Music has always been a favorite part of the gaming experience for fans of the Final Fantasy (FF) series. A few soundtracks clearly stand out as landmarks in videogame music history, and I would argue the first FF deserving of this status is FF VI. FF VI (released in the US as FF III in October 1994) broke new musical ground in several ways. Here are two examples: the opera scene is regarded as one of the most innovative and charming aspects of the story; and the idea of character theme songs, while not new, showed significant development in FF VI as it pushed the boundary of what is understood to be conventional musical style in games. These are real significant advancements in what we understand videogame music to be.
The FF VI Original Soundtrack (OST) is clearly a work of art. The master composer behind it is Nobuo Uematsu, who actually composed soundtracks for the first 5 FF's as well. So why was VI so special, so groundbreaking? Was it because developers had reached a point where the capabilities of the SNES were being pushed to the limit (Sony's Playstation, part of the "next generation" of consoles, would be released less than a year later, in September 1995)? Was it the musical inspiration derived from a great story? Whatever specifically led to it being so great, Uematsu was clearly at or near his artistic peak with the creation of this soundtrack.
In fact, it would be better to call it an artistic plateau. Uematsu continued to make great songs as the main and sole composer of FF VII, VIII, and IX OSTs (all for the Playstation). However, FF fans were in for a change with FF X, the first Final Fantasy to be released on the Playstation 2, arguably the most successful console in the history of videogames (definitely in league with the Atari, Nintendo, and SNES). Uematsu was no longer the only, nor even the main composer. That job had become a no-man's land, and instead FF fans were introduced to an OST composed by several composers, most notably Masashi Hamauzu (Uematsu's "apprentice"). The job of "main composer" continued to be in flux through FF XII. And now in FF XIII, Hamauzu is the main and sole composer.
It is very interesting to note these changes. While newcomers to the FF series -- or even gamers who have recently been exposed to it-- may not see the change, it is quite noticeable. I would argue the change of composer changes the experience of these games, though of course I cannot say for certain, since FF XIII is not due in the U.S. until March. But I noticed a shift in the tide from the last Uematsu solo work (FF IX) and the first "mix" (FF X) in 2001. To be honest, even at that point I was worried, or at least confused by the change in the music. Consider the difference between these two pieces of music, both from FF X OST. By the way, in this earlier stage of "composer transition" (things become more one-sided in FF XII), about half the songs are still composed by Uematsu.
I'm sure you can tell which one is Uematsu (quiz yourself if you're familiar with his work or if you checked out some of the links I posted above!). To a fan of Uematsu's work, the difference is stark. Aside from the more expansive and "atmospheric" quality of "Besaid Island", there is something about where the music belongs -- primarily in the background as opposed to the foreground -- that strikes me in these pieces. This is exactly what I argue: that the music itself plays a different role in some aspects of FF X, XII, and most likely XIII. It is a role that doesn't sit comfortably with someone who is used to an integrated gaming experience.
And here are two perfect examples of FF XIII's musical style, to further convince you of this change:
What are the implications? Final Fantasy is changing greatly, in ways that go much further than "no more towns" or linear dungeon maps. The music, which has historically been good enough that people are proud to actually own a copy of the OST, is switching hands at a critical point in the series. What, truly, is the future of the Japanese RPG -- does it even exist? Does Hamauzu's more expansive, atmospheric sound lend itself better to a completely different genre? What is --or what should be -- the relationship between music, game, and gamer? I would argue that all of these questions are becoming essential at this moment.
Of course, it's possible that my argument is overly dramatic, but given my attachment to the series I just can't help but think that greater changes lie ahead for FF series and JRPGs more generally, and that a key sign of this change is the retirement of Uematsu from the FF series.
And I would be glad to hear your thoughts on this.