High Score is our weekly exploration into the world of video game/anime soundtracks and while everyone at the Arcade is familiar with at least one soundtrack from a game/series, there is only one among us with the experience, knowledge and passion to write about the music.
Andy Kavanagh is a video games journalist with a background in music production and theory; a singer-songwriter, Andy has a degree in Music from Trinity College Dublin and perhaps more importantly he has a real love for the tracks that move, evoke and stay with us long after the video game/show has ended. High Score is his idea and there really is no better guide on a journey through music!
I hope you’ll enjoy this new series of articles from Andy and wholeheartedly recommend you play the music as you read,
Editor @ The Arcade
So the story goes, a young sound designer named Yasunori Mitsuda once marched into his boss’s office with an ultimatum; allow him to compose a full score or watch him walk away. A bold move for a fledgling composer in any day and age, let alone one under the employ of Yu-Yevon himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi, with a steady pay-cheque coming in every month – something few composers ever become really familiar with – and a steadily building catalogue of work. To misquote Gilbert & Sullivan, ‘feint heart never got no green, son’.
According to legend this brass-balls tactic paid off and Mitsuda was put in charge of the score for an ambitious but experimental little project called Chrono Trigger.
If, by chance, you had never heard the name Yasunori Mitsuda when you began reading this article, you probably have, at the very least, heard of Chrono Trigger. Widely regarded, even now, as one of the best RPGs of all time, everything about Chrono Trigger was outstanding and its soundtrack was no exception. While his colleagues were obsessing over (and, to be fair, making astounding progress) forcing their lofty tchaikovskian ambitions onto 8 bit sound chips, Mitsuda chose to work with the less fussy and insistent tools of jazz and folk music to create a soundtrack like nothing gamers had ever heard before, carving out his own definitive style in the process.
But as fabulous as the score to Chrono Trigger is, it’s not today’s topic. Today we’re here to discuss its often-overlooked sequel, Chrono Cross. More specifically, the score to Chrono Cross and why it is undoubtedly one of the greatest video game scores of all time.
Time’s Scar is the first piece of music you’ll hear when you fire up Chrono Cross. This was back in a time when pre-rendered cinematics were something to be lauded over and NO-ONE did them better than Squaresoft. Skipping the intro cinematic to a Squaresoft game was like leaving a Marvel film before the post-credits scene; sure it’s not essential to the experience, but you’ll be missing out on something cool if you don’t make time for it. In the case of CC, skipping its intro sequence denied you of a fabulous piece of music. Beginning calm and gentle before bursting into a tribal, folk-inspired anthem, driven by rhythmic acoustic guitars, flourished with racing violin lines and soaring flutes,Time’s Scar sets the tone for what’s to come; a mesmerizing mélange of tribal energy, jazzy swagger and orchestral pomp.
Given that Chrono Cross is a game about time travel (although less so than its predecessor), naturally the score likes to occasionally play with your perception of time and rhythm. The games’ battle theme, Gale, is a perfect example of this playfulness. The piece constantly shifts its time signature between 9/8, 3/4 and 4/4 with occasional flirtations with 5/4, essentially never giving the listener enough time to feel stable with its rhythm before changing it up again. In addition to sounding totally bad-ass, this perfectly reflects CC’s battles which force you to keep up with an in-fight eco-system that’s constantly changing based on what kind of attacks are being used. Not only is it worth praising for how it ties in with the in-game mechanics it’s paired with, its instrumentation is also totally fucking nuts in the best possible way; funky electric bass (a recurring theme of Mitsuda’s work) is layered with shrill, panicked violins while the chords and time signatures shift and shiver around chromatic, jazzy melodies. It’s got all the urgency of a Final Fantasy battle theme but with a lot more going on beneath the surface.
Being a Squaresoft game, Chrono Cross has, at its heart, a tremendously emotional and poignant story about life, loss and letting go of the past. Without going into spoiler territory (although come on, Jesus it’s been out for over a decade), one central theme is that of loneliness and isolation. The main character, Serge, discovers very early into the plot that an alternate world exists, very similar to his own, in which he died as a young child. His presence in this world is, understandably, met with varying combinations of shock, disbelief and defiance and he (and as he is a silent cipher, the player) is forced to come to terms with the idea of never returning home; trapped in a world where he doesn’t belong and surrounded by people who are determined to remind him of it. This theme is beautifully explored in the score by arranging the same piece differently to reflect its placement. There is loads of this to be heard all throughout the game but my personal favourite is the theme for the seaside village of Guldove. In Serge’s home world, Guldove is a quiet, idyllic island with welcoming people and welcoming music. Just listen to this jaunty folk tune that follows you around the town; the dual guitars practically bounce off each other with small-town friendliness. By the time the bass and percussion comes in you feel like you’re on a package holiday.
But when Serge visits Guldove in the world where he shouldn’t exist, the music paints a very different picture. The melody is given to a solitary clarinet, accompanied by sparse plucked guitar chords at a much slower pace. The feeling isn’t so much one of welcoming as one of sanctuary; its peacefulness a bitter-sweet reminder of the loneliness it represents. Suddenly the island of Guldove, surrounded by a vast and ominous ocean, feels more isolated than ever; safe but detached, calm but completely alone. Just like our protagonist.
In keeping with the folk theme present throughout, Chrono Cross’s theme, Radical Dreamers, is a simple, sweet affair. You won’t find the sweeping orchestral grandeur of Suteki da Ne or even Eyes On Me here. Mitsuda strips things right back to one acoustic guitar and one voice, only bringing in backing vocals as the piece draws to a close. It’s hard to describe why certain melodies evoke certain feelings in us and it will always differ from person to person but for what its worth, when I hear the lonely, echoing vocal melody in Radical Dreamers that is exactly what I hear; solitude; the idea of being truly alone and everything that represents, both good and bad. It’s a beautiful piece of music that masterfully sums up one of the game’s central themes.
If you were to read the comments on You Tube clips for these pieces (a dangerous past-time, I know), you might notice a curious anomaly in that the usual internet-haet is surprisingly sparse. In fact, you might even notice that many of the comments speak of Chrono Cross as something akin to a religious experience. It’s a game that means an awful lot to its contingent, a game that changed lives and effected most of its audience in a meaningful way and, given the time of its release, was probably the first game to have that kind of impression on them. I am one of these people and, like many, I firmly believe a huge part of what made Chrono Cross so special was its stellar score. The tracks I’ve posted here represent around fifteen-minutes worth of a two hour plus soundtrack. If you’ve never played Chrono Cross and can’t do so (it’s criminally never been officially released in Europe), do yourself a favour and listen to its soundtrack. Chances are it will be enough to convert you.