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Dragon Quest II Symphonic Suite :: Review by Juan2Darien

Album Title Catalog No.
Dragon Quest II Suite BY30-5136
Dragon Quest II Remix Symphonic Suite (London Philharmonic Orchestra) SRCL-2734
Dragon Quest I & II Symphonic Suite (London Phil. Orchestra Remastered) SVWC-7062
Dragon Quest II Symphonic Suite (Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra) SVWC-7246


In my review of the first Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, I mentioned that subsequent albums were much more experimental. This is true, but even the Dragon Quest II Symphonic Suite takes things a bit on the safe side. This was still in the beginning days of Dragon Quest, and Sugiyama hadn't quite perfected some of the area themes, but on the whole, this album is much more developed and enjoyable than his first Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite.

The format for this review will be quite similar to the one provided on the Dragon Quest I Symphonic Suite. I will review the track by itself, followed by comparisons between the London Philharmonic and Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra recordings, focusing more on their technique and how they bring the pieces to life. Separately, I will consider another much earlier performance by the Tokyo Strings Ensemble with some additional brass, winds, and percussion players. I will only be comparing the London Phil and the Tokyo Met as they are the most easily attainable recordings, but there is another reason why I've chosen to single out the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, but you shall have to read on to find out.

Track-by-Track Reviews

1) Dragon Quest March

As is standard for every Dragon Quest release, this one begins with the famous, on the verge of infamous, "Dragon Quest March". It is sprightly and heroic, beginning with bouncy brass before moving into its main melodic territory. It's a rousing brassy theme with snare drums providing a militaristic feel to the piece. When the theme reprises, cymbals are added as well as some more complex harmonies. The ending is interesting because this adventuresome piece nearly comes to a complete halt with soft strings before continuing to its glorious climax.

On the Tokyo Metropolitan recording, the only really 'clean' sound in the piece is the cymbal crashes. Other than that, the piece comes off as a bit sloppy, with the opening brass being too fast and not a long enough rest before the soft buildup to the climax of the piece. Unfortunately, I cannot give perfect marks to the London Philharmonic recording either. The strings sound a bit masked and distant, while the snares are absolutely clear, even overpowering. None of Sugiyama's orchestrations really stand out, because they are all blurred together. What's brass and what's strings? The world may never know. On the whole, however, the steady, organized pace of the London Phil wins out by a small bit.

The opening brass on Tokyo Strings Ensemble performance is very muffled, almost artificial sounding. When the strings come in, however, they are surprisingly clear. There's a limited usage of percussion in this recording, with the snare drums being completely missing. As such the recording comes off sounding a bit bland.

Scores: Enjoyment - 8/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 6/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

2) Only Lonely Boy

This is surely one of my favourite pieces from Dragon Quest II. It consists completely of pizzicato strings playing the most delightful melody. I cannot stress enough what a magnificent idea it was to use solely pizzicato here. The plucky nature of that technique helps to convey the bouncy, cheerful feel of this piece.

With regards to the performances, it is a wash! There aren't any great differences between the recordings, meaning both are darn-near perfect, although the Tokyo Metropolitan may have a slight edge for better dynamics. The fortes are extra loud and the pianos sometimes threaten to drop below audibility, and, therefore, the crescendos are superb. Therein lies an issue, although not necessarily a bad one. It seems as though the Tokyo Met is overdramatizing a piece that should otherwise be quirky and playful. Even still, the dynamics work for some reason; perhaps by 'exaggerating' the dynamics, it presents something more comedic than even the London Philharmonic had.

"What in the world?" thinks I. The Tokyo Strings Ensemble version of "Only Lonely Boy" is entirely different from the other arrangements. It is incredibly cheesy and absolutely destroys the piece with a kind of 80s rock arrangement with jazzy brass, electric guitars, and synthesizers, and an awful electric drum kit. There's even an out of place saxophone solo! The melodic content is the same, but the piece sounds completely different from its other, better arrangements. This track is a disaster.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 2/10 / London Phil - 9/10 / Tokyo Met - 10/10

3) Pastoral ~ Catastrophe

Another strong track begins with strings interpreting "Pastoral" in both the extremes of their registers; double basses and cellos take the especially low basses and violins and violas taking the trebles. Amid this, a horn solo emerges, which is longing, hopeful, and absolutely gorgeous. The melody is taken away by strings and winds before a more energetic section comes in for harp and flute while the strings play some lush harmonies. The beauty of this piece comes from the fact that all throughout, due to the extreme pitches of the strings, there is something a bit off sounding. It is attractive, yet unsettling.

