With their recent spate of remasters, Square Enix has taken to tossing in more than just a spitshine and some trophies — most of them also involve some degree of tinkering with the original music. Messing with the subject of many folks’ keen sense of nostalgia is never an easy thing, though. Some folks are always bound to swear by “how it used to be” and toss out declarations of “they ruined it!” no matter what changes are made, and certainly there’s some merit to keeping certain aspects of a classic the same (just ask George Lucas).
My philosophy has always been one of “well, if they’re going to make it look nicer, why not make it sound nicer, too?” As the years slide on, I know at least that my own memory has a tendency to upscale graphics and music and affect how I remember the games of yesterday, and so I’ve typically appreciated Square Enix’s “HD music” approach for helping the focus of my nostalgia keep up with the realities of modern tech and sound hardware. That’s not to say that I universally love the new music; Final Fantasy X HD has its fair share of misfires in its reinterpretations, and even some aspects of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 are perhaps not as I would have imagined them.
That said, I consider Kingdom Hearts 1.5’s re-instrumentificated music to be an overall success. Rather than full-on reimaginings of the original material, which was produced via the PlayStation 2’s onboard audio hardware, the sound team (including string orchestra gaQdan) performed the music with live instruments, expanding the sound palette to make for a fuller, more natural sound than was possible when the game original released. The end result is music that retains the charm and simplicity of KH1 without sacrificing a live, orchestral sound. A few tracks here and there reveal their roots more than others, such as “Blast Away! -Gummi Ship II-,” but those are the exception, not the rule.
Tracks like “Bustin’ Up on the Beach” and “To Our Surprise” fare exceptionally well in their new forms, with the former benefitting from a wailing guitar underscoring the melody, which always captured a bit of Shimomura’s earlier work on Super Mario RPG. “To Our Surprise” also does well with the new instrumentation, its bombastic rhythm and crashing percussion perfectly encapsulating the feel of rolling around on the Wonderland walls, whacking Heartless. The world map tune “Precious Stars in the Sky” sounds gorgeous as well, with tinkling chimes and distorted, spacey soundscapes eliciting the same kind of trancelike wonder that actually sailing around the inky blue skies always has.
The series has always had a hit-or-miss relationship with arrangements of existing material, and this was quite evident in the original “This is Halloween,” which touched upon but never quite captured the bouncy, syncopated rhythm of the film’s version. KH1.5’s mix, lacking the irresistible vocals, still doesn’t reach quite the same heights as its inspiration, but the great use of real instruments does set it miles ahead of the original tune. Likewise, “Pirate’s Gigue” sounds fantastic, its use of violin and the richer sounds of the orchestra filling out and really homing in on the sense of swaying back and forth as Sora and pals do battle across a rocking pirate’s galleon.
There’s always been a crowd that focuses solely on the original worlds and material in Kingdom Hearts, and that crowd is probably most concerned with how the latter portions of the soundtrack have turned out, given that it packs in most of the weightier, story-heavy music. “Hollow Bastion” is wonderful, embodying the creeping sense of climax and tension marvelously. This piece was always heavy on the strings, and the use of real ones here brings out the strengths of the piece beautifully. The battle atop the castle with Riku was always underlined by “Forze Del Male,” and it is darker than ever here. The use of real vocals makes the biggest difference in how hard the track hits, and fans will be hard-pressed to avoid breaking out in goosebumps during the bridge at 1:30. “One-Winged Angel,” on the other hand, still sounds a bit tinny. It doesn’t quite capture the fullness of even the Final Fantasy VII original, though it certainly shows improvements from the super synthy PS2 KH1 version.
The finale suite doesn’t disappoint, though. “End of the World” and “Fragments of Sorrow” encompass the hollow feelings of sadness that the surreal purply vistas of the actual End of the World, with the live choir again giving both songs a quality that wraps its sense of unease around the heart of the listener. “A Night on Bald Mountain” benefits simply from no longer being a synthy mess, which was the main offense of the original. Likewise, the final boss track, “Guardando nel Buio” unfolds gloriously, with the real strings, percussion, piano, and choir allowing the melody (which itself makes great reference to many of KH1’s major musical themes) to really breathe.
The last disc focuses on the additional music added in Kingdom Hearts: Final Mix, and features a few selected tracks from 358/2 Days and a single one from Re: Chain of Memories. While there isn’t a whole lot to say about “Disappeared” (though it does reap the general benefit of real performances), the final boss track “Lord of the Castle” sounds fantastic. This song was exclusive to the PS2 remake of Chain of Memories, and the use of real drums and piano bring out all the strengths of the composition. The same can likewise be said of the 358/2 Days tracks, though special mention must be given to the outstanding performances of two of that game’s most poignant pieces, “Musique pour la tristesse de Xion” and “Vector to the Heavens,” which have never sounded better.
And that should be the general takeaway, if you’re curious as to whether or not this album is worth what could initially seem to be a double-dip on the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. The new versions here aren’t bold departures, but they all benefit from the increased fidelity that the live performances bring. The last disc especially collects definitive performances of some of the series’ most powerful melodies. Especially in the case of the 358/2 Days music, it has never been better, even considering the better-than-DS-quality versions found on the previous Birth by Sleep + 358/2 Days soundtrack release. I’d give this one a solid recommendation for fans.