Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy meme year

2016 may have been the worst year since mankind first started talking about years, but it did give rise to an internet meme that I particularly enjoy: the "Me at the End of 2016" meme. You've probably seen a bunch of these; there's no shortage. But that won't stop me making my own.

OK, this one may be a bit esoteric. Long story short, the kid on the left and the sea monster on the right are the same guy.

That last one makes me want to cry.

Happy new year, everyone! May your 2017 be comparatively painless.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Winter of fury

I use the phrase "month of fury" to describe any calendar month where complications, difficulties or outright tragedies seem to be concentrated. This year, we seem to be having an entire season of fury.

There has been drama at work that I don't want to talk about.

There was an election I don't even want to think about.

And I have been sick on and off since right after that election.

A sad side effect of all this (especially the last) is that I neglected my video-making endeavors for a large part of the month, and my blog updates along with them. So today I have a backlog of videos to share.

First, in Resident Evil 5, Chris and Sheva struggle against the Chainsaw Brothers, Charlie and...Cheston? I don't remember.

Then we go back to Ultra Street Fighter IV for a satisfying episode of Fight Meee! Feel the hype. (If you're wondering why there are only two episodes in Season 3 so far, it's only partly because I got sick. It has just as much to do with the fact that the PS4 USFIV online community is, shall we say, not the most active.)

Speaking of hype, here's what happens when three buddies with a no-nonsense approach to Overwatch party up and communicate via Facebook Messenger voice chat. Unfortunately I don't yet have the technology to capture our voices when we use this method, but I'm working on it.

And finally, this Christmas, give the gift of Aiden Pearce.

I will be pretty busy going into Christmas weekend, all the way into the first week of January, so apologies in advance if I don't post again until after that.

Happy xolidays! (After winning the War on Christmas, we moved on to the War on Holidays.)

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nothing is over

I stopped myself time and time again over the last year from writing political posts about the presidential election. I didn't want to risk readership over differing political opinions, nor did I think the risk was justified, since Hillary had been practically guaranteed victory since her nomination.

And the worst part of the shock of losing isn't that my "team" lost, or that my predictions were wrong. It's that stunning unintelligence is far, far more severe a problem among American voters than I thought it was.

When did it become so fashionable to be so stupid?

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Recent livestreams of USFIV, RE5

Here are three recent stream archives from my Twitch channel. My streams aren't on a reliable schedule (I basically do them when I get a chance), so if you're a Twitch regular, be sure to follow my channel.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fight Meee! USFIV Season 3 opener

After putting it off for months, I recently picked up a new arcade stick and bought the much-maligned PS4 port of Ultra Street Fighter IV. Getting back into online USFIV has been easy so far, thanks to the time I put in at the arcade after ditching my Xbox 360 (and believe me, the arcade is a place that doesn't let you get rusty).

So now I'm starting fresh with a new account. The PS4 version of the game seems fine for the most part, and in terms of matchmaking, it actually seems a little better than its predecessor (my waiting times feel shorter these days). How far will I climb on this shiny, new ladder? Let's find out.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Video uploads I forgot to blog about

After exhausting myself on Soundtrack September, I went two whole weeks in October without a blog update, although my YouTube and Twitch channels have been active. Here's a high-speed debrief of what you may have missed:

First, we have one new chapter in my ongoing assault on RE5's story mode. Chris and Sheva find their relationship strained due to a misunderstanding about eggs.

Also in Resident Evil 5 news, I did a couple of Twitch streams documenting my continued quest to get all SS ratings in Mercenaries Mode, which is proving a tough goal to reach. I'm particularly fond of the second of these.

While playing Overwatch a few days ago, I experienced one of the most exhilarating Competitive Mode matches I've ever played. Check out round 3 and count how many environmental kills I get without dying!

And finally, on my other YouTube channel, I posted a new track from my (slowly) upcoming remix album Space Pirate Collection II. It's Dr. Wily, y'all!

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.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Soundtrack September: Metal Gear Solid

Game: Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Platform: PlayStation
Composer: Muraoka Kazuki, Iwase Tappi, Togo Hiroyuki et al

Judging from the list of games showcased in Soundtrack September, 1998 was quite a year for game soundtracks.

Metal Gear Solid was a milestone in what had been a hitherto-ignorable franchise of covert action games that began on the MSX2. For many, this first step into 3D graphics and dramatic storytelling makes MGS stand head-and-shoulders above any other Metal Gear title, especially in terms of nostalgia.

