The Very Best of JRPG Towns
Japanese role-playing games are heralded for their colorful characters, captivating stories, and majestic worlds. They’re also known for having amazing music.
JRPGs soundtracks help set the stage for the story. There are entire tracks dedicated to characters met, bosses fought, and areas traveled by the player. These serve to help deepen the emotional value of the central narrative.
Today, we’re focusing on another aspect of the JRPG musical experience: the town theme.
An essential aspect of any self-respecting role-playing game, the town theme provides a sense of place for the towns the player visits. Whether talking to NPCs, resting at inns, or stocking up on potions and weapons, town music gives reason to the player’s presence. Visiting a strange, foreign city? Strolling through the town in which you’ve spent your entire childhood?
Great town themes convey these feelings and more. They give valuable knowledge about a game’s world as well as the actions and motivations of its characters. They do this, all the while providing music that stays with you long after you leave the towns they inhabit.
With this in mind, here are the top 10 town themes that JRPGs have to offer:
Honorable Mention: Fisherman’s Horizon – Final Fantasy VIII
I struggled with whether or not to put “Fisherman’s Horizon” on this list. A fan favorite, the song receives praise the world over by Final Fantasy and JRPG fans alike. Nobou Uematsu is an acclaimed composer, and one who effortlessly conveys serene beauty and longing nostalgia throughout the soundtrack for Final Fantasy VIII.
No song from VIII better embodies the raw emotion of Uematsu’s craft better than “Fisherman’s Horizon.” While “Breezy” and “Balamb Garden” put up a great fight as two other tracks worthy of mention, neither is as sophisticated and melodically-endearing as that of the old, lazy port town. Easy on the ears and hard to put down, “Fisherman’s Horizon” is a bonafide classic as far as JRPG town themes go.
That said, “Fisherman’s Horizon” is well known for its greatness—and simply too traditional of a pick for this kind of list. Ultimately, I decided to go with something more unorthodox as my number ten on this list of greats.
10) Boy Meets Girl (Twoson) – Earthbound
Kicking things off for this list is the innocuous “Boy Meets Girl” (otherwise known as “Twoson”) from Earthbound. Innocent and carefree, “Boy Meets Girl” is a mellow, slow-beating track that greets players upon entering Twoson, the second town in the game and first that Ness encounters after leaving home.
An ode to JRPGs of old, “Boy Meets Girl” communicates the many themes of Earthbound behind its pleasant tunes. Childhood innocence, coming of age, and learning to love are just a few of the undercurrents woven throughout the JRPG.
With such complex themes, it stands to reason that “Boy Meets Girl” might get bogged down by its inspiration. And yet, co-composers Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka keep the Twoson theme light, cheerful, and most importantly, simple. Melodic horns convey feelings of wonder and whimsy, while the subtle, ever-present drone of the bass plucking away helps ground players in the town of Twoson.
With its two-way dynamic, “Boy Meets Girl” manages to feel both foreign and right-at-home at the same time—a perfect compliment to a game about kids with psychic powers fighting aliens from outer space.
9) Nightless City Guara Bobelo – Wild Arms 4
While JRPG fans may be familiar with the Wild Arms franchise and its world of Wild West gunslingers and deserts, I doubt many have played Wild Arms 4. Compared to the well-received first three games in the series, Wild Arms 4 was the moment many gamers strayed away from the already niche franchise. The game sits on Metacritic with a score of 69, dragged down by many critics for its tired plot and characters. Compare that to the 78 that Wild Arms 3 garnered, and it’s easy to see why many jumped ship early on as well as why the series’ popularity has waned in recent years.
I ardently maintain that Wild Arms 4 is one of the most underrated and certainly underappreciated games of its time. Aside from its gripping storytelling, mature characters, and challenging combat, the game also has incredible music.
“Nightless City Guara Bobelo” represents the very best of the game’s soundtrack. A song that only plays when players visit the city of—you guessed it—Guara Bobelo, “Nightless City” conveys the dark and wild feeling of wandering a seedy city. Similar to Earthbound, the story of Wild Arms 4 revolves around childhood and coming of age. For Jude Maverick, the protagonist of Wild Arms 4, this means coming to terms with what it means to carry the responsibilities of being an adult.
For the vast majority of the game, most of the game’s towns are small settlements and harbors, accompanied by traditional (yet equally beautiful) pieces of music. “Guara Bobelo” in turn represents a stark turning point for the game. Opening with a dark, sombre “Kyrie eleison” or “Lord have mercy” in Latin, the underworld of Guara Bobelo seems to beckon out to the player, along with all the vice and strife that accompanies it. Lord have mercy, indeed.
Starting off slowly with a jazzy xylophone and bass hook, things quickly heat up as the city track roars to life. A bellowing call and response between a lone sax and group of trumpets effectively illustrates the cacophony of a typical city. A tempo change, followed by xylophone, flute, and trumpet solos, helps to accentuate the hectic ebb and flow of city life. The song then loops, and we go through the whole process again.
Taken at face value, it seems simple. When viewed as a larger piece of the game’s narrative, it becomes clear that “Guara Bobelo” is far bigger of a track than it initially lets on, as well as one of the more unique town themes encountered in a JRPG.
