Horror Review: The Evil Within

The Evil Within’s announcement was met with huge expectations for being an original horror title directed by Shinji Mikami, creator of Resident Evil, benchmark of modern horror videogames. Over the years he personally directed a few projects with very fluctuating results, but his leadership of the Resident Evil games was competent, and they only really squandered when he cut ties with the series after his involvement right after Resident Evil 4, which many regard as one of the best games of the last decade. No pressure in this new intellectual property then.

And I’ll just straight out say it. It’s a disappointment. It would be hard not to be one. But it’s not a normal disappointment. If it were I’d give it a passable review and say that people might enjoy it just for the effort. However, The Evil Within is, pardon me, utter piss. I realize negative reviews are very “in” nowadays and people do them just for the sake of it, but this one is sincere. I wouldn’t buy something on retail price crossing my fingers, HOPING, it would be such a mess. I spent cash on this shit. This money was invested. I wanted it to give some return in the form of entertainment. Which was wishful thinking, of course.

First of all let me talk about the technical issues. Full disclosure; I played the PC port; not a good option, apparently. To be honest I only had one issue with it, but I understand that “it is not a good port” because this piece of trivia was bombarded on me by my peers. So don’t buy the PC version, it’s bad (maybe until they release some patches). That being stated, we’re left with “the game”. The real horror.

Probably under the pretense that this would make the game scarier, the development team decided that the camera just had to be forever stuck on letterbox view. This is not just pretentious, it is an OBSTACLE. It takes maybe a third of everything in your field of view. Your eyes are hindered by two monstrous gaps of black bars, top and bottom. And you need to actually look at stuff to be able to pick them, so you can only imagine how this is cumbersome on the playing experience (By items, I mean ammo, medicine, documents, same kind of thing that was in Resident Evil). Are you a fan of collecting stuff? A perfectionist maybe? You’ll either spend more time than you should inside one map to make sure you’ve gotten everything or you’ll forget that. Chances are you’ll miss items either way. This camera is out of this world. It is a monster incarnate full of spite toward you. Catching inbound enemies is an equally hard job, as the lack of proper vision of your immediate surroundings makes it hard to realize if you’re being chased, or to know exactly how many enemies are around you. This might lead to some unintentional scares if that fancies you, but fact of the matter is that it’s simply put, bad camera mechanics. And let’s not talk about the obtuse amount of film grain. That being said, this title is not entirely offensive on a visual scale. The art and graphics are quite nice, even if hamfisted on the gore. It’s just too bad it’s so hard to see it properly.

Apparently it actually covers something around 45% of the screen

Actually, it seems to cover something closer to 45% of the screen

A document early on the playthrough makes a point of telling you that the protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos is one of the fastest ever policemen of Krimson City to rise to the rank of detective (I feel like the name of the city might have been suggested by me when I was 14 and thought I was really death metal) . You will quickly notice though that Detective Castellanos isn’t the physical marvel he is laid out to be. The act of sprinting in the beginning takes a full 3 seconds from top speed to complete exhaustion. At his best, Sebastian can run for ten seconds before needing to stop and breathe in the middle of a full herd of enemies (which he WILL do if you rely on sprinting too much). He’s not a very good shot either, even at ranges close to point blank he’ll miss often unless you upgrade his weapon. Walking is awkward, running away is awkward, shooting is awkward. Some of these can be improved by buying common sense into the game in the form upgrades for the character with green goop. Seriously, that’s their currency. I confess to maybe having missed something, but I don’t think that part was ever explained.

If you think objectively about it, Resident Evil was awkward. Even the fourth one. The controls were always strange at best. It comes to me that, while people were begging for a new, good Resident Evil, Mikami acknowledged their wants and needs. That’s what The Evil Within is. I mean, the zombies are there, the alien controls as well, and it’s ever so slightly scarier, which was another major complaint, since some viewed the Resident Evil series as having swayed from survival horror to mostly action with some horror elements. In this sense, people got just what they asked for: A survival horror made by Mikami that is very much like Resident Evil. However since Resident Evil 4, Mikami directed two titles, a four year gap between each of them (2006, 2010, and The Evil Within in this Gregorian year of 2014), and the other two were not even close to being horror games. So what we got is a newly released outdated survival horror with ten year old survival horror mechanics.


What happened!? I heard there was a good game in here!

The sad realization is that maybe Shinji Mikami isn’t a master of horror. The Evil Within isn’t very scary past the few initial chapters, where you’re completely powerless (and maybe this was this game’s real element, which in my opinion he failed to realize). Some of the more tense parts orchestrated by him come from trial and error, when some scripted event or other makes you face something new, something you’re totally willing to fight against. Then, upon closer inspection, you notice your head has just been pulverized by this new thing you perceive. So it occurs to you that you don’t fight this thing, you run from it. Of course, that’s after you died. Not very fair, honestly. The story is intriguing, but extends itself far too much. My interest was gradually lost on what could be a great mixture of body and psychological horror. It failed because while the art was on the right spot, the writing lost its way and somewhere it just became a zombie game. And I hoped it would pick up again. It never did.

