Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s ongoing hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today, it’s time to revisit an obscure PS1 classic from Square Soft’s JRPG heyday, which had some of the chillest city-builder tunes around. I’m talking about Legend of Mana, of course.
Legend of Mana (playlist / longplay / VGMdb) is a weird one, asking you to rebuild the world of Mana from artifacts discovered on your journey. Place them on a grid and a new town or dungeon will spawn, unlocking new quests and character arcs based on what it’s next to. It can be a mess to figure out, but also a joy to tinker with, which is where the game’s excellent soundtrack from series newcomer Yoko Shimomura comes in. Here’s the main theme for the map, “World of Mana,” which you end up hearing a lot:
Square Enix / Iron Flower (YouTube)
It starts gradually with the strings and harp, birds chirping in the background, like someone’s just pulled the curtains back on the window as you’re waking up in bed. It reminds me a lot of the opening of Chrono Trigger, except that instead of setting out on a time-traveling adventure to save the planet, you’re getting out of bed to do a bunch of spring cleaning or something. Eventually the song builds out, layering on more subtle melodies, and shifts toward something more arch with a little brooding piano work before restarting. It’s perfect menu music to be left on in the background while you take a break from playing. Listening to it now it reminds me of the way dreams start poking at the edge of your mind while dozing off in the warm sunlight in the late afternoon.
Speaking of which, here’s “Fruit of Dreams,” the post-quest wrap-up music:
Square Enix / Iron Flower (YouTube)
It’s played on a kinderklavier, one of those tiny children’s pianos that uses metal bars to make its sounds, and accompanied by a flute, as if the two instruments were welcoming you into a magical waiting room. Legend of Mana has a deep series of crafting elements, including planting and harvesting crops from a giant anthropomorphized tree named Trent in your backyard, and this is where “Fruit of Dreams” plays. Sometimes you’ll visit and find that nothing has changed. Other times you’ll come back and find all kinds of stuff, like Masked Potatoes and Pine o’ Clocks. They’re used to feed pets, repaint golems, and even change weapon stats. It’s wild stuff and can be completely ignored, but that yard’s one of my favorite places to chill anywhere in a video game.
Finally there’s the game’s title theme, which played in the game’s demo disc trailer and also during the opening cinematic:
It’s a completely different beast from those first two songs, pointing to Shimomura’s range and also a completely different version of Legend of Mana that might have existed in someone’s head at some point but never made it to the finished disc. The track starts with more piano work, then picks up the tempo and starts lowkey rocking out. At 1:47 the toy blocks flash on screen, juxtaposing what is at its center a niche anime SimCity against a cinematic backdrop that might otherwise look like Square’s next big JRPG franchise. But I love it for that.
In some ways Legend of Mana only works because every obtuse element gestures toward something more epic and bold. It lets you spend hours building musical instruments and breeding rabbits in its dazzling watercolor world while still pretending that Very Important Stuff is once again happening with the Tree of Mana. In any other JRPG I would have given up after a couple of hours, but every ounce of Legend of Mana is oozing with the possibility that its Animal Crossing community-based approach to storytelling will bring about an epiphany at any moment. In the meantime I continue to harvest my Boarmelons. The game’s grandiose and sprawling soundtrack is invaluable to keeping up the charade.
And that’s it for today’s Morning Music! Legend of Mana is out on Switch and PS4 in June, and until then I’ll be studying up on my gardening. What’s everyone else gearing up for these days as winter finally starts to recede? And let me know if you think Square Enix will ever make another good Mana game.