Retronomizer

|

Retro gaming at a cost of only 1MP!


Archive for the ‘VGM Soundtracks You Might Have MIssed’ Category

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Mega Man 3

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

So! Continuing in our series of “VGM Soundtracks you’ve definitely heard of but I’m too invested in that title to change it”, we have one of the most popular and beloved soundtracks in all of classic gaming: Mega Man 3 for the Gameboy!

Ha ha ha gets 'em every time.

Just kidding!

We’re going to talk about Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (your parents help you hook it up):

Not sure if spread-eagle is the best stance for shooting a robot wielding electric needles, Mega Man, you're just asking for a shock to the energy tanks.

Release Date: September 28th, 1990
Composers:  Bunbun (Yasuaki Fujita), ???

As beloved and popular as the game is to fans of the series, however, it’s definitely got a some porblems. It was rushed by Capcom in an effort to cash in on the gloriously successful Mega Man 2, and thus Inafune and co. really had to struggle to get a functioning game out, much less a good one, and as a result it’s the game that even Mega Man’s creator kind of hates. It was criticized for its arbitrary difficulty and “sameiness” compared to Mega Man 2 (oh what little did they know…), and heck even the Stage select screen features a permanent graphical glitch:

 

BAH HA HA Ok now I'm done

Despite all this, Mega Man 3 endures as a fan favorite and indeed was my personal favorite until I discovered Mega Man 5 (that’s a WHOLE different article), and I think a lot of that has to do with them getting some things extraordinarily right, such as the soundtrack!

 

Oh my that song is so good. I’m going to get all “old man” on you for a moment here and describe what hearing this song for the first time as a kid was like…

I had played the first two Mega Man titles and actually anticipated this one before it came out, and while I loved those first two games and their excellent tunes (again, Air Man from Mega Man 2 being one of my favorite songs ever), Mega Man 3 was something of a catharsis, or at least as close as an 8 year old can get to a catharsis).

The classic Mega Man had a title screen that was in total silence, and then it had this tune for your stage selection. Not bad, but that song’s only 4 seconds long and is rather forgettable until the 100th time you’ve heard it because the game is so freaking hard and yet you can’t put it down…

Then there was Mega Man 2, which made a musically brilliant move (in my opinon) in actually taking part of the ending credits theme from the first game and repeating it, to great effect. That didn’t really affect me as a kid, however, since it would be YEARS before I could beat the first Mega Man, come on. Even using a Game Genie ruined the game’s soundtrack thanks to incompatibility issues, so yeah double-edged sword there.

Then you turn on this third adventure, and the instant your NES powers on, that minor chord and melody comes in, and plays you *to* the title screen instead of the usual formula of silent logo leading into a musical title. It starts with that contemplative, jazz-infused beginning, and then does this super awesome rock scale into a chugging, galloping adventure theme that will get you pumped. As a bonus, the fast part of the song is where the loop is, not the slow part, so you only hear that slow part once and then the rest is just a repetition of the main theme. That’s seriously good, even for 1990 standards (when VGM soundtracks were really starting to get elaborate).

Not only that, but the game has no story intro or attract mode; the song is the intro. You can wait through as many loops of that beautiful tune as you want, you’ll never get that typical paragraph’s worth of text that tells you what’s happened so far. Now, I don’t know if that’s because of time crunch or if it was intentional, but using an instrumental music piece to get you excited about the game on an emotional level is something that I’ve honestly never seen duplicated in gaming. The song is that good.

Once you decide you’ve had enough of the song and move on to the “Game Start” option, you’re again assailed by a mighty tune that evokes a sense of urgency and purpose.

Plus, this song is actually 10 seconds long. Progress!

Anyway, as with any Mega Man game, the real meat of the soundtrack is in the actual stages, and while I enjoy almost every stage theme from every Mega Man, there’s something a little different about this title, and I think that is due to the game’s composer: BunBun (Yasuaki Fujita).

Whereas I always felt like the various soundtracks for Mega Man games are based in this kind of Japanese-flavored pop/rock (with some elements of Metal and hard rock), what BunBun brings to the table is a sense of Jazz with a little bit of Blues and even funk-fusion. The soundtrack almost seems “classier” as a result. Interestingly, if you listen to some of his later stuff like Darkwing Duck, you’ll notice he’s being very “restrained” with the jazz in this game.

Still, on top of having these great 7th chords and smooth jazz tricks that I’m not educated enough to call out by name, all of the melodies are just so singable:

 

Do you hear how the hi-hat and snare trade off in Snake Man’s theme, almost as if you’re hearing scatting? (not the gross kind, I mean mouth percussion they do in Jazz). If not, take this as the ultimate example:

The way those notes slide into each other in the main melody just has this undeniably “jazzy” feel about it. Really my boss brentalfloss put it best in video form, so I’ll stop talking about it here.

Of course, BunBun is a multifaceted composer (just check out his work on Breath of Fire), so he can roll out the epic ballads when he wants to. I always felt this tinge of melancholy pervading the otherwise jamming nature of Spark Man’s theme:

 

The way those chords move in the second part, man that song could have hit the radio any time in the 80′s if it was new wave rather than VGM.

There are even moments of super-pumped rock that have nothing to do with jazz or melancholy. Quite possibly my favorite theme in the game, even if it was applied to the dumbest robot master:

 

Ha ha Top Man, what even is that? Anyway, the driving beat, interlocking arpeggios for melody, and straight bass-line make this song a rocker through and through (it almost sounds like a Deep Purple song if you ask me, but you didn’t so yeah). Sure it’s played in a stage where you inexplicably have to fight gigantic cats in a world made of glass-encased plants (making me think someone might have mis-read his name as “Pot Man”, my little joke), but hey it’s all good.

Some of the songs are quite peppy, even, such as Magnet Man’s stage, with which we are back to Jazz:

 

Actually, one of the jazzier and more complex songs in the soundtrack belongs to Needle Man, yet BunBun actually didn’t write this one, according to sources I have conveniently lost…

Still a great song though. I want to say Minae Fuji might have written it? She wrote a lot of Mega Man 4 so it stands to reason. Oh well, have a listen:

 

Actually, the same goes for another of my personal favorites, the spooky, theremin-styled Gemini Man theme:

I think the best part about this particular stage theme is how you have two chordal melodies that intertwine with each other, which given that the robot boss in this stage is actually two twin bosses, that’s almost too good of a move to be intentional. Either way, this song just goes to show that some of the best songs in VGM occur in space (another article for another day).

Anyway, the last element I want to discuss is the game’s introduction of a new “supporting” character/villain: Protoman. One of the  most popular characters in the original series despite his limited in-game appearances, he’s among the first video game characters I can think of that actually has his own musical theme that is inextricable from his character. This is something I feel is essential to the Mega Man universe, since most of the characters, at least in the original Japanese versions of the games, are named after bits of music. In fact, Protoman is called “Blues” in the Rockman games.

Anyway, since the game contains no intro monologue to tell us what’s going on (though the instruction book is more than happy to fill us in), the story is that Mega Man is being followed through the game by a shady character who is first called “Break Man” (apparently the robot master of standing outside and smoking a cigarette at work), who winds up being an ambiguous good-guy who helps him out at the end, and then… THE TWIST… the game reveals, in a really subtle way, that he’s the “prototype” robot who is basically Mega Man’s older brother bot.

Anyway, the game doesn’t have to tell you this with words, it unfolds right there in the gameplay and is hit home during the ending (where you finally get some text), which is this perfect expansion/embellishment of that simple bluesy whistling tune:

That song is so good, and is one of the truly moving, emotional pieces in early VGM. Before Final Fantasy 6‘s opera scene brought a tear to our eye, Mega Man 3‘s ending provided a satisfying lump to the throat that made us yearn for a continuing of the story of Mega Man and Proto Man, which, of course, we never got, at least back in the day, because the series moved in all kinds of directions. Even in Mega Man 5, where he really had a chance to shine, there’s no clear explanation as to what is going on.

Either way, it’s these kinds of concerns and revelations that made Mega Man 3 a classic. Flawed, of course, but still a classic. The soundtrack was thoroughly amazing, and as I mentioned before, immensely popular, especially among the VGM band scene, as it has been covered many times. Here are some of my favorite covers:

- Armcannon did a really great cover of the title theme on their first album, Leg Vacuum.

- The irrepressibly metal Year 200x guys open up their album with a cover of the title theme.

- VGM old-schoolers NESkimos (who have recently reunited, yay!) did a cool rock cover of Spark Man’s theme, which I can’t find for sale so just listen to it here.

- brentalfloss, according to legend, actually started his career in writing funny lyrics for video game music with his version of the title theme. Great stuff! He also did a hilarious take on the Game Over theme, which is super peppy in an almost mocking sort of way. They’re both available on his albums too, so go buy those duh.

- The Megas, a rock band that actually does serious songwriting over Mega Man tunes, just released an entire album of Mega Man 3 music, so get it while it’s hot!

