Six great video game tracks

Music is a major aspect of a game. A soundtrack that fits well with the action of the game really helps its flow. Some game series are even defined by their soundtracks: pretty much everyone, even my mother who doesn’t know the first thing about video games, knows the Super Mario Bros. main theme, and other prime series from my (and possibly your) childhood like Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man are known for their amazing background music.

Here are some pieces taken from game soundtracks that I think are especially good.

1) Shin Megami Tensei III – Normal Battle (Town)

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’m a big Shin Megami Tensei fan, and SMT3 is just about my favorite game in the series. And Shoji Meguro, the soundtrack-writer for many of the Shin Megami Tensei titles, is one of my favorite game composers ever. His work displays a lot of diversity, from the weirdly jazz-poppy music of Persona 3 and 4 to the hard rock of Digital Devil Saga. SMT3’s soundtrack is sort of a mix of hard rock and jazz elements, and this piece is one of my favorites of the bunch.

2) NieR – Gods Bound By Rules

Time for honesty here: I have not played NieR. From what I can tell, it’s made by Square-Enix, it’s an actiony sort of game, and it is highly controversial, with some people swearing by it and other people swearing at it. It was a commerical flop, but that’s not the measure of a game’s quality, is it?

Despite not having played NieR, I have heard its whole soundtrack, and it’s really good. Very symphonic in that old Square-Enix Final Fantasy tradition, with an extremely talented female singer accompanying the music. This track really conveys the feel of a boss fight well, I think. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a boss theme. In any case, you should really listen to it. It sets an “epic” mood without feeling overbearing (like, say, playing a famous public domain piece like “O Fortuna“. Yeah, it’s great, but seriously stop using this piece, it’s so amazingly overused.)

3) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Final Answer

Unlike the last entry, I have played Umineko – all 80 hours of it. One of the things that kept me playing/reading was the excellent soundtrack. It’s no mistake that Umineko is called a “sound novel” – the original game had no voice acting but a great set of pieces by dozens of artists that perfectly fit the mood of each scene. I don’t think there’s a bad piece in the bunch, really. “Final Answer” is an especially great one, but the Umineko soundtrack is consistently good – I could have just as easily picked 20 or 30 other songs.

4) Makai Kingdom – Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons

NIS games tend to have really good OSTs that set a cartoonish mood consistent with their goofy, sometimes weird humor. Despite being one of their lesser-known titles, Makai Kingdom has an especially good soundtrack, and “Rushing Out of the Land of the Demons” is my favorite in the track list. This piece really gets down both the frantic pace of a battle scene and the strangely relaxed attitude of the typical NIS game. Does that make sense? I just wrote that sentence and I don’t know if it makes sense. Anyway, this is a great song.

5) Nine Hours Nine Persons Nine Doors – Digital Root

When I heard the Zero Escape series was not going to have an ending because of poor sales, I was thrown into despair. I had just finished 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward and was dying to know how the bizarrely twisted story would end. I guess we’ll never know now. But at least we’ll have the really nice evocative sort-of-ambient soundtrack of 999 to listen to. “Digital Root” and most of the other pieces in the 999 OST perfectly complement and feed into the sense of tension that lasts through the game.

6) Touhou Project (Perfect Cherry Blossom) – Doll Judgment

I don’t think I’ve ever let on that I’m a Touhou fan, so I’ll do it now: I’m a huge Touhou fan. I’ve been playing the Touhou Project games for several years now. I know all the characters. I’ve even read some of the official comics (which have totally nonsensical plots.) If you’re unfamiliar with Touhou Project, it is a vertical scrolling shooter series begun and maintained by ZUN, one man who creates all the games on his own. The events of the many Touhou games (now up to 15? 17? I’m honestly not sure) take place in Gensokyo, a magically separated part of Japan that is still stuck in the 19th century for some reason and is inhabited by youkai – traditional demons and mythical beasts (all taking the form of girls, of course, because Japan) who live alongside a bunch of scared out of their wits humans in a village. The main characters are a shrine maiden and a witch who can fly and shoot lasers and fight said youkai. ZUN’s creation has spawned a massive community of fans and fanworks.

The funny thing about ZUN is that he seems to be a better composer than a game designer. Every one of the Touhou games features a really catchy and driving soundtrack. Fans have seized upon this aspect of Touhou and produce mountains of albums based on ZUN’s music. In fact, “Doll Judgment”, while it’s really a good piece, just as easily could have been a different piece from a different Touhou game – there are way too many to choose from.

