Seven great video game tracks (part 3)

It’s been a while since my last dedicated music post and nearly four years since I posted an entry in this particular series (see parts 1 and 2 back in 2014 and 2015*) but I thought why let it stay dead?  I’ve been working on that second deep reads post, which is proving to be more of a pain in the ass than I thought, but all this music is helping power my brain after work hours along with the caffeine.  I’m also in the middle of a 10+ hour round trip drive today across some boring state highways, and I’ve been refreshing my playlist and adding to it to get ready for that.

However, the main reason I decided to revive this series is that I’ve heard a few people online suggest that game music isn’t “real music”, which is utter horseshit.  So here are seven tracks to prove them wrong.  I’m sure they’d consider most or all of these “not real music” either, but judge for yourselves.  As before, these are listed in no particular order — they’re just seven more tracks from games that I like.

1) Yousuke Yasai – Point of No Return (Eschatos, 2011)

Somehow I haven’t brought Yousuke Yasai up once on this site, but the guy is a long-time game music composer who does some great work.  I especially like the soundtrack to Eschatos, a scrolling shooter released on the 360 and PC.  This game was put out in 2011 but the music sounds like something out of one of the Mega Man X games (in fact, I think Yasai did some music for the Mega Man Battle Network series, so maybe there’s a connection there.)  Point of No Return is my favorite piece on the soundtrack; it’s driving and powerful in the way you’d expect from a shoot-em-up, but also memorable and catchy.

2) Garoad – Every Day is Night (VA-11 HALL-A, 2016)

I know I’ve raved about VA-11 HALL-A enough here and mentioned how much I’m looking forward to Sukeban’s followup N1RV Ann-A.  The bartending mini-game with a visual novel wrapped around it worked just about perfectly for me.  But the soundtrack was a big part of the game’s success.  Composer Garoad did an excellent job with the background music.  Every piece adds a particular mood to the conversation Jill has with her mostly depressed/insane clientele, her weird boss, and her one more or less normal coworker.  The game even lets the player set up the actual in-game soundtrack for the bar every night on the jukebox, so you can create any kind of mood you like with this music.

Every Day is Night is one of my favorites — I usually started each night in the game with this song.  The title is apt; this and the rest of the soundtrack have a great nighttime feel, very fitting for this game that takes place entirely at night.  Though I also really like Safe Haven, the piece that plays when Jill is home from her shift at the bar.

It’s the soundtrack to my life, sitting in the dark in my shitty apartment

3) Kenichi Tsuchiya – Heretic Mansion – Shining Heaven (Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, 2003)

It’s a piece from Nocturne.  I know, what a surprise.  This one wasn’t written by Shoji Meguro, though.  Composer Kenichi Tsuchiya was also responsible for a fair number of the tracks in the game, including the organ piece Heretic Mansion – Shining Heaven, the theme that plays when you visit the Cathedral of Shadows during a full Kagutsuchi phase (if you haven’t played Nocturne I know this probably sounds like nonsense, but it really does mean something.)  Tsuchiya has written quite a bit of music for the SMT games and spinoffs like Persona and Devil Summoner, and I’m sorry that I’m only now getting around to mentioning the guy, because he is worthy of notice.  There are a few different Heretic Mansion themes, and they’re all pretty ominous, but this is the only one that’s performed entirely on what sounds like a giant church organ.  It sounds like it came straight out of the Baroque period.  Great stuff if you’re into that.

4) Shoji Meguro – A Way of Life (Persona 3 Portable, 2009)

Even so, I can’t go without listing at least one Shoji Meguro song.  This time I’m going with the opening theme to Persona 3 Portable, the PSP port of Persona 3 that included the female protagonist who’s now part of a weird multi-universe canon along with the male protagonist since they can’t exist at the same time in the same game.  It’s no wonder they haven’t tried this out since.

Fans argue over whether P3P or Persona 3 FES, the expanded PS2 version of the original, is a better game.  I prefer FES, but I still like the P3P exclusive music tracks, which include A Way of Life.  It’s just a catchy pop song.  That’s really all it is.  But Meguro is really damn good at writing catchy pop songs, so this one is worth a mention.  There’s no Lotus Juice either, so if you’re not a fan of his this is a good track to check out.  I like him, but his rapping can get old sometimes.  There’s a reason I didn’t put “Mass Destruction” on this list instead — it’s a good song, but it’s been burned into my brain so deeply that I can never listen to it again.

