It’s Great Detective Pikachu!


Apparently, it’s not just Satan who is solving crimes

Look, I’ll just be absolutely honest here.  I know next to little about Pokemon.  I neither speak nor read Japanese.  I don’t have the slightest damn idea what is actually going on in the video below but it sure is cute!

Apparently, Great Detective Pikachu will be released on Nintendo 3DS in Japan on February 3rd, 2016.  There’s no set date for a Western release.

On the Old Internet, I was Destined for Greatness


My childhood heroes all had the first name “NOA”. They were the living, breathing avatars of Nintendo of America. And Nintendo was God, for all practical purposes. But like Jesus, they were simultaneously divine and human. NOAPaul was a tough guy. A real street thug, with a tongue ring and everything. NOATravis, he was your boyband jock. Oh, the envy. And NOAAmy… did you know that she played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger? I did. Imagine it: a girl who played RPGs.

One day, I was going to be a Nintendo Power Cyberjock too. It was my highest aspiration. Forget astronauts and fire fighters. If Paul and Travis could become Nintendo of America, so could I. And maybe I would make Amy my wife, though she was a withering old spinster of 24.

At 11 years old, I was dedicated to my future career. To become a professional avatar of Nintendo, you had to really know your facts. I was already on the right track, because I owned all 84 issues of Nintendo Power magazine. The knowledge was at my fingertips, but it was vast… so I decided to cheat.

I booted up my Gateway 2000 386/25–it was mine in practice, since my mother finished college–and I headed straight to WordPerfect. If I could quickly search a game name and know exactly which issue and page to check for information… A month later, I possessed a complete index of the entire Nintendo Power catalog. And you thought you were a lame kid.

But there I was, equipped for battle. Ask me about a game. I dare you. I had it down to a science. I could look up a relevant article and spit out an answer within a minute, and Nintendo of America would never know that I cheated. They would think I was just that good. I sent in my job application right then and there, along with a crayola masterpiece of Samus Aran battling Ridley.

I didn’t get the job, but that was probably for the best, since we did not actually subscribe to dial-up internet for another six months and “Cyberjocks” worked online. A minor technicality. Still, I kept Nintendo Power Issue 84 close at hand.

The fame. The glory. The honor.


*Section removed due to copyright issues. They were compressed scans of an out of print magazine spread welcoming you to the Nintendo Loud House with some amazingly dorky-looking staff members striking a pose.*

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My first actual experience on http://www.nintendo.com, some time in 1996, was overwhelming. I had waited so long for this. Line by line, the pixels of that jpeg unfurled in slow motion. “Nintendo Power Source”. “Welcome to www.nintendo.com”. I was there. And it was wonderful.

Nintendo.com was a disorganized sea of information that you could spend all day exploring (especially on a 14.4k modem). There was a frame up top filled with totally nondescript or misleading images that would link you to different parts of the site, and each of those sections had its own upper frame of links. They could take you anywhere. The internet had no rules yet, you see. For instance, there was a really buried subsection called the “N-List” that linked all kinds of random fan sites totally unmoderated by Nintendo, mostly hosted on Geocities. As a consequence, through Nintendo.com you discovered such wonders as this flattering photo of the founder of popular present-day gaming website RPGamer:

(Sorry.)

Ultimately though, I went to the Loud House. That was where the NOA gods resided. To get there, I had to travel underground, down an elevator shaft that consisted of scrolling really far in a narrow frame to the left. If I thought the main site enormous, the Loud House was madness. They had a proto-forum–everyone still called them bulletin board systems then, though it was not an authentic BBS–where topics appeared in a single endless list set to a fire-engine red background with the texture of an aluminum tool box. Damn was it beautiful.

I knew there had to be at least a few dozen RPG fans out there besides myself and NOAAmy, but I never predicted this. The realization that I could be a part of a secret society of hundreds of Square(soft) aficionados must have waylaid my dreams of working for Nintendo for a time, because I don’t remember doing anything but theorycrafting Final Fantasy III (sic) for the next few months. I would spend every school bus ride studying my official players guide, looking for minute typographical errors that could be exploded into radical theories to share with my peers. I actually killed 4,000 dinosaurs in that forest near the Veldt in the false hope of resurrecting General Leo.

