SQUARE ENIX SaGa Series 20th Anniversary Original Soundtrack -PREMIUM BOX-

 

Review by · September 11, 2009

Introducing…

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen. The single largest game music release in the history of the genre. The box includes 20 CDs, with over 19 hours of music, as well as a bonus DVD, and a ton of seemingly extraneous packaging. Before discussing the music from this long-running “black sheep” series, let’s talk about that packaging.

A do-it-yourself adventure

The SaGa series is notorious for not holding your hand. The worlds are open-ended, character stats are largely unexplained, and special attacks are learned seemingly at random. It is in this same spirit that Square Enix put together a giant box that holds, among other things, materials to build another box to hold the 20 CDs in their cardboard sleeves.

Now, an instruction sheet came inside the box to explain how to fold all of the cut cardboard and create the box. Unfortunately for me, that instruction sheet is in Japanese (with one exception: there is one English sentence that basically says “if you’re a child, get your parents to help”). I wish I had Japanese parents to help me. Instead, my wife and I sat on the floor and worked for well over an hour, trying to discern the meaning of the images on the sheet. Fold by fold, placing one piece of cardboard atop another, and then finally folding the cube-shaped box around the accordion-style sleeves, was quite a task. But the end result is actually quite stunning.

The box also includes a stand-up display of beautiful artwork (see photo below the tracklist) from series artist Tomomi Kobayashi. This art, alongside the art found on all 21 cardboard sleeves for the disc, make for a fantastic visual collection.

Navigating this box truly is an adventure of RPG-sized proportion. Between assembling the packaging, finding a place to properly display my goods in the house, listen to all the music, and watch the DVD, I’ve spent as much time on this as I would on a traditional RPG.

Want to get to the music? Me too, but first, let’s touch on an important question…

What’s unique?

Besides the packaging, there’s obviously the DVD. It contains a 30 minute interview with all of the composers of the series, as well as director Akitoshi Kawazu and the aforementioned artist Tomomi Kobayashi. The interview is entirely in Japanese, and its contents are essentially the staff of Square Enix commenting on memories of creating the music for each game and their thoughts on the music of the series, 20 years since it started.

The CDs themselves are largely duplicates of the following albums: “All Sounds of SaGa,” “Romancing SaGa Original Sound Version,” “Romancing SaGa 2 Original Sound Version,” “Romancing SaGa 3 Original Sound Version,” “SaGa Frontier Original Soundtrack,” “SaGa Frontier II Original Soundtrack,” “UNLIMITED:SaGa Original Soundtrack,” and “Romancing Saga -Minstrel Song- Original Soundtrack.” Note that the new DS remake of Saga 2, “Goddess of Destiny,” is not included in this box set. Its soundtrack was released a few weeks later as a separate release.

“All Sounds of SaGa” was originally a two disc collection. Now they are broken into three discs, one per game. Also, the “SaGa Arrange Version” bonus track (that used to appear at the end of disc two, after the Saga 3 OST) now appears (more appropriately) at the end of the first SaGa soundtrack, which is the end of disc one in this collection.

The only truly exclusive tracks to be found are all on disc nine. There are seven bonus (“Omake”) tracks there, which were left unnamed in the packaging. Fortunately, the titles of these tracks were identified using the “Jukebox” mode from the game itself (unlocked, alongside a whole bunch of other fun stuff, after beating the game with all seven characters). These seven tracks (31 to 37 on disc nine) are generally short, and some of them are just shorter cuts of themes already found on the OST. It’s worth noting that there are plenty of other little “unreleased” tunes throughout the entire SaGa series that one might find in complete game-rip sound sets but not on official soundtracks. Why these seven got added, but others did not, is a mystery.

Disc eleven (also SaGa Frontier) retains its negative-track-time “track 0” bonus track, “Theme of Coon.”

The naming of the tracks on SaGa Frontier II (now listed as Saga Frontier 2, despite the packaging of the original release) are based on the revised names from the Square Enix reprint of the original DigiCube-printed soundtrack. There were about eight tracks that got renamed in that revision, mostly minor changes to correct the German grammar.

