Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)

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Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Koudelka (Hiroki Kikuta)

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An ambitious late-era Playstation 1 game, Koudelka was the first title from developer Sacnoth. With Squaresoft-style production values, the game featured highly detailed 3D models, fully rendered backgrounds and FMV cutscenes, and a highly unusual Gothic setting in Wales circa 1898. During a troubled development cycle, the developers reportedly clashed over whether the game should be real-time or turn-based, and gameplay wound up a curious hybrid of Resident Evil horror outside combat and Final Fantasy within. Worse, the game’s reach exceeded its grasp, leading to relatively little gameplay over four discs largely stuffed with cutscenes and battles that took place in a dark void with pop-in models and long loading times. Combine this with some truly baffling development decisions–like the entire game hinging on recovering an otherwise unremarkable item to avoid instant death, or the best ending requiring actually losing to the final boss–and it’s not hard to see why, for all its strengths, Koudelka was not a success and doomed to relative obscurity, though it did serve as a starting point for the later cult Shadow Hearts series.

The overall Squaresoft style of the game was no accident, for Sacnoth was founded by Hiroki Kikuta, an ex-Squaresoft employee who had worked primarily as a composer. Reportedly wanting to tackle weightier and darker subjects than many of the RPGs at the time, Kikuta wound up serving as designer, director, and composer for Koudelka, an unprecedented level of involvement for a onetime composer comparable to John Ottman’s work on Urban Legends: Final Cut. Of course, Kikuta had worked in anime and manga before joining Squaresoft as a composer, so he had the requisite experience, and the large budget that distributor SNK gave Sacnoth to work with meant that for the first time he was able to work at least in part with a live ensemble. At the same time, Kikuta’s involvement as writer/director meant that the intense musical focus he’d had on Secret of Mana and its sequel, sometimes nearly 24 hours a day, was no longer possible.

Perhaps as a consequence of this, there is virtually no field music of any sort in Koudelka. Only battles and cutscenes are scored, leading to a drastic cutback in the amount of material the score has to offer. With the brevity of all but the very longest cutscenes, this guarantees that Kikuta’s battle music absolutely dominates the game at the expense of the normal battle theme being virtually the only music heard for massive swathes of the game. Each of the four main battle themes is built on a foundation of tambourine taps and roiling percussion, a rhythmic base that’s immediately identifiable as Kikuta’s style and most similar to his most percussive efforts from Secret of Mana 2. “Waterfall,” the aforementioned main battle theme, is 8 minutes of that rhythmic foundation with staccato overlays of dulcimer, panpipes, and synths with one interlude of woodwinds and chimes and another that scales back to dulcimer. Its structure is essentially one loop without the panpipes, the first interlude, a second loop with panpipes, the second interlude, and then repeating once again. It’s a clever idea to try and wring the maximum amount of variation from the basic structure of the song, but the repetitious nature of the music means that it will wear out its welcome on album long before its halfway point–and in-game even sooner than that.

The main boss theme, “Incantation Again,” modifies that basic structure by adding blasts of panpipes from the very beginning and adding in thumb piano accents–an interesting texture not heard often in video game music. Despite being considerably shorter than “Waterfall,” the greater variation of its length means it holds up better–but again the relatively spare sound causes it to lose steam as a listening experience relatively quickly. The final two battle themes are for the bizarre final boss in her two forms; the first, “Patience,” powers up the thumb piano from “Incantation Again” while using the same bass line with a much more defined melody on woodwinds and occasional strings. The final battle–the one you have to lose to get the best ending!–is accompanied by “Kiss Twice,” the highlight of the lot and the album as a whole. While maintaining the same drum and tambourine percussive backing as “Waterfall,” and the rampant thumb pianos from “Patience,” “Kiss Twice” adds a strong and truly distinctive melody in classic Kikuta style, doubled on flute and chimes, with affecting interludes on solo chimes against thumb piano runs so fast they could never be performed in real life. One gets the sense that Kikuta started with “Kiss Twice” and stripped it down progressively to concoct the other battle themes; it’s a clever idea that doesn’t quite work out in practice, as that means that the most basic and repetitive version of the music is the one that goes on the longest and dominates the album.