Perhaps continuing the Cold War flavor established by the first Metal Gear games, Solid’s “sneaking” music sometimes emulates Soviet mens' choirs and spy movies, while the “evasion” music uses motifs borrowed from the main theme. The main theme is the crown jewel of the soundtrack, wrapping intrigue, military tension and cathartic triumph into one epic (however synthesized) package.

I’ll also always have a soft spot in my heart for the “game over” theme, which plays overlaid with the voice of one of the supporting characters trying in vain to contact an already-deceased main character.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Soundtrack September: Donkey Kong Country

Game: Donkey Kong Country (1994)
Platform: SNES
Composers: David Wise, Eveline Fischer, Robin Beanland

David Wise was Rare's sole musician until 1994, so his portfolio was already good and fat by the time rookies Beanland (who would later work on Killer Instinct and Conker's Bad Fur Day) and Fischer (who would later voice the protagonist of Perfect Dark) joined the team. DKC brings these three together in one of the best game soundtracks of the 16-bit era.

The songs range from upbeat and optimistic ("Jungle Groove"), to somewhat moody ("Life in the Mines"), to downright depressing ("Game Over"). And, of course, everybody loves "Aquatic Ambience."

Friday, September 23, 2016

Soundtrack September: Batman: Return of the Joker

Game: Batman: Return of the Joker (1991)
Platform: NES
Composer: Kodaka Naoki

It's tempting to write about a lot of Sunsoft NES games; two years ago I recognized Fester's Quest, and Gremlins 2, Blaster Master and Journey to Silius are all further examples of Kodaka Naoki's expert use of the hardware to produce chiptunes as compositionally solid as they are technically sound.

Kodaka's composition on Batman: Return of the Joker is supported by equally proficient sound programming by Seya Shin'ichi and Hara Nobuyuki.

I'm not a big fan of the work of the YouTube user whose video I'm posting below, because he adds stereo sound and reverb to NES music tracks, making them sound different from their original selves. But his was the only upload I could find of the entire Return of the Joker soundtrack.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Soundtrack September: Journey

Game: Journey (2012)
Platform: PlayStation 3 (later PlayStation 4)
Composer: Austin Wintory

Journey is an artful and mercifully wordless adventure game from Thatgamecompany, makers of Flow and Flower. The plot follows the travels of a mysterious nomad in a cloak, who alternately trudges up and glides down desert dunes in a story that could be viewed as either open to interpretation or completely unimportant.

Rather than read what I have to say about it, however, I recommend you witness the composer's comments directly in the video below. Wintory given us a rare window of insight, annotating the entire soundtrack with text commentary about its creation.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Soundtrack September: Parasite Eve

Game: Parasite Eve (1998)
Console: PlayStation
Composer: Shimomura Yōko

When people look back fondly on Parasite Eve, their fondness most likely isn’t for the gameplay (which was bullshit) or the story (which was even more bullshit). It’s for the long-gone days of Squaresoft, a game developer that did things besides re-release old Final Fantasy games over and over again.

The story is a lot of faux-science bullshit about the mitochondria in living organisms’ cells running riot and causing monstrous deformations, as protagonist Aya Brea a rookie cop in the NYPD struggles to take down Eve, the catalyst behind all the bullshit. Brea is supported in her efforts by the NYPD which, despite Brea’s low rank, supplies her with a steady stream of military-grade ordnance (a concept which definitely felt like bullshit when the game came out, if not nowadays).

Sounds like a lot of bullshit, but the music was legit.

In accordance with the gritty, present-day setting of Parasite Eve, the music reflects the urban pulse of New York City (albeit an apparently abandoned version thereof), and only soars into the realm of fantasy when Eve shows up with her mitochondria bullshit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Soundtrack September: Lumines II

Game: Lumines II (2006)
Console: PlayStation Portable
Composer: various artists

Q Entertainment, innovative specialists in the music game genre, came up with the idea to pair some of the most simplistic puzzle mechanics ever conceived of with hypnotic electronic music, creating Lumines (pronounced “LOO-mi-ness”), which first hit the PSP in 2004. Most of the soundtrack consisted of quirky interactive tracks that reacted to the action on the screen.

Lumines II would duplicate the gameplay of Lumines, interspersing those dynamic tracks with licensed songs from artists like Beck, Fatboy Slim, Go! Team and Black Eyed Peas. It also introduced many to Genki Rockets, Q Entertainment founder Mizuguchi Tetsuya’s mysterious pop music act, fronted by a fictional singer called Lumi whose voice is an amalgam of two actual singers’. Genki Rockets would later provide the entire soundtrack to Child of Eden (2011).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Soundtrack September: Tenchu

Game: Tenchu: Stealth Assassins (1998)
Platform: PlayStation
Composer: Asakura Noriyuki

This month has already seen a lot of love for ninja games, and it's no news by now that I like traditional Japanese instruments. In the inaugural Tenchu game, the two come whirling together like a sumujikaze of greatness. 

