This is an article that very nearly did not get written.

Several months ago, Matthew Lee and I discovered that the Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy concert was coming to Newark, New Jersey for the 10th anniversary of the concert series – and the 30th anniversary of the release of the original Final Fantasy. Both of us are big fans of the franchise, and seeing as neither of us were going to be one of the lucky 200 to be chosen to attend the official 30th anniversary Opening Ceremony in Roppongi (as we weren’t registered Square Enix members residing in Japan), we thought it would be nice to celebrate the Lunar New Year with an evening of video game music.

While neither of us live in Newark, it was certainly closer to where we lived than Roppongi, so we bought our tickets and made plans to join more than 2000 others at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on the evening of January 28th.

True, Newark wasn’t somewhere we normally had cause to visit, but given that it was a major city, the 50th largest in the country in fact, we figured getting around there be simple enough. My colleague would be coming in by train, arriving a few hours before the concert, and I’d be making my way to Newark by car. What could possibly go wrong, right?

But the great demon Murphy was not to be denied, and on the fateful day of the concert, we nearly ended up missing the concert altogether, due to a ridiculous comedy of errors that is only amusing in hindsight.

First of all, as the hour to leave approached, my car failed to start, as it had apparently been sufficiently cold that the battery was too drained to turn over the ignition. Worried about making it to Newark in time to meet up with my colleague, (as well as concerned about getting stranded if my car decided not to start post-concert) I elected to borrow the nearest car and start driving down. Naturally, my desire to avoid being overly tardy was thwarted by a spot of traffic. Not as bad as that around Los Angeles or New York, true, but dense enough that I wouldn’t be going above the speed limit any time soon.

Resigned to being late, I informed my colleague of the situation, though he reassured me that the train was running somewhat late, I’d still be arriving when he did. Somewhat relieved by this, I made my way to Penn Station in Newark, where I parked and waited for my colleague’s arrival.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

I began to get worried. Had the Amtrak derailed or broken down? Had he suffered an aneurysm, as Rahul had while playing a delightful game called SPARX?

Eventually, he called me, telling me somewhat sheepishly that he’d ended up at the Penn Station in New York, instead of the one in Newark, and was making his way back.

The evening continued on in this vein, with one mishap after another until we finally arrived at the New Jersey Performance Arts Center and made our way to our seats with minutes to spare. We admired our surroundings long enough to snap a picture before that familiar opening theme began.

Woes forgotten, it was time for magic.

Ronald Mina: One of the most fascinating aspects of Distant Worlds is how the music is the gateway to the universes many players have journeyed. Nobuo Uematsu and his heirs have, with few missteps, known how to create magic that leads the player to wholeheartedly jump into the adventure. During the concert, a large screen plays video highlights related to the piece. The visuals are usually severely antiquated, but the Final Fantasy music quickly and decisively leads us to remember our bonds with our companions across so many worlds.

The show began with a bit of a sneak attack. Nobuo Uematsu ran on stage, took a quick bow as the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation, then beat a hasty retreat backstage. The Final Fantasy Opening began to play, with quick highlights from each game, in order. The crowd was a bit timid at first, but burst into spontaneous cheers once Final Fantasy VIII appeared, followed by a sustained applause for Final Fantasy IX, and loudest of all, Final Fantasy X. I suppose that shows how many became fans in the PlayStation 2 era, but not to worry: once “JENOVA Complete” began, we old fogy FFVII fans showed the young’uns how to really cheer.

Apart from the music, it’s indeed the companions who may be one of the most fascinating parts of the spectacle. As we made our way through the rather well-dressed crowd of folks waiting to be seated, I spotted at least two heavily pregnant women with their mates. I would certainly say those children are being raised right! Behind my seat, there was an unlikely trio: a middle-aged father with his blonde ten-year-old daughter, accompanied by the man’s Asian girlfriend. The father had gotten the girlfriend into Final Fantasy XIV, and as she flipped through a slim artbook, she asked about Final Fantasy XIII. After the concert, I saw an elderly couple walk past, each armed with a Moogle plushie. I also spotted an Aeris, a Zidane, and two Garnets. Of course, once we were asked if we might want a bit more, our two thousand voices were unified into one word: YEAH!

