Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Soundtrack September: Super Mario Bros. 3

Game: Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
Platform: NES/Famicom
Composers: Kondo Koji

Previously honored in Soundtrack September for his later work on A Link to the Past, Kondo Koji was also the composer behind the game widely regarded as the greatest Super Mario title of all. Here, Kondo used the tried-and-true 8-bit trick of using PCM drum samples to add power and character -- not only for kicks and snares, but also rim shots, wood blocks, timbales and timpani. His soundtrack gives each of the game's eight map screens a unique theme, in a variety of styles including reggae, disco and bossa nova. The soundtrack during gameplay is memorable as well, now cemented in most NES-era gamers' minds as a classic. (The first time I heard this game's funky take on the old Underworld music from Super Mario Bros., I was pretty impressed.)

I'm not sure why, but most of the music in this game is in the same key (C major). Kondo wasn't a trained musician, so it's possible he wrote predominantly in this key due to it being his "comfort zone" on the piano.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Soundtrack September: Super Metroid

Game: Super Metroid (1994)
Platform: SNES
Composers: Yamamoto Kenji, Hamano Minako

Regarded by many as the pinnacle of storytelling in the Metroid series, Super Metroid does a better job than its NES and Gameboy predecessors of using music to depict the extraterrestrial loneliness associated with being the only human on the entire planet. While "Hip" Tanaka's heroic theme for Samus and Satie-esque Norfair waltz were iconic on their own, Super Metroid used the sound processing power of the SNES to deliver healthy a dose of atmosphere to every area in the game.

Playing through this game, while (in my memory) not as daunting a task as navigating the original, was a memorable experience, thanks in large part to the soundtrack. From the creepy opening sequence, to the horrific death throes of Crocomire, to the cathartic final battle in which the all-growed-up "baby" Metroid joins forces with you against the Mother Brain, this game saw the series taken to new cinematic levels, riding on a flying carpet of sound.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Soundtrack September: Double Dragon Neon

Game: Double Dragon Neon (2012)
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Composers: Jake Kaufman

If Guilty Gear is a fighting game-shaped love letter to 80s glam metal, Double Dragon Neon is a fist-shaped valentine to the decade in its entirety. The self-aware reboot of the 1987 beat-em-up (which is often called the "grandfather of beat-em-ups," despite having been preceded by Renegade) is on a mission to grab the hearts of all 80s kids. Air guitar, high fives and the aforementioned neon contribute to the overpowering aura of trickle-down radicality that permeates Neon's every stage.

The music does more than its fair share. Kaufman has succeeded in not only doing justice to a few tunes from the original, but also in rejuvenating the franchise with music so 80s sounding, it sounds like Gorbachev's aerobics tape. It sounds like Jesse "The Body" Ventura took music lessons from Oliver North. It sounds like...Manuel Noriega...doing something? I don't know. I'll stop.

Highlights include "Neon Jungle" (third video below), which has more than enough cowbell, and "Pick Yourself Up and Dance" (fourth video below), whose hyperactive keyboards bring to mind Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Soundtrack September: Katamari Damacy

Game: Katamari Damacy (2004)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Composers: Miyake Yuu et al

Every aspect of this game seems designed to make players scratch their heads. The goofy concept, the low-poly, rudimentarily animated human characters, the strange sound effects and voices.

Following suit, the soundtrack is a celebration of weirdness. Heavy on pop, jazz, Latin and Shibuya-kei influence and performed by an eclectic list of popular musicians, this is as appropriate a soundtrack as one could hope for in a game where the objective is to roll a ball around a room, picking up little objects until the ball is big enough to pick up a cat (or a car, or a space shuttle, or Canada).

During gameplay it can become difficult to hear the music over the din of the sound effects. Picking up a object or a character always makes a sound, ranging from a simple cartoon "pop" to a man's voice singing, "den-de-de-de-den-den-dennnnnn!" When the ball gets big enough to pick up the larger features of a city, the game is full of the screams of houses' terrified inhabitants, the ringing of office telephones, the roar of engines, etc. All the while, the soundtrack putters along at its own happy pace.

My favorite track is called "The Moon and the Prince." It features enka star Niinuma Kenji in an unlikely capacity: Instead of crooning, he's rapping surrealist lyrics, complete with hip hop interjections like "yo" and "get up."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Soundtrack September: Axelay

Game: Axelay (1992)
Platform: SNES
Composer: Kudo Taro

Axelay was a relatively under-the-radar space shooter from Konami. It used the SNES's so-called "Mode 7" background scaling and rotation system extensively and ambitiously (if not always effectively) to depict the space fighter Axelay's mission to....I don't know, do what ever. (I was never that interested in the story elements behind games where all you do is shoot everything that appears in front of you.)