This game, which deals with a pair of ninjas named Rikimaru and Ayame running around in the dark and dispensing tenchu (divine retribution) to corrupt politicians, merchants and rival ninjas, features some occasionally-hokey-but-always-awesome music that sounds like it belongs — here we go again — in an 80s TV series about ninjas. Even the original Japanese title of the game, Rittai Ninja Katsugeki: Tenchu (literally, "3D Ninja Action Drama: Tenchu") suggested TV culture.

Later in the franchise, Tenchu Kurenai (Tenchu: Fatal Shadows) would take that concept to the extreme and start introducing stages with TV-style teasers to the effect of "Next time on Tenchu..."

Similar to Revenge of Shinobi, we've got Japanese flutes and drums paired with Western brass, strings and guitars — but this time, all the instruments are real.

Slightly off the topic of the music, but look at the horrendous localization treatment this game's box art was put through for its US release.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Soundtrack September: Resident Evil 2

Game: Resident Evil 2 / Biohazard 2 (1998)
Console: PlayStation (later numerous)
Composers: Ueda Masami, Uchiyama Shusaku, Nishigaki Shun

I remember the original Resident Evil being pretty scary on its own without much help from the music, but maybe that’s because I just wasn’t listening. When Resident Evil 2 came out, I started listening.

The game’s abandoned police precinct setting is made supremely eerie by dread-inducing themes for the first and second floors (16:28 and 20:50 in the video below, respectively), and a shot of drama is added by the inclusion of the theme for Ada Wong (30:41). I’ve also always liked the “safe room” theme (10:04) which, in franchise tradition, is a soothing-however-eerie respite from all the tension of the surrounding hallways.

Toward the end of the game the music takes a turn for the dramatic, with boss fights accompanied by tracks that sound like they belong in an explosive Hollywood movie. These tracks aren’t as well executed in my opinion, but they did linger in my memory after finishing the game.

Bonus: Get a load of the rock track that plays during the end credits (36:04). Gnarly!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Soundtrack September: Revenge of Shinobi

Game: Revenge of Shinobi / The Super Shinobi (1989)
Platform: Sega Genesis / Mega Drive
Composer: Koshiro Yūzō

If the title screen of this game looks awfully realistic, it's because it's essentially a doctored still of Chiba Shin'ichi, AKA "Sonny" Chiba, as famed ninja Hattori Hanzo in the Japanese TV series Kage no Gundan (1980-85).

I bring that up because the music in this game, despite being the product of a Japanese composer (again we are honoring the ultra-prolific Koshiro Yūzō), sounds like the kind of bastardized impersonation of Japanese music you might hear in a 1980s American TV series, or maybe a in movie like American Ninja. It's a beautiful mashing together of Eastern-sounding elements (like parallel fifths, koto ostinati and Akebono scales) and American music tropes (like hip hop drum beats, slap bass and cheesy brass hits).

I already drew an analogy to the Lee Van Cleef miniseries The Master earlier this month, but I'll do it again. The 80s were a great time to be a ninja.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Soundtrack September: Jet Grind Radio

Game: Jet Set Radio / Jet Grind Radio (2000)
Platforms: Dreamcast, initially (now numerous)
Composers: various artists

Sega's best game innovations came in the twilight years of their days as a console powerhouse. The Sega Dreamcast, their final offering to the console market, hosted some of the most whacked-out novelties seen to date – Shenmue, Seaman, Crazy Taxi and Power Stone, to name a few big ones.

Jet Set Radio (Jet Grind Radio in English-speaking regions) fit in nicely with that array of unique games, oozing with street smarts and attitude. The unique visual style afforded by the then-new graphical technique of cell shading, coupled with an eclectic soundtrack made rollerblading around Shibuya-cho, Benten-cho and Kogane-cho (modelled after various Tokyo-area commercial, residential and industrial districts, respectively) feel real good.

Since the game's visuals conjure punk and hip-hop sentiments, the combination of sloppy rock tunes, electro jams and rap that underpins the action is appropriate. It may not be the best soundtrack from a technical standpoint (and it bears noting that this is a licensed soundtrack, however obscure the artists on it may be), but it still has a fond, spray paint-stinking place in my heart.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Soundtrack September: Hexic HD

Game: Hexic HD (2005)
Console: Xbox 360
Composer: Jerry Schroeder

If Hexic sounds familiar, it may be because the game came pre-installed on Xbox 360 consoles – or because I raved about the music in the game in this post from 2008. A relatively simple puzzle game without much happening on screen, Hexic could have had just about any type of musical backdrop, but the glitchy ambient sound that Jerry Schroeder went for is a perfect match. The game doesn’t have stages, so the tracks cycle in order one after another as the game is played. These tracks are alternately driven by understated beats, twangy guitar loops and somber tides of synth chords.

