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A few weeks ago, Arc System Works announced that the newest installment of the BlazBlue series, Central Fiction, was in development. People unfamiliar with the franchise might look at the art-style and character design and dismiss the franchise as yet another Japanese flight of fancy. At a glance BlazBlue does seem like a cacophony of anime cliches from the mid 2000s, but that really doesn’t tell you the whole story. BlazBlue is an incredibly in-depth fighter, with a great number of nuanced mechanics and a high execution barrier. Sickeningly fast paced, exhilarating to both watch and play, it’s really little wonder that BlazBlue is one of the kings of arcades in Japan.

 

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Newcomers Naoto and Hibiki (Mid left and right) join old schoolers Ragna and Noel (Far left and right) in Central Fiction.

Admittedly, the franchise does not have the same high-class pedigree some other fighting games do: Street Fighter, for example, has been around since 1987; Namco’s tekken since 1994; and even BlazBlue’s older heavier cousin, Guilty Gear, has rocked arcade cabinets since 1998. In contrast, BlazBlue’s first release, Calamity Trigger, came out a scant 7 years ago in 2008. The game was originally intended to be a spiritual successor to Guilty Gear, since the franchise had been in limbo for a while and Arcsys wanted to inject new life into the fighting game genre. It was a long shot, since Guilty Gear was one of the golden children of the Japanese fighting game community. But somehow, all the right pieces were in place; Calamity Trigger had the vision of director Toshimichi Mori injected into it, as well as the incredible talent as a composer of Daisuke Ishiwatari, mastermind behind the Guilty Gear series. Ishiwatari was a particularly critical piece, because you really only need to listen to the soundtrack of the Guilty Gear series to know that this man knows rock the same way a geologist does.

 

Listen: Noel Vermillion’s Theme – Bullet Dance

 

The soundtrack in Calamity Trigger was no less remarkable than Guilty Gear’s. Ishiwatari had poured his soul into the music in the game, and the result was a penetrating, mind blowing variety of sensational songs that gave you the sense that the world was crashing around your ears. In the devil-may-care style that perhaps only Japanese composers can successfully deliver, Ishiwatari went from the hard-rock tones of Rebellion, to the post-industrial bass of MOTOR HEAD, effortlessly and flawlessly giving depth to every dramatis personae in the game. Fans were drawn to BlazBlue due to the characters, which in contrast to good old Ryu or Ken, seemed to grow throughout the story of the game and with every iteration afterwards. While perhaps a bit cliched at first, every character in BlazBlue was unique both in gameplay and drama. For example: You had the gruff protagonist, Ragna the Bloodedge that, while his name may sound like the try-hard attempt of a teenage kid to sound badass, is just really a guy with a heart of gold, tremendously bad luck and penchant for catastrophe.

 

Listen: Nu-13’s Theme – Awakening the Chaos

 

And so it seemed that BlazBlue had managed to recapture some of the magic that Guilty Gear had originally possessed, thanks in no small measure to Ishiwatari’s brilliance. But Calamity Trigger wasn’t exactly a competitive masterpiece. The game was poorly balanced, felt sluggish at times, and the UI was an eyesore for the most part. Some fans also felt that the story, while good for a fighting game, was over-the-top convoluted and difficult to follow at times. However, the game was a resounding commercial success, and the seed had been planted for the continued survival of the series. Eventually, the game made it to the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360 in 2009, increasing the popularity of the franchise even further, and making it accessible to fans worldwide.

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The cast of Calamity Trigger.

 

Arc System Works saw that they had a gold mine in their hands, and worked tirelessly to keep BlazBlue fresh and exciting. ArcSys adopted a near yearly release schedule for every version of the game, always improving over the previous release one way or the other. Some fans found this objectionable, but regardless of that, by August 2012, the franchise had sold over 1.6 million copies of both Calamity Trigger, and the three versions of Continuum Shift (Original, 2, and Extend). Then, in November 2012, after extensive testing and fine tuning, BlazBlue finally hit its full stride with the release of Chronophantasma. Boasting the largest roster of the series to date, as well as revamped mechanics and a much faster game pace than its predecessors, Chronophantasma was a runaway hit in Japan, quickly becoming the most played game in arcades nationwide during the first few months of its lifespan. The game’s popularity increased even more when it was released for consoles a year later, in October 2013, going as far as being featured in EVO, the premier fighting game tournament in the United States. (The finals were one of the most exciting events of the year, and showcased an amazing set of skills from both combatants. Highly recommended.)

 

Listen: BlazBlue Chronophantasma OST – Theme of the Six Heroes

 

It is now, then, that the fanbase waits with bated breath for the release of Central Fiction. It’s a game that certainly can’t be missed if one is a fan of fighting games. It promises to be faster, bigger, better, and grander. And considering how far we’ve come since Calamity Trigger, it’s a sure bet that Arc System Works will deliver. In the meanwhile, one can always find a willing sparring partner online with the current iteration of the series Chronophantasma Extend. The wheel of fate is turning!

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Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!

 

Celebrating the album releases of Broken Age, and the recent re-release of the score for Grim Fandango at Sumthing.com are a very BIG deal.

So much so, that back in May, I went in search of their composer: industry legend Peter McConnell. On a very bright and HOT day in June, Peter and I discussed the hidden blessings of crowd-funding, the echoes of space, the villain theme, Lucas Arts, and the beginnings of his work on Grim Fandango.

Be sure to order your copies of both Broken Age and Grim Fandango here on Sumthing.com

Geno :

It’s the summer of 2000, and I have just moved to Austin, Texas. I’m completely miserable. Having no real sense of friends, school and money… my free time was spent feeling utterly despondent. I was just working a record store job and playing in a rock band. My computer just BARELY ran Tim Schafer’s 1998 classic Grim Fandango, BUT it ran, which was good enough for me. I was there, you know, huddled in a corner of my room with headphones. It was late at night, and I was trying not to wake my roommate. The headphones were key because they amplified the component I felt was the most important, aside from the story’s brilliant writing: your singular and altogether mind-blowing score. Your music was one of the ONLY truly bright spots of that year. I have always wanted to thank you for that, but never thought I’d have the chance, and here we are. I just wanted to say, before we get started, thank you from the bottom of my heart, and multiply that a few million times.

Peter McConnell

Wow, thanks for that. It’s nice to know I was able to create something that had that effect. Expressing yourself is only half of the value of music, if that – the other half is touching someone else personally.

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Legendary Composer Peter McConnell

Geno:

Broken Age was a dream made possible in part by the dollars of the newly-minted initiatives of crowd-funding. While it’s a blessing to the gathering of momentum, and the green lighting of a project I imagine it’s an artist’s nightmare in terms of expectations turned into demands, and a rather strict timetable for the delivery of the finished product. What was the consensus, the overall mood while you worked on Broken Age? When you were first approached about composition of the score, what did your initial blueprints look like? Did they end up matching the boldness of the ink as seen in the final record? What changed? Did the investors on the project grow too loud in that they disrupted your creative process? Can you tell me a little bit about the first piece you composed for Broken Age? Did it make it onto the final track list? How long did everything take from the demo phase to completion and insertion of your pieces into the game?

Peter McConnell:

When I first heard that Double Fine had hit a record in crowd-funding I emailed Tim, who was at the DICE show in Las Vegas, to congratulate him, He mailed back “so, are you going to do the music?” I believe my answer was “hell, yes!” I was very excited to be involved in a totally new way of doing a project. Believe it or not, I particularly liked the “reality TV” aspect of it. I had never had the opportunity to connect directly to the audience of a game while it was in production, and I enjoyed making the videos where we talked about how the music got made. And honestly I was kind of insulated from the downside of that process – some of the intense discussions on the forums – for me it was all good.

