Square Enix. Masters of … sucking my wallet dry by repackaging some of their best work.
Two years ago, Square Enix released a 20th anniversary box set of music for the SaGa series (20 CDs plus one DVD). This time, they’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Seiken Densetsu (or “Mana”) series. Since the series has less music to sport than the previous, we’re down one disc (19 CDs and one DVD), but we get the arranged CDs released (so far) that the SaGa box didn’t get.
Now, this item isn’t exactly a box. It’s more like a book, as the title suggests. This video from my friend Jayson Napolitano at Original Sound Version should give you an idea of how the packaging works. It’s an effective way to keep things consolidated, especially in contrast to the do-it-yourself packaging that the SaGa box offered. In short, I love the packaging. Very nice layout, lots of nice artwork too.
Let’s quickly run down through the contents, and then I’ll give some semi-detailed analysis on each soundtrack. The soundtrack order isn’t based on chronological publishing. Rather, it runs through the four “main” games in the series, then hits up the three “side” titles, and then wraps up with the two arranged albums.
There’s a “Disc 00” DVD which has a great, 10 minute medley orchestral performance, as well as some interview footage. The Sword of Mana Premium Soundtrack is included as discs 2 and 3, and that stupid 8cm single-track bonus disc had its contents folded into disc 3, so that’s good. Also, the two exclusive tracks from “Breath of Mana” (a promotional CD for Seiken Densetsu 4) were stuck at the end of disc 11.
Renaming of albums happened without much hesitation. What used to be referred to as Original Sound Versions are now Original Soundtracks, and the final disc, “Secret of Mana+” just had the plus sign removed altogether. In its place, it’s just called “Seiken Densetsu 2 Arrange Version ~ Secret of Mana.” Alright then.
Here’s the point, though: the collection is mighty close to complete. What’s it missing? Mostly, it’s missing scattered arrangements found on other discs, like “Chill SQ” or “drammatica” or the Kenji Ito piano works album. And, of course, there are those three arrange albums coming in the next few months, one by each of the Mana series’ main composers: Ito, Kikuta, and Shimomura. Completionists like me will probably have to order those out of habit after buying this book.
Well then, let’s get to the music itself.
The 20th Anniversary Medley
The 10 minute medley track, arranged by Sachiko Miyano, gives a fair shake to each of the titles represented on this box. Usually, it’s just one song per game, but a solid minute is given to that song. The “transitions,” if you can call them that, are rather weak. It’s less a medley, and more a collage. There’s nothing done musically to really connect these pieces in a way that makes sense. Miyano-san could take notes from the Symphonic Fantasies arrangements. In any case, though, the orchestra does a fantastic job, and I love watching the video since they put the three composers in the audience, humming along and listening intently to their babies (now all grown up in orchestral form).
Final Fantasy Adventure
What can I say? Kenji Ito was a master of Game Boy chip music. His compositions for SaGa 2 are some of my favorites, but they are blown out of the water by this original score. Rising Sun, Endless Battlefield, Mana Palace, the dungeon and battle themes… sweet merciful Mary, it’s all too much. I’ve said it in other reviews, but I’ll say it here for the uninitiated: when the composer is limited to 3 channels of basic audio input, the onus is placed on the composer to come up with fantastic melodies, catchy bass lines, and sweeping arpeggiations to make up for the lack of real instrumentation. Some of the best music has come because composers have had to get “back to basics” on the Game Boy. Listen to these audio samples for proof.
Sword of Mana
Ito returned over a decade later to upgrade his own work and add some new music in this remake of the original Game Boy classic. Though the GBA synth tends to be little more than a tinny equivalent of SNES and PS1-era sequenced music, it doesn’t matter because the original melodies were so strong. The new tracks, sadly, show their weakness in comparison to the originals. Again, I turn your attention to Mana Palace and Endless Battlefield. These songs are mainstays in my heart.
The Sword of Mana, or “Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu,” soundtrack is categorized into four “Story” sections. I like the layout of the tracklist, it flows very well when listening. Putting the Dwarves’ Theme further out, for example, was a big plus. Too much town music at once can be grating on the nerves.
The second disc for Sword of Mana are actually arranged tracks, but since they were packaged with the OST back in the day, the creators of this book decided to pair it with the OST. First, we have seven reverb-heavy piano arrangements performed by Ito-Ken himself. Then, at the end, there’s a synth orchestra piece of the two big themes from this game: Rising Sun and Endless Battlefield. Be sure to check out “Lost Scene,” which contains the arrangement for Mana Palace. If you haven’t put it together yet, Mana Palace is basically one of my favorite songs ever. It also serves as the game’s final dungeon theme. Few RPGs have had final dungeon themes to surpass Mana Palace, in my opinion.
Seiken Densetsu 2
The game that you probably know better as “Secret of Mana” probably suffered the greatest injustice for this release. Everyone knows that the unlooped, single-disc layout of the OST is bonkers, and that if there was one thing this box set needed to remedy, it was this. I want a two disc SD2 soundtrack, and I want it in this box. Sadly, no such luck. Instead, I’m treated to unlooped, 1-minute versions of some of Hiroki Kikuta’s best compositions. And these were his first (for a videogame)! I wouldn’t call it beginner’s luck per se, but the Secret of Mana soundtrack shines in ways that some of his later works simply couldn’t (see Koudelka, for example).
