October Music Series: Jason Hayes – Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round

One of the first novelties to really captivate me in World of Warcraft was holiday events. WoW was the first game I ever played that really felt like a full-blown world and not just a collection of zones. (At least, it did back before Blizzard effectively shrunk everything with portals and fast travel.) Holidays added a further immersive element–a sense that this world actually experienced the passage of time. While that aspect was left by the wayside as the game expanded, it had a powerful effect on me back in 2005. Playing the game for me then didn’t mean statistics-grinding–being the first on my server to down a boss or accomplish an ‘achievement’–it just meant checking out of real life for a few hours and immersing myself in this fantasy environment. You could start a new character on Halloween, set off on the long hike to a major city, and there you’d find the whole place decked out in pumpkins and ghouls with themed mini-games and the like. Come back at Christmas, and the world will have aged again. I loved it.

The Darkmoon Faire is an event unique to Azeroth. Originally a traveling carnival that you might happen upon by chance, it eventually set up permanent shop with easy access to the major cities, but the settlement maintained its air of mystery. In practice, the Darkmoon Faire Merry-Go-Round is a necessary stop for anyone interested in speed-leveling a new character due to the beneficial enchantment that visitors receive, but its music leaves you wondering if you didn’t just lose your soul in exchange…

This Jason Hayes composition was not actually introduced to the game until late 2012, in the Landfall patch for Mists of Pandaria, but it could easily find a home in the game’s annual Halloween event.

Song of the Day: Masashi Hamauzu – Saber’s Edge, from Final Fantasy XIII

If you frequented this blog back in 2012, you probably remember a 68 post series I ran on the history of video game music. While no one website served as my main source for it all, Final Fantasy Shrine definitely inspired the idea. As that community aged, it developed a unique trend towards game, anime, and film music discussion. I discovered a lot of obscure composers there, and that got the ball rolling for my series. One of the things we’ve been doing on FFShrine for ages now is making music compilations to showcase in a sort of knock-out tournament. Themes have ranged from the predictable mainstream to obscurities like “Best of Tim Follin”, but we never actually did Final Fantasy until last year. It turned out to be surprisingly novel, because I hadn’t heard anything since Square-Enix and Nobuo Uematsu parted ways. “Saber’s Edge”, a battle theme from Final Fantasy XIII composed by Masashi Hamauzu, ended up becoming one of my favorite songs in the series.

It’s been a year now, and (probably because I’ve been staying up until 5am watching a baby with absolutely nothing to entertain me) I decided to resurrect the Final Fantasy music knock-out game for a second run. FFShrine is a lot smaller than it used to be, though, and I’m not expecting much participation. So hey, if you’re bored and want to rehash some old RPG tunes, maybe discover a few new ones, stop by FFShrine and check the game out.

Neon Dream #7: 古川もとあき – One Night in Neo Kobe City

There is a common quip you’re likely to find if you read comments on Konami’s Snatcher: of all the games that I have never played, this one is my favorite. The game was ported and rehashed for much of the late 80s and 90s, appearing on the PC-8801, MSX2, PC-Engine, Sega Mega-CD, Sony Playstation, and Sega Saturn. The highly censored Sega CD port was the only English translation, and given how horribly that system flopped, you have almost certainly never played this game. That’s no fault of Konami’s. America and Europe are not exactly hot markets for menu-based graphic adventure games.

But Snatcher has a cult following of western fans regardless. Magazines reviewing the Sega CD port praised it across the board. It’s one of the earliest highly successful (in Japan at least) cyberpunk video games, and it merges this with a detective story, grasping the genre’s affinity with film noir. Its original 1988 score captured the essence of cyberpunk aesthetics, filled with jazzy melodies driven by futuristic beats where it could have easily gotten away with generic action music instead. And the game is deliciously dated: its post-apocalyptic earth–set in the oh-so-distant future of 2042–comes about as a consequence of the Soviet Union unleashing a devastating biological weapon. All of these factors make its obscurity a bit enticing. It’s not like you’ve never heard of the game because no one liked it. It’s more of a lost treasure.

