January 30, 2012

Music Monday: Final Fantasy XIII-2 - Run

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is out tomorrow, and I'm probably more stoked for this game than anyone has a right to be -- especially considering how disappointed I was with its predecessor. The game wasn't completely terrible, but it lacked the variety and depth of features that fans of the series have come to expect. Without going into details, it was a matter of style over substance. While the sequel promises to iron out nearly every gameplay flaw the original suffered from, one area that didn't need a drastic overhaul was the excellent music. Thankfully, XIII-2's soundtrack is no slouch.

Title: Run
Game: Final Fantasy XIII-2
Composed by: Naoshi Mizuta

January 28, 2012

The SQ Album Series Multi-Review, Part 2

This article is a continuation of a three-part overview of Square-Enix's series of arrange albums collectively titled SQ. The albums SQ Chips and Chill SQ are covered in Part 1.

Love SQ

It's hard to imagine any old-school Squaresoft fan not getting a kick out of Love SQ. This collection, as the title implies, has the all the sound of a love letter to a bygone era rife with some of gaming's all-time classics. To put it in perspective -- while this disc represents games from a variety of platforms, all but one of them (Final Fantasy VII) depends entirely on 2D sprite graphics -- these new-fangled "polygons" you youngsters are all atwitter for were once just a hazy shadow on the horizon.

One might criticize this album for playing the nostalgia card too often. However, if the implication is that the music doesn't stand on it's own or the melodies haven't survived the transition to new genres, I don't buy it. Love SQ is so fun and full of life that if you can't find at least something you can enjoy here, maybe music just isn't your thing.

The album begins with a jazzy, big-band rendition of the Final Fantasy theme built on lively trumpet and saxophone. It's a far cry from the august majesty the theme is usually treated to, giving the series' most lasting tradition a dose of ironic pep.

What follows is a trio of electronic Chrono Trigger arrangements, infused with stimulating harmonic sequences and animated rhythms. Outskirts of Time is probably even better than the original version, sung by a glorious new synthesized lead which really carries the sustained notes of the melody well. Next, the main theme of Chrono Trigger starts off robotic and industrial before shifting to a more lifelike chorus powered by pumping beats. Frog's Theme ~ Fanfare 1 finishes off the Chrono section with a cute coupling of themes sewn together by faux-chiptune instrumentation and synthy voices into a retro-styled march.

Another highlight is the familiar favorite, Chocobo's Theme. A sauntering, smooth jazz flavor dominates this track, formed by playful piano and organ, and even a little whistling. I think Final Fantasy's golden, avian mascot has likely been responsible for more versions of a single piece of music than anything else in the history of video games -- but, this is still one of the cleverer ones.

Toward the end is the medley Battle on the Big Bridge ~ Dancing Mad ~ One Winged Angel, a wild and frolicking piano spree melding three of gaming's most poplar themes.

The key to Love SQ, and its equally-great follow-up, is variety. Acoustic and electronic, frantic and tranquil -- a mixed-bag of styles and artists have come together to produce some of the most interesting game music reinterpretations I've heard in a while.

More SQ

This is one case where I'm happy to say the sequel to a great album is just more of the same. More SQ takes the approach of Love SQ, gathering a number of artists to arrange classic and modern Square music in new styles.

Some of the characteristics I enjoyed in the previous album are also applied here: the main theme of Final Fantasy that opens More is similar to the joyful, electronic pop sound that other pieces received in Love. There are also brass-focused moments here, such as the lively, big-band piece dedicated to Final Fantasy V's theme, or the more mellow rock structure of Rosenkranz from SaGa Frontier 2. If I seem to be glossing over the details in tracks like these, it's not to be dismissive -- they're just similarly excellent in the way their rough stylistic counterparts were in Love SQ. Truth be told, there's just so much great music in these albums that I can only go into detail on a handful of tracks before this review starts to read like a novel.

If there is a marked difference in the way More SQ handles the subject matter, it's in the larger proportion of tracks that really play with how the melody is communicated. While both albums experiment with radical changes in tone, tempo, instrumentation, and genre, Love SQ seemed more content to keep the structure and flow of the original melodies intact and easily recognizable. More features greater shifts in the pacing of how some melodies are expressed. Yearnings of the Wind -- created by Pia-no-jaC, who performed the previous album's three-part piano cavalcade -- dips in and out of various time signatures, only briefly ever sounding very much like the Chrono Trigger original. The wildest divergence, though, is clearly Final Fantasy VIII's final battle theme, The Extreme. Elements of the melody have been taken apart and rebuilt, set to irregular rhythms and sent off on uncertain tangents. If I had just heard this track out of context, without knowing where it came from, I might have had a pretty hard time guessing why it sounded so vaguely familiar.

