During the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, Square simultaneously developed three hit RPG series: Hironobu Sakaguchi's Final Fantasy, Akitoshi Kawazu's SaGa, and Koichi Ishii's Mana. Since these eras, the Mana series has experienced little commercial or critical success, despite an attempt to revive the project several years ago. However, many fans still fondly remember the classic titles in the series such as Final Fantasy Adventure, Secret of Mana, and Legend of Mana. Their contrasting scores created by Kenji Ito, Hiroki Kikuta, and Yoko Shimomura respectively also continue to be enjoyed by soundtrack listeners to this day. To mark the series' twentieth anniversary, Square Enix decided to avoid making a new game and instead produce a series of new albums for the series. The first of these to be released is the Seiken Densetsu Music Complete Book, a 20 disc music book featuring eight soundtracks, three arranged discs, and a bonus DVD. While a beautiful package, the inconsistency of the series' albums ensure the listening experience is a mixed bag.
The first CD on the soundtrack features the complete score for 1991's Game Boy title Final Fantasy Adventure (aka Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy), which was Kenji Ito's first solo project. This is a traditional chiptune soundtrack featuring the same standards featured in the early Final Fantasy and SaGa scores: there's the heroic overworld theme, rocking battle tracks, moody dungeon soundscapes, and light-hearted ditties. Particular highlights include the soothing scene-setter "Rising Sun", infectious fan-pleaser "Battle 2", spiritual elegy "Mana's Mission", and the incredibly lyrical "Endless Battlefield". Each of these tracks make the most of the Game Boy's obviously limited sound chip and continue to resonate beautifully on this box set. It's quite clear that Kenji Ito aimed to create a soundtrack that compared with Nobuo Uematsu's classics and didn't pay much attention to giving the series a personality of its own. Nevertheless, the soundtrack features such robust melodies and contrasting moods that it is a satisfying listen from start to finish.
The second CD is dedicated to the score for 2001's Game Boy Advance remake Sword of Mana (aka Shinyaku Seiken Densetsu). Due to a combination of sloppy musicianship and atrocious implementation, many of the tracks on the remake are less enjoyable than their originals. Questionable renditions include the overworld theme "Endless Battlefield" with its overpowering snare bleeps, the dungeon theme "Temptation of the Abyss" with its dreary dissonant soundscapes, and even the second battle theme "Courage and Pride from the Heart" due to the incredibly weak synthesis of the trumpet lead. These tracks were limited in their original renditions, but resonated in a more memorable and emotional way. A few of the tracks are more enjoyable here, for example the elongated battle anthem "Believe in Victory" or the retro homage "Seeking the Holy Sword", but they're not enough to redeem the score. Ito also created a handful of original compositions and arrangements to complement the richer scenario, but most are unmemorable.
The third CD is dedicated to Hiroki Kikuta's game scoring debut, 1993's Super Nintendo favourite Secret of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 2). Wanting to inject a unique personality into the series, Kikuta rejected Ito's conventional diatonic approaches throughout in favour of more experimental stylings and ambiguous tonalities. For instance, the spiritual opening theme "Fear of the Heavens" blooms from its delicate piano introduction towards the orchestrated choral climax in an absolutely satisfying way. In contrast, the field theme "Into the Thick of It" encourages listeners to stroll into the unknown with its unpretentious flute melodies, while the boss theme "Danger" is a seizure-inducing mixture of alarm sirens and hyperactive drum beats. The music satisfies on a range of levels: superficially with its catchy melodies, emotionally with its rich soundscapes, and contextually with its fitting moods. What's more, he achieved this while channeling quite an unconventional and daring musicality throughout. It's a pity this squashed score wasn't given the two disc presentation it deserved on this box set, however.
With 1995's Japan-only sequel Seiken Densetsu 3, Kikuta built on many of these elements to create a delightful three disc release. Ranging from the cinematic opener, to the moody setting themes, to the three-tiered final battle sequence, the compositions are more extensively developed on this soundtrack and pushed the bar for Square's RPGs. While the score used fewer sound channels than its counterpart, the acoustic samples are realistic throughout and sound especially emotional on orchestrated gems like "Meridian Child". Kikuta also took the time to incorporate more worldly elements into the score, ranging from the Celtic jig "Damn Damn Drum" to the Reggae-flavoured "Splash Hop", while the battle themes are full of even more unlikely fusions. They further demonstrate that Kikuta is one of a kind, uniquely able to portray scenes and penetrate listeners while trying just about anything he feels like. Seiken Densetsu 3's music marks the creative apex of the series' music and, in turn, this box set.
