Today is a day of triumph. Perhaps it was due to the success of those three (not one, not two, but three) SaGa Battle rock albums. But, in any case, we now have an orchestral album.
That’s right! Friends, citizens, fellow SaGa-loving otaku, we now have an entire orchestral work devoted solely to the SaGa series. Technically, we have something more like one and a half orchestral works. For me, they are perfect: 5 out of 5, two thumbs up, the whole deal. However, as we dig into the music in-depth, we may find that there are ways to make it more perfect.
In fact, let’s start with a few surface-level complaints. Before even considering the music itself, let’s take a look at the details of the tracklist. First, Square Enix, did you really need to tell us 14 times over that these songs are “Orchestral Versions?” I think we got it when you called this album “The Orchestral SaGa.” Furthermore, there are the localization woes: Square Enix released an official English tracklist, and it’s safe to say that the fans can do, and have done, a better job. This is an import album, yet they are still localizing SaGa 2 Hihou Densetsu to “Final Fantasy Legend II” and dropping the “Minstrel Song” subtitle off of the first Romancing SaGa, even though some of the songs being arranged only exist on the PS2 remake for the US (example: the Claudia/Mazewood medley uses the Minstrel Song version of Claudia’s Theme, “Pure Guardian”). This latter issue creates serious ambiguity: for the Japanese listener and their accompanying playlist, we can identify which songs are sourced from the Super Famicom original and which are from the PS2 remake with the simple addition of the “Minstrel Song” subtitle. But for the English tracklist, both the SFC and PS2 versions are simply called “Romancing SaGa.” This is irresponsible.
Speaking of irresponsible, let’s talk about the environment. Disc one’s total time comes to 54 minutes, and disc two, we’ll round it up and say 22 minutes. 54 plus 22 equals 76, which still easily fits on a single disc. Why two discs, then? The answer Square Enix would likely give is that they wanted a way to delineate between the two recording sessions. Disc one is a “full” arrangement recorded in Prague, arranged by Kosuke Yamashita. Disc two is a mini-session put together by Natsumi Kameoka in Japan, with what was apparently leftover studio time from the original recording of the Imperial SaGa OST. So, Square Enix decided to separate the two by putting them on separate discs. I think this is environmentally irresponsible, and this is coming from someone who still thinks publishing physical artifacts is a good idea (in the face of all the opposition saying that digital-only is the environmentally responsible choice!)
Yet another complaint that stems from the tracklist: series entry representation! There are no individual tracks that cover the first game in the series (Makaitoushi SaGa) or SaGa 3. Both games have some of their theme melodies featured in the overwhelmingly large 12 minute opening medley track, and that’s great, but considering the finesse and power that the Prague orchestra put into the SaGa 2 medley (track 3), I wish the same effort and exposure had been given to the other classic Game Boy titles.
Worse yet, remember how Kameoka was recording music for Imperial SaGa’s OST? Hey … do you see any Imperial SaGa tracks on this two disc set? Me neither! The fantastic music from this PC/browser title doesn’t get any recognition. Nor do we have a preview track from SaGa: Scarlet Grace. I know that last request might seem a bridge too far, but it’s not when you consider that “Somnus,” originally written for a game called Final Fantasy Versus XIII (now Final Fantasy XV), was published on a 2008 orchestral album called “drammatica” as a bonus track to tease us. It’s 2016, and I’m still waiting for a Final Fantasy XV game and OST. So it really wouldn’t have been too hard to put a SaGa: Scarlet Grace orchestral preview track on disc two, even if it had been music recorded for later use in promotional videos. All I’m asking for is a complete collection to date, yet I’m missing the two newest titles and minimal representation from two of the oldest titles.
So, those are my complaints. Addressing these issues is how one would make an already-perfect album even … more perfect? You may be thinking, “Patrick, you just did quite a bit of complaining. How can you consider this album perfect?” In the sense that perfection is completion, it is not perfect. But in the sense that perfection is the greatest achievement known for a specific category (in this case, the intersection of “orchestra” and “SaGa”), it is perfect indeed.
To demonstrate my point, I will be highlighting some of the best moments across this 76 minute collection of music. Along the way, I will also note areas where some of my esteemed peers and colleagues do not agree with me; I acknowledge that my opinion regarding this album being pinnacle-level orchestration is controversial. We’ll get to why that is, later.
Let’s start at the very beginning; it is, after all, a very good place to start.
