A little while ago Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition arrived on Switch and took many of us on a nostalgia trip to the beloved GameCube original from 2003. While the launch of the remaster perhaps wasn't as smooth as you might hope, one area where it really excelled was the soundtrack. In fact, its fantastic music — right up there with the finest offerings from the mainline Final Fantasy series — is a big part of the Crystal Chronicles experience.
Just before the Switch remaster launched, our very own Alex Olney was lucky enough to interview Kumi Tanioka (series composer), Hidenori Iwasaki from Square Enix Sound Division (who was in charge of the original game's soundtrack and worked on the remaster alongside Tanioka), and Donna Burke, who provided the in-game narration and also provided the English vocals for the tracks 'Morning Sky' and 'Moonless Starry Night'.
Nintendo Life: First of all, I just want to say it’s an honour to speak to all of you. Crystal Chronicles was a tremendously important and influential game for me when it originally released, and an enormous part of that was due to its music.
Tanioka: Thank you very much. It makes me really happy to hear that. It is a great honour for me that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles left such a big impression on your gaming life and that you value its music so much.
Iwasaki: Thank you. It makes me so happy to hear as a composer that you had these experiences 17 years ago!
Burke: Wow, thanks so much! Whenever I meet people who actually got to play Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles it’s a real thrill.
Crystal Chronicles has been heralded by many fans as having some of the best music not only of the console generation, but also of the entire Final Fantasy IP. What drove you to go for such a different direction with this series, and do you feel it paid off?
This soundtrack originally had a big personal significance and is still precious to me
Tanioka: First of all, I did not really aim to change the direction. Having said that, I didn’t think to make it similar to any of the other FINAL FANTASY series games either…
The music for Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles came about after understanding the setting and the nature of the gameplay and then coming up with ideas about the kind of music I wanted to write based on that. I then expanded on those ideas to get the music that went into the game. This soundtrack originally had a big personal significance and is still precious to me.
Iwasaki: Firstly, we didn’t think at all about referring to the music from previous FINAL FANTASY games from the start. I had worked with Ms. Tanioka on FINAL FANTASY XI before Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, so I knew that she specialised in melodies that are easy to familiarise yourself with, and relatively simple arrangements.
Thinking from a synthesizer operator’s perspective, I first thought about how to make the best use of her skills. Then, I thought that it would be interesting to combine the sound of Roba Music Theatre, who I adored and who play using ancient instruments, with Ms. Tanioka’s songs. Thinking about this, I then invited her to one of Roba Music Theatre’s concerts. She took an interest in their musical performance, and then agreed with my suggestion.
Did you get any pushback from others who felt that it was potentially risky using such a unique musical style?
Tanioka: Fortunately, I didn’t hear any negative opinions from anyone about the direction. It was probably a good thing that Hidenori Iwasaki and I did a solid presentation about our ideas to the team. Having said that, neither of us were specific about the simplicity that we were going for, we just proposed the atmosphere and tone we wanted to create and said that we wanted to go in a particular direction with particular instruments etc.
the music from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles has always spoken more matter-of-factly about the world of the game, perhaps like an instrument that plays behind a medieval European minstrel’s recital!
Iwasaki: No one actually said anything along these lines, but I was the one who worried the most about it! I wonder what Ms. Tanioka thought about it at the time... (laughs)
Simply put, it’s true that the range of what we could do in terms of music production was narrowed down, but the music made by using these ancient instruments was so unique and impactful that I thought there was enough energy there to drown out my fears.
Thinking about it now, rather than being the type that is produced as the game progresses, the music from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles has always spoken more matter-of-factly about the world of the game, perhaps like an instrument that plays behind a medieval European minstrel’s recital!
Many pseudo-historic games use instruments that exist outside of their setting, what caused you to stick with older, less contemporary instruments, and how strict were you with keeping within these parameters?
Tanioka: Some of the most important elements in the music of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles are the themes of simplicity and warmth. To achieve these, I wanted to leverage the inherent warmth of traditional and ethnic instruments and the kind of calm serenity that comes from harmonies using these instruments.