As for the blueprints versus the final score, the blueprints were the humblest hint of what we were finally able to do. The big challenge in the beginning was to figure out how to score the kind of emotional drama that we could see unfolding with the very limited (that’s right, very limited!) budget we had to work with. Doing live instruments at all seemed barely affordable, so I tried to figure out ways to portray everything with a small group of players, even with the first Mog Chothra scene. But when Shay stepped out into space for the first time free of his tether, I thought, “Man, I just HAVE to have French horns here – but how?” What happened at that point was pure serendipity. I had been commissioned by Andrew Pogson, who was assistant artistic director at Melbourne Symphony, to do a suite of Grim Fandango music. This was a major effort in itself, as it involved getting permission from LucasArts and Disney, and in the course of our many discussions it came up that Andrew was a backer of Broken Age. When he found out I was the composer for Broken Age he asked me what would be the chances of getting MSO to record music for Broken Age. I said, “You read my mind!” and what followed was truly a miracle – we were able to get the MSO leadership, the players union and members of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to come together with Double Fine and figure out a way to record music for the game. The blueprints could never have accounted for that amount of good fortune.

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Welcome to the Broken Age

Geno:

There’s something inherently special about the adventure game genre. Nothing is forced, you’re not brandishing a gun or weapon in the classic sense most of the time, and there are indefinite moments of pause. Most importantly, (I have always thought) is that the music isn’t always ratcheting up tension and forcibly bombarding the player’s emotions. Do you feel that a more natural human connection is able to be established through music within the confines of an adventure title? Does it give you more room to interpret a scene? What, if any makes the adventure genre a different sort of musical vehicle?

Peter McConnell:

In a word, yes. What the adventure game offers, through the natural pauses in action created by solving the puzzles, is a way to reflect on the emotional content of the story. Another way to think of it is that the story in an adventure game is more evenly split between gameplay and cut scenes (as opposed to being mostly in the cut scenes), so more of the music is directly connected to telling a story. On a very practical level this means you get to write more slow and melodic music, which I love to do. On the other hand, it’s a lot of fun to write a good action piece for a platformer or shooter as well!

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The Sound Of Peter McConnell’s Space

Geno:

Broken Age explores some of the mystery of being an ordinary person marooned in space. Galactic exploration is still very much undone, still something largely mythical. Time to get up Little Spaceman, and Hello Space, epically, beautifully marks the vastness of this ordeal. How do you envision the sound of the unexplored planet, the black hole, and the dying star? What takes more precedence when you’re scoring for space: the vastness of the echo, the singular desolation, or the darkness? I hear a little bit of all three in Hello Space. Which is your favorite element?

Peter McConnell:

Great questions. As I mentioned earlier, the space music was where it really became clear that we needed an orchestra – because of the sense of vastness and the big feelings I wanted to portray. That started with the French horn theme at the beginning of “Hello Space” and grew from there. Another element in that piece besides the orchestra was my electric violin playing, to give an otherworldly effect. The loneliness part was tied to the smaller ensemble pieces like “Time to Get Up, Little Spaceman” which we recorded with a string and wind quintet. The darkness suffuses both types of pieces and that’s harder to explain. I’m very visually oriented, and I keep either a movie or a still of what I’m scoring up on a screen at all times, so I can be in direct visual contact with what I’m scoring at as I compose. I just wrote something that felt like darkness.

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Vella’s Morning Stroll

Geno:

Broken Age’s Vella wakes and Was That East Or West are absolutely gorgeous! Speaking directly about Was That East Or West You never hear truly remarkable ballads inside a video game. It’s all things genuine, plaintive and haunting. Was there any temptation to add vocals or chorus to complete it? Why are we not seeing the Peter McConnell band proper? Similarly, it’s a testament to the core of Broken Age’s make-up of normal, mildly broken hearted protagonists, and how they deal with their individual set of overwhelming circumstances. What do you feel were the score’s most important tenets? Is there something you absolutely felt the record needed to convey?

Peter McConnell:

With “Was That East or West” I was channeling producer/guitarist/singer Daniel Lanois as well as harkening back to some of my own folk-rock band roots, so I think it’s safe to say there are imaginary vocals in that piece, suggested by the slide guitar part. As for the score concept, it was to evoke as vividly as possible the unique character of many different worlds. There is a pretty broad range of musical style in the game. Just as I couldn’t imagine the space parts without orchestra, acoustic guitar music for the forest just seemed right. During production one of the backers wrote in that it was cool that they were using different composers for different parts of the game. I took that as a complement.

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Meet Mog Chothra

Geno:

The idea of the boss or level guardian in video games has changed radically in video games over the last 10 years. Gone are the traditional fanged beats, or floating death scythe wielders; it’s become an encounter based in ether, almost invisible. Do you feel your approach to the scoring for a game’s main villain/s has changed? With that in mind, how do you keep up that sort of bottomless creativity and momentum going when approaching this task with every new score year after year? “It’s another bad guy…whoopee!”

Peter McConnell:

I’m always trying to do what I do better than the last time. So even with my experience, I don’t feel that I’ve touched on all I want to do with any particular type of musical moment, not even the Big Scary Boss cue. And the process is always the same, but still full of surprises – bring up the picture or video of game play, and then listen carefully for the first thing I hear. Once in a while I find I have to re-visit an initial impulse, but I chalk that off to not listening carefully enough in that first moment.

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Life aboard the Bossa Nostra

Geno:

On that note, Broken Age’s Mog Chothra and Final Battle are two of my absolute FAVORITE boss themes in recent memory. Can you tell me about how you map out that villain DNA? What did you do specifically for Mog Chothra and Battle at Shellmound?

Peter McConnell:

Thanks for saying so! Both of those pieces weave together themes from the major characters, especially Mog, Vella and in particular Vella’s grandfather, who is an important symbol of the strength that comes to Vella through her lineage. One of the most poignant themes to me in the Broken Age story, now that I’m a dad, is the relationship between parents and children – how both can succeed or fail, teach each other or make terrible mistakes. My own kids intuited this in the game. They got right away how Shay was testing his limits in the spaceship, for example, and knew instinctively that Marek in his wolf form was important and in a sense a bringer of knowledge, but perhaps not without some kind of darker motive. And to me almost everything that Vella and Shay do has some relationship to their families, even when rebelling, as rebelling exists in relation to what is being rebelled against.

In Vella’s case, it seems at first to be all about rebelling, since her own parents appear to be clueless, but her grandfather is a rock throughout. You think in the beginning that he is just a crazy old coot, maybe a bit senile. But he’s the one who invokes the Beastkiller name; he’s the one who won’t give up the knife; he’s the one who cheers when Vella escapes from Mog Chothra. So his theme is important. You first hear it on what could be called the silliest of instruments – a mediaeval instrument called a crumhorn played during the knife puzzle. It’s kind of a cross between a bassoon or English horn and a kazoo in sound (again serendipitously one of the clarinetists in our quintet also played crumhorn). You’re supposed to hear it as archaic at best and comic at worst. But then it comes back as a noble French horn theme in the scene when Vella learns to ride the bird who rescues her from Mog Chothra. In the moment when she takes command, you hear the theme breaking through as if she is drawing from something deep within – and that something comes from her heritage.

By the time she fights Mog Chothra for real at Shellmound, she is fully in touch with her warrior ancestry. So you hear the grandfather theme in full force at the climax of the Shellmound Battle piece. In the finale, the theme comes back again in super-compressed form as her grandfather seems to psychically transmit each blow that she delivers to put down Marek. There are a number of other themes woven into these pieces, but for me the theme that connects Vella to her grandfather is the most important.

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Welcome to Shellmound

Geno:

I’ve been trying to gather shards of Broken Age’s record together to fashion my own central title theme. There was no single piece. There was no such designation on the album, but if I had to cobble one together, it would be pieces of Welcome to Merriloft, mixed with Cloud Colony Arrival and Rising Sun. Do you agree with my math? Are there specific points in the score that you would tie together so as to create the score’s ultimate piece? Were there ideas that you wanted to include, but for whatever reason, simply had to check at the door? Can you talk to me a little bit about your initial ideas for Welcome to Merriloft and Rising Sun ? Is that a didgeridoo on The Lumberjack’s Cabin? I love that piece.

