Final Fantasy VI is widely considered to be the greatest soundtrack of the 16-bit era. Only slightly less widely is it considered to be the greatest original game soundtrack ever made. From a personal perspective, it was the first game soundtrack to not just occasionally entertain me with a catchy melody but to genuinely move me. The game now celebrates its 20th anniversary, the experience of playing it is a slightly faded - if still fond - memory, and the soundtracks of three generations of games with much higher technology have succeeded it, but Final Fantasy VI Original Sound Version remains in many ways the best of its kind.
Final Fantasy VI's legacy lies in its characters, and its soundtrack in its character themes. Every one of FFVI's fourteen playable characters gets his or her own unique theme (one of them shared between siblings). As with the characters they accompany, the themes are a varied lot - regal trumpets for the Figaro twins "Edgar and Sabin", troubadour-like strummed guitar with lone whistle for the mysterious "Shadow", quirky percussion with catchy woodwinds for the eccentric elderly mage "Strago", and a beautiful, more tender take on those same woodwinds for his granddaughter "Relm". Even the minor, completely optional character "Gogo" gets a tremendously catchy, quirky theme. But it's the themes touched by tragedy that have the greatest impact - noble orchestral strings and solo flute for the ronin "Cyan", and beautiful solo cello for the abandoned child "Gau".
What makes FFVI's character themes more than just a collection of memorable melodies is composer Nobuo Uematsu's use of reprises, beginning right from "Opening Theme" with a lonely yet determined arrangement of the main character Terra's theme. Again Uematsu is best at his most tragic, when he takes the boisterous themes for adventurers "Locke" and "Setzer" and turns them into poignant pieces accompanying scenes of lost love in "Forever Rachel" and "Epitome".
Though his character themes steal the show, Uematsu nails virtually ever other RPG staple in the soundtrack. The town themes don't have quite the simple catchy quality of such early classics as FFI's town theme, but "Kids Run Through the City Corner" and "The Day After" are lovely in a more subdued way, and Uematsu's range in scoring such moody pieces as "The Mines of Narshe", "Under Martial Law", and "The Empire Gestahl" is impressive. Did I say not catchy? "Slam Shuffle" for the thieves' town of Zozo is insanely catchy. You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy with so addictive a theme.
The environment themes hit a trifecta of textbook JRPG melody and variety with the beautiful "Mystic Forest", the spooky waltz "Mystery Train", and the jungle-like "Wild West". And Uematsu foreshadows the electronic-orchestral fusion mastery he would later exhibit in Final Fantasy VII with his dungeon themes here, beginning with the rhythmic and mechanical "Devil's Lab", and concluding with an epic combination of pulsing electronics and driving orchestrations in "Final Dungeon".
If there's one area where the themes in Final Fantasy VI OSV fall short - at least of the best of their series counterparts - it's the battle themes. Make no mistake, the battle themes are both melodic and to a degree intense... just not as melodic or intense as some of the ones from FFIV and FFV before, and FFVII after. Even the seventeen-minute behemoth "Dancing Mad" has lost some of its impact over the years, partially from Uematsu himself one-upping the piece's synthesized chorus with the sampled one so famously used in FFVII's "One-Winged Angel". The SNES-generated sound is also more an issue here than it is in the rest of the soundtrack, as there's a slightly toy'ish quality to the lead trumpet that lessens the battle themes' intensity.
On the topic of sound quality, I'm inclined to say Final Fantasy VI's orchestral sampling is as good as it gets from an SNES sound chip, though as someone who prefers live instrumental and studio synth soundtracks to game-synthesized ones I'm no authority on the matter. It's also why I can't say with honesty that the synthesized and sampled sound doesn't feel like the one thing holding the soundtrack back. VGM purists will scoff at the notion and love every synthy second, but hearing Uematsu's strongly orchestrally styled themes I can't help but wish there were an actual orchestral performance to take them to the next level (much like Shiro Hamaguchi took the much lesser soundtrack to FFVIII and arranged a great orchestral album out of it in Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec). That said, the sampled and synthesized instruments do have a unique quality, especially the woodwind-inspired ones. Decades from now you could play a single note from any of them, and I'm confident I'll instantly tell you, "FFVI".
Nobuo Uematsu saved his best for last so let's end there as well: Final Fantasy VI's "Ending Theme" is a masterwork that anyone with an appreciation for narratively-driven instrumental music should experience. Though it's not unusual for a composer to arrange some themes from a soundtrack together into an ending credits suite, for a composer to arrange no less than thirteen character themes seamlessly - into a grand finale of over twenty minutes - is a feat I've not heard achieved anywhere else. Even lesser character themes ("lesser" being relative) receive loving reprises, and while every minute is exquisite, the Celes-Locke and Relm-Shadow segments in particular can be chill-inducing. If John Williams' ending suites to the original Star Wars trilogy are the classic examples of closing character reprises in film, Uematsu's finale to Final Fantasy VI is their game music equivalent, and no less impressive.
Twenty years after its original release, for VGM enthusiasts there still isn't a game soundtrack that for three hours remains so consistently inspired as Final Fantasy VI. And for soundtrack fans in general who can hear past the constraints of a decades-old sound chip to the compositions beneath, it's a treasure trove of memorable themes and masterful reprises possibly unequaled to this day.