Also, regarding naming, the technical spelling of “SaGa” for the first six games (everything up to SaGa Frontier) includes a bullet point between the two syllables: “Sa•Ga.” It’s strange that the company chose to hold to this naming convention, as though there was some difference between “Sa•Ga” and “SaGa.” Yet, the bullet point persists on all packaging notes for those first six games. For the sake of consistency, our review will refer to the games simply as “SaGa,” regardless of which era they come from.

And that’s it. A few new tracks, some re-ordered tracks, and some renamed tracks, and otherwise it’s nothing more than eight separate releases bundled into one.

But you know what? These soundtracks are true classics. Everyone knows and enjoys music from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. But what about the underdog of Square Enix RPGs? Enjoyment of the actual games is, if I may say so, an “acquired taste.” That is, you generally have to be a glutton for punishment, and you need to have the free time to figure out how to properly progress through the game. You basically have to be willing to restart, and retry, many things, with many characters, many times. But the music? Unlike the games themselves, the soundtracks (largely composed by Kenji Ito) are quite accessible. And though they certainly get more sophisticated with newer entries, even the original tracks are solid. So now, allow me to present my thoughts on each game’s soundtrack.

Makaitoushi (Warrior in the Tower of the Spirit World) SaGa

Known to Americans as “The Final Fantasy Legend,” the 1989 Game Boy classic that started it all has music written entirely by Final Fantasy’s music man, Nobuo Uematsu. The music composed for this game would serve as a basis for the rest of the series, much of which has music by Kenji Ito. The “Prologue” theme would be found later as “The Legend Begins” in many other SaGa titles. “Eat the meat” would remain the victory theme for the other Game Boy games. And, most significant of all, “Wipe Away Your Tears” (sometimes translsated as “Heartful Tears”) would appear in nearly every game throughout the series (only the two Frontiers and UNLIMITED manage to avoid usage of this classic theme).

But my favorite tracks on the album are those that have gone forgotten. “Demon Cave” is an absolutely fantastic dungeon theme. The melody is interesting, the 32nd-note harmonic pattern is beautiful, and the “bass” sounds like a Game Boy cello. And then there’s the final battle theme, “Furious Battle,” which is hands-down one of the best Game Boy pieces ever composed. The rhythmic, 32nd note (64th note?) “B section” of the piece just blows my mind. Every time I hear it, my heart starts racing.

One track I can do without is the “SaGa Arrange Version” medley. It’s a synth arrange, and I generally find it inferior to the Game Boy chiptunes. If it were a real, live orchestral arrangement, then I’d be excited. It’s a shame that never happened.

SaGa 2 Hihou Densetsu (The Treasure Legend)

In the fantastic sequel to the original SaGa, Nobuo Uematsu passes the torch to Kenji Ito. This is the last game where Uematsu plays an active role in composition, and the first of many from Ito. Together, they wrote one of the greatest game scores of its time.

Of the three Game Boy SaGas, this one makes the most sophisticated use of the Game Boy synth. Tracks like “Theme of the New God” and “Decisive Battle” show just what the Game Boy can do. The music is on par with Ito’s score for “Seiken Densetsu,” which has (arguably) some of the best melodies ever made for Game Boy.

And then there’s that beautiful main/world map theme, “Searching for the Secret Treasure,” and the standard battle theme “Lethal Strike.” For those among us who have played the game, you’ve no doubt heard these songs on loop for hours. And are they not still, after all that time, some of the best pieces you’ve ever heard, Game Boy or no? Yeah, I feel the same way. It makes me want to play the game.

Jikuu no Hasha (The Ruler of Time and Space) SaGa 3

A black sheep among black sheep, SaGa 3 (Final Fantasy Legend III) was developed by the same team that did Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. That includes the composers. Ryuji Sasai, who composed most of the tracks on SaGa 3, took a decidedly different route in compositional style. By this point, Sasai was something of a veteran himself, having composed music for the “Xak” series. He would later go on to pen what I consider his best score, Rudora no Hihou, for Super Famicom.

As for this score, I’ve never been particularly impressed with it. The music functions well within the game, but very few of the pieces are memorable. One thing Sasai does well is work with percussion, which is traditionally a very difficult thing to pull off on the 3-channel Game Boy hardware. Tracks like “Stronghold” and “Laguna’s Palace” demonstrate the use of percussion quite well.

