Like the bland, white cover suggests, this album comes with no hint of pretense. It is a simple offering of some of the first battle tunes that put Square’s composers on the map. I do say “Square” and not “Square Enix” because this volume doesn’t contain a single Enix-related tune. Perhaps Vol.2 will do that, though it is presently unknown how many volumes of this type are planned.
It is, in some ways, a shame that we didn’t get each and every battle track from these games, because a lot of good ones are missing. The choice was made to pick one song from almost every Square-published RPG (where’s Super Mario RPG?), starting at Final Fantasy and ending just at the end of the Super Nintendo era (with Sting’s “Treasure Hunter G” wrapping it up). When I looked through the tracklist, I was honestly surprised by how many songs were chosen over my favorites. Let’s go through, examine a few songs, and also consider what else might have fit well on the disc.
With the opening arpeggio and familiar bass-line, we begin with the original Final Fantasy battle theme. If you are not able to recall this tune from memory at the mere mention of the name, then this probably isn’t an album for you. This is for the die-hard, true-to-the-original fans. For those of you who do know (and love) the song, you’re in for a treat, starting right here.
After a quick obscure blip of music from the first Hanjuku Hero, we’re on to the boss battle theme for Final Fantasy II. For the oldschoolers out there, you know that FFII is the black sheep and the underdog of the series. Surprisingly, however, Uematsu wrote some great tunes for the game, and this battle theme was probably the best you could pick from this title.
Alright, now for my first complaint. The score for the original “SaGa” game (Final Fantasy Legend in the US) is excellent, but there was a much better choice that could have been made in the world of battle themes. The last battle theme, “Furious Battle,” was so good, I can hardly contain myself just thinking about it! I never knew so much could be done with three channels of one very modest synthesizer. Now don’t get me wrong, this song is good too, but the last battle had something amazing going for it, and it’s an awful loss that we don’t find it on this collection.
Next up is the last battle theme from Final Fantasy III. It has a slow start, but after it picks up, it’s obvious that this is one of Uematsu’s best pieces for the Famicom generation. It’s good stuff. The next track, however, makes the same mistake as its predecessor. SaGa 2’s score was ripe with excellent music from Kenji Ito, and I do not deny that the standard battle theme “Lethal Strike” was a good one. However, again, there was a better choice, a much more obvious choice. The boss theme, “Decisive Battle,” has one of the catchiest melodies ever to grace the original Game Boy. I wish I had been in charge of making this compilation CD…
Ito’s back on the next track, from Final Fantasy Adventure (the first in the “Seiken Densetsu” series). This Game Boy theme is great, and was probably the best pick from this particular game. It’s the standard battle theme, and it’s mighty good.
Now, after a solid ten minute block of 8-bit and 4-bit music, we take the leap to 16-bit, where we’ll remain for pretty much the rest of the album. “Battle With the Four Fiends” is a great boss theme, and it works well to put it on the album. I would have also been fine with a number of other choices, including the last battle music, but this works for me!
A quick hop-skip back to Game Boy, it’s Ryuji Sasai on board! I don’t know why the “standard” random-encounter battle music made it on this disc for each and every Game Boy release, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles I guess. This song is okay, but there were (again) better choices to be made. Sasai will appear twice more on this album, for even more fun and obscure titles.
Since we made it through four Final Fantasy titles, it’s about time we reach the fourth game in the all-engrossing “SaGa” series. Kenji Ito, the man who composed music for the majority of this series, offers up his standard battle theme from Romancing SaGa. Take note: there are tons of great battle themes from most SaGa games, with Romancing SaGa being a particularly great place to start. Though I certainly do enjoy the “Minstrel Song” PS2 version of the soundtrack even more, this original battle theme makes known the prowess of the Super Famicom soundscape, and Ito takes no prisoners.
Here’s a fan favorite: the Gilgamesh battle theme, technically named “Clash on the Big Bridge.” How popular is this song? Let me give you an example. Square once ran a poll with vocalist RIKKI to see what fans wanted as a vocalized B-side to the “Suteki da ne” single for Final Fantasy X. In the end, Aeris’ Theme won out over the rest, but for awhile, “Clash on the Big Bridge” was holding a strong second place. Now consider: how would a song like this work for folk vocalist RIKKI? Answer: it wouldn’t. But people didn’t care, they just wanted more of this song! Eventually, power-rock group “The Black Mages” would come together and make an excellent arrangement of this piece. But it’s important to remember the original, and it’s clear that this original is one of the coolest songs Uematsu ever wrote.
And now, I say “ewwwwww.” Hiroki Kikuta is a genius, and I love all of his work. Well, maybe not all…there are a few songs I never liked. The boss battle theme “Danger” being one of them. The first half of thiis song is annoyingly atonal, too scatterbrained to really be an enjoyable piece. It’s almost scary how much I dislike this part of the song. Luckily, the second half breaks into some classic funky/groove music that’s typical of Kikuta. But really, they should’ve picked another song from Seiken Densetsu 2.
I said Sasai would be back, and he is. And he’s back with *another* song entitled “Battle 1.” Final Fantasy Mystic Quest is another “black sheep” game, but it had one killer soundtrack. This song proves it. Take a listen if you don’t believe me.
