Secret of Mana Soundtrack, Hiroki Kikuta, 1993
It’s no understatement to say that for many gamers, Secret of Mana remains one of the most fondly remembered experiences of the 16-bit era. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the innate quality of the product. Square’s experiment merging action adventure and RPG elements was a resounding success, charming millions of players with its vibrant fantasy world and accessible, yet deep gameplay. But timing played an important role as well. Remember that back in 1993, US releases of SNES RPGs were the exception, not the rule (and for the German market, Secret of Mana might well have been the first localised SNES RPG ever). As a result, many gamers encountered the engrossing storytelling and vivid worlds that the best RPGs deliver for the first time with Secret of Mana.
An even rarer sight were actual album releases of game music outside of Japan. Secret of Mana was one of the very, very few SNES game scores to see a US release (preceding Donkey Kong Country by a year). Again, for many this would have been the first time they encountered game music outside of a game.
Of course, Square’s confidence in releasing this particular soundtrack in the US turned out to be well-founded. As thousands and thousands of listeners discovered, Hiroki Kikuta’s Secret of Mana soundtrack is one of the masterpieces of not just the 16-bit era, but game music history at large. It was the result of many, many months of hard work, according to Kikuta. He worked on the score for more than two years, leaving the office only twice a month. Enjoying the freedom that Square gave Kikuta on his debut game score, he spent the majority of those two years tweaking the sounds he could squeeze out of the SNES. In the process, he used tricks like achieving a three-dimensional sound by playing an instrument on two tracks and giving only one side of the stereo field vibrato.
All this effort polishing the instrument samples used for Secret of Mana clearly paid off. There’s a enormous vibrancy and warmth here, coupled with a sense of spaciousness. This melange gives the score an inviting, enveloping character that suits the musical material perfectly. The Secret of Mana soundtrack truly is a masterclass in world building, creating a fantastical realm unlike most others seen in RPGs of the area.
Kikuta eschews the bombast that most SNES RPGs dabble in, inspired as they are by late-romantic orchestral works (pay attention to how rarely Kikuta uses brass on Secret of Mana). His orchestral palette is lighter and brighter, highlighting mallet and wooden percussion, harp, acoustic guitar and solo woodwinds. It’s a creative, versatile instrumental array that creates a more intimate sound than many other RPG scores. At the same time, Kikuta’s focus on smaller ensembles doesn’t create the sort of self-consciously low-key mood that another solo instrument-heavy RPG score like Secret of Evermore aims for. Instead, Secret of Mana maintains an enrapturing lushness.
What also sets the Secret of Mana soundtrack apart is Kikuta’s astounding creativity when it comes to the melodies and harmonies he deploys. His melodies modulate far more often than one would hear on a typical game score. They are constantly in flux, evoking a wide-open, mesmerising fantasy world without having to thicken textures or turn up the volume. In fact, Kikuta’s wonderfully lyrical melodies feel like living, breathing beings – a perfect representation of the nature mysticism that saturates both the game’s narrative and the score.
Kikuta adds more creativity still to Secret of Mana‘s overall sound by liberally mixing orchestral sounds with pop, jazz and prog rock elements. Occasionally, he even incorporates material taken from Javanese music (“Ceremony”, “The Oracle”). What emerges is a musical style that accomplishes a very, very rare balancing act. On the Secret of Mana soundtrack, Kikuta manages to establish a new musical vocabulary (for a 16-bit game), while keeping the results of his experimentation extremely accessible.
Ultimately, what it all leads to – and what has made the Secret of Mana soundtrack so popular – is the very particular mood that Kikuta manages to evoke. There is a profound sense of quiet, awestruck wonder and spiritual union with nature that runs through this score, from the moment the game opens with a whale cry. Kikuta’s music matches the game’s visual style at every turn, painting Secret of Mana’s world as a wondrous, occasionally menacing, but far more often bright and optimistic realm. A track like “Still of the Night” takes Secret of Mana’s wispy, star-gazing tendencies to their extreme. The pieces uses minimalist instrumentations and material to clearly spell out the soundtrack’s attempts to reach for the sublime.