I remember when this game coming out was big news. Ten years, shit. I feel old again now.

5) Tee Lopes – Lights, Camera, Action! (Sonic Mania, 2017)

One of the best things about Sonic Mania was how it finally killed all the “Sonic was never good” bullshit going around the reviewer and critic circles.  The game’s music also lived up to the quality of the Genesis soundtracks thanks to Tee Lopes, a composer who had previously worked on remixes of music from Sonic and other series.  Lights, Camera, Action! is the first stage thrme in Sonic Mania and sets the game’s mood perfectly.  It sounds like a technologically updated version of one of the Sonic Genesis pieces, which is exactly what I was looking for (well, the same can be said for Sonic Mania as a whole.)

6) Toby Fox – Spider Dance (Undertale, 2015)

I never thought “spider girl” plus “maid” were tags I’d be into, but the weirdos who draw Undertale fanart taught me something new about myself. (source: zingexGG, pixiv)

Shit. Somehow I’ve gone all this time without even bringing up Undertale. I don’t even need to tell you about it, right? It was a massive hit back in 2015 when it came out. I guess a surprise hit as well, because I didn’t know it was a thing until it was out and everyone was raving about this weird indie pacifist RPG. I wasn’t quite as in love with it as some people were, but I did enjoy Undertale a lot; it obviously had plenty of time, effort, and care put into it. However, I did love the soundtrack without any qualifications. Game creator and composer Toby Fox wrote one of the best game soundtracks ever, in fact — nearly every piece in the game was so memorable that they stuck in my mind for weeks and months afterward.

It’s hard to pick this time, but I think my absolute favorite Undertale piece is Spider Dance. The frantic feel fits the mood of the scene perfectly; it’s just the kind of music that should play when you’re fighting against a deadly spider woman or trying to dodge all her attacks if you’re doing the pacifist thing. I guess I might be in a small minority here in saying this is my favorite; everyone really seems to love Megalovania, and people will even get teary over Toriel’s theme and all that. Those are great pieces too, but I just like Spider Dance the best.

7) Masafumi Takada & Jun Fukuda – Sleeping Intermission (Grow Up Nyan Nyan) (Contact, 2005)

Here’s a bizarre song to end with.  Contact was itself a weird game, a Suda51-written DS RPG that didn’t get a lot of attention when it was released and that since seems to have slipped into near-obscurity.  I reviewed it years ago here, and I haven’t played it since, but I still listen to the game’s music from time to time.  The Contact OST was composed by Masafumi Takada and Jun Fukuda, both big pros in the field who also worked on other Suda51 stuff as well as titles like God Hand.

Contact.  There’s a fourth-wall-breaking setup here that I won’t get into now, but it was interesting.

Sleeping Intermission might be a weird choice to pull from the Contact soundtrack.  It’s the song that plays when you send the protagonist to bed to heal his injuries and pass time in the game world.  However, during this intermission you get to play with the Professor’s pet Mochi by tapping him with the stylus while the hero sleeps it off.  It’s a bit strange like everything else in this game, and the same is true of the music, especially those digitized synth voice parts that play throughout.  But shit, I just like it.  I liked Contact too.  It’s worth playing if you have a DS, a 3DS, or an emulator.  Check it out.  I still think it deserved to be remembered more than it is.

And that’s it for now.  I’ll go back to being on semi-vacation here.

=

* Yeah, I know part 1 says “seven” in the title here but only contains six if you read the actual post.  I think I was too drunk to know what I was doing at the time.  That’s a safe bet to make back when I posted it.

Soundtrack review: Katamari Fortissimo Damacy

It’s been a while since I reviewed a game soundtrack, so I thought why not take another one for a spin.  This particular soundtrack I only own a digital copy of, so I can’t tell you about the inserts or liner notes, but the music itself is enough to write a review, isn’t it? I’m not a professional at this.

