Secret of Mana (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1991’s Final Fantasy Adventure, released in Japan under the title Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden, had been one of developer Squaresoft’s first forays into real-time action RPGs instead of their turn-based bread and butter. Very much in the style of Nintendo’s own Legend of Zelda series, Final Fantasy Adventure had been a successful Game Boy release but director Koichi Ishii had seen potential in the design for a much more ambitious product, leading to Seiken Densetsu 2 for the Super Nintendo, released in 1993. Originally meant for the SNES’s abandoned CD add-on, and downsized accordingly to fit on a standard cartridge, the game was bright, colorful, action-packed, and featured groundbreaking drop-in, drop-out local multiplayer–all in the context of an expansive and slightly goofy high fantasy adventure. Ultimately released as Secret of Mana rather than Final Fantasy Adventure 2 outside Japan, the game was and remains well-reviewed and popular despite–or perhaps because of–a rushed, barebones translation that localizer Ted Woolsey claimed nearly killed him.

Squaresoft veteran Kenji Ito had scored Final Fantasy Adventure and was initially attached to Secret of Mana as well. But in the explosion of creativity at Squaresoft in the 16-bit generation (which saw 22 games released in less than 5 years for the SNES alone), Ito was badly needed for the Romancing SaGa series, and instead the assignment went to a new and untested hire: Hiroki Kukuta. A self-trained musician like many on Squaresoft’s staff, Kikuta had an eclectic career before joining the company, with scores for anime and artwork for manga among his many projects. After being rejected by his first choice in the game industry, Falcom, Kikuta was able to impress Squaresoft’s musical majordomo Nobuo Uematso with his enthusiasm for progressive rock (a genre near and dear to Uematu’s heart) to land work as a debugger and sound effects designer. In the AAA development environment of today it seems almost unthinkable for someone so new and untested to be given such a major project to score solo, but the atmosphere within Square at the time was such that Kikuta got the gig after Ito bowed out in much the same way that Yasunori Mitsuda would be handed Chrono Trigger two years later.

Kikuta approached the project in a very hands-on manner, creating his own sound samples rather than relying on those fashioned by Square’s synth programmers in order to maximize the potential of the SNES’s SPC700 sound chip. this resulted in a soundscape that was considerably more lush than that of many contemporary games, at Squaresoft or otherwise, at the expense of having to surrender parts of the sound channels to sound effects from time to time. The composer also explicitly sought to reflect the game’s duality between silly and serious–it does, after all, feature a soul-destroying lich, a visit to Santa Claus, a floating techno-fortress of death, and long-distance travel by cannon–through the use of two different musical styles that both mixed the sensibilities of 16-bit game music with the pop tunes that had gotten Kikuta hired in the first place. That duality between the weird and the wistful would wind up being the defining trait of Secret of Mana‘s score.

The wistful half of Kikuta’s compositions are led by the game’s most prominent theme and certainly its most popular: “Fear of the Heavens” (also translated as “Angels’ Fear”). Inspired by Balinese music as well as natural ambient noise, the track opens with what can be interpreted either as whistling wind or whalesong before moving into a simple echoing piano melody. It’s gradually joined by other instruments as the soundscape–and the title screen it accompanies–opens up. The effect is arresting–especially to players in 1993–and goes a long way toward explaining the score’s enduring popularity. This most popular track is a bit of an oddity in that it lacks most of Kikuta’s contemporary touches; the field theme “Into the Thick of It” is probably more representative of the score as a whole, combining an acoustic guitar with a melody for doubled woodwinds and synth voices. The later “A Curious Happening” is a similar potpourri mix of a contemporary bass and hi-hat with rhythm guitar and doubled woodwinds and accordion (!) with synth voices in support.

Those wackier compositions that make up the other half of Kikuta’s score use many of the same instruments and techniques with a somewhat greater emphasis on pop backbeats. For instance, the game’s primary town theme “The Color of the Summer Sky” is all prominent backbeats against peppy, poppy woodwinds and synth accordians with prominent keyboard and mallet accents, all of which would become Kikuta’s trademarks in future projects. “Dancing Animals” and especially “The Little Sprite” are some of the best examples of this same mix of quirky melody, contemporary instrumental choice, and overall affable wackiness that’s especially notable for its complexity of rhythm and percussion. The conclusive and joyously upbeat “The Second Truth From the Left” is probably the ultimate enjoyable exemplar of this style. For all the same inspirations that he and Uematsu drew on, the two men’s styles are immediately distinguishable; in fact, Kikuta’s use of percussion and rhythm is so distinctive that even in his later and more obscure projects it’s typically immediately distinguishable.