- Temp Sound Solutions did this great thing where they mixed Gemini Man’s stage with the song “Demon Seed” from Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse, and though the exact configuration of the band that did it is no longer around, there IS audio evidence of it on the internet!

- My own band did a medley of tunes from the game, featuring that funky volcano-based ninja, Shadow Man.

- Speaking of… The One Ups, who are masters of jazz, jazz-fusion bluesy VGM, did an incredible send-up to Shadow Man on their Volume 2 album. So cool!

Whew, man! Didn’t mean for half of the article to be band-plugging, but all these covers are that good, so do check them out. Until then, I’m going to play through this game again, or at least until those awful “Dark Master” stages.

See you next!

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Magician

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Welcome back, everyone and me! I was suddenly beset by a week of tragedies and victories, none of which I care to talk about at the moment, so instead we’re going to talk about an exciting soundtrack that’s NOT from Japan and not even composed by a lady!

Let’s talk about Magician on the NES:

BRUTALITOPS

Release date: 1990? 1991?
Composer: Neil Baldwin

Magician was developed by a company called Eurocom and was published by a company called Taxan. You might know Taxan as publisher of somewhat cheap and occasionally badass NES games like Burai Fighter, Star Soldier, 8 Eyes, Mystery Quest, and my favorite, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero. Their final published game was Magician, and interestingly enough, it was Eurocom’s first game.

While the England-based Eurocom (hence the “Euro-”, you see… they’re European) is a pretty well-to-do developer nowadays (they recently worked on the Goldeneye 007 remakes), their beginnings were so humble that no more than 6 people are in the credits for Magician, and yet it actually is a pretty cool game! It’s part action, part RPG, part Shadowgate-style puzzle solving, and part Ultima in terms of having a TON of text to read and a spell system to learn as you proceed through the game.

Anyway none of that matters because the soundtrack is one of the best damn things you’ve ever heard from the NES era, which is why we’re talking about it today:

 

That there is the title screen to the game, and you aren’t seeing things, the entire song is nearly 3 1/2 minutes long. It’s actually one of the longest songs in the entire NES library, and man is it worth hearing from front to back.

One thing you’ll notice right away is that Neil Baldwin loves arpeggios. If you’re not a music-knowing type like I’m not, an arpeggio is a fast sequence of notes (usually in a chord shape) played in sequence rather than at the same time. This effect is used a LOT in old-school video game music, because the limitations of the hardware meant you only had a few sound channels to work with, so playing notes really quickly in order kind of gave the illusion of playing them all at once, and you’ll hear a lot of that in this soundtrack and almost anything written by Tim and Geoff Follin (who we’ll get to in a future update I promise).

Anyway, what I love about the title screen is that, on top of it having those quick arpeggio parts and a really cool melody laid over the top, is that Neil actually did a lot of playing around with the actual texture of the synths. At exactly 55 seconds in, he drops the melody down to a bass note that accompanies the existing bass note, and the tone of the backing part starts to change while still maintaining the same notes, and other parts drop back in (like around 1:25) to where, by about 2:26, you’re like “Whaaaaat is going ooonnn heeeeere?” It doesn’t even sound like an NES anymore, but really that’s just two of the same arpeggio laid over each other, and then the whole thing changes back and starts harmonizing with itself and the bass-line does this way cool thing it did at the beginning, and then the whole thing fades out to just drums… holy crap.

We haven’t even started playing the game yet!

 

This, the theme from the town of Serenna, where you start the game, is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music I’ve heard, at least on a Nintendo. The way the chords move around and the bass-line are both super smooth, but that melody. It evokes this sense of despair and hopefulness all in the same go, like a wonderful piece of classical music, yet it sounds less baroque and more, I don’t konw, Radiohead-ish? Either way, it taps into that melancholy part of the human soul like only the English can, which is why every other country has been trying to sound like them for at least a century.

 

Again, not only do we get that wonderful, weepy melancholy from the melody here, but there’s even this lovely ambient noise in the noise channel, like the rolling of the tides or something. Actually, by his own admission, Neil Baldwin was going for one of those rising cymbal crash kind of moves, but it just wound up sounding like water so he simply left it in. I love it.

 

What I really like about this “Lake” theme, as well as most of the songs in the game (at least all the ones I’m linking to), is that you might underestimate them when you hear yet ANOTHER slow arpeggio and weepy melody, yet if you give it just about a minute (an impossible amount of time for most NES songs), you’re usually treated to something really cool. In this case, Neil is using that same arpeggio effect to make a kind of “delay” effect, almost as if it was some experimental guitarist messing around with his effects. In fact, the way the two main sound channels play around with arpeggio + melody makes me think of Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew of post-70′s King Crimson. Only one other person will ever get that analogy, so hi Greg!

 

This time, we have another track that contains ambient effects right there in the tune, only this time Neil meant it to sound like crickets, for the scene is set in a creepy forest in the pitch-black night. The way the music just creeps in and goes away again, leaving the crickets behind… how is this a video game song?!

Also I really dig that bass groove.

 

Occasionally the music will get kind of dangerous and exciting, as in this Cave theme and this Battle theme. There’s not a lot to say about them, besides that I think they’re really excellent and I just wanted to take a break from the slow tunes for just a second.

OK break’s over, here’s another one!

 

Oh man I love how this entire song is essentially driven by the backing bass, and yet in the foreground, there’s another instrument that also sounds like bass. Two basses playing insanely creepy music for a really creepy part of the game is one thing, but then that super-fast arpeggio sound comes in, serving as nothing more than a flavor to the rest of the track. It’s crazy to me how something that is so unmoving and ambient can be so pleasing to listen to. Oh but wait! Around 2 minutes in? Totally sweet drum groove comes in and starts rocking it out until the song ends, OH NO WAIT A SECOND, what is that about 4 minutes into the damn song? A freaking Theremin?

Then suddenly you realize that this entire song loops at an incredible 6 minutes and 23 seconds, and you still find yourself wanting to hear it again!

 

Again, you think you’re going to be bored to tears with this song, since most NES songs loop around the 20-30 second mark, but this song takes its sweet time to get truly awesome, an outrageous 1 minute and 20 seconds before the full drum set kicks in. I can’t express to you with mere human words how happy that makes me.

 

I will say, about as comparatively happy as this groovin’ Dungeon theme makes me. There actually really is not a whole lot to this tune, but man I love that drum part, and that little high melody riff that comes in a few times towards the end of the loop. So classy!

 

This is a real short one that is only a drum part, but I included it because it totally reminds me of something else.

Anyway, that’s about it for all the notable songs in the game. I definitely recommend giving the whole thing a listen, and if you’d like a slightly more technical (and less spazzy) explanation of the soundtrack from Neil Baldwin himself, the man has done a super awesome favor for VGM fans like myself and wrote his own blog detailing aspects of this soundtrack and others he’s worked on. What a guy!

http://www.dutycyclegenerator.com/

 

Thanks for reading! See you tomorrow!

 

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Earthbound

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

Hi hi hi!

As I mentioned yesterday, this week is the 17th anniversary of the release of Earthbound in the U.S.A., and since it’s my favorite game, I am dedicating the rest of this week’s updates to “The Biggest Underground Game Ever” (according to random sources I can’t remember).

Today, we are going to talk about the soundtrack! Happy me! (patty-cake patty-cake):

"He's a star maaaaaaan"

Release Date: June 05, 1995
Composers: Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, Keiichi Suzuki, others

Unfortunately, we probably won’t be able to get to talk about the entire soundtrack because, according to my source file, it’s 198 tracks long, easily trumping any other Super NES game that I’m aware of (if you’ve got a spare 3 hours though, this video plays 118 of the major themes in the game). Thus, we will be hitting some of my favorite highlights from this ambitious soundtrack, but first, a bit of background…

Background

Like its predecessor, Mother, the soundtrack was composed by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka. The latter, of course, is my favorite composer of video game musics, and I plan to make sure you’re as familiar with him as I am by the time I’m done with this blog thing.

Keiichi, however, is slightly more elusive as a VGM artist if you’re not a Mother fan, because the first two games in the series are his only video game credits, other than being credited in Mother 3 and the Super Smash Bros. series despite not working on them, and a one-off Saturn game he worked on called Real Sound: Kaze no Regret, which was a game specifically developed for blind people.

His non-gaming credits, of course, are astounding. He composed music for Japanese films that I’ve actually heard of, and he was in several super-popular rock groups I haven’t heard of.

The pair split duties for the original Mother, and Keiichi has said in interviews that the Famicom was extremely limited in what he could do with it, so his compositions couldn’t shape up quite how he wanted (I never heard Tim Follin or the Konami team complain about it, but we’ll leave that alone for now). For Earthbound, Keiichi was much happier with the Super Famicom’s 8 sound channels, and felt like he was actually able to create music like he would create on real instruments. This, not to mention nearly 2/3rd of the game’s memory being devoted to music, made for a very healthy canvas for a compelling score.

Also, in addition to Hip Tanaka and Keiichi, there actually are 2 other composers who are credited with “Additional Music”, and a further dude credited as “Sound Staff” and still 2 others credited under “Sound Producers”. Needless to say, Earthbound is an ambitious little game when it comes to music.