Peter McConnell:

The title theme of Broken Age is the piece called “Broken Age” as it appears in the complete version of the soundtrack – “Broken Age” plus “Vella Wakes” in the initial version. I admit it’s not obvious to the ear how the score springs from this music, which comes from the opening split screen followed by Vella waking on the hillside. Musically, this opening music works as an intro to “March in the Clouds,” which you might call Vella’s travelling theme. This same theme is the essence of “Welcome to Merriloftt,” which is essentially an airy version of the march and defines the whole cloud colony, even though it comes before the march. Shay’s wake up music works as an alternate consequent, or follow-up, phrase to the first half of “Broken Age.” So a lot comes from the very opening piece, and it isn’t obvious because the musical order of things in my mind is a little different from the chronological order in which the story is told.

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Life in Vella’s Shoes

Geno:

The score for Broken Age feels so incredibly fresh, so physically organic, and so playful. Case in point: March In The Clouds, and Face The Cupcakes. Is there anything you use as a barometer to test your own work to see if it will achieve the results you see inside your head? Do you feel more comfortable in a recording session with many players (a full symphony, a band), or do you prefer the intimacy of you alone in a sound booth? Where does Broken Age fit into this spectrum? How large is that symphony? Do you feel like you achieved all that was possible with Broken Age? What are your favorite pieces? Would you change anything? I wouldn’t.

Peter McConnell:

Thanks – I especially like the word “organic,” because it suggests what I wanted to evoke in the score. The only barometer I use is this: as I’m working on a piece, how do I feel when I press “play?” I listen very closely to my own reaction, and if it’s not what I had hoped, I figure out what is responsible for the problem and fix it. I love all recording sessions, whether they are a small group or an ensemble. Because time and money are at stake they can be stressful, but they are far and the way the best part of my job. When real instrumental artists play the music – that’s the moment the music comes to life. It’s a privilege to be there when it happens, and a joy to guide it. Of course I enjoy playing the parts I play as well, but there is a kind of vicarious thrill I get when hearing someone else play the music that is hard to explain. There were different configurations of players used for the symphonic part: most of the music was a 38-piece and the finale and some of the bigger pieces in Act II were a 42-piece group. I can’t say exactly what my favorite pieces are, although I think you’ve named just about all of them, and I’m certainly happy with the whole thing as it came out.

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Broken Age receives the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Treatment.

Geno:

Grim Fandango Remastered just hit the digital retail storefront, and Sumthing Else Music Works celebrated the occasion with a re-release of your original score. I worship Grim Fandango’s soundtrack (just wanted to make sure you knew that!) All these years later, how does it feel to hear those songs again? Are you like most musicians who would rather not listen to their older material in favor of moving ahead? Do you find yourself nit-picking at things that bother you about it?

Peter McConnell:

I didn’t nit-pick after the fact – I fixed all those things that bothered me! I put in a ton of work into that re-release and was super lucky to have resources like the MSO and the teams at Sony and Pyramind Studios in San Francisco to fix the problematic sounds, add new parts, do killer re-mixes and make the orchestral music actually orchestral. I have to say that I truly enjoy listening to the soundtrack now, which honestly I didn’t before, since we had 1990’s-era sounds in the original and no live orchestra at all. The good parts stayed good, though; we kept all those wonderful original instrumental jazz performances, as well as adding a couple of new ones.

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Grim Fandango Finally Gets Remastered

Geno:

There’s so much to love on Fandango’s vinyl that I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, and it changes with the day. If push came to shove, I’d say Mr. Frustration Man , or Gambling Glottis, Hi- Tone Fandango…never mind, like I said too hard to choose, and it’s a temperamental list changing with the second. My GOD! You single-handedly redefined the birth of cool over the span of 50 tracks! What are your memories of that time period? Can you share a funny story with us about the creation of Grim Fandango’s score?

Peter McConnell:

I often say that Grim was a perfect storm. Tim Schafer was tapping into major currents of the time from the rebirth of swing to a sudden new awareness of the Day of the Dead in Anglo culture. Musically this was reflected in the San Francisco music scene. There is a particular part of town called the Mission District, full of clubs, where on one night you could go into one place and hear a great swing band, into another and hear acid jazz, into another and hear Tom Waits’ reed player, then drop into a Tacqueria and hear a mariachi band. Almost the entire Grim score was already right there in the Mission, and indeed virtually every musician on the original soundtrack played or lived in that part of town. The mariachi band in particular was an adventure to work with, since only the band leader spoke English. Music is the universal language, though, and I asked him if the guys thought what I had given them to play was reasonably authentic. He said they thought it sounded like “Halloween music,” which I took as a compliment since, after all, it is about the Day of the Dead.

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Grim Fandango: The Sight and Sound

Geno:

Where did the inspiration for Grim Fandango come from? Your compositions play like a man possessed, like it had been something you had wanted to do your entire life. Was it a sound you had grown up with? I see you as a punk-rock kid, and less the child reared on Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Peter McConnell:

I have always been interested in many different kinds of music. I was classically trained on violin and loved playing folk music on guitar and banjo in high school. I’ve also played a lot of rock and roll and fronted an alt rock band while I was working at LucasArts. But jazz has always been something special for me. I first developed a great love of it in college, more as a listener than as a player. I heard Dizzy Gillepsie and Sun Ra live and it changed my life. And that’s what I tapped into for Grim. In that sense it was something I had always been dying to write, no pun intended. In fact I came up with Maximino’s theme before Grim was even conceived of – think it was during Full Throttle or even Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis – this tune just popped into my head and I thought, “Man, that would be a cool gangster tune, I hope I get to use it someday.”

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Grim Fandango: It’s in the visuals

Geno:

How do you compose generally? Are you more visual with drawings and sketches, or do you read the scenario and just find it as you play? Can you give us an example of a more challenging piece? How did you overcome it?

Peter McConnell:

I’m extremely visually oriented. I have a big screen that is just for visuals – concept art, gameplay video or cut scenes, and I keep something up on it all the time when composing, because it helps me stay true to the feeling of what I am scoring. When I was working on Grim I had paper art all over the office – mostly black & white pictures of the characters and backgrounds, which was appropriate for a Noir story, don’t you think? I also kept a picture of Duke Ellington as a young man right over my computer screen to inspire me. We even had a visual way of putting the whole score together. There was a tool in the music system we developed, the iMUSE system, that let you create buttons on a Mac screen, associate them with audio files, and put them in a little map with lines between them indicating connections in the game. Each button stood for a room or a situation, and the audio files started out as recordings we made of Tim talking about the various parts of the game. It was cool because you could visualize how all of the parts of the game and the score related to each other. As the production progressed, Tim’s recordings would be replaced with recordings of me humming a theme into a hand-held cassette player, and then with mockups of each piece using sampled instruments, and then finally with finished recordings.

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                                                     The History Of Lucas Arts

Geno:

You worked at Lucas Arts during its Adventure game heyday, and worked on everything from The Dig, to Full-Throttle and Indiana Jones and The Fate Of Atlantis. WOW! What was your very first job at the company? In those days, were you already accustomed to writing rather large scores, or was it very much a trial by fire?

Peter McConnell:

I got the job at LucasArts in large part because my friend and colleague Michael Land was starting up the audio department there and needed someone who could both program and write music, and I fit the bill. But my music experience at the time consisted mostly of my college work and from playing in a number of bands. So I was not all accustomed to writing large scores, and in that sense it was trial by fire. My first job at the company was to help Michael develop the iMUSE system, which was LucasArts’ system for playing music that would adapt in real time to gameplay. When we were done with the first iteration of the system, we got to road test it by writing music for Monkey Island II. By that time there were three composers: Michael, Clint Bajakian, and me. Right on the heels of Monkey Island II came Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. I have to say those were a couple of wonderful titles to have as first scoring gigs, even with the limited sound capabilities of the time.

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                        Preview: Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis Soundtrack

Geno:

How do you feel about composing music in video games today as opposed to 25, 30 years ago? You’ve scored every type of medium; which do you find the most rewarding and the most challenging? Is there anything you still have a desire to do, a dream for yourself? Where do you plan to be 10 to 15 years down the road?