The soundtrack is available on his Bandcamp page as Hexophilia, an album containing all the music from the game, including longer versions of certain tracks and some unused material. I recommend the rest of his work as well.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Watch Dogs e15: Fire truck

I'm learning, at long last, not to be relieved at finishing a frustrating mission in this game. Because the next mission will be just as frustrating.

Soundtrack September: Jurassic Park

Game: Jurassic Park (1993)
Platform: SNES
Composer: Jonathan Dunn

I thought their vision was based on movement. 
Everyone raves about the music in Capcom, Konami and Sunsoft games, but Ocean is an unsung hero in the field. Since the days of Top Gun on the Commodore 64, Ocean’s game music has been innovative in its ways of bypassing hardware limitations (for example, using rapid oscillation between two notes in a single channel to create the aural illusion of thicker chords).

Jurassic Park on the SNES marked my first time to hear a sampled drum loop used effectively in a game. When the tribal drums give way to that hip hop drop, people notice. None of it resembles any of the music from the movie, but that hardly seems important. The movie also didn't feature a scene in which Ian Malcolm radios Alan Grant to warn him that the gallimimus herd may stampede, only to have Grant start blowing all the animals away with rockets (which totally happens in the game).

Bonus: To break up the tension of the game's spooky first-person segments, the elevators are equipped with convincing elevator music.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Soundtrack September: Symphony of the Night

Game: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Platform: PlayStation (later numerous)
Composer: Yamane Michiru

At a time when almost every game publisher in the world was scrambling to jump on the full-3D bandwagon with their contributions to the PlayStation library, a small handful of titles on that console would swim against the tide, opting instead to refine the art of sprite-based game design, or marry 2D characters with 3D backgrounds, and vice-versa. Unfortunately, most of the games that would defy the full-3D trend -- games like Klonoa: Door to Phantomile, Silhouette Mirage and Strider 2 -- found their fate as cult titles, overshadowed by Wipeout, Crash Bandicoot and Final Fantasy VII.

So did Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

Often called a marriage of Castlevania and Metroid, SOTN spanned the intimidating breadth of Dracula's castle, a building so big it has biomes. And each biome has theme music, masterfully crafted by Yamane Michiru, whose jazz-meets-gothic sensibilities would later shape the soundtracks to numerous subsequent Castlevania games, Suikoden III and IV, and Skullgirls.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Soundtrack September: TTT2

Game: Tekken Tag Tournament 2 (2011-2012)
Platforms: Arcade, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Composers: Tōyama Akitaka, Sano Nobuyoshi, et al

The Tekken series has a musical legacy appropriate for its history, with an audio identity that evolves with each installment of the series. What began in the 90s with cheesy techno tracks has developed with each game and reached its technical and creative peak in Tekken Tag Tounament 2. Six composers contributed to the original arcade version, with several others joining the console port project.

TTT2 has the distinction of being the first game in the franchise since Tekken 2 (1995) whose music grabbed my attention. You'll find a solid character select groove, a number of memorable stage themes and – my personal favorite – "Your Sunset," the West Coast funk anthem that accompanies the customization mode, not present in the arcade version. TTT2 also pays homage to Tekken 2 with its ending theme.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Watch Dogs e14: Tuna, egg and cheese

Aiden goes head-to-head with a competitive drinker who likes sandwiches.

Soundtrack September: The Sims

Game: The Sims (2000)
Platform: Windows, Mac
Composer: Jerry Martin

Before the turn of the millennium, the sim genre had yet to include the sub-category of “life simulators.” That’s why, when Maxis released The Sims in 2000, a lot of skeptics had trouble seeing the entertainment potential in micromanaging a bunch of harebrained human Tamagotchi.

I was never a big fan of the whole babysitting aspect of the game. Unless the player steps in to manage their Sims’ time, these gibberish-talking idiots will spend 20 straight hours watching TV, skip work to go swimming or pee their pants because they can’t be bothered to call a plumber to fix the toilet.

What I did like about the game was the freedom to design your Sims’ house and furnish it with swank interior items and a fancy-ass yard. These menu-driven parts of the game are where the soundtrack shines.

