Musica Mundana — On battle themes

(Edit: I was gonna talk about victory fanfares but that got cut. Maybe next time!)

So, I really like game music. My tastes tend to run more toward Japanese game music, if only because most U.S. game soundtracks are, in my opinion, bland atmospheric drones punctuated by loud brassy Hollywood-style action movie riffs. Not that J-games don’t do that too, but perhaps a little less often. My bailiwick is RPG music (Square music in particular; if you know a VGM fan they almost certainly got there because of various Square soundtracks, I promise you.)

Here is my problem: I love all this music but pretty much nobody else does? It makes having a conversation about the music I like very challenging because everyone else is talking about [US artist here] with his/her latest song about [choose one: the person they’d like to fuck, the person they are currently fucking, the person they are no longer fucking, money/fame] that I kind of don’t give a damn about in return. I have a massive massive inferiority complex about this issue as a result.

Dan Bruno suggested on Twitter that I blog about it, since I claimed to “know a lot” (which was probably a mistake). And I demurred but the truth is I had a really miserable evening and am really angry and I’m hoping maybe writing a short thing on game music will calm me down. So I’m gonna. Maybe I’ll write more on the future if people read this?

But nobody will because nobody cares! Saved.

So I play a lot of JRPGs and I’ve noticed an interesting trend when it comes to combat themes: “normal” (like, non-boss everyday) battle themes tend to have peppy, driving, sometimes even cheerful tones and boss themes tend to be big, dramatic affairs with lots of looming tension or a very different sound texture. Obvious when you think about it, right? Let me give you a few examples:

Final Fantasy XIII: “Blinded By Light” (normal) and “Saber’s Edge” (boss)

Chrono Cross: “Hurricane” (normal) and “Edge of Death” (boss)

Etrian Odyssey 4: “Battlefield ~ Storm” (normal) and “Battlefield ~ Fall of the Final Enemy” (boss)

Super Mario RPG: “Fight Against Monsters” (normal) and “Fight Against an Armed Boss” (boss)

And now for some really vicious examples. Persona 4 Golden: “Time to Make History” (normal) and “I’ll Face Myself (Battle)” (boss)

I could go on and on. The interesting thing to me is how the two different styles motivate different types of behavior. Consider the function that each type of battle serves in a “traditional” JRPG. Normal battles are there to build experience and resources; they’re very frequent (sometimes too frequent) and they are the “meat” of much of the gameplay. They’re where the action happens. But they’re not necessarily what you want to be doing 90% of the time. Boss battles, by comparisons, are typically climax moments; they’re story progression (or optional content) gates, involving important events or characters. They almost always take a lot longer to complete and they’re supposed to be more difficult.

So the two approaches to RPG music make a lot of sense. Normal battle themes drive you forward through the activity — they’re aggressive and usually fast-paced. They encourage a sense of heroism; after all, your party should be stronger than some group of slimes, right? Noriyuki Iwadare (the composer behind many games, such as the Grandia series and the two Ace Attorney Investigations titles) once said that when he composes battle music he specifically aims to create that feeling of heroism in battle musics. These songs also tend to loop faster because these battles are shorter.

Boss music, on the other hand, needs to create a feeling of tension. Losing a normal battle isn’t fun, or interesting; it’s annoying. But in a boss battle the precipice should always be steep and the drop irrevocable, as it were. A boss battle should tax you. Thus the music has to support that feeling of tension, where everything’s on the line and you need all your wits to survive. This is why I didn’t necessarily say boss fights are slow-paced — many are often just as driving, beat-wise, as normal battles — but the texture of the sound is different. The keys tend toward less bright/cheery sounds and more towards darker, ominous ones. Etc.

Try it for yourself. Imagine a game with battle musics and see if this holds up for those.

A little postscript: One game has done something awesome that I’ve never heard another RPG do: Eternal Arcadia/Skies of Arcadia‘s boss music is actually response/modular. This track, for example — Boss Battle (~Crisis, ~Opportunity) — changes from normal, to “crisis” when your party’s HP is low, to “opportunity” when the enemy is almost dead. Have a listen. “Crisis” kicks in around 1:26 and “Opportunity” around 1:53 —

The song Last Battle (~Opportunity) from the same album does something very similar for the final battle theme.

