on in its then-massive cartridge, however, and one such casualty was the scope of the soundtrack. Phantasy Star II has just the two battle themes: the standard one you hear in every random encounter and in some forced ones, and the lone boss theme, which you’ll hear when fighting Neifirst, Dark Force, and Mother Brain, even though they’re all of a different scale in boss terms. This wasn’t always how games of the time were, by any means — Nintendo’s Mother had a number of different battle themes despite also releasing in 1989 and for the even more limited 8-bit Famicom, and non-console RPGs like Ys were able to fit tons and tons of high-quality music tracks in — but there’s a clear difference between older (read: cartridge-based) and more modern role-playing games in terms of how much you could squeeze in on the soundtrack side.
By the time 1994 rolled around, though, Square, the developers of Final Fantasy, were highly familiar with the SNES and what it was capable of. While visually speaking, 1991’s Final Fantasy IV (II in North America) looked like a relatively mild step up from their days developing for the NES, on the music side, there were significant, noticeable leaps forward. More leitmotifs, more boss themes, more contextually based tracks meant for specific situations: it was like the opposite of Phantasy Star II, in that it sacrificed visual improvements and larger, detailed sprite work for the game’s map and dungeons in order to use all of that space for sound and a much wordier narrative than in Final Fantasies past.
Three years and a bunch of games later, Square had vastly improved their art on the SNES, and had gone to even greater lengths to showcase Nobuo Uematsu’s skill as a composer. Sure, there were still worlds left to conquer on both the visual and audio side that even more powerful hardware and CD-based storage solutions could aid with, but the kinds of sacrifices required of Sega to get Phantasy Star II working on the early Genesis didn’t necessarily apply this far into the generation of 16-bit consoles thanks to additional experience with all of this hardware.
And it shows in a soundtrack like that of Final Fantasy VI, the… last… Final Fantasy released on the SNES. The game’s official soundtrack includes 61 songs totaling two hours and 30 minutes of music: compare that to Phantasy Star II’s 22 tracks, or Final Fantasy IV’s 44. Citing the length of a soundtrack in terms of time can be a bit misleading since there’s looping involved, but consider that Final Fantasy VI included a miniature opera within it, or that its closing battle theme, in its arranged format played by Uematsu’s rock band, The Black Mages, is over 12 minutes long on its own — there’s no looping there, that’s just the song, and it’s been cut down from the near-18 minute length it has on the game’s official soundtrack, too.
Phantasy Star II had 22 tracks: Final Fantasy VI has 11 of them used in battles alone (it’s 11 if you count Shadow’s leitmotif playing while you battle him in the coliseum, which I’m not covering beyond this mention.) This wasn’t a leap forward all at once, by any means, nor was Final Fantasy VI the first RPG to utilize multiple town, battle, boss, or character themes — it’s not even the first Square or Final Fantasy game to do so — but the scale of it all is what was and is astounding. Final Fantasy VI’s soundtrack was immense in a way that’s still noticeable nearly 30 years later, thanks to having leitmotifs for an absurdly large cast of playable and non-playable characters, songs specific to various kingdoms and situations, and again, 11 different songs that play in battles, depending on who it is you’re fighting against, or where, or the circumstances surrounding said battle.
There’s the standard battle theme, which is the one you’ll hear the most often: for all the advances in contextualized music that occur in this game, the theme for random battles is the same regardless of whether you’re in the World of Balance or the World of Ruin, even if the overworld and airship themes both change over in that transition:
It’s a catchy song, but it’s also the least contextualized one in the entire soundtrack, since it’s meant to be a one-size-fits-all deal — it’s even just called “Battle.” So let’s move on to the next one, and a warning that detailed spoilers abound for a 29-year-old game from here on out.
“The Unforgiven” is used in situations such as after the discovery that Kefka has poisoned the citizens of Cyan’s homeland, Doma — including his wife and child — or after Celes discovers Sabin using his stupidly muscled body in place of a collapsed support beam in a house, so that she has time to run in and rescue the child still trapped within.
While the song’s title refers to Cyan seeking out Kefka — really, any troops of the Gestahlian Empire he can get his hands on in their camp, but especially the poisoner himself — in order to exact revenge on him for a crime there can be no forgiveness for, it’s deployed in situations where there is a true sense of urgency amid something horrible that’s occurring. In the case of Celes entering that collapsing building, there’s even a timer counting down how much longer Sabin can hold up a house through the combination of sheer force of will and pixelated biceps.
