Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Game Music? It Doesn't Suck as Bad as You Remember

Every serious gamer has, at one point or another, been struck by a video game in a unique way. Sometimes, it's emotional connections to plot twists. Sometimes, it is the evolution of a character. Still other times, the entire game comes together and is sealed in a crystal moment by the soundtrack. Soundtracks are some of the most endearing and often defining pieces of any video game. Be it an earworm, the aforementioned scenario, or some new way to view the song through an updated remix, game soundtracks will endure far beyond the cartridge and discs housing the game ever will. So enduring are these pieces, that entire traveling concerts and websites have been set up to help avid fans celebrate the legacy of music.

My iPhone (which contains an iPod inside...do-do-dee-do) has been loaded with select game soundtracks, typically the sort that touch on many games. Currently flavors include the entire Kingdom Hearts Complete and Super Smash Bros Brawl soundtracks, which are my true loves of the week. While my lovers are fickle and change, I will always remember a few.

The Ballad of the Windfish - The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening - Artist: Unknown
The earliest memorable piece of music that stands out in my mind is the final iteration of The Ballad of the Wind Fish from The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. As a child I had really played this game and it seemed the music perfectly complimented the gameplay - besides the obvious musical instrument element, the soundtrack was perfectly suited to the atmospheres of the dungeons and characters. It seemed to come to a head when Marin, a main supporting character you have bonded with through the game, is seen singing The Ballad of the Wind Fish faithfully, despite the entire island disappearing around her, certain to take her at the very last. This moved me as a child, as the song you tried to hard to fully complete through the whole game ends up being the very thing to destroy the world.

The Other Promise - Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix - Artist: Yoko Shimomura
Kingdom Hearts II ranks among the highest of my video game favorites, and certainly has an incredible soundtrack to boot. While KH was a great title and certainly captured a certain magic I'd been yearning to see in video games for years, KHII certainly eclipsed and surpassed its predecessor in so many ways but one - side content. When I learned of Kingdom Hearts II: Final Mix and all the new additional content it was an instant purchase, and one I've never regretting, especially for the expanded music selection.

The KH soundtracks are incredible and it is difficult to pick a sole song as above the rest, however for me a particular piece stands out. One of the new pieces of content in KHIIFM was the extension of the cutscene in the original release in which Roxas returns toward the end of the game. Final Mix took this and extended it to a full on, if not extremely difficult battle, instead of a sole movie. Playing here was a much more intense and dramatic version of the original song Yoko Shimomura created for Roxas, heard in the original release as well as early parts of Final Mix. Perfectly composed and finely tuned, this song takes a battle that not only surprises you and fulfills the desire most gamers had originally (to see Roxas vs Sora), but jacked it up so high your emotions are drawn into the battle and it almost pains you to see Roxas fall, as he inevitably will. I've not quite yet heard a song that coupled so perfectly to it's game counterpart that it allowed you to actually feel the desperation and despair of a character fighting to not be lost to the wind. I'm loathe to spoil the entirely of the extended scene, but hearing The Other Promise and then hearing the soundtrack back down and return to Roxas' theme as key revelations are made creates an emotional and memorable experience like none other.

The Song of Healing - The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask - Artist: Koji Kondo
The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is my personal least favorite of all the Zelda cannon, however it had a soundtrack done in quite the unique style, never quite done the same in any other title. Scattered amongst the new tunes was a piece designed for a moment in which Link manages to reunite a daughter with her father, who link freed from being cursed as a Re-Dead for eternity. The two share an emotional moment in which they are reunited to the sounds of a soft piano interlude, conveniently called The Song of Healing. The song also puts in appearances in other areas, but none quite do it like this one.

Fever - Puyo Puyo/Puyo Pop Fever - Artist: Unknown
Ah, the Puyo Puyo series. A massive hit in Japan running 15 years strong on many platforms and formats, the series has puzzled many and broken others. While the soundtrack itself won't stand out on many counts, my first exposure to the series led me to one song that inspired the weirdest chills down any known person's back. By countering another player's moves you can build up your fever meter and in turn achieve a mode known as fever. Fever itself changes your view to an alternate playfield filled with much easier opportunities to even the odds between you and an opponent. To be on the receiving end of this is never a good thing but hearing super cheery candy music certainly isn't what you'd expect to hear with the sound of pending doom. Yet you do. And you die. In a bright, cheery way.

Gym Leader Battle - Pokémon Red/Blue/Green - Artist: Junichi Masuda
Go back with me to 1998 for a moment. Home to Boyz II Men in every car and Game Boys in black and white, this year saw the North American debut of the Pokémon franchise. As a young junior high student I was just beginning my personal video game carrier, breaking the habit of visiting my neighbor just to use his Nintendo. Kicking this off? Pokémon Blue. After spending a million days figuring out what the hell was going on (no, the instruction manual didn't help), I figured out I needed to go kick some gym leader's ass. So I began the journey, and after cursing myself for picking Charmander to use against a Rock type I made it to the gym. A few mandatory battles later and I was treated to a far more intense piece of music I wasn't expecting - the gym leader battle music. Gone was the "Oh yay, we're having a fight" sort of tone, we were getting serious. Brock cleaned up on me but I didn't care, the music was just awesome. While somewhat cheesy now, the music matched the feeling of discovery I felt intensely and the memory remains with me to this day.

Those are but a few of my fondly recalled musical moments in gaming. There are plenty of other tracks that ring through my memory from time to time, some older than others, but each evoking a particular unique emotion I don't quite 100% duplicate anywhere else. We each have our own set and all carry sentimental value. Which are yours? Perhaps the tune of Sephiroth? Mayhaps the creeping of Death in Kid Icarus or melodies of unexplored caves in Crystalis jump you into fond recall. By all means, share your thoughts. You'll find a lot of others probably share the same memories.