If you want to hear Ryuji Sasai and Chihiro Fujioka working together in a stronger capacity, let me again point you to Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. Now, unfortunately, that soundtrack (called “Final Fantasy USA” in Japan) never got reprinted. There are actually some really great songs on there, especially compared to what we find on SaGa 3, which I do consider the weakest of all the SaGa soundtracks in the series. But I digress… let’s move on!

Romancing SaGa

Ito’s back in the saddle for the next four titles. The three Romancing SaGa titles, in their Super Famicom forms, never reached America. I have, at present, almost zero experience with them directly. Thus, the emotional impact of the music is lacking, since I have no other experiences with which to associate the audio.

However, with this first Romancing SaGa, I have played its PS2 remake “Minstrel Song,” so I am familiar with the melodies, even though many of them went through some significant changes via arrangements by Kenji Ito and others. Here in their original forms, though, they sound great. The disc opens with the eight character themes, but these are not my favorite tracks. The dungeon and battle themes are where Ito shines brightest, at least for this particular soundtrack. I think we will find the same to be true later on. Let’s see, shall we?

Romancing SaGa 2

The last “one disc” soundtrack of the lot, Romancing SaGa 2 is still packed with a bunch of great, memorable melodies. Again we find that the dungeon and battle themes stand out. Ito wrote some great melodies for this game; however, they don’t sound especially impressive on the Super Famicom’s FM Synth. The synth manipulation is intentionally “safe,” not trying any sounds that really stand out. That’s why, for Romancing SaGa 2 especially, I much prefer its arranged album “Eternal Romance.” Tracks like “Legend of the Mermaid” are much more moving with live instruments than on a 16-bit synth imitation.

I’d like to narrow our scope to four tracks which I find to be among the best on the disc. First is “Wipe Away Your Tears.” You know, that classic theme composed by Uematsu in 1989? This version of the piece is very strong, perhaps the strongest arrangement of the track Ito has ever done. He makes excellent use of the FM Synths available, and the addition of the percussion really brings life to the piece. Next, the “Last Dungeon” music is an especially nerve-wracking Gothic piece, what with the low vocal and pipe organ synths suggesting something grand and awful is approaching. And then it comes: the Last Battle, while not the most impressive thing the Super Famicom’s FM synth has ever produced, may be one of the best melodies Ito-san had laid down. There’s a minimalist/ambient arrangement of this track by Mitsuto Suzuki on a Square Enix Battle album that really turned me on to the melody, and now I can’t get enough of it. Finally, the “Ending Theme” is an eight minute medley of other themes from the OST, weaved together with bits and pieces of new melodic themes from Ito. It’s a great track to listen to if you want a compact version of the entire OST.

Romancing SaGa 3

Romancing SaGa 3 marks a huge jump in both quantity and quality. By this point, synth manipulation on the Super Famicom had reached its zenith, and Squaresoft knew how to make music sound totally awesome on the console. Also Kenji Ito had plenty of experience writing for the console at this point, and he’d experimented with lots of different sounds and styles on the previous Romancing SaGa titles. It all culminates in one awesome three-disc mammoth of a soundtrack.

Now, this is a personal opinion, but I do think this score rivals Final Fantasy VI. I wouldn’t say that in comparing the previous two Romancing SaGas to FF IV and V, but I will say it here, because this score is just fantastic. Ito knocks it out of the park with the character themes. The first one we hear, “Julian’s Theme,” is one of the best character themes among all SaGa titles, period. And right after that, “Elen’s Theme,” another upbeat rhythmic bit of music, makes me want to get up and dance. It’s like Ito had a sudden burst of creative energy for this game. The other character themes vary in tempo, and in quality, but I think Julian and Elen set the tone for the rest of the soundtrack pretty well.

“Field” and “Battle 1” demonstrate just how far Ito and Squaresoft had come in understanding Super Famicom synth. The percussion on these two tracks are markedly improved over the last two soundtracks. I love the tympani part in “Field,” and the French Horn sounds fantastic on the track as well. Another track with impressive synth usage is on the second (or rather, “seventh”) disc. “Superhero Robin’s Theme,” despite its cheesy melody and equally cheesy synth voice (on par with Celes singing in FFVI) carrying the melody, the track itself has strong production, with lots of different instruments contributing to the aural fabric.

