(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.