When Sega launched its Dreamcast console in 1999, it had a difficult time attracting third-party software manufacturers, who had been stung by the company’s introduction and then rapid abandonment of products like the 32X, Sega CD, and the Saturn. Taking a page from rival Nintendo, Sega sought to fill the gap through in-house development; their effort on the RPG front was Skies of Arcadia (Eternal Arcadia in Japan). While its story was the usual JRPG boilerplate of evil empires, mysterious princesses, and six collectable Macguffins, Skies of Arcadia impressed audiences with its innovative visual design and mechanics. A steampunk world of floating continents, the occasional airship-on-airship smackdown, racing to discover unknown lands, and other novel accoutrements helped players overlook the kitten-weak narrative, and the game was even able to survive Sega’s introduction and then rapid abandonment of the Dreamcast itself (with a port, Skies of Arcadia: Legends, later appearing on the Gamecube).
For music, Sega tapped employees Yutaka Minobe and Tatsuyuki Maeda. Maeda was a longtime Sega veteran with a resume for music stretching back to Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and even more extensive work in sound effects. Minobe was a relative newcomer, with sound effects experience back to 1996 but only one or two compositional assignments under his belt. Despite this, it was Minobe who took the lead on the project, working closely with the game’s developer on music that would change based on player input and experimenting with his MIDI keyboard to develop the game’s themes. While the majority of the game’s music was synthesized, yielding a pleasing sound quality at about the level of late PS1-era or early PS2-era titles, Sega also sprung for an orchestral recording by Torakichi Takagi of the first two and final two tracks on the album.
Minobe, a self-taught musician, wound up writing 42 of the 67 album tracks, including all the music that features Skies of Arcadia‘s main theme. That theme, a bright brassy march, is first played by a full orchestra in “Opening Theme” and taken up by synths in “Blue Pirates’ Ship” and elsewhere. It’s a terrific theme, and Minobe gets a lot of mileage out of it, even mixing what sound like fragments of the idea into tracks like “Vyse’s Theme.” That song is typical of the instrumental creativity that the composer brings to much of his work, mixing optimistic orchestral synths with electric and bass guitar in the sort of classical/pop fusion Nobuo Uematsu preferred in many of his earlier works. There’s plenty of diversity as well, with Minobe handling a gentle love theme (“Fina’s Theme”), exotic world world music (“Kingdom Of Nasrad,” “Eastern Air Pirates”), and outright silliness (“Gag”) with tuneful aplomb.
Maeda, who played the electric organ before turning to game music, handled the remaining 25 album tracks, and to their credit the two men do a good job of merging their styles. Maeda doesn’t use Minobe’s main theme, and in general his music is more straightforward, with fewer embellishments and a greater reliance on bass guitar and synth keyboarding, though much of that is as a consequence of writing more of the straitlaced music for villains, humorless characters, and dire locations. His more direct approach certainly doesn’t preclude memorable melodies, though, with the lion’s share of the game’s character themes (“Gilder’s Theme,” “Drachma’s Theme”) and some bright incidental tunes (“Black Pirates’ Theme”) to his credit. If his more dour music for villains (“Galcian’s Theme,” “Imperial Theme”) isn’t always as engaging as Minobe’s material, Maeda does have the chance to compose some quirkier and more creative material (“Air Pirates Secret Base”). His “Great Silver Temple,” an off-kilter music box tune that evolves into a sinister and twisted waltz, is perhaps the best example of the latter and the best dungeon theme on the album as well of one of the highlights overall.
However, Skies of Arcadia badly needed a Final Fantasy style deluxe multi-disc release and wound up shortchanged for it, with some simply unforgivable album production decisions in its release. None of the tracks loop properly, and many abruptly cut off before completing even a single loop; to make matters worse, much of Minobe and Maeda’s music has relatively long loops. For instance, “Ramirez’s Theme,” the motif for the main villain, completely cuts off after just a few seconds of a rambling, jazzy piano part that dominates the track in-game, truncating to 1:52 a track that requires at least 3:00 to complete a single loop. A few tracks were left off completely, though admittedly not any essential ones, and others were combined into suites: the world and battle themes change in-game based on the player’s location and health, respectively, and the album awkwardly crossfades together up to six single-loop variations of the world theme. It strings together the three battle states (Normal, Crisis, and Opportunity) in a similar way–almost completely quashing the magnificent Opportunity versions in the process. Worse, the tracks were remastered for the album, giving them richer reverb and a wetter audio mix, so there is no way to manually loop many of the short CD versions (which cut off before the loop point) in an audio editor, and going to the original audio files as encoded for the Dreamcast and Gamecube results in the loss of Wataru Ishii’s digital mastering.
At the time of Skies of Arcadia‘s Japanese release, the aforementioned 2-disc truncated release was pressed alongside several “drama CDs” mixing re-recorded dialog and music. Due to the hasty demise of the Dreamcast, limited numbers were made and the disc has since fallen badly out of print. Bootlegs from EverAnime and SonMay popped up to fill demand, but even they are rather hard to come by anymore, leaving anyone wanting a legitimate copy in for a long and expensive search with a very high chance of getting a counterfeit instead of an actual retail product, though a digital download in two volumes is available from Amazon and iTunes. The scarcity of the genuine product, combined with the dreadful album production, make Skies of Arcadia a strong contender for one of the most frustrating video game albums of all time. Yet for all that Minobe and Maeda produced an extremely strong, tuneful, and innovative work equal to anything by Uematsu or any Japanese VGM superstar one cares to name. Even in its current, frustrating form, the music merits a strong recommendation. Minobe and Maeda still work with Sega often, but in their years of composition and sound effects design since, neither has come close to topping their efforts on Skies of Arcadia.