This is in direct contrast to modern instruments, where the pitch is always perfectly aligned and deviation from it is not seen as a good thing. Accordingly, I placed a priority on avoiding modern instruments as much as possible and making sure that every phrase was performed live (not using any musical techniques that are physically impossible to play or editing in any naturally impossible sounds using a computer etc.).
Probably the easiest part of that to understand is how I had the phrases I wrote played out using the real instruments, and when one of the sounds always seemed off, I would actually change the phrase and make it something that could be played on the instrument I wanted. I think approaching it in this way allows the listener to fully enjoy the sounds of each different instrument, without anything sounding unnatural. The unforced nature of the music has remained a very important element in Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition.
Iwasaki: Ms. Tanioka may have wanted to have some more freedom with it, but I don’t think we had the time or the money to offer the chance to any ancient instrument players other than Roba Musical Theatre. (laughs)
If we ended up not having the budget, we could have played the other instruments electronically. However, Roba Musical Theatre’s performance was absolutely fantastic, and as playing music via a computer doesn’t have the same power of expression as they have, I recall that we thought we would have had naturally less ideas to experiment with if we went the electronic route.
On the other hand, by using a synthesiser to create the songs used in the caves and mines, I think that we were able to match the mystical atmosphere that we had envisioned. So, we used this for the synth pad (a type of synthesizer timbre that fills in the gaps like string instruments do) and the percussion sounds.
Here, I think that we had decided “it’s not a simulation of live music, so let’s use it!” In terms of the results, I think that this decision played a big part in making such unique music. I think that actually not using folk instruments that everyone would want to use, such as an Irish tin whistle, Irish bouzouki, and Indian tablas or sitars, was better for the music.
I recall that we thought we would have had naturally less ideas to experiment with if we went the electronic route.
Was the soundtrack originally composed with these ancient instruments in mind, or were they composed first and then adapted to incorporate their distinct sounds?
Tanioka: Essentially, I had envisaged using traditional instruments for all the tracks from the beginning. However, there were times where my knowledge of specific instruments was lacking or I received advice on particular instruments to use in certain places, so in those cases I would adjust the actual phrases to fit the characteristics of the instrument itself.
Iwasaki: Roba Music Theatre showed us in advance all the musical instruments they had and their ranges. For rare instruments such as the crumhorn, they kindly let me sample each instrument’s scale, and then I turned this into something that Ms. Tanioka could use to play on the keyboard.
Therefore, to some extent we kept the instruments in mind, and then the composition was done by Ms. Tanioka. However, in the end we left the selection of the instruments up to the Roba Music Theatre who kindly performed for us. If the instruments were completely different to what we had in mind, they were very nice and let us change them, but there were also many cases where they gave us lots of instruments that we did not have on the score which was a tremendous help. For example, the saz which was used in the code of “Departure” (River Belle Path’s song) was actually Roba Music Theatre’s idea!
Iwasaki-san, given how protective fans can be over classic games they hold dear, were you at all worried with the decision to remaster such beloved tracks?
Iwasaki: Ms. Tanioka and I thought from the start that we did not want to change the songs in such a way that they would fall short of the fan’s expectations. Therefore, we tried to steer clear as much as possible of changing them in such a way that would destroy the image that had created by the original. We steered clear of this to the point that I would someday like to challenge players by making a quiz asking them to pinpoint the exact differences from the original songs! (laughs)
It’s not that we haven’t changed anything, we’ve done quite a few things. However, I believe that these are definitely not changes which are going to be rejected by the fans. This is because Ms. Tanioka and me are Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles’ biggest fans. (laughs)
Ms Burke, you appear in the classic opening piece Morning Sky as a vocalist, but also as the narrator in-game. How did it come to be that you took on both roles?
Burke: Um, I’m sure it must have been because I begged them for a voice acting role. Yup. Shameless!! On every game I sing for, I’m asking for a voice acting role, and vice-versa. Once in a decade this strategy works!