Kudo's soundtrack features ostinato synth motifs, energetic drums and bass lines that sound like the composer really cared about the bass. The opening stage's music, in true Konami fashion, sets the mood with prog rock organ chords that could have come straight out of an Emerson, Lake and Palmer recording. My favorite is "Silence," the steadily percolating backdrop for Stage 4, a gloomy cavern populated with mostly organic enemies.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Soundtrack September: PaRappa the Rapper

Game: PaRappa the Rapper (1996)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Matsuura Masaya, Suzuki Yoshihisa

The story of PaRappa follows his pursuit of a love interest: an anthropomorphic flower named Sunny Funny. Along the way he learns karate, takes his driver's test, bakes a cake and waits in line for a public bathroom, all before the climactic final scene: a live stage performance.

For many gamers, this was an introduction to rhythm games. The relatively simple gameplay made it attractive to casual and non-gamers, while the game's soundtrack (goofy call-and-response hip hop tunes with unlikely lyrics) and unique art style won over everyone else. It's not the kind of music most people would listen to outside the context of the game, but that doesn't mean it won't get stuck in your head for a week.

An honorable mention is reserved for UmJammer Lammy (1999), the less popular but equally silly guitar spinoff, which sees the return of several characters from PaRappa (see the last video below).

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Soundtrack September: Final Doom

Game: Final Doom (1996)
Platform: PlayStation
Composer: Aubrey Hodges

How long has it been since you've listened to the original Doom soundtrack? Don't bother. It's terrible.

The music for the PlayStation port of this non-numbered sequel to Doom II: Hell on Earth enjoyed the benefit of digital audio, as opposed to the comparably quaint MIDI rock tracks of its PC progenitor. As a result the game, already scary and soaked with atmosphere, took on a new veneer of creepiness.

To be fair, there isn't a lot to the music. Hodges got maximum mileage out of a relatively small library of synth samples, playing them back at mostly low pitches to achieve an eerie-but-not-distracting minimalist backdrop. Much of the soundtrack could as soon be categorized as the ambient noise of the various levels.

I say "not distracting," but I'd be lying if I said I didn't remember being specifically startled by some of what's in this soundtrack the first time I played the game. "Mt. Erebus" is full of what sounds like demon-kids complaining after a six-hour drive in the family car. But most of the best stuff here happens in tracks like "Minos," which sounds more like the constant howl of wind than game music.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Soundtrack September: A Link to the Past

Game: The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991)
Platform: SNES / Super Famicom
Composer: Kondo Koji

Another early SNES title whose music wowed me back in the day. This sequel, which some consider a truer sequel than Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, reprises the classic theme song from the original and adds a handful of instant classics. The Dark World theme and the faerie fountain music are two of my favorites.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Soundtrack September: Street Fighter II

Game: Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (1991)
Platform: arcade et al
Composers: Shimomura Yoko, Abe Isao

Like Gradius III, Street Fighter II is an example of a soundtrack sounding better after being converted to the SNES (.SPC) sound format. So even though the soundtrack was written for the 1991 arcade original, I am primarily honoring the SNES version in this post.

Make way for another Capcom soundtrack composed mostly by a woman (the third such soundtrack I have written about this month, after Strider and Mega Man 2). Shimomura and Abe wrote a theme for each character, effectively cementing that model as the norm for fighting games. The matador guy's music sounded Spanish. The yoga guy's music sounded Indian. The sumo wrestler's music sounded Japanese. And the muay thai fighter's music sounded strung out on heroin.

These themes would become synonymous with the characters in the SFII roster. Subsequent games would experiment with other music, but if you ask a fan to hum Ryu's theme, that person is going to hum Ryu's theme from this game, not Ryu's theme from Street Fighter Alpha 3 (although Alpha 3's music wasn't bad for the most part).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Soundtrack September: Silent Hill

Game: Silent Hill (1999)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Yamaoka Akira

When Yamaoka presented his concept for Silent Hill's music to his co-workers on Team Silent, he had to argue in its defense. His jarring, industrial sounds were misinterpreted as glitches in the audio program rather than music. In retrospect, however, most agree that his soundtrack was a large part of why Silent Hill was so scary.

To be fair, the series was also thematically unnerving; touching on themes like child disappearance and cult worship, and introducing visuals more nightmarish than gamers were used to at the time, it would have been pretty scary without music. But add Yamaoka's soundtrack (which might be described as "trip-hop act trapped in an off-kilter washing machine, heavy on the washing machine") and you've got yourself a sleepless night. Sleepless week.