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Eventually the forums changed, and so did I. They became more manageable and subdivided into “boards”. Me, I became 12, and that meant responsibility. I couldn’t just be another anonymous Joe researching Final Fantasy VI anymore, aging in obscurity as fame and fortune passed me by. I needed to get back to my dreams, and that required becoming involved in the social community. So I did what anyone would have done back then to turn the page: I changed my name.

That was a principle of the Old Internet that runs totally counter to modern social media culture and may have culminated with 4chan and the birth of Anonymous–the hactivist organization that never actually existed yet frequented headline news throughout 2008. You were really empowered to dictate how a community perceived you. You could completely ‘reset’ your identity at the click of a button, experimenting with different personas until you found one that jived with the community. Nintendo Power even encouraged this behavior in Issue 72:

So died BobaFett207, and a new entity dove into the RPGs board with a mission to earn the unrivaled respect and adoration of its citizens. (His mom also lifted the half hour limit on web browsing, so he actually had time to read replies and stuff.)

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

What I found was appalling. My plans were immediately surmounted by a more pressing issue. The release of Final Fantasy VII was rapidly approaching, and people were actually discussing the Playstation.

The Playstation. The Sony Playstation, in what would one day be my Nintendo kingdom. These were the filthy traitors who planned to endorse Squaresoft’s debauchery, and they had to be destroyed. I charged head-first, furious and uncaring of the consequences. “JERK!” “IDIOT!” “HOW COULD U!” I let the hatred flow through me, channeling it into dozens of single-sentence replies, until a thread title appeared that gave me pause. It said “ATTN: SHADOW 4000”. That was me! Registered only one day, and my new identity was already known to the community! The post, no doubt, would praise me for my heroic defense of truth and the Nintendo 64.

It did. This was where, in retrospect, things got weird. I wasn’t banned by a forum moderator, or even told to shut up. No, I was invited to join the NES Knights–a legion of warriors who, like me, vowed to fight against the evils of the Sony Playstation. I was promptly recruited and informed that we were at war with the Freedom Knights, who had organized to defend forum-goers’ rights to enjoy non-Nintendo products.

I earned my first stripes when the PSX Invaders came to town. They were a band of ruffians that would show up every few weeks and ravage the RPGs board by posting hundreds of threads titled “N64 SUX”, “PSX 4 LIFE”, etc. Certain that I could stop the incessant barrage of spam posts, I set a clever trap. “ATTN: PSX INVADERS” the thread title ran, and when they clicked it… BAM! “***FIRE LANCE X***” As I am sure you expected, this worked phenomenally. Two invaders stopped spamming and engaged me with their own barrage of attacks. I parried them as best I could, while fellow forum-goers engaged them similarly in other threads. The battle was long and bloody, but we were victorious.

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

I had found my true calling. Every evening, after school, I would log on to the Loud House RPGs board and train with my allies or engage rival groups. I even started my own, which amassed over 100 members. This was clearly my best route to becoming an official Nintendo-employed Cyberjock… while that dream lasted. It all came crashing down on Thanksgiving Day 1997. Nintendo deleted the Loud House.

And in its place, they created NSider. NSider was ugly, stupid, and it featured Diddy Kong instead of Fulgore.

>

Worst of all, by far, they renamed my precious board “Other RPGs”. Other! Lesser! Inconsequential! And why? The only reasonable explanation was to emphasize the Zelda board. Practically in tears, I called my RPGs brothers to arms. The Zelda board must pay. That war would last for weeks, because the Zelda board was well organized under the Zelda Alliance. (This same game had been going on there all along, despite there being almost no overlap in users.)

<(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)> ^( ‘-‘ )^ <(‘-‘<) ^( ‘-‘ )^ (>’-‘)>

As it turned out, the game was not just an RPGs board thing or a Nintendo.com thing, but a common trend throughout the internet. As we transitioned away from NSider to Geocities and forum hosts like VantageNet and InsideTheWeb, we encountered more of the same everywhere. It was as if thousands of kids were dumped into an empty field and told: “Play. No one is watching.” You will never find a Wayback Machine record of the bizarre, seemingly pandemic consequences, but if you were socially engaged in the 90s internet before high school, you probably belonged to some sort of guild.