8) Rogueport – Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
If “Guara Bobelo” from Wild Arms 4 helps establish a shady, grimy city, then “Rogueport” from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door does something similar. In this case, it ushers Mario (and players) into a hustling and bustling metropolis of excitement and awe.
A massive city full of NPCs, shops, and side content, Rogueport starts The Thousand-Year Door off with a percussive bang. Given the pedigree of the original N64 classic, the first Paper Mario on Nintendo’s (at the time) newest piece of hardware, the GameCube, needed to knock people’s socks off to make a lasting impression.
I can’t speak for everybody, but the opening of The Thousand-Year Door sure left a hell of a lasting impression on me, in large part thanks to its hub world and town theme. “Rogueport” demands the player’s attention, with its mesmerizing, foreign mix of synth and strings that evokes something comparable to a middle-eastern oasis.
A brisk tempo, met with a roller-coaster of highs and lows regarding the music’s dynamics, leaves little room for breathing. Just as the city of Rogueport grabs Mario and his Mushroom Kingdom entourage, the “Rogueport” track grabs the player, shakes him/her/them senseless, and refuses to let go. It’s that good.
7) Corridors of Time – Chrono Trigger
This game needs no introduction, nor does this song.
“Corridors of Time” is a masterpiece for many reasons. Like “Guara Bobelo” and “Rogueport” before it, the song invites players into an exotic world of fantasy beyond their comprehension.
In the case of “Corridors of Time,” however, the music is simply on another playing field compared to the competition. Yasunori Mitsuda is the god of JRPG soundtracks, and I can guarantee he still has another track or two lying in wait on this list.
While the vast majority of Chrono Trigger has superb music, “Corridors of Time” maintains a level of sophistication and technical superiority above the rest of the soundtrack’s numerous town themes. The left-right dynamic utilized via the song’s stereo nature leads to a series of echos that bounces from ear to ear. This spaciness is the perfect backdrop to the futuristic antiquity era in which the Kingdom of Zeal is located.
Wondrous and catchy, “Corridors of Time” doesn’t demands your attention—it’s far too classy to do that. It earns it through its artistic complexity, and does it justice with it soothing vibes.
6) Eruyt Village – Final Fantasy XII
Here comes likely the most unconventional pick on this list. Final Fantasy XII holds an extremely special place in my heart (you can read more about it here). Without mincing words, it is not only my favorite JRPG, but my favorite Final Fantasy game and flat-out favorite game of all time.
While I can go on and on about what makes Final Fantasy XII so good, a large part of its appeal and charm is owed to composer Hitoshi Sakimoto, also of Vagrant Story, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Valkyria Chronicles fame. The world of Final Fantasy XII is filled with war anthems and songs of conquest. For much of the game’s narrative, Final Fantasy XII shows a mature, fiery edge that it refuses to yield.
And yet, between the all the fighting and political intrigue, Final Fantasy houses moments of serenity and true beauty. The settlement of Eruyt Village, home to the viera race, is a hidden settlement located deep in the game’s forests. Upon visiting the realm of this aloof tribe of people, the music dramatically changes to a harmonious mix of harps, strings, guitars, flutes, choir vocals, and everything else light and holy in the world.
People often call out Final Fantasy XII as not having memorable music. These opponents clearly have not taken the time to listen to “Eruyt Village.” Had they done so, they would have realized the futility of their argument long, long ago.
5) Heartbeat, Heartbreak – Persona 4
The Shin Megami Tensei games are known for their dark stories and demonic imagery, set in the modern world. The Persona series further solidifies this meshing of fantasy and reality with the introduction of “social links.” its dating-sim-inspired take on NPC interaction.
Persona 4 doesn’t contain towns in the traditional JRPG sense of the word. The entire world of Persona 4 acts as one giant town for the protagonist to explore. Unlike other towns, the town of Persona 4 is also far from safe.
With its grim, mature story of a series of murders that ripples through the town of Inaba, Persona 4 relies on its lively presentation to provide much needed levity during the game’s narrative. The game sports an infectious color pallet of yellow, orange, and grey that pops from its menus and text boxes. From an audio standpoint, Persona 4 matches its vibrant visuals with a peppy, pop-jazz soundtrack.
“Heartbeat, Heartbreak” shows the same duality we come to expect from great JRPG town themes. Composed by Shoji Meguro, the song’s features a chord progression that initially comes across as gloomy and moody. Combine that with the song’s lyrics about a “dream falling apart” due to an emotional breakup, and there’s plenty of sadness that Meguro articulates to the listener.
At the same time, the song is instantly catchy. You can’t help but want to tap a foot to it’s booming bassline and sing along to singer Shihoko Hirata’s soothing voice. The song, while about a breakup, is quintessentially “teen” in its subject matter, and makes the perfect backdrop for the exploits of an investigative team led by a bunch of high school students.
Persona 4 might be a game about victims strung up on electric power lines, but “Heartbeat, Heartbreak” reminds players that, at its heart (no pun intended), the game is about the youth whose lives are forever changed by the game’s stark events.