There are some great town and dungeon themes on this soundtrack. “Crystal Ruins” and “Eastern Country” play back-to-back, and they are equally powerful in setting the mood for two very different environments. Another pairing of tracks are the dungeon themes for Demon King Palace at the beginning of the third (eighth?) disc. The first track is a fantastic, epic track that makes me think of a grand palace, decorated with large pillars and statues of gargoyles, all decorated with precious metals. But the second track, wherein we go “underground,” takes the same melody and adds a techno beat below the string-carried melody. Awesome.

And I would be an awful person if I didn’t mention two of the most famous tracks from Romancing SaGa 3. Four Demon Nobles Battle (1 and 2) rank among Ito’s most powerful battle themes. Ito wrote a dozen battle themes for the next game (SaGa Frontier), and some of his fastest, most frantic, most interesting battle themes are found there. But we get a taste of that frantic nature in these two tracks from Romancing SaGa 3. They are fantastic. Unfortunately, RS3’s “Last Battle,” while a fine track in and of itself, cannot touch the Four Demon Nobles Battle themes.

SaGa Frontier

Though we’re on to the seventh of ten games in the series, we only now cross the halfway point in terms of discs (and total track time duration). SaGa Frontier is Ito’s last “original” SaGa game, before he finds himself having to pass the torch as well. But he goes out with a bang. Now that we’ve moved from the Super Famicom to the Sony PlayStation, allowing for vastly superior sequenced audio, Ito is free to flex his muscles with lots of different musical sounds.

SaGa Frontier departs from series tradition in one very important way: while there are still shared quests, the protagonist you choose to play in this game will set you in a unique path. There is a unique final dungeon, and final battle, for each of the seven characters. As such, Ito had his hands full. There was plenty of music to write for each of these characters, not to mention the world(s) they inhabit.

Before we get to all the great battle music, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention “Theme of Emelia,” my favorite character theme in the game. “Theme of Asellus” is also good, but Emelia’s theme is a jazzy piece that is on par with Elen’s Theme from Romancing SaGa 3.

Oh, and I also have to make note of the town theme “Koorong.” There is no arranged album for SaGa Frontier. But had there been, this song would most definitely have been on it. What a fantastic, jazzy melody.

Alright, there are 5 numbered Battle themes. The first three are on disc nine. The first theme is your standard battle music, and it’s very catchy. The next theme is a major event or boss battle theme, and while you need to give it a few seconds to get started, once you “get there,” it’s great. Pairing a French Horn with that soft-techno sound that bounces around (you’ll also hear it in most tracks related to T260G) was a grand idea. Battle #3 is an in-your-face orchestra-style battle theme. Though entirely synthesized, Kenji Ito uses horns of differing timbres, strings, and tons of percussion to bring to life another fantastic, fast-paced battle theme.

Battle #4, found on disc ten, is my least favorite of the bunch. It uses the same sound set as Battle #3, but it takes the melody forever to get anywhere. Only at the end of the looped piece do we hear anything interesting. Also sharing space on disc ten is Battle #5, and this is a great battle theme. Here, Ito prefers to go the direction of straight up rock. And though the electric guitar synth is far from life-like, Ito still makes it wail and scream like the real thing. The drum and bass parts are repetitive, but they’re loud, and they do a good job of keeping you engaged.

Each of the seven characters then get their own final battle and ending themes, which take up the vast majority of the final SaGa Frontier disc. These tracks are fantastic. My favorite is T260G’s final battle theme, because it’s so thoroughly techno’d out, and while Ito doesn’t normally do “that kind of music,” he really brought his A-game when he wrote this piece. It is an insanely catchy piece of music. Another great end battle worth mentioning is for Emelia. If you know your SaGa Frontier (and I know that’s like… ten people in America), you’ll remember the emotional intensity of Emelia’s story and what happens in those final moments. That final battle in the cathedral is straight up epic, and Ito nails this mood with a fantastic, pulse-pounding 6/8 rhythm, plus a “rock band” setup including organs, making the piece sound like a true-blue Uematsu battle theme.