I tended to see a change in people when they got to be 13 or 14, and the game for them might transition into an interactive story. These were shared universe worlds in which participants would write a collaborative fiction story through their individual characters’ perspectives. It wasn’t RP, but rather a real (poorly written and highly derivative) novel, and it could go on for years. The one that began on the Loud House RPGs board amassed thousands of pages (which were archived). Alternatively, the game would evolve into cyberbullying. Account security was non-existent and cracking tools were a dime a dozen on Yahoo!. A lot of sites also used forms to password protect their content, and the redirect link was usually embedded right in the HTML code. As a high school freshman, you were too “mature” to pretend you were a wizard anymore, so you pretended you were a 1337 hacker instead. It was not uncommon to see a Geocities site vanish over night, replaced by “Conquered by” so-and-so. My first email address got hijacked. It was actually kind of stressful.

But that was the 90s internet as I remember it. …Am I supposed to inject some sort of closing point or moral here?

Trailer: Bayonetta 2 (Official E3)


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The first Bayonetta game from Plaitnum Games was and continues to be one of my favorite games for the Xbox 360. Released for both the Xbox 360 and PS3, Bayonetta was a uniquely imaginative hack and slash title that took what was best of the early Devil May Cry series and a game that was so over-the-top that it charmed the pants out of anyone who remotely even tried playing it.

So, it was with heavy heart that when the sequel was announced as being funded by Nintendo thus making it exclusive only to the Wii U console system. There was much ranting, raving and railing at Platinum Games selling out and that the game will not be the same in the House of Family-Friendly Nintendo.

WiiU_Bayonetta2_scrn02_E3resized

Well, the first trailer for the game was shown at this week’s E3 in Los Angeles and it looks like Bayonetta fans have more to cry about because it looks like Nintendo didn’t screw it up by putting a leash on Platinum Games. Bayonetta 2 looks just as crazy as the first title and even the title character’s new look has won her old fans over.

Now the question is whether the game will sell to warrant a third game, but one for all systems. With the lackluster sales numbers of the Wii U since it’s release here’s to hoping that every Wii U owner buys this game.

Bayonetta 2 is set for a 2014 release.

Ten Years #45: Miki Higashino


Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
45. 東野美紀 (Miki Higashino) (705 plays)
Top track (31 plays): Beautiful Golden City, from Suikoden (1995)

Ms. Higashino is the first of a handful of video game music composers to have risen through my ranks over the years, thanks almost entirely to her beautiful contributions to the soundtracks of Genso Suikoden I and II. (Funny, I would rank Suikoden II in a three way tie for my favorite video game ever, and all three relevant composers made it onto the charts.) Her discography is small but compelling, showcasing an appreciation for traditional Asian and European folk music that rarely surfaces with such force among her contemporaries. Paying special attention to Japanese and Irish folk in particular, she managed to imbue the first two Suikoden titles with a lively earthiness ideal for an unprecedented model of gameplay made possible by the Playstation. The Suikoden games eschewed fantasy in the raw for an appeal to political and military strife in which the hero moves from town to town gathering an army and waging war along grey lines, the quintessential naivete of the RPG hero being frequently exploited to generate scenarios in which the moral high ground stood open to debate. If the main plots centered around those characters most aware of war’s many faces, the hero and the bulk of his officers–108 recruitable characters in all–were simple folk, fighting for personal reasons without a grasp of the big picture. Miki Higashino’s success in the Suikoden soundtracks rested in her ability to score appropriate music for the simple majority–those characters with deep ties to the land, who lacked a grand vision and swallowed whole the political propaganda which cast their homes and country in jeopardy. Songs like Beautiful Golden City capture what the majority of the Suikoden cast fought to preserve.

Higashino has a long history in the video game music industry in spite of her short list of works. She composed her first two soundtracks–Gradius and Yie Ar Kung-Fu–in 1985, at the surprisingly young age of 17. Yie Ar Kung-Fu in particular reveals that Higashino bore an appreciation for folk music from the very beginning of her career. I’ll leave you with the NES version of this remarkably early score.

VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI


VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Square released quite a number of games for the Super Nintendo, but everyone looked forward above all else to their annual blockbuster, appearing in the latter half of the year, from 1993 until 1995. Secret of Mana was the first of these. Final Fantasy VI was the second.