Part of what makes this soundtrack so great is the unique synth found here. I recently met Kikuta-san at a convention, and he spoke to the problems of the Super NES “FM Synth” system. Basically, you could create your own sound bank, but it had to be super compressed. The level of compression was somewhat flexible, but you were limited as to how much space you got. So Kikuta decided to give high-compression to certain instruments, and low-compression to others. He created his own sound bank with the help of Square’s sound programmers, and the end result is really something special. Anyone who’s listened to the music can attest to this. The opening track gives you chills, the first “overworld” song you hear (“Into the Thick of It”) makes you want to go on an adventure, and the boss battle themes are very catchy.
Seiken Densetsu 3
Of all the Mana games represented here, this is the only one yet to be granted a North American audience. And it’s a shame, because it has a lot to offer. In terms of gameplay, it’s similar to SD2, except there are six characters instead of three, and your adventure is sculpted in different paths depending on whom you choose to be your main and alternates in your three-person party. In terms of music, Kikuta-san used a similar sound bank to the previous game, but wrote over 60 songs this time, so there’s even more love to share.
It should also be noted that, among the soundtracks found in the book, SD3 seems to be strangely hard to find, even with the NTT reprints a few years back. So, if you’re on the fence about this book and you don’t own the SD3 soundtrack, these three discs might be enough to make you go overboard. But you probably only have a few weeks after this review is published to get a copy. Keep your eyes peeled!
The best tracks from this set of music, in my opinion, are the end boss tracks. The three “Sacrifice” tracks, followed by “Reincarnation,” is one of those priceless bits of music, on par with Uematsu’s “Dancing Mad” four-part instrumental rock opera. The good news isn’t just that Kikuta reaches such heights on this soundtrack, but that he nears that same peak elsewhere throughout the SD3 soundtrack.
Seiken Densetsu 4
Oh, how the mighty fall. At least in terms of gameplay. This PS2 title, known to you as “Dawn of Mana,” received low marks in virtually every department. One place it did well, though, was the music. A team led by Kenji Ito, assisted by some of SE’s other (at-the-time) resident musicians, made a soundtrack that rivals Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song. Those are bold words if you know my take on that soundtrack.
The sound quality of the SD4 soundtrack is insane. It sounds lifelike, and that’s because many of the tracks actually have real recording by professional musicians. Electric guitar, drums, violin, piano, winds, vocals … lots of good stuff has been recorded for this soundtrack.
But it’s not just the sound quality. No, the music itself is quite strong. Ito isn’t always one to impress me, but on Dawn of Mana, he really did a great job. Not only that, he also takes music from Kikuta, Shimomura, and himself and arranges it for this new title. Disc 11 has a lot of that, but there’s also some found on the other discs. A beautiful blend of old and new, these four discs are fantastic. They are, however, overwhelming as well. When I first got the Seiken Densetsu Book in the mail, it was around this point I had to stop listening and take a break. This is a lot of music for a single game.
Legend of Mana
This is one of the first soundtracks I owned. Of course, to help pay for college, I sold it within a year of buying it. But now it’s back in the collection. Permanently. I’m happy to have it, because it marks the beginning of my love for Shimomura.
Now, a quick Shimomura history lesson. Discounting her “hidden” work for Capcom (Breath of Fire, some early Mega Man titles), Shimomura’s game music starts with Square. First she did Live A Live (a game that, sadly, still hasn’t come to North America). Then Super Mario RPG. Then Parasite Eve. And then Legend of Mana. It was this game that really got me hooked to her writing style. She is a master of string-based melodic lines. She makes violins sound so awesome, sometimes it hurts. In a good kind of way.
She’s also a master of catchy, syncopated rhythms. Songs like “Earth Painting” and “To the Sea” feature awesome percussion (including pitched percussion, such as marimba) to keep the music moving along in a quick, lively sort of way. Throw some interesting melodic work on top and you’ve got yourself a song, and it doesn’t need any cowbell. Take that Bruce! (or, um, Christopher Walken…).
Fast songs aside, Shimomura also showed a softer side with the vocal theme “Song of Mana” and the beautifully sad “City of Flickering Destruction.” These two discs are the ones I find myself most drawn to. I could listen to these on loop, forgetting that there are 17 other discs in the set. But I promise not to neglect the others. Seriously, I promise!
Children of Mana
This is the only soundtrack I knew nothing about when I ordered the SD book. The soundtrack was previously a digital-only iTunes kind of thing, and up til the present, that just wasn’t my kind of thing. I mean look at me, I’m shelling out the kind of money you could use to buy a new PS Vita to collect music CDs. I’m an artifact kind of guy, here!