While building your home, you hear relaxing piano noodling, somehow appropriate for getting the creative architectural juices flowing. While shopping for furniture, you hear “shopping music” (and boy, does it ever sound like shopping music – hokey pizzicato strings, clarinet solos and harp glissandos, all performed by a real orchestra that sounds like it was brought forth in a time machine from 1953).

The biggest shame is that, of all my friends who played The Sims, the vast majority of them played with the sound turned off, and had no idea what I was raving about when I talked about how good the music was.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Soundtrack September: Quake

Game: Quake (1996)
Platforms: numerous
Composer: Trent Reznor

After dramatically impacting what would be the future of the first-person shooting genre with first Wolfenstein 3D and then Doom, id Software made what, by certain standards, could be considered their first truly 3D game, Quake. The 90s were a dark time for Mac gaming, and I was pleased as punch that Quake was available for Mac, let alone that my Power Mac G3 could run it.

Quake also has a special place in my memory because it was my first and last time to write a mod for a game. My mod was called SenSound, and it replaced a large portion of the game’s sound effects and added sounds where they had been absent (to the player’s footfalls, for example). After that, games promptly became too complicated for me to modify on a code level and my modding days were over.

The soundtrack to the game came from Trent Reznor who was then enjoying peak-level popularity afforded by the success of The Downward Spiral. Described by the composer as “not music,” the soundtrack uses some of the same dark soundscape elements and grimy digital distortion heard on that album (not to mention the familiar “screaming teenager” sample from The Downward Spiral’s title track). In adherence to Reznor’s description, the sounds heard in the game evolve gradually from an industrial grind to a more ambient set of mood pieces designed to reinforce the game’s bleak atmosphere.

I disagree with Trent. It decidedly is music, and it does its job very well.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Soundtrack September: Salamander / Life Force

Game: Salamander / Life Force (1986)
Platforms: numerous
Composers: Higashino Miki, Maezawa Hidenori, et al

Best known to Western kids as Life Force on the NES, Salamander (an offshoot of the Gradius series) helped popularize Konami as a giant of the belt-scrolling shooter genre – and the motivational rock music that goes along with that genre. My sister and I used to play Life Force's two-player cooperative mode and ad-lib lyrics to the soundtrack.

Salamander was originally an arcade title, but was eventually ported to just about every console that ever existed. Most of those ports saw an improvement over the original arcade version in the music department. Arcade music in the mid-80s just didn't sound very good most of the time. Still, the music is distinctly Konami, thanks in part to the involvement of Maezawa Hidenori, whose name you might recognize from credits in Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Goonies II.

I'm most familiar with the NES version, as that's what I grew up with, but get a load of the music from the MSX port. I think that just might be the best this game's soundtrack has ever sounded.

Oh yeah, and there's a medley of songs from Life Force on Space Pirate Collection I, just sayin'.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Soundtrack September: Ninja Gaiden

Game: Ninja Gaiden (1988)
Platform: Famicom/NES
Composers: Yamagishi Keiji, Nitta Ryūichi

The NES version of Ninja Gaiden (which bears little relation to its arcade predecessor) was the game that introduced me to the concept of drama in video games. Each stage is bookended by cutscenes, scored with melodramatic music, that flesh out the plot and build suspense, leading the player to keep playing to find out what happens next. It's very much like watching the 8-bit equivalent of an 80's miniseries starring Timothy Van Patten and Lee Van Cleef. Yeah, that's twin Vans. And one of them drove a van on the show. Van-ception.

This is one of those used-to-be-able-to-clear-but-can't-anymore games. It's really tough. You gotta have nerves of titanium to get through Ninja Gaiden's bullshit. But if you can survive until the end and defeat the marathon three-form final boss, you get to see the male and female lead characters' heads mashed awkwardly together in an 8-bit semblance of a kissing scene. It's worth it.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Soundtrack September: Actraiser 2

Game: Actraiser 2 (1993)
Platform: SNES/Super Famicom
Composer: Koshiro Yūzō

Unlike most of the games I recognize as part of Soundtrack September, I know very little about Actraiser 2. I've played it, but that's about all I can say. If I'm to believe the box, it was 100% pure action and excitement. It probably was, but it was also punishingly difficult, so I only ever saw one or two stages. But on the strength of the overworld theme alone (and the fact that this soundtrack is credited to the super-prolific Koshiro Yūzō), I can say with confidence that it's a great soundtrack of the era and a very competent 16-bit emulation of orchestral instrumentation.