Earthbound’s Soundtrack is More of a “Score”

So why the 198 tracks? Despite the game being roughly 9 or 10 real “areas” in the game, and a few enemy encounters and pieces of incidental story-line, nearly every unique piece of the game has a unique piece of music. Rather than explain vaguely how that rolls out in the game, I’ll tell you exactly how, and if you happen to have the SPC file of the game and an emulator to play it on, feel free to join along (I’ll provide Youtube links where available).

From the start of the game to the start of the game:

- The game’s title screen and demo, which contain 3 songs (oh man I love that tricky beat in the demo mode, and that bass-line).

- You then proceed to the Data Select screen (which is surprisingly long considering it takes about 5 seconds to make a decision here)

- You then name your characters, favorite food, dog, etc., in the funky sample-filled jam “Your Name, Please

- A 7-second long sample, which is called “Now, Let’s Go!“, plays when you’re finished setting the game up.

- The game’s beginning narrative sets things up in 199x, in Eagleland, with an ambient spooky non-tune called “One Fateful Night…

- A meteorite is falling! “Unidentified Falling Object“!

- Rude Awakening! (oh man I love how the sirens start wailing after the “kaboom”, also why did someone upload all this?)

- Once you start heading towards the meteorite, some more ambient noise with a weird beat underscores the “mysterious” situation (and there’s an alternate version that plays at some point as well). I should point out here that this exact beat appears, very subtly, at least twice more in the game, both in Belch’s Factory (check about 36 seconds in) and all throughout one of the final dungeons, the Lava Springs. This isn’t even close to the only time the soundtrack refers back to itself, but let’s get back to the original point…

- You go back to bed, but are woken up by the plot! Specifically, Pokey, the next-door-neighbor, is knocking on your door, and since it’s actually part of the song that’s playing right below it, it’s called “Someone’s Knocking at the Door“, and that knock is actually isolated into a separate track with a silent background once you go down stairs, and is then called “What An Annoying Knock!” (titled after your little sister’s assessment of the situation). I find the knock to be really hilarious, but anyway.

- You open the door. It’s Pokey! He has his own little theme (with intro) that plays this one time.

- You go outside to see the meteor again, different music is playing now, and it’s the exact same music as “Someone’s Knocking at the Door” without the knocking!

- You run into Buzz Buzz, a time travelling insect, who tells you a prophecy set to this music, with his buzzing overlaid of course.

- Buzz Buzz then follows you back and helps you defeat a Starman (his buzzing laid over all the background music means there is a separate “buzzing” track for each song you can hear while he’s in your party, for a total of 4 track)

- Buzz Buzz meets his demise in the Pokey household, where you hear his “prophecy” music again without the buzzing, and Pokey’s parents’ surreal house theme (only place it appears in the game) playing with and without buzzing.

- You go outside, and you’re treated to the first real song with a melody (including “sunrise” intro), “Onett”.

 

All in all, that’s 29 unique pieces of music you can hear before the game even starts, and most of those songs are only heard once in the game. To put that in perspective, The Legend of Zelda; A Link To The Past has only 50 (fantastic, albeit) unique pieces of music in the entire game, and Earthbound hits that mark within about the first hour.

Earthbound really is one of the earliest games to contain what I would consider an actual “score” as opposed to a simple soundtrack, and I can’t say I’m surprised, seeing as how the bulk of the compositions were done by an actual film composer and the guy who practically invented video game music that actually evokes emotional response. The music serves the story and what is actually happening in the game, and is often changed, distorted, or warped in some way if there is a change. For instance, there are no less than 4 unique situations where you wake up to a different version of the familiar “good morning” tune. I just think that’s damn cool, is all.

Songs, Songs, Songs

Of course, once you’re free to move about the country, the music really helps the game’s sunny hamlet Onett open up into a lively, vibrant, exciting place, with several different themes for the various places you can visit. First and foremost, I feel I should mention that you can go back home and be treated to this beautiful song:

 

“Home Sweet Home” is a slowed-down version of my favorite song from the original Mother, entitled “Polyanna“. Naturally, this is specifically a “Hip” Tanaka composition, and it’s drenched in his trademark sweet-with-a-dash-of-soulful-melancholy writing style that makes him singularly my favorite music composer. Truly, this song is one of his best, and the version we’re rewarded with for going home to Mother and Sister and your dog King (or “Kitty” if you use my naming scheme) is a perfectly nostalgic, loving tune.

Of course, the game is actually fairly replete with sentimental, lovely tunes. Another favorite of mine is “Winters White”, the theme for Winters:

 

Ahh, that sleigh-bell is perfect for this snowy setting, and if you happen to avoid enemies or just let the song go for 45 seconds, the song shifts into a bridge portion that is also really cool. It took me about 2 playthroughs of the game to even find that out!

Speaking of Winters, the song that plays while you’re in Jeff’s dorm is another heart-warming tune called “Snowman”, that actually was also taken from the original Mother:

 

The composition, especially after the song enters a kind of minor key mode, is complex yet very pretty; an excellent winter-time song.

Another excellent track that you only get to hear twice in the game is “You’ve Come Far, Ness”, a song that plays during your “coffee break” and “tea break” in the game (more on that in the next articles). Either way, it’s a relaxing jam for sure:

 

 

Of course, Earthbound is, in most people’s eyes, chiefly a game about humor, and certainly the “quirky” tunes in the game cannot be denied. While traversing the beginning-before-the-beginning of the game, you are very likely to run into your first regular battle, and with it comes your first taste of the eccentric yet delightful battle tunes that occur throughout the game:

 

 

I really like this “Battle Against A Weak Opponent” because the only discernible melody is the two-chord change (complete with a key-change) that sounds like some Brazilian festival tune, and the rest of the song is this warped mess of chirping, a beat that breaks itself every few measures, and an upright-bass sounding bass-line that sounds like its trying its best to keep up. A ramshackle tune for the weakest opponents, how brilliant!

Speaking of upright bass, one of my favorite bass-lines in gaming belongs to another battle theme in this game, “Battle Against An Unsettling Opponent”:

Ahh, that diminished-scale-heavy walk would make any jazzer proud (not a difficult task, now that I think about it). What I love about it is not only the bass-line, but how the electronic whirring keeps cutting in and out and interrupting the beat right in the middle of a measure. That actually tends to happen a lot in the battle music, in fact, my favorite example is in the rather dour “Battle Against A Sanctuary Guardian”, which you hear whenever fighting one of the many “Your Sanctuary” bosses:

Oh man I love this song so much. It’s definitely one to enjoy with headphones, because the bass frequencies are practically the star of the show here. The other star, of course, are those drawn-out minor chords and funky beat.

Anyway, I digress from the “quirky” topic I was on. One really great addition to the soundtrack, again, taken straight from Mother, is the shop theme, “Buy Somethin’, Will Ya!“, which apart from being named after the famous shopkeeper line from The Legend of Zelda, is also basically a re-imagined version of The Dallas Rag, which The Beatles also re-imagined as that Sgt. Pepper classic “When I’m 64“.

What a segue!

The Beatles and Others

It is absolutely no secret that the sound team for Earthbound drew heavy inspiration from The Fab Four for the creation of the game’s soundtrack. Apart from directly referring to The Beatles in a few gags (the “Yellow Submarine” you get at one point, an NPC in a house quizzing you on a Beatles song in a very clever gag, etc.), you can hear little splashes of their tunes in the soundtrack. If you listened to that “Good Morning” music from earlier, you may recognize those first few notes from the Beatles song by the same name. If that seems like kind of a stretch to you, how about the one-off “Megaton Walk/Dungeon Man Battle“? Yes, that is a direct sampling of the drum beat to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Reprise“. I also tend to hear a lot of that really fast horn part from 32 seconds into “Magical Mystery Tour” in the “Tessie” theme (again, about 31-32 seconds in) that plays once or twice in the game. Other people hear the chords to “Strawberry Fields Forever” in it as well, so I guess it’s kind of a mash-up.

Anyway the game doesn’t exclusively borrow tunes from The Beatles, it also has a crack at Johnny B. Goode, a Chuck Berry jam:

 

This is actually also from the original game, and both themes are used to underscore the abuse and defeat of hippies, which I heartily approve of!

Oh, and before I change the subject, another song they borrow rather cleverly from the first game is this “coming from a cheap radio” version of the Yucca Desert theme they call “Dusty Dunes Desert“. I just love the “stranded in mariachi land” feel of both songs, and yes, there actually are mariachis in the desert, duh.

By the way, the fact that the Earthbound version of that song is so screwy and distorted is, I think, because you are supposed to have a feeling of discomfort in the desert portion of the game, because it’s so hot out there you can catch a “heat stroke” status ailment and will start taking damage if you sweat it out too long. Personally, I think it does the trick quite well.

Blues, beautiful Blues!

