Ode to Game Music 2: The Art of the Final Boss

This is going to be a somewhat self-indulgent (and lengthy) gush on one of my favourite topics to do with video games in general, and with their music in particular. But I promise that I won’t mention One Winged Angel at all in this post after this paragraph as I’m sure most people who are familiar with that of which I speak below will be overly familiar with this track already.

Oh, and if you’re reading this on Facebook come and read this on my proper page. It has streaming audio and everything.

Everyone ready? Let’s begin.

So, the final boss confrontation. To me, this can make or break a game. I remember learning very early on at school both when writing essays and preparing for performances that “people remember the beginnings and the ends of things more than anything else”. And it’s true. For me, by far the most memorable parts of many games are the very beginning and the very end. Sure, if the middle is interesting, compelling and/or fun I’ll be more inclined to make it from the beginning to the end, but I’ll be even more inclined to remember a game fondly if its finale is aurally spectacular. Conversely, if a final battle is somewhat underwhelming in terms of presentation, I’ll be less inclined to think of it favourably.

Take Diablo II, for example – I think most people agree that Diablo is a fantastic game, but for me that final battle with Diablo was utterly underwhelming, and it was the music that killed it completely. Or rather, it was the lack of the music that killed it completely. Diablo has an eerie, ethereal sort of soundtrack that doesn’t have much in the way of memorable tunes. Sure, it’s atmospheric and sure, its production values are higher than for many games (it is a Blizzard title after all) but dammit if I didn’t want something a bit more dramatic for battling the most evil thing in the history of ever!

So it is with this in mind that I want to share with you some of my favourite final boss confrontation soundtracks. The overdramatic climactic music may be something of a cliché to many people but I can’t get enough of it. If it involves “scary choirs”, a phrase a similarly-inclined friend and I coined a while back to describe the chorus in One Wi… I mean that song at the end of Final Fantasy VII… so much the better.

These are presented in no particular order, I should probably say. And if you have any similar examples, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Final Fantasy I (Origins Version): Last Battle (Nobuo Uematsu)

Start as you mean to go on, with a bit of Uematsu. While he is probably one of the first composers that people get interested in when they start looking into video game music, his “mainstream” (for want of a better word) doesn’t mean that his music isn’t worth looking at. On the contrary, in fact – the Final Fantasy series has typically had spectacular finales and a huge amount of this can be attributed to the music.

This piece is from the remake of Final Fantasy I for the PS1. If you’re unfamiliar with the first FF, the battle system consists of your party members standing on one side of the screen wafting their weapons around at a monster or monsters on the other side of the screen. There’s very little apparent physical interaction between them, and said monsters don’t animate at all.

That didn’t stop this piece of music making the final battle with Chaos (incidentally, just how many unimaginative RPG designers have used something as generic as “Chaos” for their final bosses since FFI?) super-dramatic and exciting.

This piece takes in all the JRPG finale clichés. Pipe organ? Check. Tinkly piano breaks? Check. Loosely based on the game’s main battle theme? Check. But I still love it.

Final Fantasy II (Origins Version): Battle Scene 2 (Nobuo Uematsu)

I’ll say now that I’m getting all the FF music out of the way first so those who think it’s been done to death (which, to be fair, it probably has) can happily skip to the later tracks.

Who’s still here? Oh good. This theme is from battling the Emperor at the close of Final Fantasy II, one of the less well-known FF games because many people hate, loathe and despise it with a passion. Me? I enjoyed it, and this music, while simple, was pleasant to experience at finale time.

The interesting thing (well, to me anyway) about this one is that the main motif of the theme also made a reappearance in the final confrontation of Final Fantasy IV when battling Zeromus. This also happened a couple of other times, with the chord sequence for Exdeath’s (still a dumb name) theme in Final Fantasy V bearing more than a passing resemblance to Sephiroth’s theme in Final Fantasy VII.

Talking of which…

Final Fantasy VII (Nobuo Uematsu)

I have two tracks to share for this one for the reason that it does one of the things I love best in a good final confrontation soundtrack – it takes one of the earlier themes in the game and expands on it. The next few tracks in this post revolve around this kind of idea.

