Seven great video game tracks (part 2)

I love music and I love video games (well, some of it/them, anyway.) So how can I limit myself to writing only one post about video game music? Here’s another one.

1) Final Fantasy VII – Reunion

This is one of the most haunting tracks that ever came out of a mid-90s RPG.  If you’ve played Final Fantasy VII, you’ll know what event this track pairs with.  If you haven’t, it’s where the main character realizes that his whole life has been a lie.  Oh yeah, spoilers.

Honestly, the spoiler won't make any sense until you've played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Honestly, the spoiler won’t make any sense until you’ve played the game most of the way to the big revelation. Also, FF7 was released in 1997, so the spoilers statute of limitations has passed.

Anyway, Nobuo Uematsu is a genius when it comes to video game music.  This is one of the most understated, quiet pieces in an FF game, but it’s effective as hell.

2) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – Chemical Plant Zone

Sometimes you just want to play a game where you’re a blue hedgehog rolling around fucking everything up.  And not one of the god-awful fuck 3D Sonic games like Sonic 06.  I mean the real thing.  The old Genesis games had proper background music, and Chemical Plant Zone from Sonic 2 has one of the best tracks in the history of the franchise.  It’s a techno early 90s Sega Genesis track and that’s all you need to know.

3) Yume Nikki – Dense Woods A

Modern horror movies are garbage.  At least, the ones that are made and air in my country are garbage.  People go to the theater to say “oh no a thing moved in the corner of the screen” for 120 minutes.  But what can you expect from the same people who think Mamma Mia is worth giving money to a person to see.

At some point, anyway, you have to admit that our horror movies are garbage and to turn to video games, which keep the horror genre alive.  And among these games, old-school looking RPG Maker games such as Ib and The Witch’s House are surprisingly effective.   The great-granddaddy of these games is Yume Nikki, a freeware piece made by a mysterious man known only as KIKIYAMA.  Yume Nikki translates as “Dream Diary” and is about Madotsuki, a young girl who refuses to leave her 150th story apartment bedroom/balcony and lives her life through her dreams.  Her dreams happen to be mostly disturbing as fuck, and it’s your job as the player to guide Madotsuki through her dreams and to collect all the “effects” that let her use various powers.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Your dream always starts on the balcony. The sky is dark and the landscape is desolate. Play this game with the lights off at midnight.

Yume Nikki excels in creating a mood, and its background music adds to this effect.  The tracks are simple but incredibly haunting, and they’re extremely effective in the game itself.  Do yourself a favor and go play Yume Nikki if you haven’t already.  With the lights off at midnight.

(Ib and The Witch’s House both have really good BGMs too, and they’re far more horror in aim and theme than Yume Nikki, which is more of a surreal dream game.  So if you’re looking to actually piss yourself, go for those instead.)

4) Outrun – the whole BGM

outrun

All of it.  This is a pure nostalgia pick, because like many other people in their late 20s Outrun is one of the first racing video games I ever remember playing, in my case as a small child who could barely manipulate the Genesis controller in an effective fashion.  But that 16-bit music certainly got stuck in my brain, even if I couldn’t get past the damn checkpoints most of the time.  There are certainly better soundtracks out there – this one is really more “background music” than a soundtrack – but it’s a very dynamic set of songs that doesn’t wear on me with successive listens.

5) Digital Devil Saga 2 – Hunting – Betrayal

The two Digital Devil Saga games are worthy additions to the Shin Megami Tensei family of games.  They’re much more traditional JRPGs than the mainline SMT games and other spinoffs – DDS doesn’t feature demon recruitment at all – but they’re well-crafted and tell an interesting story.  They also feature the always fantastic work of Shoji Meguro, who fully deserves a place in the video game soundtrack pantheon along with Uematsu.  And “Hunting – Betrayal” is one of his best battle themes, maybe his best ever.  The pure tension in this piece is astounding.  Listen to it with the dial turned to 10.

6) Umineko no Naku Koro ni – Dead Angle

Umineko-no-Naku-Koro-ni-7

I’ve already taken a look at Umineko, but it’s worth bringing up again that this visual novel series has an amazing soundtrack, and “Dead Angle” is one of the best tracks in the game.  For the unfamiliar, Umineko is a very long visual novel mystery series about a family that is almost entirely murdered on a private island.  The game mixes up mystery with supernatural elements, and one of the central themes of Umineko is deals with the existence of magic and the line between reality and fantasy.  The game is honestly kind of a mess, but it’s a fascinating mess and, in the end, a satisfying story.  And the music is fantastic.

7) Final Fantasy VIII – Force Your Way

Speaking of Uematsu – again – this is my favorite Final Fantasy battle theme.  I didn’t love Final Fantasy VIII.  It was a good game, but it also had lots of problems, and the soap opera-level love story was fairly balls in my opinion.  However, the gameplay is still classic FF at this point, and the soundtrack is excellent.

I don’t normally read Youtube comments, because they tend to be so stupid that you can’t understand how the commenter managed to remember to breathe for long enough to write the comment and send it, but some user on the site aptly observed that “Force Your Way” sounds like the composer wrote eight different intros to a battle theme and shoved them all together.  And it works.  Even if the story of FF8 kinda doesn’t.

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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.

Why I love Shiina Ringo

A few years ago I ran across a music recommendation – Tokyo Jihen’s Adult. I don’t even remember where I saw it or why I followed it. But I did follow it, and I didn’t regret it. Adult is a great album, largely because of one person – the band’s frontwoman, Shiina Ringo.

Miss Ringo is a popular Japanese singer-songwriter who’s gotten some attention in the West. She seems to go for a mix of jazz and pop-inspired elements in her music. This could potentially turn into a mess, but Shiina is very good at her job. She’s a fine pianist (and she can play a bunch of other instruments as well) and a great songwriter – almost every song of hers I’ve heard so far is catchy as hell. For an example, check out this song from her solo album Karuki Zaamen Kuri no Hana:

She also has a great voice. Here’s a live rendition of Poltergeist, a song from the same album:

Shiina Ringo is one of the few singer-songwriter types I care for at all. A lot of the really popular ones seem kind of overrated to me, and some of them are full of themselves or attention-grabbers etc. which can come through in their lyrics sometimes. I have no idea what she’s like – from the little I’ve read, she doesn’t say much about herself and puts on a mysterious persona. And since I can’t understand most of her lyrics, their contents don’t present any problem to me. It might sound weird, but I prefer not to know what she’s singing about. Though it’s possible her lyrics are really profound. I have no idea.

If this post seems short, it’s because I have a hard time writing about music. A few writers are really good at it and I’m not among their number. For me, trying to describe music to someone through words is a poor substitute for just playing the music for them, so check out the links above instead if you’re interested.