The JRPG Perspective: Music

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

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The JRPG Perspective | oprainfall

From the dawn of Japanese role-playing games, a certain thing has valiantly held its place along the game mechanics and stories common to the genre. This magical measure is music, the thing that brings meaning to the games that we play.

Why does it do that? And does music really hold that much sway in how a JRPG plays out? To answer these questions, we’ll have to delve into why music was incorporated into JRPGs in the first place. While we won’t track back to the dawn of JRPGs, we will definitely explore a time period close to it: specifically, the time when the first Final Fantasy was born, along with its music.

Back in the days of the Nintendo Entertainment System, you couldn’t program long lines of exposition into your game due to the memory constraints on NES cartridges. Thus, any story you wanted to have was limited to its simplest form, and you couldn’t convey the full strength of emotion and power through the few lines you had at your disposal. This is where music stepped in, bringing emotion and purpose to the earliest of Final Fantasies.

We know that the series was a success; we also know that it was partly thanks to the game mechanics, and partly to the bare-bones story. However, what about music — how big a part did it play in this?

Since this was the first game of what would later become a series, we don’t have our answer yet; let’s skip forward a few iterations. We are now in the sixth game, and Final Fantasy is finally gathering worldwide attention. The series has seen some very interesting gameplay changes, from the first game’s class system, to the sixth game’s unique characters, each with their own exclusive ability. There’s also more diversity and a wider scope to the story, with the character count being the highest yet in the series.

I will come out and state my personal opinion: this is all fantastic and spectacular, but there’s something even more notable that took place in the sixth Final Fantasy game. In fact, I think there’s a specific moment in gaming history when we began to believe that video games could be more than just games.

The JRPG Perspective

When does a game become something more than a tool for entertainment?

To those of you not familiar with the famous “opera scene” from Final Fantasy VI, here’s a short recap for you: a member of your group is forced into playing opera in order to lure out the dastardly sky pirate Setzer. The beginning parts of the opera play out before your female character enters the stage, and then, you will have to act the scene out according to the notes you were given.

So, what’s so important about this scene? The culmination of gameplay and music combined, that’s what. Your character acts out the scene, and you are given multiple choices, from which you’ll have to choose the right line to progress the scene. While this is happening, beautiful music (especially for that time period) plays, and you can hear the humming coincide with your lines. The notes and the song hit with an unbelievable impact as gameplay and music become truly one.

Of course, the sound fidelity back then wasn’t what it is today. While I would say that the scene has aged well, the humming might not sound nearly as genuine as it did back in the early 90’s. However, some of the magic remains, despite time’s passing.

Anyway, after this incredible high point in our story, one would think that narrative demanded a low to contrast it. However, life has a curious way of not doing things our way: Squaresoft continued to prosper, bringing the sales record-breaking Final Fantasy VII to market. Then came the eighth game, and then the ninth…

Everything that Squaresoft did with these titles — be it in regards to story, gameplay, or music — was phenomenal. Musically, the fantastical scores they created for each of their worlds did a great job in creating specific moods, adding immersion, and telling a story through the notes of a keyboard (or valves of a trumpet, depending on your favourite instrument).

We shouldn’t forget that other JRPGs had already started popping up in Japan: the earlier iterations of Fire Emblem (which are technically Tactical Role-Playing Games, not JRPGs), the later releases of Dragon Quest, the first two Suikodens, and then, The Legend of Dragoon.

I could make a study of why the last game was, in popular opinion, just a mediocre game, but by doing so I could also earn a horde of lifetime enemies, and I don’t think I’m ready for the challenge. So let’s talk about Suikoden, instead. It’s a series published by Konami, and the mainline games have five iterations. These games have almost never enjoyed a great deal of success in Japan, and even in the West the reception has been very lackluster.

Why do I mention this? Well, it is relevant to the next point; as a JRPG series, Suikoden is arguably one of the best that the world has ever seen. Its gameplay had many fresh and creative parts, from the tactical RPG-style altercations to beautifully animated turn-based battles. Granted, the tactical RPG-style battles weren’t anything new in the gaming scene… Except when combined with a traditional JRPG.

