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Final Fantasy IV
(a.k.a. Final Fantasy II in US)

Final Fantasy IV CD cover
NTT/Polystar PSCN-5014 (JPN)

Composed, Arranged & Produced by
Nobuo Uematsu

Track list

45 tracks 63:00
(USA release includes a Bonus track)

Sound samples here

I love Final Fantasy IV. It was the first truly character-intensive game I ever played, and I was immediately entranced by the goings-on of the little world that was unfolding within my TV set - FFIV was the game that introduced me to my love of RPGs. It was also the game that introduced me to my love of game music; when I stepped outside Castle Baron's walls and the overworld theme started playing, I was absolutely taken aback - I was astonished that such beautiful, emotive music was the actual in-game BGM.

So, has my nostalgia for and obsession with the game skewed my perceptions of the soundtrack? Perhaps a little, though not in the ways one might anticipate. I took an uncommonly long time getting along to actually buying the CD, putting it on the back burner in favor of semi-impulse buys like Final Fantasy: Pray and the Secret of Evermore OST, and my first listen to the CD did not impress me as much as I expected, probably because I had listened at length to all the tunes countless times during my numerous, numerous jaunts through the game - overfamiliarity has perhaps finally begun to set in in some cases. Is it good? It's a pre-Playstation Uematsu Final Fantasy score; unquestionably. Do the early 16-bit limitations show? Well, in some cases, yes. Sound limitations didn't matter much in the 8-bit Final Fantasy scores, which were delightful without complex instrumentation worries getting in the way, but Uematsu is reaching further here in his first 16-bit attempt, developing more orchestral pieces that require sound, realistic synthetic instruments to properly render them, and, occasionally, his reach exceeds the grasp of the then-current technology (or, at least, Square's and his understanding of and working experience with it at the time). Take "Theme of Love" - I'm not one fond of Themes of Love, and while the one here isn't exceptionally remarkable upon a passing listen, it is rather sweet if you really listen to it, though it could have benefited from more refined, "technologically advanced" synthetic instruments - as could probably have "Troian Beauty", a pleasant waltz, nicely fluid, but the foreground instruments are too undistinguished, and a better violin-synthetic really might have bolstered the tune. Tech probs don't stop Uematsu, though, from pulling together the strangest, spookiest-kookiest instrumentation on the CD for sinisterly playful "Mystic Mysidia" and its unsettling sense of hey,-maybe-you're-in-over-your-head-here danger - or, if that doesn't grab ya, try on the merrily bizarre "Another Moon", green cheese-image-conjuring blurty, squeaky trumpet bursts grafted atop a violin part adapted from The Nutcracker Suite that together produce a ungainly yet somehow weirdly elegant beauty. And sometimes a wide-ranging orchestra mock-up is unnecessary to evoke the called-for emotion; simple, understated compositions actually lend strength to the OSV's more poignant (and superb) tunes - "Cry in Sorrow" (despondent, forlorn piano) and sweet, tenuous "Rydia", the aftermath tune of "Castle Damcyan", and the lovely and underrated "Melody of Lute" - delicately serene and sad, with a meandering melody that finds a gentle, infectious strength as it progresses.