Peter McConnell:

I do like the fact that we have much greater resources to work with now, whether we are working on a AAA console title or a hand-held game. You have to remember the state of the art back then – the first Pro Tools system came out well after Monkey II and Indy IV, cost something like $6K and we didn’t have one, because we couldn’t justify the expense. Now we have state-of-the-art studios, get to record at places like Skywalker Sound, and work with orchestras from all over the world. I just got back from playing music of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Broken Age with the Colorado Symphony at the Video Games Live concert in Red Rocks. If you had told me I’d be doing that 25 years ago I’d never have believed it. That said, things haven’t changed that much when it comes to scoring a game. And I love all the types of projects I get to do, from Broken Age to Hearthstone to Plants vs. Zombies. Each has its challenges and particular rewards; in fact I think it’s the variety of projects that is most enjoyable for me. No two of them are alike. If I have any desires it would be to keep the same variety of cool and interesting projects going – that and write a score for musical theater, but that’s another story completely.

Geno:

Thanks so much Mr. McConnell; it’s been a true honor to be able to sit with you here today, and it’s not something I will ever forget. Do you have any parting words for our readers at Sumthing .com?

Peter McConnell:

It’s been my great pleasure. And thank you to all the readers at Sumthing.com for listening!

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

Grief brings us together, it’s part of the human condition and what makes us the creatures we are. Sadness is no stranger to video games either, the many flavors of sorrow have painted a picture of dejection on screens almost since games first became a storytelling medium. The entirety of the Shin Megami Tensei series and its spinoffs, a few of the Final Fantasy games, Metal Gear Solid, and the Silent Hill series are all perfect examples of the different shades of misery that developers have employed to give their games that extra punch, that permanence in the mind of people who play them by associating the games with a heartache leaves an impression on all but the most stoic people.

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“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea, I will always be with you.”

One might remember the Ar tonelico games, the PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 RPG series that, while no stranger to despondency, wasn’t particularly acclaimed or even well known in the west as the games previously mentioned. The Ar tonelico series was, however, fairly unique in the way dealt with concepts that few games had dared to explore to such a deep extent back then. Morality, the power of bonds, the schisms between different cultures and societies, psychological voyages to deep within the minds of our protagonists that change the way the see their world, an absolutely biblical amount of side materials that explained the universe of EXA_PICO, and a veritably gripping story were all elements that felt right at home in Ar tonelico. It was then, once NIS America localized the games, that Ar tonelico gained a fiercely loyal and extremely dedicated niche following in the west.

The developing team at GUST had been silent about the Ar tonelico series since the game on PS3 had, for lack of a better term, completely flopped. But they broke the drought and the skies opened in 2012 in Japan with the release of Ciel nosurge. Ciel nosurge was an odd game, and perhaps its oddness is a story for another day, but to make a long story short: The game was not a continuation of the Ar tonelico series, as it took place before the events of any of Ar tonelico games. However, Ciel nosurge does take place in the same universe as Ar tonelico, it deals with a fair amount of the same elements and greatly expands on the mythos and history of the series. Considering how it was a “life-sim” (think perhaps a Tamagotchi with RPG elements), the west never saw Ciel nosurge. But not all hope was lost for fans of the EXA_PICO universe. Soon after the release of Ciel nosurge was finalized GUST announced that they were working on a sequel to the game that would be a bit more traditional in terms of a Role Playing Game.

Listen: Ciel Nosurge’s OST – Ra Ciel Fusor

And then there was Ar nosurge. The game was released stateside fairly quietly in September 2014 for the PS3, it wasn’t advertised very much, if at all. Ar nosurge was not your standard JRPG from the seventh generation, compared to games such as Xenoblade, Ni No Kuni, the Final Fantasy 13 trilogy and the dozens more that saw English releases during the lifespan of the Wii, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The closest comparison that comes to mind is Atlus’s masterful Persona 3 and 4 games from the PS2, seeing how both are immersive, text heavy RPGs that focus on character development.

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Ar nosurge’s male protagonists, Delta and Earthes.

Ar nosurge begins with an incredible opening, a tinge of malevolent tribalism in its notes. You can feel almost as if you’re being captured or drawn into this world that, according to EXA_PICO lore, lies beyond the Seventh Dimension.

Listen: Ar nosurge’s Opening – To The Songless Hill: Harmonics Pre=Ciel

The setting of the game is not as straightforward as one might think. We learn from the first pair of protagonists, rowdy Delta Lantanoil and his partner tomboyish Casty Rianoit, that the game takes place in the Soreil, a massive colony ship in the middle of an interstellar voyage searching for a new planet that its residents may call home. However, all is not well in town, as strange creatures known as the Sharl have attacked residents in the Soreil for unknown reasons. It is then, that the player’s adventure in the world of Ar nosurge begins, as Delta and Casty search for a lost friend in the vastness of the seemingly hostile and unforgiving Soreil.

The combat is fairly simple, nothing really to write home about and standard JRPG fare for the 7th generation of consoles. You have a limited amount of attacks, that once exhausted will prompt the enemy to take their “turn” and attack in return. If you have successfully destroyed all enemies marked by an exclamation mark, you will gain an extra turn and an extra set of attacks, thus making it possible to destroy the enemy without taking any damage. Once the player is well acquainted with the gameplay, the game becomes a relaxed, downhill coast.

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Ar nosurge in action, note the buttons corresponding to each attack on the lower right side of the screen.

However, one of the most remarkable and intense things about Ar nosurge is the absolutely beautiful soundtrack. The excellent song during the opening draws a picture that the rest of the game flawlessly colors in with a stunning plethora of emotional shades: a sensual passion, a deep and intimate heartache, the hooks of despair that sink into the flesh and rip through skin and tendon alike, a cold melancholy that gives you gooseflesh and runs shivers down your spine, and a pure fury that glows white hot and pristine like the beat of thunder.

Listen: Judgement in the Soreil – yal fii-ne noh-iar.

Ar nosurge’s soundtrack truly runs the gamut. The track linked above, “yal fii-ne noh-iar” is one of the pivotal moments early in the game, just after the second set of protagonists, robotic knight Earthes and the innocent maiden Ionasal, are introduced. The momentous crescendo in the song ties into the end of the first “phase” of the game. It is after this introductory part that the story begins to hit you with tragedy after tragedy. The game overall is extremely text heavy, and the player is expected to do a lot of reading to fully understand just what is going on, but the plot and the characters are engrossing enough that it doesn’t seem to be an issue. With time, one begins to think of the characters in the game as old friends, and care about their ultimate fates in or out of the Soreil.

Not everything is gloom though. Another great thing about Ar nosurge is how it still manages to have excellent moments of comic relief every so often; usually in the “Synthesis” screen, where the player creates useful pieces of equipment and items to help throughout the journey to save the Soreil.

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Don’t ask what Silent Green is made out of.

Without spoiling much more of the story, let it be said that Ar nosurge is not a perfect game, far from it. It clearly suffers from budget problems, as some enemies and NPCs are recycled throughout the whole game. It also has some pacing problems, as the game instills upon you a sense of urgency to finish the main task while at the same time punishing you for not taking it leisurely and crafting the best equipment before continuing. That is not to say that these faults make the game unplayable, or even bad. Ar nosurge is a complete experience, the amazing soundtrack, the touching story, and the surprises along the way make this game a must get for anyone who enjoys Japanese RPGs.

Listen: Ar nosurge’s third battle theme – Tsukuyomi.

Verdict: Recommended for JRPG fans, someone looking for more action or not wanting to invest 50 hours of their life towards a game might want to look elsewhere.

 

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——————–

Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!

 

PAX Prime 2015 Poster

Featuring the award-winning composers of ORI AND THE BLIND FOREST, BLOODBORNE, MINECRAFT: GREEK MYTHOLOGY, YOOKA-LAYLEE, ASSASSIN’S CREED UNITY, EVOLVE, BANJO KAZOOIE, DEAD SPACE, GOD OF WAR, GOLDENEYE, MASS EFFECT 3, PERFECT DARK, THE ORDER: 1886, TOMB RAIDER, UNTIL DAWN, and many more!

