NMY vs The World Video Game Hall of Fame Class of 2015

The Strong, an educational institution in Rochester specializing in the study of games, announced the six inaugural inductees of their World Video Game Hall of Fame yesterday. So what? Well, it made its way onto a lot of major news sites, which means it is probably going to resurface again next year and, in time, become the closest we’ve got to an “official” Hall of Fame.

My gut reaction was “my what a pretentious title”, because the “World” VG HoF looks incredibly U.S.-centric. Their game history timeline pretty much completely ignores the fact that the U.S. did not control the international gaming market for the vast majority of the 20th century. I mean, this timeline is crazy. 1982, the year that the bloody Commodore 64 was released, they feature Chicago-based Midway’s Tron instead. 1986, the year that Dragon Quest set the standard for the next two decades of role-playing games, they are at such a loss to find anything novel that they dig up Reader Rabbit by Boston-based developers The Learning Company. In spite of devoting 1992 to Las Vegas-based Westwood Studios’ Dune II, LA-based Blizzard Entertainment steals 1994 with Warcraft: Orcs and Humans. Does the invention of RTS gaming really deserve two years? Well, it’s not like it was competing with the release of the Sony Playstation or anything. Oh that’s alright, we’ll feature it in 1995, since that’s when it came to America. This list also devotes 1993 to the development of the ESRB rating system (which only applies in America), 1996 to Lara Croft’s tits (seriously, does anyone actually give a shit about Tomb Raider?), and 2002 to the U.S. Army, because uh, freedom!

So yeah, World Video Game Hall of Fame my ass. But that doesn’t mean they got the first six wrong:

Pong (1972)

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have been hand selected to choose the five games which will accompany Pong into the Hall of Fame.” It had to go something like that. Pong invented gaming like Al Gore invented the internet. Could you imagine a Hall of Fame without Pong? I mean, it’s Pong! Really though, wasn’t computer gaming kind of inevitable? Was it the first game? Nope. Did it stand the test of time? Not really. Did it usher in the age of arcade gaming? I guess it did, but the game itself had little to do with that. It was a novelty. Replace it with anything else, and that other game would be just as famous, regardless of its content. I don’t like that. There is a reason why Pong is the only game of the six Hall of Famers that I never played as a kid or else upon release, and that has nothing to do with my age. I think we get hung up on its simplicity, its catchy name, this idea that it all began with two paddles and a ball, and the desire to point to something and say “this started it all”. Pong deserves recognition in any gaming hall of fame eventually, but top 6? We can do better.

NMY gives this selection a 5/10

Pac-Man (1980)

What are Pac-Man‘s claims to fame? Well, it was the first video game to be a major social phenomenon, generating a huge market for spin-offs, toys, animated cartoons, and all sorts of other consumer products. It was the first video game with a really memorable theme song. It remains the best-selling arcade game of all time. It generated a chart-topping shitty pop song. It even destroyed the gaming industry. (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial has absolutely nothing on the devastating consequences of Pac-Man‘s abysmal Atari port.) And sure, it’s pretty boring, but it still lasted well into the 90s. I had a pirated DOS copy as a kid. Do you think anyone bothered to pirate Pong? Uh, no.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Tetris (1984)

Tetris is a game that we all agree to love because it is Russian, and like Russia, it is really evil and kind of a dick. Four Z blocks in a row? Really? I didn’t double tap that button. Go back! Ugh…. Tetris annoyed the hell out of me as a kid, but I certainly did play it. It also spawned a ton of cheap rip-offs, novel improvements, and largely unrelated block puzzle games that stole its name for publicity, and a lot of these vastly outclassed the original. If I look back on all the fun I had playing Tetris Attack for the Super Nintendo, or hosting TetriNET tournaments online in the late 90s, or the amount of time my wife wastes on Candy Crush Saga, it is hard for me to pretend that Tetris was not significant. It was the mother of all “endless puzzle” games, and it deserves credit for that, even if I hated the original Alexey Pajitnov Tetris, with its never-ending tiers of frustration.

NMY gives this selection a 9/10

Super Mario Bros (1985)

This is the real shoe-in. Nintendo was able to turn Mario into (I am assuming) the most recognizable fictional character in the world because the original Super Mario Bros was so great. A game released in 1985 is not supposed to still be this much fun 30 years later, but from novel settings and mechanics to outstanding control, this game ran the gamut of what a great side-scroller was supposed to be. This, at a time when there was very little in the way of quality competition to take inspiration from. The game’s lasting legacy is so pervasive in our culture that I would feel silly even bothering to summarize it.