The commercial release of the soundtrack, unfortunately, was questionable in its organization and left out a couple of the game's mellower tracks, but I appreciate this work because it does one thing more masterfully than virtually any movie soundtrack I've ever heard: It scares me.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Soundtrack September: Mega Man 2

Game: Mega Man 2 / Rockman 2: Dr. Wily no Nazo (1988)
Platform: NES / Famicom
Composers: Matsumae Manami, Tateishi Takashi

Once again, we have a monumental Capcom soundtrack co-written by a female composer.

With Mega Man games commonly following the "defeat about eight bosses before going after the main bad guy" pattern, and each of those bosses having a unique stage and theme song, there is no shortage of music in this series. In fact, the series tally of boss robots in Mega Man games is more than 130. Mega Man 2, however, is special for a number of reasons. It's the best-selling title in the series to date. It was one of the first two NES games I ever managed to finish (the other being Super Mario Bros. 2). And it's music is the music that people think of when they hear the phrase "Mega Man music."

To put it another way: Mega Man 2's soundtrack has become so iconic of the Mega Man series that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS (2014), which features Mega Man as a playable character, has opted to use music from Mega Man 2 rather than from the original in its soundtrack.

The Dr. Wily Stage 1 theme is probably the most popular piece from this work, with the title theme placing a close second. The latter is reprised in triumphant fashion after a strikingly melancholy ending cinematic in which the title character walks a lonesome road through autumn, winter, spring, tsuyu and summer before abandoning his helmet atop a pastoral hill.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Soundtrack September: Destiny

Game: Destiny (2014)
Platform: PlayStation 3 / PlayStation 4 / Xbox 360 / Xbox One
Composers: Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatori

When I decided to honor a game soundtrack a day for a month, I didn't anticipate honoring any games that came out as recently as this year...let alone this month.

Martin O'Donnell and Michael Salvatori, whose work on the Halo series left me underwhelmed (Mr. Holland's Opus-sounding battle themes are not the way to impress me), have redeemed themselves with their work on this game. Destiny's soundtrack offers a similar breadth of grand, cinematic orchestral arrangements, but then adds deliciously bad-for-your-teeth electronic tracks to the mix. Navigating the menus while in orbit is an experience all its own, thanks to beautiful (and appropriately spacey) ambient washes. The more intense battles are made all the more frantic with loud industrial tracks that pulse persistently until the action subsides.

At the time of this post, no commercial release is planned for the music, but I can't imagine that will be the case forever.

Kiru Your TV: Matt's Poopless Poutry Farm

Don't ask me why, but I really like the Kiru Your TV tag. Problem is I can hardly ever think of any TV shows to write about. My solution? Don't write anything. Just do silly voices.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Soundtrack September: TMNT

Game: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Gekikame Ninjaden (1989)
Platform: NES / Famicom
Composers: Funahashi Jun

The weird thing about this game is that it preceded its source material in Japan. The Ninja Turtles animated show hadn't yet been localized there, so this game was the Japanese public's introduction to the property. That's probably the reason you don't hear the TMNT theme song anywhere in this game (although Funahashi did manage to sneak in a "heroes in a half shell" motif here and there).

The tight-as-a-vice precision associated with 8-bit Konami game music is illustrated well in this game. Unfortunately a punishing difficulty level meant that most gamers would only hear about the first two or three stages worth of music, but you needn't go any further than the title screen to hear the best track (the first video embedded below). Both boss battle themes are excellent as well.

Bonus: "Overworld 2" (the last video embedded below) sounds strangely like the Beatles' "Come Together."

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Soundtrack September: Chrono Trigger

Game: Chrono Trigger (1995)
Platform: SNES / Super Famicom
Composers: Mitsuda Yasunori et al

This game came out when I was in high school. During that era, I played every Squaresoft RPG I could get my hands on, usually naming female characters in my party after girls from school I liked. Especially when they were blonde.

I really wish I hadn't told you that just now.

Mainly because of the game's turn-based battle system, I haven't had the patience to revisit it since the first time I played through it. I have, however, come back to its soundtrack again and again. Musical intelligence that was missing from Final Fantasy VI's soundtrack is made up for here.

(Yes, I know that Uematsu Nobuo contributed a number of tracks to this album. Yes, I still think most of his work is overrated.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Soundtrack September: Fester's Quest

Game: Fester's Quest (1989)
Platform: NES
Composers: Kodaka Naoki

The internet has destroyed the reputations of many games. This is one of them.

The argument over whether or not Fester's Quest was as bad as popular opinion would dictate will not take place here. People generally agree the game was too difficult (although I finished it, along with a lot of other games that people found difficult), that it was a clone of Blaster Master (I finished that one, too), that it had very little to do with the Addams Family (it was the Nintendo age...how faithful did you expect a game to be to its source material?), et cetera, et cetera.

Nobody, however, dare say anything critical of the game's music.

