Vagrant Story is one of the best and most polished games that Square Enix ever published, but whether because of its dark and brooding aesthetics or because of its punishing difficulty curve, it didn’t get as much exposure as its more recognizable cousins. The game has become something of a cult classic, however, a status that it rightly deserves.
The game’s soundtrack, by Hitoshi Sakimoto, is as somber and brooding as the game’s visuals, with only occasional moments of levity and brightness. This track, “Ifrit,” one of the game’s many boss themes, is a notable exception–uptempo and fast-paced, this piece fits in with the best of Uematsu’s Final Fantasy boss themes and is a nice preview of what Sakimoto would offer several years later in his score to FFXII.
In fact, just listening to this has me hankering to go back and replay Vagrant Story, or perhaps even repurchase it as a PSOne Classic and tote it about with me on the PSP. I’m not sure a dungeon-crawler of its depth exists natively on a handheld system. If you are at all interested in RPGs, or even simply mature video game stories told quite well, you ought to seek out Vagrant Story and make a run at it. Just don’t be surprised when it knocks you flat on your ass.
I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot over the last couple days– there are a handful of game themes that pop up in my head frequently, and I’m always surprised at how often I find myself humming the theme from Fire Emblem. I’ve actually only beaten one of the games in the series (the first outing on GBA to be ported to the States), though I’ve played halfway through two or three others. Nevertheless, I’ve always loved this main theme, and was particularly pleased to hear the choral treatment it got for Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Game music needs more marches. An upbeat track like this is an excellent way to steel yourself for a difficult day at work–or to get yourself psyched for some truly immersive escapism! In any case, it’s a track I thought deserved to be brought to more people’s attention, especially because it belongs to a series that was Japan-only for so long. Listen and enjoy!
I was a gamer from a very young age. Despite my parents’ firmly-held (and probably correct) belief that too much screen time is a bad thing for a developing mind, my extended family gifted me with a classic Game Boy when I turned six. This my parents tolerated–after all, it wasn’t a television, and could only be played in direct light. Then, when I turned nine, someone (not my parents) got me one of these bad boys:
A Sega Genesis. It was probably the best birthday ever up to that point, despite the fact that the games they picked for me were Krusty’s Super Fun House and James Pond. It didn’t matter! The system came bundled with Sonic 2, which was (and still is) a masterpiece of platforming.
I don’t know how it is that we gamers end up getting the music bug, but I already had it by the time I unwrapped my Sega. I had it bad. I was pulling up the sound test in every Game Boy game I owned, holding that pathetic speaker to my ear like I was some sort of boom-box sporting 90’s cliche. By the age of eight, I was already a dedicated game music enthusiast.
But a Genesis wasn’t portable like a Game Boy, and I couldn’t bring its excellent tunes in the car with me, or anywhere that wasn’t TV-adjacent. However, being a resourceful young lad with access to a handful of electronic devices, I devised a cunning plan: I held my parents’ stereo up to the TV speaker and made a Sega Genesis mixtape.
I’m writing to you, ladies and gentlemen, not simply to reminisce, but because I have made an archaeological discovery. I’ve uncovered that mixtape, and analyzed its contents. And I am here to tell you that young Nate had mostly great taste in 16-bit music.
What follows are, and I am not kidding you, the actual tracks on the Genesis mixtape I made when I was 12 years old.
1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, “Versus Mode”
This is what I’m talking about when I say that young me knew what he was talking about. The Genesis’s sound chip was kind of weird and limited compared to that of its competitor, the SNES, but I didn’t know that at the time! All I knew was that I liked these poorly-synthesized shredding guitars! This is the sort of piece that really deserves some attention on OCRemix. One of their musical sorcerers could undoubtedly translate this into something superb.
Mean Bean Machine is a pretty good game, too–as a Puyo Puyo clone, you could definitely do worse. I’d take it over Kirby’s Avalanche any day, even if it does have licensing from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (the bad one).
2. The Lion King, “To Die For”
Disney interactive had a pretty great streak of making delightful games in the mid-90’s. Well, it had two, at least. The Genesis versions of both Aladdin and The Lion King were superior to their SNES counterparts, in my experience. (My wife could vouch for the Beauty and the Beast tie-in games, but I never played them myself.) Really good platformers, both of them! You should go play them.
It seems silly that young me should have preferred the 16-bit translations of Hans Zimmer’s excellent film score (which is superb), but, well, I didn’t have that film score, and in any case, the track in question takes a few brief measures of the piece which shares its name and extends them to become a whole piece unto itself–a piece which plays during a very cool level which was a departure from the standard side-scrolling the game had shown me up until that point.