4) Town – Final Fantasy II
While “Fisherman’s Horizon” was ultimately left off this list—fret not, for Nobou Uematsu has another masterpiece that made the cut.
“Town” is what any good JRPG town theme hopes to be. The town theme from Final Fantasy II is wistfully beautiful in its approach, and simple in its execution. A ballad that welcomes the player to its game’s many towns, “Town” doesn’t contain the melodic complexities of some of the other pieces on this list.
It doesn’t need to. What’s here is beautiful, endearing, and something that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. Second only to the original Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II was one of the very first turn-based JRPGs to hit store shelves. Its music harks back to older times, where rawness and simplicity were tools used by game makers to convey the many complex themes of their games.
The world of Final Fantasy II is harsh and brutal. Many a player has struggled with the game’s odd battle system that effectively encouraged players to attack their own party members to better strengthen their stats. With such a weird, odd-ball sequel, “Town” provides a calming respite from all the madness. It teaches us that no matter how tough the obstacle in a JRPG, there will always be a place to call “home,” wherever you are.
3) Home Village Arni – Chrono Cross
“Home Village Arni” also reminds us of home, right from the get-go. It even has the word home right in the title!
The musical instrumentation of Chrono Cross’s soundtrack has always been one of its strongest selling points. The game takes place in a tropical world of clear skys and azure seas, and nothing helps better articulate the feeling of being in a place of beauty than Yasunori Mitsuda’s elegant music. Ranging from acoustic guitars and flutes to basses and hand drums, “Home Village Arni” welcomes players to the world of Serge and his friends with a festive, tropical arrangement of sound.
The strings and guitar provide an instant feeling of nostalgia. Despite the fact that players are seeing the town of Arni for the very first time, it feels as if they’ve been here all their life. The song’s beautiful harmonies make it all the more difficult to say goodbye to the village when it comes time for Serge to embark on his epic quest.
The town of Arni might not be as big as Rogueport from Paper Mario or as historically rich as Zeal from Chrono Trigger, but it carries its own heritage unique to a village of its size and splendor. “Home Village Arni” does wonders in helping players realize this fact.
2) My Village is Number One – Xenogears
Warning: big spoilers for the beginning hour of Xenogears ahead. If for some reason, you haven’t played this masterpiece yet, perhaps skip to number one on this list. Seriously, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Yasunori Mitsuda tugs at our feelings of nostalgia with “Home Village Arni” from Chrono Cross. He does the same thing with “My Village is Number One” from Xenogears, except this time, he capitalizes on this for big narrative effect.
The whole thing is a farce from the very beginning. Fei Fong Wong’s home town of Lahan Village is the only village he’s ever known. Surrounded by family and friends that love him, Fei grows up believing in the fact that his village is number one. Mitsuda has us believe this too, thanks to a warm, central string melody and lively patters of a castanet. Like Chrono Cross’s use of acoustic guitar, “My Village is Number One” develops a feeling of ease and comfort for the player. Like Fei, we feel like we’ve been here our whole lives, and never want to leave.
And then, straight out of a horror movie, everything is taken away from us. Foreign invaders attack the town, causing terror and mayhem. In a desperate act to defend those that he loves, Fei gets into the war-machine known as a Xenogear and faces off against these unknown invaders.
The result? Fei literally blows up the town that he loves in a desperate attempt to save it.
“Home Village Arni” taught me to embrace even the most whimsical of worlds as my own. “My Village is Number One” taught me never to do that again, else I want my heart ripped from my chest and torn to pieces.
1) Traverse Town – Kingdom Hearts
I thankfully end my list on a much lighter note.
“Traverse Town” is the epitome of phenomenal JRPG town themes. Its warm sax and laid back drum beat invite us into the world of Kingdom Hearts and the settlement of Traverse Town. The town itself is known as a gathering place of friends both old and new, as emphasized by the use of directions with its logo.
Kingdom Hearts features the intersection of the Disney and Final Fantasy universes, and Traverse Town serves as the hub for this exciting collaboration. Upon their arrival, Sora, Donald, and Goofy meet Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII (referred to solely as Leon in Kingdom Hearts for some god-forsaken reason), as well as Yuffie, Aerith, and Cid from Final Fantasy VII.
What should make for an odd encounter is made instantly warm and friendly thanks to Yoko Shimomura’s cozy track. “Traverse Town” makes for the perfect compliment to the town it accompanies. Welcoming, cool, composed yet free, the song never takes away from the town itself. It works silently from the background, acting carefully not to overpower the listener’s senses. And yet, by the time the player moves on from Traverse Town, they instantly miss the music that they’d grown accustomed to. They long to return, someday.
“Traverse Town” is the absolute king of JRPG town themes, and Yoko Shimomura its queen. Subtle, small, yet brilliant and powerful, “Traverse Town” sets a high bar for the competition that still hasn’t been beaten, fifteen years later.
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Author: David Silbert
David is the creator and editor of The Punished Backlog. A recent Penn graduate, David enjoys gaming and writing. Now, he’s combining his passions and doing both at the same time, all from the comfort of his French apartment!
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