The game’s western obscurity plays directly into the appeal of its genre. Learning about it, I felt like I was excavating a modern ruin from a digital trash heap, diving into long forgotten file-sharing archives and posting anonymous requests in dark corners of the internet for sources beyond Wikipedia. One of the most enjoyable stretches of my long-winded videogame music series in 2012 was the process of piecing together fragments of information to arrive at a fairly accurate break-down of the original score. It was a Konami Kukeiha Club project, which can often be a lost cause to dissect, but I dug until I found that the original PC-8801 version’s credits listed each track by individual composer. This was already complicated by the fact that it incorporated changes in the simultaneously released MSX2 port, awkwardly intermixing the staff who converted the sound. You can read my two-part entry on Snatcher below, if you’re curious:

VGM Entry 56: Snatcher (part 1)
VGM Entry 57: Snatcher (part 2)

“One Night in Neo Kobe City”, not to be confused with “Twilight of Neo Kobe City”–I had a lot of fun dealing with those sorts of naming conventions through a bad Japanese to English translator–is not original to the 1988 version of Snatcher. Motoaki Furukawa (古川もとあき) first composed it for the 1992 PC-Engine port, when greatly improved audio technology made a track like this possible. (Honestly, think about the sound quality in games you were playing in ’92. This was pretty advanced.) The song really sets the stage for the cyberpunk tech noir experience that follows. I suppose it’s not dark or foreboding, really, but when you connect this sort of sax-driven jazz to a futuristic city, the relation feels natural. When you connect it to Snatcher, it becomes cyberpunk to the core.

Hats off to Konami for letting Snatcher thrive on Youtube when so many other game producers routinely scour the net of their antiquities. (I personally had my account banned by Taito for posting some music to an obscure 80s arcade game.) I don’t know why cease and desist orders are particularly popular in the world of videogame music, but at least in my experience Konami seem to avoid that nonsense. It’s pretty cool, since the Konami Kukeiha Club doesn’t rate far behind Square-Enix’s illustrious list of composers.

Review: Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft

Like most of my b.net friends (that is: auction house junkies and achievement whores), I downloaded Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft for a free mount. What I got was an addicting breath of fresh air laced with all the appeal of nostalgia. In Blizzard Entertainment I’ve trusted since I first picked up my copy of Starcraft back in 1998, but it would be hard to argue that the company has not grown a little washed out of late. Starcraft 2, for all its glory, faces too much competition to match the popularity of its legendary predecessor; Diablo 3 was a bore to all but the most devoted series fans; and World of Warcraft is gagging on the fumes that keep it running. I thought BlizzCon 2013 was the nail in the coffin (and I still do), but Hearthstone definitely breaks from the current trend. It is the first Blizzard release since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010) that felt fresh to me.

Hearthstone is an electronic card game reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Unlike M:tG, you’re not going to find yourself at a loss for players when your friends grow up and get “lives”. (sigh…) I’m sure plenty of online M:tG-style card games have existed in the past, but what’s significant here is that I have never played them. Hearthstone had a few things going for it pre-launch that genre competitors lack: it is free, it is Blizzard, and its launch coupled with a long over-due Battle.net meta program that makes it highly visible to current Blizzard customers. The minute you click play, you’ll find a few other perks. Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is nothing short of brilliant, the game is conceptually very simple to grasp, and the graphics strike that balance between clarity and imagination that is non-existent in modern gaming. (If you don’t know what I mean by this, consider a modern game with severely limited character development–say Mists of Pandaria–to an old-school NPC overload like Suikoden, and ask yourself which game you remember more characters in.)

Once you’ve been at it a while–I’ve been playing for all three weeks the game has been public–some obvious cons will emerge. The game is highly dependent on card acquisition, and the availability of new decks is unnecessarily limited. Playing strictly for free, a casual Hearthstone fan will accumulate roughly two card packs every three days. A pack consists of five cards, with at least one guaranteed to be rare or higher (rarities roughly parallel WoW’s system of common, uncommon, rare, epic, and legendary). Because the game is new, the total amount of cards out there is relatively low, leaving little room for creative builds that can succeed in the absence of numerous epics and legendaries. Unfortunately, Blizzard offers no easy progress through pay. Booster packs (5 cards) can be purchased at a rate of 2 for $3, 7 for $10, 15 for $20, and 40 for $50. At the outset, nothing short of the all-in $50 deal is going to guarantee you much of an upper hand, and by the time you’ve accumulated 20 or so free decks through casual play the $20 and lower options seem like too much of a gamble. So if you want to roll your way up into the higher ranks, you’re stuck paying the full retail price of a major release or else sticking it out for free over an extended period of time. There is no financial happy medium. You will likely find yourself wavering between ranks 17 and 19 for a long, long time until you’ve gotten lucky enough to build a competitive deck. I would happily pay $20 for 40 booster packs at least once, but $50 is unreasonable.

