Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Draco & Maria

This is part of an ongoing series about my favorite memories from video games. You can find the original list and table of contents in last month's post or by clicking here. Please be aware that these posts are going to be full of spoilers which may ruin the impact of these events on anyone who wishes to experience them on their own in the future.
#3 - The Opera Scene "Draco & Maria"

On July 3rd Square Enix released Theatrhythm Final Fantasy for the Nintendo 3DS. I wouldn’t say it’s worth buying a 3DS for, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that’s exactly what I did. The game simply asks you to tap and slide your stylus in conjunction with on-screen cues that sync up to selected pieces of music from the rich assortment of songs that have been featured in the “Final Fantasy” series over the last 25 years. It is a celebration of the music itself, and the music of “Final Fantasy” has been important to me since I was a child. I was 9 in 1990 when Final Fantasy and I first crossed paths on my Nintendo Entertainment System, so it’s safe to say I grew up listening to these songs over and over. However, there is a distinct difference between listening to a song over and over as you play through a game, and listening to a song over and over while you do your homework, or fall asleep, or on the drive to school. I wouldn’t make that jump until 1995.

After loving FinalFantasy IV released in North America under the guise of “Final Fantasy II,” I was extremely excited for Final FantasyVI which was cleverly labeled “Final Fantasy III” so I wouldn’t think I missed anything. I was not disappointed in the least. Final Fantasy VI boasts the largest assortment of playable characters, and the Esper system allowed for comparably vast amounts of customization which (thanks to titles being skipped) had never been seen on American shores in a “Final Fantasy” title. It was a fantastic experience. Although I had no way of knowing this at the time, Final Fantasy VI truly cultivated my palette for Japanese role-playing games. By experiencing and enjoying this game, I grew to know what types of games I would like in the future and what aspects of a game appeal to me more than others – namely good characters, story, and deep customization.

I hope Biggs/Wedge are in the new XI expansion!
Tucked neatly inside this Super Nintendo cartridge, there is a moment in Final Fantasy VI that is unlike any other moment in video games. The plot has driven us to a point where an airship is necessary and there is only one civilian in the world with his own privately owned airship. They need to get his attention, and enlist his services in order to continue with their quest so they devise a very unusual and elaborate plan. The man’s name is Setzer and he is enamored with a certain opera starlet named Maria. There is a buzz circulating that he will show up at the opera to sweep her off her feet, or kidnap her in a creepy, stalker way. The details on that aren’t clear. Maria happens to bear a striking resemblance to one of the members of your crew, the former Imperial General, Celes Chere. Even the gambler Setzer must balk at these odds, but what follows absolutely distracts you from all the improbabilities that must come together in order to suspend disbelief.

In order to convince Setzer of the authenticity of the starlet, Celes is tasked to take Maria’s place on the night Setzer is rumored to arrive. I expected the “opera scene” to be a short cut scene that quickly pushed through the plot. I did not expect to be plunged into a fully realized and interactive opera scenario that was complete with lyrics, and multiple acts. I started to suspect something was amiss when the game was prompting me to go over the lines Celes would need to sing. So I flipped through the script, not sure what I was supposed to be looking for, and then when I felt ready, I walked Celes out on to the stage. The next twenty to thirty minutes (depending on player input) can only be described as “the play within the play” as you watch an entire mini-opera unfurl. During the “Overture” the scene is set and you are told Maria’s lover Draco is off fighting in a war, and wondering about the fate of his love. As the scene shifts, you learn that Maria (played by Celes, mind you) has been captured by enemy forces and is engaged to Prince Ralse, despite still longing for her true love, Draco. The scene requires you help Celes remember her lines and stage directions for “Aria di Mezzo Caraterre.” By selecting appropriate phrases for her to sing, and moving around the set you move from the scene of her longing, to a party celebrating her engagement to Prince Ralse which is soon to be crashed by the opera’s hero, Draco. All of this is set to some of the most impressive music I’ve ever heard in a video game at the time. What I was witnessing wasn’t simply a game, but a fully realized opera in 16-bit graphics and music.

I still have the SNES lyrics partially memorized.

It still amazes me. I thought for the first time about what the music director (what’s his name? I didn’t know it back then) No-bu-o? Ue-mat-su? …what that guy must have gone through to write an opera on such a limited medium. The entire concept gripped me and as if opening my third eye to see the spirit world, I suddenly saw video game music for the first time. It was not just something catchy playing in the background as I run and jump and hack and slash my way through levels. It was real and alive and wonderful and often impressive. This moment had a huge impact on my love and appreciation for video game music and the industry giants who compose it, such as Uematsu.

Perhaps incidentally, or not incidentally at all, Nintendo Power was offering to sell the original soundtrack for Final Fantasy VI in to subscribers. I had to beg and scrape my mom for days and months just to get this on my Christmas wishlist. For some reason my mom thought it was a waste of money, I recall. She thought I wouldn’t listen to it. She didn’t see what I had seen. She assumed she would spend some ridiculous amount of money on this set of CDs (and it was expensive!) and I’d never even bother to pop it into my Discman. It was a fair assessment. I don’t fault her for it. She couldn’t have been more wrong, though. I cherished those 3 CDs and I listened to them incessantly. I didn’t even know they (the Japanese) made soundtracks for video games until this moment. It was as if a whole new world of possibility was opened to me, and I began to track down these commodities in small specialty shops in and around Boston. A good portion of my later teen years were spent scouring that city for (then hard-to-find) video game soundtracks, anime and manga which I was introduced to around that same time and was equally difficult to acquire.

The Finale is fraught with violent, unscheduled interruptions!
Until now, I hadn’t given it much thought, but Final Fantasy VI had a greater impact on my life than I’ve ever noticed long enough to give it credit. Final Fantasy and Final Fantasy IV pushed me in the direction of writing, because they wove intricate and interesting stories for me that captured my imagination and pushed me to create worlds of my own invention. Final Fantasy VI not only influenced my taste in video games dramatically, but also opened up a brand new world of music to me. From that one opera scene, I developed a deeper connection to not only video game music, but music in general. Seventeen years later and I’m still surprised what kind of power music can have on your memory and emotions , and how certain pieces of music can illicit such powerful responses to me as they trigger very specific memories. I talked about one such occasion already in an article long ago about Kingdom Hearts and I’ll touch on it again in my next article about Final Fantasy VII. The opera in Final Fantasy VI and “Celes’s Theme” which is based upon it are two such songs that conjure up vivid imagery and transport me to a time and place where I was awed and astounded by what I was seeing and hearing.


I want to share this video I found while hunting material for this article. It is the entire Super Nintendo sequence set to the music played by a full orchestra and sung by professional singers. It emphasizes exactly what Uematsu (and Kitase) created when they wrote this opera. Compare this to the 16-bit Super Nintendo version featured in my Grooveshark widget to get a full scope of this piece of music. I recommend you don't listen to both at the same time, however.

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