If you can’t tell from the cover to the left, I’m talking about Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  This is the OST to Katamari Damacy, a weird ass PS2 game that pretty much defied categorization when it was released back in 2004.  If you’ve never played any of the Katamari games, imagine rolling a sticky ball around a city that grows as it collects objects and is able to pick up increasingly larger objects as it grows such as cats, mailboxes, cars, fountains, trees, entire buildings, and eventually whole land masses.  That’s more or less the object of a stage in a Katamari game, or at least of its most fun stages.

Katamari Damacy was one of those wacky new things from Japan when it came to the States, the kind of game that made people think “wow, look at the crazy shit they come up with over there.”  Something like Super Monkey Ball or Seaman.  It is also a complete classic.  I’ve only played the first and second games in the series (We Love Katamari, also for the PS2) but both are well worth picking up.  They have a style of goofy lighthearted humor that is actually pretty funny and not annoying as such attempts can often be, and one that also gels with the unique gameplay style that the series established.  I don’t know why someone made a four-hour longplay of Katamari Damacy, since it’s the kind of game you really have to play yourself to get anything out of, but here’s one on the off chance you’ve never seen it before:

The same “wacky and interesting” vibe delivered by the game is also carried by the game’s music — in fact, I think the soundtrack to Katamari Damacy is one of the reasons the game did so well.  Even if I’m not totally in love with all the tracks here.  That’s not a criticism of any of the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy, though.  The old breakup line “it’s not you, it’s me” comes to mind when I think of some of these songs, except in this case that phrase isn’t a lie; it actually describes how I feel about a few particular songs on this album.  (Well, that line doesn’t even work in the context of a breakup, but the subject of breakups is outside the scope of my blog.)

Before getting into that, let’s start with the positives.  I really like about half the songs on Katamari Fortissimo Damacy.  The theme of the game, Katamari on the Rocks, is a fast-paced song with a big horn section and a chorus of singers in the background.  This establishes the lighthearted feel of the game, and it’s a catchy song aside from that — good luck getting that “naaaaa na na na na na naa naa katamari damashii” line out of your head after hearing it the first time.  A Crimson Rose & Gin Tonic uses a 1940s-style big band setup with female jazz vocals, a style that I really like.  I’m also a fan of Katamaritaino for being such a nice chilled out song with relaxing vocals.  I really am getting older; every year I appreciate this kind of easy listening stuff more.  But this is good easy listening.  Tasteful.  Like João Gilberto or Tom Jobim.  In fact, there’s a really good bossa nova-style song on the second Katamari album that I’m not reviewing here but that you should check out anyway.

My favorite song on this album might be Katamari Mambo, a song that features two main vocalists: a goofy comic relief sounding-guy who keeps trying to start singing the song’s lyrics proper, and a lady who keeps interrupting him to sing said lyrics in a strikingly sexy mature voice (sorry if that sounds weird, but I can’t describe it any other way; just hear it for yourself.)  Add to that the fact that the song is full of lines that sound like sexual innuendo, and you’ll start to wonder how Namco got this one past whatever the Japanese equivalent of the ESRB is, if they have one.  Good thing the lyrics weren’t translated into English for the game’s western release, or else concerned parent groups might have started a campaign against it (this was back in the day when they were the ones primarily fighting against “inappropriate content” in games instead of our current set of usual suspects.) I’m always a fan of getting stuff past the censors, and Katamari Mambo is energetic and catchy enough to keep on my playlist forever.

The song’s main singer, Nobue Matsubara, also has a metric ton of albums out since the early 80s that all have covers like this, so I guess she’s been a big deal in Japan for a long time. No idea what these might sound like, though.  Leave a comment if you’re a fan!

However, while the game’s musical quirkiness works for me in some places, in a few others it doesn’t.  Like Cherry Blossom Color Season, for example, which features a bunch of little kids singing.  Which I’m just not a fan of at all.  Same goes for Katamari of Love, the ending theme to Katamari Damacy.  That song doesn’t feature annoying little kid singing, but I still don’t like it that much.  I can’t point to any really good reason for my dislike, though.  Maybe this album is just too god damn quirky and positive and happy for me to take all at once.  Or maybe the songs I like on the album are the ones I heard first while playing Katamari Damacy, and the novelty of the game along with the novelty of the music made a positive impression on me at the time.  I can’t think of any other reason why I’d like Lonely Rolling Star and dislike Katamari of Love, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the latter.  Same goes for a few of the other songs on the album that just grate on me sometimes.  In fact, if I’m in a bad mood, I can’t get into any of this Katamari music at all — even most of the songs I normally like end up irritating me.

