Distant Worlds, A Bit Closer

This is a look into the music for one of the greatest and longest running franchises in Video Game History.

Nobuo Uematsu and the Grand Rapids Symphony


You never forget your first Fantasy. Turning on the game, to hear the now immortal Crystal theme, before being thrown into a wild ride of story, monsters, magic and the triumph of good over evil. I felt it way back in the late 80s when I received a copy of Final Fantasy for Christmas, and I played that game so many times…For over 20 years, Final Fantasy has been a huge part of the RPG gamer’s experience, and has ushered in some of the most important developments in game play, storytelling, characterization and, above all, visual beauty.



Nobuo Uematsu, The Man Behind many a great Final Fantasy Soundtrack


One of the integral parts of the gaming experience has always been the music. From humble beeps and bops on the NES to the sweeping scores of the later games, Final Fantasy has delivered some of the best in-game musical experiences ever. It would be hard to find a fan of the JRPG genre who does not own at least one soundtrack, or one of the bevy of associated orchestrated, piano or even celtic revival discs released since the late 1990s. Given life by composer Nobuo Uematsu, some of the songs and themes from the series have transcended their origins and become contemporary classics in their own right.



Distant Worlds Logo


So it is little wonder that Uematsu decided to take this show on the road. Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy, a world tour featuring a full philharmonic playing the most beloved songs from the series, crossed the country, finally stopping in New York on April 1st and 2nd, for a two part event that would bring these distant worlds that much closer to the fans who have devoured them over the years. Held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Gilman Opera House, the event drew in over 2000 people each night, some in costume, some not, but all fans of the sweeping arrangements that Final Fantasy has become famous for having. I had the chance to attend the second night only, which was fine by me in the end, as it had a lot of the music I was anticipating. I missed out on “Liberi Fatali” and “Fisherman’s Horizon,” two of the standout songs from Final Fantasy VIII, but that just gives me an excuse to attend the next tour.



Final Fantasy VIII Squall


After an introduction that featured Uematsu himself receiving the first of several standing ovations of the night, the music immediately took off, greeting listeners to a sight and sound trip into the Bombing Run that opened Final Fantasy VII. See, this was more than just a concert- accompanying each song were selected images and movies from the adjoining games, broadcast on a huge screen directly over the orchestra. (This screen would later also be used for the largest karaoke event in history, but that was a ways off.) Attendees were given a chance to revisit some of the classic games in the series, and perhaps be exposed to new ones.


The music continued on To Zanarkand, followed by the oft repeated message Don’t Be Afraid, before welcoming guest vocalist Susan Calloway to remind us to cherish our Memories of Life, which might have been the most poignant moment of the evening, with nary a dry eye around. (Although Aerith’s Theme, a personal favorite of Uematsu, came close.) But just in case it wasn’t “manly” enough, we were once more introduced to that Man With the Machine Gun as he blasted his way through the Lunatic Pandora.



Final Fantasy VI


As the evening progressed, there were tributes to each and every other game in the series- a medley of pieces from the first 3 Final Fantasies, numerous variations on the now-classic Chocobo theme, two-part delves into the recent Final Fantasy XIII and XIV, a rousing rendition of “Battle on the Big Bridge” from Final Fantasy V, the quirky “Vama allo Flamenco” from Final Fantasy IX, and even a quick play of the immortal tune-turned-perpetual-ringtone Victory Fanfare (all 7 seconds of it).  But the highlights of the evening were certainly the staging of “Aria di Mezzo” from Final Fantasy VI and quite possibly the best known theme from any Final Fantasy, “One Winged Angel.”



The One Winged Angel


Since the show was held in an Opera House, it made perfect sense to stage the opera there. Three powerful singers gave life to what might be the most powerful sequence in the entire game, while the screen showed what the other party members would have been doing during the performance. For 12 minutes, the audience was transported out of Brooklyn and into the game itself, culminating with a three vocal harmony that closed out the “show.” But that was far from the end. Conductor Arnie Roth revisited the game with “Terra’s Theme” while the “opening credits” rolled and drew big applause from the gathered fans.



Classic Final Fantasy Warrior of Light


Then, when everyone thought it was over, Uematsu himself came out to get the audience ready for the true closer. But since there was no choir that night, as there had been the previous, we were informed that we would be providing the now-infamous choral accompaniment of latin phrasing and “Sephiroths.” This was the moment most of the audience had been waiting for, judging from the cheers, because who wouldn’t want to hear the descent of the “One Winged Angel” played out in full, orchestrated glory? And while the 2000 strong “chorus” might not have been in perfect harmony, Uematsu ran from one side of the stage to the other, cuing voices and granting yet another moment for the fans to join together in communal harmony and celebration.



Final Fantasy 13 Cutscene Plays Behind the Symphony


I had been waiting for something like this to come my way for years. As a long time fan of the games (and owner of just about every soundtrack, plus more than a few orchestrated collections), this was a chance to realize a dream, and be part of something larger than my own life. In some ways, Final Fantasy might be more remembered for its classic themes and scores, which have outlived the games themselves in many regards, and have certainly surpassed their initial purpose.


I can only hope there will be more chances like this in the near future.






About - Charles has written for ROG since 2010. An anthropologist and culture lecturer, he has previously been a featured panelist at Anime Boston and Otakon, the first educational guest at Anime USA, and frequently speaks at cons up and down the East Coast. He received his MA in cultural anthropology in 2011, and currently writes on convention culture, sacred culture in media, otaku identity and mythology.

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  1. San_Andreas says:

    Wow… I’d sure like to go to a Nobuo Uematsu concert some time. Hope there’s another one close to me.

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