Finally an orchestral Chrono Trigger album worthy of the classic original soundtrack.
Editor's review by Adam Corn (2013-08-30)
Ask any group of longtime game music fans what their favorite soundtracks are and Yasunori Mitsuda's SNES RPG soundtrack Chrono Trigger is likely to show up high on their lists. Despite the love for the original soundtrack, though, most of the orchestral arranged offerings have left something to be desired. Only the fantastic medley from the orchestral concert album Symphonic Fantasies has lived up to the high standards of the original soundtrack, and at seventeen minutes between both Chrono Trigger and its sequel many favorite themes were inevitably omitted. Now eighteen years after the game's release finally comes a dedicated Chrono Trigger orchestral arranged album, not from Square Enix but from an independent musician who likely grew up loving Chrono Trigger like so many fans. The third arranged game music album from Blake Robinson, Chrono Trigger Symphony Volume 1 gives the first third of the original soundtrack - every single piece from disc one of the three-disc OST - the arranged orchestral treatment, and the results though not perfect are impressive enough to delight this longtime Chrono Trigger fan.
As indicated by the "Blake Robinson Synthetic Orchestra" in the credits, Chrono Trigger Symphony doesn't feature a live orchestra but rather sampled orchestral instruments, as do still the majority of orchestral game soundtracks. In terms of mimicking a real orchestra I'd rank Chrono Trigger Symphony comfortably in the better half of game soundtracks, not as convincing as say Masashi Hamauzu's studio productions in Final Fantasy XIII OST Plus but more distinctive and realistic than Yukihiro Jindo's recent work for the Ys series, and above the quality of your typical modern JRPG soundtrack. The only noticeable reoccurring shortcoming in the sampled orchestration is a strangely short sustain on the brass in a few tracks. This is a temporary problem in the tracks it occurs, and once a different set of nicely sampled instruments comes into play is mostly forgotten.
As for how the album's sound quality compares to the SNES original, unsurprisingly Robinson's modern studio setup is far closer to that of a real orchestra. Whether that's a good thing or not is a matter of personal preference - some old school game music fans very much like their SNES synth. Even for an orchestral music fan like myself, in a few cases Robinson's orchestral approximations just can't match the distinctive sound quality of the OST's best instruments. For the most part, though, if you like your orchestral-style soundtracks to sound like an orchestra then there's no comparison - Chrono Trigger Symphony is far and away the closest the complete original soundtrack has ever come. Percussion resounds, the brass is far more potent than the OST's sometimes tinny sound (in "Guardia Castle" particularly), the string section though not perfect is more realistic, and the solo instruments closer to the real thing - all while staying true to the OST.
Were the album a simple upgraded re-synth of the original soundtrack that would probably be enough to satisfy many, but Robinson not only upgrades the instrumentation, he gives Mitsuda's compositions some very nice arranged touches of his own. The most pervasive change - and one of the most beneficial - is that most tracks now have proper, conclusive outros as opposed to the simple repeat and fade of the OST. Besides more distinctly separating one track from another, these closing touches actually heighten the impact of several pieces. The quiet, solitary piano and music box closing "Memories of Green" and "Wind Scene" add to the serene, introspective quality of those arrangements, while a new solo tuba outro in the fantastic arrangement of "Gato's Song" makes the delightfully eccentric theme even better.
Robinson saves his most substantial additions for the places where they're most needed - the thirty second or less mini-melodies used mostly for minor events in the OST. Simple but pretty original intros and outros to "Morning Sunlight" make that pleasant but previously insubstantial piece one that now stands beautifully on its own; likewise a newly composed but entirely appropriate closing segment in "Goodnight" takes that piece from eight seconds to almost a minute, every extra second deserved. By adding a quiet piano and flute interlude to "Fanfare", the victory theme conversely becomes all the more dramatic when the full orchestra kicks back in, and along with the hugely improved strings, piano and female choir in "Manoria Castle", Robinson's beautiful new cello intro makes a piece that was once repetitive and slightly annoying a favorite of the soundtrack. It never would have occurred to me to bother expanding on these pieces and I certainly never would have thought the improvement it makes would be so drastic. You could claim Mitsuda himself arranged these additions and I really think most fans wouldn't think twice about it.
The remaining arranged additions are more modest but in almost every case add substance and impact, while staying true to the OST. "Guardia Millenial Fair" has even more of that delightfully innocent and celebratory energy of the original thanks to small touches like some new trumpet accompaniment and subtle string pizzicato, while the deep opening brass notes and rising backing strings in "Battle" give that piece a more dramatic quality. The most surprising addition is that of a sampled choir to several tracks. Against all odds it works quite well, from a subtle but very pretty appearance in the charming "Peaceful Days" arrangement to its more bombastic usage in "Boss Fight 1" and "Frog's Theme", both of which though slightly different in tone from the originals are very nice to have as alternate versions.
The only two major faults of the album are interrelated. Certain arrangements feel like they end entirely too soon, sadly in several cases the very best ones. In a sense Robinson's quality arrangements are their own enemy here - with the robust orchestration and substantial arrangements of his renditions you expect the same lengthier form of most orchestral arranged albums. More fundamentally when you hear a great arrangement of a favorite theme you just want it to go on for longer, so it's disappointing to hear "Peaceful Days", "Guardia Millenial Fair" and "Frog's Theme" end in around two minutes or less. To be fair none of the arrangements pad their length by applying loops, so while looking at the track lists the OST versions might appear longer, in every case there's a greater amount of musical material in the arranged versions. The other issue is that certain tracks end anticlimactically. The energetic brass counterpoint in "Guardia Millenial Fair" adds so much to the piece it's strange to hear it missing at the finale, the great new solo tuba in "Gato's Song" fades out all too soon, and "Battle" ends on a comparatively weak note following its otherwise dramatic arrangement. As mentioned the outros to the quieter pieces are on the whole excellent; it's the more energetic arrangements that could use more of those qualities in their closing moments.
As a Chrono Trigger fan who has fond memories of the game and loves some of its music, but generally prefers orchestral music over SNES synth, given the choice between the OST and Chrono Trigger Symphony most of the time I'll be listening to Chrono Trigger Symphony. That might seem like a given, but were the sampled orchestra substandard or the arrangements uninteresting I most certainly would stick with the originals. Happily neither is the case here - the sampled orchestra is better than you'll hear in quite a few official game soundtracks, and Robinson's arrangements as well show a better ear for musicality and drama than many of Square's own arranged albums. That my only real reservations are the general shortness of the pieces and a wish for even more arranged additions is a testament to the quality of what's present. Those minor drawbacks keep Chrono Trigger Symphony from being the ultimate Chrono Trigger arranged album, but it's far closer than anything we've heard yet, which is enough to make this longtime fan happy and looking forward to volume two.