SaGa Frontier marks the end of a musical era. Ito will return before the box set is over, but this is the last “new” SaGa game he worked on…and that was about 12 years ago. This soundtrack is one of my favorites, it really makes me want to go back and play the game, despite all of the game’s pitfalls and shortcomings. There was something special about this game, and the music here, more than with any other soundtrack, has worked as a great memory-jogger for me.

SaGa Frontier 2

And now, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Masashi Hamauzu. This composer for Square got his start by contributing a few pieces to Front Mission: Gun Hazard, and then composing the music for the first “Chocobo’s Mysterious Dungeon” game. His style was clearly rooted in early 20th century impressionism (Debussy and Ravel), and he would boldly push that style to its musical limits in the soundtrack for SaGa Frontier 2.

I could, and part of me desperately wants to, talk about each and every track on this album. There are five or six musical motifs that find themselves reappearing in many tracks. And though it’s by design, it feels like a happy accident. Take, for example, the music heard in the prologue (Vorspiel). That simple melody of “G, F G D E C D” (sometimes varying on which specific note is hit, but the rhythm is always maintained) will be repeated again in “Verborgenheit,” “Variation,” and a few other tracks. Speaking of “variation,” a minor-key variation of this theme, which becomes its own theme (literally: you’ll find it on the track “Thema”), is found on nearly a dozen tracks. It’s embedded in each “victory” theme, it’s in “Romantik,” and a distorted version of it appears in “Revelation.” Hamauzu took this one theme and stretched it to the limit across three discs. Yet, even among this ever-evolving musical theme, he also throws in completely “other” musical ideas.

There are some very interesting event and battle themes that rely on fast-paced, computerized-techno-ish beats to come to life. “Besessenheit” and “Todfeind” are two chief examples of this. “Feldschlacht III” (battle 3) also has a very fast pace, though its percussive sounds feel more natural, particularly with the addition of the piano. Oh, and look, the “theme” melody is found here too!

Being a well-trained pianist, Hamauzu’s compositions rely heavily on piano. The voice used in this sequenced audio is a very highly reverberated piano synth, which ends up working in Hamauzu’s favor as he meshes this piano with dozens of other sounds across the soundtrack. And while impressionism is the key focus, that doesn’t stop Hamauzu from dabbling in jazz (which owes plenty to impressionism and its love of dominant and major sevenths). Check out “Zauberkraft” on disc thirteen as an example of a jazzy Hamauzu piece.

One piece that does not use any piano is Dithyrambus, which instead relies on woodwinds, marimba, and what I believe is supposed to be a bandneon, to provide the groundwork for this musical treat. This is a fun, bouncy piece, one of the most exhilirating and uplifting pieces Hamauzu wrote for the game. It’s happy without being sugar-sweet, and it provides a great sense of adventure.

If you find that you enjoy this part of the box as much as I do, then you simply must find and purchase the piano~rhapsody arrange album for this game. It has 18 piano solo/duet tracks, followed by six pieces recorded with a small chamber orchestra. Hearing these live instrumental recordings of the pieces really brings a sense of clarity to what is, at times, a little too frantic. For example, “Einsamkeit” (loneliness) from disc fourteen is mostly a piano piece, though some other instruments are layered atop it. To hear this as a piano solo piece (the opening track of the SF2 Piano Pieces album) opens your ears and your mind to something that, while only slightly different on paper, is really a different experience altogether.

Among Hamauzu’s work to date, it might be fair to say that SaGa Frontier 2 is his least accessible soundtrack. I don’t mean to sound like an elitist snob, but you have to care enough to listen with a discerning ear to hear what is so marvelous and intelligent about this music. Some people just don’t like this album. For me, it is my favorite work in the SaGa series, and it remains my favorite work from Hamauzu (though, fingers crossed, Final Fantasy XIII could change that). Now then, let’s get to Hamauzu’s other contribution for the SaGa series.

UNLIMITED:SaGa

Here, the series takes a jump from PS1 to PS2. It also, in terms of gameplay, took a step in the wrong direction. Very few people were able to appreciate the “board game” style play in UNLIMITED:SaGa, and most people (myself included) mark this game as the worst in the series. However, despite its faults in the gameplay department, it had excellent concept art, and it also had a great soundtrack. The two discs are split pretty evenly in terms of style. The first disc is mostly orchestral: live, instrumental recordings, with a lot of arrangement done by another veteran to Square, Shiro Hamaguchi (who would normally work with Uematsu on Final Fantasy symphonic albums). The second disc is experimental, synthesized, techno/ambient stuff. You can guess which disc I like more on any given day: yup, it’s the orchestral disc. Hamauzu and Hamaguchi make for a great team. Again, I have my fingers crossed for the FFXIII OST, and I’m hoping Hamaguchi contributes to this album as well.