There is only one logical place to begin a discussion of the music of Final Fantasy VI.

And that would be at the beginning. Final Fantasy VI did not begin like other games. Sure, it was by no means the first to fade out on the title screen and play through an introduction to the plot, but this was different in a lot of respects. It provided barely any background to the story. Ok, there was a devastating war 1000 years ago in which the destructive art of “magic” was lost, and an emerging industrial revolution is beginning to recover remnants of that past. That’s all you directly get. The rest plays out more like a movie. You get hints and clues to what’s going on–a new face here, a key term there–but you’re left curious rather than informed. The intro to this game doesn’t set the plot; it sets the mood. (The revised English translation tragically lost sight of this, such that the original SNES “Final Fantasy III” is really the only port of the game worth playing.)

Nobuo Uematsu’s music went hand in hand with this approach. There is no opening anthem–no catchy piece to hum along to. The sinister organ, the harp-like transition, the windy sound effects, and ultimately the opening credit music all flow from one point to the next, breaking only for the sake of the cinematic experience, not because a particular track is over or the next scene has new “bgm”. Final Fantasy VI had perhaps the first really cinematic introduction for a video game.

It might be argued that Nobuo Uematsu revolutionized the use of music in video games from the very opening sequence, but nothing made this more apparent than the events at the Jidoor Opera House, where an odd twist in the plot leads the cast of heroes to become involved in a backstage operation during a musical performance. Not only does the opera take place in the backdrop as you work your way through the mission, but as part of the plot device the heroine Celes takes on the lead female roll in the show. Events transition back and forth between action behind the scenes and the live show, and part of the outcome is determined by your ability, as a player, to regurgitate Celes’ lines from the script.

The video I’ve linked here includes the first two songs in a four-part performance. What makes this sequence so important for the history of gaming music is that Nobuo Uematsu’s amazing score plays a direct role in the plot and gameplay. While the simulated pseudo-vocals might sound silly in hindsight, this was also a real first in gaming music in its day. Square’s sound team might not have possessed the technology to incorporate real words, but nothing prevented them from displaying them as part of the script. As an odd consequence, one of the first video games to make extensive use of lyrics had no vocals.

Uematsu’s third major accomplishment, the indisputable quality of his score aside, was to completely derail the limits of acceptable song length. Granted Commodore 64 artists had been busting out 6-8 minute epics back in the mid-80s, the standard by and large still remained firmly below the 3 minute mark. If we take the opera as a single piece (it’s divided into four tracks), Final Fantasy VI had three songs that pushed 20 minutes.

“Dancing Mad” probably remains today the longest final battle music ever written, with the original ost version clocking in at 17 minutes and 39 seconds. This might seem excessive if you haven’t played the game, but within its context nothing less could have possibly sufficed. Kefka was pretty much the greatest video game villain of all time (Luca Blight from Suikoden II might surpass him), and Final Fantasy VI might have had the most apocalyptic plot in the series. Sure, series fans had saved the world from imminent destruction five times before and plenty more since, but Zeromus, Exdeath, they were just icons of evil. In Final Fantasy VI, Square’s obsession with mass destruction finally found a human face. Kefka’s psychopathy was something you could buy into. He was entirely capable of emotion even as he slipped progressively further into insanity. He just attached no moral value to life. Where enemies before and since sought to destroy the world for destruction’s sake, Kefka was in it for the experience of the ultimate tragedy. For once it actually made sense for a final boss to let the heroes creep up on him; the whole agenda would have been pointless if no one was there to experience it with him.

Both visually and musically, the final battle of Final Fantasy VI was beautiful. Nothing else–certainly no 1-2 minute fight theme–would have been appropriate in the context of the story.

VGM Entry 67: EarthBound


VGM Entry 67: EarthBound
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki composed Mother in 1989, and it would remain perhaps the most eclectic soundtrack in all of video gamedom until 1994, when they teamed up again for Mother 2.

Better known to western gamers as EarthBound, Mother 2 (Nintendo, 1994) was… well… on the new game ‘name your characters’ screen you are asked the crucial question “What is your favorite homemade food?”, and that’s about as normal as it ever got. Since Mother was never released here, EarthBound was our first experience with Shigesato Itoi’s madness, and the already ridiculous events and dialogue were made all the more bizarre by a sometimes incredibly awkward (though fairly grammatically sound) translation. (Consider that the most powerful spell in the game is called “PSI Rockin Omega”.) Perhaps this was not originally by intent, but I like to pretend NOA fell in love with it and let a few oddities through intentionally.