The soundtrack for the final true sequel, 2006's PlayStation 2 flop Dawn of Mana (aka Seiken Densetsu 4), is featured across the subsequent four discs. Following Ryuichi Sakamoto's spiritual opening theme, Kenji Ito offers a diverse range of background music for the game, spanning the spiritual chamber piece "Pastoral Melody" to the infectious Latin-influenced "The Fool's Dance". These tracks are often derivative and badly implemented, but make up for it by being memorable and fitting. Tsuyoshi Sekito also made a major contribution to the score, though his rock-orchestral battle themes tend to be long-winded here and his cinematic orchestrations are too brief and derivative to be of interest. The fourth disc features numerous arena arrangements of Mana classics, spanning Masayoshi Soken's rock remix of "Meridian Child" to Junya Nakano's robust orchestration of "Endless Battlefield", though it may have made sense if these were featured towards the end of the box set. The disc also tags on a brief new age track "Breath of Mana" and a bonus piano arrangement of "Rising Sun" from the game's promotional album.
The final home console game featured on the box is 1999's PlayStation release Legend of Mana. The composing duties shifted to Yoko Shimomura for this instalment, who offered various semi-orchestrated pieces to portray the organic scenery and spiritual story. The score is the most thematically rich of the entire franchise, featuring a recurring piano-based main theme, some beautifully ambient overworld music, and the series' only ballad, "Song of Mana". The soundtrack also has a more cinematic quality than its predecessors, with tracks such as the airy meditative soundscape "The Other Truth" and the dark cinematic orchestration "Complicated Destiny" driving the storyline forward. The production values are strong throughout and demonstrates how Square's synthesizer operators made technical innovations during the PlayStation era. This soundtrack stands among the best of its era and is the most readily appreciated addition to the box set.
Moving towards the end of the set, the 14th and 15th discs features the music from the first game released in the World of Mana project 2006's Children of Mana for the DS which previously was only digitally released. Returning lead composer Kenji Ito was sadly at his least inspired on this score, offering all-too-familiar acoustic stylings and thematic material that treaded excessively on the series' history. Even his final battle themes are disappointing this time round. He was unexpectedly joined by two composers far outside his usual circle, namely Masaharu Iwata and Takayuki Aihara, who manage to redeem the soundtrack to some extent. Iwata's composing duties included the first four level themes, each of which prove immerse gamers into the experiences with their rich soundscapes and youthful melodies. Aihara meanwhile blended contemporary and classical forces throughout the soundtrack to support the game's most intense locations and events. Particular highlights on the soundtrack include "Evil Beast", "Frozen Majesty", "Monster of the Forest", and "Rut of the Crystal".
Yoko Shimomura created her second score for the series while the DS' Heroes of Mana was simultaneously being developed. Given the title featured real-time strategy gameplay, the emphasis is placed on orchestral textures and marching rhythms throughout. The convincingly blends the magical tones of Legend of Mana with the military focus of Heroes of Mana on tracks such as "To the Heroes of Old" and "Tale of the Old Nostalgic Kingdom", before taking listeners on a journey through the game's diverse worlds with synchronised field and battle tracks. However, she reflects that the Mana series' most inspired days are behind her with her predictable event themes like "Black Mirror", percussive action tracks like "Battle with the God Beast", and depressingly underdeveloped overworld piece "A Moment's Rest". Yet while the score isn't consistently magical, it is sufficiently refined and varied to always be effective and enjoyable. Even though it was released for a limited console, it is also the most richly implemented soundtrack of the series.