Kikuta’s cutscene music is included on album, but these tracks (drily labeled by scene number) are extremely short, less than 16 minutes of music across all 24 scenes, and this keeps them from being developed as anything other than bursts of dark ambiance. Choral effects are quite prominent, often manipulated or processed, as are creepy whispers and other tricks. The longest have some promise, with “#scene7c” offering an ambient but affecting woodwind melody, “#scene18” presenting some very avant-garde choral work in the vein of Eric Whitacre, and the concluding “#scene20” with the best melody on the album heard fleetingly. The lengthier cutscenes that open the album offer some interesting material as well; Kikuta’s “Requiem,” performed by soprano Catherine Bott, is another fascinating if all-to-brief bit of choral writing in the Whitacre vein. “Dead,” the lengthiest non-battle Kikuta track on the album, is played by a live string trio, and is quite affecting if rather dour and with few of Kikuta’s trademarks. Curiously, the lengthy a capella “Ubi caritas et amor” (“where charity and love”) is actually a 1960 piece by French composer Maurice Duruflé from his Quatre motets sur des thèmes grégoriens, augmented by some creepy Poltergeist-style giggling by the children’s chorus.

If Secret of Mana 2 sometimes gave the impression that Kikuta was outside his comfort zone writing more serious music, Koudelka seems to confirm that. There’s plenty of promise evident in scattered spots throughout the brief score (less than 50 minutes excluding three lengthy “live” remixes at album’s end), but ultimately it feels like Kikuta is uncomforable writing in this ultra-serious mode, suppressing his natural composing instincts with their heavy influence from pop and progressive rock in favor of something dull and beige and “serious.” Naturally, the development struggles and multiple hats Kikuta was wearing didn’t help; it’s possible that with more time and more creative control he could have developed a better marriage of his distinctive sound and the seriousness the material demanded. It’s worth noting, though, that he would never attempt to write anything so straitlaced again.

A 70-minute album of Koudelka‘s score was released between the game’s American ship date and its Japanese one (in a sign of Kikuta and Sacnoth’s ambition to appeal to international gamers, the game actually dropped in time for Black Friday and only 16 days later in Japan). With the failure of the game, it’s not terribly common, but is an interesting curiosity nonetheless and worth having if only for “Kiss Twice,” “Dead,” and “#scene20.” Sadly, Koudelka would be the last game scored by Kikuta to see international release; after the game’s failure, the composer left Sacnoth, had no involvement with Shadow Hearts, and spent several years in the wilderness without an assignment of any kind. Obscure music for even more obscure dating sims and hentai games were all he worked on between 1999 and 2006, when he released his first major solo album, and 2008, when he had his next major game assignment. One can’t help but feel for Kikuta over the failure of such an ambitious project that the dent that it seemingly put in his career afterwards, especially since the music and released game wound up so underachieving.

Rating: starstar

Secret of Mana 2 (Hiroki Kikuta)

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1993’s Secret of Mana had been a hit for Squaresoft, moving the company into action RPGs in a big and innovative way. So the appearance of a sequel two years later was little surprise; what was surprising was how much the development team was able to do with the concept. Designed for cartridges from the beginning, the game–known as Seiken Densetsu 3 or “Legend of the Holy Sword 3”–used many of the ideas the team had been forced to scrap when converting Secret of Mana from CD to cartridge. The game had 6 possible protagonists, each with a branching upgrade tree, and three completely different final dungeons and bosses–to say nothing of a second half that is totally nonlinear. The resulting title, while missing much of the original’s goofiness, was highly praised for its replayability and its expert use of the SNES hardware near the end of that console’s lifespan. However, despite previews and notices that the game would be released outside Japan in late 1996 as Secret of Mana 2, the game never saw an overseas release of any kind. There have been myriad explanations for this, from technical glitches that made translation and certification difficult to the expectation that overseas gamers were finished with 2D games after the debut of the Playstation and Nintendo 64. Whatever the reason, Secret of Mana 2 was part of a sad trend: of the 10 games Squaresoft produced in Japan after Final Fantasy VI/III as part of their creative explosion in the 16-bit generation, only two(Super Mario RPG and Chrono Trigger) saw a foreign release. The only international availability that Seiken Densetsu 3/Secret of Mana 2 would ever know was at the hands of hobbyists who released homemade translation patches for the game.

