Legend of Mana Soundtrack, Yoko Shimomura, 1999
While the 32-bit generation saw a seismic shift in gameplay and graphics design from 2d to 3d, that didn’t mean nobody created pixel art masterpieces during those years. And given how much Square’s 16-bit games had pushed the envelope in the early 1990s, it only makes sense that the company would occasionally return to the art style that had endeared its products to countless gamers. Square’s major forays into 2d gaming on the PS1 were SaGa Frontier 2 and Legend of Mana – and it’s probably no coincidence that both games were produced by Square veteran Akitoshi Kawazu. That probably also explains the non-linear style of RPG gameplay both games tried to pioneer. However, while the lack of a strong central narrative was typical for the SaGa games, it set Legend of Mana apart from its franchise predecessors, reaping strongly divided feedback from gamers and reviewers alike.
There were other aspects of Legend of Mana that found more unanimous praise – particularly its audiovisual presentation, which included gorgeous visuals and one of Yoko Shimomura’s best scores. For Shimomura, working on the Legend of Mana soundtrack was a thoroughly positive experience. One of the reasons for Shimomura to move from Capcom to Square had been her desire to work on a fantasy title – and of course Square’s line-up of high-profile RPGs would be the perfect outlet for that ambition. As Shimomura put it in an interview: “I kept saying I wanted to work on a fantasy and this title finally came around. I really had fun with it. I tried hard to make it fit the style of the game and to express myself!!”
Of course, by taking on composing duties for the latest instalment of the Mana franchise, Shimomura had some very big shoes to fill. Hiroki Kikuta’s Secret of Mana score remains one of the all-time great RPG soundtracks and had created an idiosyncratic, yet accessible signature sound for the franchise that set it apart from the competition. Shimomura’s Legend of Mana soundtrack doesn’t innovate in the same way as Kikuta did – instead, the immensely colourful style she concocts on this album is squarely rooted in late-romantic orchestral music (with generous helpings of metal and bits of electronica and pop music).
In that regard, Shimomura’s approach lands Legend of Mana closer to JRPG conventions, but that doesn’t mean she deserts the Mana franchise’s established musical character. Instead, she expresses the same characteristics through somewhat more conventional means. Take the album’s opening salvo of “Nostalgic Song”, “Place of Soul” and “Hometown Domina”. They are all led by idyllic, calm woodwind melodies that couldn’t be more welcoming, animated by gently driving orchestral rhythms and clad in lush instrumentations. Again, those earthy, heart-warming melodies – with their folk-inspired gentle lilt – aren’t as creative as Kikuta’s unexpectedly modulating tunes. However, they are just as lyrical, with a charm that is impossible to resist. Indeed, in Shimomura’s hands, the world of Mana remains a realm of bucolic natural beauty and wonder. Shimomura is aptly supported by some of the best sound synthesis on the PS1, using crisp, life-like samples that convey the rich emotions of her compositions.
The Legend of Mana soundtrack’s charm persists throughout the entire work, but Shimomura manages to express it in various different ways. Her knack for sumptuous orchestrations and delightful melodies – established right at the start of the soundtrack – culminates on “City of Flickering Destruction” and “Those Who are Shining”. Both compositions – sequenced near the end of the soundtrack – use chamber music-sized orchestrations and gorgeous solo instrument writing to present their radiant, yearning melodies. Particularly “Those Who are Shining” feels like a natural extension of the soundtrack’s opening mood – reprising its optimism, but also giving it an elusive, profound quality through the use of choir voices and application of echo to the lead instruments. As the final showdown approaches, the game’s world hasn’t changed entirely, but the stakes have no doubt been raised.
Like Kikuta, Shimomura manages to effortlessly combine the whimsical with the ethereal. The latter element leads Shimomura to essay some of her most intriguing and experimental compositions. “Moonlight City Roa” most obviously evokes Secret of Mana’s mysticism, mixing that score’s Gamelan percussion with Legend of Mana’s more orchestral slant through an emotive solo cello accompaniment. “Missing Truth”’s serene, somewhat ritualistic flute melody is pitted against a background of various gongs and other expertly layered rhythm instruments (and a sitar), turning the cue into a peacefully mesmerising experience. Most intriguing is “The Other Truth” and its fleeting woodwind fragments floating by in the thick, hazy summer atmosphere. Shimomura’s light-handed approach is as obvious here as it is on humorous compositions like “Cliff Town Gato”, “Southern City Polpota” and “Mystic City Geo”, with their boisterous percussion and tongue-in-cheek transitions from booming, lively bombast to quieter passages.