This goofy top-down maze shooter starring a supporting character in a show that no child of the 80s ever watched was blessed with one of the best NES soundtracks around, mainly thanks to Kodaka's deft use of the hardware to trick the ear of the listener. Rather than rely solely on the triangle wave channel for the bass track as most NES games did, this game made extensive use of a PCM sample of a slap bass sound, adding power normally absent from the low end of NES music. On top of that, Kodaka used one of his favorite tricks: "borrowing" one of the melody channels to add punch to every snare drum hit.

I don't think I'd have finished this game if the music wasn't so great.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Soundtrack September: Castlevania IV

Game: Super Castlevania IV / Akumajo Dracula (1991)
Platform: SNES / Super Famicom
Composers: Adachi Masanori, Kudo Taro

I used to walk home after school with a kid named Ben, whose commute took him past my house. One day he lent me this game and strongly recommended that I play it, specifically citing the game's "awesome" music. That was the word he used, and he was right.

This is another game that shows off what the SNES can do audio-wise. Expressive strings in particular are very well emulated by the soundtrack, adding aural atmosphere on top of the visual atmosphere that fans had already come to associate with Castlevania. But it isn't just a showcase of sound programming technique -- it's also compositionally solid.

The Stage 1 theme is universally popular (if we can't count on a Castlevania game to deliver a strong theme on the first stage, what can we count on?), and just about every subsequent stage follows suit with a similarly excellent tune. The challenge is finding a song on the soundtrack that isn't good.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Soundtrack September: Final Fantasy Tactics

Game: Final Fantasy Tactics (1997)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Sakimoto Hitoshi, Iwata Masaharu

Spoiler alert: Soundtrack September will not be honoring any of Uematsu Nobuo's work on the Final Fantasy series. While I can understand why his work is popular (in the same way that Vanilla Ice used to be popular), I never had the sense that Uematsu's music was growing up with me. Rather, he continued to write consistently simple (childish), melody-driven (sing-song), bold (strident) material which lacked the subtlety I increasingly desired as my tastes matured. His popularity carried him, disincentivizing his improvement and holding him back from developing as a musician.

(Mine isn't a popular opinion when it comes to Uematsu...nor when it comes to character designer Amano Yoshitaka. Don't get me started on that clown.)

But just as Final Fantasy's seemingly immutable formula (preachy, self-indulgent story interspersed with hundreds of boring random battles) was beginning to wear thin with me, Final Fantasy Tactics came to rescue the franchise in the nick of time -- not only in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of music. Although the random battles were still many (and now much longer), they involved more engagement than just a repeated hammering of the button to select "FIGHT," and the music was a reflection of that change.

Listening to the music of this game, one gets the sense that Sakimoto and Iwata understood musical composition on higher levels than their more popular counterpart, Uematsu. And, thanks to the assistance of synth specialist Kashiwabara Katsutoshi and sound programmer Suzuki Hidenori, the end result is greater than any of Uematsu's soundtracks. Particularly in the pieces that accompany the game's numerous (and lengthy) cutscenes, the PlayStation shows off how good its on-board synthesizer can sound, handily emulating a full orchestra and displaying a dynamic and emotional range that was absent from every Final Fantasy title preceding.

Final Fantasy Tactics might just have the most musically-intelligent video game soundtrack of all time.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Soundtrack September: SSX

Game: SSX (2012)
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Composers: Various

Although I've singled out EA for having some of the worst licensed soundtracks around, the SSX series (which began with a PS2 launch title in 2000) has made good use of pop and electronic tunes as the rhythmic underpinning of the so-called "Snowboard Supercross."

Musically, the series had some ups and downs after its inception. As much as I liked the music of the original, 2003's SSX 3 would feature the questionable inclusion of N.E.R.D.'s "Rock Star" and the already dated "Emerge" by Fischerspooner, two songs I had absolutely no interest in listening to while pulling off 720 backflip nosegrabs. In 2007, SSX Blur came out with its soundtrack composed entirely by Junkie XL. It wasn't a bad soundtrack, but when I tried to purchase a download of it directly from Nettwerk, they took my money and sent me nothing, refusing to follow up when I complained.

Yeah. Nettwerk Music Group still owes me $10.

In 2012 the series made like Mortal Kombat and called itself SSX again (just to confuse everybody). All of a sudden, the music selection was on point. Electronic giants like Amon Tobin, Nero, The Herbaliser and Noisia appeared, making me wonder if EA was spying on my iPod. Even Skrillex, the polarizing baby brother of electronica, reared his goofy haircut and "please don't give me a swirly" spectacles on this soundtrack.

