Face Melting Action!
A Discussion of Great Battle Themes from RPGs
Growing up, I will admit, I didn't have much taste for music. I had friends that were into all kinds of popular stuff -- rap, rock, pop, whatever was playing on MTV -- but I didn't personally have much of a music collection for years. My family didn't really listen to much music (which is strange to me now that I think about it but didn't really seem odd at the time) so I never developed much of a taste for anything in particular. I have friends that will say, "I grew up listening to bands like The Eagles because that's what my parents listened to," and while I can get the nostalgia of enjoying what your family liked, I can't relate. That wasn't an experience for me.
The music I ended up listening to the most, and what I enjoyed more than anything, was the tunes pumping out of my NES, Game Boy, and SNES, the systems I spent countless hours playing in my family's basement. This was the music I enjoyed growing up and, honestly, it's colored all the musical selections I've ever made since. The music I've drawn to has solid beats, good choruses, poppy hooks, all the things solid game music tracks will have. Without the benefit of lyrics, and hell without real instruments as well, cold chip tunes had to convey story and style simple on their epic, plinky notes. This might be part of the reason that while I developed a taste for rock music, my gateway into that genre was Nine Inch Nails, a very beat-intense, instrument heavy, techno-adjacent band. Plus, all the electronic genres are regularly on my playlist. I have a type is what I'm saying.
There's much of the music from over the years I've grown to love, from the Gothic-rock tunes that lines the halls of Dracula's Castle to the light and plinky fairy tale tracks of Final Fantasy. And yet, the songs I was most draw in by were the battle themes. A good battle theme is different from other tracks on an RPG soundtrack: instead of telling the story or setting the tone for a specific area it has to get your pulse going as it engages you in a battle of mights and wills. And then it has to do it again and again because you're going to hear this song a lot over the course of the game (hundreds, maybe thousands of times) as you fight multiple battles on the course to the end of the game. There are plenty of battle themes out there, but only a few I'd rank as among the best I've ever heard, earworms that I want to go back and listen to even after I'm done with the RPG. These are tracks that will end up in my playlists because they're just that good.
And it feels like we have to start with one of the older, more famous tracks to help set the tone for this article: the "Battle Theme" from Final Fantasy. Now, I won't try and argue that I know a whole hell of a lot about music -- I might play in a band but I'm the drummer and, in my head, it doesn't take a lot of knowledge about music theory to hit some skins with sticks. I find a beat, I work it, and the rest of the band can come along for the rhythmic ride if they want to. But I can tell when a song it trying to tell a solid story, and that's part of what makes the original game's "Battle Theme" impressive.
It opens with that first trill, a scene setting spin of notes follow by a pace-setting beat that then leads into the three parts of the track: the main section that implies friend vs foe, which is then follow by a change of the song (but not the tempo) that makes it feel like the battle is taking too long, that the heroes are struggling (and, having played a ton of this game, if you get to the point in the song even on a single repeat, it really does feel like the battle is taking forever). The final section then ups the stakes, keeping the pace the same by increasing the number of notes, as if the pressure is mounting. It's telling you that the longer the battle goes on the harder it could be for your party. And it does this all with a simple, hooky tune that lures you in. Even now, close to 35 years after this game came out, it's still one of the best songs for setting it's own mood.
Frankly, we could spend all day discussing Final Fantasy tunes as there are so many games in that series, so many solid battle tracks. But there are just two more from the main series I really want to highlight. The first the from Final Fantasy III -- the one from Japan, not the port of the sixth one that was given that name in the West. Each of the games in the series has their own "Battle Theme" that isn't just a reinvention of the original track, a nice touch, and while I appreciate the theme from the second NES game, it's the third that I feel really raises the bar for the series.
It opens with that same familiar trill -- all the main games have some play on this, the scene-setting "we're starting a battle" set of notes -- and then the theme does a little bit of a dance. You get a solid beat with the tunes of the song playing over top, but then the theme changes it up, dropping out the tune at time to focus on the beat, then iterating on itself and finding new directions to take the melody. It's a creative theme, both fun and flirty in a way, and an unexpected treat that I think works best on the NES (the DS remake has good music but the orchestral version of this song loses something for me in the translation).
And then we have one of the most popular games in the series, Final Fantasy VII (a game so popular SquareEnix is doing a massive, multi-part remake/expansion of the game). The first to feature CD-quality orchestral music, the bar was certainly raised in the quality department (even though I love the chip tracks of the NES and SNES era). The game itself isn't one that I'd count among my favorites -- I know fans love this game but I was always lost by the convoluted plot and the way it all just kind of... ends. It's a very pretty game, with fun magic mechanics -- I could play with that Materia system for hours -- but the story of Final Fantasy VII is lacking.
The "Fighting" theme, though, is spectacular. It does something that I loved about the original "Battle Theme" from the first game in that it manages to not only iterate upon itself as the battle goes on, but it also then manages to convey, in its third section, that this battle is taking too long, that the toll on the characters may grow to be too much. It's a toe-tapping tune that has an epic sweep to it but also scope, and I loved listening to it every time it came up in the three-disc-long game.
If you're wanting to listen to these tracks, I'll point you over to a great compilation user TaciturnArtist put on YouTube a few years ago and it has to original theme from each of the games up through Final Fantasy XIV.