It seems The Evil Within has few redeeming features and is somewhat obsolete in a very weird way. The space reserved for its image projection is malevolent. The gameplay is unimpressive and clumsy. It is artistically well intentioned, but ultimately poor. It does have, however, a very nice character in the form of an otherworldly and cryptic nurse that helps you through the story during dreamlike sequences. Her personality and oddities make her seem like a character from a Suda51 game, maybe something learned by Mikami in his time working with Suda on Shadows of the Damned. Man, now that’s a good title. Suda is really good, isn’t he?


Capcom Announces Breath of Fire 6

…and kids will be playing it who weren’t even born yet the last time Capcom gave us any news about the status of the main series. Yes, some time next year Capcom will be releasing the first new major title in their petrified RPG blockbuster series since 2002. Western fans have no guarantees just yet–it was only announced for Japan–but there is at least some hope now that Ryu and Nina will be reborn in English once again. The announcement was made yesterday at Capcom’s Network Game Conference, and it’s hard to say just how excited we ought to be. An abandoned western fanbase has been dying for a decade to see classic RPG series likes Breath of Fire, Suikoden, and Final Fantasy reborn or in the latter case resuscitated, but that does not necessarily mean Capcom is going to see a western market or throw enough weight behind this game to effectively appeal to it. Breath of Fire did persist in Japan, like so many other former great franchises, in the form of low budget mobile game spinoffs, and if that remains the most lucrative outlet for JRPGs, then the significance of that 6 next to the title (as opposed to say, 4 Dragon of Ultimate Death 7 Quest Episode 3), might amount to little more than a half-hearted pitch to sell a few more copies. Breath of Fire 6 appears to be technologically bridging the gap between the mobile market and more sedentary gaming, with a touch screen mobile device interface that will also be designed to function on a PC as the same game–not a port–with transferable save states.

It will be worth keeping an eye in the months to follow on just how much Capcom markets this game. If they expect the 6 to sell itself and do little more to promote it, we probably shouldn’t expect (or even necessarily desire) a port. But if they make a big deal about it, then get excited, because I doubt they would put forth all of the necessary effort to create a legitimate, worthy installment to the Breath of Fire series and then forget to ship it overseas.

Trailer: Dead Rising 3 (Gameplay Trailer)

DeadRising3I will admit that zombie entertainment will always catch my attention. Yes, it probably has reached oversaturation, but guess what…I don’t care. I’ve always enjoyed the apocalyptic, Last Man On Earth possibilities that zombie entertainment has offered gamers, readers and viewers. This was the case with the first Dead Rising by Capcom and then by it’s sequel Dead Rising 2 a couple years ago.

Dead Rising 3 has now been announced as an exclusive title for the Xbox One and it looks to take the power of the One to upgrade the graphics, gameplay and overall experience of the title. This time around instead of set inside a mall or a Las Vegas strip-style location we have a game that’s more akin to Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row in terms of open-sandbox gameplay. This looks to be a natural progression for a franchise that seem to get bigger and bigger with each each release.

This gameplay trailer during the Microsoft E3 Presser just shows how much bigger and interactive Dead Rising 3 than it’s two previous predecessors.

Dead Rising 3 is set to be a launch title for the Xbox One.

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Super Nintendo RPG/Adventure legacy didn’t come over night. But ActRaiser (Enix, 1990), Final Fantasy IV (Square, 1991), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) did not necessarily set the stage, either. RPGs had been huge in Japan for quite some time. The Super Nintendo provided both the capacity to carry them and the consistency to focus costs on a single product (imagine the amount of time and resources which must have went into porting PC RPGs to a half-dozen different systems). This didn’t inspire computer gaming companies to switch gears–Nihon Falcom continued to pump out their titles for the PC-9801 all the way up to 1996, slowly switching to Windows with only one Super Famicom title, Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin (1995), to show for themselves in between. But other publishers saw RPGs as a more viable option now, and Capcom, Taito, and Nintendo hopped on the bandwagon while Square and Enix picked up the pace. (Konami held off producing RPGs until the Playstation era.)

The fact that these types of games did not start to appear in abundance on the SNES until 1992 might have been a simple consequence of developers spending most of 1991 making them. 1992 to 1995 were the glory days of SNES fantasy gaming, and perhaps the crowning era in the history of video game music.

Capcom’s first big RPG was Breath of Fire (1993), credited to a long list of composers including Yasuaki Fujita (Mega Man 3), Mari Yamaguchi (Mega Man 5), Minae Fujii (Mega Man 4), Yoko Shimomura (Gargoyle’s Quest, Street Fighter II), and Tatsuya Nishimura. Thankfully track by track authorship is actually available, and we can see that Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita did the grand bulk of the composing, with Mari Yamaguchi contributing five songs and the other three chipping in a song each.