This is great technique because the next section, "Catastrophe", while sharing the same extreme nature between registers, is quite different. The brass this time is low and harsh, nearly growling, while the strings play a flighty yet brusque melody. After an extended, tense section for repeated wind figures, the piece erupts into its violent climax.

Here, there is a very clear-cut winner for performance, and that is the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Apart from a few tempo differences, the beginning "Pastoral" sections are indistinguishable between recordings. However, when the second part comes in, it is the Tokyo Met that plays with such fervent conviction and ferocity that the dichotomy between the sections yields some truly spectacular results. The ever anomalous Tokyo Strings Ensemble never recorded this piece.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 10/10

4) Chateau

Delicate, fragile, brittle... man, is my Thesaurus working overtime today! All these words and more could be used to describe the sweet sounding "Chateau". It begins with a small string ensemble. A violin solo carries a melody that seems to embody a kind of innocence that is rarely heard in music. There is a constant tempo kept by the lower strings. Written, as all castle themes by Sugiyama are, in a quasi-Baroque style, "Chateau" is a winner. It also features trills, which scores some extra points with me. The melody repeats with the whole string orchestra before softly ending — nay, drifting away. Is it the most complex creation? No, but it is soothing.

It is apparent now that the winning performance will surely be the one with the lightest touch. The Tokyo Metropolitan's winning streak is about to end. Here, the London Philharmonic is the gold standard. The violin solo is just so silky smooth that my heart nearly melts every time I hear the piece. When the whole string orchestra comes in, it adds considerably dramatic weight, but still, only the London Phil retains the lightness of the piece. In fact, the Tokyo Met's performance simply gets off on the wrong foot. There's just an edge to the playing that simply does not belong! Silky smooth, Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra... you should have played it silky smooth!

The Tokyo Strings Ensemble takes this piece much slower than the other recordings. The violin solo is rather shaky sounding, although when the whole string orchestra comes in, they play with such a crisp, precise sound that it still retains the fragility of the original violin solo.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 8/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

5) Town

I will just say right now that I find "Town" to be intolerable! It begins far too sprightly and has little variation in the way of tempo or tone! The phrase is short, about three notes long, heard by strings and repeated amid a series of chord progressions, punctuated by woodwinds and drum kit. Actually, if I had to blame the failure of this piece on any one element, it would be the drum kit. It's as if the piece would be fine moving at a decent pace, but the drum kit is constantly trying to give the piece a jump, constantly charging it forward. The piece isn't completely without its merits, though. A soft section for strings comes in, and the drums are blessedly gone before the material repeats with brass taking the main melody with snares providing the rhythm. It doesn't sound all that different from the first statement of the theme, but it is enough to make the piece not... completely atrocious. An interesting section comes with a bassoon solo and pizzicato, sounding as if the piece is finally winding down before the accursed drum kit comes in and gets the piece charging blindly forward again. "Now tell us what you really think?".

"Man, Tokyo Met, you are on a roll!" Yes, the winner for best performance on this track is the Tokyo Metropolitan. For one, they allow the music to speak for itself, without the drum kit constantly moving it along; that's not to say that the drums are absent here, but they are certainly softer and the tempo of this recording is much slower than the London Philharmonic. Also, the mixing with the Tokyo Met recording is far superior, allowing each part to be heard with crystal clarity, while also letting the focus fall to certain instruments. The brass may be carrying the theme, but you can still hear those wind trills very clearly. Why, I'd go so far as to say that the Tokyo Met's recording makes the piece almost tolerable

Ugh! Just when I thought this piece couldn't get any worse, the Tokyo Strings Ensemble comes in with another cheesy, disco piece complete with the electric guitar, synthesized drum kit, and saxophone solo. The strings can be heard every so often, but it's not enough to save an already bad track.

Scores: Enjoyment - 5/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 2/10 / London Phil - 5/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

6) Fright in Dungeon ~ Devil's Tower

Now, just to clarify, "Fright in Dungeon" succeeds "Town" only on the London Philharmonic recording. It actually comes a track later on the Tokyo Metropolitan recording. The world may never know why they couldn't have left the tracklists the same. Perhaps having the darkest piece on the album directly after the perkiest wasn't the best idea. Never mind, Tokyo Metropolitan recording, maybe you had it right all along.