The JRPG Perspective

There’s a great amount of charm to Suikoden II’s battle animations.

But here’s the foremost reason I wanted to bring up this series, as it had something that many JRPGs forget, despite that thing being their very lifeline and soul: it had music. Beautiful music. Tunes and melodies that fit each scene as if specifically crafted for them (and in many cases, it was so).

Why is this important? Because of a couple of things. When the plot twists and turns, it’s sometimes hard to interpret the urgency of the situation shown on the screen; a snappy, threatening tune kicking in at those parts can help the player to quickly reorient himself and emotionally prepare himself for the grueling battle. Or, let’s say that you witness a scene in which a minor villain bosses a regular foot soldier around. Suddenly, a scary, foreboding tune starts playing and a hooded character enters the scene. Because of the music, you’ll instantly recognize that this guy is scarier than the minor villain, and are left wondering who the guy is and what his end game is.

As you can see, music itself can serve as a storytelling tool. In the JRPG genre that relies on its stories to deliver a gaming experience, music is a vital part that can’t be ignored. Developers do this at their own peril, and most often, pay the price for it as well. But not all that is great sells great; here with Suikoden we have two games that should have sold better and reached a wider audience. The mainline Suikoden games also stop at the fifth iteration, and to date Konami hasn’t shown much reaction to the fans’ pleas for another Suikoden game. So if there’s a great regret to being a JRPG fan, it is here in the fate of Suikoden.

Now, there’s one last reason music is so incremental to the JRPG experience: it brings emotion to certain scenes of the story, and the more distinct the piece that plays during that part, the higher the emotion that we feel. Curiously, emotion is also one of the greatest ways of imprinting something into the human brain. So, when we recall JRPG gaming memories from our brain, chances are that it was a moment so emotionally loaded, so charged — thanks to the music — that our mind registered it as an important memory to preserve.

Makes you think about things in a new light, doesn’t it? Some things in JRPGs were created to stay within your mind.

Anyhow, we’ve covered quite a bit of ground regarding music and its importance to JRPGs. I want to leave you guys with a final question that you can answer in the comments below: do you have any music-related JRPG-memories?

The feature image was made by WishingTikal.




  • Zwielicht Funkel

    In hindsight, I think that the music of my first JRPG, Ys for the Master System, left quite an impression. Nothing screams “town music” to me as much as “Fountain of Love” and “Holders of Power” is in a way, still THE boss music for me. But the most memorable song is “First Step Towards War”, the overworld music. It really sets the mood for a big, epic adventure. Which is ironic, considering how short the game is, so it doesn’t even really fit (although the slow pace of the Master System version helps).

    “Palace” has also burned into my mind. It has a quite mysterious and and maybe slightly somber mood to it. It is played in the first rooms of the first dungeon, which are slightly maze-like and completely bare. The first enemy you encounter is a boss, right before you delve deeper. It is the mysterious music that really makes it what it is. Without it, the empty rooms just seem odd and out of place. But combined with “Palace”, they’re really feel right and become a memorable part of the game.

  • It didn’t start with Final Fantasy, it started with Falcom who had a ton of games out before the first FF ever released. They pioneered serious attention to music in video games, composing tracks that people could enjoy outside the game. This might sound obvious but back in the 80s it was a pretty new idea. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest built on the foundations that Falcom created but Falcom still continue to have some of the coolest music in video games in their games.

    More info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nihon_Falcom

    As for music in JRPGs, one stands out to me a serious amount: A Fleeting Dream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkAFi88J5Aw The haunting melody that accompanies the end of a somber journey, that even invades random encounters so the atmosphere isn’t ruined. Even as I write this it still fills me with emotions. Thank you Mr. Uematsu for all your work 🙂

  • Thanatos2k

    It’s sad how many games completely ignore the necessitity of memorable music or a main theme to their game.

    WRPGs are particularly bad about this. Can you hum a single tune from something like, say, Mass Effect 3? I can’t remember a single thing.

    But I can hum the entire soundtrack to Chrono Trigger.