Angry Robot

Reflecting on Nobuo Uematsu

Now we all know I dislike turned-based RPGs, and most other types of RPGs for that matter. I’m a run around kill-kill type person, which doesn’t always (but quite often…) lend itself to radically emotional and compelling musical scores. RPGs, however, tend to strike at the heart of your soul as you unleash magic and attacks in a maelstrom of visually stunning battles and cutscenes. Sometimes the music is so powerful it can actually make you play better. I don’t know if that’s happened to you, but it has to me. The reverse is also true, sometimes music can make you hate a game (Prince of Persia: Warrior Within I’m not just looking, I’m glaring at you).

Being able to create a type of music that not only enhances gameplay, but is craved for on its own is a great feat. Nobuo Uematsu has done this repeatedly. It wasn’t until my obsession with the Lost Odyssey trailer that I decided to dig a bit deeper into the history of the man. Because it is one thing to simply know which composer you are listening to and completely another to understand how they came to be an as individual. Gives the whole listening process a new dynamic, don’t you think?

Uematsu was born in 1959 in Kochi, Japan. He was not raised with musical training and only began to play the piano when he was twelve. Yet he still had no “formal” training and was self-taught. His biggest role model and inspiration at the time was Elton John. I find that so interesting because you wouldn’t think the most famous video game music producer of all time would cite Elton John, best known for rock and roll pop music, to be his main influence. Looking at Elton John’s music though you can see why it would be intriguing to a young, aspiring musician. Elton John was a piano prodigy at the age of four and could pick up any melody by ear and play it back perfectly. That kind of skill is enviable, but the fact that he went on to sell over 250 million albums and over 100 million singles is beyond wow.

Uematsu sought to emulate his hero, but he did not go to university for music and after graduating he composed jingles for tv commercials. Now in a bio this is normally where the info stops and you skip to his joining the Square Enix company in 1986, where he would go on to write the soundtrack for Final Fantasy, but let’s pause for a minute and discuss jingles. I find it fascinating that with no “formal” training he would look to short-form music for a career. A jingle has to be quick, must capture some sort of action or emotion, and the best jingles stick in your head forever. There are some jingles for commercials from the 50’s that I’ve never even seen and I know them. That’s actually creepy.

Uematsu honed his skills with jingles, giving him the ability to create short, but effective melodies. When he was finally recruited in 1986 he was able to take this skill and expand upon it. If you think about it, game music back then was a short collection of jingles. There simply wasn’t that much space to go around for music. So all the wee-bit games had certain themes that would repeat. Like super powerful gaming jingles! Many of which are still remembered as the best of all time, even with super symphonic ballads of today battling for new partitions of excellence in our minds.

It is of interest to note how limits often give us insight into powerful creation. Limit the resources and a creative mind can still produce. Oftentimes, the quality of production is better than that a lesser mind who has an abundance of resources to work with. One soulful ballad on a piano can overshadow a dozen raging violins with its tender and haunting singularness. Now, give a creative mind a piano, horns, violins and whatever else they can dream up and the results can be staggering.

On to the history making: Final Fantasy!

Here’s a nice refresher:

(Sometimes I almost hear The Neverending Story theme in there…where Atreyu meets the Child Like Empress…I know that’s weird…)

This theme in its many incarnations transports players back to that first time they took a journey into a world unlike any other before. A world which, according to the history of the name, was supposed to be a one and only for creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who planned on retiring after the project. However, Final Fantasy was so popular it spawned an incredible number (28) of sequels and handheld spinoffs. Sakaguchi did not “retire” until 2001. Uematsu composed the music for the rest of the series including the handheld versions.