One of the significant differences between the Legend of Mana soundtrack and Secret of Mana is how the former feels significantly heavier. That’s partially due to Shimomura’s use of more orchestral sounds, but there are other factors at play too. Shimomura deploys percussion far more often than Kikuta did. On “Wanderer’s Path” and “Earth Painting”, she combines yet more rhapsodic woodwind leads with constantly busy snare drums and staccato strings, successfully fusing fantasy and action scoring templates. More spectacular still are a series of marches sequenced towards the end of the soundtrack, again suitably preparing for the grand finale. In Shimomura’s hands, “The Excitement of Both of Us”, “Complicated Destiny” and “The One Who Waits for the Breath of Destiny” balance martial determination with the soundtrack’s trademark sweeping melodies and emotional nuance – witness “The Excitement of Both of Us”’ struggling, yet valiantly persisting melody lead.
Speaking of heavier tones, Shimomura mentioned in interviews that she was surprised to be asked to write heavy metal compositions for the Legend of Mana soundtrack’s boss battles. It’s a musical style that Shimomura absolutely nails here. “Pain the Universe” and “The Darkness Nova” cleverly arrange their triple-guitar onslaughts to create escalating thunderstorms backing up some borderline cheesy, yet irresistibly catchy and triumphant keyboard melodies. These are easily some of the 32-bit era’s best metal compositions outside of the Guilty Gear franchise.
For final boss track “Silence of Time”, Shimomura reaches again back to heavy guitar sounds, but interestingly eschews obvious theatrics. Instead she combines churning, slow riffs, pounding timpani, a dispassionately relentless organ motif and an eerie, chromatic percussion line dancing atop the cosmic furnace underneath. Oozing the evil spirit of a dark planet mercilessly charting its course across the blackened sky, “Silence of Time” doesn’t reinvent the wheel – but like the Legend of Mana soundtrack itself, it uses traditional elements to create something memorable and individual. This is a prime example of a traditional JRPG score done right, with tons of creativity and panache.
Purchase at YesAsia.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the soundtrack release.
- 01 - Nostalgic Song Shimomura, Yoko 3:32
- 02 - Places of Soul Shimomura, Yoko 1:32
- 03 - Hometown Domina Shimomura, Yoko 2:43
- 04 - Wanderer's Path Shimomura, Yoko 4:32
- 05 - Pain the Universe Shimomura, Yoko 3:20
- 06 - Cliff Town Gato Shimomura, Yoko 2:51
- 07 - Earth Painting Shimomura, Yoko 4:26
- 08 - Moonlight City Roa Shimomura, Yoko 2:10
- 09 - Everyday Dream - Spirit's Song Shimomura, Yoko 2:30
- 10 - Southern City Polpota Shimomura, Yoko 2:22
- 11 - Mystic City Geo Shimomura, Yoko 2:34
- 12 - Memory of Running Shimomura, Yoko 2:01
- 13 - The Darkness Nova Shimomura, Yoko 4:19
- 14 - Pastoral Shimomura, Yoko 1:42
- 15 - Missing Truth Shimomura, Yoko 3:05
- 16 - The Excitement of Both of Us Shimomura, Yoko 3:47
- 17 - The Other Truth Shimomura, Yoko 2:15
- 18 - Complicated Destiny Shimomura, Yoko 3:50
- 19 - The One Who Waits for the Breath of Destiny Shimomura, Yoko 3:07
- 20 - Depression Blues Shimomura, Yoko 2:34
- 21 - City of Flickering Destruction Shimomura, Yoko 3:22
- 22 - Foolish Decision Shimomura, Yoko 3:39
- 23 - Those Who are Shining Shimomura, Yoko 3:06
- 24 - The Great Virtue of Gathering Mana's Spirit Shimomura, Yoko 2:12
- 25 - Silence of Time Shimomura, Yoko 4:18
- 26 - Nostalgic Song - Ending Theme of Mana's Story Shimomura, Yoko 1:33
- 27 - Song of Mana - Ending Theme Shimomura, Yoko 5:59