So I’m not giving this album a rating.  I just don’t think I can judge it objectively enough to assign it a meaningful score.  Not that any of my reviews, or any reviews at all, are ever objective, but this time I really feel like I’m being unfair to the work in a way I can’t help.  So here’s my general view of it: this is a good album, and if you’re not a bitter, miserable asshole like me, you’ll probably appreciate it more than I do.  Or maybe you won’t like it that much, and that’s fine too.  This is one of those cases where I’d recommend playing the game over listening to the soundtrack on its own, though.  Katamari Damacy is still a lot of fun, and the music contributes to the game in setting a rhythm and pace for the player.  And the game is a hell of a lot cheaper than the album — a quick search shows used copies of Katamari Damacy available for several dollars, while the soundtrack will run you more than 30.  If you have a PS2 lying around and haven’t played this or any of the Katamari games, consider that a solid recommendation.  Or you can buy the Switch remake Katamari Damacy Reroll, but I haven’t played it, so I can’t give it a rating either.  Some fucking reviewer I am, huh?

Soundtrack reviews: Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue

Some time ago I was digging around an old external drive when I discovered two albums that I’d gotten (yeah, let’s leave it at that) years ago titled Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue.  These two albums, released in 2007 along with the PS2 JRPG Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, were originally sold together in a boxset which probably costs well over $100 today if you can even find one.  ATII is a good game with one of the worst official localizations in history – read more about it here, along with a link to a completely redone fan translation of the game.  The game’s soundtracks, though, are exceptional.

Notice I said “soundtracks”.  Each AT game has a primary soundtrack and several extra soundtracks.  The primary soundtrack to ATII is very good, but if that’s all you have, you’re missing out on some of the best tracks in the game.  Each of these Hymmnos Concert albums are linked to a particular character in the game – in this case, Flame to Luca and Waterway to Cloche, both featured on their respective covers.  To explain what the hell all this is about and why some of these songs have bizarre titles like “EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.”, we have to take a look into the universe of Ar tonelico.  Luca and Cloche are Reyvateils, female humanoid beings who can control the elements by singing.  These songs are sort of like programs, with lyrics specifically created to cause certain effects, hence some of the songs’ weird titles.  Most of the residents of the world of AT are humans living on three massive towers alongside these Reyvateils, who often experience discrimination and worse because of their abilities.  Not without reason, because while their song magic can be used to heal, it can also be used to destroy, and a few of the most powerful Reyvateils can sing songs that are massively destructive under the right circumstances.

Pictured: potential weapons of mass destruction

The backstory and lore of this series is insanely deep, so deep that some of these songs are sung in Hymmnos, a constructed language* made specifically for the AT series.  Most of the songs on these albums are sung in-game by Cloche, Luca, or another Reyvateil, and some of them, far from being mere background music for battles, are important to the plot.  (See above: the costumes they wear also affect their song’s powers, which is where a lot of the AT series’ fanservicey reputation comes from.  Also, you get to pair up with one of these ladies on their own routes through Croix, the game’s protagonist, so you can see at least part of the appeal of Ar tonelico II aside from its music.)

The games are worth diving into, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to play a series of JRPGs with weird rhythm-based battle mechanics, you can still appreciate the music.  Almost every song on Flame and Waterway are centered around the vocals of one of four singers: Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, Yuuko Ishibashi, and Noriko Mitose.  Each one of these singers apparently had a serious career before the AT games were a thing, and according to the AT wiki, a lot of the songs in these games were created specifically with these four in mind.  Each one has her own distinct style, but they’re all amazingly talented singers, to the extent that I can’t say I prefer one over the others.

A lot of these songs are standouts as well.  Almost every one is a spot-on hit.  METHOD_IMPLANTA/. is beautiful and a great introduction to Akiko Shikata’s style.  I’m a great fan of Yuuko Ishibashi’s songs Reisha’s Lullaby and Eternally Connected as well.  Eternally Connected features some of the most stunning singing on these albums – it sounds like it belongs in an opera rather than a PS2 game.