Here’s a track list for the compilation:

(0:00) The Dragon Warrior
(1:24) Fate
(2:54) Starting the Journey ~Breath of Fire~
(4:11) Deep Forest
(5:18) Battling
(6:02) Sand Palace
(7:07) Dejection
(8:05) Fishing

As a series, Breath of Fire was not really all that well noted for its contributions to video game music. I don’t want to blow off the rest of the games here and now before revisiting them, but I distinctly remember playing through most of them with the radio on (I never actually played Breath of Fire V). The original Breath of Fire was definitely more of an exception than than the rule. The soundtrack is peppered with memorable, moody numbers. It’s most famous song, at least in so far as it was carried on in future installments, is Mari Yamaguchi’s overworld theme, “Starting the Journey”. But it is Yasuaki Fujita’s bleaker contributions that really make the game stand out from the crowd. “Deep Forest” and “Dejection” could both easily pass for ending credits themes to some complex plotline defying the good versus evil stereotype–the sort of RPG we all crave but rarely find outside of the Suikoden series. They’re both delightfully dark and finite, screaming “it’s over, but did you really win?”

Of course neither of them are actually credits music, and Breath of Fire was never known for its plot. The series had an incredible knack for being simultaneously completely forgettable and quite fun to play–perhaps a consequence of actually challenging combat (at least, in comparison to the vast majority of turn-based RPGs.) When it came to music, the original was the only one that actually made a lasting impression on me when I played it.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, composed by Yasunori Shiono, was another series starter in 1993. There were actually only two Lufia titles in the 90s, and I suspect the later handheld releases came as an afterthought. Taito were prolific producers with a history in the gaming industry dating all the way back to 1973, but they had always shied away from the RPG market. With the cooperation of newly-established developers Neverland Co., Lufia would be their first attempt.

As for the history of Neverland, something on Wikipedia is clearly wrong. It claims Lufia‘s developer was founded on May 7th, 1993, and it claims the game was released on June 25th, 1993. But while Neverland certainly must have had an earlier origin, Lufia does appear to be their first of very few titles. In that regard, the Lufia series was kind of unique. I won’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes in the gaming industry (my dream of directing RPGs has always been a total fantasy), but I have to imagine when a producer develops their own game there’s a fairly more intimate degree of interaction between the two sides. Square and Nintendo as of 1993 nearly always developed their own games. The wildcards in the world of non-PC RPGs almost always went through Enix (the most famous developers being Quintet and Chunsoft). Neverland-Taito then seems like a pretty unique pairing–an independent developer working with a producer that had never marketed an RPG.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was in every manner a rough draft–a sort of prototype for Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which was infinitely better and one of the best RPGs in the history of the SNES. Unlike Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (from what I gather), Breath of Fire, Seiken Densetsu, Quintet’s unofficial ‘Soul Blazer Trilogy’, and Zelda really, the Lufia series was both plot-centric and cumulative, taking place in the same world with a continuous history and related/reoccurring characters. As if in collusion with the rest of the development team’s maturation, Yasunori Shiono’s compositions improved substantially in the second title, but we will get to that later.

Good adventure/RPG music was not limited to the Super Nintendo. The Game Boy was a musical instrument par excellence, with by far the most aesthetically pleasing tones of any system on the market lacking diverse instrument sampling. (I hope that’s a suitable delineation for a technical subject of which I still know absolutely nothing.) The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is far and wide my favorite score in the Zelda series. It might have nothing on Ryuji Sasai’s work on Final Fantasy Legend III, but Link’s Awakening brings the Game Boy to life in a really beautiful way. Indeed, its only real fault is a failure to employ his three-dimensional stereo effects. The game’s crowning jewel, Tal Tal Heights, appears early in this compilation (0:30), but the whole score merits attention.

Koji Kondo surprisingly had nothing to do with it. Link’s Awakening was a joint effort between Kazumi Totaka, Minako Hamano, and Kozue Ishikawa, all of whom I’ve yet to mention. Kazumi Totaka actually had a pretty long history with Nintendo, providing music for the sort of games you might expect to hear Soyo Oka on (Mario Paint, Wave Race 64, most notably Animal Crossing, which I do hope I remember to feature if I ever get that far). Minako Hamano was responsible for roughly half of the Super Metroid soundtrack, though her name rapidly fades from the pages of history, and Kozue Ishikawa is a virtual unknown. But this motley crew managed to piece together one of the quintessential scores of the Game Boy, and in doing so earn themselves a place in video game music history.

VGM Entry 59: Street Fighter II and SNES domination

VGM Entry 59: Street Fighter II and SNES domination
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

An enormous disparity had emerged between the Super Nintendo and competing platforms by the early to mid-90s. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, released two years sooner, still didn’t have much to offer, and the arcade was fading fast. The former simply couldn’t compete with the SNES’s ability to simulate real instrumentation, and the latter, I suspect, was no longer funded the way it used to be. This lends itself to a number of comparisons, but in consideration of the fact that my available time for writing these articles is rapidly coming to an end, let’s just jump straight to the point.

The Street Fighter II series is a massive and confusing string of titles through which Capcom managed to milk a great deal of money releasing minor updates and new characters over a short period of time. The original Street Fighter II came out for the arcade in 1991. This was followed (in the arcade) by Street Fighter II: Champion Edition (April 1992), Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting (December 1992), Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (October 1993), and Super Street Fighter II Turbo (March 1994).

