Folk Fantasy

Crystal Chronicles composers on the quirkiest Final Fantasy’s "folk" sound

Our interview with Kumi Tanioka, Hidenori Iwasaki, and Donna Burke.

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Square Enix gave the underrated Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles a second shot at success in August with a current-gen remaster.

Unlike most Final Fantasy games, Crystal Chronicles puts an emphasis on multiplayer and was originally released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2003 at a time when most of Square-Enix’s RPGs went to PlayStation 2. Its soundtrack stuck out as more atmospheric and folky than the sweeping orchestral scores the main Final Fantasy series is known for.

Original composers — Kumi Tanioka and Hidenori Iwasaki — returned to re-record music for the remaster and create two new tracks remaster. Donna Burke, who is best known for her work in the Metal Gear Solid series and as the narrator in the original Crystal Chronicles, also returned, re-recording the lines in a distinct Irish accent, which some fans have said helps to make the game feel like an "old fairy tale" when compared to the epic tales in most games.

Inverse spoke with Tanioka, Iwasaki, and Burke shortly after the release of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles — Remastered Edition to discuss the music, narration, and how these things helped define the original's unique tone.

Looking Back on a Classic

Composer Kumi Tanioka said she tried to infuse into the score the "lighter narrative" of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles that distinguishes it from the franchise's mainline titles. "I was conscious about capturing the world comprehensively for the majority of music in Crystal Chronicles," she tells Inverse.

Tanioka accomplished this by making sure the music focused on the atmosphere, even with major boss battles. She said the composers “envisioned something more in line with field days or sports” when crafting the music. “My hope is that the music will be listened to universally and take on a timeless quality, similar to period and folk instruments used in these tracks.”

Looking back, Iwasaki sees the soundtrack as “very conceptual” but ultimately “unique and distinctive” from anything else they’ve done. It’s an experience he remembers fondly too. Iwasaki had to negotiate with programmers to ensure that there was enough room for live music within the game. He also discovered the Roba Music Theatre that influenced the game’s sound, and endured the “numbingly exhausting task of loading them onto the actual game.”

Tanioka said that for Crystal Chronicles, they “strived to create music that is always gentle, but strict at times, music that flows within the atmosphere unchanged, no matter who or what is standing there,” and that’s one of the reasons it has stood the test of time. Another, Iwasaki thinks, is the fact that the team had a restricted budget and workforce for the game that forced them to be nimble. The team bucked the then-current trends to develop a more “pastoral” sound.

Voice actress Donna Burke reprised her role as the Narrator of Crystal Chronicles — Remastered Edition. “I think it was groundbreaking to have me do a lilting Irish accent for the Narrator back in 2003,” she said. “It’s only in the last few years that non-North American or English accents have been used in AAA games.”

She also enjoyed the presence the role has. Rather than just spouting instructions or narrating tutorials, she’s “framing the action as a wise woman telling an important story to her loved ones.” Her voice adds to that folksy fairy tale feeling that Crystal Chronicles gets across so well, and all of that was retained in the remaster.

Burke revealed that the process of recording the original was occasionally frustrating, as she worked on a faulty Macintosh and practiced with music that was ripped to a CD from a Karaoke machine. Offering up extended lines for the remaster with modern technology was far easier.

Remastering a Classic

“I’m sure many players feel a sense of nostalgia towards those times, and I do feel that sense is present in the music,” Tanioka said. “For me, personally, the time I spent revisiting these tracks was certainly a time filled with nostalgia and warmth.”

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles originally released for the Nintendo GameCube in 2003.

Tanioka explained that with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition, the sound quality has improved because there are no longer space and performance limitations for the music. The team also “remixed or rearranged” the music with tools that didn’t exist back when the original was developed and added two brand new tracks to the game.

The composers had a philosophy of “How are we changing things while making it feel as though nothing at all changed?” according to Iwasaki. “Using the latest equipment would have allowed us to make the sounds flashier and bolder, but that would have also meant that the simplicity and atmosphere would have changed.” Instead of changing the music too much, the composers tried to alter as little as possible even though they were working with more robust tools than before.

“For better or for worse, we created the music while limiting the instruments to historic ones,” Iwasaki said. “So if I were to approach it again in the future, perhaps I would explore something that fuses them with another genre to create something new, such as a fusion of period instruments and pop music.”

Tanioka plans to keep composing music that has a similar direction to Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition. She’s deemed this style to be “genre-less” and one that “uses period and folk instruments, something gentle in the vein of pastoral music.”

Nostalgia. Folk. Pastoral. Field day. Fairy tale. These are the characteristics that made the weirdest Final Fantasy so unique, and they hold true in the remaster.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered Edition is available now.

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