I don't know much about the game's plot, but the music seems very appropriate in light of the fact that the main character looks like Seraphim-Fabio-Thor. He goes around...I don't know. Raising acts, I suppose.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Soundtrack September: Sonic 3

Game: Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
Platform: Genesis/Megadrive
Composers: Michael Jackson, Brad Buxer, Cirocco Jones, et al

The Sega Genesis wasn't particularly beloved for its audio, which depended heavily on a Yamaha FM synthesizer (frequency modulation synthesis is difficult to use effectively and often gives grating results in less-than-expert hands). Only a few composers would master writing for this format and produce a Genesis game soundtrack that really showed off the hardware's true capability.

The first two Sonic games were decent in terms of sound design, but it wasn't until Sonic the Hedgehog 3 that the music really reached its full potential. Each of the game's six unique zones is divided into two acts, with the music in the second act taking the form of a variation on the theme of the first. That, plus the five "competition mode" stages makes for a soundtrack as hefty in volume as it is strong in quality.

Michael Jackson was one of ten composers to contribute music to Sonic 3, but since the game was released less than a year after Jackson was publicly humiliated by allegations of sexual abuse of a 13-year-old boy, he remained uncredited. (For his part, Michael Jackson didn't wish to be credited anyway; according to long-time collaborator and tour keyboardist Brad Buxer, who also wrote music for Sonic 3, Michael was unhappy with the technical limitations of the hardware and didn't like the way the console made his music sound.) In spite of not having his name on the product, however, examples of Jackson and Buxer's songwriting styles do appear on the product.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Soundtrack September: Killer Instinct

Game: Killer Instinct (2013) – Seasons 1 and 2
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Composer: Mick Gordon

Mick Gordon took what thematic material he could from the Killer Instinct and Killer Instinct 2, and then applied masterful arrangement and production technique to create the super-high-impact soundtrack to the 2013 reboot of the series. This, together with his work on the reboot of Doom, has cemented Gordon’s reputation as a composer of hard-hitting, tough-as-nails game music.

It should be noted that Gordon’s availability to score Doom was contingent on Iron Galaxy releasing him from Killer Instinct duty between Seasons 2 and 3. I don’t like that Mick Gordon stopped scoring KI, but I’m glad he didn’t have to struggle to find his next job.

KI’s soundtrack capitalizes on Gordon’s hard-nosed production style with memorable music for every stage in the game. What’s more, every theme is dynamic, reacting to the flow of the fight. There’s even a timed accompaniment to every character’s ultra combo, each strike in the combo string triggering a musical stab in the score. The game’s attitude, thanks in large part to its music, puts a badass veneer on what’s also a fundamentally solid fighting game.

The strongest tracks include TJ Combo’s motivational hiphop theme “I’m Back (To Rise!),” Orchid’s gleefully angry pop anthem “Touch Me and I’ll Break Your Face,” and “Hinnamatoom” (Chief Thunder’s theme), which kind of sounds like music for a beer commercial BUT WHO CARES. My favorite is the music for Maya’s stage: a cathartic rendition of her theme from KI2 with excellent vocals by Ali Edwards.

(Unfortunately, the version of Maya’s theme that appears on the commercial release of the soundtrack is produced differently from what appears in the game, and is inferior in my opinion. This edit I made using audio from the game paints a better picture of what’s heard in the game.)

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Soundtrack September: Nightmare Creatures

Game: Nightmare Creatures (1997)
Platforms: PlayStation, Nintendo 64
Composer: Frédéric Motte

Nightmare Creatures was a third-person gothic horror beat-em-up with the same clumsy polygonal graphics that seemed to dominate every console game of the era. It received lukewarm reviews, thanks to its questionable controls and punishing difficulty (mainly down to the “adrenalin meter,” a perpetually depleting secondary life bar that only refilled upon defeating each stage's finite supply of enemies).

In spite of its faults, I had Nightmare Creatures in my PlayStation library for most of the time I owned the console. After getting used to the controls and memorizing the spawn locations of monsters to take the guesswork out of filling the adrenaline meter, I found it quite a satisfying action title.

What the game did really well was atmosphere. Thanks again to the CD fidelity of the Red Book audio format, the gloomy soundtrack came paired with ambient sounds like rustling leaves and rattling shutters, driving the proto-Victorian setting home and adding the suspense needed to make the player’s encounters with werewolves, giant spider-men and whatnot, sufficiently scary.

The music for stage 3, Thames Tunnel, sounds like an evil version of the title theme from Metroid. So that's pretty cool, I guess.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Soundtrack September: Klax

Game: Klax (1990)
Platform: NES*
Composers: LX Rudis & Dave O'Riva

* Klax was released for multiple home formats as well as the arcade, but this entry is about the unique music from the Nintendo Entertainment System version in particular.

