In the annals of video game music history, Final Fantasy IV's original soundtrack holds a special place. It represents one of those pivotal moments when technology, game design, and personal ambition came together at once to push the medium forward into the future.
It also infused Final Fantasy IV, a game heavily inspired by theatre, with a cinematic ambiance. Just as John Williams' score helped sell Star Wars as a grand, sweeping sci-fi epic, Nobuo Uematsu's music and the Super NES's sophisticated sound chip made the RPG -- a frankly limited and linear take on the genre, to be honest -- seem like the most majestic thing we'd ever played.
Now, more than 20 years later, Square Enix has issued a "remastered" version of the Final Fantasy IV soundtrack (in Japan, anyway; a U.S. release presumably will come soon). This may seem an odd concept on the surface. After all, remastering generally improves the audio fidelity of a music recording, but Final Fantasy IV was all-digital from start to finish: Digital samples produced by a machine and recorded onto a digital medium. What possible improvements could a remastered CD hope to offer? If anything, reworking the music runs the risk of making it less faithful to the original game audio thanks to the music industry's obsession with loudness, compression, and normalization. Not that FFIV's soundtrack (brilliant as it was) necessarily presented listeners with the most subtle or nuanced dynamic range, but still.
Thankfully, upon giving the new CD release a spin and comparing it to the original game soundtrack -- 1991's Final Fantasy IV Original Sound Version -- it quickly becomes clear that the Final Fantasy IV Original Soundtrack Remastered Version makes no appreciable changes whatsoever to the game's audio mix. It sounds no more compressed than the original, nothing is clearer or muddier, and no virtual instruments have been pushed forward in the mix. The only new content on Remastered Version comes in the form of a collection of stings and fanfares at the end of the collection: Brief throwaway snatches of music like that ditty which accompanies the brief gyrations of the dancers who appear in towns across the world and perform on command. None of these pieces add much to the soundtrack; in fact they feel rather anticlimactic, having been shoehorned in after the powerful ending theme. The effect is something akin to putting Pixar-style "outtake" gags into the credits for The Return of the King.
But there's one other difference between this CD release and the original: It comes on twice as many discs. Despite the dearth of new material, Remastered Version takes the form of a two-disc set versus of the 1991 release's one. This time around, each track's running time is twice as long.
The market for video game music CDs was still fairly untested 20 years ago, so Square evidently decided to cram the entire FFIV soundtrack onto a single CD to keep costs down. While it was nice of them not to omit any key tracks from the original game audio, the downside of this economical approach was that every piece of music on the disc turned out to be quite abbreviated. Most of FFIV's music, composed and programmed to play in the background of a video game, was arranged to loop infinitely. Generally, that means each track begins with a sort of intro before jumping into the central theme, which slows (but doesn't completely stop) before returning to the central theme, ad infinitum.
For FFIV's original soundtrack release, every track faded after a single iteration of the central theme. With the remastered versions, the fade comes after a reprise of the theme, giving each tune more time to breathe and convey a better sense of how it feels in-game; after all, battles rarely end within a single loop, and while exploring dungeons and towns a single piece of music can run uninterrupted for several minutes. It's not an absolute necessity by any means -- the music is still good in its older, truncated format -- but the change allows Uematsu's standout tunes to stretch their legs a bit (and for the listener to better appreciate it). Of course, it also means the more grating tracks stick around longer to annoy your ears, but hey, that's what the FFWD button is for.
And, just to be clear, the only tunes here are the ones from the original Super NES game. Not the flat, off-tune Game Boy Advance music, or the remastered but downsampled DS tunes, or any orchestrated arrangements. The music is as great as ever, if a bit dated in its simplicity; the character leitmotifs and fantastic battle themes (immortalized by Scott Pilgrim, sort of) still sound great. And the whole thing comes in a nice box with plenty of commentary by Uematsu, for those who still love physical goods (and can read Japanese).
Curiously, Square is also working on remastered version of the FFV and VI soundtracks. Since those games expanded to two and then three CDs for their original soundtrack releases (and thus already used multiple loops for each track), I'll be interested to see what value their respective remasters offer over the original pressings.