The EarthBound soundtrack was huge, or so it seemed to me. With no comprehensive ost on the market it can be a bit hard to tell, but at least one fan rip I came across contained 78 tracks. Every town had a theme. Every combat zone had a theme. There were easily a dozen or more different battle themes. The new music just never stopped coming from start screen to the ending credits. According to Wikipedia, Keiichi Suzuki claimed in a Famitsu interview only available in Japanese that he wrote over 100 songs for the game. Many of these obviously were not used, but Suzuki also only accounts for half of the music.

EarthBound‘s finest musical moments took place in combat. This video presents a compilation of eight battle tunes (by no means all-inclusive) which should give you a good idea of what the game had to offer. The music was a mix of smooth grooves like the first track played here and corny absurdities like the second, with the former typically representing aliens and tougher bosses and the latter such detestable foes as “New Age Retro Hippie”, “Scalding Coffee Cup”, and “Big Pile of Puke”.

The corny tracks are more representative of the larger gaming environment, but the groove numbers are where Tanaka and Suzuki really excelled, culminating with “Kraken of the Sea” (6:27).

I’m not actually sure who was responsible for the combat music throughout this game, or whether the individual tracks were collaborative efforts. (Many songs in the game in fact were.) It would certainly make sense, considering how they all fall into two neat categories, to reason that one composer made the groove tracks and another did the comedy ones, but I certainly can’t confirm this. The track “Another 2” on the highly mutilated official Mother 2 ost contains quite a few samples from the former and none from the latter, and it’s credited to Tanaka specifically, but that might simply mean he was responsible for the remix. “Another 2” contains the bicycle theme as a hidden track after a half minute of silence, and that was definitely written by Suzuki, so there’s really no clear evidence here pointing to one musician or the other.

The two best songs in the game are the last two you’ll hear before the ending. Both are combat tunes, and they couldn’t be more different. “Pokey Means Business” was my favorite song in any video game as a kid, and I don’t think I need to tell you why.

Or are you not there yet? Wait for it…

Ok so, maybe it’s not decisively the best song on the SNES, but it’s definitely the heaviest. Funny that for all the dozens of games out there marketing their edginess as their selling point, none came anywhere near goofy little EarthBound. Once again I am not sure if this is a product of Suzuki, Tanaka, or both. I just know that Pokey meant business alright…

And then there was Giygas. Credits suggest this was all a product of Tanaka’s twisted mind, and it may well go down in history as he most disturbing boss music ever written. Everything about Giygas was completely abstract, from his form to his combat moves. (The game would just say “You cannot grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack!” and deal out damage.)

There are a lot of hairbrain theories out there as to what Giygas represents, especially in connection with how his final form outlines the shape of a fetus. Frankly I think if you’re playing EarthBound for the plot you’re probably reading too much into it.

This song does have a little bit of relevance to what’s going on though. The transition starting around 1:40 and the music box charm it leads into at 2:32 reflect a break in the gameplay action where Paula uses her psychic powers to ask various friends for help. So while its inclusion certainly adds to the creepiness of the overall piece, it’s also intended to be a bit heartwarming. And anyway the song as it appears here, 4:03 in length, is a little arbitrary. The song isn’t a single continuous piece, and the transitions take place as a result of progression in the boss fight.

The song and its visual counterpart have earned quite a bit of internet popularity for its unorthodox behavior. You’ll have to forgive me for sharing this last one with you:

VGM Entry 65: Follin in the 90s


VGM Entry 65: Follin on the SNES
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The average quality of Tim Follin’s compositions seemed to progressively decline with every new improvement to technology. A sort of daredevil musician accustomed to breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, I think the relative freedom of SNES composition forced him to find new forms of inspiration. Sometimes the muses moved him, and quite often they did not. When it did click for him, he showcased the same level of creative aptitude he’d been stirring up the gaming music world with since 1985.

Plok (developed by Software Creations, first published by Tradewest, 1993) was an instance in which Follin most certainly did rise to the challenge. For a goofy little game, here was a simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful score.

