Top Ten RPG Composers
RPGs continue to feature the most popular game soundtracks and their composers remain the biggest industry names. Many have debated who are the greatest composers of RPGs and now a more definitive survey has been performed to yield an answer. Members at the forum communities at the major sites SEMO, Soundtrack Central, and VGMdb were asked to rank their top ten RPG composers according to the factors they considered most important. Featuring the opinions of just under 50 people, the results were ranked and tallied using a points-based system (from 1st place = 20 points to 10th place = 11 points). Below are the top ten RPG composers according to the game music community, including my commentary about why the composers have proved influential, popular, and successful:
1) Nobuo Uematsu (601 Points)
An unsurprising and deserving victor, Nobuo Uematsu gained his popular breakthrough by scoring 1987's Final Fantasy, the first instalment of what is now the most popular RPG series of all time. With each of his subsequent Final Fantasy scores, Uematsu captivated millions with his memorable melodies, entertaining experiments, and ability to convey so many scenarios. Having left Square Enix, Uematsu has branched out into areas and established a record label, but continues to work on RPGs such as Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and Final Fantasy XIV. The influence of his timeless Final Fantasy scores continue to be reflected by numerous album releases, concert performances, and fan tributes.Works: Final Fantasy Series, Hanjuku Hero, Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey
2) Yasunori Mitsuda (491 Points)
The youngest composer on this list, Yasunori Mitsuda has achieved much during his 38 year existence. While at Square, he built on the RPG soundtrack format, while pioneering stylistic developments, on the jazz-oriented Chrono Trigger, Celtic-themed Xenogears, and worldly Chrono Cross. Having left the company in 1998, he became one of the first successful freelance composers and entrepeneurs in the Japanese games market, influencing many others to set up their own studios and companies. The much-loved composer has recently developed a niche on the DS, leading to his involvement in new RPG franchises such as Inazuma Eleven, Soma Bringer, and Luminous Arc.
Works: Chrono Series, Inazuma Eleven Series, Xenogears, Soma Bringer
3) Hitoshi Sakimoto (361 Points)
Hitoshi Sakimoto has developed a dense, elaborate, and unusual symphonic style through a succession of RPG works, usually of tactical inclination. Considered his magnum opus, his epic orchestral score for Final Fantasy XII has impacted on six million listeners across the world. The score yielded his involvement in many more projects since, including Valkyria Chronicles with its full orchestral performances. Sakimoto currently heads the largest game music production company, Basiscape, and regularly scores RPGs both single-handedly and collaboratively. While one of the divisive composers in the game music community, his impressive record speaks for itself, as does his high placement on this list.
Works: Ivalice Alliance, Vagrant Story, Breath of Fire V, Valkyria Chronicles
4) Masashi Hamauzu (342 Points)
Born in Germany and educated in Japan, Masashi Hamauzu is a composer known for his artistic focus and stylistic individuality. While the majority of his game projects have been critical and commercial failures, his album releases have satisfied many listeners in both Japan and overseas. Following a guest role on Final Fantasy X, he recently won the hearts of a larger audience with the immersive electro-orchestral soundscapes and thoughtful impressionistic melodies of Final Fantasy XIII. The success of this score is one of the main reasons Hamauzu ranks so highly on this list. It will also yield his involvement in major new game projects now that he has departed Square Enix.
Works: Final Fantasy XIII, Unlimited SaGa, Musashiden II, Sigma Harmonics
5) Motoi Sakuraba (320 Points)
Motoi Sakuraba is legendary among gamers for several reasons, one of them being his prolificness. He composes, arranges, and records over 200 fully-fleshed works on an annual basis, making him the most productive composer in an already very demanding industry. The composer's background as a progressive rock musician is readily evident in his hard-edged battle themes for the Star Ocean and Valkyrie Profile series. However, Sakuraba's versatility has also been reflected with the sweeping orchestrations of Baten Kaitos and Eternal Sonata, light-hearted melodies of Golden Sun and Tales of Phantasia, and, most recently, the progressive funk approach of Resonance of Fate.
Works: Tales Series, Star Ocean Series, Golden Sun, Resonance of Fate
6) Hiroki Kikuta (274 Points)
Of all the composers featured on this list, Hiroki Kikuta has certainly created the fewest RPG scores. However, those that he created have gained a massive cult following. In particular, Secret of Mana delighted gamers with its memorable yet unconventional compositions, while Soukaigi was exuberant with its worldly diversity and live performances. The composer's career stumbled for some time, as he took executive roles on several failed game projects and even dabbled in adult game scoring. However, his fans can be reassured he is making a comeback as a leading member of Eminence's The Core and the composer of the recently announced Shining Hearts. It's pleasing such a friendly face is listed so high here.