Hamauzu takes the re-used “main theme” from SaGa Frontier 2, warps it a little more in terms of rhythm and pattern, and packages it neatly into UNLIMITED:SaGa. One need look no further than “Battle Theme 1” (easily one of the best tracks on the entire OST) to hear the theme. And listen to the instrumentation on this track. The violins are beautiful, the piano is out of this world fantastic, the jazzy acoustic guitar provides great rhythm, and the drummer’s technical expertise helps to make one intricate and complex backbone to this wonderful track. Simply put, this battle theme is the most addictive theme in the world. I wonder if people who otherwise hated the game could tolerate battles just because they were listening to this wonderful track on repeat…?

There’s a track on here called “The Raid” that sounds wonderfully similar to another Hamauzu work that had come out only a year before UNLIMITED:SaGa. Remember the “Raid” music in Final Fantasy X? You know, disc 3 track 10, the scene where your party storms a very forced and unhappy wedding ceremony? This “Raid” track has a lot of that same power and intensity. I love it.

My favorite character theme in UNLIMITED:SaGa is “Ruby’s Theme,” particularly because it makes such excellent use of the strings. The auxiliary/hand percussion really brings the piece to life as well. And if you really love the strings on this album, you’ll want to listen to the next track, “Sacred Starry Sky.” Piano plus strings equals win. It’s a formula that musicians have known for centuries, but Hamauzu really knows how to make it sound interesting. Here, I am reminded of Joe Hisaishi writing music for a “landscape” scene in any number of Miyazaki films.

Now then, are you ready to get pumped? If so, join me in a quick tour through disc sixteen, the not-so-orchestral side of things. And let’s start with the opening track, which is one of the best tracks on the disc. “Journey Through Time and Space” uses a lot of loops and samples, and piano is decorated over the top, though it too is being looped. You can definitely dance to this track.

After the opening, it’s all a big messy, awesome blur. Listening to this disc reminds me of the aural equivalent to spill canvas painting. All of these BT and DG tracks merge together under the umbrella of electronica. They all use melodies found from the previous disc, but they are their own breed. I don’t have much else to say about them. It’s hard for me to make a judgment call, as some days I find I like the disc, and other days I just don’t feel like listening to it.

Well, it’s not like the whole disc is this techno-spill canvas. The last few tracks include the ending vocal theme, and some bonus tracks (the “2ch” versions of other songs). “Soaring Wings” is Hamauzu’s first vocal track composition for a game, and it’s a good one. The female vocalist has an operatic quality about her, and the melody itself is very catchy. This song is one of two vocal tracks ever written for the SaGa series. The next one we will encounter very, very soon…

Romancing SaGa -Minstrel Song-

…Vocal track encountered! Masayoshi Yamazaki wrote a beautiful piece for the PS2 remake of Romancing SaGa. “Minuet” is a folk-jazz piece in a swing 3/4 (might also be expressed in 9/8) tempo. The piece is just brilliant. Yamazaki’s voice is clear and distinct, and is a style all his own. The accordion, brushed drums, and (of course) guitar fill out the band. This is a very surprising piece, but it so perfectly fits the game. It is the “Minstrel’s Song,” after all… and after you’ve played the game and discovered who the minstrel is, the depth of the song becomes even more prominent. I should also note, before I finish talking about vocal tracks, that an “ending version” of this song appears at the end of disc nineteen. It is a subdued, softer version of the same song.

Vocals aside, Minstrel Song is a huge jump in quality over the original Super Famicom Romancing SaGa, on all fronts. When listening to the soundtrack, it seems at first that all we’re getting is a big boost in synth quality from track to track. This is certainly the case for the opening tracks, the character themes, and even the first dungeon theme (“Labyrinth of Illusion”). But then, we reach “Prelude to Battle,” and we see how Tsuyoshi Sekito adds to the project. Along with doing a lot of arrangements, Sekito is a great guitarist. He polishes Ito’s battle themes in a way that I simply did not expect from Square Enix. The regular battle theme is only a small taste of the good stuff to come. Only a few tracks later, we hear an even better guitar part in a battle theme, “The Soul of Fire.” The guitar performance on this track, as well as the awesome drum and bass work, let you know that Ito and Sekito mean business.