But there’s another side to Secret of Mana that initially might feel like the polar opposite of its otherworldly tendencies. Anything but constantly quiet and reverential, Secret of Mana delivers loads of quirky fun on many tracks. For example, there’s the dwarf percussion jam that is “It Happened Late One Evening” or “The Little Sprite” and its infectious, upbeat rhythms. Secret of Mana’s modus operandi might be contemplating nature’s wonders. However, Kikuta is smart enough to realise that this includes both passive marvelling and participating in the sheer liveliness and joy that animates the world and its creatures.
In the end, both the music’s mysticism and its charming eccentricities are two sides of the same coin. It’s the organic feel and earthiness of “A Curious Happening”’s odd-ball whimsy that grounds the soundtrack’s flightier, drifting moods – and is just another way to articulate the music’s embrace of nature. There is an entire unique universe evoked and captured in the Secret of Mana soundtrack and that’s why listeners have been returning to it for decades.
- 01 - Fear of the Heavens Hiroki Kikuta 1:33
- 02 - A Curious Tale Hiroki Kikuta 2:27
- 03 - Phantom and a Rose Hiroki Kikuta 2:24
- 04 - Together Always Hiroki Kikuta 1:56
- 05 - Fond Memories Hiroki Kikuta 1:44
- 06 - Into the Thick of It Hiroki Kikuta 3:24
- 07 - The Color of the Summer Sky Hiroki Kikuta 2:18
- 08 - Dancing Animals Hiroki Kikuta 2:19
- 09 - Distant Thunder Hiroki Kikuta 3:17
- 10 - The Little Sprite Hiroki Kikuta 1:28
- 11 - Secret of the Arid Sands Hiroki Kikuta 1:51
- 12 - What the Forest Taught Me Hiroki Kikuta 1:51
- 13 - A Wish Hiroki Kikuta 1:43
- 14 - Spirit of the Night Hiroki Kikuta 2:41
- 15 - Danger Hiroki Kikuta 4:13
- 16 - Calm before the Storm Hiroki Kikuta 3:45
- 17 - The Wind Never Ceases Hiroki Kikuta 2:07
- 18 - Flight into the Unknown Hiroki Kikuta 2:39
- 19 - Eternal Romance Hiroki Kikuta 2:59
- 20 - The Legend Hiroki Kikuta 2:44
- 21 - A Bell is Tolling Hiroki Kikuta 2:44
- 22 - A Curious Happening Hiroki Kikuta 1:54
- 23 - Monarch on the Shore Hiroki Kikuta 2:20
- 24 - The Dark Star Hiroki Kikuta 2:16
- 25 - Prophecy Hiroki Kikuta 1:14
- 26 - Steel and Snare Hiroki Kikuta 3:05
- 27 - Ceremony Hiroki Kikuta 1:42
- 28 - Leave Time for Love Hiroki Kikuta 2:08
- 29 - Still of the Night Hiroki Kikuta 5:06
- 30 - The Oracle Hiroki Kikuta 2:59
- 31 - I Won't Forget Hiroki Kikuta 1:28
- 32 - Meridian Dance Hiroki Kikuta 3:34
- 33 - Now Flightless Wings Hiroki Kikuta 2:10
- 34 - The Second Truth from the Left Hiroki Kikuta 4:36
Tristan Blanchard says
No game has left a mark so deep on me than Secret of Mana, while playing it for such a little time. I discovered this masterpiece when I was nine, spending the night at a friend’s house, then didn’t have access to it for years. The tunes I listened to this evening would settle in my head, until I became obsessed with them. This is especially true when it comes to “Into the Thick of it”.
“Enjoying the freedom that Square gave Kikuta on his debut game score, he spent the majority of those two years tweaking the sounds he could squeeze out of the SNES. In the process, he used tricks like achieving a three-dimensional sound by playing an instrument on two tracks and giving only one side of the stereo field vibrato.”
That is exactly how I felt about it also ! Every time I am listening to this soundtrack, I am wondering how it was possible to process that kind of sound on the SNES. I don’t recall any other game sounding so clear and enchanting during the 16-bit era.
When I decided to create my ultimate playlist “video games memories”, back in 2010 or 2011, “Into the Thick of it” was the very first song I added. I remember it as the trigger of my love for video game music.