If that were all, it would be fairly easy to sort out, but each of these games was given a different title based on region and platform. Street Fighter II Turbo for the SNES, for instance, was a port of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, not Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was not a port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, but rather of Hyper Fighting. The additions made in the original Champion Edition were carried over into most future versions of the game and ports, such that the original Sega Master System Street Fighter II (released in Brazil, where there was inexplicably still an SMS market, in 1997) was actually Street Fighter II: Champion Edition.

I would love to sort all this in a nice coherent list, but it would take me all day, and as I said, my time for writing these articles is starting to run short. So let’s just look at the version currently playing: Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers. This one was released for the Super Nintendo in 1994 as simply Super Street Fighter II. Skip ahead to 5:12 and you’ll hear a delicious little oriental arrangement reminiscent of Miki Higashino’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu. (Again, time restricts me from actually finding the name of the song.)

Wikipedia credits Isao Abe and Syun Nishigaki with composing the Super Street Fighter II soundtrack. This is a little confusing as well, since Isao Abe and Yoko Shimomura get credited for the original Street Fighter II and a lot of the music is the same, but whoever wrote it, you’ve now heard the arcade version of the song, and I think we can all agree that at least in the 80s sound quality (not necessarily composition and arrangement) was substantially better in the arcade than on any home system.

The same song appears in the SNES Super Street Fighter II song compilation at 4:29, and I don’t think I need to point out how it’s better. Here’s a game released for a 1990 system, and the quality of sound is decisively better than Capcom’s 1993 arcade release. Forget about state of the art technology in the arcade; I think at this point companies were cutting costs, and high-end sound systems had to go.

Here’s another case in point. Shining Force (Sega, 1992) was a tactical RPG released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Composed by Masahiko Yoshimura, it is one of the most highly regarded soundtracks on the system. Aside from a ton of spin-off titles, Shining Force as a series only saw three installments, and each of these featured a different composer. Motoaki Takenouchi, for all his talents, didn’t do such a hot job with Shining Force II (Sega, 1993), and the third was released on the Saturn, so we’ll just focus on the original.

Masahiko Yoshimura did a really outstanding job here with the limited resources available to him, especially when the gameplay situation called for intensity. The tracks beginning at 1:47 and 2:34 especially impress me in this regard. Yoshimura’s militant snare carries the day, and there’s also something interesting going on in company with the bass. The deep piano tones on this second track play tricks on my ears, projecting a piano vibration onto the bass when I listen to the song as a whole which clearly isn’t there when I focus on the bass specifically. Both at the start of the 1:47 track and mid-way into the next, around 3:19, he musically employs a tone that sounds more like a jumping sound effect in order to simulate an instrument sample that probably wasn’t available on the system, and it works. You can catch some more of this in the track that kicks off at 7:23.

Packed with catchy songs creatively arranged to artificially simulate a higher degree of orchestration than the system allowed, Shining Force was a great success.

But what it took a lot of creativity to pull off on the Genesis the SNES made easy. Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando (both of Kirby series fame) composed Arcana (HAL Laboratory, 1992) the same year Shining Force came out, and the improvement in sound quality was staggering. RPGs to a large extent defined the SNES. I have no statistics to back this up, but I have to imagine more popular games outside of Japan fell into the RPG/adventure/tactics spectrum on the SNES than on any other system, to such an extent that NOA even incorporated an “Epic Center” column into Nintendo Power for two years (March 1995-November 1996).

An end date of late 1996 roughly coincides with the North American launch of the Nintendo 64, when Nintendo Power subscribers began to feel the effects of the cartridge gaming fallout. RPGs were big games, calling for big capacity, and the Playstation rapidly became developers’ new system of choice.

But this was 1992, and even little known, quickly forgotten titles like Arcana were blowing Sega and arcade gaming out of the water.

VGM Entry 49: The Game Boy in ’91

VGM Entry 49: The Game Boy in ’91
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

How was the Game Boy doing? 1989 and 1990 were fairly dismal (remember that what I presented was the best out of close to one hundred titles), but things had to improve sooner or later. And Capcom released not one, but two Mega Man games for the system in 1991. Surely they would make the most of Game Boy sound and give their competitors something to strive for.

Well, no. I suppose not. I don’t know what Mega Man did with those scissors last time he whooped him, but this is about the most impotent rendition of Cut Man conceivable. The only track Makoto Tomozawa actually gets right in Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge is Fire Man, and that’s too little too late for redemption. Part of the problem might be that Capcom outsourced their Game Boy titles. Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge, released in July, was still generally well received.

The sequel Mega Man II, pumped out a mere five months later by a different developer than Dr. Wily’s Revenge, was more of a total botched job. The team supposedly had no familiarity with the game series when they got tasked with it. This doesn’t necessarily show in the music so much as in the gameplay. I’ve never played it, but it’s supposedly just a dumbed down and spliced port of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

Kenji Yamazaki, to be fair, did a moderately decent job of maintaining the general style of the series. Despite being an original score, his is more true to form than Makoto Tomozawa’s attempt to arrange songs from the original Mega Man. But it still leaves a lot to be desired. If the tracks at 3:18 and 7:31 feel like they could be Mega Man classics, the track at 1:28 kind of makes me want to die.