Saturday, August 29th, 5:30pm-6.30pm
PAX Sphinx Theatre, Sheraton Seattle Hotel (3rd Floor)

What does it take to write music for games? Hear from five of the industry’s hottest composers as they share their experiences and discuss the craft of scoring music for video games.

The 2015 PAX Prime composer panel “Maestros of Video Games” will feature:

Gareth Coker
Ori and the Blind Forest, Minecraft: Greek Mythology, ARK: Survival Evolved

Sarah Schachner
Assassin’s Creed Unity, Assassin’s Creed Black Flag*, Far Cry 3*
*additional music

Jason Graves
Until Dawn, The Order: 1886, EVOLVE, Tomb Raider, Dead Space trilogy

Cris Velasco
Bloodborne, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, God of War trilogy, Mass Effect 3

Grant Kirkhope
Yooka-Laylee, Banjo Kazooie, Viva Piñata, Goldeneye, Perfect Dark

Moderated by Emily Reese, award-winning radio host and producer.

Following the panel join the composers for a meet & greet / autograph session at the Westin (2nd Floor) from 7pm-9pm.

For information on PAX Prime visit: http://prime.paxsite.com.

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SNK: The Allure of The 90’s Advertisement

SNK is dead. Well, not DEAD, but more… quiet mahogany dead. I realize that these statements are erroneous as in actuality, the company is somewhat alive through a litany of signed paper documents, but effectively in my mind, the human element has just been completely removed from the equation. Recently, I’m not sure you heard, because I almost missed the announcement altogether and ran into the gagging newsreel very much by accident. In short, SNK was bought out by the Chinese corporation Leyou Technology, who now wields the rights to all and every classic SNK IP from Metal Slug to Kizuna Encounter. I don’t know why the disclosure hit me as hard as it did, because really all it is is money changing hands, but something’s been lost in that exchange, and warranted or not, you can paint me utterly despondent. Where is the caution on SNK’s side? What happened to their dry erase board of tentative releases? What will happen to King Of Fighters? It’s a TRAP! To quote singer song-writer Bert Jansch:

“I know that I might die from poison, invisible hanging there in the sunlight, and don’t you know your creator is running out of ideas.”

Hmm, familiar. BUT! That’s enough Nasdaq talk, this isn’t the 5:00 news.

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 Believe not the negative things you’ve read: SVC Chaos IS AMAZING!

 

I guess I feel like the fight is finally over, because the folks who ran both SNK proper and then SNK Playmore, fought a truly spectacular bout for independence without any sort of meddlesome interference from the outside. They did EXACTLY as they pleased: Come on, they released the original Neo Geo AES system for $599 United States dollars in 1990! This thing was and STILL is something to be slack-jawed about. The idea of owning an AES for me was an unfathomable proposition all those many years ago, and it remained an elusive piece of fiction, until I physically got my hands on one in 2007. It only took 17 years. With that in mind, did I ever happen to tell you about the time I bought my Neo Geo AES? NO! Well, this will only take a minute.

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 Samurai Shodown 2: Still something to behold

The guy who sold me my Neo Geo unit (boxed, complete and with fabled universal unibios already on board) was by all accounts a strange breed. He was selling his AES simply and for no other reason than to free up space! SPACE ? WHAT? So whatever small insignificant cube of his apartment lot that was dominated by this gorgeous relic was too much to bear? He must like to be sad, someone who enjoys the taste of his own tears; it’s the only logical conclusion I can draw.

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A Slice Of SNK/ Neo Geo History

I looked around and immediately eyed a short-list of things he could indeed jettison directly from his balcony window, as we spoke. He could do it NOW, his problem would be solved, and he would thank me for changing his mind, I’d have no machine, but I would have done the RIGHT thing. To be fair, he did have a fully functioning Gorf machine next to his bathroom, and a stack of in box mint Sega Saturn consoles hanging out on the bar in his kitchen, but I mean, what did he need all those cumbersome lamps for? Light? Has this guy heard of track lighting? Flashlights? There were ways around his dilemma, but there was no convincing him; he sold me the set for $220 after I cautiously, casually suggested the amount from his counter $250. No haggling, no caveat, he just wanted it GONE! He then tried to persuade me to buy his Gorf and the Saturns; I entertained the notion, but I actually had a plane to catch some 45 minutes away from departure. I’d driven to the furthest end of Austin with no hope of making it to my flight. I had to change my reservation, had to pay an exorbitant fee to do so, but I finally had my Neo Geo, EVERYTHING else could wait. And for EVERYTHING else, I’d likely favor making it to the airport saying to myself: there’s always a next time. For this though, I stood unmoved, stock still until the deal was done. That’s the effect SNK has on me both past and present tense, it still feels behemoth, larger than life, and something I’d count myself lucky to take part in and to own.

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If You Like Nam-1975: Try The Super Spy

So, I just wanted to express my love and appreciation for SNK; they’re definitely not dead, but it’s my fervent wish not to see their legacy torn apart by conglomerate entities. Sadly, these companies’ only concern is something driven by dollars in the bank and the number of mobile phones they can reach with pachinko Nam-1975’: that’s no way to go out.

Leave SNK and the Neo Geo sacred for God’s sake…somebody just bought New York Seltzer back to market. Man, nothing gold!

——————–

Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

You could be easily forgiven for not knowing who Jun’ya Ota is, he is a reserved Japanese man with little interest for being in the spotlight. It would be, maybe, less forgivable to not know his Magnum Opus; a humble shooting game series that started back in 1996 with a delightfully recherché title: Highly Responsive to Prayers. Jun’ya Ota, the man, is also known as ZUN, and his brainchild is known as the Touhou Project.

Picture this: Japan circa 1996. There existed, in those golden years, a burgeoning market of independent games mainly focused and centered around NEC’s PC-9801 platform. Among these games was a barely remarkable Arkanoid-esque game called Tōhō Reiiden with the English subtitle (as it was chic to do back then in Japan) Highly Responsive to Prayers. While this game might have been ordinary, the people around it most definitely not. Amusement Makers was the name that the developers of Highly Responsive to Prayers had chosen for themselves. Rookies without exception, these young students of Tokyo Denki University were connected by dreams, wires, and pixels to their idols; the biggest names of the time such as Hironobu Sakaguchi, Masaya Hashimoto, Hideo Kojima. Names that upstarts like Amusement Makers could only look up to in bewilderment and admiration as they toiled away in their old PC-98s, trying to make something out of nothing.

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The box-art of Highly Responsive to Prayers.

 

A couple of years, four releases later, and a shift in genre later; after failing to reach the heights of their heroes, Amusement Makers split off, each one of them went their own way. Some created other games, dismissing their previous work as childish and immature; some pursued a “respectable” career after graduating; others just simply sank into the day to day life of Japanese urban ideologies. Perhaps knowing he was sitting on a mine of gold, perhaps out of pure stubbornness, perhaps out of an obdurate sense of duty towards the franchise he helped create, one man decided to stick with what by now was known as the Touhou Project.

The year was 2002. Jun’ya Ota, by now a veteran of five games and completely immersed in his ZUN persona, decided to go it alone. Leaving the obsolete PC-98 behind, he decided to test himself and make a completely new game from scratch, by himself, assuming the roles of artist, composer, programmer, director, and many others too mundane to mention. And out of nowhere, magic. The Sixth Touhou game, known as Embodiment of Scarlet Devil in the West was a runaway hit, beyond ZUN or anyone’s wildest expectations. The game had the blood and tears of a man who refused to leave his franchise to die. The game had a sense of humor that made the corners of the mouth twitch often. The game had a hell of a kick and was bitterly unforgiving. And perhaps most importantly, the game had soul.

Stage 2 Boss – Cirno’s Theme: Beloved Tomboyish Girl

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Screenshot of Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, it’s about as hard as it looks, very.

