When it comes to RPG music, the most important pieces to me are the battle themes. Considering that I spend more time in combat than anything else and hear battle themes multiple times over, they have to be so good that I never tire of them. I’m not all that familiar with the SaGa games beyond SaGa Frontier, so I was curious to listen to this soundtrack and gain more insight into the SaGa series. Along with the familiar SaGa Frontier, this soundtrack also features music from the SaGa games known as Final Fantasy Legend II and III, the upcoming Imperial SaGa, Romancing SaGa 3, and Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song.
The SaGa series is a curious animal — very different from, say, Final Fantasy. To me, SaGa is more complex, more quirky, less bombastic, and more freeform/stream-of-consciousness than Final Fantasy. I was fascinated by SaGa Frontier’s vast world, which had medieval castles in one place and airplanes and shopping malls in the next. This bizarre melding of disparate elements worked, and I felt the same sense of wonder with the music. It’s a series that requires a different mindset and has to grow on you. I feel the same way about the music I heard here. This isn’t music that will instantly make you bang your head, jump around the room, or get stuck in your head thanks to a hooky “money riff” that’s easy to recognize and hum. No, this is music that is more thoughtful in its intensity and more varied in its motifs. There is no one dominant musical style here, and several pieces meld a variety of styles together.
The first track, by Nobuo Uematsu, is perhaps the most curious animal of the bunch. It starts out sounding like something out of Soul Hackers and has a very modern sound throughout its course, even when reverting to more traditional melodies. It’s a medley of pieces from SaGa 2: Hihou Densetsu, released as Final Fantasy Legend 2 for Game Boy. The game’s world has disparate elements of swords and sorcery as well as guns and mecha technology, and this medley brings those diverse elements together quite nicely.
The rest of the pieces are by Kenji Ito and are true exercises in genre blending and bending. Some pieces are synth driven, others more guitar driven, others put strings like violins and cellos to the forefront. Some of the cooler pieces, like the final track, feature deft flamenco guitar licks with funky basslines and drum beats. There is so much to hear in these pieces that I picked up something new every time I listened to this soundtrack. Most interesting are the pieces like “Vanguard Liftoff!” that have elements not found in traditional battle themes. The early part of that song, with its slow tempo and more evocative melody, feels less like a fight and more like a sweeping camera pan over the battlefield before the epic battle begins. It was not until recently that a more SaGa-savvy colleague told me that “Vanguard Liftoff!” is an event theme that snuck its way into the party, but it’s pretty cool, so it can most definitely stay.
Several pieces also have vocals in them that evoke stylized representations of battle cries of war chants. The vocalist doesn’t sing words, but rather just rings out notes and syllables such that the voice becomes its own instrument. The vocals could be loosely compared to scat style singing, but it’s truly the vocalist’s own idiosyncratic style. My aforementioned SaGa-savvy colleague told me that the vocalist, Kyoko Kishikawa, also showcased her talents on the original Minstrel Song soundtrack.
Perhaps due to familiarity with them, my favorite pieces are the SaGa Frontier pieces: “Battle #4,” and the final battle themes for Red and Emilia. Red’s and Emilia’s paths were my personal favorites in SaGa Frontier, so I was very glad to hear them. Red’s theme is brash and in your face, whereas Emilia’s is more restrained though still quite intense. Emilia’s theme is a favorite of mine, because not only does the piece go in several emotional directions (much like Emilia herself), but there are some great hooks that stuck with me. The pieces from Minstrel Song are great too, especially “A Piece of Courage.” I love how that piece soars. Really, though, every track is an absolute winner and deserves multiple listens.
What else can I say about the soundtrack except that it is fantastic and you should listen to it? The music may not be for everyone, since it’s more layered with more complex melodies and harmonies than more radio-friendly rock or pop songs with immediate hooks, but the same analogy could be made about the games. In both cases, if you give SaGa a chance to grow on you, you will appreciate its quirky, unconventional, and inventive take on JRPG style.