Those of you that are fans of the SNES era might be upset that I didn't highlight any of the titles from the main Final Fantasy series, and there's a reason for that. While I don't argue they each had great battle tunes (and if we were opening it up to boss themes for this article, "Battle on the Big Bridge" is hands-down the best song in the whole series), the best Final Fantasy battle theme, for my money, is going to be an unpopular choice for most of you: the "Battle Theme" from Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest.
Mystic Quest is not a very well-loved game. Designed as a kind of "starter game" for new players in the series, it doesn't play much like anything else with the name "Final Fantasy" attached. The battles don't look right for the era, best resembling the Final Fantasy Legend titles from the Game Boy (which were really all SaGa titles in their original release in Japan), while the game ditches just about everything else that are core to the main series. There are none of the familiar monsters, no summons or classes like we'd associate with the series, and even the free and open movement on the overworld has been eliminated, playing more like the world map from a Super Mario game. While fun to play in its own little way, this was really not a Final Fantasy game.
And yet the title really brought it when it came to the music. The first official game in the series (not counting the Mana and Saga games) to not feature the musical compositions of Nobuo Uematsu, the music was instead arranged by Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami and the difference shows. Instead of a fairy tale style of music, with plinky tunes that strive for orchestral arrangements, Mystic Quest has a very rock-heavy style with crunchy guitars and throbbing beats.
Nowhere is that more clear than in the "Battle Theme". Instead of opening with the familiar trill of notes, we get a hard strum of the guitar that then leads into the rocking tune itself. The guitar acts as backup for the synth-piano as the two guide the early part of the song, with horns them coming in to lead the them on the next iteration. But then it all drops away as the battle wears on, letting the piano come in fully to say, "this battle is changing, and get ready for the real fight." That's when the guitar comes back, joined by a harder synth, to take us into the decisive section of the fight and carry us home. It's a strong theme that's rocking on it's own, and sounds just as good in any of the metal covers I've heard of it over the years (the cover by Vincent Moretto being a personal favorite of mine).
I'd be remiss in discussing SNES battle music if I didn't mention, of course, Chrono Trigger, probably the best RPG ever released. This battle theme starts off as if it's going to follow the same path of a Final Fantasy track (which makes sense since it's a Squaresoft game), getting in a few quick drum hits following by a pace setting beat. But then the song picks up and you realize you're in for something else, with the synth pianos pinking away in a steady but fast rhythm, the up-down quick notes setting a blistering pace. Then there's the epic sweep of the chorus which says not that the battle is wearing on but that what you're doing is necessary, ordained even, and you need to keep on fighting. It's a great track that you can listen to for hours of battle (which is good since the game featured a very replayable "New Game +").
If you're looking for more great Chrono Trigger battle themes (and there are so many to choose from, with "Magus's Battle" being an absolute highlight), Taciturn Artist again has us covered with a fantastic compilation.
Branching out a little further, since we've talked almost exclusively about Square games, I do want to highlight one more game from the SNES era: Lufia II. Unlike other games on this list I didn't grow up with this Natsume RPG but I have to admit that this game has an absolutely killer battle song. Feeling like a hybrid of Mystic Quest and Chrono Trigger the "Battle Theme" really sets the stage for a proper fight.
Opening with a rising sweep, the game layers on plinky notes with a synth-strings arrangement along side a crunchy bass line I dig. It then uses its bridge to temper the song down into a solid iteration on its main theme that keep the battle pushing forward. It holds the attention without raising the stakes too high, letting you know the fight you are in is necessary but that you aren't about to take down a boss. It's measured and controlled while still rocking out, an interesting balance, to be sure.
Frankly, I could take battle themes for days. There are so many RPGs out there with so many great tracks. Hell, I probably could have spent ten paragraphs just highlighting the joys to be had from Octopath Traveler and it's three different, equally sweeping battle tracks, not to mention it's boss battles, epic encounters, and the the overall sweeping style of the whole soundtrack. Trust me, if you haven't checked out the soundtrack for this game you owe to yourself to spend the time listening to all four discs of its amazing songs.
The song I want to finish, though, is easily the best battle theme I've heard from an RPG in years and it comes not from SquareEnix or Nintendo or any of the other big boys but from an independent game made by an single dude: Undertale. This is an interesting an unique title that works very differently from a a number of other RPGs -- instead of your character simply battling against a foe, back and forth, battles are about learning the monsters, understanding them, and then maybe finding a way to end the battle without bloodshed at all (if that's your thing). Most interesting, the damage is doled out not by just the roll of random numbers but in a little "bullet hell" environment with the heart of your hero as the icon that has to dodge pellets, words, and everything else thrown at it. It's unique, to say the least.
The track for battle is, appropriately enough, called "Heartache" and it's a delightfully plinky affair at the start, slowly bringing you in before the first sweep of the orchestra joins in. Then the song iterates on itself, with more and more instruments coming in, rising and sweeping as the battle continues. The bridge of he song brings the song down a step, balancing the plinky beat with flourishes of strings and horns, then the song iterates on itself again to show the strain of battle and, well the heartache. That's all before the chorus rises once more and really takes the song home in epic fashion. This is such a killer track with so many layers. And, like any good battle them, you don't get tired of it as the game plays on. Such a solid track.
Now, go listen to all this music and finds some favorites you might not have known existed before today.