It’s been a long time since I witnessed so much controversy over a remake. And by controversy, I should probably just say “anger.” The HD remake of Secret of Mana garnered a lot more hate than love across the internet. One need not search long before finding someone who claims the game “ruined their childhood experience.” A friendly bit of advice to those making such a claim: the original SNES version did not fall into a vacuum and disappear. It’s on Nintendo’s Virtual Console / eShop for like, eight dollars.
The soundtrack, too, did not go away. In fact, even when playing the remake, you can switch from this upgraded soundtrack back to Kikuta’s original version (with its unique SNES sounds courtesy of Minoru Akao) and relive the soundscape of your childhood days.
Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter. People complained a lot about this OST, and I have a few theories as to why. First, of course, is the “too many cooks” theory. Discounting the musical jingles and the two bonus tracks, this OST has 44 songs and 14 arrangers. That’s an average of 3 arrangements per arranger. Are we working with a consistent soundscape here? Not in the slightest. Compare this to Kikuta’s original work, which is consistent in its soundscape and tends to build on itself throughout the progression of the game, and that may explain your personal disconnect with the audio.
Second is the “crappy frontload” theory. Granted, the very first track (a full orchestral arrangement from Sachiko Miyano) is pure ecstasy. But after that? There are four songs arranged by Daisuke Endo, aka DÉ DÉ MOUSE, before we even hit double digits on the tracklist. And I’ve discovered a near-universal hatred for his work on this soundtrack. I’ve found his previous arrangements (including Love SQ, Last SQ, and Persona 4: Dancing All Night) to be pretty weak as well. But if you’re playing Secret of Mana HD and say to yourself “wow, this music is really grating and irritating,” dollars to doughnuts you are talking about “A Curious Tale,” “Together Always,” and/or “The Color of the Summer Sky.” The Mouse-man rocks some really annoying synths that have this “attempting-but-failing-at-retro” sound. That, and bandoneon all over the place. For those unaware, the bandoneon is like a cousin to the accordion. I’ve anecdotally polled people on the internet, and they tend to agree that these tracks are some of the worst. Strangely, however, people do tend to enjoy what our Mouse-friend did with track 9, “Distant Thunder.” There’s this boss synth bass that sounds like something straight off the Sega Genesis (FM-TOWNS). There are also some beautiful voice samples used. But with that one exception, I really think that the first impression of this OST is ruined by DÉ DÉ MOUSE. Even worse, though, is PinocchioP (real name unknown) arranging “It Happened Late One Evening.” This one is also heard early and often in the game, and it is just the worst. I think there’s a reason this arranger, whose past works are almost exclusively Hatsune Miku songs, only got to arrange one track. Perhaps Kikuta owed them a personal favor?
And now, my third and final theory as to why people have complained about this OST: extended arrangements are unsuitable for towns, dungeons, and battles that the player can run through at breakneck speed. Some of the best arrangers on this OST (Yuzo Koshiro, Noriyuki Kamikura, Tsutomu Narita, and Hiroki Kikuta himself) made these epic songs that are four or five minutes in length before any loops. Basically, they use the original song structure, and then repeat it with some awesome guitar solo or some other elaborations. The music is great to listen to by itself, but in some instances, you may never even get to hear all of it in the game.
Considering all of the above, I’ve come to this conclusion: it’s better not to think of this as an OST at all, but rather as a “Premium Arrange” style tribute album! This paradigm shift in one’s own mind can make the music much more enjoyable.
So let’s hit the reset button and evaluate this soundtrack as though it were a three-disc arranged album. Seriously.
The Secret of Mana three-disc arranged album, released in 2018, features 14 arrangers. These individuals have varying styles and specialties, some of which work well with Kikuta’s original score, others of which…don’t. Among the top-tier arrangers and their respective arrangements, I found myself most impressed by the work of Yuzo Koshiro, Tsutomu Narita, and Noriyuki Kamikura.
You remember Koshiro, right? He did ActRaiser, Streets of Rage, and some other random classics. More recently, he became the singular composer for the entire Etrian Odyssey series. Among his five arrangements, I enjoyed “Dancing Animals” the most. The harmonic guitar sound coming in stereo is great — absolutely excellent to listen to with headphones on! Another good one from Koshiro is the final dungeon music, “One of Them Is Hope.” For me, this track was nearly forgettable in its original form, but it has now become one of my favorite songs.
Tsutomu Narita is perhaps the most underrated composer in VGM right now. He got his start under Nobuo Uematsu as part of The Earthbound Papas, and composed BGM alongside Uematsu on games like Unchained Blades. His rendition of “Secret of the Arid Sands” alone makes him an all-star arranger here. The good news is that Narita actually contributed five songs to this arranged album! On disc two, he offers up some great music with his arrangements of “Eternal Recurrence,” “The Dark Star,” and “Prophecy.” In case memory fails you, “Prophecy” is the music that plays while you are using Flammie in the overworld after a certain point in the game, when there’s a sort of perpetual thunderstorm happening. The backing track sounds like what Hiroki Kikuta arranged for “Secret of Mana Genesis,” and then Narita adds an epic guitar solo atop the whole thing. It will blow your mind. And then you can collect yourself with the opener to disc three, “Whisper and Mantra,” which is certainly one of the most beautiful arrangements on the entire album.
Noriyuki Kamikura has a storied past. For years, he worked under Basiscape (Hitoshi Sakimoto’s group). Then he spent some time doing awesome arranged albums with Falcom (sound team jdk / JDK Band). After that, he got cozy with Kenji Ito and helped make those SaGa “Re:Birth” battle arranged albums sound epic. What does he do for Secret of Mana? For starters, he matches up song-for-song with Narita and Koshiro by offering up five arrangements. Among them, I believe the best are “Mystic Invasion” and the ending credits music “The Second Truth from the Left.” He also handled “Steel and Snare,” which is now a peak-level prog-rock track. That bass is amazing. For real. Dat. Bass.
There are some other great arrangements to be found throughout as well, though I feel that the three arrangers above are consistently awesome. Obviously, Hiroki Kikuta’s self-arrangements are pretty good, though they are often too “safe” to take risks. Then again, he did take “The Oracle” to a whole new level by adding new chants on top of the regular chants. Fun fact: those chants are Balinese Ramayana/Monkey Chants. Be sure to witness this ethnomusicological marvel’s source for yourself: “Kecak.” The bonus version of “Oracle” by Kikuo puts even more chanting into the mix; it’s a little too much at times and definitely disconcerting. But in some ways, it’s every bit as impressive as Kikuta’s renditions, both old and new.
Another fun surprise in this arranged album (not at all the actual OST, remember?) is that vocalist Haruka Shimotsuki showed up to do arrangements with her own vocal performance. Shimotsuki is well known for her vocal work with Gust (Atelier, Ar tonelico, etc.), and she has branched out considerably since then. She does the soft nighttime music “Spirit of the Night” and the post-end-credits song “I Closed My Eyes.”
Beautiful music abounds on this arranged album. If you try to synchronize it with the game, you may not get as much mileage out of it. Many people I know would rather play the game with the original soundtrack than with these arrangements. Wink wink, hint hint…you get the idea. Enjoy the audio samples, and consider adding this one to your collection. For what it’s worth, the packaging to this album is great too. It includes Japanese and English liner notes from composer Hiroki Kikuta. His insights on this audio collection bring even more value to the listening experience.