I cannot tell you how sad I am, in this moment, wherein I sit down to write about the SaGa 2 DS remake soundtrack.
The original soundtrack for SaGa 2 (Final Fantasy Legend II), back in the glory days of Game Boy chiptunes, was one of my favorites. Its only rival, in my mind, was the Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure) soundtrack, also by Kenji Ito. SaGa 2 is a joint work between Ito and Uematsu, and for years, it has held loads of untapped potential. The game itself is fantastic as well, which is perhaps why Square Enix added it to their roster of “games we will remake.” Unfortunately, things didn’t go as I had hoped they would.
There were two directions they could go with the DS remake “Goddess of Destiny” soundtrack that would have pleased me. In one direction, they could have pushed for an homage to the game’s chiptune roots, working in those classic 4-bit, 3-channel tracks atop improved percussion, and maybe some guitar solos. This would’ve sounded great. Alternately, they could’ve gone all-out with real instruments, like that other series remake (Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-). Minstrel Song had guitar, trumpet, a female vocalist, violins, piano, all sorts of live instruments that appeared frequently on the four disc soundtrack.
The opening tracks of the album suggested they were going the latter route. Which, as I said, would have been totally fitting. The new theme on the first track is a great (synthesized) orchestral/march theme. It’s very bombastic, and very powerful. Then, live instruments are used to record Uematsu’s classic SaGa theme, “The Legend Begins.” The violin solo is beautiful, and the track goes on for four and a half minutes. That’s the red carpet treatment I’m talkin’ about! If the rest of the soundtrack had followed the footing of these two tracks, I really would have been happy. That’s what this game, and its score, truly deserve.
But that’s not what we got. Instead, we got sound design and music manipulation from the staff at RACJIN-RADIX (the people that worked on the Fullmetal Alchemist titles), and they essentially determine the soundscape of the pieces, even with Ito’s touches of arrangements and a few new original compositions added for the DS remake. What we get is a third path, something that I feared might happen. It’s a “synth upgrade” soundtrack. It sounds like a bastardized cousin of the Super Famicom FM synth, or a PlayStation (one) soundtrack. If there’s one bit of musical territory this score should not tread upon, it’s that. Truth be told, the compositions are far more interesting in their original Game Boy format than on this new arrangement. That’s my take on it.
A few tracks come out alright, even with the limitation of the sound set. “Searching For the Treasure” is the overworld music in SaGa 2, and it would be hard to screw up this one, since it’s so perfect. I actually liked the arrangement here. The synthesized instrumentation didn’t bug me too much. But things started to go downhill from here.
While the standard battle theme (track 6) got out with only a few bruises, I don’t know what they were thinking when they tackled “Theme of the New God” (track 15). This song sounded amazing on the Game Boy, but the synths they used here are just too much. The only thing that works is the percussion. That 16th note run ought to be given to strings, right? Like, a very talented string ensemble. A real live one, at that.
And I’m not even going to touch on the rest of the album. Instead, I need to bring up, in my opinion, what ought to be done. When Seiken Densetsu was released nearly 20 years ago, a seven track orchestral CD was released. And it was absolutely brilliant. If there’s one thing we know about both Ito and Uematsu, it’s that their source compositions are brilliant and memorable, but they do far better in collaboration with expert orchestral arrangers. Whether it’s Takayuki Hattori, Shiro Hamaguchi, or someone else, that’s where their music really shines. The three Romancing SaGa titles each had arranged albums, and they really brought Ito’s melodies to life. Same can be said of Seiken Densetsu Sound Collections, and of Uematsu’s early Final Fantasy scores. And this album wouldn’t have to have been fully orchestrated. Just have more live instruments, like in Minstrel Song, and I could’ve gotten past the cheesy subpar DS synth.
This DS remake was the perfect opportunity to give these pieces the all-star treatment. But we didn’t get it. Instead, we get a half-assed synth upgrade led by the guys at RACJIN and Kenji Ito (who, let’s face it, isn’t exactly the master of rearranging his own work). I’m totally disappointed. I can still enjoy listening to the CD if I put my mental musical wishlist on hold, but I’d rather just go back and listen to the Game Boy soundtrack, as I prefer the melody in its raw form.