3. Ristar, “Crazy Kings”
Ristar is amazing. A colorful, cartoonish platformer developed by Sonic Team, Ristar revolves around a quirky combat/navigation mechanic which is much more fun to play around with than it sounds (the titular character has… stretchy arms. Look, it works, okay?). Each world you visit in the game has a distinct personality and lush, detailed visuals. Because this is Sonic Team we’re talking about, the music is toe-tappingly great as well.
But for my money, nothing sells this game like the bosses. Fighting a shark in a submerged cavern, fighting a giant mechanical mole while in freefall down a mineshaft, fighting a deranged buzzard as it tries to take the stage from a songbird virtuoso–every boss in the game is unique, each one is gorgeous, and you get to fight them all while this music is playing. I’d listen to this while fighting possessed alien tyrants anyday.
4. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, “Intro”
All right, they weren’t all going to be gems. I was twelve, after all. This one takes the shredding guitars of Mean Bean Machine and takes them to their (il)logical extreme. Listening to this sounds like putting a Cylon through a wood chipper.
Desert Strike was a pretty cool game, I seem to recall, but man, was it difficult. I don’t think I got past the first area more than a couple times. Maybe that’s one worth revisiting. Was it, like, weirdly prescient? We did end up “returning to the gulf,” after all. Maybe there’s more to this one than meets the eye…
5. Cool Spot, “Rave Dance Tune”
Oh man! If YouTube is to be trusted (and I can’t think of a single circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case), this one’s by Tommy Tallarico, the guy responsible for Earthworm Jim and a handful of other 16-bit classics, as well as one of the creators of Video Games Live, an absolutely excellent show that I recommend you all attend when it makes its way to your city.
Cool Spot was not a great game. I seem to recall really wanting it, which about makes sense for a twelve-year-old. Some of its music included riffs on some pop culture tunes (wasn’t there the theme to The Magnificent Seven in there somewhere?), but other than that, well… it was about as engaging as you might imagine a game based around a soda mascot would be. I had almost forgotten about the game entirely until I discovered this track on my old mixtape. Nevertheless, a pretty nifty tune, huh?
6. Sonic 3D Blast, “Gene Gadget Zone Act 1”
This game was a mess. Sonic’s signature speed was gone, it was difficult to control, and the graphics were–well, the graphics were decent, but I think I was spoiled by a better 2D-to-3D conversion of a major gaming mascot. Coming out near the end of the Genesis’s lifetime, Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t really the swan song that Sega was hoping for, I think, and boded ill for the hedgehog’s future three-dimensional outings. Nevertheless, just about every track on this game’s score is solid musical gold. In fact, I may have spent more time with the sound test than I did actually playing the game.
And that’s it! Yep, six songs. Either that was enough to constitute a “mixtape” when I was twelve, or I just got bored and tired of holding that stereo up to the TV. In any case, I carried that tape around in my Walkman for several months before it became lost in a closet somewhere, buried beneath strata of personal belongings, to be excavated by me only recently.
That tape was important, though: it was telling. It was early evidence of a growing obsession with the music of video games–an obsession which continues to this very day!
Just about the most worthwhile game purchase I made last year was Supergiant Games‘s Bastion bundled with its soundtrack by Darren Korb. 2011 saw an awful lot of good game music, but nothing has racked up so many plays in my iTunes counter as this soundtrack–part folk, part western, part electronica… It’s a little difficult to pigeonhole, but it’s nothing short of fabulous.
Look, the Humble Indie Bundle V is still going on for another two days, and all I’m saying is– that $9 you’d have to pay to get all eight games and five of their soundtracks? That $9 is worth it for the Bastion soundtrack alone.
Have a listen to this: “In Case of Trouble.” If this doesn’t get you psyched to go on an adventure, then no words of mine are going to do it.
I get game music stuck in my head all the time.
Surely I’m not alone in this. There is a substantial portion of the game playing community that’s wholly invested in game music. Check out OCRemix if you’re in any doubt.
For my part, game music has the ability to make me nostalgic for places that are entirely fictional– while movie scores, upon listening, can bring me immediately back into the story with which they originate, game scores have the additional quality of making me want to go back and roam the worlds they come from. I don’t just miss the characters, the emotional moments, the great battles… I miss the towns, the countries, even the dungeons.
Probably the most evocative music I can think of in this regard is Nobuo Uematsu’s scores from the Final Fantasy games. This one, from the closing credits of FFIX, makes me wistful for my travels through the streets of the bustling city of Alexandria, the bizarre landscape of the Forgotten Continent, and the strange otherworlds one traverses in the latter parts of the game. If you haven’t played the game before, of course, it will have none of these connotations… Nevertheless, Uematsu’s music has a certain universal applicability to light fantasy. Perhaps this will remind you, too, of a story you loved when you were small!
Any memories come wafting out of the past?