“The Veldt” is both the song that plays in that location on the overworld map, as well as during battles that take place on it. It’s meant to be a land of beasts and monsters, the one that raised a young, abandoned boy, Gau, into who he is by the time Cyan and Sabin meet him after they end up washing ashore in this part of the world. The song itself sounds primal, of a piece with the world it’s representing, the various drums working overtime to convince you that you’re no longer in the swords-and-shields (and steampunk) portion of the world, but instead in a savanna, in the world left to roaming, wild animals. Of which Gau feels more at home with at this point than in the nearby town on the Veldt’s outskirts.
Following your time on the Veldt, the party is swept away underwater in The Serpent Trench, which, like with the Veldt, serves as both the theme for your travel as well as in its battles:
It’s a bit more haunting than what we’ve heard to this point in the game, with all of the instrumentation sounding quite different, like there’s a bit of a reverberation from inside of that helmet that’s helping the party breathe underwater, and the mournful horn that plays in the forefront meshes well with the background that has a brighter, faster tone to it: there is no other place in the game where this track would make as much sense as it does here, which is also why Square didn’t bother to interrupt it during battles that occur in the Trench.
There’s another theme that is used in situations where urgency is required, but the focus in these scenarios is more on large-scale, persistent battles than on rushing toward a specific goal. “Protect the Espers!” is named such because the first instance in which you’re fighting while it plays occurs while you’ve split your one party into three smaller ones in order to create choke points in the mountains for an invading Gestahlian force to be slowed down by, in their quest to capture the Esper that is frozen in ice further up the path.
It’s used elsewhere in FFVI, as well, such as when your airship is being used to invade the Empire in a coordinated attack, in a series of battles that will occur as their air force challenges you again and again. In both situations, the theme continues to play whether you’re in the midst of battle, or simply waiting to engage in the next one.
“The Decisive Battle.” The lone thing that’s wrong with it is that it’s actually used in battles that often prove to not be decisive: it’s the game’s standard boss music, used again and again while taking on anything from a surprisingly strong monster in a cave you’ve bumped into, to some super-powered soldiers, to Kefka before he’s at the point where he can call himself a god and even kind of back that claim up.
It feels far more “decisive” in the game’s second half, when the very worst of the sealed-away creatures fly forth from their magical prisons, or from within the depths of the earth like a Balrog ascending a defenseless Khazad-dûm to terrorize the world once again. Those all feel like the stakes are much loftier than in the early uses of the theme: if you want to quibble, maybe there should have been a theme just for the dragons, Humbaba, etc. in the World of Ruin, but on the bright side, you get to hear “The Decisive Battle” more often because there is not.
“Grand Finale” is a one-time use battle track, deployed at the conclusion of the aforementioned opera, which has gone very awry. The members of your party have been incorporated into the ending of it, since they fell out of the theater rafters and onto the stage alongside the giant, joke-telling purple octopus they were battling up there in the hopes of stopping him from performing a Looney Tunes tribute with an anvil. The impresario just says hey, screw it, and commands the orchestra to start playing something fitting:
I appreciate that this both sounds like it fits within the rest of the game’s soundtrack but is also quite distinct from the rest, with the intention being that it would sound even more orchestral than the orchestral songs elsewhere on the soundtrack, because it was being played in-game by an orchestra. A subtle yet appreciated touch, the opposite of what happens when characters in a platformer go underwater and suddenly the music is muffled. Are you telling me this song is playing in this game world, too?
Anyway, “Metamorphosis” is another urgent and panic-inducing piece of music, used in the moments of greatest despair: yes, a house maybe falling on a kid is a real problem (especially for that kid), but “Metamorphosis” is reserved for things like “Kefka is trying to open the doors to the Esper World, which could trigger the apocalypse, and needs to be stopped,” or “oh no Kefka did trigger the apocalypse in a separate event and now the Floating Continent, which we happen to be standing on, can no longer be described as either of those things as it careens toward the surface.”
While the standard “Metamorphosis” is excellent at conveying the horror of the moments it’s deployed in, I’m partial to the OverClocked Remix arrangement of it, which cranks up the volume and also the percentage of dubstep contained within the song in a way that just works:
“Battle to the Death” is more honest in its title than “Decisive Battle” is, and also these fights tend to be more [wait for it] decisive. You’ll hear “Battle to the Death” just a few times throughout the entire game — not often at first, and only once in the World of Balance, when you fight Ultima Weapon on the Floating Continent (Atma Weapon, for you Final Fantasy III, SNES heads). In the World of Ruin, however, it gets far more play, with not just the rematch against a beefed up Ultima Weapon, but against each of the Warring Triad in their non-statue forms. AKA when they are gods again, and working for Kefka.