The first disc of this last set, disc seventeen, ends on a light note. “In A Jazzy Mood” is one of my favorite “chill” tunes from Minstrel Song. I’m not a regular patron of any bars, but if I were to go to bars, I would want to go to a jazz lounge-style bar, listen to music like this, and enjoy the company of friends old and new. This is a beautiful piece, one that I’m happy to leave on repeat for an hour at a time.

Now, I know I said that Minuet is the Minstrel Song, but indeed, there is a track called “Minstrel Song” on the OST. It opens disc eighteen, and it’s a powerful, memorable theme. Yes, it’s right up there with “Wipe Away Your Tears,” though this is a more happy, serene piece of music. It’s also a guitar solo track, though one might assume the minstrel, in the game, plays it on his lute.

Now I said we’d touched on all the vocal tracks, and I meant it. Kind of. There are some vocal performances used throughout Minstrel Song, and they are great. My favorite among them is Passionate Rhythm. The vocalist, a well-trained scat singer named Kyoko Kishikawa, actually did an interview with RPGFan elsewhere on the site. Her performance is a large part of what makes this battle theme so great. But the Spanish guitar work, the percussion, and the direction from Kenji Ito for this piece are what make it whole. Needless to say, it is my favorite battle theme, perhaps my favorite track, on the entire OST.

Also, there’s a pirate chant that features live male vocals found twice on disc eighteen. But that doesn’t really count, does it? It’s a cool song in any case, be sure to check out the audio sample (end of disc eighteen).

Disc eighteen has a lot of great tracks on it, and unlike those tracks at the beginning of disc seventeen that sounded like little more than synth upgrades of the SNES tracks, there are big improvements on many of these pieces. “Sewers” is a great example of this. The new piece has this crazy acid-synth-jazz feel to it. Despite how much I hate this dungeon in the game (aren’t all sewer dungeons the worst part of any game?), the music more than makes up for the bad memories.

You want another battle theme, do you? Check out “A Challenge to God,” disc 18 track 14. Instead of giving the sole spotlight to an electric guitar, this wailing guitar gets to share the spotlight with a trumpet. The bass line from the SNES version is intact, and the added drums and other “rhythm section” instruments keep the track going strong. It’s not frantically-fast, but it’s a steady up-tempo piece to keep your heart pounding during some of the most grueling battles in the game. If you can take down these guys, you’re a true pro at SaGa games.

On the next disc (19 out of 20), we find a disc that is packed with more awesome music than any one previous disc. There are highs and lows on almost every other disc. But disc 19? Disc 3 of the Minstrel Song OST? This thing is pretty much perfect. It’s a series of awesome battle themes, offset by awesome dungeon themes, and concluding with some awesome ending ballad music. These 14 tracks are some of the highest quality pieces in the entire box set. Ito and Sekito went all out on these tracks. Let’s just get to the good stuff.

First on the list of “must-talk-about-ables” is “Awakening Memories.” The battle with Sherah is a special battle theme because, if you know who Sherah is, you know that it takes a lot to reach this point in the game. Multiple character paths completed is a bare minimum requirement to put this path into motion. So they made an extra-special battle theme just for her, and it is great. The guitar riff is cool, the organ sounds beautiful, and the drum and bass sections are just bringing it straight with all they’ve got. This battle theme is five minutes long, one of the longest tracks on the Minstrel Song OST. And it’s worth listening closely to every second of this one. Man, I love it!

Now, Romancing SaGa has three “ending paths.” The second-to-final dungeon, and subsequent battle(s), are determined based on very subtle moral choices that you may or may not have even noticed you were making. Good, neutral, and evil paths exist. If you dark the evil path, which is a bold choice, you can take on Death himself. There is an alternate route to reach him without getting the evil path (it involves killing one of the four guardian “Gods”). And then you, again, have the option to fight Death. He’s phenomenally difficult, and the music written conveys feelings one might have when facing an insurmountable obstacle.