NMY gives this selection a 10/10

Doom (1993)

“Why an FPS, World Video Game Hall of Fame?” Because “it also pioneered key aspects of game design and distribution that have become industry standards“, according to the official induction explanation. Design-wise, they laud it for “a game ‘engine’ that separated the game’s basic functions from other aspects such as artwork.” That might be an interesting point. I don’t know much about it, though I have to imagine that anything Doom did, Wolfenstein 3D did first. Distribution-wise, they talk about how id Software marketed downloadable expansions and encouraged multi-player, online gaming. That point fails to impress me. Doom launched in 1993, which means no games before it really had the option to market themselves in this way. “First” only counts for me if the move is innovative, not inevitable. So we are left with some sort of novel modular processing system and the fact that it was the first really successful FPS. Those are fine points. I might not like FPS games, but I can’t deny that they have had a more lasting impact than say, fighting or sports games. Placing so much weight on the play style does, however, open up the doors for a lot of why nots. Why not Diablo? Why not Dragon Quest? Why not Command & Conquer?

NMY gives this selection a 7/10

World of Warcraft (2004)

I am not entirely sure why the World Video Game Hall of Fame chose World of Warcraft, because they aren’t telling. Their write-up goes into detail on what makes MMORPGs so revolutionary, but none of it is really unique to WoW. They throw out some numbers about WoW’s player base and monthly profit, and then bam, inaugural hall of fame induction. I am probably the last person to give an accurate assessment of how World of Warcraft changed gaming, because I still actively play it, but I have to believe that its enormous popularity had a lot to do with its place in time. Coming in to the 21st century, we all knew someone who played EverQuest, and we all (all of us, right guys?) secretly wanted to abandon our real lives and nerd out in 24/7 multiplayer fantasy immersion. I never played EverQuest, however, or Final Fantasy XI for that matter, because I still had dial-up internet. World of Warcraft launched right around the time that the majority of gamers were becoming equipped to play something of its magnitude. That being said, WoW is going on 11 years now, and still going strong. I’ve never seriously considered canceling my subscription. Blizzard landed on a market ripe for the picking, but they have carefully cultivated it ever since.

NMY gives this selection an 8/10

Over all, I think the World Video Game Hall of Fame is off to a good start. Pong is the only inaugural entry I strongly disagree with, but were it missing, would people still take the organization seriously? Doom is a bit sketchy to me, because its only claim seems to be “first popular FPS”. I think GoldenEye 007 was the game to push FPS into the mainstream and really reach beyond the genre, while Blizzard clearly dominated online gaming with Diablo and Starcraft, whatever id Software happened to do “first”. Doom is a good candidate, no doubt, but I feel like it belongs in another class. It would have fit in more nicely in a 2016 school that pushed genre-standardizing games like Dragon Quest, The Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter II, and Space Invaders.

Is that what we have to look forward to in 2016? Well, based on the runners-up from 2015, maybe not. The list did include Space Invaders and The Legend of Zelda, along with worthy contenders Pokémon Red and Blue and The Oregon Trail. Beyond that, it got a bit dicey. It is hard to imagine that Angry Birds, for instance, almost made the top 6. Sonic the Hedgehog would be long forgotten if not marketed as Sega’s response to Mario, yet it was a contender. FIFA International Soccer was the only sports entry–an odd choice, given that I have never heard of it, it only came out in 1993, and Tecmo Super Bowl exists. The other options were Minecraft–a bit young yet, don’t you think?–and oddly, The Sims, which I am sure was quite fun to play and left no lasting impact on gaming whatsoever. Well, they’ve got another year to straighten things out.

VGM Entry 39: End of the NES era (part 1)

VGM Entry 39: End of the NES era (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Games would continue to be made for the NES long after the release of the Super Nintendo, but its glory days had come and gone. Already by 1990, the system was starting to sound a little stale, and even the most impressive compositions faced an enormous burden in keeping pace with video game music at large on a hopelessly outdated system.

Koichi Sugiyama certainly didn’t produce much of interest. The improved rendition of the main theme aside, Dragon Quest IV (Enix, 1990) was not a particularly memorable soundtrack. It has no faults per se. It certainly had nothing approaching the annoyance of the original Dragon Quest‘s combat theme. But no amount of listening to the tracks beyond the main theme here has revealed the slightest hint of anything special. It’s a soundtrack secure in its simplicity. The music is wholly appropriate for an RPG, never clashing with the style of gameplay, but it also adds nothing to the experience save pleasant background music. I’ve heard plenty worse by RPG composers with much more diverse sound systems to work with, but it definitely feels to me as though this one stands out more for the fact that “Dragon Quest” and “Koichi Sugiyama” are attached to it than for its own worth.

