Hello adventurous and impetuous Lusi-Sprites. It has been some time since the last entry in The Nobuo Review, but that does not negate its status as an ongoing feature. In fact, to bring it back with an appropriately self-serving bang, I have decided to get my very favourite soundtrack out of the way, the Final Fantasy IX OST.
When I say “very favourite” I do not just mean of Nobuo’s esteemed works, but of all video game soundtracks. Despite my respect and adoration for Uematsu’s iconic works in Final Fantasy VI and VII or outstanding efforts in some of the Mario and Zelda titles, none reach the depth and scope of Final Fantasy IX in my eyes.
This is not an opinion I have always held so firmly. Final Fantasy VII was the first game I played in the series and more tunes from that game stuck in my head than when I completed IX some time later. I had not played much of Final Fantasy VIII at that point, but the first few hours also had some brilliant melodies. Final Fantasy IX was already my favourite game in the series at that point, but I did not hold the soundtrack in exactly the same regard.
“What changed your mind?” I hear an interested reader ask. Well, interested reader, I can trace it back to two events. The first being when I received the Final Fantasy IX original soundtrack for piano and the second being when I received the Final Fantasy VII original soundtrack for piano.
The two events took place precisely a year apart – the books being Christmas gifts – and that was just enough time for me to get intensely familiar with IX‘s book. I spent nearly every day learning the tunes inside. I marked my favourite pieces with mini post-its, I made makeshift medleys out of several cues, and I generally drove my family insane with my neverending playing.
Perhaps not too insane however, because – as mentioned – I received the same gift a year later except this time for Final Fantasy VII; an OST I considered my favourite at the time.
I sat down excited and was indeed able to joyously play many pieces I recognized and adored. A few weeks later however, I started to fight off a voice in my head telling me I was disappointed with the OST overall, at least in comparison to my new beloved Final Fantasy IX book. I played through every page in an attempt to convince myself otherwise, but it only confirmed that I was overall more impressed and captivated by Nobuo’s compositions in IX.
Final Fantasy IX has fewer showpieces. There is nothing close to the singular achievements of the frantic One Winged Angel, the sprawling Dancing Mad, the desperately hopeful Aerith’s Theme, or the beautiful To Zanarkand. Still, looking beyond the “hits”, there is the greatest depth. There is almost unbelievable variety. There is a strength in neverending melody. One of the reasons I connect most to the world of Final Fantasy IX is because I find it the easiest to believe in the world as a whole. The countries and cultures are as deep and diverse as in XII and they are brought to life as convincingly as in VI and VII. I believe this is in very large part due to the success of Nobuo’s score.
Lindblum castle is appropriately regal while Lindblum proper is the perfect mixture of meandering and memorable to complement the tone of the region. The cues are not direct variations of each other, but they retain enough of the same style to feel like pieces born of the same area.
In fact, that is another large reason why I believe this is Nobuo’s greatest work. Musical callbacks are effective, but Nobuo did not lean on one or two pieces for the technique. There is Melodies of Life, Tragic Love, The Place I’ll Return to Someday, and Loss of Me. While Nobuo was able to use leitmotif effectively, he also did not hesitate to compose entirely new pieces for emotionally significant moments that would only be used a handful of times.
You’re Not Alone! is a brilliant example of this, so are Unforgettable Sorrow and Feel My Blade. In fact, the Final Fantasy IX OST is so overflowing with powerful tracks, one of my favourite cues only plays once in the entire game, and if the player rushes, she will not even hear the entire thing.
But most of the aforementioned tracks have been simpler, more emotional tunes. While IX‘s OST certainly shines in that regard (do not forget the simple yet brilliant Dali), Uematsu also outdid himself in composing tracks that were menacing, haunting, playful, complex, exciting, creepy, or just plain impressive.
I felt worried about over-linking in my article praising the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack, but the problem is triple-fold this time. While writing this article, I currently have a large number of browser tabs open with tracks from the game and I am trying to find a way to link to every single piece I find impressive. But even if I continue to use every single word as a link, I would just end up linking the entire OST, and that would not be particularly helpful.
Plus, I cannot miss the opportunity to mention something I feel is often overlooked when it comes to this incredibly thorough soundtrack. And that is that for pretty much the only time in his Final Fantasy career, Nobuo Uematsu fully scored nearly every FMV cutscene himself. There are a handful that are unscored or are enhanced versions of other tracks, but largely Nobuo is somehow able to step outside the very particular skillset of writing looping video game tracks to compose epics cues better than most of what Hollywood produces. Remember this moment? It is not an opening or ending cutscene. It happens in the middle, but it is perfectly scored. What about when Eiko jumps? That is a beautiful melody composed solely for that moment. As always, I could go on.
I am aware that my preference for IX as a game overall informs my opinion of the soundtrack. However, as a lover of video game soundtracks, as a fan of all of Nobuo Uematsu’s fine work from the original Final Fantasy to Lost Odyssey, and as a guy who likes to spend as much free time as possible at his piano, I have yet to discover a game soundtrack I find nearly as impressive. For all the standout tracks and efforts provided in the deservedly lauded VI and VII, they do not provide the same depth, heart, variety, and passion exemplified in Final Fantasy’s swan song on the original Playstation.
I look forward to your vocal disagreements below, Lusi-Sprites!