The thing that stands out the most in this track is that there is, once again, a sense of urgency in the music, one that’s not evident in “The Decisive Battle,” but there’s also a sweeping grandness to it all that’s not present in any of the emergency-focused themes. An excellent combination of feelings elicited by earlier, seemingly unrelated battles, packed together into one song.
And last is “Dancing Mad,” which… the short version of “Dancing Mad,” if there is such a thing, is that it’s the story of Kefka’s entire journey and state of mind throughout Final Fantasy VI, all represented in one enormous song. It is constantly changing forms as Kefka does in this fight, in his attempt to prove to you that your battle against him, like life itself, is futile: he will play with you, as he does all things, and then cast you aside when he’s done. “Dancing Mad” itself exposes that lie with the way it uses callbacks to music you’ve heard earlier in the game: it’s a boss theme that posits that you’re facing off against an almighty god who has become the source of all magic, but at the same time, that maybe he’s not quite as immortal or almighty as he needs you to believe he is.
In 2010, at Destructoid’s community blog, user SWE3tMadness broke down each of the four movements of “Dancing Mad,” and it’s some astonishing stuff, to see it broken down the way it is, to know that this was the culmination of all of that effort put in by Uematsu’s many leitmotifs and contextualized battle arrangements that were trying to tell the story of the game as much as any of the exposition or events contained within:
I was always bugged by the fact that Kefka seemed to be the only villain in Final Fantasy history that did not have a memorable final speech to make after the heroes defeated him. He just fades away and the tower collapses around him. Then I realized, that I was looking at his fight in the wrong way. His entire boss theme is his last speech, outlining his rise to power, and lamenting his eventual defeat.
In Kefka’s mind, there is nothing worthwhile in the world. No faith, no hope, no love, and certainly no gods. After all, look how easily he stole the three goddesses’ powers at the Floating Continent. He’s displaying himself as this enlightened being to try and hammer home the fact that everything that the heroes are fighting for, everything they hold dear is worthless if he is the most powerful being in the world. The savior that is represented in the Pieta is supposed to be the paragon of humanity, a physical manifestation of light and truth. By putting himself in that position, with the glorious hymn of praise in the background, he’s denying the existence of that light, and saying that the only thing present in human hearts is despair and destruction.
It can be easy to overlook this layer of sacrilege and simply assume that Kefka is just another villain with a god complex. However, leitmotifs come to the rescue again! As you listen to the music, pay attention to the countermelody beginning at 8:28. It’s Kefka’s theme transposed into a different key. Despite all the posturing, Kefka is still the same deranged clown, only dressed in a different costume out of spite.
And then the percussion kicks in. No more orchestration, no more pseudo-latin chanting, and the once-proud church organ has been replaced by a smaller, dinky reed organ. It was such a huge departure from the rest of the song that it was very disappointing to me at first. Then I stopped looking at it as a piece on its own, but the finale for Kefka’s character. So he’s gained ultimate power, raged against the heavens, and spat in the face of all the hopes and dreams the heroes carried with them to the final boss showdown. But despite his taunts, they’ve already beaten his twisted tower, and he’s now forced to fight all the heroes face-to-face rather than simply smiting them from above. The façade hinted at in the third movement is now apparent and rapidly crumbling away. He’s losing, and now begins to realize that all his power may not be enough to defeat the heroes. Why not?
The song is truly a masterpiece: even if you don’t agree that the music itself in a vacuum is the greatest boss theme going, it’s hard not to be astounded by the audacity of Uematsu to try to… no, to actually pull off something of this scale on 16-bit hardware whose sound samples were restricted to 64kb each. Just an incredible piece of work, the cherry on top of a sundae that with every bite was telling you that music can tell a story as well as anything else in a video game.
Final Fantasy VI’s achievements in contextualization in music aren’t unique, but they were a leap forward for the time period due to the scale, and the clear dedication to making sure that the soundtrack was given as much space as any other area of the game rather than be sacrificed for one reason or another. This soundtrack being not just conceptualized but delivered as it was served as one of the strongest indications that the golden age of Square pushing the limits of hardware, of storytelling, of art, had come. Final Fantasy VI would have been ambitious even without the developers deciding that this was the time to so closely intertwine music and narrative, but with that? Well, there’s a reason this is the second instance of my writing just about specific bits of music from this game, isn’t there?
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