Anyway, onto the piece now. It begins with some ominous strings and an eerie melody for winds. Essentially, the first minute is filled with anxiety with slow dissonant chord progressions and clever orchestrations, such as the clarinet and harp duet before the transition to the rest of the piece. When the strings begin to race and a strangely familiar melody kicks in, things really take off. Each statement of this short melody is separated by string arpeggios. Then, the piece takes a very interesting turn into jazz territory. The melody is heard once more by brass before the piece shifts to all-out modern. The drum kit plays a beat almost fit for a spy-flick while some absolutely raucous brass sounds. Here, all the brass instruments get a chance to shine, taking turns in an interesting feat of counterpoint by Sugiyama. Then the strings take over, adding a lightness that makes the transition back into the beginning material. Now, though, somehow it does not feel foreboding, but strangely reminiscent, like the end of one hell of a musical journey!

It may seem, when you first listen, that the Tokyo Metropolitan will take the prize again because of the smooth sound they produce in the beginning, but it turns out that that exact pro turns out to be quite a con later on. The piece never really gets out of this groove, staying consistently smooth when it should be harsh and edgy. Also, during the sections showcasing the brass section, all the brass instruments seem especially muted except for the trombone section, which blasts its way through the material, threatening and in some cases succeeding to dominate. The London Philharmonic nails this piece, with the brass sounding especially crisp and discordant, in the best of ways.

The Tokyo Strings Ensemble cuts right into the action, virtually skipping the first minute from the other arrangements. Nothing really stands out in this recording, not even the strings. This is a piece dominated by jazzy brass, and unfortunately, the playing here rather dull, with the brass never being quite as punchy as it ought to be. In fact, the sound quality here is a bit masked, and the track is more repetitive sounding than the other versions because of a severe lack in dynamics. Also, the piece doesn't have a proper ending; it literally just fades out.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 4/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

7) Requiem

Again, I am currently following the London Philharmonic recording's tracklist. They track orders will soon get back in synch, but for now, they'll unfortunately be a bit jumbled. "Requiem" is a rather uninspired piece of music. It's not particularly sad rather than just bleak. There's nothing to attach to emotionally, for me anyway. Subsequent "requiem" themes by Sugiyama evoke plenty of emotion, but, I suppose, this being his first, he hadn't quite gotten the formula right. The piece consists of only strings, played very lightly and somberly, though nearly without melody.

There's not much here to judge performances by. Actually, this piece is quite hard to judge the performances on. For one, I'm supposed to be judging them on technical precision, not on the enjoyability of the piece. However, this track is simply awful, and therefore I don't think I can separate the enjoyability factor from the performances this one time. I suppose that the very, very few crescendos in the piece are made more apparent in the Tokyo Metropolitan recording, so I guess I'll make them the winner of this round. That doesn't mean much, though. It just means that they're the best performers on the worst track on the album.

Just like the other performances, this one is rather nondescript because of the nature of the piece. The strings are sharp in the Tokyo Strings Ensemble's recording, but that doesn't suit the mood of the piece (whatever the mood is!). However, because of the steadiness of the performance, it comes across as the most structured recording, scoring some points there at least.

Scores: Enjoyment - 3/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 6/10 / London Phil - 4/10 / Tokyo Met - 6/10

8) Endless World

Thank you, Koichi Sugiyama, for redeeming yourself after the dud that is "Requiem". Sugiyama's overworld themes are among his best pieces, and this is certainly no exception. It also showcases some superb orchestrations. They may not be revolutionary or new, but they are quite colourful. Beginning with the main melody in a slow, lazy form for strings, the piece soon takes off with brass providing the melodic content while strings and winds provide harmonies, followed by strings, chimes, and harp. A rather lyrical oboe solo, with cello harmonies, brings forth a lighter interlude before it's back to a rousing statement of the theme by bold brass, followed by dramatic strings. Then the piece repeats with some different orchestrations, with winds and cellos taking the theme at different turns. Then, nearly two thirds into the piece, something different is heard. The piece suddenly gets less adventuresome and more outright carefree, even jazzy. This final section is very upbeat with strings punctuated by brass and tambourines. It ends on a much lighter note than it began, but strangely it works.

I think I will have to award the Tokyo Metropolitan yet again. They approach the beginning material with such a lightness of touch that the transition to the jazzier ending section is much smoother. The only issue is that the brass threatens to dominate whenever it's heard, even if it is only intended as a supporting role. Even still, having the brass stick out so much actually helps the track achieve a more epic feel throughout. The London Phil plays it steadily and treats the two movements as separate pieces altogether, hurting the development of the track.

