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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.

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Final Fantasy IX — Feel My Blade

A fair portion of any JRPG soundtrack is made up of themes that are tied to places, characters, or events. In each Final Fantasy since FFIV, for example, each character has had an individual theme that is played during events in the plot that involve that character. Likewise, just about every town (and many of the dungeons) have individual themes, a trend that’s not unique to Final Fantasy but appears in most JRPGs.

At least a certain portion of each game’s score, however, is dedicated to unique plot events–specific battles, cinematic sequences, dramatic moments. Often, when a battle theme is unique, it denotes a particularly difficult or climactic boss–see Chrono Trigger’s “Battle with Magus,” Suikoden II’s “Gothic Neclord,” or Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete’s “Magical Weapon Nash” (a personal favorite–obscure!).

Final Fantasy IX has a unique battle theme accompanying a fight that isn’t particularly climactic or dramatic–at least, not in the traditional sense. “Feel My Blade” gets played exactly once in the game, within the first hour, and it accompanies the battle between Zidane’s acting troupe, Tantalus, and… their boss, Baku, who is playing the role of the evil king in the play that they’re performing. The battle has no actual dramatic tension–you can’t really lose it–and in fact, in place of the “Magic” command in your characters’ menus, you can select “SFX,” a command which allows you to use a number of unique “spells” that are entirely for spectacle and which deal exactly zero damage. You’re putting on a show for the audience in much the same way that the game is putting on a show for you.

This is a sequence which is easy pickings for the crowd who decries Final Fantasy as being mostly cutscenes with minimal gameplay, but if you’re among those gamers who appreciate games as spectacle and don’t mind narrative being sometimes divorced from game mechanics, the whole thing is hugely delightful. In fact, the whole game is pretty delightful.

I love this track–the swashbuckling, heroic melody, the length, melodramatic introduction–all of it. Tracks like this make me lament, in part, the advent of voice acting in RPGs. In the 32-bit era and before, the score of a game was entirely tasked with carrying the emotional tone of a scene, and could do so unimpeded. We’re still getting brilliant game music, of course, but “Feel My Blade” belongs to quite a different era, an era for which I feel a great deal of nostalgia.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow — The Ice Titan

I’m one of the masses of video game audiophiles who once decried the “cinematization” of game scores–having grown up with the prominent and catchy melodies of Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yuzo Koshiro, in the middle of the last decade I felt very strongly that the majority of game scores were trending toward ambient mood-setting when they were not busy being the background to lengthy cinematic sequences–and I was afraid that our special, peculiar kind of music was in danger as a result.

This opinion was, in retrospect, pretty short-sighted. What I (and many others) identified as a “trend” was really just the birth-pangs of a new type of game score, and while most AAA, $60 games often have soundtracks that mirror their Hollywood contemporaries, “gamey” chiptune music is still alive and well.

What’s more, in the last five years or so, cinematic game scores have come to be really, really good. Take the above example, from 2010’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game which is 60% God of War, 20% Shadow of the Colossus, and only about 20% Castlevania. Its departure from its source material notwithstanding, the game is an absolute delight, thanks in no small part to Oscar Araujo’s fabulous and compelling score.

If you’re a gamer and you haven’t played Lords of Shadow, well– you should give it a shot. It’s not absolutely a must play, but it’s most certainly worth your time, especially if you like whippin’ trolls.

 

Assassin’s Creed III — Main Theme

I’ve been listening to this an awful lot lately.

I fully admit to being a devotee of the Assassin’s Creed games. A unique and interesting narrative is enough to sell me on a series, and though the overarching story has sometimes drifted into the realm of sci-fi/apocalyptic cliche, the characters and settings are totally engaging. I loved climbing all over Damascus during the Crusades. Renaissance Florence took my breath away. Even Constantinople was superb.

The Assassin’s Creed series is an excellent example of how a modern game’s score can be both interactive and cinematic, malleable and evocative. This main theme from the latest entry, while not done by series veteran Jesper Kyd, is driving and excellent. Good music for listening to if you need to get stuff done. Composer Lorne Balfe did a real good job.

 

Kingdom Hearts II — A Fight to the Death

My apologies for a bit of a hiatus! Real life has become doubly real in recent weeks.

The Kingdom Hearts series, in my experience, is a somewhat divisive one– not quite a “love it or hate it” scenario, but many of the gamers in my acquaintance are either tremendously enthused with the premise or exceptionally uninterested.

I’d posit that to like Kingdom Hearts, only a couple of things need to be true: You must A) be able to enjoy a simple action-RPG, and B) have some affection for the various worlds of the Disney universe. I’ve met a lot of people who possess these two criteria.

However, in order to love Kingdom Hearts, you have to have an exceptional tolerance for the usual JRPG abstract philosophical gobbledygook, with which the games are flooded. There’s so much talk of light and darkness and hearts and memories and faith and friendship that it’s quite overwhelming, especially when much of it is so abstract that it begins to make very little sense. (Riku is hindered by the darkness inside him, but also made powerful by it–and by “embracing” it, he gets to keep the power but not be manipulated by it? I think?) What do light and darkness even MEAN in this world? Are they synonymous with hope and despair, or kindness and anger? None of the characters ever seem to be able to satisfactorily explain it, especially later on in the series when light and darkness both seem to be good things? Maybe?

Whatever your feelings about the games’ narrative(s), you can’t possibly object to their scores, by Square’s talented Yoko Shimomura, responsible also for Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana, among others. I brought up “Hometown Domina” earlier, but the track I’ve provided here today is proof that Shimomura is quite adept at battle music as well. The juxtaposition of energetic piano and intense rhythm creates a superb sense of urgency, and “A Fight to the Death” is one of my favorite pieces of boss music ever. It brings in some of the leitmotifs that Shimomura establishes elsewhere in the score in a way that is very effective.

Also, it’s a very appropriate accompaniment to the absurdity that’s occurring in the game–apparently, after the release of FFVII: Advent Children, Square decided that the film’s style of “Dragon Ball meets the Matrix” action scenes would fit perfectly in the climax of Kingdom Hearts II. In fact, if you haven’t played the KH games, I’d almost say that KH2 is worth it for the final battle alone. Completely absurd, over-the-top action. Totally disconnected from reality.

I love it.

Suikoden II — Bright Curtains (the Cooking Duel)

It’s Election Day, and as America selects its leader (and its destiny), this song will be stuck in my head from the moment I get up until the moment the results are all in.

I… I don’t know why. It’s just a thing.

Humans + Gears — Quickening

Speaking of Xenogears.

It’s early morning on a Sunday, and I’ve risen from my bed in order to tackle an almost insurmountable stack of evaluations to write for my students. There’s no one else up in my house, so I decide to put on some OC Remixes and get to work.

The first track that comes on is this one, from the community’s “Humans + Gears” project, a two-disc album of Xenogears remixes. Though the whole thing is a bit hit-or-miss, there are a handful of truly exceptional tracks, including this take on “Faraway Promise” by remixers Avaris and Level 99. I highly recommend you check it out.

Xenogears ramps up its religious allegory/giant mechas theme pretty early on, so the game doesn’t often stray into the pastoral (not in the same way that, say, Legend of Mana does), but there are a couple of locales in the game that utilize Mitsuda’s brilliant score to convey that setting quite nicely. I think the acoustic piece that these fine remixers have put together only adds to this mood, and hearing it in the kitchen of my house early on a Sunday morning definitely makes me wistful for the farmhouse in which I grew up.