Shiren the Wanderer Special Collection :: Review by Ben Schweitzer
In 2004, Chunsoft celebrated the musical side of its 20th anniversary with a duo of commemorative album releases. One of them was a two disc set collecting some of the music from their oldest and their most recent (at the time) games. The other was this three disc set containing soundtracks from their flagship series, Shiren the Wanderer (Fuurai no Shiren). Of these soundtracks, one comes from the Nintendo 64, two from the Game Boy, and one from the Dreamcast; all are presented in their original sound, but the Super Famicom original is surprisingly omitted. Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama composed the first of these, Ogre Battle composer Hayato Matsuo the last, and each composed one Game Boy title. The thin booklet contains a composer breakdown, but no commentary.
Koichi Sugiyama's name is commonly associated with the Dragon Quest series, and the classical orchestral style of those games' scores. Before he turned to writing and conducting Dragon Quest scores full time in the 2000s, however, he also wrote a number of other scores. Having written the score for Chunsoft's first Mystery Dungeon title, which starred a side character from Dragon Quest IV, Sugiyama was again enlisted for the second, this time featuring original characters. The game, released in 1995 for the Super Famicom, was set in pre-modern Japan instead of the Dragon Quest games' fictionalized Europe. Sugiyama responded in kind by introducing Japanese traditional flavor into his score. Orchestral instruments still supplied the backbone of the compositions, but traditional instruments such as the shakuhachi, the shamisen, and the koto were featured prominently throughout. Likewise, the style of writing is grounded in the European classical tradition, but the melodies (and occasionally harmonies) are inflected with an Eastern accent through their emphasis on pentatonic scales.
Koichi Sugiyama's soundtrack for the Nintendo 64 Shiren the Wanderer 2, included on this set, continues in the same vein, albeit with higher quality samples. Many of the themes are arrangements of material from the first game, with little variation. The main theme, stated first in "Going to Tabigarasu" and presented in various arrangements throughout, originally appeared in the first game in much the same manner. Likewise, "Town of Rest", "Old Cedar-lined Highway", and the finale "City of Gold ~ And then the Journey Ended", are reprises. Tracks present each theme once, without looping, but multiple versions of the same theme are grouped together on the same track, with a brief fade-out in between. Often, the second version has heavier instrumentation than the first, or introduces a light rock touch. "Shiren Castle" comprises four variations on a theme. The first version is a traditional dance for flute and koto, the second a divertimento for wind ensemble and percussion, the third as a pop ballad, and the last for orchestra as a slow march. The individual sections are on the short side, and as the arrangements are significantly different from each other, the track is varied enough to withstand thematic repetition.
The pieces range in style from the entirely non-traditional (the light jazz of "Kirara's Theme") to the mostly traditional (the shakuhachi and biwa duet of "Granny"), but Sugiyama's style is recognizable throughout. "Time of Trials (Landing on Onigashima part 2)" is an excellent example of Sugiyama's requiem style, with a particularly moving oboe melody in its second half. "Monster House" is a battle theme, featuring the composer's usual unstable harmonies, but the Shakuhachi adds a bit of interesting, albeit non-traditional flavor. Some of the material falls flat, such as the tacky Hawaiian-themed "Oni Paradise" and the dull march "Now to Onigashima", but the score as a whole is quite strong.
Hayato Matsuo's score for the Dreamcast game Shiren the Wanderer: The Woman Warrior Asuka Appears! contrasts quite sharply with the preceding. The samples are of significantly higher quality, and although Matsuo utilizes a similar blend of traditional Japanese instruments and orchestra, he does not attempt to imitate Sugiyama's style, aside from a few arrangements of the original material. The music has stronger rhythmic vitality, and percussion is used more prominently. "Nanimo Theme" and "Village of Izayoi" are strongly melodic, the former bearing a certain kinship to Sugiyama's "Town of Rest". The lighter tracks are the best composed, and like those of Sakimoto, they too have moments of darkness, such as a surprising and brief section at the end of "Forest of the Eight Pleasure Gods" leading to the repeat. The dungeon themes are also well-executed, but "Asuka's Determination" and "Eight Heavenly Demons Battle" seem like poorer versions of Ogre Battle themes. The opening and ending feel sloppily constructed, the latter moving from solemn orchestral meditation to festival march (with loud electronic bass notes) with little transition.
The third disc features the soundtracks to two Game Boy games, Shiren the Wanderer: The Monster of Tsukikage Town and Shiren the Wanderer: Witch of the Desert. The music in the first is almost entirely composed of arrangements from the Super Famicom original. The conversions are satisfactory, but lose a good deal of the depth of Sugiyama's harmonies and orchestrations. As far as the conversions go, "Going to Tabigarasu ~ Town of Tabigarasu (Village in the Moonlight)" is the best, wringing the maximum effect out of the extremely limited resources available. The worst is "Cave of Trials (Dragon's Lair)", as the sahakuhachi solo of the original, when divested of its character, becomes shrill and irritating. The two original tracks are not noteworthy.
The second game, composed by Hayato Matsuo, doesn't stand out as much. The majority of the music is original, but with a few exceptions, it is rather bland. The first section of Jahannam, with its slow dance rhythm, and the song-like melody of "Ilpa, Town Near the Castle" stand out well, but the dull marches in "Demon Castle" and "Zagan's Theme" leave no impression whatsoever. Likewise, the arrangements of Sugiyama's battle themes, "Monster House" and "Monster Mansion", pale in comparison to the originals. The section ends with one last arrangement of the main theme, with a particularly strong introduction.
Chunsoft's Shiren collection is a flawed release, as the games themselves have tended to recycle music wholesale from time to time instead of rearranging it, making for a good deal of repetition across the three discs. Although it is strange that the first game's score was not included, its inclusion would inevitably have introduced even more reprises of the same few themes. Nevertheless, it is a much more successful set than the Chunsoft Greatest Collection, its companion anniversary album, and it presents a side of Sugiyama's music not seen in his Dragon Quest work. Matsuo's contributions to the Dreamcast and Game Boy games provide some welcome variety. The set is on the expensive side, though, and the third disc, featuring the weaker Game Boy scores, could have easily been removed to lower the price, which would have made it a better bargain.
Overall Score: 7/10