Works: Secret of Mana, Seiken Densetsu 3, Soukaigi, Shining Hearts
7) Yoko Shimomura (263 Points)
The most popular female game music composer, Yoko Shimomura is another graduate of the Square school of composition. During her early years, the composer got her teeth into many major franchises creating very different scores for Front Mission, Live A Live, Parasite Eve, Super Mario RPG, and Legend of Mana before revisiting and consolidating these works years later as a freelancer. However, her most popular scores are for the Kingdom Hearts series, where she has delightfully depicted frivolous Disney worlds consumed by dark entities. Currently in massive demand by the industry, she is working on five upcoming RPGs, including Radiant Historia, The 3rd Birthday, and Final Fantasy Versus XIII.
Works: Kingdom Hearts Series, Parasite Eve, Last Ranker, Mario & Luigi
8) Yuzo Koshiro (261 Points)
The versatile Yuzo Koshiro isn't primarily known as being an RPG composer, yet he has produced some cracking RPG scores nevertheless. His debut scores for Ys, Ys II, and Sorcerian were comparable in influence and popularity to the great NES scores in Japan during the 1980s. His modernist orchestral scores for Beyond Oasis and Legend of Oasis, developed by his own company, subsequently pushed many compositional and technological boundaries, while his eventually small role on Shenmue is also fondly remembered. Following the recent revival of retro games, Koshiro's music has enjoyed a resurgence of interest on RPGs such as Etrian Odyssey, 7th Dragon, and Protect Me Knight.
Works: Ys Series, Beyond Oasis, Shenmue, 7th Dragon
9) Shoji Meguro (240 Points)
Shoji Meguro is an exceptional entry on this list for several reasons: he is the most recent to debut in the industry, he is the only current in-house composer at a game company, the majority of his works are for a single (giant) franchise, and he mostly composes music influenced by popular rather than classical tradition. His music for Atlus' Megami Tensei franchise is regarded as some of the most innovative in recent times, whether Digital Devil Saga with its industrial guitar riffs, Strange Journey with its cold dissonant orchestrations, or Persona 3 with its sensual J-Pop tunes. The composer has incredible pulling power too, as evidenced by the best-selling soundtrack releases for the latest Persona titles.
Works: Persona Series, Digital Devil Saga, Strange Journey, Catherine
10) Koichi Sugiyama (219 Points)
Sometimes described as 'the grandfather of game music', 79-year-old Koichi Sugiyama is regularly cited by game music composers as an influence. Though not the first RPG composer (as Secret Squirrel points out, Kenneth Arnold was), Sugiyama shaped the direction of all Japanese RPG soundtracks with his "eight melodies" approach to 1986's Dragon Quest. His classical compositions for subsequent Dragon Quest titles have been enjoyed in many games, albums, and concerts. Sugiyama has placed lower than expected on this list for several reasons, including Dragon Quest's low exposure in the West and apparently his controversial nationalist views. Nevertheless, Sugiyama's continuing legacy is an impressive one.
Works: Dragon Quest Series, Hanjuku Hero 2, E.V.O., Shiren the Wanderer
11) Yoshitaka Hirota (209 Points) - Shadow Hearts Series, Glory of Hercules, Faselei!
12) Kenji Ito (144 Points) - SaGa Series, Dawn of Mana, Concerto Gate
13) Noriyuki Iwadare (130 Points) - Grandia Series, Lunar Series, Radiata Stories
14) Jeremy Soule (101 Points) - Elder Scrolls Series, Guild Wars, Secret of Evermore
15) Miki Higashino (85 Points) - Suikoden Series, Tokimeki Memorial, Moon RPG
16) Masaharu Iwata (58 Points) - Ogre Series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Evolution, Odin Sphere
17) Ryuji Sasai (51 Points) - Xak Series, Rudra's Hidden Treasure, Final Fantasy Mystic Quest
18) Go Shiina (44 Points) - Tales of Legendia, Radiant Mythology 2, God Eater
19) Kenneth Arnold (40 Points) - Ultima III, Ultima IV, Ultima V
20) Michiko Naruke (39 Points) - Wild Arms Series, Tenshi no Uta, Beyond the Yellow Brick Road
Many thanks to all those individuals at the different community who participated in the nominations process for this article. Look out for similarly styled articles to be published in the future. Feel free to discuss the results in the forums listed.
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- Info about Nobuo Uematsu