“The Minstrel’s Refrain” steps through the nine main entries of the SaGa series and the special tenth entry (the “Minstrel Song” remake of Romancing SaGa 1).” The opening minute of this epic medley is the only taste of Makaitoushi SaGa that we get: the classic Prologue. Shortly thereafter, the medley transitions to a surprise pick from SaGa 3, the boss battle music “Steslos.” Hearing this makes me wish all the more for SaGa 3 to have its own medley, or even its own dedicated arranged album (composer Ryuji Sasai is painfully underrated and overlooked by our community). Next up in the medley, we get the brooding “Overture” music from Romancing SaGa (shared between the SFC original and Minstrel Song). Yamashita allows the beautifully strained melodies of this piece to continue for nearly two minutes before using silence as a transition to the classic melody “Wipe Your Tears Away” (once translated, decades ago, as “Heartful Tears” in the sound test option on the FF Legend II English Game Boy cartridge). This classic piece is first found in Makaitoushi SaGa, but it makes its return in SaGa 2, Romancing SaGa (including Minstrel Song), and Romancing SaGa 2. This song has taken on such a strong presence in the series that one wonders why it didn’t continue through the rest of the series. Yamashita gives the sorrowful track its due presence in the medley, as it is one of the few themes to span multiple titles in the SaGa series.
Next in the “Minstrel’s Refrain” medley, we have the harp-centric “The Opening of a Journey”: the very first track on the SaGa Frontier OST. For anyone who has played SaGa Frontier (and may The Minstrel bless you for having made the attempt!), you know this melody all too well. And truly, it is brilliant. Among Kenji Ito’s slower, more pensive pieces, this is one of his best, and arguably more memorable than his peer Uematsu’s harp-centric pieces (I’m looking at you, Edward you spoony bard!). By the seven minute mark, we’ve transitioned from Ito land to Hamauzu country, starting with some classic SaGa Frontier II music (I dare not say a track name, since variations of this common melody are found all throughout the SF2 OST). Right on the eight minute mark, we jump from SaGa Frontier II to Unlimited SaGa, where we are treated to an orchestral arrangement of the standard battle theme, one of the best and most iconic pieces from the soundtrack (and let’s only talk about the soundtrack and not the controversial PS2 game, okay?). Yamashita builds on the Unlimited SaGa battle theme for a sufficient period of time, until he finally finds an exit in the shared Romancing SaGa trilogy theme (the “Opening” half of Prologue~Opening in RS1, “Opening Title” in RS2 and RS3). This iconic theme builds and builds for the final two minutes of the medley, and by the end of it, you’ll be wondering where the audience applause is. No, this was not recorded live, but it may as well have been, and you may find yourself giving this recorded medley a standing ovation.
But then, maybe you won’t. My acquaintance and esteemed peer in game music criticism, Chris Greening (founder of VGM Online, formerly SEMO) said he was disappointed in the entire album, and used lengthy medleys like the one described above as an example. Sure, it’s good, but it’s a simple medley: one melody to the next, with no playful blending, overlapping, or significant artistic liberties taken by the arranger. There’s no question in my mind that Chris Greening has a point. These orchestrations are not akin to the work that Jonne Valtonen and Roger Wanamo have done for countless franchises, most notably the Square Enix-themed Symphonic Fantasies, which was a four-movement concert featuring Kingdom Hearts, Chrono (Trigger/Cross), Secret of Mana, and the Final Fantasy series. To Chris, however, I say this: Kosuke Yamashita did what he does, and he did it to his utmost ability. These are not vanilla transcriptions: he does make full use of the orchestral palette in the arrangements. But no, they do not play off of one another, and we do not see a blending of songs across titles as we did in, say, the Chrono Trigger/Cross portion of Symphonic Fantasies. What Jonne Valtonen did there was absolutely brilliant; I’ll never forget it.
To that end, let me make my position abundantly clear: I think “The Orchestral SaGa” accomplished what the creators wanted to accomplish, and I am more than satisfied with it. On the other hand, I am, to this day, dubious of producer Thomas Böcker’s choice of including Kingdom Hearts over the SaGa series in Symphonic Fantasies. I know one is vastly more popular than the other. But Kingdom Hearts, while featuring great music from Yoko Shimomura, also includes music and full franchises from Disney and Square Enix. It would have made more sense to do a Kingdom Hearts medley now, since there are so many titles in said franchise and so much more music with which to work. But, at the time of its being written and recorded, I stand by my belief that the four big franchises from the “Square” portion of Square Enix were Final Fantasy, Seiken Densetsu, SaGa, and the two Chrono titles. If they had sought a fifth franchise, at the time I would have picked Front Mission before Kingdom Hearts, though by 2016 I would switch the two.