My favorite, though, is Noriko Mitose’s EXEC_SPHILIA/. Once, I wrote about how much I hate the lazy key change as a method of trying to artificially create emotion in a bad or mediocre song.  EXEC_SPHILIA/., despite being mostly sung in a constructed language that pretty much no one is going to understand, packs more emotion without using this cheap trick than a thousand sappy modern R&B and singer-songwriter ballads that do.  It’s fantastic.  I like all of Mitose’s other work on Flame as well; her stuff has a harder edge that appeals to me.

While I can’t say the same for the AT games themselves, their music is diverse enough in tone that there’s enough here to appeal to pretty much everyone, ranging from cute (Hartes ciel, melenas walasye) to operatic (Eternally Connected, The Heart Speaks) to apocalyptic (EXEC_DESPEDIA/.).  If you’re a fan of vocal/choral music at all, you need to check these two albums out.  And it goes without saying that these are must-haves for Ar tonelico fans.  Since I have no complaints about either Flame or Waterway, they both get perfect ratings of 7.

* I don’t really know if Hymmnos is complete enough to count as a constructed language, but I’ve read threads with people arguing about the grammar of the language, so I figure it must be close enough.  It even has its own script!  That’s dedication.

Soundtrack review: Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era

So here’s a strange one. Released in 2015, I guess in an attempt to try to profit off of my generation’s nostalgia for all things 90s, Sonic the Hedgehog: Passion & Pride: Anthems With Attitude from the Sonic Adventure Era is a collection of character themes from the two Sonic Adventure games on the Dreamcast and Gamecube. I came across this thing while I was messing around with my 99 cent for three months trial subscription to Amazon’s new music streaming service. (This is not a paid plug for Amazon, by the way. I wish it were. I need money and I’m absolutely willing to sell out. DM me on Twitter.)

I played Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast back in those old days of 1999 and 2001, when I was suffering through the shitty ordeal known as middle and high school. I remember them being pretty fun, though not without their problems. Turns out the same is more or less true of their soundtracks. When I think of great, truly classic Sonic music, I think of Sonic 1, 2, 3&K and CD. The later Adventure music is more of a mixed bag. I guess SEGA felt like they had to “update” Sonic’s music in the transition from 2D to 3D, but the Adventure soundtracks aren’t even close to being as good as the old 16-bit works.

Hell, some of these songs are downright embarrassing to listen to, even when I’m sitting at home alone with my headphones on. Like Tails’ SA1 theme Believe in Myself, an annoyingly peppy pop song with lyrics even dumber and more straightforward than the title suggests. Or Sonic’s SA1 theme It Doesn’t Matter, which hearkens back to really shitty late 80s hair metal. Or Knuckles’ awful rap Unknown from M.E., a song so bad it twisted in on itself to become popular and feature in hundreds of Youtube music edits like this one. And for some fucking reason there are also remixes of each of these three worst songs on the album. Thanks, SEGA.

Knuckles is a meme now, thanks internet.

Most of the songs on this album can be listened to without cringing yourself to death, though. And a few of them are really good. I’m a big fan of Theme of E-102γ, a nice piano-based instrumental with a sci-fi sound. E.G.G.M.A.N. from SA2 is catchy and fun and really suits the goofy mad scientist bad guy character that is Eggman (though I’ll always know him as Robotnik.) The biggest surprise, though, was the last song on the album, Fly in the Freedom. It’s the theme of Rouge the Bat, a character I never cared for, but it’s my favorite song out of all of them – an extremely relaxing jazzy piece with nice vocals. Makes you feel like you’re at a beachside bar sipping a cocktail.

There are three more character themes on this album that fall far more into the “weird” category than into the good or bad ones. Here are my notes about them:

Lazy Days (Livin’ in Paradise) (Big’s theme) – Title makes it sound like a Jimmy Buffett song, but actually a Creedence Clearwater Revival ripoff which is at least x1000 better. Dumbass lyrics, good guitar, okay singing but this guy is definitely no John Fogerty. Stupid as hell but not really that bad.

Throw It All Away (Shadow’s theme) – I can feel the angst in my blood. All humans are trash, and happiness is an illusion. Lyrics couldn’t be more laughably edgy. Brings back memories of middle school.