Retrospective: Disgaea

disgaea-10

I’m a big fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Their approach to the strategy RPG is unique, and their games have a light comedic quality that’s a real breath of fresh air in a genre that is choked with seriousness and end-of-the-world scenarios and angst-filled heroes (SRPGs as a whole aren’t as guilty of this sort of thing as more typical turn-based JRPG titles are, but they’ve got their fair share of DRAMA.)

NIS, a Japanese developer (if you couldn’t tell from their name – “Japan’s Best” I think it means?) started out getting notoriety with the release of Marl Kingdom for the Playstation. I’ve never played Marl Kingdom, but it is apparently an RPG about a teenage girl in a fairytale land with a puppet girl as her best friend and is full of Disneyesque musical numbers. For a reason that is totally impossible to understand, this game was stamped with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and imported to the US, where I’m pretty sure 98% of Playstation owners at the time were teenage boys who wouldn’t be caught dead with such a game in their Playstations (well, I know because I was one of them.) So the game flopped Stateside. NIS followed up with the SRPG La Pucelle Tactics for the PS2, which I have played, and it really tones down the pure unadulterated cheese of Marl Kingdom. You play as a tomboy nun-in-training who’s also a member of an elite demon-hunting team. So that’s different right there.

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

It’s still a pretty obscure game here, but La Pucelle must have been a relative success in the States, because big-time developer and publisher Atlus took a chance on 2003’s Disgaea and published it in the US. And Disgaea was definitely a hit – it would become the first title in a long line of sequels, spinoffs and ports to portable systems.

So what is Disgaea exactly? For the novice, imagine an SRPG – say a Fire Emblem or Shining Force game – with soldier and mage sort of characters moving around on a grid and attacking each other. Now replace these soldiers and mages with demons and monsters that have 500,000 HP, 300,000 MP and attacks that can bring down meteors and giant lasers upon their opponents. Every turn. Also, exploding penguins. That’s Disgaea.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld.  Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld. Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, the son of the king of the Netherworld, who unbeknownst to him has been dead for two years (because Laharl has been taking a two-year nap, you see.) Laharl, who now believes himself to have inherited the title of Overlord from his dead father, decides to show all his new vassals that he means business. Sadly for him, nobody seems to accept this kid as their new king, so he’ll have to use some force to get his subjects to obey him.

Laharl doesn't get much respect initially, no.

Laharl doesn’t get much respect initially, no.

Even worse, an angelic assassin has been sent from Celestia to kill him. Fortunately for Laharl, she’s new to the job and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (see top of page.) Together with his “loyal” vassal, Etna, the three of them end up having wacky Netherworld antics together. Or something. It’s definitely a nice story, and in 2003 Disgaea stood out for its humor where most other games in the genre were deadly serious. Juvenile jokes are mixed up with references to the Power Rangers (or old sentai shows if you’re from Japan) and 50s sci-fi serial Buck Rogers-type stuff. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and it could be dismissed as a lot of pointless goofiness, but I think it works.

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

Gameplay-wise, as good for its time as La Pucelle was, Disgaea outdid it in every category. Disgaea is more or less divided into two parts: the initial game, which covers the main story, and the post-game, which is totally optional and can potentially go on forever if you let it. The core of the gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s touched an SRPG before. You have your units and move them around on a map divided into squares on a big diagonal grid. The object of each map is usually to kill all the enemy units, though there are also maps where the goal is to reach a particular space on the map.

Disgaea has a lot more to offer than its regular missions, though – specifically two innovations that have become a staple of the series. The Dark Assembly (or the Dark Senate) is the first. Here, you can choose one of your characters to present a “bill” to an assembly of other demons who will vote on it. Subjects for debate include opening up new post-game areas, getting triple exp on the next map played, and even extorting money from the senators. If your bill fails, you even have the option of forcing it through – by beating up all the nay-voting senators in the assembly.

Like this, but with more swords and magic spells.

The second innovation in Disgaea is the Item World. The Item World is a truly devilish gameplay element. It allows you to level up any item in the game by playing through a succession of maps “inside” that item (it’s weird, I know.) Most items contain 30 levels, but some have 60 and some 100. Each level is designed to be beatable but is otherwise more or less randomly generated. The Item World is infuriatingly addictive and may well comprise the part of Disgaea you spend the most time playing.

An actual Item World level.  They're usually not this easy, believe me.

An actual Item World level. They’re usually not this easy, believe me.

Together with the ability to create new units from dozens of different character types and classes that can fight alongside the story characters, Disgaea offered an insane amount of customization and depth when it came out. I played the hell out of it and loved every minute, and that’s why I’m now an NIS fanboy. Not the proudest of badges to wear, but I will wear it all the same.