In addition to a shrewdly selected song list, SSX tweaks the soundtrack with real-time dynamic filtering, looping and other effects in accordance with the player's performance. For example, launching your snowboarder high into the air might trigger a band filter on the music until hitting the ground again. When a sequence of high-scoring tricks enables Tricky Mode, we get to hear Pretty Lights's powerful electro remix of Run-D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky." (See the second video below for an example of the dynamic music system in action.)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Soundtrack September: LocoRoco

Game: LocoRoco (2006)
Platform: PSP
Composers: Shimizu Nobuyuki & Adachi Kenmei

Some people called it the platform action game that feels like playing with a lava lamp...or some such bogus analogy. I don't really remember. Whoever said that has obviously never tried to play with a lava lamp, because LocoRoco never gave anyone second-degree burns on their hands.

I don't have a lot to say about this soundtrack. Acoustic instruments plus gibberish lyrics equals great. And the fact that you can absolutely sing along with those gibberish lyrics is a testament to that greatness.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Soundtrack September: Strider

Game: Strider / Strider Hiryu (1989)
Platforms: arcade, Genesis/Megadrive
Composer: Tamiya Junko

I recently showed my affection for the original Strider soundtrack in one of my PS4 Strider Hiryu gameplay videos. Progressive and ambitious for its time, the music in this game sticks with the player long after the game is over, making for some of the most memorable music in the Genesis software library. (Yes, the music in question originally came from the arcade game, but in my opinion most of the soundtrack sounds better in the Genesis port.)

As natural as it would have been for a game about a superninja with a speed-of-light sword that cuts everyone in half to have a rock soundtrack, Strider shows remarkable restraint, instead opting for future-baroque melodic turns, unpredictable dissonance and a pronounced lack of percussion. The action opens with the Strider Hiryu jumping from rooftop to Kazakh rooftop to the driving tune of "Defense Line," and follows him into snowy caverns ("Siberian Tunnel") where chimes and reverb set the tone. His brief stint in the jungle is accompanied by the appropriately tribal "Valleys and Rivers," and the final boss battle takes place over "Hiryu," a whirlwind of fast articulation juxtaposed against chords that walk steadily downward.

It's worth noting that this is one of several examples in which Capcom handed the soundtrack composition duties to a female composer, another notable example being Shimomura Yoko's iconic soundtrack for Street Fighter II: The World Warrior. I don't know why there are so few women in the TV/film/game music industry. They clearly know what they're doing.

This video is a medley of music from the Genesis version's soundtrack. Some of the tracks are blended into others, resulting in the titles shown in the video's description not always matching the content.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Soundtrack September: Guilty Gear XX

Game: Guilty Gear XX: The Midnight Carnival (2002)
Platform: arcade, PlayStation 2
Composer: Ishiwatari Daisuke

Guilty Gear is in many ways a love letter to 80s glam metal packaged as a fighting game. The principle designer of the series, Ishiwatari Daisuke, has the distinction of being not only the mastermind behind its canon but also the voice of one of its main characters and the composer of its soundtrack. The latter is an exquisite catalog of instrumental hard rock tracks that, when performed on real instruments, absolutely stands on its own.

It doesn't matter that the game's plot is about bio-organic war machines and Jellyfish Pirates. From the sound of Guilty Gear's music, one might as easily reach the conclusion that it's a plot in which Joe Satriani singlehandedly defends the Earth against Hell's minions, or maybe a story where Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai put aside their differences to join forces against James Hetfield.

Being a fighting game, the Guilty Gear XX soundtrack does each of the game's 23 characters the due diligence of providing him or her with a memorable theme song (with extra tracks thrown in for fights between specific pairs of characters).  The majority of these are tunes from the earlier Guilty Gear X soundtrack, masterfully reimagined and performed by a flash-and-blood (that was a typo but I decided it was appropriate) ensemble of virtuosic headbangers.

This music will make you act like Dwight Shrute.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Soundtrack September: 3rd Strike

Game: Street Fighter III 3rd Strike: Fight for the Future (1999)
Platform: arcade
Composers: Okugawa Hideki, Iwai Yuki

I remember playing 3rd Strike for the first time in an arcade at the mall. I hated it. My favorite character from Street Fighter II was missing (yes, I've been playing Blanka since SFII). All the new characters except for Ibuki repelled me on sight. And although I liked Ibuki's design, she was difficult to pick up and I wasn't willing to invest the time nor the quarters necessary to learn her at the arcade. For years to follow, I would avoid 3rd Strike.

Much later, when the game was released via download on Xbox Live Arcade, I gave it another chance and learned to appreciate why so many members of the fighting game community so vocally sing 3rd Strike's praises. It's excellently balanced, has a simple-but-subtle parry mechanic (especially compared with Street Fighter IV's goofy focus-parry system) and has the best sprite animation in the entire franchise.

The music is pretty good, too.