4 thoughts on “Musica Mundana — On battle themes

  1. I CARE ABOUT MUSIC TODD

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve always felt like I have comparatively narrow, or at least different, exposure to video game music compared to most gamers. In particular, because I had Sega consoles in the 8- and 16-bit era and never owned anything by Sony until I bought a PS3 six months ago, series like Final Fantasy have largely passed me by. The upshot is that my knowledge of the video game music canon is still kind of spotty, and when I’ve made up for lost time by listening to soundtracks it’s without the context of the games themselves. So, it’s always great to be exposed to more, and to have that context provided.

    Anyway. I think your analysis is spot on! It seems like it’d be really difficult to write a good battle theme — it not only needs to withstand incessant repetition, but it needs to state its theme quickly and directly because the player might only hear 20 seconds of it. (Kirk wrote an interesting piece on why the battle theme in Ni No Kuni failed at this.) By contrast, boss battle music can be a little more subtle because it doesn’t have those restrictions — note how it’s way easier to find something hummable in the first 30 seconds or so of “Blinded by Light” than in “Sabers Edge.”

    Other random notes:
    – This is personal taste, but I wish there was less rock guitar in JRPG music. Of the examples here, only Persona 4 is doing it for me — the other ones feel kinda cheeseball to me. I remember being turned off by the hott lixx in Xenoblade, too.
    – I forgot how goofy the battle music in Super Mario RPG was. It’s neat how it still fits pretty well into your normal/boss music analysis, though!
    – “Time to Make History” pretty much sounds like Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.” haaaa

  2. I guess my only issue with JRPG soundtracks is what Dan mentioned above–when that electric guitar comes in, I just have this overwhelming sense of “this is what a forty year old Japanese man thinks is cool.”

    Sometimes that works for me, but more often it doesn’t, and it makes me feel really uncomfortable to hear something that I find so terrible to be done in such an endearing, serious way. That’s a personal issue more than anything else, but it really does give me a strange anxiety of “why is this happeninnggggg?”

  3. This post had me going on a youtube spree, haha. If you want some hilarious rock guitar battle music, look no further than Quest for Glory IV: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okx5T4c5ZQs Those Who Fight Further is still my favorite battle music ever tho: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NzFh9GuE0rA

    I haven’t gotten to P4 yet, but P3 has great battle music too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RKF6gqCXiM (Ugh this just makes me want to play P3P again.) TWEWY has the best soundtrack, in general: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnt-SEg9J9Y

    I’m with you that JRPGs tend to have the best music (I love FFXIII’s soundtrack, too), which made me curious about the battle music in some of my other favorite games since I couldn’t think of other battle themes off the top of my head. The Dragon Age 2 battle music is pretty neat, though not exactly memorable: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FvnXjmRLfGM I like the creepy strings.

    Guild wars 2 regular battle music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0jyukrqTAo (which reminds me a bit of Asteroid Field from Star Wars) Guild wars 2 boss battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ryv7GWYJ490 (the chanting! lol!)

  4. If only because most U.S. game soundtracks are, in my opinion, bland atmospheric drones punctuated by loud brassy Hollywood-style action movie riffs. Not that J-games don’t do that too, but perhaps a little less often.

    This definitely speaks to VGM and film scoring as two different disciplines. I think part of it is that—even in today’s technological landscape—voiced dialogue only makes up a small part of a game’s play time. Thus, you can have an attention-grabbing, aggressive melody line without having to compete with the spoken word for your aural attention. Kirk Hamilton and Leigh Alexander discussed this very point in one of their Final Fantasy VII Letters right here.

    Speaking of Kirk Hamilton, I thought his piece you linked earlier regarding Ni no Kuni‘s battle theme blowing it on a discordant set of opening bars was pretty on-point. To me, that’s one of several reasons I highly dislike Chrono Cross‘s regular battle music.

    Having to listen to the same battle piece over and over again really does make me wonder why more RPGs don’t have several variants even if they were selected at random; SaGa Frontier 2 was great for this! Your example from Arcadia sounded extremely clever. Although I imagine the ability to create responsive musical design is actually becoming harder over time as the technology steps away from tracked music to streamed recordings.

    Oh! There’s an interesting extrapolation one can make about regular battle music being heroic/normative and boss battle music being perilous/disruptive. That usually overlays with the game narrative itself, where it’s quite normal for NPC villagers to accept defeating monsters as a fact of life but it took you, dear hero, to defeat the evil Serpent King at the rear of the Cave of Coprophagia.

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