Last year’s Final Fantasy Pixel Remaster series arrived with a surprising music overhaul, featuring recording instruments in a chamber music setting, with the occasional use of full orchestra, choir, and synths to emulate a rock music style. Of the six soundtracks, Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster Original Soundtrack somehow managed to remain the black sheep in the series. The irony, however, is the way in which it differed from the other five. You see, in contrast with Final Fantasy II‘s experimental nature regarding gameplay, its remastered soundtrack tends to play it safe.
I arrived at this conclusion with help from fellow RPGFan editor Gio Castillo. Gio and I have been stewing over this particular soundtrack for some time; as a result, it is the sole entry in the Pixel Remaster soundtrack series that remained unreviewed on RPGFan by the end of 2022. I don’t know that this means the soundtrack is exactly “forgettable,” but it did have a hard time standing out among its peers in the Pixel Remaster mix. For what it’s worth, I personally found myself much more drawn to the third and sixth entries in the series, both for the source material and for the arrangements.
Allow me to break down what I mean by “playing it safe.” In one sense, we could consider this the act of vanilla transcription—assigning the melodies and harmonies from Uematsu’s chiptune originals to appropriate instruments, maybe building upon and around the chord progression of the piece, and toying with things like tempo and dynamics. In many cases throughout this soundtrack, this is exactly what occurs. When arrangements like these are offered, the real opportunity to shine is through the nuance of individual performance. The strings and harp in one of the game’s key themes, “The Rebel Army,” were crisp and clear. However, I was disappointed in the brass and wind sections of “Tower of the Magi,” where a solo instrument could have brought some extra life to the triplet leads behind each note of the main melody; though, technically, this too should be considered a mistake in arrangement if the musicians weren’t instructed to attempt these decorative runs, instead holding to the solid note after the synthesized harpsichord does the heavy lifting.
My critique about “playing it safe” being sustained, the production value still makes the album quite listenable. I particularly appreciated the booming choir in “Battle 2” and “Pandaemonium.” I also found myself drawn to the soundtrack’s more subdued moments, particularly the harp and strings in “Revival.” Finally, I would be remiss if I did not draw your attention to the Final Fantasy II “Main Theme,” which also serves as the game’s world map music. This is the largest production on the entire soundtrack, with an impressive track length of nearly six minutes. This particular arrangement pushes the source material further than all other tracks on this album, in line with some of the better arrangements found on the other five FFPR soundtracks. The arranger for this track, Shingo Kataoka, also handled the world map music from Final Fantasy III Pixel Remaster, “Eternal Wind,” which I also found to be an impressive arrangement.
Given the relatively sparse source material in the first two Final Fantasy titles, I had hoped that the Pixel Remaster versions would bring new vitality to these titles. I honestly wasn’t worried about III through VI, and I think they generally fared well. I also think the Pixel Remaster for the first game lived up to the kind of vitality I had hoped for—something Gio described well in his soundtrack review. Sadly, I don’t think I can say the same about Final Fantasy II Pixel Remaster Original Soundtrack. It’s decent enough. It serves its purpose. But I just don’t hear it, or feel it, transcending its original purpose in the way the other Pixel Remaster arrangements do. And thanks to my many conversations with Gio about this one, I know there are at least two of us who feel this way.