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Interview With A Black Mage

We talk to one of the games industry's foremost composers, Nobuo Uematsu, whose work extends far beyond the Final Fantasy series that made his name.

17 years ago, Uematsu wrote the score for a NES role-playing game being developed by Japanese publisher Squaresoft. Final Fantasy went on to become one of the industry's biggest selling franchises - and Uematsu became one of its first musical stars.

Since then, he's enjoyed success far beyond the limits of the Final Fantasy series with its iconic theme tunes and battle music. He's conducted a series of orchestral concerts of music from the series, with the next one set to take place near the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco next month, written a song for Hong Kong star Faye Wong (Eyes On Me, as used in Final Fantasy VIII) which went on to become the first videogame track ever to win "Song of the Year" at the Japan Gold Disc Awards, and even started his own band, the Black Mages, which recently released its second album of rock remixes of FF battle themes.

Uematsu recently left Square Enix to purse a freelance career, but will continue to work for the company - contributing tracks to both Final Fantasy XII and writing the score for the upcoming Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children movie, while continuing to pursue his own projects outside the firm. We caught up with him in London to find out his thoughts on what the future holds for both game music, and for one of its best-known creators.

Eurogamer In the 17 years since you wrote the music for Final Fantasy I, what do you think the biggest change to music in videogames has been?
Nobuo Uematsu

Once we got into the PlayStation era, we could use sounds that we recorded in the studio. That's definitely been the biggest change, I think.

Eurogamer Do you think videogame music is now more important than before?
Nobuo Uematsu

I think that the role we play has stayed the same.

Eurogamer How closely are you involved with every Final Fantasy game? Do you work with the design team from the very start, or do you become involved later on in the process?
Nobuo Uematsu

Once the story, the game scenario, is finished - that's where I start getting involved.

Eurogamer When you worked on Final Fantasy XI, did you find it a different challenge because it was a massively multiplayer game, so people would be experiencing the music differently?
Nobuo Uematsu

As you know, up to Final Fantasy XI, the story was on a linear timescale - so it was easier to set music to it. But for XI, we lost the control over that - so yes, I'd say it was kind of difficult.

Eurogamer On Final Fantasy X for the first time, you worked with a number of other musicians to compose the soundtrack - why did that happen, and did you enjoy the experience of working with others on the composition?
Nobuo Uematsu

The reason that it happened is because we were so busy, working on so many things at the same time - but yes, I enjoyed it very much.

Eurogamer Talking about the Black Mages for a moment; how did the idea for the band come about?
Nobuo Uematsu

It started with the guitarist and the keyboard player - they just made a demo tape for the band, and that's how we got started. They just played around with the battle scene music to make a rock arrangement, and sent it to me, saying "Listen to this, it's so funny!" I really liked it, and we decided to make a CD, to make an album.

Eurogamer Are there any plans to release the Black Mages albums outside Japan, or perhaps even to perform concerts outside Japan?
Nobuo Uematsu

I'm currently expecting someone to help us to release in the UK.

Eurogamer You've also performed full orchestral concerts of Final Fantasy music, including one in Los Angeles earlier this year - are there any future plans for more of these, perhaps even outside Japan?
Nobuo Uematsu

The same concert - the same programme that we used in Los Angeles - we're going to tour around some cities in America, as we've announced. As for Europe... We're sort of thinking about doing a tour next summer, but that's not for sure yet.

Eurogamer Can you tell us a little bit about your plans now that you've left Square Enix?
Nobuo Uematsu

As a freelancer, I'm definitely going to continue to work with Square Enix, as well as doing other things. For example, this year I have a classical concert with an orchestra, and also the Black Mages live gigs and CD releases.

Eurogamer What do you think of the new handheld consoles - the PSP and Nintendo DS? Do you think that they will change the way that music is used in handheld games?
Nobuo Uematsu

I guess that people might be playing in the city, which means that they're going to have to keep the sound muted. If they end up switching off the sound... Then I'd say that's really sad!

Eurogamer Are there any other game series that you enjoy the music of, or game composers whose work you particularly like?
Nobuo Uematsu

Every time I'm asked this question, I keep saying this, but... Super Mario. That's the best. Absolutely my favourite.

Eurogamer What would you say is your favourite of the Final Fantasy games you've worked on?
Nobuo Uematsu

[Without any hesitation.] Final Fantasy IX - both in terms of the game itself, and the music.

Eurogamer Finally, of all the Final Fantasy soundtracks, do you have a personal favourite track?
Nobuo Uematsu

The final battle in Final Fantasy VII - Sephiroth's song. That's my favourite.

Nobuo Uematsu is the lead composer of the Final Fantasy game series, and recently left Square Enix to form his own music studio, Smile Please.