Here we have another fairly different version of this piece for the Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording. It at least keeps the same spirit as the others with lush string accompaniments to the electric guitar and, in a surprising turn, a recorder. This piece seems to get back on track when the lush, enigmatic strings come in. Instead of an oboe solo, we get a recorder solo, and it actually works quite well, followed by a lovely, lyrical violin solo. When the more upbeat part comes, the track shifts into pure 'elevator music' form and nearly ruins all that the past few minutes had built up.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 7/10 / London Phil - 7/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

9) Beyond the Waves

Ah, it is nice to see Sugiyama in full Classical mode. "Beyond the Waves" is a very familiar sounding waltz, almost carnival-esque in its presentation and orchestration with the strings separated by bubbly winds. Somehow, though, the track really does capture the feel of the sea — well, one of them anyway. It captures the joy of a vast exploration through uncharted territory with such cheer and enthusiasm that the track becomes a highlight simply because of the carefree lack of any dramatic weight.

The performances each have their pros and cons, with the London Philharmonic having absolutely crystal clear sound quality and the Tokyo Metropolitan being more focused on the spirit of the piece with the aid of much resonance. It is nevertheless the London Phil that comes out on top. As I said before, this piece should be pretty much without heavy dramatic baggage, and the flawless transparency of the London Phil recording, capturing every tiny detail, is simply magical.

The arrangement for the Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording is different than the others, although it thankfully never shifts into disco territory. The arrangement is much simpler with strings taking the melody with occasional flute duets between phrases. The strings play with such lush tones that it nearly makes up for the fact that the wondrous orchestrations of the other two recordings are completely lost here.

Scores: Enjoyment - 9/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 8/10 / London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 8/10

10) Deathfight ~ Dead or Alive

It is sadly very true that Koichi Sugiyama's battle music is usually considerably less enjoyable than any of his other area themes. He's nailed town themes, world themes, flying themes, and ocean themes, but he has yet to perfect the battle theme. That said, "Deathfight ~ Dead or Alive" isn't completely worthless. Actually, I'd go so far as to say it gets good at times. The initial interpretation of "Deathfight" starts with a flurry of strings before introducing a slightly sinister and slightly comedic sound for brass, then repeated by strings. This beginning section is just too confused for my tastes; it seems like Sugiyama wasn't really sure how to structure the piece, so he just carelessly shifted to whatever musical idea he felt like introducing at the moment.

After a surprisingly lyrical, beautiful oboe solo amid soft, dissonant strings, harp arpeggios lead the track into the next section, "Dead or Alive". This fares a bit better than the previous. It sounds almost rock-inspired due to its usage of somewhat interesting rhythmic blasts by the brass. The main theme itself is a kind of combination between ballsy heroism and clumsy, stupid anxiety. As a battle track, this piece is very hard to take seriously, and it doesn't help that the climax of the piece is uber-serious and sinister with a long, loud build up by brass followed by a short, single note by the trumpets. Nothing really works about this track, and it is not threatening in the least.

Unlike "Requiem", though, this bad piece on the album is much easier to judge the performances of. The London Philharmonic hits all the right notes, and the brass sometimes is rather aggressive, as it should be, but it is once again the Tokyo Metropolitan that shines on this piece. They keep the tempo up, much faster than the London Phil, somewhat reducing the confused nature of the opening section. As a quick, relevant anecdote, during my freshman year at college, I was learning a piece for my piano jury. The piece was intended to be played fast, but in order to get the notes down, I had to learn and practice it slowly for a while. The piece made little musical sense to me like this, but once I was able to play it at the proper tempo, it clicked. Things I couldn't have seen playing it slow were suddenly apparent, and its interesting structure came out with the faster tempo as well. I feel that maybe "Deathfight ~ Dead or Alive" has the same issue. The Tokyo Met's technically precise yet more dramatic performance definitely beats out the ol' London Phil.

At last, the cheesy rock elements from the other Tokyo Strings performances come in handy! They play the piece as it should be, as a rock-inspired battle track. They understand that this is not a piece with any real dramatic content; it is a romp. Their rhythms are spot on, and there's even a deviation in the arrangement with some funky accompaniments for a jazzy trumpet solo. It sounds awful, but it actually works here.

