Friday, September 30, 2016

Soundtrack September: Minecraft

Game: Minecraft (2011~)
Platform: numerous
Composer: C418 (Daniel Rosenfeld)

Scoring a sandbox game with very little in the way of narrative is not easy, as Daniel Rosenfeld has said in at least one interview. With limited information about what the player will be doing, it’s difficult to write a score that effectively supports the action on screen at all times. On top of that, consider the fact that music was a relatively new endeavor for Rosenfeld, who was very young and only had a few years of composition experience under his belt when he began working on the game. 

Also noteworthy is that this music, which didn’t impress me when I first played the game, suddenly gains value and legitimacy when listened to on its own. As a work of art on its own (rather than the backdrop for another work of art), however, Minecraft’s soundtrack accomplishes its every goal with grace, mixing piano lullabies with sometimes-soothing-sometimes-eerie ambient electronics. It's so good, my family occasionally listens to it at dinner.

Rosenfeld, who maintains ownership of the rights to all the music in Minecraft, released the soundtrack though his Bandcamp page on two albums, Minecraft: Volume Alpha (2011, containing the soundtrack as it existed at the time, plus or minus a few tracks) and Minecraft: Volume Beta (2013, containing music added to the game in an update).

Volume Beta is so good, it actually coaxed me back into playing the game. In addition to the unassuming piano plinks of Volume Alpha, Beta delves into new emotional territory with lush, swelling strings and dark synth textures. The melodramatic track “Aria Math,” for example, which is used in the game’s Creative Mode, may come across as a bit too serious for the action on the screen, but is a thing of beauty on its own. 

As an elicitor of emotion, the soundtrack’s single greatest triumph is a 15-minute track called “The End,” the aural backdrop for the eponymous final area of the game, where the player fights the Ender Dragon. Built on a thrumming, propeller-like drone, the evolving soundscape becomes an ocean in which other familiar Minecraft themes can be heard drowning. It builds at a glacial pace over the course of several minutes, eventually coming to a pulsing crisis point that seems to evoke equal parts urgency and crushing loneliness – highly appropriate for the apocalyptic floating continent for which the track is named, yet a wild exaggeration of Minecraft’s tinker-toy gameplay.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Soundtrack September: Streets of Rage

Game: Streets of Rage (1991)
Platform: Genesis/Mega Drive
Composer: Koshiro Yūzō

One more Koshiro soundtrack this month. My favorite FM synth musician scored the entire trilogy of Streets of Rage games (Bare Knuckle in Japan) with a distinct techno/hip hop vibe – the perfect soundtrack to the circus of fisticuffs that constituted each game in the series. As raging as the title would have us believe the streets are, they sound pretty chill to me.

The original SOR has the trilogy's most iconic tracks, although SOR2 and 3 would reach new technical heights as Koshiro's expertise with the hardware improved. Shuffling R&B beats that bring to mind late-80s-early-90s radio hits like Bobby Brown's "Every Little Step" and Dino's "I Like It" give Streets of Rage just enough cheese and more than enough style. This game also has one of the best "stage clear" jingles around.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Soundtrack September: Medal of Honor

Game: Medal of Honor (1999)
Platform: PlayStation
Composer: Michael Giacchino

Upon playing Medal of Honor for the first time, my friends and I were impressed at the level of immersion achieved by this first-person shooter that helped revitalize the WWII sub-genre after nearly seven years of inactivity (the previous big WWII title being Wolfenstein 3D in 1992). In retrospect, most of that immersive feeling wasn't a product of the game's primitive visuals, but of the game's audio design.

And not just the music. Ambient sounds, the voices of unsuspecting Nazi soldiers and the barking of German shepherds add an enhanced level of excitement, while realistic (or at least "real-ish") foley sounds for weapon reloads, medkits and ammunition pick-ups further bolster the immersive experience. Realistic foley sounds would become a standard of game audio design soon after.

The orchestral music, whose composer would later go on to score for TV and film, would be at home in a war movie soundtrack and makes a world of difference; what would otherwise be seen through present-day eyes as a drab military shooter with chunky, polygonal enemies and ugly locales is, via its music, elevated to the 1999 equivalent of "triple-A" levels of production design.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Soundtrack September: Final Fantasy IV

Game: Final Fantasy IV (1991)
Platform: SNES/Super Famicom
Composer: Uematsu Nobuo

I made it through nearly two Soundtrack Septembers without writing about Uematsu's FF music. As beloved as he is, none of the games he worked on feels to me like it has a consistently solid soundtrack...but FFVII and FFIV come close. Based solely on the number of songs I like on the soundtrack, those are my two favorite numbered Final Fantasy titles.

I've said before, and I'll say again, that the world's adulation for Uematsu Nobuo's music is not always founded in, shall we say, a strong understanding of what makes music good or bad (from either a compositional or production standpoint). I cannot deny, however, that his anthems are accessible and memorable by virtue of their simplicity.

For my money, Final Fantasy IV has the series's best love theme, best random battle theme, best overworld theme and best final boss theme. The last of those in particular shows Uematsu's affinity for progressive rock like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer with its parallel fourth arpeggiations and tricky time signatures.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Soundtrack September: Gauntlet IV

Game: Gauntlet IV (1993)
Platform: Genesis/Mega Drive
Composers: Hal Canon, Iwata Masaharu, Sakimoto Hitoshi, Earl Vickers

Sega's 16-bit machine needs more representation in most "best game music" lists. The problem is that sound programmers that could effectively utilize the Genesis's hardware were few and far between. Sometimes the best talent found its way into unlikely projects.

I have never played Gauntlet IV. My exposure to the series started with the original arcade game (on which my best friend and I once spent a combined $20 in one evening – big money when you're 12), then lay dormant until I played Gauntlet: Dark Legacy on the PS2. Squarely in the middle of the franchise's history sits Gauntlet IV (simply called Gauntlet in Japan, where it was the first of the series to be localized), a Genesis-only sequel that's visually not much different from the original, but whose music is a whole other matter.