Not only did Earthbound borrow heavily from The Beatles and very lightly from Chuck Berry, but they also dedicate a rather healthy chunk of game-time to a 5-piece band that looks and sounds suspiciously like the infamous Blues Brothers, which if you don’t know what that is, I don’t really know why we’re talking right now.

Anyway, a few times in the game, you get to stop and watch the band play some songs, and a lot of them are kind of pastiches of old soul/blues classics:

 

Also, whenever you’re simply around the band, you can usually catch a tune or two. I really love these guys and how much joyous jamming they bring to a soundtrack that’s already busting at the seams with goodness. Heck they even have a Jazz singer croon out a song at one point.

 

Stuff Gets Messed Up

Of course, any synopsis of Earthbound would not be complete without an overview of some of the truly strange (and sometimes terrifying) songs that make up the latter half of the soundtrack.

 

This one isn’t so much “weird” as just “disconcerting”, and it should be, since you’re tromping through the Deep Darkness at this point. Personally, I think it sounds a bit like a certain King Crimson album that came out right around the same time (too close together to not be a coincidence, alas).

This is another one that starts off kind of weird (man what’s with that lead instrument?) but at the 45 second mark I just completely love this tune:

This one, however:

 

Gah! This one’s so weird. It’s basically The Little Rascals’ theme crossed with “The Star Spangled Banner” and some guitar and bass that sounds slightly Spanish. Of course, it only plays for a few seconds while you’re being drawn into the helplessly insane “Moonside” portion of the game (where you fight, among other things, abstract paintings), so it’s meant to throw you off for that amount of time.

 

Once you’re on the cusp of getting your 4th team member, he is introduced with some quite odd (oh sorry, mystical) tunes as well. My favorite among them in that particular area is, of course, the Pink Cloud Fortress theme.  Sure it sounds like a bunch of dings and beeps and instances of “What are they doing to meeee”, but man I love that song.

I think my favorite of the weird songs, however, has to be Brick Road/Dungeon Man’s dungeon theme. Not only does it accompany one of my favorite parts of the game, but man is this a weird song.

 

I think the best part of the whole thing is that the game actually refers to the song via a sign that says “Like the music? I made it myself – Brick Road”. Beautiful.

I think the weird song that everyone’s the most familiar with is the adorable-yet mysterious Mr. Saturn and his town theme:

 

I think the most brilliant part of this song is that it can be heard faintly, inside of the caves leading up to Saturn Valley. I really love that subtle touch to the soundtrack; it really brings a lot of life to the tune, as if there’s no way to deny that the song is totally playing in the town, and not just as part of the soundtrack for the player.

 

The End

Anyway, it’s not all just weirdness; eventually the story has to come to an end, and with that end comes some really creepy music.

Firstly, there’s the last “dungeon” you encounter, after an already creepy and somewhat French introduction:

 

*shudder*

It gets even worse as you get to Giygas’ lair.

However, as if to psych you up for the ultimate showdown (or at least fake you out into thinking this is the final battle), one of those best songs in the game, “Pokey Means Business”, brings you one of gaming’s most amazing musical fake-outs:

 

Oh man I love it. As if that 8-bit throw-back song wasn’t awesome enough, I think that’s perhaps the most Metal I’ve heard in a Super Nintendo game.

Anyway, once Pokey is out of the way, he reveals the true face of Giygas, and you have no choice but to fight and pray. I’ll describe that experience a little better further, but here’s what it sounds like (seriously, hold on to your butts, this song is creepy as Hell):

This music is about the closest I’ve ever come to being scared of a piece of music. It really is quite interesting.

But upon defeating this evil with the power of Prayer, you are rewarded with not one, but MANY of the best ending songs in any video game, and I’ll fight whoever says otherwise:

 

 

“Because I Love You” is one of the more popular themes from the game, partially perhaps because of the rather infamous vocal version that came out with the game’s soundtrack.

Not only that, but we also get this wonderful Runaway Five version of some of the game’s more familiar melodies. Man the “Onett” section just makes me tear up every time I hear it:

 

 

And then NOT ONLY THAT, but the whole thing is finally brought home by this amazing song called “Smiles and Tears”, which contains a surprise spoken sample somewhere towards the end (just listen to the whole thing and hear it):

 

And on and on and on

Man, so I didn’t even go over as many songs as I wanted to go over! I wanted to point out how the Hospital Music is basically a remix of Fourside’s theme, and how the Tenda Tribe has this delightfully “shy” music-box melody for their town theme, and I didn’t even mention the Eight Freaking Melodies (which, btw, is the melody they use for “Smiles And Tears”), and here we are pushing the 3200 word count!

Well, if there are any songs that I missed that you have a particular fondness for, feel free to speak up! For now, here is my last thought on the soundtrack.

As I mentioned, Earthbound is my favorite game, and the soundtrack is inextricable from that experience, which is actually kind of the reason I don’t consider Earthbound to be my favorite soundtrack. The music works on its own, for sure, but actually playing the game and hearing the music (or even lack of music) heightens the ups and emphasizes the downs, rather than being the distraction that other (perfectly fine) soundtracks may be. Earthbound works perfectly with its music, harmoniously even, so that even what may seem like a random collection of bleeps and off-key synth hits actually works really well in the situation it underscores.

Again, I don’t know if that makes this the best soundtrack or anything, but it does make this one of gaming’s true scores, at least for the early days of the art. The fact that I got all misty-eyed at least 4 times while writing this article, however, probably tells you that I really do just love the soundtrack on its own as well.

Anyway, thanks for staying with me through all this. Tomorrow we’re going to talk about the game itself! My hands might fall off! Boing!

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Little Nemo: The Dream Master

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Before playing one of the handful of shows before we were a “whole” group, Descendants of Erdrick, rather, the 3 guitarists of the group, were asked to play a house party for a fan whom we’re very fond of (he’s the guy that draws this here webcomic).

With the invitation to play the party, he also had a request! He asked if we knew any music from Little Nemo: The Dream Master on the NES.

Of course, we didn’t, but I remembered quite liking that game back in the day, so I checked out the soundtrack the way we did it in the olden days; by playing the hell out of the game until I got (nearly) all the way through it. I learned two things that day:

1. Little Nemo: The Dream Master is insanely hard

2. Its soundtrack is amazing.

Thus, without much more delay, we’re going to talk about it!

I love how irrepressibly happy Nemo is to be chased by flying alligators and stalked by a living tree. He's so into it!

Release Date: September, 1990
Composer: Junko Tamiya (as “Gonzou”)

Based on possibly the oldest intellectual property to have a video game based on it since Bible Adventures, Little Nemo: The Dream Master (we’re going to be calling it “Nemo” from now on to save an amount of time roughly equal to reading this sentence) is based off a wildly popular surreal comic that was around from about 1905 to 1914.

Actually, that’s about half true; the video game is actually based off a Japanese animated film made in 1989 called Little Nemo: Adventures In Slumberland, which itself was based on the comic, but interestingly, delays kept the film from arriving in America until 1992, over two years after the release of this video game, so a lot of kids (like me) had no idea it was even based on anything, since turn-of-the-century comics weren’t really published a lot in the Sunday funnies (except for Snuffy Smith).

Anyway, the game takes place in many different “dreams” that Nemo experiences, each one acting as a stage in which he must collect a bunch of keys and make it to the end. Aiding him in this process is a menagerie of adorable animals he must drug with candy and commandeer as vehicles for his twisted purposes.

Yeah so the kid is kind of evil, but hey, they’re his dreams, who are we to judge?

Anyway, the soundtrack is among my favorite of Capcom’s glory days of the late 80′s/early 90′s. The composer was a woman of many names who I somehow neglected to mention in my (apparently) neglectful article about female composers. Anyway, the name her parents gave her was Junko Tamiya and, in this game, she goes by the handle “Gonzou”. In case you’re curious, her other credits include the fantastic Bionic Commando and a game that is as stupidly confusing as it is profoundly rocking, Street Fighter 2010.

Anyway, Tamiya’s soundtrack for Nemo is far from an action-packed rocker, and instead seems to rely on dreamy melodies with little to no percussive quality.

Here, in the title screen/intro, we are given kind of a whimsical, circus-like fanfare, which paints this as kind of a bright, cheery game. The first stage music (one of my favorite video game tunes), further embellishes on that mood:

 

I love that song so much, oh man.

Stage 2 is also really interesting, as it kind of takes away the percussion entirely and drives everything with the high-pitched bass tone:

 

It really is delightful, especially in the second part of the song where that one note is kind of faded in while the secondary melody trickles down the scale. The soundtrack is actually sounding dreamy now!

Stage 3 brings us to the House of Toys, and it’s a good thing that the music kind of turns into something that reminds me of a fanciful battle hymn, because this is the part of the game where the difficulty ramps up to “punishing” and doesn’t let go.

 

I love the Stage 4 “Night Sea” melody as well. Did you notice that it follows more or less the same chord progression/scale as the title theme and Stage 1? I might be hearing things myself, but it definitely sounds similar to those songs.

