Teach Me How to Blitz, Hamauzu-San

FFX greenery

I was 16 the first time I got stoned. My friends and I had gone to an evening showing of our high school’s spring musical, Barnum. Instead of holding it in the auditorium as usual, the drama department had rustled up a lot of money to erect an authentic circus tent in the parking lot. The audience sat in a ring around the stage while the action unfolded. It was a great bit of spectacle, and yet, I can’t remember a single note of the music. What I do remember is the anticipation of another new experience: a friend of mine who had begun experimenting with pot had invited a couple of us to try it after the show.

I returned home, clothes reeking, hoping to fool my parents by hiding in a heavy cloud of body spray. Back in my room, I was feeling more relaxed than I knew was possible. I booted up Winamp and slipped on my headphones, searching for the perfect music to complement the high. Finally I settled on the soundtrack to Final Fantasy X, the video game that was then consuming all my attention.

Years later, I was looking at the writing credits for the soundtrack and discovered that the handful of tracks I cherry-picked from Final Fantasy X that night—tracks that incorporated everything from blissful acoustic guitar riffs to ambient music to sprightly jazz piano—were all written or co-written by series newcomer Masashi Hamauzu. Square’s Final Fantasy series, long known for its iconic music from composer Nobuo Uematsu, went nine games before introducing new blood into its musical lineup.

Final Fantasy X was a departure for the series in other ways, too. Released in 2001, it was its first title on the PlayStation 2, and the first to feature 3D maps instead of static 2D backdrops. The series’ traditional quasi turn-based “Active Time Battle” system was replaced by a truly turn-based “Conditional Turn-Based Battle” system, which gave the gameplay a more measured pace and tactical feel. And the overall artistic and architectural oeuvre of the game world, unlike the traditional fantasy and sci-fi settings of prior games, drew heavily from southeast Asian motifs, creating a bright world of interlinked island cultures. The game was also surprisingly linear, even for a series not usually known for its open-endedness. Notably, it was one of the last games developed under the guidance of Square godfather Hironobu Sakaguchi, who left the company (then called Squaresoft) in 2003 to form his own studio, Mistwalker.

FFX islands

But for me, the big change was in the music. The soul of Final Fantasy, from the classic “Prelude” onwards, has always been inscribed in its songs. In its 8- and 16-bit heyday, Uematsu’s distinctive and charismatic music was often the driving emotional force in creating scenes of drama and heroism, comedy and tragedy. Instead of receding in importance in the PlayStation age, his soundtracks for FFVII and FFVIII hooked millions of new fans by defining the character and atmosphere of the strange, sci-fi influenced worlds of those games. It came as something of a shock to load up Final Fantasy X and hear a drastically different musical palette—Uematsu wasn’t just experimenting with new genres like choral music and heavy metal, but he had also for the first time enlisted the aid of two co-writers, then-fledging Square composers Junya Nakano and Masashi Hamauzu.

As I sat there grinning and sending idiotic messages to my friends on AIM, Hamauzu’s music was making a subtle but deep impression on me. His MO was totally different from Uematsu’s; where the old master approached every piece as a distinctive and even-keeled theme song, Hamauzu seemed to hang back and approach gingerly, using simple, repeating riffs to create a base for mellow, organic arrangements that allowed the game’s visuals take the lead instead of the other way around. The music was no longer defining the mood; now the opposite seemed to be true.

You can see this in one of the game’s quietest but most devastating sequences, where the player traverses the Djose Highroad, a long path along the ocean, in the aftermath of a major defeat for humanity by the game’s antagonist, the colossal monster Sin. Sin is a force of faceless death that periodically enacts an Old Testament-style genocide as a continuing punishment for the overreach of mankind’s ancestors. The ambient strains of Hamauzu’s “Wandering Flame” eventually give way to the low, mournful murmur of a saxophone as the player pushes silently past the bodies of fallen soldiers. For me, it remains one of the series’ most affecting moments.

But Hamauzu also contributes a certain levity to the game’s musical landscape. Uematsu is great at doing comedic music, but I always sense something a little forced in the way he conveys humor and whimsy. Meanwhile, Hamauzu draws on classical and jazz piano to create a relaxed composition like “Thunder Plains,” which plays when the player is attempting to cross a dark, storm-blighted expanse where lightning is constantly striking at their heels. It felt like a tiny stroke of genius to underscore this potentially stressful passage with such bright, airy music. It gives the dodging of lightning bolts a feeling of ease that makes the challenge a pleasant and strangely beautiful one.

FFX thunder plains

And though Uematsu still composed much of the game’s music, including its character and vocal themes as well as its intro and ending pieces, it’s Hamauzu and Nakano’s embrace of new approaches, especially through electronic music, that gives the game a defining sonic edge, blending excellently with its striking visual style. A Final Fantasy game had never looked or sounded like this before, and unfortunately, none have since.

Despite the nascent excitement of that evening in high school, I never took to pot. I tried it a few times in college, but that place of profound peace and relaxation always eluded me, instead leaving me in an anxious haze. But these songs by Masashi Hamauzu have remained a surefire way to calm my soul, even now, almost 13 years later. Final Fantasy X may represent a great series at its peak; sadly, the blast of fresh energy from the game, and Hamauzu’s songs, never really returned, and subsequent titles have felt increasingly stale despite their next-gen polish. Even the Hamauzu-helmed soundtrack for Final Fantasy XIII was strangely inert, as if the composer was unable to draw much inspiration from the game’s dull and indistinct world. But it’s still a pleasure to look back at this moment of mutation and creative risk that produced some of the most enjoyable music of my teenage years.

Suggested listening by Masashi Hamauzu:

Dara lives, works, and writes in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @palakchaval or on Letterboxd.