My Sweet Passion (Amy Rose’s theme) – Embarrassed to say I really like this song. Cute jazz-poppy thing, I love the vocals and the electric piano. Lyrics are insane and stalkerish and suit Amy’s character perfectly.

So is this worth buying? At $30 for a physical copy? Hell no. But it does have some good songs, enough that it squeaks by with a passing grade of 4. And who knows, maybe you’ll really like the songs I hate on it. If you’re the kind of person who “ironically” enjoys 80s butt-rock and bad rap, feel free to bump that grade up to a 5 or 6. I’m not one of those people.  I can appreciate making fun of bad media (I grew up on MST3K after all) but I don’t get anything out of a second listen to Unknown from M.E.

I would definitely buy a physical copy for a few bucks, though, just for that amazing title and cover.  Sonic just needs a ripped pair of jeans and a sleeveless shirt and he’s hedgehog Bruce Springsteen.

Soundtrack review: NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack

Happy American Thanksgiving weekend, dear readers. Thanksgiving is a day of eating turkey, a bird whose meat is so god damn bone-dry when cooked that you are required to load it up with cranberry sauce and stuffing just to swallow it. It is also a day of announcing to a room full of relatives, most of whom you only see at Thanksgiving dinner, what you’re thankful for (most likely something generic you made up on the spot like family or your health.)

This year I’m thankful for owning a hard copy of NieR:Automata Original Soundtrack. It’s a triple album – a 3 disc set – and it’s still too short. The actual amount of music in NieR:Automata is something like seven hours if you include all the different versions of each track (versions that play during combat, 8-bit hacking versions, versions with and without vocals) which this album does not. That’s really my only complaint about this album: it should have been a boxset.

Are boxsets even a thing anymore? Am I showing my age? They were popular in the 90s, but now, I have no idea. You god damn kids and your social media.  Your TikTok.  What the fuck is TikTok even.  I’m terrified for the future if this is the kind of weird shit the new generation is going to be into.  America is finished.

Fine.  Let me put down the cane and whiskey and keep gushing about this music and about how much of a genius composer Keiichi Okabe is. He also wrote the soundtrack to the original NieR, and that was amazing, and so is this. It’s mostly a mix of powerful orchestral pieces and ambient-ish background tracks, all of which both suit and enhance the feel of the game. It’s hard to write about this music without writing about the game itself, in fact, the music being meshed so completely into the game’s fabric. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy this album without playing NieR:Automata, but pieces like Copied City, Birth of a Wish, or The Tower won’t carry the same emotional weight if you haven’t. I still feel like I’m missing some of the impact of the original NieR OST for just that reason.

2B can see through that blindfold thing she usually wears, but how can she see through the hair covering her left eye? This isn’t relevant to the soundtrack, just thought I would throw the question out there.

Did I say “emotional weight”? Yeah. I’m a very unromantic person in most ways, but the story and characters of NieR:Automata hit me in the feels, as they say (or used to say, anyway, a few years ago.) It’s a tragedy in the classical sense, and a good one, because it doesn’t use cheap tricks or ploys or plot devices to achieve its emotional effect – it makes it the hard way by making you care about its characters and its world. And just as Yoko Taro and his team had to work to write an emotionally resonant story, Okabe and his team had to work to write an emotionally resonant soundtrack. Music, like writing, shouldn’t resort to tired, cheap tricks (like the “moving” key change – the musical equivalent of killing the cute puppy in your story for the purpose of squeezing out tears.  I could write a whole essay about how fucking lazy and bad the key change is as most songs use it.) Okabe and his co-composers clearly know that and have the skill to pull off truly powerful music.

The credit isn’t all with Okabe and co., though. Emi Evans returns to sing on several tracks. She’s not as prominently featured as she was on NieR Gestalt & Replicant, but her work on tracks like Voice of No Return and A Beautiful Song is… well, it’s beautiful. Joining her on vocals is one J’Nique Nicole, whose voice has a different quality that contrasts nicely with Evans’. And of course there’s a choir on the payroll as well along with the orchestra. Shit, this soundtrack had to be expensive to record.