There are also three arranged albums featured on the release. An orchestrated album dedicated to Final Fantasy Adventure, Seiken Densetsu - Put Your Thoughts to Music is featured on the eighteenth CD. Takayuki Hattori creates a succession of suites that revisit the game's storyline using contrasting themes and moods. The orchestrations tend to be straightforward and the transitions between the themes are minimal, yet the orchestra brings out all the richness of Kenji Ito's melodies in a way the Game Boy could not. In "Menace", Takayuki Hattori blends the phrases of three of lacklustre themes from the original version "Glance Dukedom", "Dungeon 1", and "Fight 1" into a surprisingly dramatic and varied experience. On "Parting", the mystical chord sequences of a dungeon theme build up into a flamenco rendition of the title's best combat theme. It's a glorious way to release 100 seconds of tension and the soloists excellently interweave with the orchestra. Less central is "Comrades", a gimmicky rendition of Final Fantasy's Chocobo theme, which feels out-of-place on a Mana box set.
Another arranged production, the Sword of Mana Piano Sound Version, is misplaced on the third CD. It features seven solo piano tracks from Final Fantasy Adventure and Sword of Mana arranged and performed by Kenji Ito. He focuses on presenting the original melodies faithfully and gently on the right-hand above diatonic chords and arpeggios on the left-hand. In this regard, the arrangements are quite simple and stereotypical like many other piano albums out there, although clearly some thought was put into ensuring the chord choices were as emotional as possible. Ito integrates plenty of gushing dynamic and tempo changes during his performances in a semi-improvised manner. In doing so, he really demonstrates how personal tracks such as "Lost Scene" and "Mission of Mana" are to him. Unfortunately, this balladic approach is conserved in all seven tracks and there are no darker or edgier entries to spruce up the variety. The disc also includes a quasi-orchestral rendering of "Rising Sun" and "Endless Battlefield" previously featured on the first edition of the Sword of Mana Premium Soundtrack.
The box concludes with the most experimental game arranged album ever released, a single 49:22 track entitled Secret of Mana +. Inspired equally by progressive rock artists and classical symphonies, arranger Hiroki Kikuta revisits the scenes of Secret of Mana while incorporating familiar themes, new motifs, and ambient sound effects. For example, the suite opens with a particularly ethereal version of "Fear of the Heavens" that will inspire memories of the opening scene, while Seiken Densetsu 3's "Secret of Mana" is featured throughout a rhythmically compelling section. Kikuta gradually introduces contrasts over prolonged passages, ensuring the transitions between themes, styles, and moods are smooth. Yet he does not bore listeners either and realizes when a melody or idea has been repeated enough. To pull this off well requires nothing more than a genius. This disc will be very daunting for some fans, particularly considering they cannot easily skip their least favourite passages, but it has its creative merits.
The box set also features a bonus DVD featuring an exclusive ten minute orchestral medley of various themes. Showing considerable command of the studio orchestra, arranger and conductor Sachiko Miyano emphasises the emotional melodies of fan favourites like "Rising Sun", "Meridian Dance", and various others selected from the series. However, this is a conventional orchestral medley and does not reach the same creative heights of Secret of Mana + or Symphonic Fantasies. It is also a pity listeners can't hear this on CD. The rest of the disc features interviews with the series' composers and behind-the-scenes footage of the recording sessions, though it is necessary to understand to appreciate them. It is impressive that Square Enix brought back the series' three main composers Kenji Ito, Yoko Shimomura, and even the once outcasted Hiroki Kikuta to attend the recording sessions and each of them is currently producing an arranged album dedicated to the series. Presented in a green felt case, the lavishly presented music book also features artwork, liner notes, and production breakdowns.
The Mana series is the least consistent of Square's flagship franchises in both inspiration and quality. The same applies to the series' score, which range from the inspired approaches of the Super Nintendo instalments, to the derivative murmurings of the World of Mana titles. Nevertheless, there are some incredible moments featured on the Mana series' scores among them Final Fantasy Adventure's adventurous overworld tracks, Seiken Densetsu 3's final battle sequence, and Legend of Mana's romantic orchestral introduction that really deserve to be enjoyed by all fans of RPG music. The series' arranged albums are also worthwhile and Secret of Mana + is particularly special. Square Enix did an impressive job compiling together all these soundtracks and arranged albums into a lushly presented box, complete with a few bonuses. However, only hardcore collectors should consider splashing out 200 USD on this and everyone else should stick to the best half of the individual albums released for the series.