With this, the Stage 5 theme (“Nemo’s House”), things are starting to get a bit serious, and this very “adventuring” sounding tune underscores that rather effectively.

Things then start to pick up some urgency with Stage 6 and drop off quite a lot for Stage 7, and then, lest we had forgotten already, Tamiya pulls the rug out from under us and issues forth this masterpiece for the final, “Nightmare” level:

 

Ahh, that perfect interplay of melody and harmony, the slightly weird but driving bass-line, and while the drums are spare, they add just the right touch to give this song that necessary “final stage” urgency that players will surely need to get through this hellish stage.

Of course, upon making your way all the way to the end, you must face off against the one and only “boss” in the game, the Nightmare King (it’s supposed to be the “Prince of Nightmares” in the film but oh well), and the boss theme is insane:

 

Jeeze! Going from the beginning stages to this is such a shocker for this soundtrack, and that’s what I adore about it.

Of course, then you get to the end, and you get this awesome, jazz-tastic tune underscoring the rather awkward ending dialogue, and you may notice that it, too, borrows heavily from the title theme, which is really cool:

 

While I really do like Nemo (at least all the way to stage 7, which is as far as I’ve personally gotten), I think I’ve probably spent more time listening to this fantastic soundtrack than actually playing it. I am pretty sure that qualifies as a good thing!

As far as the band goes, we did wind up covering it for that party after all, and then we recorded it, and we extended THAT to include 2 more songs, and we occasionally play it still. In fact, if you happen to be in Austin at this thing, you might get to hear it re-interpreted again!

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry, which will be extra special because someone else wrote it! That’s right, I have GUEST BLOGGERS now! Well one, anyway. See you tomorrow!

Video Game Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Secret of Mana

Tuesday, May 8th, 2012

Ok, so I’m kind of banking on the theory that at least SOME of you may not have played Secret of Mana yet, or at least appreciated its magnificent soundtrack, and if that’s the case, then I kind of envy you because you’re about to have your mind blown away and replaced with a better, stronger one that is galvanized by the following sounds:

Secret of Mana was definitely a special enough game already, what with its insanely colorful graphics, charming (often adorable) characters, minimalist story that could move you with what little it did have to say, and a pretty cool system for powering up your weapons and magic that ensured hours of engrossed battling. Yet, the thing that rises head and shoulders above everything else is the music.

(by the way, that title theme comes back as music underscoring various emotional scenes, so awesome)

 

Often ethereal, mostly complex, sometimes rocking and occasionally even terrifying, there are very few soundtracks I can recommend as a master class in enchantment as this one. T

The composer is a man called Hiroki Kikuta, someone brought into Squaresoft to work on the sequel to a game they had made for the Gameboy called Seiken Densetsu, which we know here in the states as Final Fantasy Adventure (and, confusingly, is known in Europe as Mystic Quest). The original game’s composer, Kenji Ito, , had been moved on to another game series (Romancing SaGa), and thus the spot was open for a new guy. At the time, Hiroki had been working on Final Fantasy IV as a debugger, but having fanboyed out with Square’s main music man, Nobuo Uematsu, over the Prog music they both loved, he was given the task of creating a soundtrack, completely free of direction, for Seiken Densetsu 2, a.k.a. Secret of Mana.

 

Kikuta wrote the music while the game was still being conceptualized, that is to say, he had very little idea what was going on in the actual game while he was writing music for it. Thus, certain pieces actually wound up in places where he didn’t really intend them, such as a theme he had written for the Sprite character (whom I, in all my cleverness, always named “SPRITE”), winding up the background music to the dessert town, Kakkara Village:

 

An odd choice for a favorite, but this is apparently Kikuta’s.

Then again, despite the huge amount of Prog-inspired tracks that everyone loves, my own personal favorite is the super-funky Scorpion Army theme, “A Curious Happening”:

 

I love the xylophone chime and the staccato keyboard hits, and I just adore that final bit with the piano. So cool. It’s really too bad the Scorpion Army didn’t get a little more screen-time in the game except as comic relief bosses; I actually wanted them in the game more because I wanted to hear this song more! Thankfully, they leave a ship behind in the Dwarf Town in Gaia’s Navel and you can actually go visit it and listen to this tune, which I used to do all the time as a kid.

Still, when not breathtakingly beautiful, bright and cheerful, or downright funky, the soundtrack had its moments of crazy heavy rock, such as in the boss theme, which stands out as one of the greatest boss themes ever:

Ahhh so many things going on in this song! Those crazy drums (with the very Metal double-kick), the slap bass that only comes around a couple of times, and several melodies that take over the whole thing in its astounding 2 minute duration… there are just too many things to love here.

Actually many of the themes are heavy and complex, at least when the scene is served by it. I’ve always liked “Steel & Snare”, a bass and drum song that has some insane time signatures going on:

 

And then, with one bang of the Flammie Drum, you might be whisked away to a battlefield with some of the calmest music you’ve ever heard:

 

 

The flight song, by the way, is also really great. Actually, so is the other one!

The plot of the game, such as it is, revolves around trying to stop a monster called Thanatox from turning people into zombies in order to gain magical power (which is how you do it, apparently). A couple of times in the game, you have to infiltrate temples full of said zombies (who are actually really cute and there are adorable Tomato Men too, but I digress), and the music is super creepy:

 

And if that wasn’t bad enough, it comes back way later in the game when you finally confront Thanatos and he becomes this enormous skeleton creature called Lich that fills up the whole screen, and a theme plays that is like a more insane version of “Ceremony” called “Oracle” (or, “The Sorcerer”):

 

 

Once you defeat that bastard, everything’s cool right? You just heard the craziest thing ever and now we’re all good? Nope! There is one more boss to go, and I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the music that accompanies it is absurdly good:

 

Oh man that bass-line. It’s incredible! If you’re not that good at picking out bass-lines, watch this guy play it perfectly and maybe you’ll agree with me.

Speaking of bass nonsense, if one were to try and picture Secret of Mana music played on real instruments, the game’s ending theme, “Second Truth From The Left”, would kill any bassist trying to attempt the solo that you can hear toward the end of the loop:

 

 

That thing is so insane it simply makes me laugh to hear it. Your reward for completing the game is a bass solo, that’s just incredible.

Anyway, chances are that you have already heard all of this music, maybe Secret of Mana is already one of your favorite games and the soundtrack is the reason, but if you’re anything like me, you clicked on all of those links anyway just to hear the songs again, because man they’re that good.

As for Hiroki Kikuta, he went on to create the also-awesome soundtrack for the third “Mana” game, Seiken Densetsu 3, which we never saw over on these shores officially, which has been regarded by many as Square’s biggest crime against humanity. He then went on to create his own games, all of which I have yet to play, whoops!

Still, at least I was able to tell him, in person even, that his music is amazing and a huge inspiration for myself and anyone else who appreciates video game music. I also got a picture with him:

 

Booya, Grandma, Booya.

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012

Ok so I am really going to have to reconsider the title of this particular weekly feature, because I sometimes do like to talk about soundtracks with which everyone is familiar. Today is one of those days because, if for no other reason, I can’t get this stuff out of my head.

If the game didn't have so many words in the title they could have put one of those 2 other characters on the cover instead of us NEVER SEEING THEM AGAIN

I briefly mentioned this game back in my rather long but apparently not long enough “Composers Who Are Women” feature, and I mentioned that Super Mario RPG is one of the best soundtracks ever, so I guess it’s time to start explaining!

Let’s start with how the game was constructed, since I feel that’s the best way to explain how the soundtracks works into that. Basically, for whatever reason, Nintendo and Squaresoft decided to go in on a video game together, using Square’s massively-lauded RPG battle system and compelling story-telling to augment Video Gaming’s greatest hero: Mario. The game was released extremely late in the Super Nintendo’s life, on May 13th, 1996 (a mere 4 months before the launch of the Nintendo 64), and utilized some interesting graphical conventions that were gaining popularity at the time, most notably the faux-3D rendering that Donkey Kong Country helped make famous (along with Harley’s Humongous Adventure right? ….right?).

More than all of this, however, is that mixing the makers of Final Fantasy with Nintendo’s most famous mascot meant that the soundtrack had to successfully combine the image of Mario along with the “epic” qualities of an adventure RPG, all without making things too heavy or dark.

It would take a very unique talent to make all of that work; enter Yoko Shimomura.

Yoko’s career at that point had been mostly creating the legendary soundtrack to Street Fighter II for Capcom (according to interviews, she composed all but the Sagat theme, and the “fight beginning” and “new challenger approaches” jingles), and composing exactly one track for the Capcom/Square joint Breath of Fire (this one, to be precise!), so despite her small amount of fame for her work with Capcom, she was essentially being asked to take on a project that would be on the level of Koji Kondo or Nobuo Uematsu, two of the biggest names in VGM. She has said “it was definitely a turning point”, in traditional VGM composer modesty.