How Capcom missed the bandwagon after Gargoyle’s Quest is beyond me, because Konami sure didn’t. I couldn’t find any composition credits for F-1 Spirit (known as World Circuit Series in North America and The Spirit of F-1 in Europe), but the music kicks ass. The decision to keep that running motor sound effect in the background throughout the game was certainly questionable, but I’m not going to say they’d have been a little better off without it. It’s not an obvious nuisance, adding an extra gritty feel to an already really chippy soundtrack. I think the excellent selection of percussion tones does the job well enough on its own, but hey, if they want to keep it as noisy as possible I’m not going to complain. The Game Boy was good at that. The tunes are perpetually catchy, the drumming is loud and intense, and the constant distortion of the sound effect keeps everything good and heavy even when the main melody occasionally chills out.

Sports games have a long history of terrible soundtracks, but Konami really nailed it this time. And it wouldn’t be their greatest accomplishment in 1991 either.

This game has a funny name. I mean, it’s not a port of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is an entirely different game. There’s no obvious explanation for why Konami chose to go this route. Why not call it Castlevania: The Adventure II? The Japanese titles straighten this out, sort of. Castlevania: The Adventure was Legend of Dracula there, whereas the original 1986 Castlevania was Devil’s Castle Dracula. So there was no ambiguity in naming it The Legend of Dracula II. This was actually the only title in the series that made any sense at all.

See, the game Haunted Castle was also called Devil’s Castle Dracula. Oh, and so was the game Vampire Killer. And you know Castlevania IV? Yeah, that was also called Devil’s Castle Dracula. And while our The Adventure was Legend of Dracula, our Simon’s Quest was Devil’s Castle Legend. It’s kind of like how they confusingly called the North American N64 Castlevania installment Castlevania instead of, you know, Castlevania 64. Except they really still haven’t straightened things out forty-some titles later.

But whatever. I wish I could post every single track from Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge for you, because there isn’t a downer in the mix. You can find a complete collection on youtube, compliments again of explod2A03. Hidehiro Funauchi didn’t just perfect the Game Boy sound on this one; he nearly surpassed every game in the series while doing so. If you put all the songs of the early Castlevania titles in the same medium I suppose Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge might not come out on top. The melodies aren’t quite as catchy, and the songs are a bit more repetitive in general. But I do believe it makes more effective use of its system’s capabilities than Castlevania IV or any of the NES titles. The whole album is in constant motion, even on some of the softer songs, and while the back and forth speaker-hopping doesn’t quite work through headphones–the contrast is just too severe–it greatly enhances the effect out my speakers.

“Evil Gods” is my favorite song in the game. It’s deliciously distorted, embracing as its main drive the sort of tones that many Game Boy musicians had gone out of their way to avoid up to that time. The sound is really massive, more so I think than even a lot of major Commodore 64 works. Hidehiro Funauchi figured out how to make the Game Boy sound amazing, and it had a lot more to do with choosing the right sounds than with writing a catchy melody.

Yeah, 1991 was definitely the year that Game Boy music came into full bloom. Ultimately the prize goes to Ryoji Yoshitomi for his masterpiece Metroid II: Return of Samus. It is everything that the original Metroid didn’t quite manage to be. Metroid tried really hard to feel like an ambient and natural element of the game. It tried to bring the planet to life through sound, it just… didn’t.

Metroid II starts out like a Hitchcock nightmare, and the chaotic random blips which soon join in don’t exactly soothe the soul either. By the one minute mark I’m thoroughly unnerved, and then something really pretty happens. What’s going on here? Well, I think this is Ryoji Yoshitomi nailing the whole point of the game. Here you are on SR388, the Metroid home planet, sent to exterminate their species. Sure, the place is creepy as hell, but it’s also a living organism. You want to breathe life into the planet through the music? This is how you do it. Using sound effects of the ground shaking as the drum beat was a pretty sweet final touch.

Most of the music in Metroid II is more upbeat than the introduction. The track beginning around 2:05 is one of the most memorable I’ve heard on the Game Boy, and it’s so astonishingly well attuned to the system that it really couldn’t have sounded any better on the SNES or beyond. The bass and drums feel like they’re a part of the earth below you, not some tune playing in the background. Sure, sci-fi and chiptunes go hand in hand, but plenty of other musicians missed the mark. And what about that mesmerizing number at 4:08, eh? It’s pretty much post-rock, and I think I could contently listen to it for hours on end if I could get my hands on the ost.

Not every track in the game is great. The one at 3:26 is nothing to brag about, and the ending theme is a stereotypical and irrelevant jingle, albeit pretty. But I’m sold. Yoshitomi’s soundtrack lives and breathes in rhythm with the planet it’s set upon. It accomplishes exactly what the original Metroid soundtrack set out to, and I think, alongside Yoshitomi’s creative genius, the beautiful and unique tones of the Game Boy made it happen.

