Mystic Ark Soundtrack, Akihiko Mori, 1995
Scarcity and nostalgia can have a powerful effect when working hand in hand – just take Mystic Ark. A representative of a particularly popular genre amongst retro game fans – the 16-bit RPG – Mystic Ark’s status was elevated further by the dual facts that it was released towards the end of the SNES’ lifespan and only in Japan. Was this one of the great untranslated SNES gems like Star Ocean and Tales of Phantasia that pushed the hardware and its beloved pixel art to its limits?
As a ROM translation released years later showed, not so much. Mystic Ark’s gameplay turned out to be solid, but not particularly inspired either, settling for second-tier status in the SNES’ busy RPG library. The one thing that set the game apart from the pack was the inspired weirdness of the various worlds its heroes traverse. Pick your favourite: a desert whose only inhabitants are pirate cats and a witch named Matoya; worlds where colour and sound disappear depending on your location or where all adults have disappeared – or maybe cities made of fruit and vegetables?
Well, and then there’s the Mystic Ark soundtrack. No, it’s not as joyfully bizarre as the game’s setting – in fact, its orchestra/rock mix is fairly typical for a JRPG of its era, far more so than say its predecessor The 7th Saga’s idiosyncratic, stylistically more coherent take on the genre. No, what makes this score so remarkable is its sheer quality, the way it executes genre conventions to absolute perfection – so much so that this might rank as one of the best RPG soundtracks ever composed.
In a way, the outstanding level of artistry on display here is no surprise. Composer Akihiko Mori had established himself as one of the 16-bit era’s most gifted orchestral composers with Shien’s Revenge and Wonder Project J. Mystic Ark finally gave him the opportunity to work on the broad emotional canvas of an RPG, and its manifold settings and moods. Clearly, Mori relished the opportunity, writing over 100 compositions for the score between the winter of 1994 and spring of 1995 (while also working on the game’s sound effects). Ultimately, 51 tracks found their way into the game and it’s remarkable how consistent they are in their excellence.
This is easily Mori’s most ambitious score – a fact that’s reflected on several levels. Take the soundtrack’s thematic components. With the game’s wildly varying locations and bland characters, it’s no surprise Mori focuses on other aspects of the narrative to develop them through musical themes, leading to a unique solution.
Two main themes run through the Mystic Ark soundtrack. The first melody is presented initially as a dramatically rising and falling flute melody on “Mystic Ark”, returning periodically in colourful disguises throughout the soundtrack. More interesting still is the second theme, at first an invincibly majestic melody with an irrepressibly on-the-beat, hymn-like progression on the choir-only “The Mother Goddess”. Here, Mori takes the – within game music – unprecedented step to develop the theme in three-way counterpoint, somehow keeping the choral lines discernible despite the SNES samples’ watery nature. Mori had layered three melodies on top of each other on Wonder Project J, but here he does so to develop one single melody and constantly change it. Game music has produced few examples of contrapuntal mastery like “The Mother Goddess”.
Mori’s true thematic masterstroke takes place on a more granular level though. Throughout the game, he reprises not just the two main themes, but also smaller motifs, for example a cello run that appears on several dungeon tracks. The purpose of these recurrences becomes obvious once the monumental final boss track “Are You the True Form of Darkness?” kicks off, spearheaded by the Mother Goddess theme. An absolute beast of a battle track, “Are You the True Form of Darkness?” combines a dozen motifs and melodies that have been floating through the Mystic Ark soundtrack into one seamless orchestral epic – organically and truly bringing the entire soundtrack to its climax by tying together its many threads.
In all other aspects, the Mystic Ark soundtrack succeeds just as triumphantly. Mori is at the height of his melodic powers here – sample the gorgeous waltz pastiche of “Shall We Dance?”, the way “Alone” tugs at the heartstrings with its delicately intertwining melodies, or the beguilingly idyllic “Composers Are Always Quiet on Their Days Off” and “The Summer of Youth”, with their sunny seaside town feel. While not as hyperactive as Shien’s Revenge, Mystic Ark’s compositions are jam-packed with constantly evolving melodies and orchestral colours – an embarrassment of musical riches and ideas. Mori has always had an ear for lush orchestrations and rarely has his music sound more intoxicating than on “Water is the Mother of all Life”. The composition’s clever use of ostinato figures brilliantly and to poignant effect mimics the constant motion of water. Solemn brass and cello interjections inspire hushed awe as the music takes listeners into the centre of this temple of nature.
