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

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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

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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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Retrospective: Umineko no Naku Koro ni

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Umineko no Naku Koro ni (eng: When the Seagulls Cry) is the story of a family – a rich, fractured, miserable family full of intrigues and mistrust. It’s the story of an old man driven mad with a desire that he could never fulfill. It’s the story of a witch, a woman who may or may not really exist.

Really, though, Umineko no Naku Koro ni is a “sound novel” produced by independent Japanese designer 07th Expansion and released in eight parts from 2007 to 2010 (is this old enough for a “retrospective?” Sure, why not.) This team is also responsible for the earlier series Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, with which Umineko shares some links. Umineko is essentially a book – you simply click through screens and read description and dialogue. If you’re familiar with the visual novel concept, it’s a bit like that, only it’s even less of a “game” than the typical visual novel, because Umineko presents the reader with no Choose Your Own Adventure-style options at all. You just read the thing. Just like a book!

The Ushiromiya family tree.  If you play-read Umineko, you'll learn this chart by heart before long.

The Ushiromiya family tree. If you play-read Umineko, you’ll learn this chart by heart before long.

Umineko takes place on Rokkenjima, a private island owned by Kinzo Ushiromiya, the fabulously rich head of the Ushiromiya family. Kinzo is an old man and is near death, yet he seems to have no interest in writing a will – to parcel out his assets to his children, those “vultures”, as he calls them. Even so, the traditional annual family meeting is still on. Kinzo’s four children, their spouses, and their children are all headed to Rokkenjima to talk family business, and that’s where our story opens.

There are a ton of characters in Umineko, but the central ones – at least in the first episode – are the four cousins, the children of Kinzo’s children: Jessica, George, Maria, and the strangely named sort-of protagonist Battler (the red-haired guy on the cover.) The cousins get along very well, which is more than could be said for their parents, who spend most of the conference fighting over their ailing father’s inheritance. The cousins are much more interested in the stranger aspects of their grandfather Kinzo’s massive estate, not least of which is the massive portrait of a young blonde woman in an elaborate gown. This is not a portrait of their late grandmother, but rather of Beatrice, the “Golden Witch”, a mysterious woman whom Kinzo claims lent him the enormous amount of wealth he needed to establish his business empire.

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Of course, a loan demands repayment, and Kinzo is prepared to pay back Beatrice’s loan in a way that will terrify his family. As a huge storm bears down on Rokkenjima, trapping the Ushiromiya family on the island for the weekend, rumors of Beatrice’s arrival start to circulate and the tension within the family grows. How will it end?

Umineko starts out as a murder mystery along the lines of an Agatha Christie novel (in fact, Ryukishi, the writer, drops some big references to Christie and other mystery novelists in the narrative.) It quickly turns into something else, however. In a really, really basic sense, Umineko is about the melding between the real world inhabited by the Ushiromiya family and Kinzo’s servants, on one side, and a fantasy world inhabited by strange magical beings on the other. In the center is the mystery of exactly what happened on Rokkenjima that weekend; a mystery that Battler, one of Kinzo’s grandchildren, is forced to uncover after the fact by entering a bizarre timeloop meta-world and playing a “game” attempting to reconstruct the event with a woman who claims to be an ancient and powerful witch. It makes more sense when you’re reading it, I promise.

There's lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

There’s lots of this kind of back-and-forth between characters regarding the action of the story.

To be completely honest, Umineko isn’t without its faults. The writing seems to be unedited, and dialogue can go on and on without any seeming regard for pacing. Speaking of that, in fact, the first episode of the story (there are eight at around 10 hours each) is incredibly slow and occasionally dull before it reaches the climax near the very end; it’s pretty much setting things up and introducing the characters. And you might not have noticed from the above screenshot, but the art is pretty bad – Ryukishi, the writer, also draws the characters, and he can’t fucking draw.

However, the positives of Umineko outweigh its negatives. The story really picks up after the first episode, and its “supernatural murder mystery” angle is pretty unique. Just like a normal mystery novel, the mystery of the deaths on Rokkenjima is made to be solveable by the player, and technically it is, although it’s pretty much impossible to figure out in the English-translated version because it relies in part on some kind of kanji puzzle. Characters will even throw out statements in “red text” that are guaranteed to be true in order to help the player – and Battler – sort out the situation. The characters also turn out to be pretty compelling. And the music is really damn good; it’s well-written, diverse and sets the mood of the story perfectly.

Umineko was originally made for the PC with Ryukishi’s janky art and no voice-acting. This version is still available to buy on disc in various online stores and has a full and very well-done English patch. PS3 ports of the game also exist. These are way more polished than the originals, with actual good art and voice-acting. A different fan group has made a patch of the PS3 better art/voiced edition that you can apply to your PC copy of Umineko. This also has the same English patch adapted to it.

A screen from the PS3 version.

A screen from the PS3 version.

There’s also an anime series. Don’t watch it, because it’s crap. A case where the adaptation fell flat on its face because it simply isn’t possible to adapt Umineko to any other format. This isn’t some “purist” twaddle either, there are technical reasons why it can’t really be adapted to any other format without some serious changes. The sound novel original contains lines of text that are key to understanding the central mysteries of the game, and the show left some of them out completely and screwed other parts up. There was apparently not much care put into the adaptation. In fact, the show seems to have bombed, because the second half of the series (the part where the questions posed by the first are answered) was never adapted for the screen.

Anyway, that’s Umineko for you. Not quite a game; not quite a traditional novel. Think of it as a computer based novel without an editor but with a soundtrack. It is a really good soundtrack, though. And Umineko is a good story, despite its issues. It is a serious time commitment at this point, though (80+ hours!) so don’t plan on finishing it in one night. Hell, the only reason I ever finished it was because I started when Episode 3 was translated. Otherwise I probably would be dead by now.