Scores: Enjoyment - 5/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 9/10 / London Phil - 6/10 / Tokyo Met - 9/10

11) My Road My Journey

Ah, here comes the part we've all been waiting for — the ending theme. Sugiyama Ending themes are among his best, usually showcasing all of his dramatic, melodic, and orchestration skills. Beginning with a soft harp arpeggio, the main theme comes in provided by the cello section with brass and fluttering woodwinds providing rich harmonies and colour. There is an adorable interlude between statements of the main theme for winds and chimes. The next statement of the theme is grandiose with very strong strings and brass providing an almost jazzy accompaniment with tambourines. Subsequently a solo trombone takes this jazzy idea a tad further, providing a somewhat lazy sounding statement of the main theme, followed by a trumpet solo. The same quirky little interlude appears to take us to the final occurrence of the theme. All the strings play in unison to create a truly powerful sound, while the rhythm is kept up now by the drum kit — perhaps the only time on this album where it really works. The piece throws the listener for a loop, however, by including somewhat of a fake ending. After that, some bouncy trumpets lead to the true climax, which never fails to send shivers up my spine with tremolo strings and the trusty tonic-dominant timpani.

At first it seems that the Tokyo Metropolitan will once again claim the prize, as the beginning harp is so clear, but then everything seems to become a tad hazy when the melody kicks in. None of Sugiyama's masterful orchestrations are heard as they all tend to blend together into a mere wall of sound. Also, during the final statement of the melody, there are short bursts of brass that I actually never noticed on the London Philharmonic recording. Why did I notice them now? Because they utterly drown out the strings. Despite their knack for usually flawlessly locating the emotional core of each track, the Tokyo Met even jumbles the ending of this one, with the strings being barely audible above the brass and timpani. Therefore, the award goes to the London Phil for keeping the emotion as well as the technical precision.

Just when my faith in the Tokyo Strings Ensemble began to ignite, they gave me this trash. Sugiyama's magnificent orchestrations are completely eschewed in favor of another rock arrangement with the harp being replaced by a guitar and the melody carried by a piano (although it is quite nice to hear Sugiyama use a piano, as he does it far too rarely!). The drum kit is always present, adding an extra layer of disappointment to this track. The strings come in to play the theme, which is a blessed departure from the rest of this rock-inspired track, although even that can't save it.

Scores: Enjoyment - 10/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 5/10 London Phil - 10/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10

Bonus Track - Holy Shrine

One reason that Koichi Sugiyama was able to market the third recording of this album by the Tokyo Metropolitan was the fact that a bonus track was included. Here, that bonus track is "Holy Shrine". In most later Dragon Quest Symphonic Suites, the "Requiem" theme would be coupled with the uplifting "Shrine" theme for a lovely contrasting medley. "Holy Shrine" is, like its companion piece, "Requiem", rather nondescript. It sounds almost ominous at times before shifting to a hopeful sound, and it never really stops moving until the end. The melody is okay, I suppose, although it's very dull rhythmically.

This track is only available on the Tokyo Metropolitan recording, and I must say it's not that great of an encouragement to buy the new recording. I have the same issue with it as I had with "Requiem", in terms of performance. The music is bleak and does not really give the performers anything to latch onto. I suppose I'll be kind and give them an average rating.

Scores: Enjoyment - 4/10 / Tokyo Met - 5/10


While it is far from being the best Dragon Quest Symphonic Suite, this is still a very nice album to own. The music on the album is a great improvement from the first Dragon Quest, with Sugiyama trying some more interesting harmonies as well as writing some gorgeous melodies. The battle theme had not been perfected yet, but this one is still a vast improvement over the simplistic "Fight" from Dragon Quest.

The choice between the two more readily available recordings is not as clean-cut as one should hope. Each recording has some standout performances as well as some nondescript ones and occasionally bad ones. I suppose if I had to choose a recording to recommend over the other, it would be the London Philharmonic. Their performances are either better than the Tokyo Metropolitan — two performances being drastic improvements — or slightly weaker. The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra loses extra points by practically ruining the best piece on the album, "My Road My Journey". As for the Tokyo Strings Ensemble, the bottom line is that, unless you're looking for some painful nostalgia or are a Dragon Quest completist, the Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording is not recommended.

A final consideration are the bonuses that come with each orchestral recording. The Tokyo Strings Ensemble recording includes a lengthy original sound story featuring music in conjunction with sound effects. Unlike their recording for the original Dragon Quest, there is sadly no remastered original version free from sound effects. The London Philharmonic recording compensates with a full-length Super Nintendo original version. However, the remastered set is presented with the Dragon Quest I Symphonic Suite so there is no original sound version. The aforementioned bonus with the Tokyo Metropolitan is a mediocre new arrangement of "Holy Shrine". Thus, the combination of stronger performances and bonuses makes the London Philharmonic original print the definitive recording for most.

Overall: Enjoyment - 7/10 / Tokyo Strings Ensemble - 5/10 / London Phil - 8/10 / Tokyo Met - 7/10