Anyway, that’s my point about having complex, layered orchestrations. If we want them, we know who in the tight-knit community is really good at them, so cough cough, hint hint, to Böcker and his star arrangers: do something with the SaGa series. Seriously, this music is begging for the opportunity.
Now, back to the actual album, yes?
My favorite track on the entire album is disc 1, track 2. There are three battle themes total in SaGa 2 Hihou Densetsu, known in North America as “Final Fantasy Legend II.” In this medley, appropriately entitled “In My Father’s Footsteps” (play the game if you want to understand!), Yamashita chose to put the boss battle music first, followed by the random encounter music, and then the final battle music “Save The World” at the end. All three of these songs rank in my top 50 pieces of game music ever written. I was nervous that the orchestra wouldn’t have the “chops” to nail the 32nd note runs in the boss and standard battle themes, but listen to the audio sample and hear for yourself: they nailed it. Getting a group of woodwinds, and then woodwinds countered with strings, to this level of precision is a minor miracle. I was very nervous going into my first listen, but after discovering the relief of a job well done, I regularly return to this short, satisfying track and thank Square Enix for hiring Yamashita and the Prague orchestra to record this. Now, if only they had done some non-battle themes from SaGa 2 as well… I’m thinking the world theme “Searching for the Secret Treasure” and “Theme of the New God” would be perfect. “Mystery of the Secret Treasure” would also fit in such a medley … (more hints for Valtonen!)
I’m not going to detail everything in tracks 3 through 5. That’s a lot of Romancing SaGa right there. The battle themes have all, I repeat all, and have been arranged in the three Re:birth rock-band-style albums. This likely gave Yamashita a starting place, though the orchestral renditions are an entirely different beast. “Ultimate Trial,” “Emperor’s March,” and the three games’ final dungeon themes are interesting choices. Listening to them in order, it’s easy to get lost in the trilogy, especially for us Westerners who have only had (official) access to Romancing SaGa 1 (Minstrel Song) up to this point. Though, I must say, I am eagerly looking forward to playing Romancing SaGa 2 in the very near future. Thanks Square Enix! But also, boo Square Enix for ignoring the Vita!
Track 6 is a super-epic battle medley from SaGa Frontier. Just as I said in my Re:birth album reviews, I have felt for years and years that this music was sorely in need of high quality arrangement. Well, we have a taste of it in this medley. Unfortunately, this particularly medley actually only covers two of the five standard “Battle” themes, Battle #3 and Battle #4. Now, don’t get me wrong: Yamashita made great choices with the limited time and resources he had. I think these were great picks for the battle medley. I’m fine with him skipping #2 (because it’s boring), and 1 and 5 are more rock-oriented, and they got their time on one of the Re:birth albums. Nonetheless, there are some “non-standard” battle tunes that could have also been worked into this medley, like the Sentai-style “Fight! Alkaizer” (technically Red’s theme, but also used in battles), or mixing in one of the final boss themes for kicks (Lute or Coon/Riki would be nice as their own tracks, but placing them in a battle medley would work well too! They’re ripe for orchestration!).
Speaking of final boss themes, track 7 is a piece where the word “Medley” really doesn’t apply, since it’s an orchestration of a singular piece: namely, Emelia’s Last Battle. Like the aforementioned Lute and Coon final battles, Emelia’s is one that is perfect for a full symphony orchestra. Kosuke Yamashita does not fail to utilize that orchestra, and this track is hands-down one of the best on the album. Because Emelia’s final battle theme is already so diverse in nature, with four distinct parts across its length, Yamashita had plenty of source material with which to work. Listen to the sample. I think you’ll enjoy the end product, perhaps even more than the rock version we got on the Re:birth albums.
