Video Game Music Spotlight #8: The Final Battle - ArticleTaneli Palola , posted on 17 July 2019 / 1,275 Views
There are very few categories of video game music that have produced quite as many iconic themes as final battles, which isn't really all that surprising when you think about it. The final battle is meant to be the climax of the game, the point where everything that has happened prior to it comes together and brings the story to its conclusion in a fight against the (supposedly) most powerful foe in the game.
Naturally the music has to match this somehow, perhaps by sheer intensity, or with clever callbacks to past events, or matching the song to the storyline, or by some entirely different means. There's no single right way to create memorable or fitting final battle music, and the variety found in the following themes demonstrates that.
Howl of the Departed
(from Lost Odyssey)
Nobuo Uematsu's career post-Final Fantasy has been a curious one, consisting of a rather eclectic mix of titles mostly on the smaller side. However, his talent as a composer never went anywhere, and that fact is readily apparent in the Lost Odyssey soundtrack. Developed by Mistwalker, a studio headed by the Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, the game was a part of Microsoft's effort to try and expand its market share in Japan early in the Xbox 360's life span.
The song 'Howl of the Departed' is a suitably epic conclusion to a story spanning a thousand years of twists, turns, and betrayals. The mix of orchestral music, metal, and even rap is definitely unusual, but also fitting for a song that plays during a climactic battle. In general, the entire score is among Uematsu's finest, and considering his track record that's saying quite a lot.
(from Donkey Kong Country)
Back in the 90s there were few developers who could match the quality of amazing titles Rare was releasing almost every single year. From excellent platformers and fighting games to groundbreaking shooters, Rare was excelling at pretty much anything it put its mind to. It seemed like, for a while at least, the developer simply could do no wrong, and arguably the game that began this streak was Donkey Kong Country.
One of the many things that made Rare's games great at the time was their music, created by an in-house team of composers consisting of people like Graeme Norgate, Grant Kirkhope, Robin Beanland, and David Wise, who composed much of Donkey Kong Country's soundtrack. Although the entire score is great, I've always had a particular fondness for 'Gang-Plank Galleon', especially because of how the song defies expectations at first, starting out as an upbeat, almost joyful theme, which is quite unusual for a final battle.
(from Chrono Trigger)
Sometimes in order to achieve the most powerful impact with a final battle theme it's best to lean into the more disturbing aspects of the enemy you're fighting. 'Last Battle' from Chrono Trigger does exactly that. Lavos is already quite a disturbing entity, being an alien parasite that landed on Earth with the intention of draining it of its energy and producing genetically enhanced spawn which would then continue the cycle on other planets.
Yasunori Mitsuda understood the nature of Lavos, and used his music to enhance it. From the unsettling scream that plays at the beginning of the theme and then again later, to the constant sound running on the background that travels from the left speaker to the right throughout the track. Even as the theme proper sets in there is a constant sense of unease permeating it.
Gehrman, The First Hunter
In Bloodborne there are three different themes that could be considered the final battle music. That's because, depending on the player's actions, there are three different potential final bosses in the game. Gehrman is the second possible option, and this is the track that plays during the battle against him. Again, the atmosphere it sets is very different from any of the songs we've talked about here so far.
Up until this point in Bloodborne, Gehrman has served as your mentor and guide, helping you in any way he could so you would survive the night of the hunt. Yet, at the same time it always felt like there was just something slightly off with him. There always seemed to be another, more sinister purpose to his actions and aid. As it turned out, there was a lot going on under the surface, and this theme captures that perfectly. It reflects the sadness of Gehrman's existence, being trapped in the Hunter's Dream, while still creating a sense of power and authority he has cultivated throughout his long life.
(from Final Fantasy VII)
Quite possibly the most famous final battle theme ever composed for any video game, 'One-Winged Angel' probably doesn't require much of an introduction at this point. A great indicator for just how popular this theme became following Final Fantasy VII's release is that it effectively replaced another excellent track, 'Those Chosen by the Planet', as Sephiroth's theme song in most people's minds.
Then again, it's not difficult to see why that would happen, considering the lyrics of the song more or less describe Sephiroth's character, his motivation, and how he views himself. That also makes it one of the most fitting final battle themes of all time. The orchestral music combined with the ominous latin choir made 'One-Winged Angel' instantly stand out, especially as at the time such things hadn't really been done in video games.
King of Kings
(from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night)
Konami's treatment of Castlevania over the last decade hasn't exactly been the most respectful. At best it's been seen as an afterthought, and at worst the series was completely forgotten for years at a time. For that reason it was very exciting to hear about Koji Igarashi's Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, essentially a spiritual sequel to the later Castlevania games Igarashi worked on.
Naturally, with that promise comes certain expectations, and great music is one of the most important ones. Fortunately, Bloodstained has great music and then some. So far the soundtrack for the game is quite possibly my favourite of the year, and there's some strong competition on that front already. I haven't actually played the game yet, so I can't say how well the theme fits the final boss, but even on its own it's great.
(from Persona 4)
Persona 4 is another game where it's quite possible that you never even found the real final boss, at least not on your first playthrough. Depending on the player's actions it's entirely possible to never find out that the true mastermind behind the murders at the center of the story. Of course, that's part of what makes the game so fascinating to play, as there are seemingly always new things to find out. However, because you can completely miss this battle, that also means that you may never get to hear the theme that goes along with it.
Unlike most final battle themes that tend to immediately launch into the most epic possible sequences, 'Genesis' takes its time, slowly building up the threat and atmosphere of the battle, adding and changing things as it gradually ramps up the tension. Finally, after over five minutes of buildup, the theme launches into an entirely new segment and it's well worth the wait, as that section features callbacks to many of the best musical moments of the entire soundtrack.
Ganon Final Boss Battle
(from Cadence of Hyrule)
When it comes to music for any video game, there are very few examples where it is of greater importance than in a game like Cadence of Hyrule, where the entire gameplay loop is predicated on the rhythm of the music. It's a good thing then that the music in the title is excellent, almost without exception.
The music's purpose is primarily to serve the gameplay and sound good, and that goal it achieves without question. I'm genuinely excited to see the Crypt of the Necrodancer formula applied to other video game franchises in the future as well, so hopefully this Zelda themed game is just the beginning.
Silence of Time
(from Legend of Mana)
Finally, here's a masterclass example of how to create an ominous yet powerful battle theme from Yoko Shimomura. Legend of Mana was the fourth game in the series, and the first of three games in the franchise with music composed by Shimomura. It is also one of the most beautiful games on the PS1 thanks to its hand-drawn artstyle.
As far as the music in the game in concerned, the entire score is excellent, and without question among Shimomura's best works. 'Silence of Time' is another slightly unusual final battle theme, foregoing the kind of epic style usually expected of them, and instead aiming for a more subdued and threatening feel. Still, the theme isn't lacking in power, it's simply shown in a different way than when compared to a lot of other final battle themes.
Question of the Month:
What is Your Favourite Final Battle Theme?
For me, it's 'The Extreme' from Final Fantasy VIII. It's usually not brought up as much as some of the other final battle themes in the series, but for me it has always stood out as the most memorable one. There are countless other great themes out there, but that's the one I've always liked the most.
That's it for this month's spotlight. If you have any suggestions for potential future themes please leave them below with you answers to the question above.