Sounds of the season with Sakuraba
Winter is one of my favorite seasons. Granted, I live in a region of the US where I get to experience the four seasons, so knowing the weather will change soon enough makes the inconveniences of each season more tolerable. Still, I always favored winter a bit growing up: break from school, ice hockey, and hot cocoa were the parts of the season I enjoyed the most. It’s something that has carried into my life as an adult, even if the reasons have shifted.
I don’t know if composer Motoi Sakuraba - known for his contributions to Tales, Star Ocean, Valkyrie Profile, and many, many more - is a fan of winter, but some of the tracks he created that take place in snowy scenes or wintery locales seem to capture the icy comforts of the season. So much so that I’ve compiled a list of a few personal favorites below. Take a look and feel free to include your own favorites in the comments.
White Labyrinth, Tales of Destiny:
I remember playing this game for the first time when it was released for the PSX in 1998. It was a Christmas money purchase based solely on the box art. It may have been my first exposure to Sakuraba’s work, and it was impactful. This track in particular sets the scene for one of the game’s beginning areas. It’s moody, tense, and icy, reminding the cold can be harmful or worse. It’s awesome.
A Snow Scape, Tales of Destiny:
Where the song above is chilly and lethal, this track is the polar opposite. This town theme is warm, inviting, almost like a cup of hot cocoa or tea while watching the snow fall outside the window. It’s that moment where you can appreciate the sight of untouched snow piling up outside - especially before you remember you are the one responsible for cleaning the snow in just a little bit. It’s a nice companion piece, reminding us that winter can be cozy and warm, too.
Freezing Wind, Tales of Arise:
Sakuraba might not have the name recognition in the West that others have enjoyed: chiefly Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame. However his hands have touched many popular RPG series, chief among them including the Tales and Star Ocean series, and spanning the course of decades.
This track - Freezing Wind - is evocative of being on a grand voyage and coming across a perilously icy trek where the frigidity is only matched by its splendor. There are vocal flourishes which underscore the grandeur. It is almost as if you can feel the bristle of the wind across your face, presumably the only part of your body not covered in dense layers of warm clothes.
Lucarda Mountain Road Area, Valkyrie Elysium
This plays during one of the sequences set in Lucarda, a mountainous region in the game. The game's soundtrack is neat in the sense each area's theme has two versions: one for exploration and a higher energy version that shifts when combat starts. The battle version of this theme lacks the dourness featured in this track. There is a sense of apprehension or lurking danger in this snowy track where enemies can quickly appear. I enjoyed this game for what it was in 2022, and felt Sakuraba’s contributions helped the game feel more aligned with the other games in the series. It was a nice surprise to hear so much from Sakuraba - in veteran series, no less - in 2022 between this and Star Ocean The Divine Force.
The Snow-Covered City, Golden Sun
The name certainly says it all. It reminds me of White Labyrinth from Tales of Destiny, too. This features some of Sakuraba Signature motifs, which you either love or hate. I wrote this article, so I think it gives you an idea where I fall on this issue.
Winterly Imil, Golden Sun:
Have you played Golden Sun? The series deserves some more love, especially from Nintendo. This is another sleepy winter piece. There should definitely be a scene involving characters resting at a log cabin inn set to this track. Ideally we see smoke coming out of the chimney when the “resting at an inn” ditty plays.
The World of Ice & Snow, Tales of Berseria
We’re exploring an ice cave with this one, right? We have to be. If not an ice cave, then it has to be a snowy mountain. It has all the trappings: steady crescendo, some twinkly flourishes that sound like the glimmer of an icicle, and a sense that someone - or something - is waiting to attack nearby.
Sohma, the Snow-Covered Expanse, Star Ocean Integrity and Faithlessness
Is Star Ocean 5 my least favorite Star Ocean game? Certainly. Are we going to hold it against Sakuraba? Not today. I like this track because I can see the throughline between the snowy themes of the 1990s Tales and Star Ocean games and the games that came out ten or twenty years afterward. Some people complain about Sakuraba’s themes sounding too similar, others consider him consistent. This track has all the elements of a Sakuraba winter banger: some twinkly sounds, a crescendo, equal parts trepid and tenacious at the notion of exploring. You don’t even have to suffer through the game to listen to it, either.
White the Heart, Star Ocean Second Story
If you rushed through Star Ocean 2 in the 1990s or last month, you may have slipped over Princebridge, basically a university or library of the game’s lore. This is the track that plays when you visit the snowy location on a hunt for knowledge. It sounds cold and a little foreboding, as if it knows you are about to discover some ancient secrets. They can’t be that ancient or secret, since they are sitting in a book on a shelf in a library, but they were ancient and secret to the characters until just a moment ago.
A Snow Light, Tales of Symphonia
More whimsical than some of the other tracks, which is a nice change of pace. This sounds like ice skating on a crisp winter evening, or being outside for a snowball fight before coming inside for some hot chocolate. It reminds me of a scene in Beauty and the Beast where they are outside, playing in the snow and falling in love.
Biting Cold, Tales of Phantasia
This guy loves a good, simple name, which I can appreciate. I like this theme significantly better than I like this game, but mostly because I played it half translated on an emulator on a HP running Windows 98 in 6th grade. Do you remember the iOS version of this game? Someone should be arrested for it.
Snowstorm Sacrament, Star Ocean The Divine Force
This is what inspired this piece. Listening to it in 2022 right after playing Valkyrie Elysium, I could not help but think about how Sakuraba's music - the wintry, snowy themes in particular - can evoke such a feeling. This song in particular reminds me of White Labyrinth from Tales of Destiny as well. There's that sense of looming danger associated with the icy chill, intrusive thoughts about what could happen if stuck in the cold after dark.
The Boundary Between Snow and Ice, Eternal Sonata
A standout track in a great, fun game about music. Have you played this game? This one has the trappings of the best parts of winter - it’s full of whimsy and warmth and just has a tinge of a Christmas spirit. It sounds like making cookies for Santa with the kids or taking them to see the lights one more time before the end of the year.
What tracks by Sakuraba give you that comfy cozy winter vibe, or remind you of a deep freeze? Let me know in the comments.