Thank you for this review, very informative and instructive. I feel even more nostalgic about that particular day when I played Secret of Mana, as if it was possible ^^
I think this is the last game I played with a soundtrack reviewed on your site. I saw more articles on another one (http://www.vgmonline.net/), do you still write there too ?
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks again for sharing such a great story Tristan! I think we might actually have had a similar experience with Secret of Mana. I played it when I was 11 or so – arguably not just for one evening (I think I completed the game with a friend), but then didn’t listen to it again for maybe 20 years or so. One day I stumbled upon “Into the Thick of It” and after not having spent a thought on the game for a couple of decades, it all came back to me at once – down to the forest location where the music plays, the cute enemies with their arrows that you are fighting, even the fog transparency effects wavering over the scenery. Music has an absolutely amazing capacity to lodge itself in our brains and create powerful memories – and it’s fantastic that Hiroki Kikuta managed to tap into this.
That’s an interesting point regarding the soundtrack’s sound quality – yes, it is one of those rare SNES that don’t like one. Donkey Kong Country 2 (or at least the non-orchestral parts) are another example of a 16-bit score that transcends its technical roots and limitations – “Stickerbush Symphony” isn’t readily identifiable as SNES music, but simply sounds like fantastic electronic music.
I must admit I’m not writing at VGMOnline anymore and the reviews of mine that are up on that site are mostly Western game scores from the early 2010s, so they might not be what you are looking for. I hope to be able to return to 1990s game music again soon!
Tristan Blanchard says
I’m glad you think this is a great story ^^
I guess it was just a regular evening at a friend’s house for a french kid like me at this time. But the Secret of Mana Soundtrack made it so special. Same goes for your story, apparently ^^
It’s not even about the game, a great one by the way ; the music is responsible for the whole nostalgia i’m addicted to today (sorry, it’s all about the nostalgia for me :P). Over the years, I tried playing a lot of old games from my childhood to bring back the feelings, but I figured only listening to the soundtracks works even better. As you said, the music creates the best memories, better than the games themselves. Which is kinda weird when you think about it.
It’s a shame I didn’t play Donkey Kong Country 2. The SNES never made its way home, back then (the Megadrive did, though). The soundtrack is indeed regarded as one of the best of all time on a lot of reviews ^^
About VGMOnline, I thought I saw your name on some articles like HoMM IV or Command & Conquer. Good thing I was wrong, there is a chance to see those soundtracks reviews here one day, then
Simon Elchlepp says
Our brains work in strange ways when they create memories!
Good point about HoMM IV and Command & Conquer reviews on VGMOnline. I did cover a few Western game scores from the 1990s on that website – the Might and Magic franchise being one of them. I’ve already reviewed all the great Might and Magic scores for The Greatest Game Music – however, Command & Conquer is still on my to-do list. Glad to hear you are interested in it and I’ll do my best to get around to reviewing the franchise soon 🙂
Tristan Blanchard says
Oh well, this is excellent news. Can’t wait to read that ^^
I’d be interested in reading your opinions on the remastered soundtrack for the Secret of Mana HD version a few years back. Man they took some liberties with it, I tell you what. “Together Always” is barely recognizable as music, let alone as the original track; the melody seems to have been erased entirely. That’s probably the worst offender, though there are a few other stinkers. “A Curious Tale” seems to have a new call-and-response thing going on, but the response half sounds like it’s in the basement next door. You can barely make it out.
It’s not all bad though. There are plenty of great updates to tracks and a few really weird—but not necessarily bad—choices. The new “Monarch on the Shore” is bizarre.
Simon Elchlepp says
Thanks for sharing your view on the remastered Secret of Mana soundtrack. I must admit I haven’t given the album a listen – most of what I’ve heard about it was in line with what you’ve mentioned: a mix of unsuccessful arrangements, some bizarre artistic choices, and a few upgrades that get it right. It didn’t sound very enticing and I’m glad your comment confirms that I probably didn’t miss out on too much 🙂
I find the whole situation around Secret of Mana arrange albums fascinating, in that neither of them is particularly satisfying. There’s Kikuta’s one-track arrange album from the early 1990s, the half-hearted 2012 synth upgrade album and then the strange HD remaster from 2018. I almost wonder whether it’s best to leave this idiosyncratic work alone and just enjoy its quirky genius in the original SNES version.