In early 1989 Atari Games read the writing on the wall. The writing said, in essence: You're about to lose your legal battle with Nintendo over your NES port of Tetris. Sure enough, in the summer of that year, Tengen (Atari's home console game brand) would be compelled to recall and destroy thousands of Tetris cartridges.

In anticipation of this inevitability, Atari set forth to carve out its own slice of the puzzle game market, this time in the arcade, with the tile-stacking game Klax, which was released in February of 1990. The game's attract demo boldly announced that "IT IS THE NINETIES AND THERE IS TIME FOR...[cut to gigantic title screen]." The unique slogan, along with hip visual and sound design (the game reacted to player achievements with samples of what sounds like a Valley girl cooing her approval) made an arcade spectacle out of what was, at its core, a Tetris wannabe without much to it.

The success of the arcade machine, however, was just the prologue to the story of the soundtrack I want to highlight. Atari followed up in quick order by releasing home console ports of the game through Tengen, placing Alex "Lx" Rudis and Dave O'Riva in charge of the music for the NES and Lynx ports. The two musicians fancied themselves a unit and called themselves BugSuk.

Seeking to emulate the speed metal that their co-workers on the programming team were listening to at work, Rudis and O'Riva pushed the boundaries of what 8-bit music was "supposed to sound like," creating a brand of industrial noise that would never be duplicated in any game. The Valley girl voice samples also found their way into the NES port, creating a too-cool-for-school sonic attitude that would be more memorable than the tile-stacking gameplay.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Soundtrack September: Loaded

Game: Loaded (1995)
Platform: PlayStation
Composers: Neil Biggin, Pat Phelan

The soundtrack to Loaded isn't musically remarkable in any good or bad way. It is, however, the only game I can think of at the moment containing music from British proto-chav rock act Pop Will Eat Itself. The release of Loaded occupies the period between the 1994 release of their album Dos Dedos Mis Amigos and then-frontman Clint Mansell's departure into the world of film scoring in 1998.

Two PWEI songs (including my favorite version of the song "Kick to Kill") appear in the game, along with an electronic soundtrack by Neil Biggin and Pat Phelan. This is another Red Book audio title, so if you can get your hands on the game itself, you can listen to the music with or without a PlayStation. What's more, listeners who do put the disc in a CD player will discover an assortment of bonus "tracklets" – short cuts of demos that weren't used in the game.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Soundtrack September: Silent Hill 2

Game: Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Composer: Yamaoka Akira

I recognized Silent Hill in Soundtrack September 2014, comparing it to a "trip-hop act trapped in an off-kilter washing machine." Understanding that household appliances can only be scary for so long, Silent Hill 2 found a way to make the horror a lot more musical. (That's not to say it was any less scary. Silent Hill 2 still has the distinction of being one of the only games I haven't been able to finish by virtue of its sheer scariness, h/t Pyramid Head.)

Toning down the off-kilter washing machine means that Yamaoka's dreamlike, melancholy grooves come through crystal clear, capturing the on-again-off-again solitude of the game's titular setting. Players are placed squarely in the emotional space occupied by protagonist James Sunderland, who wanders into the nightmare town in search of his deceased wife, believing her to be alive after all, even while the player is pretty sure she isn't.

If I'm objective about it, this soundtrack really only has a couple of good tricks up its sleeve – moody chord samples, twangy guitars and plodding drum loops – and it repeats them. The songs that use these tricks are comfy like a slightly creepy living room. When Yamaoka cranks up the horror and begins to recall the non-musical machine sounds of SH1, it's a much more effective contrast this time around.

My opinion of the music may be biased due to what an experience Silent Hill 2 was for me. The game is cited by many critics as being one of the greatest horror games of all time, but let me add my own perspective: Silent Hill 2 was so scary, it scared my cat, Peanut.

I remember playing through the dark apartments section early in the game, and I had just turned a corner, revealing a mannequin monster about five meters away in the dusky hallway. I stopped moving the on-screen character, bound for a moment by a rare case of game-induced fear paralysis. Before I could start moving again, I looked at Peanut.

She was watching the screen wide-eyed, also apparently paralyzed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Resident Evil 5 e05: Tusky

Sheva. Can't live with her, can't live without her. Can't stop her getting blown up by dynamite, either.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Overwatch / 100th video / Soundtrack September

First, here's a 95-minute stream of Overwatch in which I only played D.Va.

And now the news. At some point in the last couple weeks, I posted the 100th video on my gaming channel. Which video was it? I have no idea! It's hard to keep track, as the running total shown on YouTube's video manager screen includes unpublished videos that are only there for storage.

And! We are now just ten days away from Soundtrack September 2016. If you weren't around for the last Soundtrack September, it's a month-long extravaganza with a post a day about video game music (a subject in which I feel I deserve a PhD, except they don't give PhDs in that subject). Get ready to learn something!