She had also said that she wasn’t sure, at first, how best to score an adventure with Mario in it; only that it needed to have a good “bounce” all throughout. A good example of this is the “Happy Mushroom Kingdom” music:

I love this song for so many reasons. For one, it starts off kind of unassuming and airy, but instruments keep dropping in and adding counter-melodies to the very “madrigal”-sounding main melody. For two, it’s got that nice trade-off between the two woodwinds (I want to say bassoon and flute? I don’t know classical instrument timbre very well, unfortunately), before breaking into a very “oompa oompa” kind of feel that really brings the full character of the song out. For three, if you listen very closely, you can hear that, for seemingly no reason, the percussion is made to sound like a ticking clock with a little bell going off every now and then. I just love that!

The combination of instruments in this and other tracks is also quite pleasing. I notice that, when you’re out and about fighting baddies, there is a distinctly tropical, marimba-based tone that also utilizes really keyboard-y bass and one last element that I really like in this whole soundtrack, though it’s very well hidden: realistic-sounding acoustic guitar!

In this particular song, it can be heard around the 38 second mark, and not even that well. This song is a better example:

You can hear it best around the 40 second mark, and really I love this track for more than just that. Do you hear that clean electric guitar that kind of chimes along with the rhythm? That’s about the closest I’ve ever heard a video game song attempt to emulate the picking style of Luther Perkins, who was Johnny Cash’s guitarist for the first part of his career. It’s a small touch, but nice to hear in a video game entirely developed in Japan!

The thing I love the most, however, about the way the original songs are constructed is the percussion. I mentioned the marimba before (and here it is again, if you missed it), but all kinds of cool sounds are tucked away in the rhythm section, and I think the best of them is in the “stronger monster” theme (not a “boss theme” per se, more of a miniboss thing):

There are at least 3 percussive things going on in this song (the snare cadence with a kit, kettle drums, and the snaps/DJ scratches, of all things, and I’m not even counting that tambourine), and they come together so beautifully. The melody is actually very minimal, just a muted trumpet or two, and then a horn section with synth blats, and the rest of the song is filled to the brim with percussion; I don’t even think there’s bass in there, so that’s saying something for me to call this one of my favorite songs. Anyway, there’s more than enough bass to spare in the unspeakably funky Barrel Volcano theme.

I think I’ve skirted around the issue long enough, but probably the most impressive thing about this soundtrack is how Yoko went about treating the “classic” themes of Mario without making it sound too much like the original tunes. One of my favorite examples is actually right there in the Data Select screen:

Ok, right off the bat, I love those brushes. The whole thing is just a jazzed-up version of the chord changes behind the original overworld theme in Super Mario Bros., and then it goes into the melody from the song’s “bridge”, so that it’s unmistakably a Mario song, but it’s also subtle enough that you don’t feel like you’re playing the “usual” Mario game.

 

 

Again, props for the use of jazzy brushes, but also, have you ever noticed that this song is a version of the main melody in Super Mario Bros. with World 1 from Super Mario Bros. 3 providing the backdrop? It’s such a subtle mash-up that it took me YEARS to figure out what Yoko was doing with this song, because the two sounds blend so well that I could swear that I was only hearing one song. That’s genius, folks.

Of course, the infamously diminished Underground theme is used, and the timing is messed with in such a way that it has a whole new life.

 

I also really love this techno-flavored re-imagining of the battle with Bowser from Super Mario Bros. 3 as well. The crazy thing is that you only hear this song in the game once, and yet it’s inextricable from the Super Mario RPG experience to me.

Of course, there is a somewhat humorous idea surrounding the use of this song that also plays into the story; you think this game is going to be another fight against Bowser, but events transpire and you find yourself dealing with a whole different enemy right at the beginning. Thus, this version of Bowser’s theme is done up all badass so that you think that this is a really important battle (whereas it’s simply a tutorial).

One of my favorite parts of the game is when you join up with Bowser (spoilers!) to rescue Princess Toadstool, who then also joins your party. To do so, you have to climb Booster’s Tower, which is one of the most amusing dungeons ever put in a video game (up there with Earthbound’s “Brick Road/Dungeonman”, even). Upon breaking in, you find that the bottom floor is actually a sophisticated reception area, complete with jazzy elevator music:

And then, of course, once you enter the dungeon proper, Booster’s theme plays, and it’s another one of my favorite songs in the game:

I love that it’s this dirty, jazzy piece that’s led by a rather crunchy approximation of a bass saxophone (or is it bari? Again, not up on my instrument identification). The song also contains elements of rock and rockabilly, and man it’s just this great song that so wonderfully offsets the pleasing reception tune.

Still, I haven’t even touched on the most famous song in the whole game, “Beware the Forest Mushrooms”, and I would be shocked if you have not heard this one somewhere on the internet:

It’s this singularly perfect melody that underscores the exploration of a maze-like forest, and as such is a very enigmatic tune. I don’t know enough about music theory to define how this piece is so great, but I will say that the melody is actually transposed into a different key half-way through, and then back again, and that’s easily one of my favorite moves when it comes to compositions. I really makes the theme stick out in your mind, and it almost makes one not want to deal with enemies, since they interrupt the song.

Speaking of enemies, one particularly clever way the music establishes itself is through referring to its own themes. For instance, when you go to a town that is “in trouble” because of one of the weapon-themed monsters you’re about to fight, this is the music that plays in the town:

And here is the music that plays whenever you uncover the problem and fight in the subsequent boss fight:

 

 

Notice how it’s the same as the “in trouble” music, only sped up? Man that’s a classy move.

Speaking of classy, there is a hidden area in the game where you get to fight against Culex, a crystal-sporting epic bad guy who looks like he was pulled straight from Final Fantasy (complete with over-wrought dialogue that is really a laugh). What the makers of the game decided to do is go all-out Final Fantasy on everyone, and they gave this guy his own boss music, which may seem oddly familiar:

What’s interesting to note about that (as well as the mock victory theme and this famous tune, abridged from the original) is that not only would Yoko have had to re-create Nobuo’s famous Final Fantasy IV themes from scratch (as they are quite different from Nobuo’s original tracks), but it seems like she also used an instrument set unique to these three songs, rather than the instruments she uses all throughout the game. I am not sure how much work would have had to go into that part of the game’s soundtrack in order to make it work, but my best guess is a LOT.

Anyway, I could go on for another 2001 words about how great this soundtrack is, but I invite you to simply take a listen to it and find new stuff to love for yourself. Yeah some of the tracks can be a little grating (never been a fan of the “coach’s whistle” sound), but there are so many little gems in this soundtrack that it’s hard for me to even highlight all my favorites, much less all the tracks in the game.

I think that, while everyone has probably heard something or other from this soundtrack, it’s not a very prominent one in VGM fans’ minds simply because it’s too good to really stand out. It works so well with the game, that you can breeze through the whole thing and not really pay attention to the many layers of awesome stuff the music is doing at all times. That’s either the mark of a great soundtrack or a great game overall, but either way, Yoko Shimomura, whether she admits it or not, really earned her reputation as one of the best VGM composers in the world (female or otherwise) with this game, and I am super glad that she’s still composing for Super Mario RPG‘s progeny.

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed – Batman: The Video Game

Tuesday, April 17th, 2012

Holy skipped entries, Batman! I decided to forego the usual “Video Game History” post because, once again, nothing of note happened around this time that I can find, so instead I decided to jump right into this week’s soundtrack, and man is it a good one:

A.K.A. The best movie-based video game ever.

Release Date: Feb. 1990
Composers: Naoki Kodaka, Nobuyuki Hara

In the late 80′s and early 90′s, small-time software developer darlings Sunsoft were at the peak of their power. They were cranking out game after game for the NES, and every single one was a gem. Even the ones that weren’t released over here initially have been recently uprooted and appreciated for the classics they are.

Among the classics that did originally come over here, however, is this video game interpretation of the Tim Burton 1989 film Batman, called, conveniently, Batman: The Video Game.

Of the handful of Sunsoft classics that came out during its golden era, Batman: The Video Game is probably second only to Blaster Master in terms of “everybody’s played it”. If you don’t remember whether you have played it or not, listen to this song and see if it comes back to you:

This song is the music to the first stage in the game, in which you, as the titular super-hero, run across a burning Gotham while punching or Bataranging bad guys and probably recoiling in disbelief at how awesome this game is. That, or you just died because this game is super hard. Welcome to a Sunsoft game!

If you can even get to the second stage, the soundtrack makes a switch to this partially-upbeat number, and I found myself realizing what was going on with this soundtrack. You can totally picture it being performed by a surf guitar rock group, like on the 60′s Batman TV show, but the tunes are all still dark and kind of twisted, like the Tim Burton film. It’s a fine combination of classic, heroic melodies and dark, mysterious overtones that really define this soundtrack. Of course, to really bring out this unique feel, you need a unique composer.

The main music man for Sunsoft at this this time was Naoki Kodaka, and he had a signature sound that is largely based on two characteristics that can be found in most of his work. For one, he really knew how to work that NES chip for tones, in fact he favored a method of DPCM sampling (more on that in another article) that let him get some ultra crunchy bass tones and really good sounding drums, and for the actual melody, he favored just doubling the first instrument to give it reverb instead of doing the Follins-esque method of throwing in as many crazy arpeggios with every instrument as possible (not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you).