Disgaea has spawned three sequels featuring different casts and stories (Disgaea 2, 3 and 4), a direct sequel featuring the original cast (Disgaea D2), a bunch of SRPG spinoffs with different stories and different gameplay mechanics (Makai Kingdom, Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters), a couple of stupidly difficult PSP platformers (Prinny 1 and 2), a weird visual novel sort of thing (Disgaea Infinite), a sort of crappy looking anime adaptation, and a truckload of portable system ports for the PSP, the Vita, and the DS (basically one for every Disgaea game and then some.) It also inspired this cross-stitch of one of its main characters, Etna:

To be honest, later Disgaea games have really improved on the old formula, especially the third one; Disgaea 3 is a great title that I like about as much as the original. Still, the original is the original and should get some respect. The original Disgaea is currently out in its PS2 original and as a port to the DS and the PSP. Of the two ports, the PSP one is definitely better, though the DS port has a couple of extras that fans might like (like the opportunity to get fan favorite silent girl Pleinair as a playable character.)

Pleinair doesn't talk.   That's her thing.  She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her.  No, I don't get it.

Pleinair doesn’t talk. That’s her thing. She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her. No, I don’t get it.

So if you’re unemployed and need something to do between searching for jobs, or you’re in solitary confinement for life and somehow get to have a PSP or Vita in your cell with you, I highly recommend Disgaea. I’d also recommend Disgaea 3, which is just as good cast-wise and has tons more content (and also looks prettier, being a PS3 game.) You can’t really go wrong with either one. The only danger involved is that you’ll become an NIS fanboy/girl, which is not really a fate I can recommend. Well, better than being a brony, I guess.

Retrospective: SimCopter

So I’m writing about SimCopter, a 1996 sort-of kind-of flight simulator that allowed you to fly around 3D models of your SimCity 2000 creations. Yes, you could fly around your own cities! As a kid who played the shit out of SimCity 2000, this was really exciting to me.

Simcopter_box_cover

The box promised excitement and danger and all that stuff, but I didn’t need to be sold on the game: I got it almost as soon as it came out. And it was fun. But how has it held up?

Well...

Well…

SimCopter did deliver on its primary promise: it lets you fly around the custom cities you build in SimCity 2000. And it does feature missions with disasters of the sort you might have run into in SimCity itself: you had fires to put out, riots to quell (with your loudspeaker), traffic jams to clear (again, with your loudspeaker, though it was never clear to me how yelling at traffic through a loudspeaker helped anything.) You could also take rescue missions, airlifting injured Sim citizens to the roof of a nearby hospital (if your city had no hospitals, that was your own damn fault.)

Despite all that, SimCopter has not aged well. This game was among the first generation of 3D games out there – back in the mid-90s, when having a 3D character model consisting of ten polygons counted as a great achievement. Even by those standards, though, SimCopter looks pretty miserable. The buildings are essentially giant shoeboxes, and the people are absolute monstrosities. It says a lot about the graphical advances of the period from 1995 to 2000 that Maxis went from this to The Sims at the end of that decade.

Yes, those are people.  The pixel blurs on the right are dogs.

Yes, those are people. The pixel blurs on the right are dogs.

It’s not fair to dump on a game just because it wasn’t ahead of its time, though, and SimCopter was a lot of fun in 1996, terrible graphics aside. For all I know, the designers couldn’t do much in that area because they had to put all their resources towards the whole customization deal that was the main selling point of SimCopter.

One nice thing about SimCopter was all the easter eggs it contained. You could totally ignore your moral and ethical duties as a rescue pilot and throw people out of your helicopter while you hovered hundreds of feet over your city. This game also lets you fly over to an air force base (assuming your SimCity 2000 city file had built one) and get into an Apache, which could shoot missiles with which you could destroy your entire city. And if your city had a nuclear power plant, you could have a lot of fun.

Or you could play the game normally, but where's the fun in that?

Or you could play the game normally, but where’s the fun in that?

So, is it worth it to bother digging up SimCopter? Unless you have a copy of SimCity 2000 installed, I’d say no, absolutely not. I certainly can’t recommend it to people who are purely into simulation games of the usual SimCity type, because this game, unlike those, is a pretty mindless action title, sharing only the franchise name. And as far as mindless action games go, both this title and Streets of SimCity (which I never owned but from what I have seen is pretty much the same idea, only with cars instead of helicopters) were outclassed in almost every way by urban sandbox games like GTA III, so the only remaining appeal to these games is their customizability (?) The point is, these games are garbage, but they’re good garbage. And that makes all the difference.