Final Fantasy III (Square, 1990) was a somewhat different situation. It’s got a lot more emotion to it, and frankly it might constitute Nobuo Uematsu’s finest compositions on the NES, but in the context of its place in time it can be pretty hard to appreciate. Here’s a track list for the video:

(0:00) Prelude
(0:56) Crystal Cave
(1:54) Jinn the Fire
(2:43) Chocobo Theme
(3:20) The Invincible
(4:11) Battle
(5:06) Last Battle
(5:59) The Boundless Ocean
(6:59) Fanfare

Nobuo Uematsu definitely climaxed as a specifically NES composer on Final Fantasy III. “Battle” and “Last Battle” express a full appreciation for the NES as an instrument, and the rapid-fire accompaniments in both, but especially the latter, are some of the most powerful on the system. The SID-like sound on “Crystal Cave” and “Last Battle” adds a new dimension to the songs which would have been unthinkable for Uematsu a mere three years prior, while “The Invincible” is a practically perfect arrangement. If Final Fantasy might best be defined as lovely compositions poorly arranged, Final Fantasy III was definitely the full package.

The problem, and the reason it took me setting the game aside and coming back to it weeks later to be able to really appreciate it, is that this was 1990. Amidst the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, the NES just sounded terrible; it was no longer novel and it was way behind the times. Nintendo’s lengthy development paid off, as things turned out, but a lot of early 1990 releases better suited for the SNES suffered from the delay.

Resting somewhere between these two in quality was Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Konami, 1989). I have seen no less than five musicians credited with the composition. Hashing out who all among Hidenori Maezawa, Kenichi Matsubara (Castlevania II), Yoshinori Sasaki, Jun Funahashi, and Yukie Morimoto were really responsible for the music might be a fun task, but I only have the time for so many such projects. For whatever it’s worth, Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto are the three most frequently credited names. Consisting of a long list of virtual unknowns, this is one of those scores for which “Konami Kukeiha Club” might be the most appropriate accreditation.

One thing that strikes me as interesting here is how the drums and bass feel like they’ve borrowed from Batman (Sunsoft, 1989) by Nobuyuki Hara and Naoki Kodaka, especially considering I felt Hara an Kodaka themselves might have been inspired in part by the Castlevania series before I ever heard Castlevania III specifically. This connection, or at least the possibility of Batman‘s drum and bass influencing Castlevania III, is virtually impossible. As it turns out both games were actually released on the exact same day: December 22, 1989. (I had originally thought Castlevania III was released in 1990, hence my placing it in this post, but it’s close enough.)

The game has some pretty impressive original tracks, especially “Beginning” (0:00) and “Mad Forest” (1:10), not to mention a new rendition of “Vampire Killer” (5:49). The overall sound is a lot less classical and a lot more peppy than previous Castlevania titles, though I think that can be forgiven in light of the good, consistent job they did with it. Again, the soundtrack only took a while to grow on me due to its historical context. It was most certainly technologically behind the times, but there wasn’t much the Konami sound team could do about that.

VGM Entry 31: RPGs in ’88

VGM Entry 31: RPGs in ’88
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama were both at work in 1988, recording installments of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series respectively. They both maintained their own standards, remaining at the forefront of RPG and adventure style music on the NES.

Final Fantasy II (Square, 1988) was actually a big improvement over the original. Nobuo Uematsu’s fundamental style hadn’t changed (and I would argue that it still hasn’t), but I feel like on this game he really mastered how to effectively arrange his works for the NES. I mentioned that Final Fantasy‘s arrangement felt like a finished product compared to some other genre-related games released that year, but in Nobuo’s later NES works you can start to get the feeling that the original Final Fantasy was also a sort of work in progress. It incorporated a number of slightly distorted tones which really gave his soft, subtle melodies an air of technological primitivism.

On Final Fantasy II you hear none of that. The overall sound is a lot more smooth. It’s immediately apparent in the “Main Theme” following “Prelude” in this sample. The main melody, here carried by a very soft and pretty tone, is precisely the sort of sound for which he employed a grittier, more mechanical tone in the first game. Since Final Fantasy II was released on the Famicom, not the FDS, I can’t imagine that there was any change in the platform’s capacity. I think, rather, he took some lessons from his earlier shortcomings on the production end of the spectrum.