Of course, there's a lot of great material here for those who prefer their game music to stay a little closer to home. Fans will absolutely adore the cool, jazzy take on Final Fantasy VI's Searching for Friends -- and the lounge-singer flavor of Melodies of Life adds just the right spice to give an old song some novel charm.

It was brutally difficult to restrict myself to only providing two samples per album. There are so many good tracks that I really wanted to share -- yet, due to the collaborative nature of these albums, a mere one or two tracks can't convey the variety of the collection. Any fans of Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, or even game music in general, would really be doing themselves a favor by investigating Love SQ and More SQ.

Next time, I'll be wrapping up this series by covering Cafe SQ. Am I saving the best for last?

I'll just tell you now: YES.

January 23, 2012

Music Monday: Nier - Ashes of Dreams / New

Nier is one of those games I haven't gotten around to trying -- and perhaps never will, if I listen to the less-than-flattering reviews it's earned -- but it just looks so damned quirky and interesting that I'll always be curious about it. Supposedly, it's made up of interesting enough parts -- solid story and characters, varied level design, multiple endings -- but the whole experience overall is often agreed upon as being monotonous and not cohesive enough to warrant any recommendations.

It seems almost a shame, then, that such a dubious and overlooked title is blessed with such stellar music. Nier's soundtrack features beautifully-written themes and variations, and a refreshingly unique prominence of vocals -- the highlight of it all being the melancholic voice of singer Emi Evans.

One of the main themes, Ashes of Dreams, illustrates how impressively different the music is from what one might expect to hear in a video game. I'm not sure how this piece is used within the context of the game, but the tone seems far too ambiguous and arresting to be content hovering in the background. Emi's voice and annunciation demands one's full attention -- and I think if I were playing Nier and this song began playing, the rest of the game might have to take a back seat.

January 19, 2012

The SQ Album Series Multi-Review, Part 1

While the community of fan-remixed video game music has been going strong for some time now, it seems that game developers themselves very rarely commit to producing new takes on their own soundtracks. Being some of the most varied, memorable, and beloved music there is, game soundtracks represent a wealth of opportunities to bend style and genre, develop complex variations on familiar themes, and play with experimental composition and medley.

Historically, both sides of the recently-conglomerated Square-Enix have been exceptional as official patrons of the remix and arrangement scene. Every installment of Enix's Dragon Quest series has seen at least one additional album exploring piano, brass, or full symphonic arrangements. Squaresoft has been even more prominent, not only issuing nearly every mainstream Final Fantasy title the traditional Piano Collections album, but also releasing uniquely-themed discs like Final Fantasy Vocal Collections and Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon.

In an industry where the big names are becoming increasingly dependent on cutting corners and putting out the bare minimum of content, it's encouraging to see classic, well-written music still receiving the attention it deserves. Square-Enix has recently produced a series of impressively refreshing remix albums highlighting pieces from Squaresoft's side of things, under the common moniker of SQ. While their flagship Final Fantasy series is unsurprisingly the most dominant, the SQ arrangements also draw from other games like Xenogears, Chrono Trigger & Chrono Cross, the SaGa series, Einhander, and even the obscure Live A Live. All the bases are covered, from the Gameboy to the Playstation 3.

Today, we'll be taking a glance at a couple of those albums: SQ Chips and Chill SQ.

SQ Chips
As the name suggests, SQ Chips reexamines its source material under a lens of electronica and NES-inspired chiptunes. If you're not willing to subject your delicate eardrums to the droning bleeps and bloops of a purely NES-styled disc, fear not -- the electronic instrumentation isn't taken so literally or so strictly as one might think. Modern synthesizer techniques are applied liberally, imbuing the collection with a healthy range and lively pacing. In most cases, the original tracks are energized with pulse-pounding beats and electronic harmonies. A charming, chiptune aesthetic is woven into each piece, coloring it with the retro theme of the album without clubbing us over the head with overstated fakery. It's not gimmicky -- and while very electronic-sounding, neither is it a slapdash techno affair that you'd be embarrassed to be caught with.

An early highlight of the album is the most NES-ified remix -- Blinded by the Light, the battle music from Final Fantasy XIII. It's one of my all-time favorite battle themes, despite Final Fantasy XIII being the most recent of the series and (in my opinion) a rather sub-par game. Masashi Hamauzu's original tastefully capitalizes on everything from classical strings and brass to rollicking drums and electric guitar, unified into a soaring and euphoric production. The SQ Chips rendition takes this composition and amusingly simplifies it into something resembling a skirmish in the first Final Fantasy on the good ol' Nintendo, complete with a segment featuring primitive sword-slash sound effects and the telltale tweets of menu selection.

Taking a different approach, Aerith's Theme from Final Fantasy VII turns a work of longing sentimentality and melancholy on its head, resulting in an upbeat, danceable tune that will have fans humming along cheerfully. A similar effect is applied to Xenogears' ethereal The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue SkyFinal Fantasy VI's somber Terra's Theme, and Final Fantasy VIII's romantic pop ballad Eyes on Me -- they stay true to the melody and charm of their history, but are electrified by brisk pacing and a new point of view. They're pleasantly invigorating, but not hyperactive.

