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Castlevania: Circle of the Moon — Awake

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utl5udium0Q]

I’ve been listening to a lot of Castlevania music lately. Specifically, I’m catching up on back episodes of Brett Elston’s superb video game music podcase, VGMpire. He did a thing about six months ago where he took his listeners on a grand tour of the entire Castlevania musical oeuvre, and even as someone who is a die-hard fan of the franchise, I learned a thing or two (apparently Order of Ecclesia has some fabulous music! Who knew?).

Still, the thing that most struck me as I listened to track after track of awesome chiptune goodness was how much I really, really like the opening track from Circle of the Moon, titled “Awake.” I may or may not have stopped cleaning the house to do a little rocking out when one of the episodes opened with it.

The GBA doesn’t have great sound quality, and even the cleanest recordings sound like you’re hearing them broadcast from space through a battery-powered transmitter, but some of the compositions on the system were superb regardless (I point out here Advance Wars, in particular, along with the score to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga), and Circle of the Moon, as a launch title, is particularly impressive.

Through the fog of memory, I can’t recall whether I purchased my GBA because I desperately needed to play Circle of the Moon or, as is more likely, that I had a good bit of pizza-delivery money burning a hole in my pocket and was anxious to be an early adopter of a system, but Circle of the Moon was unquestionably the only title available for the system at launch that was worth a damn. Even now, I have an inordinate fondness for the game, despite the fact that on the original GBA, the game was so dark that it was often impossible to see unless you were sitting directly underneath a bank of florescent lights. It was hard, sometimes brutally hard, and it was the first game after Symphony of the Night to ape the “Metroidvania” method of level design.

It’s tough to recommend Circle of the Moon to a new gamer (or new Castlevania fan) when there are much more accessible games available (like Symphony of the Night, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin)–but for those of us that played it back when it was originally released, Circle of the Moon was really something special.

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Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — Chemical Plant Zone

Maybe it’s all the coffee in my system this afternoon, but I’m pretty sure I could listen to this theme on repeat for the rest of the day.

The funny thing about music in the Sonic the Hedgehog games, especially in the early levels, is that they have to hit you hard and fast because–no joke–you’re probably going to blow through Chemical Plant Zone in less than the time that it takes you to watch this YouTube video. Like, including the boss.

Sonic Team sure as hell knew how to make the Genesis’s sound chip sound great, and the music for Chemical Plant Zone is a superb example. Click the video. Have a listen. Give it twenty seconds–if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably think: “Oh, this is no big deal, I know this music inside and out. I’ve played this game a million times. This is nothing special.”

Let it sink in. Stay with it beyond the familiar initial reaction. And now– now it’s got its hooks in you. Now you can’t stop.

Suikoden Syndrome, or how a PSX JRPG changed the way I think about friendship

I have a tendency to try and get people to move to the city in which I live.

It’s not that I don’t respect the busy, rich, satisfying lives they must lead in their current cities–far from it. Many of my friends amaze me with their exploits on a near-daily basis. This desire to convince my friends to move near me isn’t borne entirely of selfishness, either: it’s not simply that I miss my friends but I am too stubborn to move myself. Instead, I blame this tendency to “recruit” my friends to come live with me on Suikoden II.

I first came to Suikoden on a whim: waiting desperately for the release of the next game from Square (a game which, if memory serves, was SaGa Frontier II, which is unique and worthwhile in its own right), I found myself at the mall with some money in my hands outside the door to “Electronics Boutique.” Recalling that my gaming magazine of choice (the long-defunct “Next Generation“) had given the recently-released Suikoden II four out of five stars, I decided to give it a go.

I confess to being a tad disoriented and underwhelmed at first. Flush after the cinematic overstimulation of Final Fantasy VII, adjusting to a game that was entirely two-dimensional, in which you couldn’t move diagonally, was a bit of a challenge. The fast-paced battles and charming characters went a long way to sell me on it, but I think that I probably got less than ten hours in before SaGa Frontier dropped and I got distracted.

It took me about a month or two to get back to it, and to this day I’m not entirely sure what I could have been thinking at the time. To have tasted the succulent fruit of Suikoden II and then walked away from the table? Unconscionable! Suikoden II is easily one of the ten best games I’ve ever played. It’s the strongest entry in a series that’s filled with compelling narratives about war, family, and destiny.

So how did it change how I think about my friendships? Well, that’s a little more complicated. Have you ever heard of Dunbar’s Number? It’s a concept which signifies the number of significant relationships the human brain can maintain and process at any given time. According to the Wikipedia article, it falls somewhere between a hundred and just over two hundred. So: more than just your housemates and your co-workers, but probably shy of the “Friends” tally you’re currently sporting on the ol’ Facebook.

When I first heard of Dunbar’s Number, the concept seemed curiously familiar to me, and it took me a little while to understand why. A hundred important relationships? A hundred people significant to me? Why did that strike a chord?

As with so many things, Suikoden held the answer. The Suikoden series, you see, revolves around a hero and his friends (or sometimes several heroes and their friends) collecting a mythical assembly known as the 108 Stars of Destiny. These Stars are characters who vary greatly in nature and disposition, from exuberant mercenaries to earnest chefs, brooding vampires, and at least one flying squirrel, and they all serve to aid you in your cause to resist the forces of tyranny, violence, and oppression.

And so, when I learned about Dunbar’s Number, something immediately came into focus for me: I was only going to be able to maintain just over a hundred relationships, and I was going to have to value each and every one of them, because these were going to be the hundred and eight people that were going to help me save the world.

