In September, I had the privilege of attending a Distant Worlds Final Fantasy 30th Anniversary concert in Chicago. I got super lucky because even though tickets sold out pretty quickly and I didn’t hear about it until a week before, two of my good friends were actually performing in the orchestra so my wife and I got comp tickets. A live concert of one of my favorite game series is great; going for free is even better!
Nobuo Uematsu, who is known for scoring most of the Final Fantasy titles and is a juggernaut in the video game music industry, was actually in attendance. He received a well-deserved ovation before the show and came on stage to announce the encore at the end.
The orchestra was composed of some of the most talented musicians in Chicago, including many from the world-renowned Chicago Symphony Orchestra. There was also a full choir in attendance consisting of professional singers in the area. Lastly, during each performance, gameplay and CG footage was shown on a projection screen behind the musicians from the game each piece was from. Some of the older games’ footage definitely didn’t age well, but I’m sure it added to the nostalgia for many members of the audience.
The list of pieces chosen for the concert was strong and full of recognizable tunes from many games in the series. Out of the 15 main series games, the only ones that were not represented were I, II, III, V, and XI. I’ll go through each song (YouTube link in each title) below and share some thoughts about each piece. Note that I haven’t played all of the Final Fantasy games, so some of the pieces are not as familiar to me. That said, there are some Final Fantasy songs that are famous even outside of the games and I can definitely speak to those.
[Note: I’ve tried my best to keep my thoughts of the music spoiler-free, but you’ve been warned.]
This recurring piece is also known as the “Crystal Theme” and is played in the intro menu of many of the Final Fantasy games. You’ll probably recognize the harp arpeggio that plays throughout the entire piece, and the choir joins in later to add to the ambiance. Can’t you just imagine yourself listening to this before pressing the “New Game” button after firing up your new Final Fantasy game for the first time?
I had to look up this piece later because I didn’t recognize the orchestral version during the performance. Turns out this is the piece that plays during the battle against Gilgamesh in Final Fantasy V, but it sounds so much better played by an orchestra than on the SNES. I really think they did a great job with this arrangement, especially when compared to the original 16-bit console version.
People in the crowd screamed when this song was announced. I actually haven’t played Final Fantasy VIII yet, but even so, it was pretty obvious to me from the melody and the CGI in the background that this piece played an important role in the story in the game. The performance was beautiful and the arrangement was wonderfully done.
The leitmotif in this piece is simple and beautiful. I played, but didn’t finish Final Fantasy IV, but I recognized that this piece was representative of Cecil and Rosa’s love in the game. It was super touching to hear with all of the CGI (updated from the Nintendo DS remake) in the background as well.
Final Fantasy XII was another game that I started but didn’t finish when I was in college. This adventurous piece was fun to listen to, especially with the beautiful videos in the background from the PS4 HD version of the game.
This piece doesn’t sound like much on its own, but if you know the context, it’ll bring back touching memories of an emotional moment in Final Fantasy IX. I actually played through this game after attending this concert (I made a resolution to play some of the games I’ve missed), and in the game, this plays in the background after Zidane finds out his origin story and falls into depression. Then his friends, throughout a series of battles, join him and remind him that he is not alone in his mission and that they accept him for who he is. It’s a pivotal moment in a great story and this is the perfect piece for it.
I played Final Fantasy XV earlier this year and wow, this piece by Yoko Shimomura (composed music for the Kingdom Hearts series) was an epic and memorable one. The crowd seemed to agree as there were many cheers when this piece was announced. During Noctis’ battle against Titan in the game, we hear this in the background as we witness our protagonist struggle against a god-like Astral being for the first time. This was also the first piece of the night that strongly utilized the chorus as we heard Latin (or Latin-like, see “Liberi Fatali” below) lyrics alongside the orchestra’s melodies.
This was the final piece in the first set and its fame in the gaming industry made it instantly recognizable from the choral introduction of “Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec” as the song that is played during the video introduction of Final Fantasy VIII. These famous four words sound like Latin, but actually are an anagram of the phrases “Succession of Witches” and “Love”, two of the main themes in Final Fantasy VIII. The rest of the piece, as well as the title (which means “Fated Children”) are in actual latin, and the chorus at the Distant Worlds concert did not disappoint with their strong vocals.
All of the Final Fantasy VII pieces played at this concert were well-received, since the game is probably the most popular of the series to western audiences. This piece was further helped by HD background footage from the upcoming PS4 remake of the game, which many are excited about.
I’m not too familiar with this piece, but the video of this piece got a few laughs during the performance, since the 3-D sprites from the original Final Fantasy VII have not aged well, especially the one of Red XIII’s feline species portrayed in this song.
I’ll go on the record and say that Final Fantasy VI is still my favorite game of the series. The game soundtrack has many masterpieces (some would say that Final Fantasy VI’s music was Uematsu’s best), but this one is especially touching as it is played after a particularly dark moment in the story to provide renewed hope for the characters int he story. The orchestral rendition was just as heartwarming as the original and brought a smile to my face during the performance.
Even though Final Fantasy XIII was not the most well-received game in the series, I enjoyed it as a re-entry point into the series for me after I graduated college and got a next generation gaming console. This wasn’t my favorite piece in the game, but I definitely didn’t mind seeing this performed alongside the beautiful background battle sequences from the game.