The next track would be my favorite on the disc, were it not a very near rip-off an orchestral track recorded over 15 years ago. The “Rhapsody” portion of SF2 Piano ~ Rhapsody, specifically track 23, is an arrangement of the Prelude (Präludium), disc 1 track 2 of the SaGa Frontier 2 OST. This same tune is used in part two of this two-part medley. The first part is disc 1 track 1, the Prologue (Vorspiel) from the OST. Though synthesized, it already sounds great in OST form, and this is about the only track that Yamashita works out in an uninspired, vanilla transcript. That’s not necessarily awful: Hamauzu’s source compositions can hardly be improved upon, in my opinion. But, if you take a listen to track 23 from Piano~Rhapsody, you’ll notice that the smaller “chamber orchestra” has a more clarified sound than the larger Prague orchestra. I was glad for having Vorspiel, but Präludium was unnecessary … especially when there are so many songs to cover from the OST that have never been arranged for orchestra. Some suggestions for future use: Naturvolk, Trübsal, Besessenheit, Zaubermärchen, Todfeind, Wundermittel, Weltall, and Todesengel would all be great choices. They aren’t piano solo tracks; most of them weren’t even arranged on the Piano portion of Piano~Rhapsody, nor are any of them found in the rhapsody portion. Giving veteran fans some new arranged works would have been nice, and many of those melodies are just as memorable as the game’s main themes. Just throwing it out there.
Now, for a selection that I cannot complain one bit about: the Feldschlacht (battlefield) medley for Romancing SaGa 2. If track 2 didn’t exist, track 9 would be my favorite track from this disc. In this medley, Yamashita covers Feldschlachts I, II, III, and IV. Hey, that’s all of them! He even works that lovely little B-Side from Feldschlacht III into the arrangement (at the 3 minute mark) before transitioning to Feldschlacht IV, almost exactly at the 4 minute mark of the track. Now, this arrangement’s recorded performance time runs to 6 minutes and 12 seconds. Can Yamashita fill out the last 132 seconds with just Feldschlacht IV? I imagine he could, since it is a beast of a composition. And so he does, even including a beautiful violin solo near the end that sounds far better here than on the synth/sequenced OST. Fitting all four of the standard battle themes into this medley was a real treat for me. Now, if Yamashita really wanted to take things to a new level, including Todfeind, Missgestalt, and Todesengel in a “boss battle” medley would be the next step.
Yamashita ends his orchestral ode to SaGa with the black sheep, though it’s also the latest in the series (discounting the Minstrel Song remake and Imperial SaGa). Though Unlimited SaGa is not well-liked as a game, its soundtrack is adored by many, especially the Hamauzu fans out there – count me as one of them! Now, there’s a co-credit for Shiro Hamaguchi’s arrangements on this one, but I am fairly certain that Hamaguchi didn’t work on this project. Rather, Yamashita used some of Hamaguchi’s arrangements from the orchestral recordings on the Unlimited SaGa OST and reproduced them for the Prague recording, then added his own filler along the way. Fortunately, Yamashita does not stay stuck on the common themes: the opening, the regular battle theme, etc. Yamashita actually explores some of the character and environment themes in this seven minute medley. It’s a touching piece, and an absolutely solid ending to his part of The Orchestral SaGa.
Now then, there’s disc two, which Kameoka orchestrated. This one is a mixed bag, though I should say, it is some of her best work. I have more than once been critical of Kameoka for “phoning in” arrangements for Square Enix in the past. I do not at all think this is the case here. Rather, she put the utmost care into both song selection and arrangements. My only critique of this whole disc is that I wish there was more of it! Especially, of course, if Kameoka could have done a track for Imperial SaGa and/or a preview track for SaGa: Scarlet Grace. But look at these picks: a medley of three relevant pieces to the character Claudia from Romancing SaGa (using Minstrel Song material as well, absolutely brilliant); a medley for Asellus that includes themes for character, town, and the epic final battle; “Full Speed Ahead!” from Romancing SaGa 3, in a far more fitting orchestral form than the oddly-placed rock track on the latest Re:birth album; and finally, a surprise rock-orchestral (or “rockestral”) medley of three great battle themes from each entry in the Romancing SaGa trilogy. While Yamashita’s arrangements are more rich and more powerful, Kameoka really did bring out some of her best work here, and I’d love to see her do more orchestral arrangements for the SaGa series, or perhaps the Mana (Seiken Densetsu) series as well. The Minstrel only knows, Seiken Densetsu 3 needs more attention!
I acknowledge, this is a thorough (perhaps too thorough) review. So here’s what the kids call the “too long; didn’t read” [tl;dr] summary: this album is perfect in many ways, but even greater perfection could be achieved with more quantity, more diverse song selection, and perhaps, a “Symphonic SaGa” style arrangement from Jonne Valtonen and crew. Beyond that, let the audio samples speak to your heart. If you’re a die-hard SaGa fan, or even if you aren’t but you do know that Ito and Hamauzu are some of the best composers on the planet, and their work deserves more orchestration, then this is the album you’ve been waiting for. Get it!