If there’s one composer who has always stood out among the plethora of game music composers, it’s Koichi Sugiyama. He has succeeded in what many composers have failed miserably to do: he is able to compose classical game music. It doesn’t sound that hard, does it? If you knew how much training it takes to be able to do this, you’d see why it’s not such an easy thing to do. Luckily, Mr. Sugiyama has professional training in writing classical music, and his newest creation, Dragon Quest VIII is arguably leaps and bounds better in terms of sound quality and composition than its predecessor, Dragon Quest VII.
There’s your obligatory Dragon Quest themes on here (“Overture,” “Intermezzo”) and there are some tracks on this album that have been taken from previous Dragon Quest albums; “Fly to the Heavens” and “Boogie Woogie in the Bar” were originally on the Dragon Quest III soundtrack, but they were taken and arranged to the fullest extent here. Being a big fan of Sugiyama, I can’t complain, as these are some darn good tracks to begin with.
As far as sound quality goes, this is the best sounding Dragon Quest soundtrack to date. Since Dragon Quest VII was supposedly designed for the SNES, it had some sound issues, but all the instruments in Dragon Quest VIII are clear as a bell, and provide an unrivaled sense of realism, even though the instruments themselves are not real. I am a big fan of the flute that he uses (heard in “Peaceful Community”) and his string & brass samples are one of a kind. There truly is no other composer like Sugiyama.
This is a pretty easy-going album, and there’s nothing too hard on the ears. There are slow, beautiful ballads (“Pulling the Coach,” “These Feelings”), moody themes (“Creeping Shadow,” “Alchemy Pot”), and bouncy character themes (“Off You Go, Topo!”). Every song sounds great, but the instrumentation seems a bit limited. Every instrument is used the same way, with the exception of the strings and oboe.
Sugiyama is the master of thoughtful chords. The song “Tower of Mystery” completely won me over. It is unlike anything Sugiyama has ever written, filled with wondrous chords and great suspense. Sugiyama also took another compositional turn with “Fun Casino,” really cool swing piece that reminds you of the big band era. And even though Sugiyama took some new routes, he still remains loyal to his fans. The song “Royal Palace of Gavotte (Night)” sounds like something he’s written before, but it’s very fresh. The nasally harpsichord he uses reminds me strongly of Mozart.
But unfortunately, I can’t keep talking about the good things on this album. Sugiyama can imitate different musical styles like no tomorrow, but I’ve always thought his ‘urgency’ and ‘battle’ themes sounded hokey and stupid. Sure enough, it’s the same here. It’s almost impossible to take any of these types of songs (“Break Through the Barrier,” “Go Topo,” and “Raising the War Cry”) seriously. Maybe that’s the way Sugiyama meant to compose them…but they still don’t sound any better. The only exception to this is the final battle theme, “Battle in the Heavens,” which actually DOES sound like a battle theme.
Another thing that bothered me about the album was the inclusion of the Sound Effect tracks. This has always been tradition with Dragon Quest albums, but it’s a tradition that Sugiyama needs to ditch. The last twenty tracks on the second disc are short fanfares and jingles that did not appeal to me in any way. I don’t imagine they would appeal to anyone else, either (although their sound quality is great). The sound effect tracks aren’t anything that you haven’t heard before in an RPG, so I recommend skipping them.
Battle themes and sound effects aside, this is a great album. Dragon Quest VIII proves that Koichi Sugiyama still has what it takes to run with the big boys, and furthermore, he’s possibly starting to evolve. Hopefully we’ll see a Symphonic Suite of this one in the future.