“Last Dungeon” and “To the Altar of Revival” are both amazing pieces in their own right. The latter, especially, sounds fantastic, because it uses a lot of the same funky-techno techniques that we heard in “Sewers.” But this synth sounds more…robotic. Like, “T260G from SaGa Frontier” robotic. It’s a great track.

And who could forget the biggest track of them all? Six minute final battle music GO!!! The battle against Saruin will leave you gasping for air, and the music will pummel your senses just as well as Saruin pummels the ever-loving crap out of the characters in the game. over the course of six minutes, at a fast tempo, there are a lot of things that happen. Solos for almost every instrument, surprising breaks in the music, and a fantastic array of melodies await you. I lost to this fight so many times when playing the game, but listening to this piece always made the fight a worthwhile one.

Oh, and look, more vocals! A children’s choir singing “la la la” in Eternal Emotion? Brilliant. I love it.

And just when you feel that the Minstrel Song OST, and the box set, has reached a point of closure, a point of finality, NO! There’s a full disc of Minstrel Song music left to listen to! And these aren’t just dinky bonus tracks, my friends.

First, we have the “From A Window” sound collection. I don’t know what’s up with that name, “From A Window.” In truth, these thirteen tracks are all town themes that are used in the game just like any other OST track. And there are some great town themes here. Rosalia, Ligou Isle, Valhalland, Kjaraht, View of the Sea, and Oasis are my favorites. But they’re all great in their own way.

Next comes the grossly mis-named section of “jingle” tracks. These songs are used regularly in the game for specific events, and many of these songs run for one to two minutes, not the usual five to ten seconds you’d expect from a “jingle.” Most of these songs are full compositions, at least as full as the tracks we found on the original Romancing SaGa OSV.

Then there are some tracks written to fit perfectly the length of the game’s few FMV cut scenes. Among these, my favorite is “Invitation to Flamenco,” which comes from a fantastic scene where Barbara dances at a bar out in the Frontier areas of Mardias. And finally, we have a piano version of the ending piece “Eternal Emotion.” And this track, indeed, brings a sense of closure to the whole adventure. With that said, let’s wrap up this mammoth review for an even more gargantuan box set, shall we?

In conclusion…

I can’t believe I wrote this wall of text. And, yes, I can’t believe you read it either (unless you cheated and are skipping to the bottom, which I don’t blame you for). But then, just looking at the tracklist shows that there’s plenty to talk about. The SaGa Premium Box features over 500 tracks, over 19 hours of music, and plenty of great visual material (including that DVD with the interviews).

If you’re a big enough fan of SaGa, or you want to become a bigger fan, you may well want to shell out the (approximate) $200 (US Dollars) it will cost you to buy this before it goes out of print forever. To do a quick price comparison, consider that if you bought each of the eight albums that make up this set at retail price, it would cost you about $250 US dollars, and that’s if you can find them all in one shop. So it’s not a huge money-saver to buy this collection, but if you don’t own any of the other albums, and you’re willing to commit and say “hey look, I have all this SaGa music” to your friends (who may or may not acknowledge the awesomeness that lies within this box), then I’d say you better buy this album now before it’s gone for good. There’s no guarantee that Square Enix will ever reprint it. Usually, big boxes like these are a one-run-and-done kind of deal.

Of course, the discerning listener might find that they only like Hamauzu, or they only like the Game Boy music, or they only like Ito’s later works. In which case, you’re better off hunting down individual albums. Use the audio samples, and this review, as a guide to determine if the purchase is right for you. As for me? I shelled out my own hard-earned cash for this massive box, and I’m happy to have it on display next to my other beloved soundtracks and games. If nothing else, the box gives me an excuse to frequently revisit the music of Square Enix’s oft-overlooked underdog of a series and say “hey, this stuff is good too!” Now if only I still owned all the games in this series, I’d have an even more time-consuming project to take on!

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Patrick Gann

Patrick Gann

Therapist by day and gamer by night, Patrick has been offering semi-coherent ramblings about game music to RPGFan since its beginnings. From symphonic arrangements to rock bands to old-school synth OSTs, Patrick keeps the VGM pumping in his home, to the amusement and/or annoyance of his large family of humans and cats.