With a distinctly 90s-sounding blend of hip hop, lounge, breakbeat and jungle elements, the Street Fighter III sub-series used its music to carve out a reputation decidedly cooler than that of its rock-centric predecessor. Memorable as Street Fighter II's songs may have been, this new chapter's soundtrack grabbed people's attention by sounding current, using vocal samples and utilizing music to set the mood of a stage, as opposed to just providing a theme song for a character. Later Capcom fighters would extend this formula to disastrous effect (like the awful Marvel vs Capcom 2 soundtrack), but 3rd Strike did it right.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Soundtrack September: Akumajo Densetsu

Game: Akumajou Densetsu (1989)
Platform: Famicom
Composers: Maezawa Hidenori, et al

English-speaking readers of this blog know this game as Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, but I'm specifically honoring the Japanese version's soundtrack. In this rare case, the original Japanese release of the game contained an extra audio chip that was not built into overseas versions. The so-called VRC6 chip allowed for polyphony beyond that typical of the Famicom/NES. On top of the hardware's five voices (two pulse waves, one sine wave, one noise wave and one 6-bit PCM channel which was only occasionally used), this chip added two additional pulse waves.

The result is a striking difference for people who are used to four- or five-channel polyphony in Nintendo game music. Fuller harmonies and more complex textures raised the quality of Akumajou Densetsu's audio to a mid level somewhere between the 8-bit and 16-bit home consoles. What is already considered a great soundtrack by fans of the NES version is elevated to new levels of excellence by these two extra audio channels.

From a composition standpoint, the game features some of the finest examples of the Castlevania series's emblematic baroque-and-roll musical backdrop. Expansive, downbeat tracks like "Prelude" and "Nightmare" best show off the VRC6 chip's contribution to the overall sound with their thick, uneasy harmonies. Conversely, the expert drum programming typical of games in the series shows up in "Beginning," "Mad Forest" and the brief but intensely-loved "Aquarius."

The soundtrack was released together with those of the Japanese versions of Castlevania and Castlevania II: Simon's Quest on the album Akumajou Dracula Best (1998).

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Soundtrack September: Grand Theft Auto III

Game: Grand Theft Auto III (2001)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Composers: Craig Conner, Stuart Ross et al

Licensed soundtracks in video games are generally ear poison. One minute you're playing a game with an EA Trax soundtrack, and the next minute your brother is the King of Denmark, he's married to your widow and your son is losing his mind! (Get it? Ear poison humor.)

Rockstar found a way to make completely licensed soundtracks work in the GTA series, gradually reducing the games' dependence on original music as time went on. The first time I played Vice City and heard Mr. Mister's "Broken Wings" in one of the opening cutscenes, I cried tears of 80s nostalgia-induced joy. Hearing REM's "Turn You Inside Out" in GTAIV was similarly energizing. I'm highlighting Grand Theft Auto III here because it best represents the transitional period between the predominantly hyperobscure and/or written-for-the-game music of GTA2, and the mostly licensed soundtrack for Vice City.

Grand Theft Auto III features a soundtrack using up-and-coming artists and original songs in approximately equal parts. Liberty City's hip hop radio station (called Game Radio FM) plays tracks from lesser-known "real" artists. The 80s station, Flashback 95.6 plays existing songs from the Scarface soundtrack. On the other hand, Head Radio and Lips 106 each play a collection of "fake" (believable, however absurd) top-40 hits. On their own, these original songs range in quality from not great to highly infectious, but they all sound so at home on the in-game radio that the developers' desired effect is achieved with room to spare. Thanks to realistic radio-style sound production and DJ banter, every radio station in the game sounds like something you might actually hear upon hotwiring your escape vehicle of choice.

The single greatest track in the entire game is the opening theme, which may or may not be the greatest video game title theme I've ever heard. In an era when video games hadn't yet set foot in the arena of mainstream entertainment they occupy today, Grand Theft Auto III's slick, moody intro cinematic and theme song slackened my jaw and had me saying, "Shit, this is better than The Sopranos."

Come for the theme song. Stay for the radio.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Soundtrack September: Secret of Mana

Game: Secret of Mana / Seiken Densetsu 2 (1993)
Platform: SNES
Composer: Kikuta Hiroki

Back in the days when Squaresoft was making seemingly arbitrary decisions about which of their games to localize for overseas markets, they developed a Final Fantasy spin-off which would become a series of its own. Secret of Mana is not the first game in this series, but it's the first one that enjoyed as much fame as the original Final Fantasy. It mercifully departed from FF's turn-based battle system which was already becoming tiresome for some gamers, and introduced a cooperative mechanic whereby the hero's allies could be controlled either by AI or by another player.