One of the key facets of Secret of Mana’s success had been its innovative score by newcomer Hiroki Kikuta. His quirky combination of contemporary pop elements and game music stalwarts had been a perfect fit for the game’s variable tone, and his usage of distinct musical styles within his chosen instrument set for the wacky and wistful portions of gameplay remains distinctive to this day. His assignment to Secret of Mana 2 was therefore a no-brainer, and it was the second of thee project he’s complete as a Square staffer. As with the original game, Kikuta programmed his own sound samples rather than relying on synths from a sound programmer; this bore particular fruit in the area of percussion, with rhythmic samples that are among the best, if not the best, that the SPC700 chip could provide. On the other hand, Kikuta worked under a bit of a disadvantage for the sequel: while the previous game had used all 8 channels of sound the SPC700 provided while cutting out musical lines for sound effects periodically, with Secret of Mana 2 one of the channels was given wholly over to sound effects, leaving the composer with only 7/8 of the musical resources he’d had before. He also, for whatever reason, chose to have a much drier sound with less reverb–comparable to the difference between Uematsu’s Final Fantasy IV and Final Fantasy V–which sapped away some of the overriding fantasy atmosphere from the project.

“Angel’s Fear/Fear of the Heavens,” Kikuta’s major theme from Secret of Mana and by far its most remembered element, returns in the sequel. In fact, Kikuta–perhaps responding to the theme’s popularity–integrates it in many more places, albeit never in quite the same vein of wistful wonder that made the original such a knockout. The introduction, “Where Angels Fear To Tread,” opens with rambling pianos before cutting to a high-energy version of the original theme against urgent snare drums–a nifty inversion of the original. “And Other,” the game’s fanfare, uses the theme as sung by synth voices as a stinger to a triumphant outburst. It’s in “Angel’s Fear” that Kikuta really gives the theme a workout, changing the shimmering mallets of the original’s opening for gently rolling pianos before bringing in the main melody on an acoustic guitar. Interestingly, he delays the fourth note of the theme and strings the final three together as a descending triplet, giving the theme a terrific sense of improvisation and intangible “difference” compared to the original. The same arrangement of notes, this time on chimes with acoustic guitar backing, appears in “Breezin’,” one of the concluding suite of tracks. It’s a very low-key and lovely statement that breaks up longer sections of Mitsuda-esque guitar noodling and synth voices, if totally lacking the exuberant energy of the original’s “The Last Truth from the Left.”

Kikuta also makes the intriguing choice to take the final boss theme from the previous game, “Meridan Dance,” and twist it into a dour and militaristic track for the end of each character’s unique prologue as “Meridian Child.” This same mutation of “Meridian Dance” appears throughout several of the more high-energy battle tracks, like “Nuclear Fusion” and “The Sacrifice Part Three” and winds up serving as a thread of its own to hold the score together. Kikuta’s battle themes in general are a much more varied lot for Secret of Mana 2 and are especially notable in their use of synthesized percussion. “Rolling Cradle” features unparalleled (for the SNES) drum rolls and rhythms, while “The Sacrifice Part One” uses the sound of shattering glass as a percussive element and the following “The Sacrifice Part Two” is an all-percussion frenzy combined with fragments of a twisted mallet melody. The pick of the bunch is undoubtedly “Hightension Wire” which exceeds the joyous exuberance of “Danger” in the previous game through the use of backbeats, prominent bass, woodwind accents, and a delightful synth melody. The final battle theme, the previously mentioned “The Sacrifice Part Three,” is another highlight; it’s far more serious than “Meridian Dance” but employs fragments of that theme and aspects of “Angel’s Fear” into a whirling, and lengthy, whole.