Trailer: Resident Evil 6 “No Hope Left” Cinematic Live-Action

I haven’t been as big a fan of Capcom’s Resident Evilsurvival horror game franchise (weird considering that zombie fiction and entertainment is like catnip to me), but the upcoming and latest entry in the series has me excited. Resident Evil 6 looks to return the series to its zombie roots after spending the last two titles veering away from it.

While the gameplay still looks to be just something upgraded and tweaked from games past the story itself looks like something that I would find interesting as it moves the danger from being localized to something more global in scope. I’m really hoping that this title brings me back to the franchise which was great in the beginning then began to lose steam and ideas in it’s latest offerings.

This latest trailer takes a page out of the Halofranchise’s marketing book by making it live-action. It might be only 90 seconds but getting a glimpse of how a world reacts to the onset of a zombie apocalypse makes for a nice, brief piece of entertainment.

Resident Evil 6 is set for an October 6 release for the Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows PC.

VGM Entry 41: Game Boy

VGM Entry 41: Game Boy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I nearly forgot to address the Game Boy. Released in April 1989, by the end of 1990 it was already pushing 100 titles. Perhaps production was easy and inexpensive, I don’t know, but this was a system that shot off at lightning speed. In consideration of all of the great music chiptune artists are making on the Game Boy today, I made a diligent effort to listen to a good 80 or so of these early titles. I figured there had to be a ton of hidden gems out there, but there really weren’t.

It’s actually really surprising how completely ho-hum the vast, vast majority of early Game Boy soundtracks were. Even those you might expect to be leading the pack, Castlevania: The Adventure (Konami, 1989, Dracula Densetsu in Japan) and Super Mario Land (Nintendo, 1989) for instance, offered next to nothing worth noting. Those which did peak my interest were often quite obscure. Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe (Electro Brain Corp., 1990) for instance has no identifiable composer. I searched long and hard to no avail.

This game supposedly stunk, and perhaps the music was not held in very high regard because of this. I thought it was a pretty solid effort. The Game Boy’s bass tones are very full and encompasing, capable of giving a song a great deal of depth. Very few musicians actually put this to use, but whoever composed Fist of the North Star had an ear for it. The way the extended bass notes compliment the melody reminds me a lot of Ryuji Sasai’s approach on my favorite Game Boy soundtrack, which we’ll be getting to here in another year.

The title track to Battle Bull (SETA, 1990), composed by Takayuki Suzuki, strikes me for its ability to pack in such a big sound. It is stylistically exactly the sort of thing I set out to find. It’s a shame there seems to be only one song here, because Suzuki turns out to be one of the few Game Boy composers who really understood how to make the most of the system. In retrospect after looking a few years ahead, this is easily one of the best Game Boy songs I have ever heard.

Square’s SaGa series became a nearly annual event following the first instalment, Makai Toushi SaGa, released for the Game Boy in December 1989. The first three were known in North America as the Final Fantasy Legend series–a title chosen in the hopes that familiarity would boost sales. I know the strategy worked for me. But the series did share at least one thing in common with Final Fantasy, at least initially. Nobuo Uematsu was commissioned to compose it. Despite what you might read, I am fairly confident that he composed Final Fantasy Legend in its entirety. At least, the liner notes displayed by vgmdb.net claim this. Final Fantasy Legend II, released the following December, was a joint effort, with Kenji Ito tackling about half of the tracks.

I am only going to present the original Final Fantasy Legend here out of consideration of space, but the sequel is about equal in quality and worth checking out. Nobuo Uematsu did an excellent job of carrying over his style onto the Game Boy, and a few tracks, like the introduction and the victory fanfare, would become series staples. The only noteworthy RPG series for the Game Boy to the best of my knowledge, the Final Fantasy Legends boasted a much larger song selection than most other Game Boy games at the time, and the consistant high quality really put to shame most of the competition.

Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito really definitively proved that the dearth of good Game Boy music was a consequence of negligent composers, not system restraints. Uematsu was as new to the Game Boy as anyone else when he composed his first work for it, and, as you can plainly hear, that was a simple enough challenge to overcome. Much like the first three Final Fantasy soundtracks, the music of the first two SaGas did not so much conform to the system as force the system to conform as much as possible to a multi-platform vision of what an RPG ought to sound like. The music of Final Fantasy Legend you are hearing here certainly bears a distinctly Game Boy sound in so far as it was impossible not to, but the music neither capitalizes on the systems strengths nor succumbs to its difficulties. It really just sounds like Uematsu doing his thing in the early years.

Gargoyle’s Quest (Capcom, 1990) was pretty amazing. It was created by Harumi Fujita, the original arcade composer of Bionic Commando, and Yoko Shimomura, a new name to the business who you’ll be hearing plenty more of in the future. It is also a part of the Ghosts’n Goblins series, which you’ve heard pleanty of already.

Gargoyle’s Quest does everything right. The decision to abandon percussion altogether did wonders for enhancing the semi-classical melodies. The songs are consistantly well-written, and the melodies are often permitted to run wild, with no stagnation and no breaks in the actual presence of sound. The Game Boy had by far the most beautiful tones of the chippier-sounding systems–that is, pre-SNES/Genesis/Amiga–and they always seem to ring out to their fullest in states of perpetual transition. I don’t know, maybe I’m superimposing what worked best for Gargoyle’s Quest onto what worked best for the Game Boy in general, but it seems like this is the sort of system where you can never have too many notes.

