This is a special post from our Audio Producer and video game aficionado Justin Ecock.
He’s been called the John Williams of video games and today Nobou Uemasu celebrates his 58th birthday. Born in Kochi Japan, Nobou is best known for scoring the music to the celebrated Final Fantasy videogame series. Self-taught and with Elton John as one of his biggest influences he began scoring music for videogames in 1986 when most game developers around the world still questioned the importance of video game music at all. I sat down with three leaders in the local videogame community, Mark Tjan, chair of Hamilton’s Con Bravo convention; Julian Spillane, director at Pop Reach; and Orie Falconer, musician and game developer, to talk about Nobou Uematsu’s legacy on music and videogames.
Mark: When they were making games they just needed anybody, anybody who could make music and he was like ‘um, I know some things, ok I’ll do it.’
Orie: His original career path that he wanted to take was wrestling but eventually he landed into music because, yea, especially back then it’s whoever is in the building who can make sounds for this machine who is going to get the job
Julian: Specifically for Final Fantasy, his first role at Square, can you write this music but can you also engineer it? And to be a composer you had to be a programmer as well. There were no tools and any tools that were made were made by the programmers and were as convoluted to use as coding it yourself, right? Sure he’s probably a natural music talent, I mean obviously after everything I’ve seen him do over the course of his career, but he’s also a bit more technically minded too.
Mark: Especially when you consider that the Prelude was written just 30 minutes before they had to ship Final Fantasy?
Orie: What set him apart, and I think this was very true on at least the Japanese side of videogame music, they really put their care and effort into it. Even when whoever is picked to make music, and they have to program it, he’s still writing with the intent of displaying the emotion of the scene and pairing it with what was happening in the story.
Julian: It was called Final Fantasy because they thought it was the last game they’d make because they couldn’t afford to make any more and were going to shutter their doors. It’s the ultimate irony but they were fighting for their company’s survival and their own jobs. Legend of Zelda is out at this point, in 85/86, and Final Fantasy came out at the beginning of ‘87 and people said, “whoa this is a game changer”.
Orie: There’s this general perception that video game music is a collection of bleeps and bloops which is so weird because the people experiencing Final Fantasy VI and even IV and V on the Super Nintendo are beautiful sound tracks. They’re operatic, progressive rock, jazz fusion. A lot of times Nobou gets put in the same category as John Williams and I think for similar reasons when you hear the Imperial March you think of Darth Vader or vice versa. When you think of a character in Final Fantasy games, because they’re so story driven, they always have these very strong character themes. Final Fantasy IV has what’s just called the Love Theme. That’s the main theme and over the course of the game you’ll hear it in different contexts and interpretations even all the way up to the final boss where this love song ballad is now twisted into this horrifyingly destructive song. And it’s awesome, that’s how you make these connections. That’s how you get all these people to really attach themselves to your characters.streaming Divergent
Mark: I would argue that early on Final Fantasy would not have had a sense of continuity if Uematsu’s music didn’t exist.
Julian: What differentiates Uematsu from John Williams is Uematsu is a rock fan first and a classical musician second. Since he’s started his career he’s always wanted to be in a rock band. He’s more attuned to popular music and varying different styles than I think Williams is. People in that pantheon of composters (John Williams, James Newton Howards, etc.) they kind of sit in this weird bubble where they just write their music because that’s the music that we know.
Orie: John Williams, as a film composer, you have that air of like, “today I’m going write and go into my studio and write for this orchestra” where Uematsu comes from this background of writing chip tunes in a small room. You get that humbleness from him. He’s very much the guy with the pencil and the paper and a closet and “I’ve got to write a song today” and there’s no on around to teach you how to do it.
Mark: Uematsu is interesting in that he’s so much more casual than John Williams, like Williams takes himself very seriously in a sense, not humourlessly but he thinks of his work in a certain way where as Uematsu almost treats it as disposable like this is not the stuff he always wanted to create. He’s happy that he did but this is not his life’s work. It’s almost like he’s still waiting to do his life’s work.
Mark: Recommendations? Almost anything from Final Fantasy IX. Melodies of Life is gorgeous.
Orie: If I had to pick literally only one track of his I would have to go to Dancing Mad from Final Fantasy VI because that’s a master class of why he’s so great. Especially on the hardware it’s for. His ability to convey a madman in a song. It’s like an opera track with movements and then it turns into a rock song and then it turns into a dirge and it then it’s representing the ascension to a god. It tells such a weird story and it’s very cool. It’s probably one of the most complex pieces he’s ever done
Julian: I would say the entire opera scene from Final Fantasy VI, it’s written as a classic opera and now it’s performed on stage with the Distant Worlds touring company. It’s cool that this stuff is finally seeing it’s due because there’s so many composers, especially Japanese composers in video games, that over here didn’t get the recognition they really deserved.
Orie: I would also bring up the theme song for Smash Brother’s Brawl (Nintendo Wii). The latin choir that comes in? That’s Nobou’s work.