VGM Entry 53: Soul Blazer
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
A personal SNES favorite of mine is Soul Blader (Soul Blazer in North America), composed by Yukihide Takekawa and released by Enix in January 1992. Takekawa is not a big name in the video game music industry, but he’s composed a number of other soundtracks for film and anime. I gather his main profession is as a vocalist. Whatever influences he brought to the table, Soul Blader is a much more diverse soundtrack than your standard orchestral-centric fantasy fair.
Quintet made a lot of amazing games for the Super Nintendo, but this one was probably their best. Like ActRaiser, the game revolves around a heaven and hell scenario, where The Master faces off against The King of Evil, in this case named Deathtoll. Basically, a powerful king corrupted by greed forces a scientist, Dr. Leo, to invent a portal to hell so that the king can strike a deal with the devil. Deathtoll agrees to give him all the riches in the world in exchange for all of the souls in his empire, and King Magridd promptly goes about replicating these hell portals all over the place and trapping pretty much all life and material connected to it within them. The Master sends you, his messenger, to earth to destroy the portals and set the Freil Empire free.
That’s the entire plot, really. There aren’t any major twists or turns. You just make your way across a fantasy realm freeing souls until you finally confront and defeat Deathtoll. As far as an actual story is concerned, yeah, it’s pretty bland, but Quintet manage to really turn it into something wonderful.
You may have heard of the “Soul Blazer” series, consisting of Soul Blader, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. I never played Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma was never released in North America, but I gather the unofficial series attribution is derived from subtle commonalities and returning side-characters rather than any overt consistency in plot or gameplay. If that is the case, then I think we can safely regard ActRaiser as an equal shareholder in the collection. But before I get into that, let’s look at this initial track compilation. It consists of:
(0:00) Intro Theme
(1:27) Lonely Town
(2:14) World of Soul Blader
(3:32) Solitary Island
(4:34) The Mines
(6:01) Into the Dream
(6:40) Dr. Leo’s Lab
(7:37) The Marshland of Lost Sight
(8:24) Lisa’s Song
Solitary Island, The Mines, Dr. Leo’s Lab, and The Marshland of Lost Sight are all combat zone themes, and perhaps the most obvious examples of what an amazing job Yukihide Takekawa did here. If you’re struggling to really define his style, I think the appropriate term is “video game music”. I mean, Takekawa transcends all style standards in precisely that way Super Nintendo music ought to. If you check out Solitary Island especially, you’re going to here an amalgamation of folk, orchestral, and rock elements so thoroughly intertwined that any attempt to distinguish between them would be simply misguided. The effect produced in the listener is what really counts at this point. Takekawa’s combat music, aside from the final boss theme, is never really intimidating. It’s adventurous and, as a consequence of the bass and drums, a little bit grimy, precisely as it ought to be. I mean, you’re God’s avatar here. You can’t ‘die’. There’s no serious danger, just work to be done. This is music for getting down to business, and your business is killing demons. If the regular boss battle music (“The Battle for Liberation”) is utterly generic and “Dr. Leo’s Lab” gets old quickly, I would still say Takekawa did an outstanding job over all.
And besides that, the combat music is all extraordinarily relevant. The sort of creatures you’ll be fighting in Dr. Leo’s lab is obvious enough through the music, and likewise “Solitary Island” has a sort of pirate vibe going on. “Icefield of Laynole” (or “The Icy Fields of Leinore”, or “Ice Field of Lanoyle”, depending on your source) is one of the best at this. Without ever devorcing the drum and bass style that ties the whole soundtrack together, it nails a snow and ice-themed zone sound. It doesn’t bend to any stereotypes of what a winter zone ought to sound like, but the jazzy overtones lend some real credence to the expression “smooth as ice”.
Isn’t this just gorgeous? I think so. Takekawa let his imagination run wild with some of these, and you can hear the whole game in action even if you’ve never actually seen it. “Seabed of Saint Elle’s” (or “The Depths of the Sea of Saint Elle’s”) is obviously the water level. Like “Icefield of Laynole”, it doesn’t feel nearly as dirty as the other combat zone tracks, and it’s no coincidence that these are the two most fanciful zones in the game, inhabited by dolphins on the one end and gnomes on the other.
Dolphins? Really? Well, Quintet were a bit more creative about that than you might think. One of the big reoccurring themes throughout Soul Blazer is reincarnation, and as God you can communicate with anything that has a soul. So you’re not dealing with some weird anthropomorphic society here. They’re certainly a bit more, well, technologically advanced than real dolphins, but so are plenty of fictional human societies. The souls you encounter everywhere are all capable of more or less the same level of intelligence and are only restricted by their physical bodies. The gnomes, for instance, have an incredibly short lifespan, and their souls often reflect on how much they’d taken for granted in past lives as humans. You get used to this pretty quick; the first character you meet in the game is a tulip.
I’m not sure why these track titles are so screwy. I have this song as “Temple of Light”. RPGFan, who I consider reputable, have it as “A Temple in Ruins”, and the youtube video says “Rotting Temple”. Your guess is as good as mine. Anyway, here is one of the few combat zone tracks that sets aside the drum and bass drive. Aside from the simple fact that this made for a great song, the change of pace fits its situation in the game as a dungeon within a dungeon; you enter the temple from the “Marshland of Lost Sight” combat zone.
Anyway, the biggest parallel between Soul Blazer and ActRaiser is really in the whole city-building simulation appeal. Quintet didn’t give Soul Blazer an actual city simulation side, but each town does grow as a direct consequence of your actions. Each town zone starts out as an empty map, and it’s only as you release souls within the combat zones that their bodies reappear and their homes are rebuilt. You certainly don’t have to save every soul to beat the game, and a number of them are hidden, so you do retain a modest degree of control over how each town will ultimately appear. Any possibility of boredom with the game’s fairly basic combat mechanics is nullified by it; you essentially build cities by killing monsters, which is a perfect amalgamation of ActRaiser‘s two different modes.
Did I mention Yukihide Takekawa was a vocalist? He might be the only video game composer to sing on his own score. This rendition of Lisa’s Song (also credited as A Night Without Lovers /Koibito no Inaiyoru) appeared on the official soundtrack released about a month after the game, and I think it’s safe to assume that it would have appeared in the game’s ending credits had the technology of the day allowed for it.
And now if you’ll go excuse me, I have a date with ZSNES. And I’d been so good about not wasting time on replays up to this point…