The lack of widespread discussion surrounding the scores and original soundtracks of some of the medium’s longest-enduring franchises is surprising, given how much human memory is tied to music. Sure, Mario and Zelda are incredible series that consistently put out games raising the bar for all others, but part of each franchise’s initial charm rests on the undeniable earworms each game features from legendary composer Koji Kondo. As another of the more landmark franchises in gaming, Final Fantasy‘s secret weapon is also its incredible original score, with several pieces of music from across the series achieving worldwide popularity in their own right.
The mastermind behind many of these timeless compositions is the incredible Nobuo Uematsu, whose work on the Final Fantasy series cements him as one of the most important composers of all time, within the medium of video games or otherwise. Whether it’s the main theme of the original Final Fantasy or the iconic “Prelude” that reappears in some form across each game in the franchise, simply hearing these songs can trigger a wellspring of emotions for fans who have grown up alongside the series. These aren’t just the songs that accompany the games, these are the sounds of adventure, heartbreak, tragedy, and triumph.
Final Fantasy I – Opening Theme
“Opening Theme” from 1987’s Final Fantasy is undoubtedly one of the most complex and emotional pieces of music to feature in an 8-bit video game. The opening melody of this song has the capacity to draw up a sense of adventure, but also of hope, as a group of warriors venture toward their world’s “final fantasy” to save it from impending doom. It’s a short, but impactful, piece of video game music that also finds its way into other games in the series to great effect, including the emotional beginning of Cecil’s adventure in Final Fantasy IV as a rearrangement in the “Prologue” track.
Final Fantasy II – The Rebel Army
Final Fantasy II might not be one of the best games in the franchise, but Uematsu significantly ups the ante from the original Final Fantasy to give it one of the series’ best soundtracks. Some of the compositions in the original score are incredibly evocative of John Williams’ work on the Star Wars original score (which makes sense given the game’s clear influence from George Lucas’ sci-fi masterpiece), but standing out tall among the pack is “The Rebel Army.” The similarities to Star Wars “Main Theme” aside, “The Rebel Army” imparts a sense of impending challenge but faint hope for our group of unlikely heroes.
Final Fantasy III – The Invincible
Final Fantasy III features a comparatively darker score than its predecessors, with Uematsu opting to have many of the tracks in the score take on a tone of melancholy or sometimes mystery. Contrary to this trend in the score is the track “The Invincible”, which plays after players acquire the game’s airship from Final Fantasy III‘s version of Cid. The Invincible is one of the more remarkable flying machines to feature in the series, and it has a flight song that matches it perfectly, instilling a sense of hope and freedom as the heroes take to the skies to stop the evil sorcerer Xande. Quite possibly the best flight song of any Final Fantasy game.
Final Fantasy IV – Theme of Love
With Final Fantasy IV having one of the best original scores of any game in the series (as evidenced by Uematsu himself recording entirely new arrangements of its tracks with his band for the Song of Heroes album), picking just one song to stand out above the rest is challenging. Still, if there’s one track from the score that has to reign supreme as the best, that honor goes to “Theme of Love.” This track perfectly encapsulates the themes of redemption and longing at the core of Final Fantasy IV, first playing as Cecil contemplates whether being a Dark Knight will ever allow him to be with his true love Rosa, and then recurring throughout the game as the two realize they are inseparable. An incredibly emotional and heartfelt piece of music, and the orchestral version is phenomenal.
Final Fantasy V – Main Theme of Final Fantasy V
Trying to narrow down the best main theme from across the Final Fantasy series is just as, if not more, difficult than trying to pick the best song from each game’s original score, but Final Fantasy V is a strong contender. In deciding what makes a great main theme, it’s important to consider where the music is implemented. This is the piece of music that players will listen to for dozens of hours as they traverse the world map, and it needs to impart both a sense of adventure and somehow tie into the themes of the game’s narratives. Uematsu is a master at this, which makes each of the game’s main themes memorable, but Final Fantasy V‘s stands out as the best track in its score. Bartz is an adventurer wandering the world to find his place, and this theme perfectly nails that tone.
Final Fantasy VI – Locke’s Theme
The “ensemble cast” approach of Final Fantasy VI leads to some incredibly memorable pieces of music as each character has their own theme, but it’s “Locke’s Theme” that stands out above all others as the best track from the score. This uplifting and inspirational piece of music perfectly captures Locke’s unbridled sense of optimism and duty toward those he cares for, and it plays at such critical moments in the game that simply hearing the opening notes releases a flood of nostalgia for playing the game. The best pieces of music can transport the listener to a specific moment in time, and “Locke’s Theme” does just that.
Final Fantasy VII – One-Winged Angel
There’s no two ways about it — Sephiroth is one of the greatest villains in the history of gaming. And, with how important and central he is to the narrative of Final Fantasy VII and the backstory of the game’s protagonist Cloud, it makes perfect sense that the music playing during the final battle with him would stand out as one of the best arrangements Final Fantasy VII has to offer. “One-Winged Angel” isn’t just the best track from an already incredible score with dozens of other incredible pieces, it’s quite possibly the best “Final Boss” music of any game, period. And, thanks to the advancements in audio technology between the SNES and the PlayStation, Uematsu is able to more fully express the complexity of his arrangements with full orchestration and choirs.
