Originally published on Pixelitis.net on August 28, 2012.
(Editor’s note: From The Legend of Zelda to Bastion, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame soundtracks.)
Whenever the Final Fantasy series is brought up in conversation, there’s usually a quick list of the greats. Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy IX, and yes, even Final Fantasy VII all get rattled off in rapid succession. Yet whenever Mystic Quest gets brought up, it usually tends to cook up derision from everybody I talk to.
Released in 1992, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest features all the trappings of a very simplistic Japanese role-playing game, with a rudimentary turn-based, two-party battle system, linear world map and plot, and visuals ripped straight out of the Game Boy’s Final Fantasy Legend III.
And while Square intentionally developed the game that way to bring RPG newcomers into the fold, the tactic would ultimately backfire. After all, it failed to both appeal to newcomers or Final Fantasy fans.
But you know what? Despite being a “baby’s first JRPG,” I enjoyed its simplicity. It exudes a sort of oddball charm that you don’t always get with recent JRPGs. Most of all, however, I revel in the game’s soundtrack, which remains one of its biggest highlights.
Co-composed by Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami, Mystic Quest’s soundtrack is delightfully rock-oriented and highly melodious – a perfect fit for the SNES’ sound chip.
Starting with the title screen’s music, with its pretty-sounding arpeggios and uplifting synths providing a backing tune for a bunch of “dancing” crystals, you’d think this game had no edge. Thankfully, once the battle music starts for the first time, that thought process is quickly put to bed.
Mystic Quest really shines when it comes to its battle themes. Spin-off or not, it’s a Final Fantasy game after all, so you can expect a large use of distorted guitar, grooving bass, a heavy rock beat, and a wondrously harmonized keyboard.
Because of how enjoyable I found the battle music as a kid, it was hard for me to stay out of enemy battles. I’d even get annoyed when battles were too short, simply because I wanted the track to loop at least once. I loved it so much, that I used it as a springboard for a series of videos where I drum to game music.
If you thought “Battle” was a little too slow-paced for your liking, then “Battle 2″ is even heavier and more dramatic with an overall increase in tempo. The drumming gets more complex, with lots of double bass work, and multi-layered synths go all over the place with fantastic melody changes amid a chunky guitar riff.
Sasai’s style of game music composition is very much ingrained in hard rock and heavy metal, which is no surprise considering he began his musical career as an instrumentalist in a rock band. He’s been cited in the past as listing the likes of Extreme, Judas Priest, and Red Hot Chili Peppers as his inspirations, and their influence is apparent in Mystic Quest.
In keeping with the rock, he even references the intro of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” in“Rock ‘N’ Roll” (which is played by an in-game rock band). It’s not all about rocking and rolling, however, as Sasai has a few orchestral-sounding tracks like “Middle Tower” and “Fossil Labyrinth” to mix things up.
The game’s other composer, Yasuhiro Kawakami, focuses almost strictly on milder, atmospheric, music. “Beautiful Forest” is indicative of this, being far more melancholic and enigmatic.
I liked how Kawakami’s town themes carried the same melody but differed in tone and style depending on the setting. “City of Forest – Forestia” and “City of Wind – Windaria” are quite calm (although that gusty wind sound in the latter may drive you nuts), but “City of Fire – Faeria” is much more jazzy and upbeat.
Every once in a while, the game’s dungeons will replace the atmospheric tones of Kawakami’s pieces with more rocking out by Sasai. “Lava Dome” is a great example of this. It’s interesting how the game’s ice and wind dungeons sound more mellow, while the volcanic ones like Lava Dome are all about being heavy. I’d like to point out that the lead synth here bears a faint resemblance to the old-school NES chiptune sounds.
You didn’t think the game’s final dungeon would be a laid-back one, would you? Heck no, Sasai expects protagonist Benjamin (and the player) to put their balls on the table as they mow through the last batch of enemies. Though it’s another rock-oriented tune, orchestral brass and strings are thrown in with magnificent backing arpeggios.
There’s a great shift in the track’s tone where the music reaches this march-like moment that then loops back into hard rock.
The final showdown with the Dark King has ridiculously epic music. Timpani drums and a dramatic string and horn intro kick off a grand and melodious orchestral rock tune fit for a final battle. To quickly cheese through this final boss battle with healing magic is to deny your ears one of the greatest final battle themes of the 16-bit era.
I hate to make it seem like I’m playing down Kawakami’s work on the game. While I still enjoyed his atmospheric tracks, Sasai remains the head honcho, being the one whose music you’ll hear much more often. And the rocker in me just can’t get enough of his battle tunes.
Mystic Quest’s music may be one of the only things stopping it from being a forgotten black sheep of the Final Fantasy series, but it goes to show you the mighty power of videogame music. Even underwhelming games can be saved by a good soundtrack.
Sasai’s and Kawakami’s work on the music wasn’t forgotten; Square would go on to release a CD soundtrack entitled Final Fantasy USA Mystic Quest Sound Collections that not only includes the original SNES chiptunes but three bonus tracks that feature some nice arrangements. Good luck finding it at an affordable price, though.
Top Five Tracks:
And give a listen to my VGdrum interpretations of this game’s music, why don’t you?