(The guy also had a real ear for bass-lines, which a low-end lover like myself appreciates more than words can apt describe)

For two, Kodaka’s soundtracks simply made you feel excited to be playing the game. This is a surprisingly rare quality in a game composer, I’ve noticed, but none the less an important one. Every time I fire up a Sunsoft game from this era, the thing I most look forward to is hearing another of those astounding melodies set against a super-rocking rhythm section.

I have never even been this far in the game, but man I know every note by heart. It’s probably the simple quality of the melodies that make them so memorable, and the backing parts are all so meticulously crafted to create this kind of manic energy that you can’t help but feel excited to be hearing the tune. It’s really hard for me to think of other examples of this in video game soundtracks other than in other games Naoki Kodaka has worked on.

Of course, he apparently didn’t work alone in this one, as another guy called Nobuyuki Hara is also credited, but unfortunately, I can’t tell what Hara would have contributed to this soundtrack because it’s seriously very close to anything else Kodaka would have worked on. Still, if your name is in the credits to a Sunsoft game, you have my admiration!

Also, like all great composers, when it came time to score something truly intense, like a boss fight, Kodaka answered with super-crazy metal/prog arrangements like this one. It’s a simple theme in 3 parts, but man try listening to it and not start trying to punch your cat.

One of Kodaka’s true strengths, however, is in epic, slow introductions. I think this is kind of overlooked in any critical analysis of his work, but man not only could the guy make a killer rock soundtrack, but he knew exactly how to build up to it, as well.

I have a long-standing love for all of the Sunsoft games of this period (the other periods, well, not so much), and this is actually the first one I ever heard. In fact, it’s one of the earliest in Kodaka’s career, which I honestly wish would have maybe been a little longer, since he disappeared from the industry along with Sunsoft back in the mid-90′s.

Be that as it may, Batman may have been a fine game on its own, but it’s one of those instances where the music of the game really make it stand out as a legend. In fact, I guess it was so good, Sunsoft put out several Batman games across various platforms, each with its own amazing Kodaka-penned soundtracks, but those will have to wait for another day.

 

BONUS TIME:

One of my good friends and partners in rock Mike “Lobos” Villalobos did a really cool cover of the Stage 1 theme on his name-your-own-price digital solo album Internetz Vol. 1 as well as on his Youtube channel.

VGM cover legends Minibosses did a fantastic job of covering almost the entire soundtrack in one epic 8 minute medley on their latest release, Brass 2: Mouth. That song is one of the bigger highlights of the album, but the whole album is fantastic so I suggest purchasing it already.

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

One of those bullet points could have easily been "DUDE THIS GAME IS FREAKING METAL PUT ON A LEATHER JACKET AND LET'S RIDE OUR STEEL CHARIOTS TO VALHALLA YEAAAAAH" but nooo

Now this is what I’m talking about! The soundtrack to Mystic Quest is one of the reasons I wanted to start a blog featuring video game music in the first place, so let’s kick it off with one of the greatest Battle Themes of all time!

 

I can’t tel you how many times I just let regular battles sit there and wait for my input while I sat there and jammed out to this tune, especially the solo section. Given that most battles were over before that solo section even hits, you can probably guess I paused battles a lot.

The game is incredibly easy to play and beat, and that’s no accident. Squaresoft, at the time, were a huge success in Japan, but were still vying for that elusive American audience. They decided that what we needed over here were graphical RPG’s that were easy enough for kids who couldn’t make sense of Wizardry and needed something a little flashier than Dragon Quest. Thus, in 1991 and 1992 respectively, they sent over a dumbed-down version of Final Fantasy IV (retitled “Final Fantasy II” since we only had one over here), and developed a second game specifically for the U.S. audience that would serve as an entry-level spinoff of the series, with every aspect designed to be marketable, relatable, simple as falling off a log, and most of all, cheap.

 

(Ripping off Chuck Berry was so cheap that the Mother series did it twice)

What could be cheaper than a small team of developers that were working on a Gameboy game at the time? Squaresoft pulled some of the folks who worked on one of the finest GB titles ever, SaGa 3, I MEAN, Final Fantasy Legend 3, and put them to work on a Super NES title that emphasized ease of play and a very, very simple interface.

 

(And, of course, sweet sweet funk)

One of the folks they pulled was a fledgling composer by the name of Ryuji Sasai, a bass-playing rocker who started a career in professional music at age 15, an age at which someone like me would have been too busy playing video games to be forming bands (just kidding, I had a band, we sucked). Ryuji had already displayed an affinity for composing music that had an energetic feel, even when the compositions were rather complex, but with Mystic Quest and the SNES’s 8 channels of audio to play with, Ryuji decided to fill the game with what he knows best: Metal

(One of the stupidest bass-lines I’ve ever had to learn, and like with all Metal, you can’t hear it at all in the mix)

Of course, while Ryuji Sasai eventually proved capable of handling all of the various moods of an epic adventure (I’ll have another full article on THAT later), his main duty with Mystic Quest was to make it freaking rock.

(Oh my goodness, how it freaking rocked)

Hey remember when the band Queen was actually pretty heavy and did stuff like the soundtrack to Highlander? I am pretty sure that was part of the inspiration behind some of these tunes, but I could be wrong. All Ryuji has said in interviews is that he’s a Metal/Rock fan (I detect some Prog too but who knows), but given that, after leaving the industry, his current job is playing bass for a Queen cover band, I have to assume he’s perhaps a fan of the group.

Anyway, to flesh out the rest of the various moods in the game, a jazz guitarist by the name of Yasuhiro Kamakawi was hired on to write the game’s “setting themes”, including the town music, the sad music, and that funky tune I already linked to up there. While I’m clearly giving Ryuji all the spotlight here, I have to say that I love the slower themes in the game too. Kamakawi not only knew how to make a really fantastic arrangement to really make those superior melodies shine, but he pulled a really cool move and remixed the town theme to be troubled, and the city beneath a volcano was a bit of a party town so he gave it an awesome party tune!

Ok, back to Ryuji!

Besides coming up with the battle themes, Ryuji also composed the background music for the dungeons, which you could walk around in and listen to, mercifully free of random encounters (all enemies showed up on screen and stayed exactly in place the whole time). Thus you could give dungeon themes like Bone Dungeon, Doom Castle, and Pazuzu’s Tower a good long listen between rocking out to those awesome battle themes again.

You can give the Ice Cave theme a miss, however. It’s ambient and creepy but, well, not this:

Once the relatively short game is at its end, you come face to face with… The Dark King, a kind of random dude who turns into a spider as you fight him. He’s got the best music in the game as his battle theme, which is why I saved it until last:

A THOUSAND TIMES YESSS

Seriously, this is in my top 10 favorite pieces of video game music ever. The interplay between the totally rad metal guitars (and amazing bass-line that, again, is pushed down in the mix but I forgive) and the string section, with french horn trading off the melody with the violins… this song is basically a master class in how to achieve exactly the kind of “epic battle feel” it was going for, and again, is the perfect combination of complexity and energy.

There is actually a bug that lets you beat the Dark King within a couple of moves, basically involving a glitch in the programming that makes him take a huge amount of damage from a simple Cure spell, but I have never once used this glitch, because I never want to cut this song short.

Anyways, I can’t say that I really recommend the game, even though apparently it was quite the “out of body experience“, but the soundtrack is one of those rare gems that we hardly ever see on our shores. No matter how you feel about the game, the soundtrack makes playing the thing at least tolerable, which is the mark of a truly great soundtrack if I ever saw one.

In a perfect world, Ryuji would be still cranking out these amazing soundtracks rather than dressing in drag and playing with a band called Spiders From Cabaret, but Square only used him for a few more things (which I WILL write about later), after which he went free-lance, and his work hardly ever came over to this side of the world (though sometimes we got lucky). At least Mystic Quest, combined with Final Fantasy IV, got Square the American market share it needed to bring us Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Chrono Trigger, and eventually the game that really put them on the map and solidified their place in the forefront of RPG gaming, Final Fantasy VII. To think, we owe all of those games in some small part to the humble yet astoundingly rocking “RPG for Kids” known as Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest. Well played, Squaresoft, well played.

 

BONUS: Want to hear some rad covers of the music of Mystic Quest? 

Here’s a fantastic rendition of the boss battle music from the internet’s own metal guitarist Daniel Tidwell

Here is my own band, Descendants of Erdrick’s version of the Battle 1 and 2 themes.

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Lagoon

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

Release date: December, 1991
Composer: Hideki Suzuki

One of the first games I ever rented on the SNES (you know, back when that was the only alternative to buying games in order to play them), was a cool-looking action RPG thing called Lagoon. Not truly knowing what to expect, I popped in the cartridge and powered on, only to be completely blown away by the following:

This song, titled “Prince of Darkness” in the game’s OST (which actually did get released over in Japan… good luck finding it though), is actually the final boss theme in the game, but when the game was ported over to the Super Nintendo from the original Sharp X68000 version, I guess they decided to put their best foot forward and added this tasty tune to a series of images that really makes no sense at all.

