Dragon Quest V Soundtrack (PlayStation 2), Koichi Sugiyama, 2004
Considering just how big the Dragon Quest franchise has always been in Japan, it was a bit of surprise to only see it landing on the SNES in 1992 – maybe the last big 8-bit franchise to make the jump. Of course, once Dragon Quest V was released, it was another massive success for Chunsoft and Enix, selling 2.8 million copies on the SNES. Add in sales of its remakes (PlayStation 2 in 2004, Nintendo DS in 2008 and mobile phones in 2014) and the figure exceeds six million units.
For a franchise that has a reputation for not changing much from instalment to instalment, Dragon Quest V does try some interesting things. First and foremost, there’s the way its narrative is structured, covering thirty years of the main protagonist’s life, from birth to the point when he is married and has a family. And while Dragon Quest V didn’t invent the idea of collecting monsters (the Megami Tensei series had been there first), it was still a relatively novel concept that would soon become ubiquitous via the Pokémon franchise.
Of course, another Dragon Quest game also meant another soundtrack by series regular Koichi Sugiyama. Previous soundtracks had seen Sugiyama expand the scope of each score, slowly moving away from the “overture / town / castle / field / dungeon / battle / final boss / staff roll” template that his original Dragon Quest score had established. The Dragon Quest V soundtrack halts this development, clocking in at about the same length as its predecessor and not offering significantly more variety – despite the move to a 16-bit platform. As always, multiple recordings of the score’s orchestral arrangement with the usual suspects followed: with the NHK Symphony Orchestra in 1992, the London Philharmonic in 2000 (nine years after their Dragon Quest IV recording!) and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra in 2004.
Previous Dragon Quest titles presented a common challenge when one tried to appreciate their scores in-game. Ultimately, the strongest representation of the music was always found on the orchestral arrangement recordings, which the modern remakes of each game tried to replicate – to various degrees of success. The Dragon Quest V soundtrack continues this conundrum in slightly different fashion.
Let’s start with the SNES original – which like the NES Dragon Quest scores is a fairly uneven affair. Obviously, the SNES’ capacity to reproduce orchestral sounds would have been a boon for a composer like Sugiyama, whose music is so heavily steeped in the traditions of Western classical music. However, his ambitions might actually be too much for the limitations of the SNES sound chip. Take a cue like string adagio “Cruel Reality”. Written more like a classical piece than a video game track, with a melody line that is more complex and less obviously articulated than what’s found on many other RPG scores, “Cruel Reality” comes across as rather dreary and monotonous on the SNES. This is music that relies on the emotional expressiveness of the performance and the SNES’ samples aren’t quite up to the task.
The same issue applies to other pieces as well. The Dragon Quest V soundtrack is an intriguing RPG score, in that its mood is rarely particularly adventurous or bold. Instead, much of the music has a curiously elusive quality, as if the whole journey is but a hazy summer dream. This leads to thinner than usual orchestrations that require delicate, heart-felt performances to bring out the music’s subtleties. And often enough, the SNES versions of the compositions lack that level of refinement – take the stiff rather than emotional woodwind soli on “Childhood Memories”, “Theme of Love” and “Travelling Alone”, or the patently odd string glissandi on “Higher and Higher”. You can guess what effect Sugiyama was aiming for on these pieces, but they feel less than fully realised.
Once more – as with the NES Dragon Quest games – it feels like the orchestral arrangements present the music as it was supposed to be heard in the first place. Particularly on the London Philharmonic Orchestra recording, the Dragon Quest V soundtrack reveals itself as a heady evocation of unusual moods and timbres. Just listen to “Higher and Higher”, a rather peculiar dungeon theme. With its initially idyllic flute melody, it’s surprisingly calm. However, there’s danger lurking underneath the quiet exterior, thanks to those disorienting string glissandi and an increasingly unpredictable, chromatic flute lead. It feels like you’re floating on clouds, but the risk of falling to the ground is never far away.
“Taking to the Skies” operates in a similar manner. It’s not as much of a break from tradition as Dragon Quest IV’s “Balloon’s Flight”, but its elegantly removed atmosphere, carried by an intricate, lengthy flute solo, offers far more harmonic and melodic surprises than most other RPG “flight” themes. Again, the atmosphere is dreamy, but the effect is by no means that of a careless lull.
“Deep Underground”’s hushed sense of nocturnal mystery is equally beguiling, courtesy of its swirling string ostinati and a flute lead that mixes sensations of elegance and caution. Sugiyama brings his inclination to explore emotionally ambiguous moods and textures to a head on the first half of “Ocean Voyage”. The composition initially relies entirely on the intoxicating effect of its otherworldly, exquisite string melodies and harmonies. And while the cue’s second half arguably strains a bit hard to turn the track’s melody into something far grander – replete with unison brass counterpoint and woodwind flutters – it’s a reminder that at times, the Dragon Quest V soundtrack can also go passionate and over-the-top sweeping.
Indeed, despite the music’s sometimes understated nature, its depth of feeling is never in question. In the hands of a capable orchestra, “Cruel Reality” and “Theme of Love” bring to bear the full, heart-rending impact of their carefully shaped melody lines, unfolding slowly until they hit home with all their gravitas and patiently built-up drama.
Where then does the problem lie that we brought up above? This is the first time that a Dragon Quest game doesn’t just try to approximate the orchestral arrangements through its respective console’s sound chip. No, the PlayStation 2 version of Dragon Quest V uses an actual orchestral recording. The only issue is that the game’s producers ended up going with what’s arguably the weakest of all three recordings – the NHK Symphony Orchestra one. Comparing this performance with the LPO quickly reveals the shortcomings of the NHK recording. It’s utterly flat in so many ways – there’s a disconcerting lack of dynamics and performance subtitles, made worse by a muddy recording that obscures the crucial details of Sugiyama’s orchestrations. As performed by the NHK, music that at its best is fascinatingly multi-faceted too often comes across as one-dimensional.
However, it’s a testament to the innate strength of Sugiyama’s compositions that even in a merely average performance and recording, they hold their own as some of game music’s most enjoyable orchestral pieces. So even despite its shortcomings (and the fact that the PlayStation 2 port features no worthwhile new material outside of the NHK recording), this version of the Dragon Quest V soundtrack earns its place on this site.
- 01 - Friendly and Peaceful Sugiyama, Koichi 1:16
- 02 - Childhood Memories Sugiyama, Koichi 1:47
- 03 - Deep Underground Sugiyama, Koichi 1:41
- 04 - Higher and Higher Sugiyama, Koichi 1:21
- 05 - Royal Palace Sugiyama, Koichi 2:12
- 06 - Mystical Realm of the Faeries Sugiyama, Koichi 1:39
- 07 - Travelling Alone Sugiyama, Koichi 1:24
- 08 - Cruel Reality Sugiyama, Koichi 3:54
- 09 - Ocean Voyage Sugiyama, Koichi 3:26
- 10 - Theme of Love Sugiyama, Koichi 2:47
- 11 - Taking to the Skies Sugiyama, Koichi 3:51
- 12 - Heavenly Castle Sugiyama, Koichi 2:39
- 13 - Vows of Marriage Sugiyama, Koichi 3:38