Chrono Cross Soundtrack, Yasunori Mitsuda, 1999
Out of the many experiments Square embarked on during the second half of the 1990s, Chrono Cross might have been the most controversial one. After all, this was not just some new IP that Square tested and played around with – this was the sequel to Chrono Trigger, one of the most beloved JRPGs of all time. Or was it? Chrono Cross producer Hiromichi Tanaka pointed out that his goal had been to “create a completely new and different world from the ground up”, rather than relying on Chrono Trigger’s universe, characters and gameplay mechanics. However, fans were not entirely prepared for this approach (which bore similarities to the mainline Final Fantasy games). While Chrono Cross was initially met with a near-ecstatic response from both reviewers and gamers, such enthusiasm soon tapered off when it became apparent just how little Chrono Cross had to do with its predecessor.
However, one aspect of the game that found unilateral praise was its stellar presentation – and that included, of course, Yasunori Mitsuda’s soundtrack. While Mitsuda had left Square in 1998 and gone freelance, his involvement with Chrono Cross was a given. After all, his Chrono Trigger soundtrack had become hugely popular, and Chrono Cross allowed him to collaborate once again with director and scriptwriter Masato Kato (following Chrono Trigger, Radical Dreamers and Xenogears). Kato commissioned Mitsuda to write the Chrono Cross soundtrack, and the composer used this project to further dive into his world music interests, which had already shaped large portions of Xenogears. This was bolstered by Kato’s request for music with a “South-East Asian feel, mixed with the foreign tastes and the tones of countries such as Greece” – reflecting the game’s primarily tropical, sun-baked archipelago setting and vibrant visuals.
Mitsuda further built upon this stylistic foundation by adding other influences. “I tried to apply a Mediterranean sound to all of this music, experimenting with Fado guitar type sounds”, Mitsuda stated in an interview. Other sources of inspiration included music from Ireland, Finland, Mongolia and China, and African percussion sounds. In the Chrono Cross album notes, Mitsuda takes great pains to highlight sound programmer Ryo Yamazaki’s work and how utterly crucial the right sound is for any piece of music to make its impact. Mitsuda completed the score within six months – this time seemingly without the kind of dramas surrounding the creation processes of Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. While not reaching the same level of popularity amongst game music fans as Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross remains one of Mitsuda’s most highly-regarded scores – and possibly of the entire PS1 era.
Indeed, the Chrono Cross soundtrack is Mitsuda’s first consistently excellent work. As much acclaim as Chrono Trigger and Xenogears have found over the years, they were hampered by various issues (particularly too many insubstantial compositions). Chrono Cross not only does away with such criticisms but builds upon the strengths Mitsuda had displayed on previous scores – turning into an all-around masterpiece.
Firstly, there’s Mitsuda’s subtle thematic work, one of Chrono Trigger’s often under-reported highlights. Chrono Cross‘ less-than-straightforward narrative relationship with Chrono Trigger is further complicated because Chrono Cross expands upon characters and ideas presented in the Japan-only Satellaview game Radical Dreamers – which in turn wrapped up some of Chrono Trigger’s loose story threads. Mitsuda’s reasonably frequent use of the Chrono Trigger and Radical Dreamers main themes throughout Chrono Cross doesn’t necessarily clarify these complex narrative relationships but does help tie this lengthy score together. More importantly, Mitsuda has lost none of his ability to creatively manipulate his themes, adapt them to new contexts, quote only fragments or substantially change their melodies. That’s not to mention several other thematic connections running through the score, such as the material that several of the town tracks’ ‘Home World’ and ‘Another World’ versions share to underscore the game’s multiple-dimension narrative.
However, it’s Mitsuda’s melodic gifts and his ability to conjure vivid, sometimes inscrutable fantasy worlds which impress most on the Chrono Cross soundtrack. The result is a score that takes listeners on an immense aural and emotional journey. The soundtrack’s beginnings couldn’t be further removed from Chrono Trigger and especially Xenogears’ metaphysics. Most of the score’s first third consists of sparsely orchestrated cues, carried predominantly by acoustic guitar, piano, woodwind soli (mostly on clarinet) – and of course Mitsuda’s unfailingly beautiful, serene melodies. The music’s mood is low-key, but it’s a moving listen right from the start, as Mitsuda’s compositions underline the game’s sombre narrative. After all, this is a game in which the protagonist soon finds himself trapped in a parallel dimension where his other self drowned as a child, and his inexplicable appearance bitterly angers and confuses people.
As such, the Chrono Cross soundtrack aptly mirrors the inescapable feeling of melancholy, nostalgia and longing baked into the game’s storyline – making for an intriguing contrast to the game’s colourful setting and the translucent beauty of its world (maybe summed up best in Mitsuda’s ambition to write major key Fado music for this project). For Mitsuda’s compositions to make their full impact – while relying on only a few key instruments – outstanding sound synthesis was required, and Yamazaki delivers in spades. In fact, this might be the best-sounding music the PS1 chip has generated (not counting pre-recorded Red Book audio, for obvious reasons) – exceeding even outstanding competitors like Legend of Mana. Just listen to how life-like the distorted guitar lead sounds on “Voyage – Home World”, or compare the clarinet solo on “Ephemeral Memories” with the same instrument’s sound on Xenogears “The Treasure Which Cannot be Stolen”.