“Far more serious” is probably an apt descriptor of Kikuta’s entire score for Secret of Mana 2, in fact, and he uses less of several elements that made the original so goofy: prominent backbeats, quirky melodies, doubled mallets, and so on are in shorter supply. It’s possible that Kikuta wasn’t as comfortable with the level of seriousness the new game demanded, as the music uniformly lacks the same amount of wistfulness and exuberance that the original displayed. In fact, outside of statements of “Angel’s Fear,” there’s little wistfulness to be had at all, and much of the field music that was the source for that or the wackier tracks in the previous game sounds thin and rather uninspired by comparison (the missing eighth sound channel certainly not helping). This weakeness is compounded by the strange arrangement of the album, which clusters the duller field themes on the first disc while stuffing the final platter with the more rewarding battle themes and reprises of “Angel’s Fear.”

Despite this weakness, there’s no shortage of relative gems throughout the score. Each of the six characters gets a motif of sorts, albeit only one and never reprised or varied, and some of these are quite terrific: “Lefthanded Wolf,” for instance, uses growling bass guitar to great effect, and “Raven” is a fun romp with marimba and synth voices. Some of the field themes do a better job than others, with the jaunty bongos of “Damn Damn Drum,” the bizarre ambience of “Weird Counterpoint,” and the delightful marimba and chime dance of “Don’t Hunt the Fairy” as some of the best. The game’s flight theme, “Can You Fly, Sister?” is also a resounding highlight, a soaring piece that builds on, and exceeds, the backbeats and melodic strength of “Flight into the Unknown.” It’s also worth noting that, for better or for worse, all of Secret of Mana 2‘s songs are given plenty of room to breathe: the three-disc album loops each twice, the good and the mediocre, in the sort of expansive album release that Secret of Mana demanded but was never given. It’s also, curiously, available at a reasonable price even from importers, possibly due to overprinting on Square’s part.

Secret of Mana 2 is a curious happening, a mix of material that builds nicely on Kikuta’s elements and flat songs that seem to belie the composer being a bit unfomfortable with the more serious direction the series had taken. For all that, it’s still recommended to anyone that’s a fan of late-era 16-bit music, the original Secret of Mana, or Kikuta himself–just don’t expect it hit the same lofty highs. Secret of Mana 2 represented a career high for Hiroki Kikuta as well, briefly cementing him as the Mana series composer of choice, but it was not to last: after one final project for Square in 1998, Kikuta left the company to helm the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful Koudelka. The obscurity into which the latter project threw him is one of the bigger tragedies of game music as a whole, but as shown by the continued influence of his Mana songs and themes, and their continual rearrangement and reuse in later games and by fans, his legacy is still secure.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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

Dawn of Mana (Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Masayoshi Soken, and Ryuichi Sakamoto)

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Dawn of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 4, was been a long time coming; despite a variety of other games in Square-Enix’s long-running series (known as the Mana series stateside), none have come close to the popular and critical acclaim that Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) or Legend of Mana received in the 1990’s. While reactions to the game were decidedly mixed, there was been considerable interest in the new game’s score among video game music enthusiasts. After all, the list of composers attached to the project in one way or another is extremely impressive. The album clocks in at an impressive four discs, longer than any of the previous series sets, with Disc 4 given entirely over to new remixes of thematic material from previous games in the series, including music by fan favorites Hiroki Kikuta from Secret of Mana and Yoko Shimomura from Legend of Mana.

Chief among the exciting factors in Dawn of Mana was the involvement of noted concert and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, an Oscar winner for The Last Emperor, though his work turned out to be limited to the game’s introductory theme. Sakamoto’s four-minute title track is fairly subdued, piano-driven, and mostly effective. It introduces a few melodic fragments that are taken up later by the game’s main composers, but does stick out a bit, as it’s the only piano track on the album and one performed in a far more classical style than the rest, to say nothing of being acoustic rather than synthesized.