Actually, I can’t remember, but I am so happy and proud to get to do both, kind of like if Adele got to be in the Bond movie AND sing the theme song.
Following on from that, how did it come to be that you adopted an Irish tone to the narration as opposed to your native accent? The end result is wonderful.
Burke: I think I might have suggested it at the recording, but I honestly don’t remember. I would probably have done samples of the script using North American English and then the Irish accented English and the director, luckily, would have heard the beautiful, musical lilt and the motherly warmth in the Irish accent and chosen what we hear on the game.
At the time of the recording, I was still performing Irish music with my husband in a pub band called “Éirí na Gréine”. A lot of my friends in Tokyo at the time were Irish. I had met them in 1998 through the Tokyo International Player’s production of the play “Dancing at Lughnasa”, when I played Kate Mundy , but I think I’ve been talking in Irish accents since I was seven years old due to going to Catholic schools and having Irish nuns teaching me! I just imitated my music teacher, from junior high school days, Sister Cecilia!
How has it been for all of you to return to such a beloved game to once again work together?
Tanioka: It was great fun, really nostalgic and a valuable experience.
Hidenori Iwasaki grasped the essence of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles' music perfectly, just like he did 17 years ago, and added some wonderful variations that properly understood my feelings and musical direction. Donna really liked ‘Morning Sky’ and ‘Moonless Starry Night’ and even sings them in her live concerts, so she really made this recording her own. I was delighted with her amazing vocals.
when I’d announce at a gig “And the next song is from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles!” not many people would be familiar with the songs! You could see a bit of head scratching!
Iwasaki: It has been a very enjoyable experience to take another look the music that I made a long time ago with my very close friends. As we went along with the project, we reminisced about lots of things from 2003.
What I am grateful for is that Kumi Tanioka and Donna Burke had, almost to a surprising degree, the same thoughts and envisioned direction for it as I had. All of the background music has been reworked, and my discussions with Ms. Tanioka regarding them were incredibly pleasant - I’m very happy that our thoughts regarding how much or how little we should change something were the same. In the same way, I think that we have also been able to convey just how much we love this music.
Burke: Well, it has kind of been a bit of a bummer over the years that Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles was not widely played when it came out because when I’d announce at a gig “And the next song is from Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles!” not many people would be familiar with the songs! You could see a bit of head scratching!
Getting to work with Tanioka-san again, seventeen years later was like we had just left the room
So, I’m over the moon that Tanioka-san’s songs are going to be heard all over the world, re-recorded, in stunning quality. Ooo and that they got me to redo my vocals and also sing more verses on “Morning Sky”! Getting to work with Tanioka-san again, seventeen years later was like we had just left the room – she looks EXACTLY the same! I brought a massage gun to give my legs a rest during the recording and she got me to put the gun on her back…or was it me who insisted?!
Anyhoo, I’m glad that such beautiful, timeless classics are now going to be heard by heaps more people!
Are there any plans to make the remastered soundtrack available to purchase and/or stream?
Tanioka: I put together this soundtrack, including all the new additions, taking great care to keep to the spirit of the original game, so that all players, both those who played the original 17 years ago and people coming to it for the first time with the remaster, can dive into the amazing world of Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles as seamlessly and naturally as possible.
I sincerely hope that listening to the soundtrack will create even more fond and enjoyable memories for all the fans out there.
Iwasaki: I would love for both the fans of the original from 2003, and also the new generation who will be playing Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles for the first time to listen to the soundtrack. The unique timbre of Ms. Tanioka’s beautiful melodies and the instruments from the middle ages in Europe will help you to remember something beautiful. I would also love for you all to listen to the version with Bulgarian vocals of the first song I ever wrote at SQUARE ENIX, “Eternal Oath.”
Many thanks to Kumi Tanioka, Hidenori Iwasaki, and Donna Burke for their time, as well as the team over at Square Enix Europe. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is available on Switch now. Let us know if you've been enjoying the soundtrack below.