Tim and Geoff collaborated on this one, as they had often times before (I may well have falsely credited Tim with Geoff’s work on occasion), and it all came together exceptionally well in this instance. The track beginning at 1:48, “Venge Thicket”, especially exhibits precisely the sort of upbeat prog rock for which Tim excels, with a definite Ghouls’n Ghosts vibe. The track at 5:00, “Cotton Island”, does a delightful job of busting out in trademark over-the-top Follin style while remaining entirely within the corny and fun setting of the game it represents. “Akrillic“, not featured in the above compilation, is more of a smooth, relaxing jazz-prog ride that far exceeds the game for which it was written.

Plok was not the first great Super Nintendo soundtrack by the Follin brothers. Tim and Geoff also collaborated for Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge, another Software Creations development, published by LJN in 1992. It was, as it turns out, the only Follin game I actually owned as a kid, and its music was the leading cause in my purchasing it after playing a rental. Tim has supposedly cited Guns N’ Roses as a musical influence, but it’s only on the Arcade’s Revenge title theme that you can clearly hear it.

The whole rock and roll approach to composition was not a one-time go for the Follin brothers, though it was fairly foreign to their pre-SNES games. They would employ a much heavier rock influence throughout most of their SNES catalogue, most obviously on Rock n’ Roll Racing (Interplay, 1993). But it didn’t always work. Arcade’s Revenge was more the exception than the rule. In any case, it was not strictly rock, and the music of the Gambit stages in particular exhibit a wide variety of electronic beats intermixed with rock and prog.

The music to the Spider-Man stages was perhaps the most memorable of the game for me, and not merely because they were the only ones I could consistantly beat. It’s definitely the most diverse song in the game, intermingling prog and classical with some funk and jazz in a subdued sort of way that matched the cool vibe of the opening level, where you infiltrate a high security facility with a smoggy night sky as your backdrop. It made an otherwise tedious game well worth playing. . . . With a Game Genie.

The Follin brothers were mostly committed to the SNES throughout the 1990s, but at least one incursion was made into the world of the Genesis/Mega Drive. To the best of my knowledge Tim is responsible for the title screen music to Time Trax, and he probably wrote it in 1993 or 1994. Its extension from the Arcade’s Revenge sound should be fairly apparent. Unfortunately neither the game itself nor any other songs from it are available. Malibu Games released a SNES version with an entirely different score in 1994, but the Mega Drive version was dropped prior to publishing.

VGM Entry 64: Star Fox and Turrican


VGM Entry 64: Star Fox and Turrican
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Fantasy genre gaming alone did not define the Super Nintendo, and it’s time to look again at what was transpiring in more action-oriented fields. Star Fox was probably the most well-known action game of 1993. Super Turrican was perhaps one of the least.

Star Fox launched yet another major Nintendo series still being marketed today, and it was a novel game in many ways. It was the flagship title for Argonaut Games’ new Super FX chip, and as such featured a style of graphics never before seen on the system. It was the must have non-RPG of the year, and I can safely say the music had no factor in selling the game. It was just a wonderful added bonus.

Hajime Hirasawa is not a significant figure in game music composition generally. As best I can tell he only ever scored two games: Time Twist: Rekishi no Katasumi de… (Nintendo, 1991) for the Family Computer Disk System (FDS) peripheral to the Famicom, and Star Fox. (The former, as you might quickly notice, is pretty bad.) Hirasawa left Nintendo upon the completion of Star Fox and, a few small arrangement jobs aside, doesn’t seem to have had any further involvement in the gaming industry. He ranks alongside Yukihide Takekawa as one of the greatest one-hit wonders of the era.

Super Turrican (Seika, 1993) on the other hand marked the Super Nintendo debut (to the best of my knowledge) of a video game music legend. The Turrican series has a long and convoluted history, throughout which Chris Hülsbeck did the grand bulk of the composing, and it is for the first SNES installment that he is most remembered.

