Secret of Mana’s “Pure Night”: Standing here on the shore of heaven

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It’s difficult for me to quantify my love for the soundtrack of Squaresoft’s Secret of Mana.  Composer Hiroki Kikuta did a wonderful job of providing atmosphere for each of the wildly disparate locales that populate the game world.  Every time I hear one of these tracks, I remember hunting down Rabites in the forest or getting tossed into the cook pot by a rogue band of Chobin Hoods.

“Pure Night” is a song that stands out even in a pantheon of great pieces.  Have you ever been playing a game and felt the sudden need to drop everything and just listen to the music?  Falling off of my white dragon’s back and crashing down into the Pure Land was one of those moments for me.  The shady, forested landscape is incredibly haunting in its animated beauty, and some of the game’s most dangerous monsters lurk among the quiet pools and dusky caves.

Secret of Mana is a game about the steady decay of an ailing world, and never is that more evident than when the player arrives in the stronghold of the Goddess and finds it in ruins, haunted by elemental dragons and other tainted behemoths.  “Pure Night” not only reinforces this apocalyptic mystique; it’s a significant part of it.  I’ve been playing video games for twenty years, and I’ve rarely seen a piece of music become so integral to a game’s storytelling.

It’s a little bit startling for me to think about it now after listening to the song for so many years, but for how lovely it is, it’s actually incredibly simple.  There are only two instruments: the chiptune choir and the lonely, echoing bell that forms the melody.  The effect is simultaneously gloomy and hopeful, teeming with a sense of quiet desperation. 

Back when we were kids, I played Secret of Mana for the first time coop with my younger sister, but she lost interest about halfway through the game.  I wish she had stuck with it through until Flammie dropped the Boy and his companions on that lost continent.  I can only hope the experience would have moved her half as much as it did me.

As much as I love the song though, I’ve never been sure how exactly the idea of the Pure Land fits into the world of Secret of Mana.  The notion has its roots in various Dharmic traditions, but it probably made its way into Secret of Mana via Buddhism or Taoism.  My impression is that a Pure Land is a kind of philosophical haven, a metaphysical repository where all the ideas and dreams of the individual and the collective eventually come to rest.

Without thinking too long or too hard about it, I can see how the rotting Pure Land might be a physical representation of the crisis of faith that lies at the core of the game’s story, but that explanation leaves me feeling vaguely dissatisfied.  This quandary doesn’t diminish the sense of sheer wonderment I feel whenever I replay that section of the game, but it does get me thinking.

I can’t possibly recommend this song or the game it comes from enough.  There are a lot of great tracks to choose from here; I only picked “Pure Night” because it evokes the most powerful emotional response in me.  Honorable mention goes to “Leave Time for Love,” which plays during the hero’s journey into the dread Mana Fortress and which has one of the greatest titles for a song I’ve ever heard.

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