The music, like the game, alternates between lighthearted and grim tones. One minute you're hanging out with a comical bunch of dwarves, and the next minute you're worried that a Mana Beast will destroy the planet. Kikuta's soundtrack covers these extremes and everything in between using a rich pallet of Western and non-Western folk, impressionist and electronic elements. The lush, introspective harmonies of "Mystic Invasion" and "The Wind Never Ceases" contrast nicely with urgent tracks like "Prophesy." Meanwhile, "Into the Thick of It" presents a respectable example of acoustic guitar emulation on the SNES.

The game's last two boss enemies also have notable themes. The battle with the Dark Lich ("The Oracle") pits gamelan gongs against a relentless industrial din. The final confrontation with the Mana Beast is accompanied by an upbeat progressive rock track ("Meridian Dance") that makes you feel thrilled to be alive.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Part 3

Our scurvy protagonist stretches his sea legs and does battle with every other person he encounters.

Soundtrack September: Gradius III

Game: Gradius III (1989)
Platform: arcade
Composers: Higashino Miki et al (as the Konami Kukeiha Club)

You don't have to read this to know that, in the late 1980s, Konami Digital Entertainment released titles with some of the most beloved soundtracks in the history of game music. The developer enlisted a rotating powerhouse lineup of sound programmers who consistently excelled at writing tracks that got the player hyped. Flying through space while blasting serpentine phalanxes of enemy ships and upgrading your firepower as you go feels decidedly better when it's to the tune of a Konami soundtrack.

While the soundtracks to previous games in the Gradius universe (especially Salamander/Life Force) were also admirable, Gradius III began a new tradition of excellence. For many home console gamers, this would mark the series's first step into the 16-bit generation, with a synth rock soundtrack that took advantage of the SNES's sample-based audio infrastructure. Gradius III was one of the first SNES games I ever played and the sudden jump in sound quality made a big impression.

"In the Wind" is probably the most "Gradius-sounding" track of all: a motivational major-key jingle that makes the player feel invincible. Also of note are "Aqua Illusion," a five-count ambient tune to accompany a stage full of deadly bubbles (?) and "Easter Stone," the bellicose backdrop to a stage full of Moai statues (??).

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Soundtrack September: Samurai Shodown III

Game: Samurai Shodown III: Blades of Blood / Samurai Spirits Zankurou Musouken (1995)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Yamate Yasuo et al

The Samurai Shodown series (intentionally misspelled so that it would have the same number of characters as the original title, Samurai Spirits) was after my heart from the beginning. Take a bunch of romanticized figures from Japan's feudal history, give them all an anime-fuelled attitude boost and pit them against each other in a stylized fight to the death. What's not for a high school geek to like?

Some of the first Japanese phrases I'd ever learn, most of which are not the least bit useful, came to me through the Samurai Shodown games. When Japanese interns at my university would ask me what I could say in Japanese, my responses were archaic.

While the original arcade/NeoGeo version of this game used sequenced digital samples to produce the music, the PlayStation port was given a unique treatment. Cues from the so-called Samurai Shodown III Arranged Soundtrack album, which used ensembles of live musicians performing the game's songs, were adapted and used as the soundtrack. As a result, the PlayStation version (which was otherwise exasperating thanks to interminable loading screens) boasted a soundscape with levels of production and musicianship that weren't typical of games of its time.

Hearing the traditional sound that was typical of the series played on real shakuhachi, koto, shamisen and taiko was too much for the young Japanophile that I was. I learned a lot about traditional Japanese music from Kyoshiro, Haohmaru and Ukyo's themes, while the wholehearted rock-out execution of Galford and Kuroko's themes gave me something to nod my head to.

My favorite tracks are probably Basara's theme ("Lament of Sanzu River," which employs a perverse solo fiddle melody over a frenetic funk rhythm bed to represent the madness of a character who has come back from the grave to avenge the deaths of his lover and himself) and Genjuro's theme ("Demon Song," which uses East-meets-West instrumentation to capture the atmosphere of his stage: a windswept crossroads darkened by the clouds of a rapidly gathering storm).

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Soundtrack September: Dead Rising 2

Game: Dead Rising 2 (2010)
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Composers: Oleska Lozowchuk et al

As much press as they earned with their hundreds of zombies on screen at a time, Dead Rising and Dead Rising 2 are both triumphs of set design. Even in DR2's gaudy Fortune City setting, the details of the environment make the gigantic shopping/entertainment complex feel plausible.

For this, the Dead Rising 2 owes as much to its music as to its visuals. Constantly underpinning the action of the game are music cues that alternately evoke feelings of horror, excitement and shopping. Indeed, what steals the show is the totally believable background music being piped into Fortune City's shops, restaurants and casinos. Whether it's a Mexican restaurant's mariachi horns, the heartland rock soundscape of Bennie Jack's BBQ Shack or any of the coma-inducing slow jams played in the mall, every cue on this soundtrack is produced with attention to authenticity. The music deftly spans a spectrum of genres that would make Ween jealous.