There were, as best I understand it, six distinct Turrican games in all, but many of these were ported to wildly different systems and must have underwent some drastic changes. Turrican (Rainbow Arts, 1990) and Turrican II (Rainbow Arts, 1991) were both designed for the Commodore 64 originally, by Manfred Trenz, that dubious developer of The Great Giana Sisters. In the span of about one year–to give you some idea of the wide variety of versions here–Turrican was ported to the Amiga 500 and Atari ST (by Factor 5), the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum (by Probe Software), and the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, PC Engine, and Game Boy (by Code Monkeys and Accolade.) It would be nice to at least know which of them Chris Hülsbeck was directly involved in, because not all of their music is good. The Game Boy port is especially terrible.

Super Turrican was one of three installments of the series developed in 1993. The first, Mega Turrican, had to be shelved for year for lack of a publisher on the Mega Drive, but it did make it to the Amiga as Turrican 3: Payment Day, resulting in the odd consequence of a port of the game being released a year ahead of the original. The other two were, confusingly, both called Super Turrican. Manfred Trenz and Rainbow Arts developed the Nintendo Super Turrican, based loosely around the original two C64 titles, and got the game published through Imagineer. Factor 5 in the meantime developed the Super Nintendo Super Turrican on the model of the Sega Mega Drive version, which was published by Seika as well as, according to Wikipedia, Hudson Soft and Tonkin House. Whatever all confusion must have surrounded this game, they didn’t forget to bring back the series’ main composer, and Chris Hülsbeck’s Super Turrican stands among the best on the SNES today.

VGM Entry 63: Secret of Mana


VGM Entry 63: Secret of Mana
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Super Nintendo may have been video game music’s finest hour with or without them, but three soundtracks in particular carried this system to an unprecedented level of greatness which has really never been matched since. Each was composed by a different artist, and each was released by Square. The first of these was Secret of Mana.

Here is the track list for garudoh’s compilation:

(0:00) Angle’s Fear
(0:53) selection menu track not featured on the ost
(1:23) Into the Thick of It
(2:17) Colour of the Summer Sky
(2:55) Ceremony
(3:53) Star of Darkness
(4:46) Strange Event
(5:46) Spirit of the Night
(6:22) Eternal Recurrence
(7:29) The Sorcerer
(8:15) Leave Time for Love
(8:44) Dancing Beasts
(9:24) Calm Before the Storm

Hiroki Kikuta was brand new to the world of video game music when he scored Secret of Mana, released in 1993. (Called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan, the game was technically the sequel to what we commonly know as Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy.) He had worked on the sound effects for Romancing SaGa in 1992, and beyond that he only had two animes to his credit (The Adventure of Robin Hood and The Legend of Snow White, both released in 1990.) Like the more famous Square composer whose 1995 composition would overshadow Kikuta, his work would emerge from pure inspiration, with almost no past experience upon which to build. He single-handedly made an otherwise fairly average game one of the most beloved titles on the system. I suppose average is an odd way to describe Secret of Mana–it was a very unique game within the adventure genre–but its success hinged entirely on the soundtrack. With limited plot potential and almost zero character development (the playable characters are named Boy, Girl, and Sprite for goodness sake), Secret of Mana‘s success was due entirely to Kikuta’s ability to bring the visual environment to life in fantastic ways.

garudoh chose some odd tracks for this compilation, and judging by the fact that some of the songs fade before they’re anywhere near looping (Leave Time for Love for instance) I have to assume he wasn’t personally very familiar with the music. I’ll offer you some additional tracks that didn’t make it into his mix.

Secret of Mana was a game about elements. This was not integrated in any sort of forced way, as with say, the crystals of earth, water, air, etc in the Final Fantasy series, but rather it was a natural consequence of the games strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I doubt anyone remembers why, plot-wise, you ever end up in a desert, but the experience of being there is a lasting memory.


Secret of the Arid Sands

Kikuta didn’t rely on any stereotypical reference points here. He didn’t give his music a Middle-Eastern vibe or any such nonsense. Instead he chose tones that actually reflected a visual experience of a desert. The accompaniment to the melody here flickers up and down from the bass of the music like boiling bubbles and mirages dancing off the desert sands. It’s largely in these world encounter zones, where the plot was least relevant, that Kikuta’s music is at its finest, because he was at liberty to paint a timeless musical image without any concern for the events taking place there.