While wholly electronic in nature, SQ Chips' whopping 18-track marathon still feels varied and balanced. As the tracks have been arranged by a collaboration of numerous artists, there's a wide spectrum of tones and tempos expressed here. If you're one of those weirdos like me who actually enjoys a bit of chiptune music once in a while, and are looking for a spunky reinterpretation of Square's classics, keep an eye out for this album.

Chill SQ
This is essentially the antithesis of the aforementioned Chips, trading out the youthful, electronic, experimental sound for a traditional, downtempo, chill-out vibe. There wouldn't be anything wrong with that per se, but Chill SQ tends to be overly cheesy -- not unlike switching your radio between the dance mix, easy-listening and adult-contemporary stations. At best, it's relaxing and pleasant -- but at worst, awkward and boring. It's also a mere 7 tracks, clocking at just under 35 minutes.

The album opens with a medley from Seiken Densetsu (Final Fantasy Adventure on Gameboy), built on piano, acoustic guitar, and mid-tempo electronic drums. The final track, Final Fantasy V's Dear Friends, is similar and a little slower. They bookend the album with safe, straightforward arrangements that stick closely to the source material. Both are nice to have on in the background, but rather dull to listen to actively.

I suppose Theme of Love from Final Fantasy IV has always been a schmaltzy ballad, but this arrangement takes it to a whole new level where it becomes embarrassing. Not that the arrangement is bad -- it's not -- the bass line rounds out the piece well, but the predictable drum beat seems hesitant to let the music stand on its own merits. Also, expect to hear the beat accompanied by background finger-snapping -- no, I'm not kidding.

A mellow take on trance or lounge is applied to the main theme from the first SaGa game (a.k.a. Final Fantasy Legend). Similar things can be said for the Live A Live and Front Mission tracks, though they're taken in funkier directions. Together they represent the electronic segment at the middle of the album, and are probably some of the more interesting pieces.

The low point is a grating, English-language dance remix of the Aria from Final Fantasy VI's opera scene. The vocals are sub-par, and the music itself is tired and naive in a "Britney Spears" '90s pop kind of way. Basically, if you've heard any other version of this piece, it was better than this.

Sadly, there's not a lot of praise I can give this album, especially by comparison to its largely-excellent company in the rest of the SQ series. It has its good moments, but never does it excel at anything in particular. Only seek this one out if you're really curious, or a completionist.

Don't let Chill SQ dissuade you from looking forward to the arrangements to come, though -- there are three more albums in the series, each much more fascinating than this. I'll be covering Love SQ, More SQ, and Cafe SQ very soon.

January 16, 2012

Music Monday: The Last Story - Toberu Mono (Instrumental)

Title: Toberu Mono (Instrumental)
Game: The Last Story (released 2011 in Japan, no North American release currently planned)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu

For many, Nobuo Uematsu is synonymous with classic video game music. He penned the score for every Final Fantasy game from I to IX (and also contributed to X and XI), as well as popular favorite Chrono Trigger. In the heyday of the NES and SNES, video game soundtracks were severely limited by the hardware. Music wasn't just written, but programmed. There were no orchestras, nor live recordings, nor spoken dialogue. The system had to load and execute the music programming just like any other part of the game, and no more than a handful of digital "instruments" could be playing at any one time. It took a lot of creativity to get the most out of a system's sound chip, and the quality of a game's music hinged upon the composer's ability to craft an evocative and memorable melody which defied technological constrictions. Uematsu's work was widely regarded as some of the best that games had to offer -- and even among those who have long since given up on Final Fantasy, or RPGs in general, Uematsu's melodies still trigger feelings of nostalgia and reverence.

 As the video game industry grew into the monstrous entity it is today, demands for increased budgets and more cinematic approaches to music took over. While one can't really argue that this has been a bad thing overall, it has shifted emphasis away from that mother of invention who demanded stirring melodies above all else. A lot of modern soundtracks seek to lend background mood or atmosphere and tension to specific scenarios or dialogue scenes, when they aren't licensing popular music from outside of gaming entirely. As a result, some of today's music -- while enjoyable within the context of play -- may not leave a lasting impression once the game is shut off.

Toberu Mono, the main theme of Japanese RPG The Last Story, recalls the tradition of unforgettable melody. Hearing it is like being transported back to 1994 -- a sort of alternate-reality 1994 in which game composers had all the resources and sophistication they take for granted today. This piece would feel right at home in a 16-bit game like Final Fantasy VI. From the gentle winds of the opening moments to the brassy flourish of the triumphant anthem at its conclusion, it's clear that Uematsu hasn't lost sight of the magic which captivated a generation.