With such believable yet kitsch music playing around the player at all times, the game becomes something more than just an orgy of zombie dismemberment. One gets the sense that the game's designers put far more thought into the conception of Fortune City than meets the eye. The tacky result is a setting so believably American, it becomes eerily easy to imagine the game's grim scenario playing out at any comparable retail hub.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Soundtrack September: Forsaken

Game: Forsaken (1998)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Dominic Glynn, Stephen Root (as The Swarm)

Forsaken was a zero-gravity FPS in which the player traversed non-linear levels on a futuristic "bike." It had a punishing difficulty level and an unfortunate Mature rating from the ESRB (solely because of a completely unnecessary, violent but cheesy pre-rendered opening cutscene), which may have hurt its success. It's also worth noting that the game came out right after the movie Titanic, and featured a woman on the cover who looked a little like Kate Winslet.

Tattoo my face like one of your French girls.
The Playstation version's soundtrack, stored on the game disc as Red Book audio (and therefor playable in a normal CD player), consists of nine electronic tracks, most of which have aged remarkably well. Nothing to scoff at, really; try listening to an electronic album you liked fifteen years ago and see if it's still any good to your current ears.

After setting the tone with the breakbeat title track, the album wanders in and out of drum and bass territory with some house elements. My favorite is "Reactor," a black-sheep ambient track in the middle of the album, which mixes thick layers of reverberating synths with samples of air valves closing to narrate one of the games uniformly eerie, abandoned locales.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Soundtrack September: Mortal Kombat

Each day this month I will write about a game soundtrack that's close to my heart in some way. This is not a ranking or a top 30; the soundtracks I write about are presented in no particular order. Sometimes I'll write just a little, and other times I'll write a lot. It happens that we'll begin with a soundtrack about which I have a lot to say.

Game: Mortal Kombat (1992)
Platform: arcade
Composer: Dan Forden

Sadly, mentioning the words Mortal Kombat and music in the same sentence tends to remind people of that horrible techno song that was used to advertise console ports of the game. You know the song I'm talking about. It goes, "doot doot doot doot doot doot MORTAL KOMBAT." Despite not appearing in the game, that song took advantage of people's ignorance and became known as the "Mortal Kombat Theme Song."

I guess that's just as well, since the actual game lacked a central theme song (although it did make repeated use of a three-note motif that appeared notably at the title and versus screens). What the original arcade game did have, however, was a collection of music tracks that rarely get the recognition they deserve.

Composer Dan Forden, who worked on the game while moonlighting as bassist for Chicago-area experimental music act Cheer-Accident (and who had nothing to do with the aforementioned techno song), had already contributed to a number of Midway video and pinball titles but Mortal Kombat would mark his birth as a game music celebrity (a title which would be further cemented when his face and voice appeared in Mortal Kombat II). Like many arcade games of its day, Mortal Kombat used FM synth sounds ranging from powerful basses and drums to melodic patches that bordered on grating. Look past the low production values, however, and you'll find a dark, ethnic (read: vaguely Asian-sounding) score full of enough melodic and rhythmic complexity to satisfy prog rock nerds and kung-fu movie buffs alike.

Side note: When Mortal Kombat was ported to the SNES and Genesis, the music suffered differently in each case. The SNES version, while musically faithful to the original, couldn't replicate the power of the Yamaha FM chip and instead had to rely on digital samples which lacked presence. The Genesis version, on the other hand, used FM synth sounds but oversimplified most of the tracks, making them sound like "childrens' versions" of the originals, if not making them completely unrecognizable.

Forden's original work blends asymmetrical time signatures and slippery chromaticism to create a sound that perfectly suits the game's faux-Sino-Japanese cultural identity crisis. You can't quite put your finger on what country's music it sounds like...but damn if it doesn't sound exotic. Think Balinese gamelan plays Nine Inch Nails' "The Becoming" (two years before The Downward Spiral would even come out). From the impending doom of "The Courtyard" to the liquid, koto-like texture behind "The Bridge" (AKA "The Pit") and finally culminating in climactic themes for Goro and Shang Tsung, it's a brief but nicely-arced musical excursion.

It's also worth noting that Forden programmed the music to be dynamic, changing to suit the game state. When one kombatant's health bar runs empty and the "FINISH HIM" prompt appears on screen, the music vamps at a fever pitch in anticipation of the coup de grace.

The music of Mortal Kombat appeared in tandem with that of its sequel on Mortal Kombat II: Music from the Arcade Game Soundtrack, a CD which was advertised in the MK2 arcade machine's attract screens and sold via mail order only.