Following the 2019 release of Collection of Mana, which brought 1995’s Seiken Densetsu 3 to Western shores for the first time under the name Trials of Mana, Square Enix also fully remade the classic RPG in 2020. As if that wasn’t enough for series fans, a concert was broadcast online in June 2021, celebrating the game and its incredible music for its 25th anniversary. In October 2021, Square Enix published this album, the Seiken Densetsu 3 25th Anniversary Concert CD (well, two CDs, actually), so we could all take the beautifully rearranged soundtrack selections home.
Hiroki Kikuta made magic with the Super Famicom sound chip in 1995, finding exciting ways to push the system and its cartridge format to distill passion into — and connect players with — the world, battles, and poignant moments of Trials of Mana. It is no small feat to take that original 16-bit soundtrack and arrange it for the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra. But Sachiko Miyano’s track record of helming arrangements and orchestrations for several massive series (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts, Xenogears) and soundtracks since 2004 made her perfect for the task. The transition is remarkable, providing listeners with an audible experience worthy of the Mana franchise. Miyano’s arrangements take beloved pieces of Kikuta’s work and make them sound fuller, with each song painting a rich tapestry of life in Trials of Mana.
Trials of Mana has a wonderfully fantastical world, and much of that whimsy comes from the music, a diverse collection of compositions that make each setting dynamic and exciting to visit, despite songs appearing in multiple locations. “Powell” is one of the earliest tracks players hear, bringing curiosity and danger to the Rabite Forest and Duskmoon Forest. Already brilliant, this orchestral arrangement is a stunning glow-up, amping up the playfully jazzy bossa nova vibe in the percussion alongside the woodwinds, while the strings and brass maintain the tension of these untamed wilds.
“Whiz Kid ~ Another Winter” is one of several medleys, taking two captivating pieces that are thematically quite different. The conflict between the kingdoms playing host to these musical themes is all that links them. The most notable changes are how it starts in a delightfully subtle fashion with a lone flute followed by the noble horn before the rest of the orchestra quietly builds the piece. It maintains its regal, stately might, capturing the spirit of the city of Valsena before a lovely little reprise slows it down to match the rhythmic, chilly march of the latter piece. Capturing the tone of the frigid northern lands around Altena, this arrangement varies little at first. But after one loop, it changes dramatically with the fullness of more woodwind voices backing the medley. Having a fuller orchestra heightens the drama and sense of adventure, transporting listeners immediately to those snowy fields. “Powell” and “Whiz Kid ~ Another Winter” are by no means lone exceptional tracks, but are favorites that play a wonderful role in showcasing how standout Kikuta is at giving each destination a great deal of character. And while designed to be listened to in succession, Miyano has expertly crafted them into standalone pieces.
The many stirring moments in Trials of Mana‘s story set it apart from its predecessor. The storytelling was far better, with a more interesting overall scenario drawing players in. So when the party finally reaches the base of the Mana Tree and success seems within the heroes’ grasp, one cannot dismiss the whimsical charm and grace of “Delicate Affection” accompanying that moment. Hearing those piano notes and the peaceful, hope-filled flute stirs the heart every time. Thirty seconds in, you swoon as the rest of the orchestra joins. Then the brass builds to accentuate that incredible moment the party pulls forth the Sword of Mana from its resting place to restore peace to the world, despite those final, menacing notes and oppressive percussion hinting at something sinister to come.
The battle themes of Trials of Mana have never felt so thrilling as when played by the orchestra. The stakes are high in “Nuclear Fusion ~ Positive,” amplified for the stage with vigorous performances from each section. Cymbals ignite the piece, with the pivotal percussion maintaining the pace of the battle theme and supplying bombastic, explosive emphasis throughout. The trumpets and horns are exceptional, making the piece sound larger than life, juxtaposed occasionally by woodwinds to relieve the tension. Then, around a minute and a half, listeners have a moment to breathe as the arrangement switches things up. Strings fully take over, giving a false sense of security where it seems like the tempo slows (it doesn’t) while we have a longer break in the tide of battle to regroup with the heroes. But the action mounts once more thirty seconds later. It’s an energizing piece with small, nuanced ornamentations setting it apart from the original, suitably capped off by transitioning into the triumphant melody suggesting the party has won a well-fought battle. Proud horns sing of victory in the face of evil and, if you listen carefully, the triangle gets its due course.
But we cannot discuss battle themes on this album without sharing the riveting, dramatic experience of the “Meridian Dance ~ Meridian Child” encore performance. As soon as those first ten seconds of running notes hit the ears, any fan of Secret of Mana knows what’s in store. That fated contest against the fabled Mana Beast was an epic, challenging finale, with Kikuta’s work scoring the high-stakes battle perfectly. Miyano’s arrangement captures the highs and lows with aplomb, and the orchestra gives it an incredibly memorable performance. The electrifying flute trills, soaring horns, and driving percussion leave goosebumps with every listen, drawing you into the nostalgia of late-night victories before an old tube television. But it doesn’t end with the heights of that thrilling encounter, as a smooth transition carefully and calmly moves into the title theme for Trials of Mana. While listeners hear it earlier on the track, why not feature two incredible tracks for the price of one? Miyano does nothing different in this medley, as it still plays closely to the original Super Famicom version, except now with the full strength of an orchestra stirring you to action after that beautiful sweeping, romantic one-minute build. It’s the same arrangement heard earlier in the collection until the last twenty seconds. They’re a rousing build to end a stunning performance by the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra, leaving us with chills.
Just as iconic as the “Meridian” themes is the callback in “Angel’s Fear,” harkening to the title theme of Secret of Mana, the first piece many of us heard from Kikuta (if it didn’t make you a fan, goodness knows what else would!). While Kikuta took the song in a new direction instrumentally in Trials of Mana, Miyano’s arrangement is a happy marriage to the tone of SoM‘s version, which is not a complaint! That mystical opening piano hints at something sacred and primal before the piece opens up into its full majesty. With flutes, brass, and bells singing out, igniting the adventurous spirit before the telltale violin and strings cut the tempo in a wonderful denouement accented by the clarinet that will send any fan right back to their childhood. Kikuta attempted to instill a lot of heart where he could in both Secret and Trials, and these two songs are a testament to his success. They are timeless pieces that Miyano gives adequate reverence to in her arrangements, sounding incredible in this orchestral performance.
The Seiken Densetsu 3 25th Anniversary Concert CD is a triumphant celebration of a fantastic game. Every musician expressed so much care and passion in these performances that the only way to improve upon the listening experience is to have been there for the live show in 2021. Miyano is an expert in her craft, oscillating between staying true to Kikuta’s original work and adding subtle variations that give some pieces more vibrancy, leaving her mark on them. With or without the context of playing Secret of Mana or Trials of Mana, listeners will likely delight in each second of this two-CD set as it transports them to a wondrous land full of rabites, dragons, magic, and a reverence for all life.