March 18, 2021
The Playstation 2 was an interesting console for the JRPG movement - SO many titles had their debuts on both the Super Nintendo/Famicom and Playstation 1, the PS2 featured a lot of prequel material as well as third, fourth, and fifth generation titles. Thankfully, the sea-change in terms of audio and visual fidelity between console eras was such that developers worked very hard to ensure that titles were as good if not better than many of their debut counterparts. The PS2 boasted an incredible library of over 3,800 games in it’s time, so choosing 10 of our favorite JRPG soundtracks was quite the task! But from a compositional standpoint, I think I’ve identified what I feel like were influential and sometimes game-changing scores that (mostly) feel as fresh and modern today as the day they were released at your local Electronics Boutique (RIP).
In No Particular Order (because how do we even judge)
Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter
Composed by Hitoshi Sakamoto, the master of longform role-playing game soundtracks, the OST to BOFV is something to behold. Compositionally speaking, Sakamoto cut his teeth previously on games like Final Fantasy Tactics and the entire Ogre Battle series. These games are tactical JRPGs replete with menu diving galore and stat-building, character-organizing madness. From a compositional perspective these types of games are challenging to write and arrange for. The traditional looping mechanisms of SNES RPGs of yesteryear don’t lend themselves well to longform listening, so it’s easy to see how Sakamoto was one of a few Japanese composers who utilized through-composition and thematic variation to make sure the music never got boring. Fast forward to BOFV and this perspective rings true, but this time in 3-D PS2 glory. The soundtrack doesn’t stray from the 90’s drum machines and electronic music influences and wears them proudly alongside deep melodies and mysterious harmonies that encourage exploration. Something that stands out to be about this soundtrack is how effective it is at blending what would be considered more traditional orchestration with electronic instruments like synthesizers and aforementioned drum machines. To me this is a nod to the future of what RPG music would sound like - not just a deep take on fantasy and orchestra music, but something that sounds simultaneously wild yet metropolitan, pastoral but cyberpunk.
Pulling from a well of history, the third installment in the Suikoden JRPG series featured some of its most evocative themes. One of the things that made the Suikoden series so interesting and great to listen to was the introduction of various world instruments and musical influences throughout the fairly vast continent(s) whilst maintaining thematic resonance across the spectrum of themes. In Suikoden 3, one of the lead characters is from a small tribe, in contrast to the relative nobility of the other two leads. The challenges in writing music for a game that features three equally important lead characters are significant, but Michiru Yamane pulls it off flawlessly. Yamane’s work stretches back into the roots of gaming itself in 1988 where her score for Kings Valley II and Ganbare Goemon in 1989 proved her mettle. From the 90s forward she was part of the TMNT series and most famously the Castlevania series. Her importance as a female voice in a compositional world dominated by males cannot be understated either.
The Castlevania series is known for its blend of gothic themes mixed with 80’s/90’s cheese-rock undergirding its dark wings. Suikoden 3 sheds much of this darkness, save a few dramatic moments, and instead shrouds us with adventure, tribalism and royalty, all with the same lilting and jagged parallel harmonic progressions we hear in the Castlevania sonic lore (word salad 100). What strikes me about the musical world of Suikoden 3 is it’s compositional consistency balanced with regional variation. To me, Yamane proves that she is still the queen of adventure music in the PS2 era.
Final Fantasy X
Perhaps the most emblematic of the PS2 era JRPG’s, Final Fantasy X is by far the most epic, broad and massive musical undertaking of early 2000’s gaming. Walk into any high school band room today (well maybe before 2020 stole our schools away) and you could almost certainly hear the main FFX theme being played on an out of tune piano reverberating through the hallways. The tune “Zanarkand” would become the most famous FF piece of all time other than Aeris’ Theme (yes I use the 90’s US spelling). Nobuo Uematsu and his team built a breathtakingly emotional world of sound through this game, and I personally think that the music has a lot to do with why generations of players feel it is the greatest FF game of all. The theme of Zanarkand is at once heroic, but a bit stoic, with a rise-fall-reprieve cadence that evokes truly strange and complicated emotions. After 20 years of listening to the OST I still can’t quite describe what it makes me feel on a personal level - the one thing that is certain is that I always come out of it a little different than I was before I went in. And that, I think, is at the compositional heart of the score to FFX. Tidus, the main character goes on a serious inner quest throughout the game, from spoiled-famous brat living under his father’s famous shadow, to confronting his demons - and his fathers - in a quest to save humanity, and himself from their equally selfish delusions. Melody as a compositional device remains one of the most powerful forces in music and the theme of FFX is strong enough to withstand countless variations, iterations and integrations into the rest of the OST, stringing it all together in one timeless score.
Xenosaga: Der Wille Zur Macht
The sometimes bizarre “sequel” to Xenogears was a complete departure from what fans expected after the rushed ending of Xenogears, where the developers were forced to squash hours of gameplay into real-time cutscenes due to time and budgetary constraints (finishing this would be an incredible kickstarter btw). The space-opera world was a massive extension on the relic “Gears” of the first game, and is a sight to behold. Thankfully the score by master of drama Yasunori Mitsuda does not disappoint. The score is brilliantly performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metro Voices choir, the Gen Ittetsu Strings, Yasuharu Nakanishi, Joanne Hogg and others. Putting these details into context of video games in 1997 using what sounds like stock midi instruments in Finale or on a Yamaha DX7 (nothin but luv) really amplifies the feat of Xenosaga’s score. The music is brilliantly arranged for orchestra and choir, probably the best in existence by many standards even today. Movements like Gnosis are relentlessly driving (reminiscent of Bolero by Ravel) in a way that only a large orchestra can accomplish, with massive percussion and low brass sections driving the engine bays of massive spaceships as woodwinds and violins soar like spirits in space around the ships. Then you have themes like “The Girl Who Closed Her Heart” that sounds a bit like Brad Mehldau if he were making Jpop on piano, or the choral movement Ormus which is every bit as fresh as if it were written today. Therein lies a large part of what makes Xenosaga special - its religious devotion to modern-meets-ancient in its melodic and harmonic gestures. This is a soundtrack you’ll be hard-pressed not to turn off the light, fire up some candles and sit in it’s presence for all 2 hours 11 minutes and 10 seconds of its duration. That last chord on Ormus - OMG.
<iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5rT_Ny5J26I?start=880" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe>
Dragon Quest VII
The fantastical, medieval-ish vibes of the Dragon Quest series were always begging for a Mozart-like treatment, and when the opportunity for the PS2 to release what would be largest technological leap of the series came, Koichi Sugiyama spared no timbral expense - although with some lovely euphonium soloists. The use of orchestral sounds had been a staple of his compositional voice throughout the series, and in DQVII he makes use of tightly harmonized and sparsely arranged movements that feel more like an opera than a symphony. The harmony on songs like A Garden Where Time Sleeps, is quite something when listened to deeply without distraction, and the Disney-like emotions of themes like A Safe Haven do nothing but immerse the gamer in what is a 100% deliberately designed fantasy world. Part of what makes this OST unique is that it sounds like a small orchestra performing - a difficult and exposed situation that is pulled off quite nicely.
Enjoying this article? Stay tuned for Part 2 for 5 more incredible JRPG OST’s from the PS2 era.