Embodiment of Scarlet Devil was remarkable in many ways, but people were quick to notice just how much the music spoke to them. ZUN had somehow managed to leave behind the FM Synthesizer of previous games and make a grandiose, bold statement. Themes such as Beloved Tomboyish Girl, Septette for the Dead Princess, Shanghai Teahouse ~ Chinese Tea, and U.N. Owen Was Her? have been constantly remixed, rearranged, orchestrated, vocalized, and even performed live countless amounts of times since they found their way into our eardrums in 2002. It was impressive, in several baffling levels, how a man with absolutely no formal musical training had been able to create melodies that inspired so many different feelings in so many different people.

Final Boss – Remilia’s Theme: Septette for the Dead Princess

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It was then, in 2002, that the Touhou Project had really begun. Purists could argue and throw tantrums about how the previous five games are ignored or brushed aside. But in 2002, the ZUN era had commenced, and it had sparked such a massive movement that it’s actually just a tad bit difficult to swallow. A short 13 years later, 8 more mainline Touhou Project games had been created by ZUN, a veritable one-man-army by now. Countless fan games spanning every genre imaginable (yes, every genre, this is not hyperbole), a dozen official spinoffs, two gigantic yearly conventions in both sides of the Pacific Ocean (Touhou-con for the West, Reitaisai for the East), a massive media franchise with hundreds of official and unofficial books and manga, and even an entry to the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Prolific Fan-Made Shooter Series” make the Touhou Project special to millions worldwide. Because Touhou, in the end, is all about how it provides something for everyone. And believe that, if nothing else, this will not be the last you will hear of it.

——————–

Playing video games since he has a conscious memory, Bernard has fond memories of the Super Nintendo and the 16 bit MIDI symphonies emanating from it. Since then, he has acquired fairly atypical tastes in games and game music. Nowadays, you can find him dodging bullets and bobbing his head to the music in the Touhou Project, or fighting against gigantic monsters in Monster Hunter, God Eater, or Toukiden. Deep down, he believes portable consoles are king, long live the PS Vita and 3DS!

I’ve put many hours into my Aldmeri Dominion Khajiit dual-wield assassin. She’s kind of amazing, and her name is Juunyth. I enjoy playing the game, yet I feel like ESO is the Lite beer of the Elder Scrolls universe. Not that Skyrim was Cristal, but many of the experiences I have in ESO feel empty compared to what I enjoyed about the previous games in the series. Having said that, I drink Lite beer on occasion. There’s a place for everyone, here.

Here are the things I miss about Skyrim while I’m playing Elder Scrolls Online

1. Solitude (the noun, not the city in Skyrim, although that’s quite a beautiful place)

There are occasions, like the dolmen and anchor fights, where I like having a group of strangers around to kill stuff. Those instances are fun, although I’m never quite sure at whom or what I’m swinging my daggers. However, if you approach an item out in the world, like an ore vein, an alchemical or fibrous plant, a locked chest, or a rune, someone else can take it right before your eyes. The other night, I took the time to unlock a chest, but my inventory was full so I had to destroy something or eat something in my inventory to open a space. I exited my inventory screen just in time to watch some other super-mean character with no tact take everything in the chest I’d just unlocked. I’m still not over it.

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2. Farming stuff

Materials, not livestock. Do you remember in Skyrim, you could approach some giant boulder and there’d be 10 different ore veins to mine? I’m level 28 in ESO at the moment and I’m constantly out of materials for the level of clothing and weapons I want to craft. Remember how you’d walk into a field, and there’d be 900 flax plants for your potion-crafting? Nope, not in ESO. Firstly, in ESO, flax is a crafting material, not an alchemical one. The alchemy plants are virtually impossible to find. I flat-out gave up on alchemy, and I’m starting to put points into provisioning instead (making food, like stews and cocktails).

3. Dungeons

I understand quite well how giant ESO is. It’s like a million times bigger than Skyrim. I know there are plenty of dungeons out there, but the dungeons in ESO are a bit disappointing. There’s never much loot, there aren’t many chests, and there are usually 1,923 other people in there with you. I love unlocking those stupid chests. I’ve always enjoyed Bethesda’s unlocking games, whether in the Fallout series or the Elder Scrolls series. I like this one too, but I rarely have the opportunity to use it.

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4. Loot

Remember in the Dwarven ruins how you could grab 29 dwarven gears and haul them back to town to sell? ESO isn’t nearly as interactive in this regard. I miss picking everything up. Do you remember how you could fill your inventory, drop a bunch of sh*t, go back to town, clear out your inventory, then go back and get everything you dropped? For obvious reasons, you can’t leave a bunch of stuff lying around ESO. That horrible character who stole my chest would come and take my pile of booty.

5. Sneaking

In ESO, it appears that sneaking generally exists to steal and pickpocket. When you’re in public places, the tank characters and high-level chaps simply run and gun, so to speak. There’s so totally zero point in sneaking.

6. Archery

There are many players that use bows. In Skyrim, I loved loved LOVED using a bow and arrow. Aim, then fire, using two buttons on the controller, as if shooting a weapon. These mechanics are different in ESO, which is why I ended up as a dual-wield assassin. I enjoy my dual-wield character, but I deeply miss the archery mechanics of Skyrim.

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Activities I enjoy in ESO:

1. Roaming around

It’s a gorgeous game. There are some weird things, lots of clipping (which is easily forgiven in such a large game).

2. Crafting

I’m a crafter. I like building my own weapons and armor, improving them and enchanting them. It’s fun in ESO, if you have the right materials.

3. Listening to the music

Seriously, Brad Derrick did an amazing job with the soundtrack. The music is fabulous. Jeremy Soule contributed a new iteration of the Elder Scrolls theme, and that’s terrific too. Here’s one of my favorites from Brad, called The Three Banners: Fanfare (especially the fanfare part after the intro).

4. Everything

Or I wouldn’t play it. I have my frustrations and I still enjoy the game’s beauty, content, story, quests, crafting, horsing around and music.

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Truly though, I wish ESO was a single-player experience. Thankfully, we’ll all get that soon with The Elder Scrolls 6.

——————–

Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

Today we reach the end of our summer long countdown chronicling the 25 greatest NES soundtracks ever made. If you missed last week, please click here.

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Listen: The Duel (Opening)

  1. Ninja Gaiden / Composer : Keiji Yamagishi / Release Year :1989

It’s plausible (indulge me), to say that without Keiji Yamagishi’s 1989 album for Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden, the video games industry might not have made it this far, or at the very least, we’d be sitting in a very alternate version of 1985. Story would have remained an afterthought, music in-game treated as some exorbitant luxury: some would have it, and others wouldn’t. It’s that simple. Where certainly there had been fine examples before Yamagishi’s treatise, his peers were indeed vocal: Konami’s 1987 Castlevania and Nintendo’s 1985 classic Metroid immediately spring to mind, neither matched Yamagishi’s fetish for scale .

Ninja Gaiden is one of the first records to truly capture the character of its franchise: loose and nimble, stark and conflicted Ryu Hyabusa is given such an articulate baritone that people stopped dead in the streets, simply to breathe him in. He could be reading penny saver advertisements, Publishers Clearing House propoganda, the latest polls that no one seemed to care about: it didn’t matter; when Yamagishi’s foil was flapping his jaws, the public remained entranced.

You’d heard action and drama scored in games before, but really, you hadn‘t; no one had until Yamagishi’s platter arrived at their door. His union brought something filmic, a depth far beyond the general discord, his sound outclassing even the most high end titles and stymieing, once and for all, the noxious potpourri found to be emanating frequently from Nintendo’s more bottom feeding scores.

Playing back the tapes some 26 years later, you’re still likely to be caught up and transfixed by Yamagishi’s multiple ticks. The tracks aren’t all that long, and they’re quick to reach their refrain, but for what they lack in excess, they replace with a kind of fixation: you’re more than happy, insistent even to hear Ninja Gaiden’s main cues for hours, maybe even to complete nausea. You’re convinced that there is no other way to hear these tunes. I’m here to tell you: of course not, you might miss something, and so what’s another go around?