So this track (Those Chosen by the Planet)…

…becomes this track (The Birth of a God).

Eventually, anyway. Give it time. At about 1:25 in, we get that Sephiroth theme coming back to kick some ass. I remember the first time I heard this it was one of those moments where you get an involuntary shiver down your spine. I know for a fact this doesn’t happen to anyone, but this one particular musical technique at work here – using a simple motif from an earlier piece of music in a completely different one, particularly if they are of markedly different styles – always has that effect on me, particularly if it’s used at a dramatic moment.

Then, of course, after this track, you get that other one that I’m not mentioning.

Neverwinter Nights: Hordes of the Underdark (Jeremy Soule)

Mr Soule is very fond of the technique I mention above, as is clearly demonstrated by both his work on Neverwinter Nights and Dungeon Siege (up next). The moody, creepy opening track from Hordes of the Underdark (which, so far as I’m aware at least, has no title other than “x2_title”) sets the scene for a descent into darkness with faint undertones of potential heroism ahead:

Slog your way through to the end of the game through its many traps, challenges and monsters and, musically, you end up almost right back where you started, but in a slightly different key at a slightly faster tempo with more screechy strings and clangy percussion:

There’s even some pipe organ in there. Well done that man.

Dungeon Siege (Jeremy Soule)

Dungeon Siege as a game was, to many people, a relatively forgettable action-RPG. It wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination bad, but most people seemed to think it was a fairly unremarkable game still riding the remnants of the Diablo II wave. Still, I remember it fondly for its music – in this case, both the very first and last tracks of the game providing strong “bookends” to the action.

Here’s the track you get for setting out on your journey:

This being Jeremy Soule, there’s more than a passing resemblance to the “sound” of Neverwinter Nights – if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, eh? – but to me, the main theme of Dungeon Siege is much more memorable. I know of people who have restarted the game many times simply to hear this music again. I was also delighted to discover that Dungeon Siege II also started with an alternative version of this theme.

Get to the end of the game (assuming it holds your attention, of course – and I maintain that it’s actually an entertaining experience worth playing through) and your battle with the final boss is accompanied by this stirring soundtrack:

Scary choirs, clangy percussion, a hurdy-gurdy break and… there it is, lurking around the 1:08 mark, that opening theme. Once I heard that, any trace of gaming fatigue I had was immediately gone and I had to finish this game to do justice to the excellent soundtrack. It’s strange. The adrenaline rush of the simple re-use of a musical motif – I often wonder if I’m the only one that this particular technique has an effect on. But then I think about how many composers out there do it and I know it can’t just be me.

Space Channel 5 (Hataya, Tokoi, Nanba, Ohtani featuring Ken Woodman and His Orchestra)

My love for Space Channel 5 has, of course, been well documented in the past but I feel it’s worth mentioning here simply because it’s a completely different soundtrack to what we’ve heard above – and yet it still uses that same technique, and it has that same effect on me.

Space Channel 5’s main theme, Mexican Flyer, is the basis for much of the rest of the game’s soundtrack – if not in terms of reusing motifs then at least stylistically, with the blaring horns and Sixties stylings providing a backdrop to many scenes in the two games in the series. It’s certainly a memorable, toe-tapping theme that sums up the “Gays In Space!” aesthetic nicely. So when I got to the end of Space Channel 5 Part 2 after, oh, the mighty 45 minutes of game that preceded it, I was immensely gratified to be dealing with the extremely bizarre and surreal finale accompanied by this piece:

This piece has everything I want from a finale – a bit of drama (0:33), a bit of cheesy false-hope “Yay! You did it!” (1:03) and cap it all with an ending that takes the main theme and builds on it from a simple vocal (1:20) up to everyone in the galaxy singing along with you (2:15). This is the kind of piece that makes you feel rotten if you fuck it up halfway through.