That’s all I have to say about this album.  It’s not that expensive for a triple album, and all the music is great, so it’s worth buying.  As with Nocturne, though, I’d suggest you play Nier:Automata first if you haven’t already so you can get the emotional context of the music, and also because it didn’t win all those Game of the Year awards for no reason.  You can consider this post to also be my review of the game, since I never got around to reviewing it last year.  Nier:Automata is worth every minute spent on it.

Rating: 6 if you haven’t played Nier:Automata, 7 if you have.

Soundtrack review: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne Original Soundtrack and Maniacs Extra Soundtrack

As I wrote two posts ago, I was at a con last month where I ended up dropping a lot of money I don’t really have on several imported albums (as well as a few books that, uh, I can’t post here. Yes, they are basically what you think they are.)

Among my haul was the complete soundtrack of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne, one of my favorite games, which comes in a double-CD set and a separate single CD. Why this division?  Because the original release of Nocturne, commonly known as the vanilla version, was fairly thin and didn’t include the Labyrinth of Amala or the fiend fights, which add about an extra third of game and plot content, an extra third of music, and a new ending to the game. This expanded version, known as SMT III Nocturne Maniacs in its home country, is the version we got here in North America simply as SMT: Nocturne and that our friends in Europe got as Lucifer’s Call. (Yes, this is the version featuring Dante from the Devil May Cry series.)

What can you expect from these soundtracks? A mix of hard rock with some jazz influence, piano/organ/synth-dominated pieces, and synthesized orchestral music. In the first category are most of the battle themes (including “Normal Battle ~ Town”, my favorite of the whole soundtrack) and some of the boss themes.* Nocturne features almost a dozen battle themes in total, counting boss themes, meaning you won’t get absolutely sick of one theme that keeps repeating throughout (see “Mass Destruction” from Persona 3 for a good example of overused battle theme fatigue.) The second category contains nice contemplative pieces like “Apocalypse”, “Reunion With Master”, “Heretic Mansion”, “Mystery”, and the first part of “Tokyo Conception” before the organ and guitar come in. The orchestral stuff is smattered all over the game, featuring in overworld map themes and boss themes – “Fiend” from the extra soundtrack is one of the best of these tracks. I’m not always a big fan of synthesized music, but chief Nocturne composer Shoji Meguro and his associates use synths in a way that both fits and enhances the heavy atmosphere of the game.

There are extensive liner notes mostly written by Meguro in the main soundtrack on every piece, but I can’t read most of it and I can’t find a translation. It might just be time for me to learn how to read this damn language for real.

One of my favorite things about Nocturne is that although it deals with an apocalypse (you might have guessed from the fact that there’s a piece on the soundtrack named “Apocalypse”) said apocalypse takes place near the beginning of the game. The focus of Nocturne is not the destruction of the old world, as it would be in a typical JRPG, but rather the creation of a new world based upon the ideals of the few surviving humans. The main setting of Nocturne is the Vortex World, a mostly ruined Tokyo enclosed inside a sphere – imagine that the surface of the Earth is on its inside instead of its outside and that the Earth is only something like 20 or 30 miles in diameter. The Vortex World is filled with demons and the scattered spirits of humans left behind after the end of the world. Kagutsuchi, a god of fire, shines in the middle in the form of a burning sphere, sort of like a very small sun. The entire setting is both otherworldly and bizarre, but it all works, thanks to the game’s visual design and to its soundtrack. Shoji Meguro’s music is a big part of why Nocturne is one of my favorite games.

That said, you might not get the same kind of enjoyment I got out of listening to these pieces on their own if you haven’t played the game. They are mostly excellent, but a lot of the value of the soundtrack comes out of its association with the game. Since Nocturne is a great game anyway (and not as reliant on cheap shots as some people seem to think it is – that’s a subject for another post) you’re better off playing it before binging straight on the music. You’ll have a better time with it that way. For that reason, these soundtracks collectively get a rating of 6 if you haven’t played Nocturne and a 7 if you have.

Make friends with a fairy, punch God in the face, create a new world.  The life of a Megaten protagonist is more fun than mine.