Final Fantasy X is the next of the series on my list to play in my endeavor to play through the entire Final Fantasy series. “Zanarkand” is probably the most famous piece in the game, and is one of Uematsu’s favorites as well. The piano intro is recognizable by many, including me, to the same extent as “One Winged Angel”, even if they have not played the game. I’ve also seen this piece at the top of many people’s lists for best Final Fantasy music but honestly, you don’t even have to be a fan of videogames to appreciate this. Just listen to it.
The conductor actually played the violin solo for this piece, and even though it was clear that he wasn’t as talented as the musicians next to him, I still resonated strongly with this piece since I had recently finished Final Fantasy XV. Various versions of this melody are played at different moments of the game, including the intro screen, when Noctis obtains an ancestral weapon, and before the final battle.
Every Final Fantasy music concert needs a rendition of the chocobo theme, and this time, they chose an arrangement from Final Fantasy VII. The piece as well as the background video drew many laughs from the crowd and was as enjoyable as one would expect.
This was technically the second to last piece in the setlist and while I’m not a Final Fantasy XIV player (I’m not into MMORPGs), the crowd loved it since it apparently is the leitmotif of the game. I enjoyed the upbeat pace and choir as well.
Now this performance, the finale of the regular setlist, was something special. The “Opera” moment in Final Fantasy VI was when Celes impersonates the opera singer in the show to establish contact with Setzer. However, this live performance was of the actual “Maria and Draco” opera, which is a story separate from the actual plot in the game. Personally, I was very impressed by the arrangement and the effort put into this piece since a lot of it is essentially original work outside of the game, whereas the other music in this concert were in some shape or form found in the games’ soundtracks. The soloists were from the choir and had amazing voices, and “Aria di Mezzo Carattere”, the famous melody that is also found in Celes’ theme in the game was prominently featured alongside three other pieces: “Opening”, “The Wedding”, and “The Grand Finale?”. It was like watching a performance within a performance and at over 12 minutes, this was by far the longest piece of the concert.
This piece, named just “Final Fantasy”, served as the end credits of the concert, just as the same piece was used in many of the series’ games’ end credits. It was a fitting end to the concert and added to the feeling that we were taken through an adventure with a happy ending, rather than just a music performance.
At this point, after the standing ovation, Nobuo Uematsu came on stage and talked with the conductor for a bit, before asking the crowd if we wanted more. Of course, the answer was a resounding “yes” and the encore began. Although kind of a bittersweet piece, “Aerith’s Theme” highlighted one of the most beloved characters in one of the most beloved games of many young adults in my generation, and I think the crowd appreciated it. However, I think all of us knew that the encore wasn’t going to end here because one more song had to be played….
After another standing ovation, the crowd got what it wanted. Before we started “One Winged Angel”, the conductor had us practice singing “Sephiroth” as a crowd to join in with the choir during the famous battle theme. The crowd had a lot of energy and happily participated throughout the entire 5+ minutes. I don’t have a whole lot to say about this piece that hasn’t already been said in the past 20 years, but I will say that it is an extraordinary experience to hear it performed live by a group of talented musicians. The energy and emotion in the music is surreal and it left my heart pounding even after the applause was over. Having heard this piece so many times in so many settings, I didn’t think I would be so excited for it, but this finale was the perfect ending to what probably was my favorite concert so far in my life.
Now on to the merchandise! I picked up a Final Fantasy 30th Anniversary Plush Moogle from the merchandise desk before the concert as a memoir and as you can see, it’s as adorable as can be. The Moogle is wearing a yellow and pink wizard hat, with a polka dot vest and bow tie. There’s a nice 30th anniversary cake in front of it as well with candles and a “30th” logo. It’s actually a pretty large plush, measuring about 9 inches tall and almost 6 inches wide.
This is official Square Enix merchandise, and since I bought it over three months before it releases on their store, I definitely paid a premium for it. That said, you can tell that it’s high quality. The materials (polyester and nylon) are soft but durable, and all of the stitching looks strong enough to withstand a decent amount of force. Even the “30th” words on top of the cake is sturdily stitched onto the cake and feels like it wouldn’t be easy to pry off.
Because I bought the plush at a Distant Worlds concert, I received a complementary CD containing the favorite pieces of the eight composers who worked on various games in the Final Fantasy series. The artists and their favorite pieces are:
- Nobuo Uematsu – “Zanarkand” from Final Fantasy X
- Junya Nakano – “Yuna’s Decision” from Final Fantasy X
- Naoshi Mizuta – “Trojan Beauty” from Final Fantasy IV
- Kumi Tanioka – “Main Theme of FINAL FANTASY IV” from Final Fantasy IV
- Hitoshi Sakimoto – “Opening Theme” from Final Fantasy
- Masashi Hamauzu – “Sulyya Springs” from Final Fantasy XIII
- Masayoshi Soken – “Torn from the Heavens” from Final Fantasy XIV
- Yoko Shimomura – “Apocalypsis Noctis” from Final Fantasy XV
Overall, I’m happy about my purchase of the plush and this CD, although it definitely helped that the concert tickets were free! I haven’t bought much Square Enix merchandise because it generally is very expensive due to the demand and the quality. That said, if there’s anything I’ve realized from the Distant Worlds concert, it’s that I need to play more Final Fantasy games. Final Fantasy X, you’re up next!