Uematsu is an indisputable maestro, so it is no surprise that his sheer strength of composition would triumph over a relatively limited sound system. It seems, though, that he concentrates those talents on more forceful, even bombastic tunes - the tense, militaristic "Castle Baron", the intrepid "Tower of Bab-il" and "Red Wings", the most over-the-top stereotypical pipe-organ villain's theme, "Golbeza, Clad in the Darkness" (though not necessarily in a bad way - some of the is fingerwork on the organ playing is impressive, and the song's overwroughtness does have a kinda goofy effectiveness to it), "Golbeza"'s reprise, the impressive, strident, militant (though a bit repetitive) "Tower of Zot", the exceedingly breathless "The Big Whale"... "adventuresome" tracks - tracks composed for situations that call for potent, intense emotion and mood - command a great deal of the successful tracks (all except "The Big Whale" belong in the upper echelons of RPG music tracks) - and, apparently, most of Uematsu's attention - here. The ones supposed to set more subdued moods more inobtrusively are a mixed bag - Uematsu finds measured success with "Somewhere in the World" and "The Lunarians" (the latter's tomblike bells and lonely, echoing crystalline synth very effective and evocative for their setting but calling a wee bit more attention to the tune than, for mood's sake, should be paid), but tunes like "Suspicion" and "Long Way to Go" are unremarkable - while they serviceably set the called-for atmosphere in their corresponding in-game events, they lack the strength, nuance, or original qualities that would make them good stand-alone listening. The "soft" tracks on hand here demonstrate that Uematsu doesn't have a good grasp here on how game music can be compositionally complex yet not so insistent; though the man's unquestionably one of the (if not the) most talented game composers on the planet, he is not blessed with quite the gift that, say, Hiroki Kikuta does for compositions that are both subtle and compelling. Now, perhaps, in FF4, he was excited to be finally be working on a platform that could reproduce some semblance of a synthetic orchestra and wanted to concentrate on pieces that took full advantage of the format and made the listener stand up and take notice of the more advanced sound system...but Uematsu's music does tend to make its presence known - he's not content to craft "background" music; his compositions most always insist on being foreground music, after all - and it thus is most likely that he was not particularly interested in addressing that challenge. But the failure of the relevant (albeit few) lackluster tracks in that respect remains a black mark against the OST nonetheless.

But, to emphasize where I haven't yet adequately done so, this is a soundtrack that can withstand a few bruises. While his high successes in FFIV are primarily limited, be it through the constraints of the hardware, his own abilities, or his choice of style, to the extremes of emotion, there are few soundtracks one can describe by using "high successes" in a qualifying statement or the lesser end of a comparison - and there are places where the composer just lets loose his melodic talents to produce those best-remembered works of trademark Uematsu greatness, instantly enveloping the listener into the intended milieu without noticeable fanfare or manipulation. Take his powerful "Into the Darkness" waltz, a shimmering, eerie, almost hypnotic beauty to surrender to; it's one of the most unusual primary dungeon themes out there, yet you'd never think it a bit inappropriate - listening to it progress is like plunging deeper and deeper into the depths of a seductively mysterious abyss. Or lend an ear to the aptly-named "Illusionary World" in the Land of Summoned Monsters, at complete harmony in its faraway, surreal, Magritte-ish locale. And though FFIV's regular and boss battle tunes lack the concentrated tenseness of more recent such themes, the titanic, tumultuous "The Dreadful Battle" (the Four Fiends boss battle tune) remains one of the best boss fight themes anywhere, making an immediate impression with its urgency and regal grandioseness - though it, too, is affected with inadequate synth, you'll not notice or care while listening, as its forceful fluid momentum sweeps the listener like a force of nature, so many changes in the direction of its composition, so seamless, integrating so many instruments so nimbly. The ending leaves us with the best, lasting impressions, from the regretfully reflective, lingering farewell, an elegy of astral eternity, accompanying the moon's departure from Earth orbit to the jubilant remix of the main theme to the sentimental, triumphant wedding reprise of the "Prologue", all perfectly scored to their accompanying in-game scenes - and, for me, nothing still has matched the transcendent sense of sadness and wonder of the overworld theme that struck such awe into me long ago, surely one of the greatest pieces of game music of all time - and certainly my all-time favorite. The Final Fantasy IV OSV might be showing its age in spots, but there's still plenty of magic to be found here.

Reviewed by Rebecca Capowski
(originally published on her site)

1. The reissue of the Japanese Final Fantasy IV OSV has a sound glitch - a little bit of the end of track 2 carries over into the start of track 3. It's nothing that at all significantly detracts from the enjoment of the CD, btu it's just a little jarring if you're skipping from track to track rather than listening to it the whole way through. More trained ears on Soundtrack Central's board claim to have detected more bugs, but I haven't noticed any more glitches beyond this one.

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