But if that’s stretching matters, I would at least say that the Game Boy is a system on which boldness almost always profits. It’s a shame that Tim Follin didn’t, to the best of my knowledge, write any Game Boy music. But anyway, Gargoyle’s Quest, one of the best soundtracks the system would ever know, was certainly not lacking in it. I might never be able to really put my finger on the features that so strongly attract me to this system, but you’re hearing a lot of them right now. You can hear the soundtrack in its entirety here, once again compliments of explod2A03.

Funny that, for all I just said, my favorite Game Boy soundtrack of this 1989-1990 period is soft and simple Yakuman (Nintendo, 1989), a mahjong game composed by Hirokazu Tanaka and only released in Japan. A frequently occurring figure in my articles, Tanaka’s game audio history goes all the way back to monotone bleeps in the 1970s. His role as a major composer would rapidly fade after 1990, but he was partly responsible for such esteemed works as Metroid, Mother, Earthbound, Dr. Mario, and the Nintendo ports of Tetris. He also composed Super Mario Land for the Game Boy, which I find quite dull. Go figure.

Well, that wraps up my thoughts on the first two years of the Game Boy. Honorable mention goes to Maru’s Mission (Jaleco, 1990, composer again unknown) and Burai Fighter Deluxe (Taxan, 1990/1991), composed by Nobuyuki Shioda. And really I was a bit harsh on Castlevania: The Adventure. I don’t care for it, but it’s not bad.

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Once again, by 1990 the Nintendo had fallen way behind the times. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 had all left it in the dust. The fourth generation of home and computer gaming was in full swing, and Nintendo were not prepared to launch their version until November. NES composers struggled to keep up with higher standards in the meantime, pushing the Nintendo to its limits.

Mega Man 3 (Capcom, 1990) had a lot to offer. Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita (not to be confused with my favorite talking rabbit) picked up the job this time, and it’s pretty amazing that three different musicians could all so effectively maintain the series’ quintessential sound. Mega Man 3‘s opening theme is as excellent as any of them, and the rest of the music really is a good bit more compositionally consistent than may meet the ear.

“Hard Man” (1:52) for instance is written in unmistakable Mega Man fashion. The only reason it doesn’t sound entirely up to par is a product of bad mixing at the final stage. Every take I’ve heard of it just sounds a bit washed out. The volumes of each track don’t feel properly balanced, and they could perhaps have chosen fuller percussion. But the fundamental song-writing is ideal, and I think if you put it in the hands of say, Bit Brigade, it would shine as brightly as any track from the first two games. Whatever flaws it may have are only visible if you seek them out.

While I think this minor mixing problem persists throughout the game, the next track in this collection, “Snake Man” (2:45), is just so well written that any potential flaw in the final production is masked entirely. Mega Man 3 does have some less memorable tracks; it’s not quite as consistent as the first two games in that regard. You won’t hear them in this mix. garudoh did yet another excellent job of choosing only the best, and “Spark Man” (3:42), “Get Your Weapons Ready” (4:40), and “Proto Man” (5:18) finish off a very well-conceived compilation. But the likes of “Gemini Man” and “Magnet Man”, not featured here, leave something to be desired. Mega Man 3 is not quite as good as the first two, but Yasuaki Fujita definitely finds and maintains the Mega Man sound throughout, and by any other standard this is an excellent NES soundtrack.

The best NES music of 1990 though, as you may have guessed from my previous hints, belongs to Tim Follin. Follin carried his capacity to pack a huge punch into limited sound systems over to the NES, and the introduction to Solstice (CSG Imagesoft, 1990, produced by Software Creations) is not afraid to employ a little shock value. I’m not sure why the music in this sample is out of order, but you can hear how the game kicks off if you skip to 3:37. The cute little 10 second jingle at the start is almost tongue-in-cheek, mocking typical NES songs before exploding into musical fireworks in bombastic Follin fashion. The majority of the album feels to have benefited heavily from his recent work on Ghouls’n Ghosts. No individual tracks really stand out with the memorable qualities of that previous work, but you can definitely appreciate the level of imagination that went into the whole soundtrack. Follin had more up his sleeves for the NES anyway. He reserved his best efforts for a game which we would all expect to have an outstanding soundtrack….. Pictionary?

I don’t know. Tim Follin’s music was seldom relevant to the game. I suppose it’s quite possible that he submitted this soundtrack to Software Creations without even knowing what game it would be used for. But I picture a giddy Follin setting out to intentionally make Pictionary (LJN, 1990) one of the most exciting and absurdly uncharacteristic soundtracks on the NES, laughing all the way.