This same idea of audio imagery really stands out to me in “Into the Thick of It” (1:23 in the garudoh video), where at the start the plucked sort of harpsichord-guitar line accented by the drum beat and displayed on the backdrop of a simple, confident bass and quiet but encompassing synth creates the image of a forest rushing by. (Much of the drumming is hard to find in the low bitrate youtube sample, with exaggerated alterations in volume obscuring the fact that the staccato metronome-sounding drum hits on every beat.) The bass and synth fill in the earth and sky; the drum sets things in motion; the plucked notes count off the passing tree trunks; the fuzzy guitarpsichord resonance depicts the myriad interwoven branches, tying each note into the next. However pretentious that may sound, and regardless of whether or not it reflects Kikuta’s intentions, I’ve always heard something roughly along these lines in this song. I want to clearly distinguish it from music which captures the sense of being in a forest. This doesn’t tap into emotional reactions to environments so much as it generates an actual physical image of the environment, supported by the game’s graphics proper, upon which the players can impose their own emotional values. It’s fantasy in the purest sense. As “Into the Thick of It” progresses the song flushes out into more obvious visions: woodwinds capturing the blowing breeze and rustling grass, bubbly staccato synth tones depicting passing streams. And this is precisely the graphic environment in which the song is employed.


What the Forests Taught Me

“Into the Thick of It”, where the player is rushing on ahead on a well established path, is nicely contrasted by “What the Forests Taught Me”, in which the game sets you in a much more secluded forest. Here the motion is removed, and you get a standing image of a forest clearing full of life. The calm is a bit more displaced from the gameplay, considering you’re hacking and slashing your way through, but this is entirely in keeping with Kikuta’s tendency in such plotless zones to score music descriptive of the visual environment and allow the players to attach their own value to the events taking place there.


A Wish

The sort of apex to this side of his soundtrack is “A Wish”, which plays in the winter forest combat zones. An environment blanketed in a single, neutral, stagnant substance, full of life but only subtly altered by its motion–Kikuta composed a track perfectly descriptive of what the player, upon taking a break from mechanical combat and visualizing themselves in this fantasy world, would experience. A lot of truly great musicians have attempted to capture this sort of situation–Sigur Rós and George Winston come to mind–but as the nature of video games dictates looping tracks, “A Wish” offers this vision in a uniquely and authentically eternal sort of way.

The mental images in a work of fantasy are not always natural, and for Secret of Mana‘s darker side Kikuta needed to get pretty creative. “Ceremony” (2:55) and “The Sorcerer” (7:29) represent the game’s darkest moments, and the former, though not my favorite track, might be his finest accomplishment in the mix. In a score through which the player is accustomed to deriving physical imagery, Ceremony’s twisted patterns and displaced tones take on added weight. There is nothing natural to latch onto here–no coherent vision, just some disturbing, chaotic mass. It’s got to be one of the creepiest video game songs out there, second on the SNES only to the Final Battle music of EarthBound by Hirokazu Tanaka. “The Sorcerer” is just as if not more disturbing, made only slightly less intimidating in practice by the distraction of having to actually fight a boss while it’s playing.


Steel and Snare

One thing you may have noticed listening through garudoh’s mix is Kikuta’s tendency towards hard-hitting, dominant percussion. It’s one of his strongest consistencies, tying a wide variety of musical styles together under a common feature, and on one of my other favorite tracks, “Steel and Snare”, he really lets it all out. This is one of those songs I’ve wanted to cover in a rock band since the first time I ever heard it, and I remember having the whole thing worked out on bass at one point in my life (along with Meridian Dance; this never really crossed my mind before, but when I first bought a bass it was always Hiroki Kikuta and Ryuji Sasai that I turned to.) The music again drives the setting of the game, with the continuous tone in the background simulating the air around the floating castle, and the drum and bass track giving all of the enemies a decidedly mechanical feel. I don’t actually know that they -were- mechanical. I don’t remember what they looked like precisely. But whatever they were meant to be, the music dictated my memory of the scene.

I’ll leave you with one last song:


Premonition

I’ve managed to maintain this as my ringtone for well over a decade, and it’s become such a continuous occurrence in my daily life that I don’t think I can even intelligibly discuss it in the context of the game anymore, but I was in love with it when I first heard it and I still am now. I suppose I should have featured Meridian Dance here instead, as it seems a bit silly to ignore Secret of Mana‘s most epic track through all this, but I’d rather draw attention to the less commonly featured great ones anyway. Enjoy.