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

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: * *