Man did it work! I couldn’t turn on Lagoon without hearing this song loop a couple of times. By the way, the “loop” of this song is actually around the 2 1/2 minute mark, rather than the minute you might assume it is (the main theme loops twice before we’re treated to a secret solo, which I wish more songs would do!) Come to think of it, I still can’t get properly started at a game of Lagoon until I’ve heard that song once or twice!

Not only is this theme one of my favorite video game songs ever, but it kept this game in my mind way after I rented it in the early 90′s, so that when the next decade came around and I finally had a job, I bought it as soon as I could.  I’ve never beaten the game, as action RPG’s are always very hard for me, but certainly the soundtrack kept me going so much more than the game’s minimalist story and unexciting presentation.

Still, soundtrack! Let’s hear some other highlights:

Castle Mark Philips:

The second “dungeon” in the game is a castle called “Philips Castle”, and the song underscoring it is listed as “Castle Mark Philips” in the OST. Why Mark Philips? Who knows. There is no character in the game by that name, and in fact the castle doesn’t really have anything to do with anything besides being a place to fight monsters between where you are and where you are going, which is pretty typical for this kind of game.

Slightly less mysterious is why I like this song so much. It has a catchy bass-line that starts everything off (with just a tinge of reverb, I love that), and then it builds with a piano chord progression that follows along closely, and then the main melody comes in with a smooth, slightly funky beat, and then the whole thing goes into a groovy section that really drives it home before the loop ends. I love songs where every part is good, but each one makes you anticipate the next. It really helps one reconcile being in this dungeon for several hours at a time because MAN these dungeons are huge and confusing.

There’s A Problem – Eardon’s Theme:

This theme, which plays during certain dramatic portions of the game as well as during an especially cool boss fight, starts off super-creepy but ultimately turns into this awesome sort of progressive groove, and then finally builds up to this really cool metal portion that will have you banging your head if you have any kind of soul.

The interesting thing is that, during the “dramatic” portion of the game where this music appears, the scenes really aren’t long enough to get to the “metal” portion of this song. It’s almost as if the thing were planned this way, which would be pretty amazing if it’s true.

Atland:

Every town in the game has a different theme, and this is the only one that isn’t melancholy, in fact it’s downright chipper. There’s no special reason I’m including it; I just love this song because it’s cute.

Title:

This is the title screen music for the game, which plays after you are able to finally peel yourself from the “intro theme”, at least on the Super Nintendo version. In the Sharp x68000 version, this is the sole introductory song to the game. It’s a really good fist-pumper in a kind of moody way, and is actually quite long as well. Between this and Prince of Darkness, you could be spending anywhere from 5-10 minutes listening to music before even starting the game, at least I definitely have.

Dwarf Cave:

There’s very little to this song other than the fun bass/drum groove, but damn it all if I don’t love it. It’s also the music that plays during the obligatory “volcano” dungeon, and I always like to pay attention to those because it seems RPG’s always save their best music for the volcano dungeon. I’ll probably do a feature on that later if you don’t already get what I’m talking about!

Atland Restaurant:

This song is something of a curiosity. You hear it while talking to a character in a restaurant, which occurs as soon as you enter (you don’t actually “enter” buildings, you just walk into them and dialogue happens). Anyway, the dialogue is 10-15 seconds at maximum, unless you’re a slow reader or are pausing to hear the rest of this song. A loop is a full 44 seconds long, and it only occurs that one time in the game!

Voloh:

This is one of those melancholy town themes I mentioned before, but it’s the best of them. Definitely not a long loop (way shorter than the Atland Restaurant theme, in fact), but it stuck with me for years after first playing this game, so there’s “something” about it.

Those are a few of the songs I love in the game, and there are more, but you’ll just have to go dig them up yourself (or heck, why not listen to the source file?) I wouldn’t necessarily recommend playing the game, unless early era action RPG’s with impossibly huge and convoluted dungeons are your thing (and they might be). If you’d rather just see the game played super fast, check out this interesting Tool-Asssted Speed Run.

As always, hearing these great tunes again makes me really want to pick up and play through this game again, but instead I must concentrate on tomorrow’s Game of the Week. Until then, stay tuned and enjoy the tunes!

VGM Soundtracks You Might Have Missed: Magician Lord

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

"Return of the old legend. Young magician, Elta fights against the strongest evil appearing from the door of extraordinary world, and scorches for The sealed book of eight Magician lord."

Release date: July 01, 1991
System: NeoGeo AES, Arcade
Composers: Yuka Watanabe, Hiroaki Shimizu, Hideki Yamamoto

Truly, one of the greatest by-gone eras of gaming was the era of the Neo Geo. Right around the time the NES was really picking up speed and the SNES and Genesis were right around the corner, awesome game developer SNK decided it would put out some amazing arcade games on their new MVS system and they would port many of them to the new AES system with arcade-perfect graphics and sound (and hilarious Engrish as you can see from the box-art blurb above), and a big-ass joystick controller to boot! What was not to love?

Oh yeah, the $649.99 it would cost for the system and up to $300 for the game cartridges.

Hence, in one of the earliest instances of console still-birth as a result of insane prices, the AES failed and failed hard; the relative handful of systems and games relegated to an afterlife of being perpetually handed off from collector to collector. Nowadays, the name “Neo Geo” conjures up images of sweaty middle aged guys and sweet memories of arcade days gone by, but among the many emotions you may experience from seeing the name, almost none of those can be described as “Man Magician Lord had an awesome soundtrack!”

Well, that’s what I’m here for!

As with a lot of AES titles, there are actually 2 soundtracks to Magician Lord, the version that appeared on the cartridge (and in the arcade), and the other that would appear on the slightly-more-successful NeoGeoCD system that came out a little later (popular mostly due to the relatively cheaper cost). Since Youtube doesn’t really have the CD soundtrack, and I prefer the AES version anyway, that is the version we’ll be listening to today.

While the soundtrack is really not that long, I’ve decided to simply highlight the intro and stage themes, as everything else isn’t worth writing paragraphs about, if you ask me.

Intro theme

The whole thing starts kinda slow and very 90′s soundblaster-y, but with that one synth hit followed by the quick succession of beats at the 0:28 mark (which you hear at the beginning of every level), things pick up and sound… wow, that’s kinda bad actually. Didn’t they have auto-tune on these things? The stage music is much better, don’t worry!

Stage 1: Dale of Evil Gods

Now THAT’S what I’m talking about! With that driving beat, those ghostly synth chords in the background, and a cool, dramatic melody that eventually turns into a fast-flying solo, I am certain you wouldn’t mind hearing this song for the next 3 hours as you struggle hundreds of times to get through this stage through sheer power of memorization!

Stage 2: To the Mine

YES! This song is easily my favorite in the game, so much so that I have more or less singled it out as one of my top favorite songs ever. Like most great songs, I can’t really explain WHY I love it so much; perhaps it’s the pounding rhythm of the bassy synths; perhaps it’s the interplay between the chiming background part and the main melody, which is joined by some awesome chordal strings; I think, most of all, it’s that grinding, droning, Tesla-coil-sounding synth at 0:54… either way, out of the 681 views this video has gotten (a shamefully low number), I am pretty sure I take up at least half of those by now. So good

Stage 3: Highway Leading to a Foreign Space

An entirely creepy and sludgy entry in the soundtrack, this song is rather appropriate considering it underscores a stage almost entirely made of guts and insects. It is my least favorite of the stage themes, but don’t let that throw you; it’s still a good song, and has its little moments of greatness, like the little bass solo right at the end, or the subtle chromatic run-downs in the backing part that give you a slight uncomfortable feeling before bringing it together with an actual melody…

You know what? I do like this song quite a lot now that I think of it. Maybe I’m just frustrated because stage 3 is about as far as I can get in this game.

Stage 4: Castle of Devils

Perhaps more of a “conventional” favorite than the others, this song moves effortlessly from melancholy to heroic, and with its own little synthy solo popping up toward the end of the loop. Can you even hear a single bar of this song and not think of an 80′s adventure film? I didn’t think so.

Stage 5: Anderground Passage of Terror

Why yes, that is a misspelling of the word “Underground”. Do you think SNK cared at all?

I like this song a lot because it’s this interesting combination of wistful and kind of sad, yet the upbeat hand-claps and occasional major key shift makes it sound like the happiest song of the lot, and then it comes in with that slightly disconcerting run-down right at the end and you’re right back to the beginning. Certainly helps take your mind off the insane amount of difficulty you might be experiencing in the game at this point!

Those are the main songs I wanted to highlight today, and if you want to experience the game yourself, it’s available on a ton of Neo Geo compilations for various systems (most recently the PSP), and can be had for 900 points on the Wii Virtual Console (which is where I got it).  Personally, I recommend digging on the soundtrack and leaving the actual playing to someone who knows how.

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventure, and thanks for reading!