Not only that, Children of Mana is the only game in the series I’ve never touched. I never beat Dawn of Mana, but I played enough of it to know I didn’t want anymore. Children of Mana, I never even borrowed or rented this game. I had no interest in it.
The soundtrack is put together by a diverse team. Yes, it’s mostly Kenji Ito, but it also includes work from Masaharu Iwata and Takayuki Aihara. These individuals bring something very special to the table, an added spice that you won’t find elsewhere in the Mana series.
There are some very pretty pieces of music to be found here. Among them, I believe my favorite is disc 15 track 2, “Hymn of Light.” But if you’re willing to search, you’ll find more. There isn’t that much to go through here: 33 songs taking up a little more than 80 minutes of your time. But, being new to me, I found myself enjoying the surprise. I thought the lack of a physical CD release in the past meant the music wasn’t very good. Turns out I was wrong.
Heroes of Mana
Some games have soundtracks that are worth much more than the games themselves. Not just on price point, but in terms of sheer value. One classic Square Enix example of this is UNLIMITED:SaGa. That game was railed against by virtually anyone who bothered to touch the game, but most everyone agrees that Hamauzu’s music for it was fantastic. Such game don’t deserve their awesome soundtrack counterparts. Throw Heroes of Mana into this category, if you please.
Heroes of Mana is some bastardized RTS on the DS with Hero control. It precedes FFXII Revenant Wings, and is basically a very unbalanced, not-so-fun version of said game. I despised Heroes of Mana. Totally, totally disappointed in it.
The soundtrack, on the other hand? Shimomura put her all into this, and the end result is something that nearly reaches the mountaintop experience that is the Legend of Mana soundtrack.
The source material is improved upon even further on the “drammatica” disc, and I suspect Shimomura will also make good use of it in her upcoming Mana series arranged disc. For now, I find myself trying to keep the soundtrack at arm’s length, because I have such bad memories of the game. But if I can instead distance myself from those memories and just enjoy this soundtrack, see it as a bonus extension of the Legend of Mana OST, I think I’ll be in good shape. Seriously, it’s got all the same bouncy stylings, punctuated by heartfelt, swelling, emotional ballad-esque pieces.
Let Your Thoughts Ride On Knowledge
Editor’s note: I’ve been told that this title is translated all wrong by the fans who have attempted to popularize this “Thoughts Ride On Knowledge” thing. I’ve since been told it’s more accurately translated as “Put Your Thoughts To Music.” Heck if I can decide which is better, but I’m sticking with the way we’ve always listed it at RPGFan.
Takayuki Hattori is a godsend. He did the orchestration for this album and another one before it, the “Final Fantasy Symphonic Suite.” These two albums were produced as though they were rivals to Koichi Sugiyama’s massively successful Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites. And gues what? They do rival the DQ albums. And in my opinion, among early DQ, early FF, and this disc, this disc wins. Hands down.
And that’s in spite of the oldschool recording quality and the true-to-form, vanilla orchestration. It’s as I said many paragraphs ago: Kenji Ito wrote his heart out when he made the FF Adventure soundtrack. So translating it to a live orchestral performance just goes to show how absolutely brilliant it really is.
These seven tracks are medley pieces, and throughout them, nearly every song from the old Game Boy soundtrack is given some treatment. Just … listen to them. I can’t put my thoughts to music. Or words. Or knowledge. Just listen. Heck, just buy the album. If you don’t want (or can’t afford) this box, just get the Seiken Densetsu Sound Collection. It has the Game Boy OST and these seven tracks all on one disc. That’s a keeper right there.
Secret of Mana Plus, Minus Plus
It’s been over a decade since I first heard this single-track work of art from Hiroki Kikuta. And I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.
On the one hand, it’s this completely large and inaccessible slice of music with so many style shifts and references to the original source that I get totally lost.
On the other hand, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, and that’s usually what makes me come back for more. I mean, I’ve never heard anyone use water and telephones to make good music like this.
If ever there were an arranged album that was designed to help you lose yourself in the music, this is it. Though Square Enix may have changed the album’s name for this box set, the content has not changed. I just can’t help but wonder, when it comes time for Kikuta to release his new arrange album (which will cover both SD2 and SD3), will it be like this, or something totally different?
Re-Learning To Read
I’m not a big collector of audiobooks. But this is one book you’ll need your ears for. It makes me think differently about collected works. This is such a strange amalgam of music from different composers, across 20 years of videogame history. I really like it, but on the other hand… let’s face it, this thing is expensive. After shipping and handling, I paid nearly $250 for this beast.
Hence, like all things expensive, I have to label it “for collectors only.” But if you’re a serious collector, now’s your chance. This is a fantastic collection, and so close to “complete” for the series, it’s so hard not to jump at the opportunity. And, unless buying this makes it impossible for you to pay your rent, I doubt you’d have buyer’s remorse. There’s just too much good music to keep you occupied for years to come. You’ll note that I said nary a single negative thing about the music itself. And I stand by that critical silence. I have well-respected peers who would disagree with me, as they find fault with this song or the other, this soundtrack or the other – but me? I’m just basking in the glory of the whole set of audio.