Is that a bit of hyperbole? Of course. I didn’t have to like all of my Stars of Destiny (remember the flying squirrel?). But the beautiful, wonderful thing about the Suikoden games–a thing which I desperately wish was so obviously true about real life–is that everyone you recruit, each Star with whom you have a relationship, is there for a reason.

There’s the chef who runs your kitchens. The ferryman who gives you boat rides to neighboring towns. The man who installs your spa. There are countless warriors who join your party willing to risk their lives for your cause (or, if you want, you could take the chef into battle with you. Suikoden doesn’t care.).

For all of the brilliant plot twists and moments of narrative tension in the series, there is perhaps one instance in each Suikoden game that trumps even the most climactic battle: the moment when you are first given your castle. Far from a simple real estate transaction, the moment in which you are given your castle signifies the beginning of an enormous and epic endeavor–the beginning of your quest to seek out and recruit every useful person in the world and get them to move in with you.

Someone’s got to run your library. Someone’s got to upgrade your weapons. Someone’s got to be your cartographer. Seemingly every person you meet has a talent that they’re enthusiastic about contributing to the cause, even if that talent is changing the sound of your menu cursor into a quacking duck.
And I’m not a hundred percent sure when it happened, but this attitude about collecting all of my allies began to bleed into everyday life, and now I catch myself wondering what criteria I need to fulfill before my librarian friend, my blacksmith friend, my musician friend, my flying squirrel friend, will move into my castle so I can chisel their name on the great stone tablet that chronicles my Stars.

Is this selfish thinking? Perhaps a little bit. But there are few sensations in all of gaming that I find so pleasurable as running through a bustling castle town full of cheerful, productive inhabitants, and knowing that I had a hand in bringing them all together.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 — Throwback Galaxy

All right, full disclosure, this is just Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64. This jazzy update of the original doesn’t deviate much from the original version, though it’s certainly a little easier on the ears, and it retains the aesthetic style of  Super Mario Galaxy’s score. It’s still a hoot to listen to, and immediately recognizable.

Where were you when you first played Super Mario 64? Do you remember? Do you recall the precise moment when you realized that things were different now?

I remember. I was in a friend’s basement, jealously ogling his new N64, and we sat down to play. I distinctly remember being in awe of the game’s polish, the depth and breadth of its world. It seems quaint by today’s standards, but Super Mario 64 had a feel to it that no other game had ever managed before, a coherence of vision that remains the hallmark of the series. Nintendo got 3D gaming right, in a way that was years ahead of anyone else.

Here’s the original, in case that better evokes the nostalgia. Do you remember how BIG Bob-omb Battlefield seemed, and how surprising it was that there was not one star to be acquired there, but six? Six different ways to approach the same level! What luxury! What decadence!

We’ve come a long way in the last 17 years, but–Wow, yikes. Seventeen years. Maybe I’ll just leave you with that one.

Xenogears — The One Who is Torn Apart

It’s NaNoWriMo time, and that means it’s time for me to assemble my yearly writing playlist.

Based on the tune I’m offering here, go ahead and take a guess at the tone of my piece this year.

Xenogears is one of the most brilliant and most flawed games I’ve ever played. When it was initially released, it was among the most technically and visually impressive games available for consoles, and certainly the JRPG with the greatest scope–beating out even the biggest Final Fantasies. (It probably still doesn’t stack up against the Baldur’s Gates and Planescape: Torment, but hey).

I’m always hesitant when I consider recommending that someone try and play through Xenogears. If you can cope with its pace, its difficulty, the often awkward and dull translation, and the fact that the game is essentially unfinished–the second disc is like an outline for what the developers envisioned the rest of the game ought to be–it’s one of the most thoughtfully created and emotionally resonant games out there. It’s a game that legitimately tries to tell a mature story, though the telling of that story is hampered by a number of factors.

Recommending Xenogears is kind of like recommending someone tackle Ulysses–if they can glean from it the brilliant and remarkable insights present within the text, there’s little that can compare with the experience. There’s just an awful lot to slog through in order to reach those jewels.

But seriously, though. You should totally play it.

Chrono Cross — The Dead Sea

The wind is howling outside my windows. It’s nearing midnight.

I can think of few locales in any video game that haunted me so much as the Dead Sea in Chrono Cross. It was altogether foreign and alien–a futuristic world, frozen in time, captured at the very moment of cataclysm.

There are a number of revelations that occur when you visit the Dead Sea, but I’ll not discuss them, for the dual reasons that  they’re not particularly compelling out of context and that I don’t want to ruin them for those who haven’t played the game. (You should. You really should.)

Yasunori Mitsuda’s gloomy piano does wonders here in terms of conveying a sense of ruin and mystery. Indeed, listen to the track and imagine exploring any derelict structure, in reality or in fiction. I think you’ll find it an excellent fit.

Silent Hill 2 — Theme of Laura

Are you caught in a nightmarish existence, tormented by shapeless horrors of guilt and doubt, trying desperately to seek solace or aid from people who never quite seem to be seeing the same world you are? Are you constantly beset by the nagging, itching sense that on some fundamental level, all of this is your fault?

Yeah, well, you and everybody else, huh?

Akira Yamaoka’s theme from Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really need an introduction. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time. It does an astonishing job of conveying the grim tone of the game, fits in nicely with the grungy visual aesthetic of the series, and even manages to sound mournful–an appropriate presentiment of the game’s ultimate thesis. It lets you know that in the town of Silent Hill, things ain’t all right.

As if you couldn’t have guessed.