It’s a dare really, find something better than Yamagishi’s Information and Coercion ; try to top Masked Devil. What intro level music surpasses Pushing Onward? How about Unbreakable Determination? Go ahead, I’ll wait here….(years pass)………..Time’s up!

So, I entreat you, be thankful everyday for Keiji Yamagishi, and Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden. Without them, your idea of video games might have been irrevocably skewed. It’s difficult, I know, but imagine games today being as bare bones and empty as the worst Atari 2600 shovel ware. Those lengthy stories, that character development, that cinematic touch, and of course the music all gone! Crisis averted.

Listen, I hear Yamagishi’s a real sucker for mail and stickers, and I think it’s time we all sent over some thank you cards, don’t you?

Essential Tracks: Information and Coercion/ Evading the Enemy/ Masked Devil / The Duel / Rugged Terrain / Seeking Truth / Unbreakable Determination / Nowhere to Run

Update: Keiji Yamagishi is part of the fantastic creative collective Brave Wave. He currently has a new record that can be found here. Spoiler: it’s incredible!

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Listen: Good Weather

  1. Mr. Gimmick / Composer: Masashi Kageyama / Release Year: 1992

Composer Masashi Kageyama’s score for Sunsoft’s Mr. Gimmick is neither the product of a script, nor of action, nor of canned applause and least of all not something built from a predetermined and circumscribed path. The NES employs a rather hollow core for use in the creation of its music, a stingy meridian that utilizes a pitiful gratuity of sound samples and carries even fewer channels with which to screen its broadcast.

Its design, seemingly in perpetuity, is partially responsible for muddling every composition ever written for it. That is, of course, with the exception of one: Mr. Gimmick. (Gimmick in Japan)

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Listen: Happy Birthday

 Writing for the NES requires constant adaptation, as the movement from organic strings to sound type to numbered values removes a vast number of the elements that make it accessible to the public at large. Not everyone can understand nor decipher, nor appreciate your love for this music, and it is because, for better or worse, the fact is that many of its human elements have been stripped away.

When you think of these compositions, hear them playing, you’re most likely to envision machines, and not the people who actually wrote the songs. One’s personal enjoyment of 8-bit chiptunes is tied to a process of surrender and acceptance, and it is an invitation that few willingly grant passage.

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Listen: Lion Heart

It’s with all of this in mind that I’d like you to forget for a moment the litany of restrictions I’ve just painstakingly described, because as I stated in the beginning, absolutely none of it applies to Masashi Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick. Catharsis is not a term I’d assign to many of the forebears of this genre, but I do so without reservation. On top of that suspension, I’d like to add an indulgent, rather liberal heaping of praise when it concerns Kageyama’s 1992 score.

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Listen: Slow Illusion

 Again the NES, solely judged on its sound chip, has but a few splintered emotions to explore, and such a small percentage of its composers understood exactly how to fully manipulate it. Kageyama, however, is one of the VERY select few to cultivate such a flush and widely versed terrain of play despite these limitations. While most will hit a particular type of note over the head, beat it to death even (the action game score, the joyous platformer, the haunted house, and the space mission ), Kageyama plays naturally and without repetition in response to changes in the situation, but he’s also a person, a friend who’s alive and in the room: someone you can see, someone you find ease in talking to, and someone you can reach out and touch.

Kageyama realizes, like any truly brilliant musician does ( and I’ve said this many times before), that music cannot be directed nor come from a place of convolution or duplicity: People will always see right through it. It has to be real, and it has to be come with a willingness to speak with and to counsel as many people as is conceivable.

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Listen: Cadbury

Close examination of Masashi Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick reveals a deeply personal tale, one that is easily identifiable, but one that’s told with such affably sweet tenderness, and with gentle, but unflinching introspection that it can be emotionally overwhelming. Kageyama speaks at times low, describing the pained frustrations to be found within his own past, things he‘s perhaps not proud of, outbursts he’d rather forget, and if could dial back a clock to a certain moment in time, he’d do so without a second glance. It’s universal.

And yes, I’m getting a sense of all this directly from his score.

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Listen: Just Friends

This is but one single angle of this particular recording though, and many times, more than can accurately be accounted for, he’s prone to beaming. Kageyama is nothing less than effulgent in his recollections, snapshots recalling everything from the bizarre inconsistencies in the shapes and colors of fall leaves, wind on his face during bike rides on isolated strips of road, being surrounded by friends; all their separate bonds, and how during the winter if you stand a VERY certain way, half slouched, hands out to your sides but still in direct sunlight, it can make you forget the cold. His tales fly at you with such charisma and warmth that by the night’s end, you’ve felt you’ve known him your entire life, already sharing inside jokes betweeen the two of you and having exchanged phone numbers, the logical next step is becoming best friends. Kageyama’s happy to oblige.

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Listen: Sophia

 Probing the album even further, you begin to realize how all-encompassing Mr. Gimmick truly is. Our composer shies away from nothing; if it is something to be found in daily life, he’s included it here to sumptuous effect: birthday mornings, falling in love, the paralysis of a sudden tragedy, grades of sunshine, family around a table, afternoon breaks, trying to fall asleep and friendship. There’s more though, throughout Mr. Gimmick’s entirety, its lengthy musical sojurn, Kageyama holds your hand. It is unprecedented, the feeling of closeness that he creates, it’s amplified, radiant even, and it bests the typical separation anxiety that comes with most albums from the NES library. There are no words for it, and it’s the only one of its kind that has ever left me sobbing and in tears.

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Listen: Good Night

So, what makes the difference here? What makes Mr. Gimmick the very best NES soundtrack ever made? Well…there’s a thing about nostalgia, and nostalgia is something that’s tied to each and every game on this list. Let us take an example, The Legend Of Zelda’s over world theme; it’s amazing, but it’s a permanent memory. If you heard it today for the first time, you’d probably still love it very much, but I’m not sure that you’d be able to relate to it as readily as you would to Kageyama’s Mr. Gimmick. While Zelda’s theme remains completely incredible, my guess is that if you found both Zelda and Mr. Gimmick together in a play list you might in fact skip over Zelda’s theme in favor of Mr. Gimmick. Why?

It’s simple, Zelda is a recollection tied to very specific moments, and in the given scenario you might not exactly be feeling its very explicit pull. Mr. Gimmick on the other hand, regardless of any lingering sentimentality, remains something stunning and unsurprisingly current. Kageyama’s album plays more like the records in your own collection, and when called upon, has the ability to not only scratch the more familiar of your itches, but also encourages further experimentation in the pursuit of new retrospection. It’s what elevates his work over all others. Kageyama’s not the product of some blurring reminiscence, and he’s not stamped by time. He’s physically always going to be there with you when playing his songs. He’s not separated by language, not hamstrung by the actual distance between himself and his audience, and not at all afraid to share with you personally: there‘s both trust, and love there. Masashi Kageyama and his music never seem to concern themselves with the preoccupations of this industry: it is never about dungeons, shoot-outs, evil undead hordes, or aliens…his primary concern is making music that fosters a direct connection with the audience he cares so much about.

He’s happy playing his saxophone, content in between to joke loudly , or listen intently all the while, smiling…the only living boy in New York.

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Listen: Paradigm

It is for all these aforementioned reasons, for his genius and inspiration that Masashi Kageyama and the music for Mr. Gimmick earn without question the award for the Nintendo Entertaiment System’s single greatest soundtrack ever made.

Essential tracks: ALL OF IT…don’t miss a single beat.

Update: At the time of this writing Kageyama is currently in preparations to record a brand new album, his first in years. He’s also joined the spectacular roster of artists commissioned by the wonderful folks at Brave Wave. Please look forward to it.

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

This week we continue our countdown of the greatest 25 NES soundtracks ever made. If you missed last week, please click here.

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Listen : Heat Wave

  1. Bionic Commando / Composer: Junko Tamiya / Release Year 1988

To aptly describe the overwhelming sensation of Junko Tamiya’s Bionic Commando score, I’d like to borrow a lyric from Smog singer-songwriter

Bill Callahan’s tune, Diamond Dancer:

She was dancing so hard, she danced herself into a diamond.. dancing all by herself, and not minding…doing the thing as she dreamed it.