Persona 3 (Shoji Meguro)

There’s just one more example of what you have probably surmised is one of my favourite musical clichés to fall back on, and that is the great and brilliant Persona 3. I’m not sure much more needs to be said about this at this time other than the fact that The Poem for Everyone’s Souls…

…becomes, after 90+ hours, The Battle for Everyone’s Souls.

It, of course, is them followed by the final battle mix of Burn My Dread featuring, in Beige‘s own words, some Japanese guy “rapping the fuck out”.

Beyond Good and Evil (Christophe Heral)

Just two more, you’ll be pleased to know. First up is the spectacular soundtrack of Beyond Good and Evil which I want to draw attention to simply for its high production values and the great “bookending” of the game that these two tracks achieve.

Shortly after starting the game, you are thrust right into combat with a mysterious enemy you don’t know much about. During said battle, you are accompanied by this incredible piece of music that everyone who has played Beyond Good and Evil seems to comment on when describing the game’s amazingly strong opening sequence. Dancing with Domz certainly sets the scene for an epic battle.

The return to this style at the end of the game with the piece Sins of the Father is made all the more effective by the fact that much of the music in the middle of the game has been either of a somewhat “gentler” style, or when things did get hectic, a more “electronic”, “technological” sound. A return to the orchestral/choral stylings of the opening for the final confrontation helped, for me at least, to diminish the “Umm… what the fuck happened at the end of this game?” nonsense.

Trauma Center: New Blood (Atsushi Kitajoh)

I draw particular attention to Trauma Center here because I still find it utterly bizarre. I mean, we’re talking about a surgical action/puzzle/shooter game here. And let’s not forget the fact that the first Trauma Center game ended with you battling an illness that was “a form of Death itself” that had wrapped itself around the human heart.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about doctors, nurses and surgeons, pipe organs and scary choirs (there they are again) don’t spring immediately to mind. Neither do electric guitars. But what the hey. If you’ve played Trauma Center, you’ll know that it’s a sweaty-palmed and utterly terrifying experience, which these two pieces, heard during the final “battle” with the Cardia disease, reflect perfectly.

And on that note, it’s good night from me. Congratulations if you made it through all that, and I hope you’ve enjoyed some of my picks. If you have any other final boss musics that you’d like to share, please post ’em in the comments.

My next post on game music (which will happen when it happens and not before, dammit!) will likely revolve around the art of the end credits music.

Published by

Pete Davison

Southampton-based music teacher, writer and enthusiast of Japanese popular culture.

6 thoughts on “Ode to Game Music 2: The Art of the Final Boss”

  1. Well played Jedi, Well Played.

    I’d also like to add a few of my own choosing:

    1) Guilty Gear: The Midnight Carnival. Listen, when I-No steps to the stage amidst this giant red backdrop and the music starts flailing around like Joe Satriani on speed you know that there are going to be some asses KNOCKED THE FUCK OUT.

    2) Castlevania: Curse of Darkness. Oddly enough one of the more forgettable Castlevania games happens to have one of the best soundtracks in play. Favorite of mine is the absolutely tweedle-iffic Tocata in Blood Soaked Darkness, which I can only describe as being a cross between Techno and what you bang out if you sit down in front of a giant pipe organ while wearing a red and black velvet cape.

    3) Shadow of the Colossus: Not that everything Kow Otani did in that game wasn’t awesome, but that final hymn which plays during the fight between Wander and Colossus 16 is breathtaking in its sparse reservation. Never have you heard a boss fight convey so much gravitas with so little.

  2. Nice list. Several of those bring back some memories as soon as I hit play.

    The pick I’m going to toss out there is a little wierd, but it’s also from a game that’s a little weird. I’m tossing out the last stage of Katamari Damacy. Not the end credits stage, whose song is just as weird, but the final stage of the game. The level pretty much takes you through the whole soundtrack for the game, which is eclectic, charming and memorable.

    Just like Persona 3 threw in starnge new styles into the JRPG genre, Katamari Damacy did the same for games in general.

  3. I wish I finished more games…then maybe I’d get to hear cool music, too. At least you got me covered on these gems. Thanks for posting, Pete.

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