We take a look at the world map theme — the keystone of JRPG music, these propulsive, heroic pieces serenade your party as you travel the expanse.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
If you’re a fan of role-playing video games, then you almost certainly have a favourite world map (AKA ‘field’ or ‘overworld’) theme. These are pieces that one hear tens, if not hundreds of times during the many hours spent traversing a game’s main hub; and they so often become indelibly fused with memories of one’s favourite gaming epics like Final Fantasy or The Legend of Zelda. Through this vitally important track (or tracks), a game’s composer has to inspire you ever onwards and imbue the game world with an appropriate sense of majesty.
This is a quick tour through some of my favourite world map themes, with the breadth of choices constrained by my own limited gaming experiences. If there’s an absolute corker of a track that I fail to mention below, by all means get in touch via @Laced_Records on Twitter.
So far, we've also looked at another classic VGM subgenre: "The anxious calm of Resident Evil save room music".
So much of the entire medium of video games is inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings universe, including the author’s own ‘world map’ of Middle-earth and the hero’s journey from a calm village to a dark land to defeat a dark lord. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings see the coming together of a party of heroes that travels together — I particularly like the gag in the Lord of the Rings Honest Trailer about how Peter Jackson’s three films amounted to 11 hours of “Walking… Roaming… Hiking… More walking... and strolling.”
One of the many versions of the Middle-earth map:
Indeed, the films’ composer Howard Shore sure did write a catchy ‘we’re on a heroic journey’ orchestral theme, driven by the brass:
You can hear echoes of this brass-led grandiosity at the beginning of Joe Hisaishi’s wonderfully traditional world map theme for the Japanese Studio Ghibli and Level-5 collaboration, Ni No Kuni. It ticks all the world map music boxes: Celtic-ish solo flute to represent our humble hero, sweeping strings and big brass; as well as oodles of movement, melody and counter-melody.
Of course Hisaishi is himself a legendary film composer whose scores for Studio Ghibli films like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, among others, have been huge influences on video game composers, both in Japan and beyond.
The Questing Sugiyama versus The Fantastic Uematsu
World maps and their accompanying themes are, of course, most readily associated with Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs), in particular the behemoth series Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest; and to a certain extent with action RPGs like The Legend of Zelda.
For me, the decades-long battle for JRPG world map theme supremacy begins in 1986. Take Joe Hisaishi’s Main Theme for the ’86 Ghibli film Laputa: Castle in the Sky with its quiet piano intro segueing into huge orchestral themes...
...and compare it to this dainty overworld theme — limited to the 5 channels of synthesis available via the NES sound chip — by Koichi Sugiyama for Enix’s Dragon Quest (AKA Dragon Warrior), released the same year:
(The irony being that Sugiyama — the certified oldest video game composer in the world — was 55 when Dragon Quest launched and had already been composing for musicals, commercials, animated movies and television shows for several years; Hisaishi was 20 years his junior and relatively green when Laputa: Castle in the Sky released later that year.)
In 1987, the ‘John Williams of video game music’, Nobuo Uematsu, entered the fray with his score for the original Final Fantasy, also on the NES:
Fast forward to 2017 and Sugiyama, Uematsu and their respective bodies of work are cherished by fans worldwide, whilst pieces of theirs are reinterpreted again and again by everyone from bedroom hobbyists to world-beating classical orchestras. As the leading lights of JRPG music for such a long time, the pair have composed more than a few world map themes between them; and, as the audio technology of video games has grown more sophisticated, so have the official recordings of their compositions.