Final Fantasy II was the first game to feature the famous “Chocobo” theme (1:40), and “Main Theme” (0:53), “Tower of Mages” (not here featured), and “Ancient Castle” (2:42) are all particularly noteworthy, but I think it’s the improved arrangement which really makes the soundtrack shine.

Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988) is a little harder for me to assess, as I’ve somehow completely failed to acquire full soundtracks for this series. What I’ve heard seems like more of the same old, which is absolutely fine. Koichi Sugiyama seems to have continued to focus on rearranging earlier works rather than composing wholly new ones, and he had a decent amount of success in doing so. I’m not going to talk at length about a score I really know nothing about, but I thought it worth throwing out there again.

As I hope I’ve by now established though, the NES had by no means a monopoly on this style of video game music. Takahito Abe and Yuzo Koshiro’s work on Ys I is a soundtrack I’ve frequently cited, and its follow-up, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter (Nihon Falcom), was yet another fine 1988 sequel.

But the music here is pretty hard to come by. Takahito Abe was not a part of the sound team this go around, and Mieko Ishikawa took on the bulk of the load, with Yuzo Koshiro providing some of the more up-beat tracks, such as the one here sampled. Ishikawa isn’t a musician I’ve come across too often up to this point, but she was credited alongside Koshiro and Abe on Sorcerian, and I gather she was involved in future Ys titles. I suppose I should have featured one of her songs and not Koshiro’s, but I can’t find enough of it out there to get a good feel for it. There’s a nice sample of the song Tender People up on youtube that might give you an idea. It lacks Takahito Abe’s gentle touch, but it’s quite pretty nevertheless.

A lot of the difficulty in digging out Ys II tracks (at least in the short period of time I can allot it) stems from a remake of the game having been released for PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, a mere one year later. That release, Ys I & II, featured some outstanding new arrangements from Ryo Yonemitsu, but its success denies us easy access to Ishikawa’s original PC-8801 work. As far as Koshiro is concerned, some of his upbeat tracks come off quite well, but I feel like he lacked restraint on this album and ended up with a sound that just didn’t quite suite the type of game he was composing for. It’s a problem which Koshiro would thoroughly overcome over the next three years, adding such stark stylistic distinctions to his name as ActRaiser (Enix, 1990) and Streets of Rage (Sega, 1991).

Above all else in the RPG/adventure world of 1988 though, I’m most impressed by how my new-found hero Kenneth W. Arnold manages to maintain the high standards he set back in 1983.

This guy’s music blows me away every time I hear it, and his work on Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988) is no exception. It’s atmospherically perfect. “Engagement and Melee” might be a simple song, but could it have been any more appropriate for a tense medieval battle? It doesn’t deliver with speed and aggression, but rather with a vision of the distant fantasy world it represents. The distortion sounds archaic in the best of ways.

There are a lot of different versions of it floating around out there, as best I understand because Apple II music is nearly impossible to rip and requires some creative liberty. But I did manage to nab a replica of the original Apple II sound as it was meant to be heard through a Mockingboard sound card, and I present these samples to you now. (Thanks again to Apple Vault.)

The aesthetics here never fail to impress me. The sound quality in “Greyson’s Tale” is exploited flawlessly, using every potential adverse limitation to the music’s advantage. The distortion and the fairly minimalistic, distinctly medieval compositions paint every ideal image you’ve ever had a of a fantasy world. There’s something not quite clear and not quite safe about all of it.

In “Dream of Lady Nan” the distorted bass is so forceful you can feel the vibrations, and the melody is crystal clear, creating an unnatural juxtaposition that’s completely haunting. I normally avoid encouraging the free download of potentially copyrighted material, but in consideration of the fact that the owners of this material have nothing to lose and everything to gain from it being distributed, I highly recommend you go download all of Kenneth W. Arnold’s works in Ultima III-V. You can find them in their ideal form at this link.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. It’s not quite on par with Ultima III and Ultima IV in my opinion, and the tracks don’t loop quite as flawlessly as they used to, but it maintains the series’ standing in a complete league of its own, beyond comparison to the contemporary best efforts of Nobuo Uematsu and company. If there were other soundtracks out there like it, well, I would very much like to hear them.

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Two fantasy-style games in 1986 achieved massive retail success and thereby brought the genre to the attention of the masses. These, it should be fairly obvious, were The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo) and Dragon Quest (Enix). Both games are likewise frequently cited among the most important soundtracks for the Famicom/NES. I think this can be a bit misleading.