That’s about all I have to offer from the Nintendo for the time being, but it’s worth taking a brief look at some other systems before we move on. I don’t want to say the pickings were slim outside of the Nintendo–that would certainly contradict my entire point in these past two posts–but I did struggle to find much of interest in 1990 specifically. The PC Engine is quite obscure to me as a western gamer, and many of the Amiga titles that best caught my eye date to 1988 and 1989. The Genesis/Mega Drive was still a musical disappointment in so far as it rarely lived up to its full potential. Elemental Master (TechnoSoft) by Toshiharu Yamanishi deserves an honorable mention, but its music is nothing special really. I think the system just lacked much competition to spur it on. With the Amiga appealing to European computer gamers and the PC Engine pushing the Japanese market, the Genesis/Master System for a time stood alone in a number of markets as the only available fourth generation home gaming console. Phantasy Star III (Sega) saw Izuho Takeuchi take over Tokuhiko Uwabo’s role as composer, and the transition brought a whole new style of sound to the game. I would describe it as unremarkable but more consistent–where Tokuhiko Uwabo presented a rather unique RPG soundtrack that was fairly hit or miss, Izuho Takeuchi is a little more traditional and at no point that I’ve noticed really falls flat. But his music is nothing to brag about either.

Before I move on to the Super Nintendo, one final 1990 release that really caught my attention was Iron Lord (Ubi Soft). Now, this version that you’re hearing above is the original 1989 Atari ST version. I want you to hear it first, because I want you to know what Jeroen Tel had to work with when he made the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports.

I don’t know who the original Atari ST composer was. I don’t know who was responsible for the MS-DOS version either. But I bet it wasn’t Jeroen Tel. C64 composers had a certain attitude about them. They knew they were the best, and they were going to keep on proving it every chance they could get. And let’s not forget here; the Commodore 64 was a year older than the Nintendo.

Hence why Jeroen Tel’s Iron Lord could introduce a power metal song. The effects of layering a medieval tune with big chippy bass and that same higher spacey tone he used on Cybernoid 2 are almost comical, but they’re entirely effective. Like a typical C64 musician, Tel expanded way beyond the scope of the original composition and made it entirely his own.

VGM Entry 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts

VGM Entry 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Even as the Sega Genesis was coming into its own and the Super Nintendo was on the verge of release, Tim Follin reappeared to give the “old systems” a final touch of perfection. Though his non-ZX Spectrum works immediately following the 1987 Bionic Commando arrangement were fairly insignificant, he had learned a lot (not to mention ceased to be a teenager). By 1989 he was ready to take on the world, and put to the task of reworking the Ghouls’n Ghosts (Capcom) soundtrack for the Amiga and Commodore 64, he suffered a stroke of genius which few have yet to match.

This is the title theme to Ghouls’n Ghosts for the Amiga, released in 1988. Enjoy it.

Even the tracks which were not originally his took on a whole new life. With all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, Tim Follin’s work on the Commodore 64 rendition of “Stage Two” was a drastic improvement. From the very get-go, Kawamoto’s oompa tuba and staccato flute are replaced by a booming four-note bass line and a much smoother flute tone. The song exhibits delicious dynamics, with the flute sounding out loud for the first two seconds and then immediately quieting down to make room for a wavy, ghost-tone main melody line decisively more appropriate for the theme of the game than Kawamoto’s clarinet. Kawamoto’s counterpoint on the repeat isn’t entirely convincing, and after one time through the song transitions. Follin avoids layering the melody entirely, perhaps out of necessity, but the creativity of his additional repeats and the awkward yet delightful added percussion more than compensate. Limited in the number of tracks he could produce, Follin had no hope of replicating the second half of the song on a C64, so after faithfully playing out the lower track he just took off into his own imaginative world, leaving Kawamoto behind altogether from about the 1 minute mark on. Where Kawamoto’s entire song loops at 54 seconds, Follin’s is extended to a two and a half minutes and doesn’t loop at all, fading out as a completed piece before starting over.

The music to Level 5 on the Commodore 64 is another Follin original, and it kicks off with enough amplifier worship to make Sunn O))) proud. Unlike pretty much all of his previous works, Follin’s original tracks in Ghouls’n Ghosts exhibit a sense of awareness of the game itself. He wasn’t about to let the needs of the game hold him back, but he was for once shaping his music around an appropriate theme. Follin maintains the relativity until 1:18, at which point we’re suddenly treated to an Emerson Lake & Palmer progressive rockout. The soft distortion in the background of the whistle starting at 1:58 is just brilliant, if by now completely out of touch with the game. It briefly reminds me of foggy seaside songs like Jeremy Soule’s “Pirates of Crustacia” (Secret of Evermore, Square, 1995).

Make what you will of the “End Theme” track which follows. It’s nothing to brag about, but it’s part of the package. I think the “Hi-Score” tune wrapping up the video more than compensates.

So there’s perhaps your first encounter with Tim Follin outside of the ZX Spectrum. He’s by no means forgotten, but not overwhelmingly famous either. His work on Bionic Commando 1987 made a loud statement, and his ZX Spectrum works stand in a league of their own on the system, but the Commodore 64 and Amiga arrangements of Ghouls’n Ghosts are what really brought him into full form for the first time and cemented his place in history. He would never surpass his accomplishments in 1989, in my opinion, but he would maintain an impressively high standard for many years to come, and he would excel on a more diverse range of systems than most any other composer in the business.