Kenji Ito, who has been the most prolific composer in the Mana series, with scores to the original Seiken Densetsu, its remake, and side games like Children of Mana under his belt, returns for Seiken Densetsu 4. Ito’s work has never resonated with the VGM community the way Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura’s series contributions have, but Ito’s music has been consistently pleasant and professional. Ito obligingly dusts off his old theme from the original Seiken Densetsu, and offers performances of it in “Rising Sun” and again near the end of the album. Ito’s tracks are generally soft and pleasant, but many are unremarkable as well, with few strong melodies and even fewer consistent melodic ideas shared between tracks. It’s also very curious that the older Ito material on Disc 4 isn’t arranged by Ito himself, since he clearly was involved with the project and rearranging his existing themes to an extent.

In many ways, Tsuyoshi Sekito was the most exciting name attached to Dawn of Mana. Sekito’s previous arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s work for various Final Fantasy remakes has met with fan approval, and a high-profile series entry seemed the next logical step in his career. It’s unfortunate, then, that Sekito’s work is the weakest on the album, and generally subpar in every way. The composer leaned heavily on a sound that’s dominated by synthesized beats and ambiance. While this produces a few good tracks like “Emerald Shine” and “The Beast God’s Labyrinth,” they are by and large dull and meandering, and don’t share any themes or instrumentation with Ito’s portion. The rock tracks that Sekito brings to the table again produce a few positive results (such as “Burning Spirits”) but are most often extremely limp and uninteresting, especially when compared with the rock arrangements on Disc 4. It’s telling that Sekito’s best tracks are actually rearrangements of Hiroki Kikuta’s work (“Guardian Holy Beast Flammie”).

While early indications were that Junya Nakano, Masayoshi Soken, and Hirosato Noda would be functioning as co-composers in their own right, they are essentially arrangers in the album as presented. Nakano and Noda don’t have any original compositions, while Soken has a handful of generally pleasant original tunes at the tail end of the set. Their real work, though, was to arrange work from earlier in the Seiken Densetsu series. The rearrangements are generally strong and very involving, especially the music by Kikuta. “Don’t Hunt the Fairy,” “Weird Counterpoint,” and “Splash Hop” from Seiken Densetsu 3 (a game unreleased in the US and therefore without a Western title) and “Meridian Child” and “Child of the Sprite Tribe” from Secret of Mana get not one but two arrangements apiece. One is close in instrumentation to the original, serving as a sort of upgrade to the 16-bit Super Nintendo sound of the original, and the other is a sped-up rock version that takes severe liberties with the original.

Kikuta’s music is far more involving and interesting than the majority of Ito’s and Sekito’s, and the rock arrangements of Kikuta’s themes easily outshine the original rock pieces on the preceding discs. Shimomura’s original music from Legend of Mana isn’t as well represented, with only two arranged tracks, but Ito’s music for Seiken Densetsu gets a splendid treatment. Comparing Ito’s rearranged tracks, given delightful new life by Square Enix’s resident chiptune expert Hirosato Noda in particular, to his original Seiken Densetsu 4 compositions is almost an embarrassment.

One wonders why Kikuta or Shimomura weren’t hired outright, since their music so easily dominates the new material; from the limited material available, it seems as if Nakano or Soken could also have provided superior musical accompaniment to Ito and Sekito. As a result, Dawn of Mana is, despite the big names and bloated length, a disappointment, with largely mundane new material alongside fine rearrangements of older songs. Worst of all, the multi-composer approach destroys the album’s coherence, with wild variations in style and tone the norm. Though the album is to be commended for respecting the series’ musical roots in the rearrangements, none of the new material comes close in tone, instrumentation, melody, or memorability to Kikuta and Shimomura’s earlier, seminal work in the series. You are better off buying Kikuta’s Secret of Mana, its Genesis remix, and Shimomura’s Legend of Mana directly.

Ito: * *
Sekito: *
Others: * * *
Overall: * *