Matthew Lee: Among the musical highlights was a live version of “Answers”, the song that played as during the last cutscene of Final Fantasy XIV, in the final moments before the servers shut down. Having heard it for the first time in the company of thousands bearing witness to the end of a world (cutscene starts from 5:20), in what may have been the most poignant cutscene to ever come out of a MMORPG, I wondered if the performance at Distant Worlds would – or even could – live up to it.

But…even with my high expectations, I wasn’t disappointed. Susan Calloway‘s voice is even more impressive in person, with the efforts of the Distant Worlds Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus – and the rapt attention of audience combining to create an almost spiritual experience, bringing me back to the final minutes of FFXIV. It’s not every day you see a world end, but more than that, not every day you know that out of tragedy comes rebirth, and grief comes hope.

When I heard “Answers” for the first time, I and the thousands of others sharing the experience with me, didn’t know what would come next. As glorious as the cutscene was, we didn’t know if A Realm Reborn would be worthwhile, or if this would be the final end of XIV’s legacy. Hearing it again, live, knowing that after destruction came hope, and that today millions of people – thousands of which were in the audience with me that night – play and enjoy A Realm Reborn, knowing that Square Enix delivered on their promise to make up for the failures of XIV was edifying.

Ronald Mina: A powerful moment we both agree on was the performance of the legendary “One Winged Angel” as the encore piece. Conductor Arnie Roth asked for the audience’s help in giving a bit of extra punch to part of the lyrics. Not the intro or the chorus, not the Latin bits like Estuans interius ira vehementi, but a single word.

A name.

Seph-i-roth!

Nobuo Uematsu on stage demonstrating the proper intonation of Sephiroth was good fun, but when the song began in earnest, it was our time. Two thousand voices cried out as one: Sephiroth!

Interview with cosplayer Drifting by Stars
At the conclusion of the concert, we had the good fortune to encounter the cosplayer Drifting by Stars, dressed as Aeris from Final Fantasy VII. We managed to secure a brief interview as hordes of impressed Final Fantasy fans approached the talented young lady and asked to take her picture. Here are her words:

What’s your opinion of Final Fantasy’s music?
It’s some of the greatest music I’ve ever heard!

What was your first exposure to Final Fantasy music?
When I was younger, I’d heard the music and thought it was great. What really got me and got me into the music was when I was playing Final Fantasy VII and heard Interrupted by Fireworks. Later, I heard the Final Symphony version, the orchestrated one, and that changed everything.

What moment from the concert struck you the most?
Three moments really struck me. First was “Eyes on Me,” hearing it live was incredible. The second was “Cosmo Canyon,” I loved Cosmo Canyon and exploring it when I played the game. Hearing it reorchestrated just felt so right. Last was “To Zanarkand,” that is always going to be one of my favorites. The reorchestrated version is mindblowing. It gets me every time.

Would you want to see it again?
I hope I can come back soon. I want them to come to again. It was incredible and I really want to see it again.

What are you doing after the concert?
I’m going home to finish Final Fantasy XV! I’m almost to the end and will finish it tonight. Final Fantasy VII is my favorite but XV is threatening to overtake it.

Musician Credit

  • Arnie Roth, conductor and music director
  • Nobu Uematsu, composer-in-attendance
  • Susan Calloway, vocalist
  • Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra
  • The Crossing Choir

Concert Song List

  • Final Fantasy Opening Theme (Orchestrated)
  • Torn From the Heavens (FFXIV)
  • After The Prelude (FFXIV)
  • Final Fantasy Victory Fanfare
  • Character Theme Medley (FFVI)
  • Eyes On Me (FFVIII)
  • Dalmasca Estersand (FFXII)
  • Roses of May (FFIX)
  • Apocalypsis Noctis (FFXV)
  • Dragonsong (FFXIV)
  • Final Fantasy 25th Anniversary Chocobo Medley
  • JENOVA complete (FVII)
  • Not Alone (FFIX)
  • Cosmo Canyon (FFVII)
  • Answers (FFXIV)
  • To Zanarkand (FFX)
  • Final Fantasy Battle Theme Medley (FFI thought FFXIV)
  • Final Fantasy Opening Theme (FFXII version)
  • One Winged Angel (FFVII)