As grounded and earthy as the Chrono Cross soundtrack’s beginning might be, it gradually begins to move into headier territory. Before the storyline’s philosophical convolutions kick off in full swing, it’s the initially playful, later on increasingly enigmatic location tracks that prepare this move towards stranger realms. After a joyfully mischievous cue like “Lizard Dance” – successfully throwing a hammered dulcimer into a shuffle tune – “Forest of Illusion”’s entrancing minimalism starts to open the door to more elusive geographical and emotional surroundings. “Death Volcano” mixes fretless bass, Udo percussion and uilleann pipes in one coherent, fascinating composition, while “Fortress of Ancient Dragon”’s jumpy, disparate components almost take the cue towards prog rock. The track’s organ solo and its religious undertones hint at the direction the score will be taking. As a result, the stakes are rising – mid-soundtrack highlight “Prisoners of Fate”’s emotionally devastating string melody couldn’t be any more heart-wrenching.
And so when “Garden of God” floats into view on the ethereal sounds of an acapella boys choir, the soundtrack’s focus has clearly shifted to more universal concerns. After all, this is a game that ponders weighty questions, such as whether homo sapiens is doomed to destroy itself and the world around it. However, the music doesn’t lose sight of its characters even now. A spell-bindingly drifting, otherworldly piece like “Jellyfish Sea” is immediately followed by “The Girl Who Stole the Stars” – moving, shimmering string and flute lines backing touchingly simple “la la” scatting by performer Noriko Mitose.
As a result, the score’s epic conclusion registers all the more intensely. After the frantic, ceaselessly throbbing final battle cue “Dragon God” – featuring a virtuoso line for solo violin – “Life – A Distant Promise” hits with almost biblical might. Built upon a gargantuan, slow version of the Chrono Trigger main theme’s C section, the cue’s almost overwhelming outpouring of emotions is uplifting in its sense of fulfilment – and yet maintains the score’s constant feeling of yearning.
That point is brought home at full force by closing track “Radical Dreamers – Unstolen Jewel”. Its shape is almost the opposite of “Life – A Distant Promise”. Instead of orchestral bombast, it offers nothing but Mitose’s vocals, accompanied by acoustic guitar, performing the melody “Life – A Distant Promise” had spun off the Chrono Trigger theme. But Mitsuda’s tune remains utterly heartbreaking – a perfect match for Mitose’s lyrics about the desperate hope for reunion in a cold universe. Her performance concludes with what must be the most gut-wrenching, haunting vocalise heard ever in a video game, crystallising the score’s narrative and emotional strains within a few simple sounds that disappear forever into ether soon after. Such a masterstroke of poignant simplicity proves the perfect conclusion to one of game music’s most outstanding achievements.
- 01 - Chrono Cross - Scars of Time Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:30
- 02 - Arni Village - Home World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:23
- 03 - Lizard Dance Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:42
- 04 - Reminiscing - Unerasable Memory Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:25
- 05 - On the Beach of Dreams - Another World Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:23
- 06 - Arni Village - Another World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:32
- 07 - Ephemeral Memory Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:52
- 08 - Lost Fragment Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:12
- 09 - Drowned Valley Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:01
- 10 - Termina - Another World Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:43
- 11 - Departed Souls Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:44
- 12 - Forest of Illusion Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:25
- 13 - Guldove - Another World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:26
- 14 - Hydra's Swamp Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:11
- 15 - Fragment of a Dream Mitsuda, Yasunori 1:35
- 16 - Death Volcano Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:40
- 17 - Fortress of Ancient Dragons Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:55
- 18 - The Bend of Time Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:48
- 19 - Termina - Home World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:38
- 20 - Dragon Knight Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:02
- 21 - Guldove - Home World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:59
- 22 - Marbule - Home World Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:56
- 23 - Zelbess Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:43
- 24 - Chronomantique Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:18
- 25 - Dilemma Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:47
- 26 - Optimism Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:19
- 27 - Isle of the Dead Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:12
- 28 - Dead Sea - Tower of Destruction Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:10
- 29 - Prisoners of Fate Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:27
- 30 - Island of the Earth Dragon Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:17
- 31 - Navel of the World Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:59
- 32 - Gale Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:00
- 33 - Marbule - Another World Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:00
- 34 - Garden of God Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:45
- 35 - Fate - The God of Destiny Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:10
- 36 - Jellyfish Sea Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:56
- 37 - The Girl Who Stole the Stars Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:48
- 38 - Dreams of Time Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:02
- 39 - Dragon's Prayer Mitsuda, Yasunori 5:38
- 40 - Star Tower Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:27
- 41 - Frozen Flame Mitsuda, Yasunori 2:55
- 42 - Dragon God Mitsuda, Yasunori 3:22
- 43 - Life - A Distant Promise Mitsuda, Yasunori 6:33
- 44 - Radical Dreamers - Unstolen Jewel Mitsuda, Yasunori 4:35