Editor’s note regarding translation: despite some entries in the Mana franchise now having officially localized song titles via Square Enix Music, most of them do not, and this CD only came with Japanese titles. As such, we are utilizing the refined translations from VGMdb, particularly from user “dancey,” for this album. For example, Legend of Mana’s “Picturesque Landscape” may be known to you as “Earth Painting,” “Cave Painting,” etc. Considering you can find multiple translations of many of these track titles across our reviews, please keep this in mind as you read and check the audio samples.
Trick question: is there such thing as too much Mana?
Answer: like most franchises, a glut in quantity is only problematic when it comes with reduced quality.
In terms of franchise titles, I think it’s safe to say that many fans believe the Mana series (aka Seiken Densetsu) reached its prime ages ago, somewhere between Secret of Mana and Legend of Mana. And now, with the controversial 3D remake of Secret of Mana leaving fans up in arms for “having their childhood dreams destroyed” (grow up, the original didn’t suddenly get deleted from existence), the Mana love/hate debate is as heated as ever.
However, I think I’ve found something on which we can all agree: this 25th Anniversary Orchestra Concert CD is fantastic.
Technically, the CD was released a tad bit late, given that the first game in the franchise (FF Adventure on Game Boy, as you may remember it) was released in Japan in 1990. But, as they say, better late than never.
What’s especially great about this release is that it really covers the games we care about: the main four franchise entries, as well as Legend of Mana. Okay, some of us could have done without SD4 (Dawn of Mana) altogether. Fortunately, even that title doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Newcomers to Mana music will likely delight in pretty much everything here. There’s a great mix of arrangers, a cavalcade of incredible performers, and some great song selection. Of course, ravenous followers like myself may be frustrated with track selection. When I first saw the tracklist advertised, I swore under my breath at the sight of “Hometown of Domina” — already featured on drammatica and the 2015 arrangement album Promise. And I’m sure others may be tired of “Endless Battlefield” (SD1) or “Ruined Sparkling City” (LoM), which have been arranged multiple times in different musical genres over the decades.
But there is a silver lining: even for songs that have received orchestral arrangements in the past, nothing has been “ported” — that is, no orchestral arrangements were reused note for note in this recording. Yes, some of the familiar faces in Square Enix’s orchestral arrangement shortlist are here, and in at least one instance, the arranger from a previous orchestral album is back to arrange the same song. But even then, they change it up, likely because the size and scale of this orchestra is larger than that used for Shimomura albums drammatica and Memória!
An especially pertinent point to consider in any case is this: Seiken Densetsu 3 orchestrated!! To this day, it boggles my mind that of all those specialized arrangement albums Square released during the SNES era, they chose not to do anything with SD3. Meanwhile, Secret of Mana gets overkill-level arrangements, both within and without (for examples of the latter, see Symphonic Fantasies and Prescription for Sleep: Lullabies of Mana). Not to mention, of course, that the HD remake soundtrack for Secret of Mana features 13 separate arrangers and is essentially a gigantic premium-style hodgepodge arrange album. But Seiken Densetsu 3? The only official orchestration it has ever seen was on one of the old Orchestral Game Music Concert albums, and it was a relatively short medley at that.
You can find SD3 in the following places on this album: at the end of the field medley in track 2 (“Swivel”); in the fantastic march “Meridian Child;” in a surprise follow-up to an orchestrated version of LoM’s “Pain the Universe” with “Black Soup;” and finally, as the album’s encore, a two-and-a-half minute arrangement of “Hightension Wire.” It’s hard to say which of these is my favorite. “Meridian Child” certainly fits best for an orchestral album. But “Swivel” came out solid, and “Hightension Wire” is a song I’ve always loved, so I was happy to see it here. But I could go on and on about SD3, including all the additional music I want to hear arranged (final boss please? Sacrifice Pt.1-3!!)
I’d like to make a special note about fast-tempo pieces and orchestras. Generally, these two things don’t mix well, especially for projects like these, where (I suspect) the orchestra gets precious little time to rehearse prior to recording. But goodness gracious, did they pull it off this time. “Meridian Worship” (aka “Meridian Dance” or “Meridian Festival,” the final boss music in Secret of Mana) has this insane melodic section that Kosuke Yamashita gave first to the high-pitched instruments in the wind and string ensembles, and then a second time with xylophones running in unison. Here’s the crazy part: the xylophones can hardly keep up! Traditionally, wind and string ensembles tend to struggle to maintain a quick staccato phrase, while pitched percussion is designed to do exactly that. But in this case, it is the the ensemble that gives the percussion a run for their money. That single phrase (repeated twice throughout the arrangement) gets me excited every time I hear it. But honestly, Yamashita’s arrangement is altogether wonderful.
Equally impressive, and a place where the xylophones redeem themselves, is the second half of the track 4 medley. This is the regular boss theme of Secret of Mana, “Crisis,” arranged by Sachiko Miyano. I had my doubts about both the arranger and the performers in making this work. But man, did they nail it. And I shouldn’t have doubted. After all, it was Sachiko Miyano who made that stellar opening recording for the Secret of Mana remake (“Fear of the Heavens” on the SD2 remake OST).
Strangely enough, that same song appears on this album (translated as “Angel’s Fear”) as the first part of the medley that contains “Meridian Child.” This medley, by the young arranger Naoya Iwaki (who also arranged track 2’s field medley and track 7’s “sorrow” medley), is great in that both of the themes start in a very sparse place but eventually build themselves to the full grandeur that most listeners and fans would recognize.
Bottom line: every song on this album, and every arrangement, is of a very high quality. The only thing one could ask for, ironically, is more of the same. I laugh as I write this statement and point you back to this review’s opening “trick question.” Meanwhile, maybe Square Enix will grant my wish with a full Seiken Densetsu 3 arranged album. Or hey, maybe a Piano Opera Seiken Densetsu 1-3. The possibilities are endless. But if you do it, Square Enix, be sure to do it right!