VGM Entry 63: Secret of Mana
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
The Super Nintendo may have been video game music’s finest hour with or without them, but three soundtracks in particular carried this system to an unprecedented level of greatness which has really never been matched since. Each was composed by a different artist, and each was released by Square. The first of these was Secret of Mana.
Here is the track list for garudoh’s compilation:
(0:00) Angle’s Fear
(0:53) selection menu track not featured on the ost
(1:23) Into the Thick of It
(2:17) Colour of the Summer Sky
(3:53) Star of Darkness
(4:46) Strange Event
(5:46) Spirit of the Night
(6:22) Eternal Recurrence
(7:29) The Sorcerer
(8:15) Leave Time for Love
(8:44) Dancing Beasts
(9:24) Calm Before the Storm
Hiroki Kikuta was brand new to the world of video game music when he scored Secret of Mana, released in 1993. (Called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan, the game was technically the sequel to what we commonly know as Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy.) He had worked on the sound effects for Romancing SaGa in 1992, and beyond that he only had two animes to his credit (The Adventure of Robin Hood and The Legend of Snow White, both released in 1990.) Like the more famous Square composer whose 1995 composition would overshadow Kikuta, his work would emerge from pure inspiration, with almost no past experience upon which to build. He single-handedly made an otherwise fairly average game one of the most beloved titles on the system. I suppose average is an odd way to describe Secret of Mana–it was a very unique game within the adventure genre–but its success hinged entirely on the soundtrack. With limited plot potential and almost zero character development (the playable characters are named Boy, Girl, and Sprite for goodness sake), Secret of Mana‘s success was due entirely to Kikuta’s ability to bring the visual environment to life in fantastic ways.
garudoh chose some odd tracks for this compilation, and judging by the fact that some of the songs fade before they’re anywhere near looping (Leave Time for Love for instance) I have to assume he wasn’t personally very familiar with the music. I’ll offer you some additional tracks that didn’t make it into his mix.
Secret of Mana was a game about elements. This was not integrated in any sort of forced way, as with say, the crystals of earth, water, air, etc in the Final Fantasy series, but rather it was a natural consequence of the games strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I doubt anyone remembers why, plot-wise, you ever end up in a desert, but the experience of being there is a lasting memory.
Secret of the Arid Sands
Kikuta didn’t rely on any stereotypical reference points here. He didn’t give his music a Middle-Eastern vibe or any such nonsense. Instead he chose tones that actually reflected a visual experience of a desert. The accompaniment to the melody here flickers up and down from the bass of the music like boiling bubbles and mirages dancing off the desert sands. It’s largely in these world encounter zones, where the plot was least relevant, that Kikuta’s music is at its finest, because he was at liberty to paint a timeless musical image without any concern for the events taking place there.
This same idea of audio imagery really stands out to me in “Into the Thick of It” (1:23 in the garudoh video), where at the start the plucked sort of harpsichord-guitar line accented by the drum beat and displayed on the backdrop of a simple, confident bass and quiet but encompassing synth creates the image of a forest rushing by. (Much of the drumming is hard to find in the low bitrate youtube sample, with exaggerated alterations in volume obscuring the fact that the staccato metronome-sounding drum hits on every beat.) The bass and synth fill in the earth and sky; the drum sets things in motion; the plucked notes count off the passing tree trunks; the fuzzy guitarpsichord resonance depicts the myriad interwoven branches, tying each note into the next. However pretentious that may sound, and regardless of whether or not it reflects Kikuta’s intentions, I’ve always heard something roughly along these lines in this song. I want to clearly distinguish it from music which captures the sense of being in a forest. This doesn’t tap into emotional reactions to environments so much as it generates an actual physical image of the environment, supported by the game’s graphics proper, upon which the players can impose their own emotional values. It’s fantasy in the purest sense. As “Into the Thick of It” progresses the song flushes out into more obvious visions: woodwinds capturing the blowing breeze and rustling grass, bubbly staccato synth tones depicting passing streams. And this is precisely the graphic environment in which the song is employed.
What the Forests Taught Me
“Into the Thick of It”, where the player is rushing on ahead on a well established path, is nicely contrasted by “What the Forests Taught Me”, in which the game sets you in a much more secluded forest. Here the motion is removed, and you get a standing image of a forest clearing full of life. The calm is a bit more displaced from the gameplay, considering you’re hacking and slashing your way through, but this is entirely in keeping with Kikuta’s tendency in such plotless zones to score music descriptive of the visual environment and allow the players to attach their own value to the events taking place there.
The sort of apex to this side of his soundtrack is “A Wish”, which plays in the winter forest combat zones. An environment blanketed in a single, neutral, stagnant substance, full of life but only subtly altered by its motion–Kikuta composed a track perfectly descriptive of what the player, upon taking a break from mechanical combat and visualizing themselves in this fantasy world, would experience. A lot of truly great musicians have attempted to capture this sort of situation–Sigur Rós and George Winston come to mind–but as the nature of video games dictates looping tracks, “A Wish” offers this vision in a uniquely and authentically eternal sort of way.
The mental images in a work of fantasy are not always natural, and for Secret of Mana‘s darker side Kikuta needed to get pretty creative. “Ceremony” (2:55) and “The Sorcerer” (7:29) represent the game’s darkest moments, and the former, though not my favorite track, might be his finest accomplishment in the mix. In a score through which the player is accustomed to deriving physical imagery, Ceremony’s twisted patterns and displaced tones take on added weight. There is nothing natural to latch onto here–no coherent vision, just some disturbing, chaotic mass. It’s got to be one of the creepiest video game songs out there, second on the SNES only to the Final Battle music of EarthBound by Hirokazu Tanaka. “The Sorcerer” is just as if not more disturbing, made only slightly less intimidating in practice by the distraction of having to actually fight a boss while it’s playing.
Steel and Snare
One thing you may have noticed listening through garudoh’s mix is Kikuta’s tendency towards hard-hitting, dominant percussion. It’s one of his strongest consistencies, tying a wide variety of musical styles together under a common feature, and on one of my other favorite tracks, “Steel and Snare”, he really lets it all out. This is one of those songs I’ve wanted to cover in a rock band since the first time I ever heard it, and I remember having the whole thing worked out on bass at one point in my life (along with Meridian Dance; this never really crossed my mind before, but when I first bought a bass it was always Hiroki Kikuta and Ryuji Sasai that I turned to.) The music again drives the setting of the game, with the continuous tone in the background simulating the air around the floating castle, and the drum and bass track giving all of the enemies a decidedly mechanical feel. I don’t actually know that they -were- mechanical. I don’t remember what they looked like precisely. But whatever they were meant to be, the music dictated my memory of the scene.
I’ll leave you with one last song:
I’ve managed to maintain this as my ringtone for well over a decade, and it’s become such a continuous occurrence in my daily life that I don’t think I can even intelligibly discuss it in the context of the game anymore, but I was in love with it when I first heard it and I still am now. I suppose I should have featured Meridian Dance here instead, as it seems a bit silly to ignore Secret of Mana‘s most epic track through all this, but I’d rather draw attention to the less commonly featured great ones anyway. Enjoy.