What does a tactical RPG series first released on the SNES in 1993 and one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Queen, have in common? Quite a lot, apparently. I’m talking, of course, about the Ogre Battle games, a collection of five real-time strategy and tactical RPG games whose fantasy elements are inspired by the riff wizardy and melodramatic musings of Brian May and Freddie Mercury.
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I’m gonna hold my hands up here and say that outside of the Queen karaoke line-up (‘Bohemian Rhapsody’! ‘Killer Queen’! ‘I Want to Break Free’!) I’ve not spent much time delving into Queen’s back catalogue of lesser-known bangers. But someone who has is Yasumi Matsuno, the creative tactician responsible for the Ogre Battle saga, Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story, and you’d struggle to find anyone else working in the video game industry that worships Queen as much as he does.
The first title in series, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, lends its name from two of the best tracks on Queen’s prog-rock and fantasy metal sophomore album: ‘Ogre Battle’ and ‘March of the Black Queen’. Similarly, the second entry in the Ogre Battle series, released two years later on the SNES, shares its name with a track from Queen’s A Day at the Races album: ‘Teo Torriatte (Let Us Cling Together)’, while the Rhyan Sea’region in March of the Black Queen is a reference to Queen’s track, ‘Seven Seas of Rhye’.
The references and subtle nods to Queen don’t stop there. You can find them hidden away in the long list of other titles that Matsuno has worked on throughout his career. You start your journey in Vagrant Story on the PS3 with a sword named Fandango, one of the summons in Final Fantasy 7 has a move called Rock You, and the fourth chapter of Final Fantasy Tactics is called Somebody to Love which, you guessed it, is also the name of a Queen song.
While all of this might seem like pretty Stan-like behaviour, it’s worth noting that Queen are hugely popular in Japan. Teo Torriatte was written for their Japanese fans after the band was blown away by the response from fans when they landed in Tokyo for the first time in 1975, with two choruses written in Japanese. Since then, the band made sure they’d visit the country as much as possible on future tours, and have released Japan-exclusive merchandise and compilation albums.
What makes all of this even more interesting, though, is the music in Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen. Similar to how the game is considered a pivotal moment in Matsuno’s career, the game’s soundtrack also marked a major tipping point in the careers of the musical powerhouse that worked on it – Masahuru Iwata, Hayato Matsuo and Hitoshi Sakimoto – with the success of Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen, which sold over 400,000 copies in Japan alone, ensuring the trio went on to achieve great things.
So, do Iwata, Matsuo and Sakimoto share Matsuno’s obsession with Queen? Not exactly, but they were fuelled by a musical diet of prog-rock as well as the synth stylings of Yellow Magic Orchestra. In a Reddit AMA, Sakimoto talks about his love of bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer and early Genesis, while Matsuo loves the music of Rick Wakeman and Tarkus, and had a brief stint playing keys for the Japanese prog-rock band G-Clef – who were influenced by Queen.
Interestingly, the music in Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen is composed in a symphonic style but has all of the fantasy epicness you’d associate with prog-rock. Make sure you give it a listen if you haven’t already, because it’s one of the most impressive soundtracks ever composed for the SNES and even rivals Final Fantasy 6 in terms of sound quality. What makes all of this even more impressive is that some of the composers never received any formal classical music training. Sakimoto basically winged the entire project, admitting in a 2009 interview that he didn’t even know what a harp looked like at the time.
While March of the Black Queen and later entries in the Ogre Battle saga stayed true to the series’ symphonic style, the 2000 release of Ogre Battle Image Album: The Entrance, featuring arranged and ‘inspired by’ music from the series takes an opportunity, like Queen’s second LP, to depart from the sound that many fans will be familiar with in favour of creating a wild prog-rock fantasy album.
The end result is one of the best prog-rock concept albums I’ve heard, basically Ogre Battle’s equivalent of Dream Theatre’s Metropolis Pt. 2. It starts with a narrator setting up the fantasy feuds in the series over a fanfare of marching drums before journeying through a melting pot of synth melodies and polyrhythmic breakdowns interspersed with gorgeous vocal passages from Lisa Ooki, who you may recognise from the Final Fantasy vocal albums.
It’s widely acknowledged by Queen fans that their second LP features some of the heaviest and wildest material the band has ever written. It’s also radically different from the catchy rock anthems you’d typically associate with Queen. If Queen 2 was an opportunity for the rock legends to experiment and lean into their prog-rock tendencies, we can say the same for the Ogre Battle team with Ogre Battle Image Album.
Similar to how Queen 2 has garnered a cult following from Queen fans over the years due to its complex combinations of music styles, I hope more fans of the Ogre Battle games discover this amazing arranged album ahead of the release of Tactics Ogre: Reborn in November.
If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of our Hey! Listen column to uncover more lesser-known stories about music and gaming.