Final Fantasy VIII – Don’t be Afraid
Much like each game’s main themes, the battle themes are one of the more important pieces in each Final Fantasy‘s score. After all, this is the song players will hear any time they enter one of the game’s random battles, of which there will be many. In terms of which game has the best battle theme, it’s hard to pick another title than Final Fantasy VIII, in which the track “Don’t Be Afraid” is both perhaps the best battle theme in the series and arguably the best track in the game’s score. It’s a rousing and energizing piece of music that helps to make the player and their party feel powerful while simultaneously acknowledging the importance of staying on your toes and fighting to the finish.
Final Fantasy IX – A Place to Call Home
Uematsu has been quoted as saying that his work on Final Fantasy IX is his personal favorite contribution to the series, and listening to the game’s original score makes it easy to see why. One of the absolute best pieces of music on the soundtrack (and in the entire Final Fantasy series, in general) is “A Place to Call Home”, which is a melancholic and wistful arrangement that calls to mind medieval fantasy settings like the one featured in J.R.R Tolkien’s masterpiece Lord of the Rings. With how much Final Fantasy IX represents a return to form for the series and the ultimate fan service, it’s a song that perfectly embodies the spirit of wonder and adventure that awaits players throughout Final Fantasy IX‘s runtime.
Final Fantasy X – Zanarkand
Final Fantasy X might be the most emotionally affecting game in the entire series, and the game’s signature arrangement “Zanarkand” embodies the tone of the game perfectly. Especially once players get to the critical point of the game where they learn the revelations regarding the region for which the song gets its name and the nature of Tidus’ place in the narrative, the song takes on greater emotional weight to perfectly accompany the themes of loss that weave throughout Final Fantasy X‘s story. Aside from the intention of the song and how it connects to the narrative, though, “Zanarkand” is simply a beautiful and masterfully orchestrated piano piece.
Final Fantasy XI – Final Fantasy XI Opening Theme
With Final Fantasy XI being the first online game in the series, it makes sense that its opening theme ties together some of the more iconic pieces of music from the series’ past while also molding them into something new. After beginning with the iconic harp melody from “Prelude,” the track shifts into an uplifting and invigorating march that perfectly embodies the spirit of adventure and teamwork one would expect from a Final Fantasy game. However, it then transitions into an incredibly moving piece complete with a choir and masterfully implemented string arrangements. The way that this track encapsulates every aspect of a traditional Final Fantasy experience all in a series of movements is pure genius.
Final Fantasy XII – Respite
Final Fantasy XII is one of the first games in the series to begin featuring talents of more composers other than Nobuo Uematsu, and some of the game’s best tracks take on a life all their own to stand apart from the series’ past. One of these is the song “Respite,” which immediately calls to mind some of the incredible work of Yasunori Mitsuda on Chrono Trigger, with its subtle harp notes and beautiful flute arrangements. Much of Final Fantasy XII‘s music fits in with the themes of military conquest and political intrigue, but “Respite” is just that — a brief reprieve from the conflict befalling the world of Ivalice and a momentary glimpse at peace.
Final Fantasy XIII – The Promise
Much like Final Fantasy II before it, Final Fantasy XIII is a divisive entry in the series but it at least has an incredible soundtrack. This time featuring the talents of Masashi Hamauzu, several of the tracks do a great job of calling to mind the style and ability of Uematsu to tap into the game’s themes and tonality, but they do so in a way that helps them stand apart while still sounding right in line with the rest of the series. Arguably the best track in the score is “The Promise,” which ties in directly to the main character Lightning, and her desire to save her sister Sarah and keep her oath. As the main theme of Final Fantasy XIII, this piece of music perfectly captures the game’s overarching themes while also remaining more in line with classic Final Fantasy music than other songs on the soundtrack.
Final Fantasy XIV – Torn from the Heavens
Another of the best tracks from the series and yet another Final Fantasy main theme, Final Fantasy XIV‘s “Torn From the Heavens” is an incredible arrangement in a soundtrack absolutely bursting with quality music. Final Fantasy XIV contains one of the best stories in the entire series, made all the better thanks to more than 10 years of collective storytelling and character development. The game’s soundtrack perfectly accompanies the journey that the player and all the game’s main characters have been on over the years, absolutely nailing the game’s recurring theme of fate while also serving as the iconic music that Square uses in promotional materials for Final Fantasy XIV.
Final Fantasy XV – Stand Your Ground
Much like Final Fantasy VIII before it, Final Fantasy XV features one of the series’ absolute best battle themes in “Stand Your Ground”. Yoko Shimomura orchestrates some fantastic music on the Final Fantasy XV soundtrack, but the fact that players can hear “Stand Your Ground” over and over again and it never loses its impact is a testament to its brilliance. It’s slightly reminiscent of the battle theme from Final Fantasy VII as well, adding a bit of playful nostalgia to what’s otherwise a wholly unique and beautifully arranged piece of series music. Final Fantasy XV might have been released in a somewhat unfinished state, but its production values and visuals/audio are absolutely top-notch.
Final Fantasy XVI – The Lion and the Hare – The Nysa Defile
Masayoshi Soken, who is both Nobuo Uematsu’s apprentice and a longtime contributor to the Final Fantasy series in his own right, holds the primary credit for Final Fantasy XVI‘s moving and emotional score. But “The Lion and the Hare” is one of the few tracks on the soundtrack to the latest Final Fantasy coming from the mind of Uematsu himself, and his trademark brilliance and ability to tap into the game’s themes shine through abundantly. The way that the piece subtly weaves in the harp melody from “Prelude” alongside a bombastic and intriguing militaristic march is pure Final Fantasy magic, and that this song plays during the game’s cinematic and unforgettable opening cements it as the best track in Final Fantasy XVI‘s score and one of the series’ all-time best arrangements.