There are often times when the Kikuta’s twin styles, the wistful and the weird, commingle as one might expect, and most of these are related to the most important moments of the game’s lengthy plot. The game’s joyous first flight theme, “Flight into the Unknown,” swirls together backbeats and bass guitar with a moving string melody, while its second flight theme, “Prophecy,” mixes the same elements but replaces the backbeats with a cascading flute melody and the bass guitar with staccato mallet percussion and synth voices to quirky yet chilling effect. A percussion-heavy remix of “Into the Thick of It” in “Can You See the Ocean” is notable as well, as is the chillingly off-kilter chiming and chanting of “Ceremony” where the Balinese influence on the score is at its most evident.

As there is no distinction between field and battle, Secret of Mana has somewhat fewer battle themes than its contemporaries. The primary theme, “Danger,” has an ultra-serious and percussive first half that has its only melody in string slashes and bass, before moving over in its second half to a surprisingly upbeat and quirky melody–Kikuta’s wistful/weird in a nutshell. The final battle theme, “Meridian Dance” is much the same, offering a melody that’s like a twisted if surprisingly optimistic version of the “Fear of the Heavens” theme over urgent percussion and bright synthy brass. the penultimate boss, the Dark Lich, gets its own battle theme in “The Oracle,” a beefed up and synthetically enhanced version of “Ceremony” that uses sped-up chanting voices and the original’s music-box melody alongside electric pulses for an utterly compelling–and unsettling–mix. While Kikuta’s work is always very melodic, these rearrangements are the closest he gets to Uematsu’s more traditionally thematic and leitmotivic structure from the Final Fantasy series.

Interestingly, Kikuta’s work was singled out to the extent that it enjoyed one of the very first releases of a Japanese game soundtrack–and indeed, a game soundtrack of any kind!–in North America. A reprint of the Japanese release was made available to American buyers in December 1994, alongside Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VI, through Squaresoft of America’s catalog as one of only three soundtrack discs released in that format (the third was Secret of Evermore). The American disc is identical to the Japanese Seiken Densetsu 2 Original Sound Version released a year earlier, and they both suffer from the same problem: as single platters, both are overstuffed with 44 tracks of Kikuta’s music, meaning that his compositions only loop a single time. This doesn’t effect “Fear of the Heavens,” as it never looped in-game anyway as such, but does hobble many of the other tracks that badly need room to breathe. A 2011 box set re-release in the vein of the Kingdom Hearts Complete Box simply reissued the same single disc without expansion. Short of playing the original game or seeking out its emulated SPC700 music files, the only source of fully looped music from Secret of Mana is the controversial 2012 re-release/remastering Secret of Mana Genesis, and that’s a shame–even if you approve of Kikuta’s rather limited changes to the music, it represents less than a third of the original tracks. And, of course, it goes without saying that anyone who can’t stand the 16-bit synth quality of the SNES era need not bother listening, though to be fair Kikuta’s work is among the best and clearest that generation has to offer.

Despite those problems on disc, Secret of Mana remains a refreshingly spirited and creative work, one that even 20 years later is instantly recognizable for Hiroki Kikuta’s unique sound and highly recommended as such. Thanks to the success of the project, Kikuta would go on to score two more games for Squaresoft, Secret of Mana 2/Seiken Densetsu 3 in 1995 and Soukaigi in 1998. Frustrated with the lack of direct control he had over projects at Squaresoft, though, Kikuta would leave in favor of work on his own project, Koudelka, the failure of which led to long years in the wilderness for the composer and a lack of major assignments. Even if he had retired completely from scoring after 1993, though, Kikuta’s musical legacy was secure–there hasn’t been a game in the Mana series since that hasn’t referenced his work overtly or indirectly, and he continues to have a cult following among lovers of video game music to this day.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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