Blizzard does not currently allow cards to be traded or sold, and that makes some practical sense. (I would just roll fake accounts and trade free boosters to my main until I had the full collection in a matter of days.) What they offer instead is a “disenchant” feature, where you can permanently destroy cards and use the byproducts to craft others of your choosing. The problem with this system is that it leaves collectors in the dust early on. Until you’ve accumulated enough duplicates, you’ll be faced with the unpleasant choice between remaining in the lower ranks and abandoning rare cards.

On the plus side, extensive losing streaks are pretty uncommon. The game seems to be very well balanced to match you against players of similar skill/decks. Skill development will cap out before deck improvement, unfortunately, but the monotony can be broken by a system that allows you to play 9 different classes loosely based around their World of Warcraft parallels. My Warlock deck might cap out at rank 17, but I haven’t even touched a Druid yet. Boosters are not class-specific, so what I earn on an alt class is of equal worth to me. Whether alternate class play too will dull before higher-level decks can be built is still too soon to tell. I can say that three weeks into the public launch, Hearthstone is still sufficiently captivating to chew up an hour of my evening daily.

I love this game not only for its innate appeal, but for its status as proof that Blizzard can break from their self-imposed molds and release a game that is not dependent on a franchise model. My dreams of a World of Starcraft are still far-fetched, but I really, really hope that Hearthstone succeeds. It serves as a reminder that, before Blizzard found themselves inextricably bound to decade-old gameplay models, they were the most innovative corporation in the world of PC gaming.

Did I mention that Peter McConnell’s soundtrack is godly? Russell Bower might be at the peek of his career with Mists of Pandaria, but this is what I want to hear in a game. Two thumbs up for Hearthstone all around.

Shad#1129 on battle.net if you want to hit me up for a round or two. 🙂

Ten Years #34: Hiroki Kikuta

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
34. Hiroki Kikuta (909 plays)
Top track (105 plays): A Wish, from Seiken Densetsu 2 (Secret of Mana) (1993)

Hiroki Kikuta–or 菊田裕樹 as I like to tag my artists–is in reality my #1 most listened to artist of the past decade, if only because Premonition from Secret of Mana has been my cell phone ring tone since something like 1999. (I actually manually recorded the song on my phone and set it up as a ring tone back before you could load mp3s.) The fact that I still have yet to tire of it is a testament to just how great the Secret of Mana soundtrack was. I regard the first half of the 1990s as the pinnacle of video game music, thanks in no small part to Square’s exquisite attention to audio at the time. Hiroki Kikuta, like Yasunori Mitsuda two years later, was something of a no name in the world of vgm who Square tasked with an enormously high-demand project and who rose to the challenge in full.

Everything I could desire to say about Kikuta I’ve already summed up in the Secret of Mana entry to my video game music series last year, so I’ll make this entry to my current post series brief. Suffice to say I think Kikuta was a brilliant composer on par with Uematsu and Mitsuda. He unfortunately made some relatively poor career choices which prohibited him from being tasked with enough high budget game projects to make his name as much of a lasting fixture in the history of vgm as these latter two, but the Secret of Mana soundtrack rightly deserves a place among the finest gaming music ever conceived.

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.

Ten Years #49: Matt Uelmen

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
49. Matt Uelmen (623 plays)
Top track (597 plays): Tristram, from Diablo (1996)
(This sample is the extended–and improved–version appearing in Diablo II.)

The Diablo series managed to evade me in its first two installments, and not for lack of effort on my part. A combination of a panophobic mother in the first instance and an outdated PC in the second restrained my computer gaming experience to Starcraft and Age of Empires. But that didn’t stop me from acquiring the soundtrack. I might have downloaded Tristram in mp3 format as early as 1997, when MIDI replicas were still a viable alternative. (The first mp3 I ever downloaded was Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta. I actually remember this!) At any rate, it is my indisputable favorite song ever. Sorry …And Then There Was Silence. You’ll have to settle for indisputable second. I probably listened to Tristram thousands of times as a teenager before last.fm existed, and even in the past ten years it has drastically exceeded all other songs on my charts. (Compared to 597, my third most listened song is at a measly 255.)

I am not a huge Matt Uelmen fan overall. The numbers attest to that. But this song reaches a level of ambient perfection that has never been achieved before or since. I don’t have much to say about it, save that if you don’t like it I question your humanity. This is the only artist that has climbed his way into my top 50 based on a small selection of songs, let alone based on one single track.