The Legend of Zelda had a truly epic main theme, with which Koji Kondo almost certainly surpassed his work in Super Mario Bros. Whether it was the best video game song written up to that point is really a matter of personal preference; it is not as though it had no competition. Regardless, this was the first installment of Nintendo’s second major franchise gaming series, and the sort of anthem Koji Kondo was able to craft for Link had enormous marketing benefits. It’s not as though lead characters in Nintendo’s games became popular out of the shear force of the company’s good name. No one really remembers say, Professor Hector (Gyromite and Stack-Up) or Mr. Stevenson (Gumshoe). If Link was going to become a franchise character, he was going to need a theme song, and in that regard Koji Kondo pulled through once again.

What else did The Legend of Zelda have going for it musically? Well… very little. I mean, the Underground Level theme (3:18) is pretty cool–all 18 seconds of it. It reminds me of some of Uematsu and Mitsuda’s later works. But there just isn’t much else to this game. The title screen and overworld theme are variations on the same (awesome) melody. Death Mountain (3:48) sounds like it was thrown together in five minutes, and the ending theme (1:42), while catchy, is simply in the wrong game. It is Mario music.

Koji Kondo is one of the most important figures in the history of video game music, no doubt about it, but the bar had not been raised quite so high on the NES in 1986 as it had been in the home computing world. Thus The Legend of Zelda sounds great within the context of its system, but a little primitive in the larger scope of things.

The interesting thing about Dragon Quest to my western ears is that the game series was never all that hot here. I seem to recall reading at the time of Dragon Quest VIII‘s Japanese release–and we’re talking 2004 so I may be very much mistaken–that the game franchise had sold more copies than Final Fantasy. At any rate, it is important to recognize that this series was huge in Japan. The original Dragon Quest formalized nearly every stereotype of traditional RPGs. This video should make that fairly clear, and it’s pretty significant to note that this was not a product of Eastern adventure/RPG traditions. Yuji Horii took his inspiration from the Ultima and Wizardy series on the Apple II, and it’s at this point that the two genres really diverge. Japan would become the centerpoint of both Eastern and Western traditions, and just a Legend of Zelda served as the quintessential starting point for the modern adventure game, Dragon Quest permanently defined the RPG.

Like The Legend of Zelda‘s overworld theme, Dragon Quest‘s title theme became a series staple, but “Overture March” took quite a while to grow on me. A good many other ears might hear delicious nostalgia, but its quality does not immediately jump out at me. It’s really how Koichi Sugiyama continually developed and improved upon it in future games that makes the original fun to revisit. The rest of the soundtrack was, like Ultima III and Ultima IV, perfectly well suited for the RPG experience, and wider distribution meant that Sugiyama would be much more influential in standardizing this approach. I would be shocked if “Unknown World” (1:40) did not heavily influence Nobuo Uematsu. It could be a chiptune take on a Final Fantasy VII track, and it’s quite pleasant. Still, and unlike Kenneth W. Arnold’s works, the original soundtrack does have its flaws. The combat music (2:22) is terrible, grating on the ears on the first listen let alone after the constant encounters one expects in an RPG.

But in setting the standards for the series he would faithfully continue to compose for the next twenty five years (the man is now 81 years old and still making music), Koichi Sugiyama also set the standard for what RPGs should sound like. The standard was already in practice, as I hope I have shown, but the enormous influence that the Dragon Quest series would have on video games in Japan probably prevented a lot of deviation from this norm in the future. And much to Koichi Sugiyama’s credit, the music definitely improved over time. Dragon Quest II, released by Enix in January 1987, less than a year after the series debut, would retain the original’s best tracks while replacing the obvious duds with significant improvements.

By Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988), Koichi Sugiyama had firmly established himself as one of the best RPG composers of the 1980s. His emphasis on continuity and improvement of past works rather than wholly original soundtracks allowed each game to feel both refreshing and entirely familiar. In the cases of the best tracks, the changes are barely even noticeable. “Overture March” in Dragon Quest III begins almost identically to the original for instance. The melody is a little more staccato, and that’s it. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

I don’t know that I would call either The Legend of Zelda or Dragon Quest great soundtracks. The Legend of Zelda contained an especially great song, but I feel like allowing one song to carry a game was beginning to be a cop-out by 1986. Dragon Quest formed a more complex whole, and it’s definitely closer to excellence, but I feel like it still lets the shortcoming of the NES get the better of it at times in sound selection for what were certainly wonderful melodies. It’s also got the Combat theme to deal with, and such a reoccurring flaw is hard to ignore. Koichi Sugiyama would continually improve, and Koji Kondo too would be stepping up his game before the Famicom expired, particularly with Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1988.