Sugiyama’s score for 2004’s Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King, initially synthesised, was re-recorded by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and implemented in the North American and European releases of the game — with spectacular results. And while Strange World ~ World Map Theme starts off sounding a bit like the light classical of Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs intro (By the Sleepy Lagoon by Eric Coates), it is stuffed full of sublime melodies and builds to an incredible string theme at 1:04:
As for Uematsu, you’ll find devotees of his world map themes from pretty much every entry of the Final Fantasy series during the golden years of 1987-2000. Most of these have been tastefully re-arranged for the orchestra or piano — here’s a YouTube playlist of a few of my favourite arrangements — but I have a soft spot for the easy listening world map theme from Final Fantasy IX. Crossing the Knoll (AKA Crossing the Hills) eschews the orchestral sound of the previous few of Uematsu’s world map themes, favouring a mellow blend of (PlayStation sound chip-synthesised) electric pianos, acoustic guitars, pizzicato double bass, pan flute and other elements:
...not forgetting The Legendary Kondo
Although not strictly a JRPG world map theme (no travelling party, innit), longtime Nintendo composer Koji Kondo’s seminal Hyrule Field piece from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time still bears all the traditional hallmarks and is suitably propulsive, heroic and rousing. Young arranger Eric Buchholz does it full justice in the rather excellent recent crowdfunded release, Hero of Time (full album: BandCamp; Spotify):
The best of the rest from the East
Snarky subtitle aside, there are plenty of other JRPG composers who have created incredible world map music (or world map-esque), such as Yasunori Mitsuda for the Chrono series (e.g. On the Shores of a Dream: Another World from Chrono Cross); Hiroki Kikuta and Kenji Ito for the Mana series (e.g. Into The Thick Of It from Secret of Mana); Masashi Hamauzu for the SaGa series (e.g. Außenwelt from SaGa Frontier II) and later Final Fantasy games (e.g. The Archylte Steppe from XIII); the prolific Hitoshi Sakimoto (e.g. Ozmone Plain from Final Fantasy XII) and Motoi Sakuraba (e.g. Breeze the Conductor from Eternal Sonata) and so on. And that’s not to mention other long standing series such as Kingdom Hearts, Persona, Suikoden, Ys, Tales of…, Xeno-series, Breath of Fire, Wild Arms etc.
To say that they were all in the same vein as Sugiyama’s Dragon Quest and Uematsu’s Final Fantasy output (as well as Joe Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli scores) would be unfair and reductive, although those giants do loom large over the genre.
A delightful surprise was composer Revo’s world map theme for the charming 2012 3DS title, Bravely Default:
And, more recently, one of the daytime open world tracks in 2016’s Final Fantasy XV by Yoshitaka Suzuki and Yoko Shimomura, Wanderlust, opens as if it will be a more traditional JRPG track with its yearning flute melody backed up by piano and strings. Then, around 1:22, it opens out into more of a prog rock track (think post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd), with guitars, percussion and orchestral stabs:
All this focus on JRPGs and Japanese composers is not to say that there haven’t been great world map-esque pieces emanating from the West. Here are a few slightly more out of the way picks.
Although synonymous with The Elder Scrolls series, Jeremy Soule’s work on MMORPG Guild Wars 2 is also exemplary stuff, including this joyful orchestral piece, Logan’s Journey:
Then there’s this charming ditty from 2002’s real-time strategy game Heroes of Might and Magic IV (by one or more of Paul Romero, Rob King, Steve Baca and Paul James — I’m not sure!). You just can’t beat a bit of flute’n’lute:
Honorary world map music
There’s a case to be made for all sorts of upbeat, grand tracks across the wider field of game music to belong in my completely arbitrary subgenre.
Favourite contenders of mine include Jesper Kyd’s City of Rome from Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood for its undulations, its Renaissance flavour and the way it flits between major and minor keys — not to mention the haunting vocals of singer Melissa Kaplan:
I’ll keep banging the drum for Joel Corelitz’s lovely soundtrack for 2012’a The Unfinished Swan, with its music box precision, darting motifs and sunny disposition:
And then there’s this which absolutely does not fit into my paradigm, but I must have heard it at least 15 times traversing the wasteland of Fallout 3. Just you try getting the phrase “He's hackin' and wackin' and smackin'” out of your head after multiple listens:
Thanks for reading — here’s a few more things that you may appreciate:
- In conjunction with Merregnon Studios, Laced Records has released 3xLP vinyl and CD editions of both Final Symphony (classical arrangements of music from Final Fantasy’s VI, VII & X; Spotify) and Symphonic Fantasies Tokyo (music from Squaresoft/Square Enix JRPGs including Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross; Spotify). Find out more about these releases with our info round-up.
- “Exploring the Final Fantasy VI symphonic poem from Final Symphony”
- ”Breaking down the music of the Final Fantasy VII symphony”
- We also recently paid tribute to Uematsu’s work with help from several of Merregnon’s team, Maxine Kwok-Adams of the London Symphony Orchestra and many more members of the game music community: “We ❤ Nobuo Uematsu: A celebration of the master’s work”.
- ”We ❤️ JRPGs: Favourite games and tracks of the game music community”
- “Final Fantasy VII vs VIII: Which is the greatest Nobuo Uematsu score?”