Romancing SaGa 2 pops in for a brief appearance with a pretty kickin’ song, but there’s something even better waiting for us at the end of the disc. So I won’t say much about the “Kujinshi” battle. I will, however, take some time to talk about Dancing Mad. This song marks what is, in my mind, the peak of Uematsu’s career. I’m not condemning him, I’m sure he’ll wrote more great songs in coming years…but man, nothing can beat this epic battle piece. Technically, the track is four songs rolled into one. Series veterans will remember that the final battle in FFVI is a four-step process, climbing a tower of mangled angelic bodies before reaching Kefka. Talk about wild! Each and every section in this four-part medley is excellent, but anyone who’s anyone in the world of VGM historians can tell you about the final section, where the party faces Kefka himself. After reprising the choral vocals played during the game’s introduction, we’re thrown into the fastest, most awesome rock piece Uematsu’s penned to date. It’s in a hellishly complex 15/8 time signature (broken into 8 and 7, cutting off that last beat to throw pop-music fans off every time!). Organ solos, Kefka’s evil laugh, and an epic breakdown sprinkle the second half of the piece, deviating from the main 15/8 theme. Yow! This song is blazing hot!
Okay, here’s an excellent choice. Well, you can’t exactly go wrong with Yoko Shimomura, but of all the battle themes in LiveALive, MEGALOMANIA is the best. This is the theme for a modern-day wannabe pro wrestler, and it’s just fantastic. If you can’t get into this song, then again, stop listening. This is the sort of song that makes these collection albums sell. More Shimomura is up with a decisive battle theme from Front Mission. This one takes me back, and soon, US fans will recognize it well from the DS remake that will finally bring the game to us English-speaking folk.
Mitsuda’s lone appearance on this disc is a standard piece, with a simple opening and a groovy melody to jive along to. It’s the regular “Battle” theme from Chrono Trigger, a game recognized as one of Square’s best games ever. This song helps to represent what is good and right about this game.
Well, if your impression of Kikuta was ruined from the Seiken Densetsu 2 selection, maybe you can realign your vision with this classic battle theme from Seiken Densetsu 3. There were a few better options in my opinion, but many VGM afficianados agree that “Nuclear Fusion” ought to rank high on anyone’s list of good VGM tunes. The synth manipulation alone makes it very unique.
Be shocked and amazed at how good the “band” synth sounds here. Guitar, bass, and drums appear for this awesome Romancing SaGa 3 tune. If Square Enix was attempting a musical “shock and awe” campaign with this album, this would be the one that has us all waving our flags in surrender. “Yes, Square Enix, we admit it, you are superior!” I’m not a fanboy, I’m just telling the truth. Ito’s reprisal role on this disc is an excellent one.
The next two pieces are a bit of a letdown after the tour de force we heard in the last five or six tracks. Bahamut Lagoon is an early favorite for some Matsueda fans, but I never much cared for it. The bland battle track is my defense for my opinion. Then, Uematsu offers a final track from Gun Hazard. This was just a shame, because I think Gun Hazard’s soundtrack is fantastic…but this particular song doesn’t represent it well. The song’s melody is carried by a very annoying synth, and the interesting stuff happening in the background seems to be drowning itself out, and it’s hard to follow any particular section of the song.
A little-known name (that I’m clearly trying to promote), Sasai is back for one more. This time, it’s for the Japanese sleeper-hit Rudra no Hihou (Rudra’s Treasure). Four years later, Sasai was still kicking butt and taking names. This is a great battle theme.
Much like with Gun Hazard, I feel “Treasure Hunter G” is misrepresented by this one track. Treasure Hunter G has some great music, though its battle themes weren’t nearly as good as some of the other pieces in the game. However, this particular piece is a bit of a letdown. It would have been a shame if it were the last piece on the disc.
Fortunately, it’s not. The final piece on this generally rock-hard-awesome CD offers a surprising change of pace: ambient techno. Romancing SaGa 2’s “Last Battle” was, originally, an epic piece that picked up speed as it went and really got in your face. Mitsuto Suzuki, the man behind this particular remix, turned the song into something altogether different. I’m not sure what you, the reader, will think of it: but as for me, I think it’s fantastic! The song brings a refreshing change of pace to end the album, and it’s also a great stand-alone remix. Honestly, if this Mitsuto Suzuki released a whole album of ambient arrangements from classic Square RPGs, I’d be first in line to buy it (granted all the arrangements were this good!). The piano sounds beautiful, the ebb and flow of the dynamics helps to ease the listener, even through tense chord progressions. The ethereal background pads are punched in and out at Suzuki’s discretion, and when they finally come back in to stay (about halfway through the piece), there’s an awesome drum loop to accompany it. I was able to quickly catch onto the melody, despite this being a fairly extreme rearrangement compared to what the song originally was. I love it, every moment of it.
All in all, I have to recommend this album. Even casual fans of the old Square games may find themselves wanting to pick up this album. And, audiophiles who find themselves occasionally attracted to some good ambient techno might just adore the bonus track as much as I have. I only hope that future volumes are as great as this one.