January 13, 2012

Rokko Chan Parties Like it's 20XX

I usually cringe at the term "fan game," but Japanese indie developer King Soukutu has treated retro gaming enthusiasts to a pleasant surprise with Rokko Chan. Skirting the line between homage and blatant rip-off, this 8-bit-styled, 2D action-platformer looks, feels, and sounds like the classic NES Mega Man series in every way. The justification? It also matches the fast-paced fun and challenge of the original.

While the game ironically features "original" characters and situations, that's little more than tongue-in-cheek window-dressing. The protagonist, Rokko Chan, is clearly just a female redraw of Capcom's blue, robotic mascot (Mega Man's name in Japan is "Rock Man," after all). The graphics, sound, controls, music -- everything in this freeware Flash game would be right at home on the NES. It's perhaps a little too faithful and familiar to be merely an "homage," but the imitation is as adorably self-aware as it is authentic. King isn't trying to fool anyone, and this game is essentially a good-natured tribute from a die-hard fan. It's like someone just dug up an old cartridge containing a lost Mega Man title that mysteriously never saw the light of day, until now.

Like Mega Man, Rokko Chan's plot is a simple, bare-bones affair: in the year 20XX, the wicked Dr. Mad has sicced six of his robotic creations on the unsuspecting populace. Upon learning of the wanton destruction, Dr. Sane's newest creation, Rokko Chan, decides it's up to her to put a stop to it. Each ridiculously-themed robot serves as the end boss of their respective stage, and you're free to choose the order in which you tackle them. Defeating each boss rewards Rokko Chan with that robot's signature ability, and each robot is weak against certain powers. Sounding familiar? Stop me if you've heard this before.

Just like in the old days, some of the bosses were sillier than others.
Hockey Man? Rolling Man? Are you kidding me?

Despite similarities, the amount of work King must have put into this game is staggering, and some of the high points are actually the original tweaks that have been made. For example, Rokko's jump is significantly higher than Mega Man's -- and there is an added dash move, lending the heroine a welcome boost of speed and momentum -- thus making this character noticeably more maneuverable than her NES inspiration. King has also taken advantage of the features of the Flash medium to incorporate subtle tricks that the NES system could never have pulled off, such as sprite rotation effects. Certain platforms in Rolling Man's stage, for instance, rotate the entire room around you, turning the world on its head.

Perhaps the most impressive feature is the music, which really sells the experience for me. Capcom's tunes for the NES Mega Man titles had an unmistakable sound and energy to them, and Rokko Chan's soundtrack captures that feeling so convincingly that I'd swear it was lifted directly (if I didn't know better). Composer ASAGEN's work is full of gung-ho, galloping beats and charmingly sincere, operatic melodies that would make even the cheesiest of power metal bands blush (but also wish they had written it). If this game had been released in 1988, old-school gamers would be lauding the first stage of Dr. Mad's castle as one of the NES era's greatest tracks, as they do now with Dr. Wily's theme from Mega Man 2.

The scale of the difficulty is roughly on par with stand-out examples like Mega Man 2 or 9. Each stage has its own quirks to master, and the bosses themselves can be real hard-asses if you don't have the right weapon for the job, but practice and perseverance will eventually get you through to Dr. Mad's castle. Keeping true to tradition, this multi-tier fortress of pain ramps up the difficulty considerably, culminating in a final encounter that promises to sweaty your palms, set your heart racing, and demand from you no less than everything you've got.

Rokko Chan reaches for the stars, in an all-too-familiar jumping posture
The only real snag that may prevent one from fully enjoying Rokko Chan is the bare fact that it's a Flash game, and by default requires keyboard controls. That might have been sufficient if we weren't talking about a full-fledged, fast-paced action game -- but anyone looking to play all the way through this killer gauntlet using only the keyboard interface is on a fool's errand. Fortunately, there's an easy fix for that in the form of a handy little program called Joy2Key. Basically, it allows you to map buttons on a gamepad to keyboard keys, and getting it running is fast and simple.

Fight, Rokko Chan! For everlasting peace!
King Soukutu is one of those indie game makers who gets it. It's one thing to hack a previously existing game and rearrange its elements into a clumsy pastiche, but quite another to master the underpinnings of quality design and make it your own. Rokko Chan was crafted lovingly, with the hindsight of someone who understands what worked -- and what didn't -- in those old NES platformers. It's also refreshing that the game's difficulty hasn't been dumbed down for modern audiences -- which may be a turn-off for some, but that much more of a pay-off for those who appreciate a serious test of wits and reflexes. If you're someone who's looking for a dose of 8-bit nostalgia, or even a youngin' curious to see what video games used to be like in the olden days, do give this gem a try.

* Extra! *
King and his team have also put together a virtual art book showcasing all the character designs that went into the game. It's pretty impressive in its own right!