One more note about the Nocturne soundtracks.  There is a CD floating around simply titled Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne Original Soundtrack that looks like it was printed for the western market.  I’ve never seen a physical copy, but the Megaten wikia page suggests it was provided as a bonus with the NA release of Nocturne.  In any case, it has tracks from both the vanilla core and the extra Maniacs parts of the game, but if the tracklist posted on the wikia page is accurate, the CD doesn’t contain anywhere near the game’s full soundtrack – it only lists 33 tracks, while the JP vanilla soundtrack alone has 49 tracks.  An abridged soundtrack is pretty good as free bonuses go, but it seems like quite the ripoff if you’re paying for it separately.  Just a warning in case you ever come across it. I don’t own this NA-only soundtrack, but based on the tracklist I’d give it a rating of 5. It’s good, but why buy this when you can get the whole enchilada?

Oh yeah, and happy Halloween.  I guess.  I’m spending my Halloween drinking whiskey and playing Disgaea 1 Complete.  I don’t need any friends, you hear me? 𒀭

 

* Most of these battle and boss themes are actually vocal tracks.  I didn’t realize this on my first playthrough, probably because the vocals are garbled and distorted so badly, but that barking in the background is in English, and you can make out some lines if you listen closely.

Soundtrack review: Cowboy Bebop (all four main OSTs)

Yeah, so I took another one of my month-long breaks from writing.  In this case, I hope I can excuse myself by saying that I started a new job and the pace of it has been nearly killing me.  When I get home the last thing I feel like doing is writing.  Still, I felt like writing something at least, if only to assure my millions of readers that I’m not quite dead yet.  As a way to relax after an especially stressful day at work last week, I started rewatching the amazing Cowboy Bebop, the second anime series I watched in my life after Neon Genesis Evangelion.  While Eva doesn’t quite hold up over time (it’s still good, but way more impressive when you’re an edgy 12 year-old boy like I was when I watched it) Cowboy Bebop totally does hold up, every bit as well as it did when I first saw it on Adult Swim ages ago.

So I thought about writing about Cowboy Bebop as a part of my long-dead “Anime for people who hate anime” series.  I gave up on that idea, though, because there’s no point.  Everyone already knows Bebop as that one anime that you can recommend to your normie friends without them thinking you’re a big nerd or a pervert.  I can’t say anything about the series that hasn’t already been said.

I can write about the music, though.  I’ve listened to my entire four-album Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playlist on my commutes about seven times over now, and it isn’t even getting old.  Out of all four albums, almost all the tracks are great.  As the show’s name implies, Cowboy Bebop features both a lot of American country-western-sounding music (Spokey Dokey, Don’t Bother None, Forever Broke) and a lot of jazz (OP theme Tank!, Rush, Odd Ones.)  But there’s a lot more that composer Yoko Kanno and her band The Seatbelts have to offer – straight up rock (Want It All Back), Queen-style operatics (Rain), weirdness (Cats on Mars), and a crooner ballad (Words That We Couldn’t Say) that I don’t like very much but that at least has enough care put into the music and lyrics that they’re not brimming with cheese.  And a god damn great recording of Ave Maria performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic just for the show.  If I have any favorites among the four albums I’ve got, though, they’re probably Piano Black and See You Space Cowboy.  And Wo Qui Non Coin, which might make you cry if you know the whole context of the song with regard to the show.  Not that I’ve ever cried while listening to music or watching a show.  No.  Not me.  I’m a tough guy, got it?

The soundtrack to this show is so damn good that it is absolutely worth buying all four albums, even if you have to import them.*  As far as I can tell, none of the albums are any better than the others; they each have a lot of great tracks from the series that are essential to have.  Though I guess I should mention that Vitaminless is about half the length of the others, but if you skip it you’re missing out on the ED theme The Real Folk Blues and the weirdly hilarious Black Coffee, featuring dialogue between a guy continuously asking a girl out for coffee (“aw, come on, just this time”) and the girl continuously refusing (“nnnno!”) over a jazz accompaniment.  I know how that feels, guy.  I’m sorry.

I’m lazy, so that’s all I’m going to write – aside from my rating, which is a perfect 7 for every single one of these albums.  Just listen to the music.  Or better yet, hear the music when you watch the show.  The music on its own is great, but it’s a lot better if you’ve seen Cowboy Bebop.  The series uses music in a way that few other series do, anime or not.

=

*Of course there’s an alternative to buying these soundtracks, but I’ll leave that to your imagination.

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.

"..."

“…”

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.