His complete list of game soundtracks (this does include his non-game related work, of which there is an abundance) goes something like this:

Genesis (1985)
Cruise Chaser Blassty (1986)
Alpha (1986)
Suisho no Dragon (1986)
King’s Knight special (1986)
King’s Knight (1986)
ALIENS (1987)
Tobidase Daisakusen (1987)
3D World Runner (1987)
Jumpin’ Jack (1987)
Apple Town Monogatari (1987)
Cleopatra no Mahou (1987)
Freeway Star (1987)
Square’s Tom Sawyer (1987)
Rad Racer (1987)
Final Fantasy (1987)
*Nakayama Miho no Tokitoki High School
Hanjuku Eiyuu (NES)
Final Fantasy II (1988) — Rescored for the WonderSwan Color and PlayStation versions (2000, 2002)
Final Fantasy Legend (1989)
Final Fantasy III (1990)
Final Fantasy Legend II (1991)
Final Fantasy IV (1991)
Final Fantasy V (1992)
Romancing SaGa 2 (1993) — With Kenji Ito
Final Fantasy VI (1994)
Chrono Trigger (1995) — With Yasunori Mitsuda and Noriko Matsueda
DynamiTracer [1995)
Front Mission: Gun Hazard (1996) — With Yasunori Mitsuda, Masashi Hamauzu, and Junya Nakano
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Final Fantasy X (2001) — With Masashi Hamauzu and Junya Nakano
Ace Combat 4: Shattered Skies (2001)
Hanjuku Eiyuu Tai 3D (2002)
Final Fantasy XI (2002) — With Naoshi Mizuta and Kumi Tanioka
Hanjuku Eiyuu 4 (2005) — With Kenichiro Fukui, Hirosato Noda, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Naoshi Mizuta, Kenichi Mikoshiba, Ai Yamashita, and Kenji Ito
Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (2005)
Final Fantasy XII (2006) — With Hitoshi Sakimoto
Blue Dragon (2006)
Lost Odyssey (2006)
Cry On (2006)
Super Smash Brothers Brawl (2007)

Sheet music for most of his music can be found here if you’re interested and musically inclined.

Uematsu won various awards for his music including 1999’s 14th Annual Japan Gold Disc Music Awards Song of the Year for Western Music. This was a great feat for Uematsu and the first such win for music from a video game. Eastern audiences have always sought out game music moreso than Western, but having a song from a video game compete with the rest of the music industry, well, that’s kinda like when South Park’s “Blame Canada” was nominated for an Oscar. A crossing of established boundries is always a milestone worth remembering as exceptional.

In 2003 Uematsu formed The Black Mages, a musical group dedicated to transforming his previous music into new forms, mainly progressive metal styled rock. The idea for the band came in 2000 when Uematsu was treated to a special arrangement of his previous compositions by Square Enix employees Kenichiro Fukui and Tsuyoshi Sekito. The two had worked together on an expriemental musical project for the soundtrack of All Star Pro-Wrestling and changed some of Uematsu’s music to reflect a harder rock sound. Uematsu was delighted, his only concern being that fans of his music would not be able to enjoy hearing such arrangements.

Three years later The Black Mages released their first album of re-arranged battle themes from the Final Fantasy series entitled The Black Mages. This was followed in 2004 with The Black Mages II: The Skies Above, which featured a variety of song types and special guest vocalists. A third album, The Black Mages III: Darkness and Starlight, is expected to be released this year.

Uematsu not only promotes enthusiasm for his own work, but encourages creativity in others. Not many composers could stand by and watch others take their work to another level. He did the latter gleefully, and then took it even further by forming a band to promote this new style of his own music.

The Black Mages are hugely popular in Japan, as is Uematsu himself. When Lost Odyssey was announced Uematsu’s name was announced right along with it. For a RPG to make it, really make it, on the Xbox 360 they pulled out all the stops and wanted only the best of the best for that title. Uematsu is the best, forging ahead back in the 80’s before others had barely scratched the surface of gaming’s musical emotional depth. Nowadays, we have an abundance of amazing game soundtracks and composers who are specifically dedicated to the expansion of that musical arena. But you can’t move forward without looking back, even if it’s only to make sure you’re not going in circles.

Nobuo Uematsu is a great man, a kind man, and a happy man. His genuine love for his work and the world of gaming is a blessing to any one who hear his work while playing. I like that. I like knowing that the people who make what I love are just as enraptured as I am. That they are moved every day by the unstoppable will to create something I, and others, will enjoy. It’s a wonderful thing.

I look forward to seeing more attention to game music being paid in North America. With D pointing out recently that Ye Olden Hollywood wants a bigger in on the industry maybe we’re not too far off from a game theme song going up for an Oscar? I mean with such rapidly converging mediums and cultures we can’t rule it out completely, can we?

Afterall, it is hard out there for a pimp…