Resident Evil 5 e04: Something smells good

Poor Kirk. Sure, he fired missiles indiscriminately at us in the previous stage. But he didn't deserve to be ejected from a crashing helicopter and impaled on a burning spike.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Resident Evil 5 e03: The greatest romance

In this episode, Sheva's attempts at being helpful begin to cause Chris some stress. But if only he knew she was just trying to get him to notice her...

Monday, August 01, 2016

Fight Meee! SFV e07: Permanent resident

Maybe it was the Evo hype, maybe it was the new characters added to the game, but something pulled me back into the world of Street Fighter V. Then that something gave me a severe beating.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Capcom overload

Here's the second episode of my Resident Evil 5 adventures:

And here's the time I streamed Mega Man 2 from start to finish:

Monday, July 25, 2016

Resident Evil 5 e01: 'Swrong with Chris?

Let's turn back the clock seven whole years and watch Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar deal with zombie problems on the Dark Continent in this previous-generation classic.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Terraria stream

Watch a very hung-over Jesse play Terraria and struggle to make sense of the menu system.

Overwatch videos galore

Lots has happened in Overwatch that I've neglected to post here. First, I made a very obnoxious Mei highlight video:

Then I had this unexpected Mei moment (which subsequently made the Kotaku Highlight Reel for July 19, 2016).

And, most recently, my D.Va found herself in a web of spy intrigue, lurking behind the objective and doing her best not to be detected by the enemy until she was able to call a new mech.

In case you can't tell, I'm really enjoying Overwatch.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Watch Dogs e13: Drop the bass (on Aiden's face)

Lesson learned: The biggest threat in missions like this one is not the guy in the armor. It's the guy who can call for reinforcements. In this video, you will see me fail to understand that fact time and again, resulting in another marathon of trial and error. I think this mission took me about an hour and 20 minutes to finish.

Watch Dogs isn't a video game, so much as a video chore.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Overwatch: Guilty pleasures

Maybe it's not nice, but one of my favorite things to do in Overwatch is kill someone on the opposite team within the first two seconds of the match, like I do in this video:

And few things are more satisfying than pushing a Reaper off a cliff, like I do in this video:

If these things are bad, I don't want to be good.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Watch Dogs e12: Sleazy. Demure.

Aiden, masquerading as Crispin Glover, attends the annual Windy City Sex Slave Gala and Picnic Potluck.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

More Overwatch videos

One month on from its release, Overwatch continues to be my game of choice for the foreseeable future. It has kept me from getting any Street Fighter V practice in, stopped me from making Watch Dogs gameplay videos for a while and effectively put the last nail in The Division's coffin.

Here are some more videos!

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Nerf this! (But actually please don't)

Based on how quickly I've lost interest with team-based multiplayer FPS games in the past (Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead, specifically), I didn't expect Overwatch to grab me like it has. I avoided the open beta (instead playing the beta of Battleborn, which I didn't care for at all), so all I knew about Blizzard's highly-anticipated team shooter was that it had cool-looking characters.

By Overwatch's launch week, those cool character designs had captured my full attention, and on launch day, I bought the game, armed only with the knowledge that it had more than 20 characters, each one unique in both visual style and play style. That, and the fact that everyone seemed really excited for the game.

That variety and personality is what makes Overwatch so good. Unlike fighting games, whose character designs lure unsuspecting players, only to have them dislike (or just not understand) how the character works, Overwatch offers characters ranging in difficult from dead-simple to pleasantly challenging – and encourages players to switch characters when a match isn't going well. My first hour with the game started with me enjoying the firepower and mobility of Pharah, then the versatility of Widowmaker's sniper-rifle-which-is-also-a-machine-gun, and later, Winston's long-distance ground pounds and fits of rage.

Currently my favorite is D.Va, the gamer girl with the big, pink powersuit. Her ability to survive the destruction of her mech and then re-summon it again in the same life means that, if played right and supported well by her team, she can bring about a perpetual cycle of woe for the opposition.

Here's a match that went really well for D.Va and me:

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Did you know I have an Instagram

I wasn't thrilled with it when I first started my account back in 2011, and for nearly five years my Instagram had just one crappy photo on it. But since this February, I've made an effort to get back into Instagram's addictive "take photo with minimal effort, filter the hell out of it and wait for the likes to pour in" culture.

If you like pictures of mundane objects made more interesting by cranking up the contrast and saturation, give me a follow. Here are some of my better uploads:

A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on
A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on
A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on
A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on
A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on
A photo posted by @jessejacethomas on