Not surprisingly, Mori’s battle themes are equally maximalist, pulling out all the stops in their combination of orchestral forces and driving hard rock and metal. Lock On had given Mori an opportunity to dabble in metal-laced jazz rock, and now he gets an opportunity to indulge in heavier stylings. On turbulent tracks like “So the Fingers of the Dark Have Reached Even Here” and “I Am a Powerful Ally”, orchestra and rock band merge flawlessly, constantly trading places in some of the soundtrack’s most densely scored moments. “Hey! Don’t Attack Me!” features some of the heaviest riffage performed by the SNES’ SPC chip, moving from thrash to power metal, with a downright catchy choral hook topping off the track’s development.
At the same time, Mori knows fully well when to scale things back a bit and provide some breathing space. The results are as convincing as when he goes in all guns blazing. Take “In the Darkness”, which only needs double-tracked, echoing harp arpeggios, interspersed with hammering piano chords, to evoke its vast subterranean location. “The Haunted Mansion” and “Look Behind You” are downright creepy, taking this RPG score unusually far into horror territory, while maintaining a degree of playfulness – witness how “The Haunted Mansion” simulates the sound of a grand piano suddenly slamming shut. The best example of Mori playing outside of genre stereotypes is “Techno House”, a mutant take on jazz with electronic elements, choral vocals and cheerily industrial percussion.
It all leads into closing track “Birth”, one of the best orchestral compositions ever to grace a video game. This truly is concert hall-quality music written for the SNES and the peak of Mori’s career. Taking the score’s first main theme on a roller coaster ride, “Birth” delivers one melodic highlight after the next, relishing the opportunity to develop its material and moods over such an extended period of time. Constantly joyful and surging forward (particularly during a brief fugal section), “Birth” closes with the most triumphant, life-affirming rendition of the main theme imaginable, a colossal, soaring string melody that delivers the truly epic conclusion that this master piece of a soundtrack deserves.
- 01 - Mystic Ark (Title) Akihiko Mori 1:45
- 02 - The Mother Goddess (Shrine) Akihiko Mori 3:42
- 03 - Let's Go On An Adventure!! (World 1 & 4) Akihiko Mori 2:39
- 04 - In The Darkness (Dungeon 1) Akihiko Mori 3:11
- 05 - Your Fighting Eyes Are Always Beautiful (Battle 1) Akihiko Mori 2:48
- 06 - The Rogues Who Await Us In The Depths Of The Dungeon Are Strong Indeed! (Boss Battle 1) Akihiko Mori 2:27
- 07 - The Shepherd People (World 2) Akihiko Mori 2:57
- 08 - Without You, This Village Holds Nothing For Me (Town 2) Akihiko Mori 2:10
- 09 - Where Are We... I'm A Forest! (Dungeon 2) Akihiko Mori 2:34
- 10 - So The Fingers Of The Dark Have Reached Even Here (Battle 2) Akihiko Mori 2:44
- 11 - The Rise And Fall Of The Waves (World 3) Akihiko Mori 1:52
- 12 - Composers Are Always Too Quiet On Their Days Off (Town 3) Akihiko Mori 2:30
- 13 - On The Holiday, Let's Bask In The Light Of The Sun (Battle 3) Akihiko Mori 2:40
- 14 - The Summer Of Youth (Town 4) Akihiko Mori 2:12
- 15 - Water Is The Mother Of All Life (Dungeon 4) Akihiko Mori 3:29
- 16 - I Am A Powerful Ally (Battle 4) Akihiko Mori 2:27
- 17 - Alone (World 5) Akihiko Mori 3:26
- 18 - In The Depths Of The Labyrinth (Dungeon 5) Akihiko Mori 2:14
- 19 - Hey! Don't Attack Me! (Boss Battle 2) Akihiko Mori 3:28
- 20 - The Haunted Mansion (World 6) Akihiko Mori 2:52
- 21 - Look Behind You! (Dungeon 6) Akihiko Mori 2:27
- 22 - Theme Of Sir Ganbos (Gunboss) Akihiko Mori 2:33
- 23 - Threads Of Memories (Secil) Akihiko Mori 2:13
- 24 - Shall We Dance? (Rondo) Akihiko Mori 1:07
- 25 - Only A Music Box Remains (Music Box) Akihiko Mori 1:48
- 26 - Pathetique (Sadness) Akihiko Mori 2:55
- 27 - A Tale Of A Faery Land (Castle) Akihiko Mori
- 28 - How Are You? Things Are Pretty Much The Same Here (Revival) Akihiko Mori 3:13
- 29 - Techno House (Factory) Akihiko Mori 2:33
- 30 - A Decisive Time (Boss Battle 3) Akihiko Mori 5:45
- 31 - This Will Become Your Grave (Dark) Akihiko Mori 2:14
- 32 - The Truth Hidden Within The Temple (Last World) Akihiko Mori 2:42
- 33 - Are You The True Form Of Darkness? (Last Battle) Akihiko Mori 6:11
- 34 - Birth (End Title) Akihiko Mori 7:54