Nobuo Uematsu is one of the most well-known composers of video game music in the world. His music is usually in a classical/orchestral style, but has also incorporated influences such as hard rock and Celtic music. He has a tremendous ability to reflect and bring out the emotions of the games he has worked on, and many memorable moments from games like the popular Final Fantasy series owe much of their power to his work.
Early Life and Career
Uematsu was born in Kouchi City, Japan, in 1959. He began teaching himself to play piano at the age of twelve. After college, he performed in amateur bands and wrote music for advertisements before going to work for popular publisher Square (now Square Enix) in 1985. There he worked on a number of games, including Genesis, Rad Racer, and 3D World Runner.
Square and Final Fantasy
In 1987, Square released Final Fantasy, one of the first major role-playing games for a console system, on the Japanese Famicom. An American release on the Nintendo Entertainment System would follow in 1990. Nobuo Uematsu provided the soundtrack. The game was a surprise hit, leading to numerous spin-offs and sequels that have made the series hugely popular to this day.
Several of Uematsu’s musical themes from the first game would become mainstays of the series, recognizable even to players too young to have played the originals. He remained at Square/Square Enix until 2004, composing the music for the first ten Final Fantasy games. This music, along with work on other games such as Chrono Trigger (assisting composer Yasunori Mitsuda) cemented his reputation as one of the most respected composers in the video game field.
Expanding Beyond Video Games
In 2003, Nobuou Uematsu founded a band, The Black Mages, together with fellow musicians and Square Enix employees Tsuyoshi Sekito and Kenichiro Fukui. The Black Mages play renditions of music from the Final Fantasy games, arranged and played in a heavy metal/progressive rock style. With Uematsu serving as keyboardist, The Black Mages have released three albums so far, and have also contributed songs to several games, as well as to the soundtrack of Final Fantasy VII Advent Children.
In 2004, Uematsu’s music was performed by live orchestras in a series of Japanese cities. Later that same year, a performance was given in Los Angeles by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The concerts were a great success, leading to several successful concert tours in Japan, North America, and Europe.
Nobuo Uematsu Later
In 2004 Uematsu departed from employment at Square Enix to create Smile Please, his own production company. He has continued to do work for Square on a freelance basis, composing music for the forthcoming game Final Fantasy XIV. Uematsu has also worked on the games Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey from Mistwalker Studios, founded by Final Fantasy series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi.
Nobuo Uematsu’s career has encompassed dozens of games, and spawned numerous spin-offs such as recordings of concerts and piano arrangements. Among the more prominent games in Uematsu’s career are:
3D World Runner (1987)
Rad Racer (1987)
Final Fantasy (1987)
Final Fantasy II (1988) With Kenji Ito
Final Fantasy Legend (1989)
Final Fantasy III (1990)
Final Fantasy Legend II (1990) With Kenji Ito
Final Fantasy IV (1991)
Final Fantasy V (1992)
Final Fantasy VI (1994
Chrono Trigger (1995) With Yasunori Mitsuda, Noriko Matsueda
Front Mission: Gun Hazard (1996)
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Final Fantasy IX (2000)
Final Fantasy X (2001) With Masashi Hamuza, Junya Nakano
Final Fantasy XI (2002) With Naoshi Mizuta, Kumi Tanioka
Blue Dragon (2006) With Satoshi Henmi, Hiroyuki Nakayama
Lost Odyssey (2007)
Lord of Vermillion (2008)
Final Fantasy Retrospective
Final Fantasy came out in North America in 1990 and has remained relevant to gamers since. Countless remakes allow it to stay firmly within gamers’ collective memories.
Legend has it that in 1986 Squaresoft was in trouble, after releasing a string of mediocre titles that met with equally mediocre sales they were pinning all their hopes on one last ditch game, one they dubbed their ‘final fantasy’, to be released in 1987 in Japan. True or not, Final Fantasy was an undeniable hit for the company, one that has successfully withstood the test of time.
Final Fantasy in Retrospect
Facing impending closure or not Square was clearly set on creating a hit with Final Fantasy, shamelessly copying their successful RPG forebears. With genre cues taken from the previous year’s hit Dragon Quest (itself taking cues from PC RPGs such as Ultima) and monster designs/character classes borrowed liberally from Dungeons & Dragons.
However Final Fantasy is no cheap rip-off resting solely on aspects stolen from other games, instead it uses these aspects as a base to be built upon. Dragon Quest used a one character battle party, a first person battle perspective, and in the original Japanese release sprites were only capable of facing south no matter what direction they were actually traveling in. Its story consisted of a simple save the princess, kill the bad guy, win the game formula.
Final Fantasy improved upon all these aspects, with a 4 person battle party, the ability to see all your characters at once in a side-view battle perspective, and a greatly expanded story. Almost as if the developers were attempting to distance Final Fantasy from the earlier game, this one begins with your heroes being charged with the rescue of a princess, a quest that is over not ten minutes later.
Final Fantasy Prelude – Classic Elements
The first game in the series introduced many elements that would recur throughout. The character classes of White/Black/Red Mage, Thief, Black Belt, and Fighter would all appear in various incarnations in every game of the series to date. The crystals, or “orbs” in the original NES game, play a big part in many series entires, and the airship method of transport has been unavoidable.
Perhaps most importantly, the iconic themes by Nobuo Uematsu “Prologue” and “Prelude” have appeared consistently in remixed forms in every main series entry. These musical pieces have set a tone for the overall series from day one, and are truly impressive as having originated from the NES’ meagre sound chip.
Lasting Appeal – Origins and Beyond
From Japan-only releases on cellphones and the Wonderswan Colour to international ones on the PlayStation, Gameboy Advance, PSP and Wiiware Final Fantasy 1 is one of the most remade games available. Each release is slightly different, and usually enhanced only superficially from the previous ones. The PlayStation version (“Origins”) uses the updated graphics of the Wonderswan release, and adds some unfortunate CD loads times.
The GBA version, subtitled Dawn of Souls, introduces a new bonus dungeon to be played after the main game, and again slightly changes the graphics for the new smaller screen. The PSP release uses the script from Dawn of Souls, but again entirely overhauls the graphics and adds a second bonus dungeon. Each of these updates feature faster level and monetary gains than the original, unforgiving NES release.
The Wiiware release is interesting in that it is in fact a straight re-release of the original NES game, with none of the enhancements introduced since the game’s debut in 1987. However, this is not at all an unwelcome release for gamers as the original game is still heavily played by hardcore series enthusiasts unhappy with the easier modern versions.
Having dissected every aspect of the original game, there are those who set challenges for themselves to see how quickly it can be completed, how low a level they can defeat the final boss at, and how few characters they can employ in doing so.