These lines illustrate to perfection the devotion Tamiya placed into this work, realizing that when you deliver to your audience, you don’t deliver silver nor platinum…to those you love, you give diamonds.

Bionic Commando showcases Tamiya’s superb registry of dexterous italics: her sense of extending a dip or climb, that rolling sound at first LONG and gorgeously scenic, but whose final revolution becomes both an intricate coil of serous and choppy flutter, all tracked and sequenced over the top of one other. It’s truly lyrical, and what’s more, Tamiya makes it all sound so effortlessly natural, like the original written notes had not undergone the rigor of translation from strung guitar to compressed sound files

Capcom’s Bionic Commando is also somewhat of a signpost for Kamiya. In under a year, she’d be on board for compositional duties for 1989’s Strider; that same year she’d suture the loose ends that still remained for the iconic Final Fight. She wrote 1990’s Sweet Home, Street Fighter 2010, and finally Little Nemo. This wave of brilliance, rather cruelly, went un-credited, as was common practice in the 80’s. Tamiya spent a considerable amount of her career under the pseudonym Gondamin.

Bionic Commando’s score is an opulently versed yield, a richly potent seed of things present and to come for Tamiya, and as it stands, a critical, a defining moment for the framing of video game portraits as complemented by the color of their soundstripe.

Essential Tracks: Heat Wave / Albatross Encounter / Leap Of Faith / BC theme / Ok, We’ll Move / Intro Film

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Listen: Bubble Man

  1. Mega Man 2 / Composers: Takashi Tateishi / Release Year 1988

In 1988, Capcom composer Takashi Tateishi had every reason to feel emboldened. The scoring work he had done along with his partner Manami Matsumae for Mega Man’s 1987 baptism, effectively wrote the prologue to the eight-bit sound bible, a genre still swaddling about in its infancy.

The reaction to their work resonated with players on such a deep and fundamental level that Tateishi began fielding requests from his fans on the streets. Naturally, some level of hubris and celebrity also seemed to follow suit.

When recording sessions began, for unknown reasons, the pair splintered a-la Sam & Dave, and the duo was a duo no more.

Tateishi was now a single artist, brazen, impudent and determined to deliver THE follow-up expansion to the preface he had co-written almost two years earlier.

Tateishi’s initial scrawls were frenzied, desperate even…a string of stillborn compositions. Banging away on a quickly detuned piano, drifting aimless solos on clarinet and harpsicord…Tateishi, thinking the magic would somehow coalesce quickly, labored over fruitless months.

Tateishi was however under the erroneous belief that the sequel would remain a near facsimile of the original: simple, short and quickly turned around to market. That was until he received THE call: the size of Mega Man 2 would be TRIPLE that of the original.

The melodies he’d abandoned in favor of their truncated version, the multiple act opera he’d dropped because he’d be short on money to pay the troupe of tenors he’d hired, and the stunning finale ensemble of players he’d assembled, dispersed like a crowd in a riot: It was all fair game now, and everyone was invited back.

Mega Man 2’s soundtrack could and indeed would be made without sparing a single expense. Armed with an inspired and impressive cache of instrumentals, Tateishi went to work assembling his a,b,c, and d sides of vinyl. If he was going to do it, it would need to encompass at the very least, two records. It makes sense that the rest of the biblical text he had spent so much time fleshing out found life as the world’s first video game double album. This is how fortunes change, world order is altered, and history is made permanent…written.

It’s tough being the seer, the burdened prophet…you’ve got an awful lot to say and such a tiny window in which to decree it.

Essential Tracks : Bubble Man / Metal Man / Air Man / Crash Man / Heat Man / Wood Man / Quick Man

Don’t forget, that you can purchase both Bionic Commando and Mega Man 2 right here, and right now on Sumthing.com

Next week, the end of our countdown, see you then.

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Having fallen in love only 4 times in his life Geno counts Double Dragon as his second and truest love. He has worked in record retail since 2000 and believes David Hayter to be the one true Solid Snake. Currently, he is putting together a band which only perform songs from Street Fighter 3rd Strike.

So…………….. my latest obsession is Fallout Shelter. Seriously, Bethesda couldn’t have come up with a more brilliant way to generate hype for this fall’s Fallout 4.

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Fallout Shelter is a mobile game, currently available for iOS but forthcoming on Android. It’s a free-to-play sim, where you act as the overseer for a vault. The vault runs on power, and your “dwellers” require food and water. You build your vault accordingly, creating rooms that generate those resources to keep the vault powered and the dwellers fed and watered.

Beyond building rooms that make your resources, you can build rooms that train a dwellers S.P.E.C.I.A.L., which is Fallout’s character skill set. Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intellect, Agility and Luck.

Your vault faces a variety of dangers, including raiders, fires and radroaches. To combat raiders and kill the radroaches, you need weapons. To acquire weapons, you can send dwellers out to the Wasteland. They’ll also stumble upon outfits for your dwellers that boost certain SPECIAL skills, and they’ll bring back caps (money).

vault overview

There are goals for you to reach – these vary widely from “Collect (amount) of Water” or “Send 6 Dwellers to the Wasteland”. Many of these goals reward you with caps, but occasionally, you’ll get a “lunchbox”. Each lunchbox contains caps and a chance to get a fancy dweller with great skills or a powerful weapon.

And that’s how you can spend your own personal money on the game – buying lunchboxes.

My first vault was a delightful failure. Everyone died. There were fires and raiders and roaches and death and sickness and starvation. I tried to go too fast with too few resources, and not enough dwellers.

My second vault has been a stirring success, helped largely by my checking account. I bought two lunchbox packages, which started me off with some serious caps to invest in my vault. It cost me $19.98 of my own cash and it was completely worth it. I’ve spent far more on games I enjoyed far less. Although, if you have patience, there’s no need to spend real cash on the game. You can “rush” rooms to produce resources, and you receive a tiny caps bonus for doing so. Each time a dweller levels, you get caps. Your explorers bring back caps. Completing goals gives you caps. It’s not unreasonable to expect success for free in this game.

Currently, I have 146 dwellers in my vault (Vault 878). Occasionally, dwellers will come to your vault looking for shelter, but you can also make new ones! If you put a male and female dweller in a room alone, they’ll produce a little kiddo dweller, who grows up into a productive adult dweller. If you have a couple of dwellers with high Charisma, this happens really fast. Like, put-them-in-a-room-and-two-minutes-later-the-female-is-pregnant fast.

You get to name the baby once he or she is born. I name all of my children after classical composers, although this gets tricky with the ladies (in a soul-crushing way), so I name a lot of the baby girls after my cat June.

I’ve accidentally placed siblings in a room expecting them to copulate, but the game says NO to incest. It’s hilarious, actually:

family

The animation is fantastic, the dwellers say funny things, the concept is old but this game is so fresh. I can’t believe I just said that, but it’s true. The MUSIC is excellent, with that mid-20th century jazz sound so integral to the Fallout universe. Here’s a look at my Game Room, where dwellers hang out to increase their Luck skill (high Luck means more caps):

vault close up

I have two minor complaints: sometimes, it’s difficult to navigate around the vault without picking up and dragging dwellers on accident. I don’t have a tablet, so I’m on a tiny iPhone 5s screen. If you’re in a hurry to move someone, it can be frustrating.

Also, BATTERY SUCKER. Big time. I used to make it to the end of the day without charging. No longer. Too bad one of the vault rooms can’t generate power for your device.

Play this game. It’s insanely fun. Be patient. Train your dwellers. FALLOUTSHELTERFALLOUTSHELTERFALLOUTSHELTER

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Emily Reese is an on-air host for Classical Minnesota Public Radio. She is also the host and producer for Top Score, Classical MPR’s podcast about video game soundtracks, and created MPR’s Listening to Learn series. She earned an undergrad certificate in music education and jazz studies from the University of Colorado — Boulder, and a Master’s degree in music theory from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Emily lives in Twin Cities with her cat June Bug and loves gaming, with or without friends.

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