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Christmas Eve is the longest day of my year, every year. I bring this up because it is now officially six months until the 25th of December. I felt it my duty to inform those not watching the clock. It’s not so much the obvious, like last minute shopping and working late; it’s the after-hours rituals that begin sometime after 10:00PM. After leaving work at about 9:00PM, I set off wrapping my massive video game vault.

You see, throughout the year, I buy a whole lot of games, but I don’t play or open any of them. This is all intentional of course, and while it’s a routine part of my collecting, the desire to unwrap all of them as they come through my door never gets any easier to resist. So why do this? Common sense dictates when you pay for something, you should immediately begin using it. Well, this common sense never took into account the demands placed on my Christmas morning: I want it to be HUGE!

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I never known to have much sense, common or otherse… this is my Xmas story.

It didn’t used to be like this; years ago, I was current: I PLAYED all the newest releases. This was until 2001 where I began this whole idea of saving a handful of games for Christmas morning. It started out with me saving say 9 or 10 titles. This was fine. The next year that number grew larger, around 17 or 18. I kept putting more and more away for that tree. In 2003, I was a bit burned out on the waiting, and broke my own rules, opening a number of big-name titles like The Legend Of Zelda: WindWaker, Metal Gear Solid 2:Substance, Zone Of The Ender’s: The Second Runner. I couldn’t help it, could you blame me? In any other year, this would have been fine, but 2003 was the year that EVERYTHING I was looking forward to playing was unceremoniously moved into 2004 release windows. You need a couple banner titles for this whole “vault” idea of mine to work. Without the bigger games, you lose that wow. My problem was that I had opened too much, and all of December’s marquee stars were already sitting on my shelf. All except one: Team Ninja’s 2003 guiding light Ninja Gaiden.

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Ninja Gaiden magazine ad from 2003 – It was all going so well..

Next to Metal Gear as far as my favorite series, is Ninja Gaiden, next to that Street Fighter, next to that Strider. Games from any one of these franchises can prop up a holiday morning on sheer presence alone. Metal Gear: The Twin Snakes was the shoe-in for the number 1 spot that year, but was moved into 2004 at the Tokyo Game Show that October. I reeled a bit, but figured, “It’s okay, I still have Ninja Gaiden, and um… Max Payne 2.” Once Metal Gear moved into early 2004, everything else followed suit. I began cobbling together a list of games that would make the short-list for haloed Christmas fodder: Viewtiful Joe, P.N.03, Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne, Star Wars Knights Of The Old Republic, Prince Of Persia, Silent Hill 3, Castlevania: Lament Of Innocence, Manhunt, Mafia, Tron 2.0, The Legend Of Zelda: Collectors Edition, Beyond Good and Evil, and at number one Ninja Gaiden. The list was precariously being held afloat by one single game, but things looked great. Team Ninja even went so far as to promise delivery for holiday 2003. Halloween came and went, but then the internet rumblings began.

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Sneaking, eh Snake? Not during holiday 2003 you weren’t!

It started in hearsay fashion: some forums ruminated on how a game, only 60 percent done in September would be ready to ship by early December. Team Ninja boss Tomonobu Itagaki similarly lay coy and guarded in interviews, offering no real timetable or official release date. The machine of marketing, however, clamored on. Ninja Gaiden standees were EVERYWHERE, pre-order bonuses sprouted from the ground, and magazines proclaimed early reviews, but the doubt had spread. So I stayed glued to the Tecmo forums and game news sites, ignoring the new and troubling facts slowly coming to light. Thanksgiving was the following week.

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One of 2003’s most brilliant games: Viewtiful Joe

The news came literally as I was packing up the car to leave for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t an official statement, but now the writing was too dark and boldly accented to ignore. Tecmo stalled, and no official press release was issued until that following Monday. It hit me HARD. Really HARD. Why though? To understand, you have to realize that back then, I was miserable from January until Thanksgiving (it’s a LONG story for another time). But that long story shortened: this vault was the jewel at the end of an incredibly dark tunnel. And… okay, I will admit it to you… there were tears. Looking back at it now I can laugh.

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Did you miss Star War: KOTOR? I almost did.  Thanks Ninja Gaiden Delay!

Things however, turned out just fine. That list of games sans Ninja Gaiden was incredible. I was also quick to remind myself that this problem was NOT a problem at all; in fact this was a selfish and ridiculous first-world dilemma I was having. This holiday was not about any of this to begin with, and among the horrific and terrible things in the world, Ninja Gaiden’s extended time under its creators’ microscope was NOT among them. Ninja Gaiden’s delay DID teach me something though: if I wanted to keep doing this Christmas vault of games, DON’T OPEN IT. I also learned, never put faith in projected or even solid video game release date calendars. This way, I make sure everything goes into the safe, and should something be bumped, there’s always another admiral ready to take the reins from the previous fallen captain/captains.

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Sleeper hits were strewn all over 2003.. BG&E had it all!

I also decided to immortalize Ninja Gaiden‘s 2003 delay by picking up one of those standees I saw so prominently displayed in store windows that winter. We’ve been together 10 years now, mostly, he stands in my room, reminding me never to fall to the temptation to break any games’ Y-fold seal until that once yearly designated date. He’s a bit beat up now, but every relationship has its ups and downs.

xmas 8 copy

The number of games in my yearly Xmas safe (storage space) is typically in the high 50’s. So as I was saying earlier, it takes a while to wrap all that stuff – let’s say around 4 to 5 hours, if I don’t stop. After that I always spend at least some time playing the first Metal Gear Solid , and then I listen to records until about 8 AM. Finally I fall asleep until about 1PM. We don’t open gifts until about 11 PM at night on Christmas Day proper, another long story. Unwrapping the stuff, putting it in the collection and cataloging every title… that’s another 2 days!

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Max Payne 2: My Lord… My Lady!

So don’t ask me what I thought about Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, because I haven’t played it; I don’t have a clue. What about Bravely Default? You’ve got me. (Something about cherubs?) What I can tell you though is how to have a Christmas morning on par with that of a 5 year old. Just be ready to sit on your hands for a while, we still have six more months.

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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.

I was on vacation last week, and while it was initially perfect, it concluded with a rather horrifically expensive emergency home repair. Got in some gaming though, of course.

I finished Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs early in the week. I was thrilled with the game-play yet irritated beyond repair at the story. This love-hate dichotomy is indicative of my relationship with Ubisoft of late, and reveals a truth about the industry as a whole.

If the employees of the video game industry want to be viewed on equal footing with film and television, they have to step up their game (ugh sorry for the crummy pun). The story for Watch Dogs is a joke, full of holes – typical of a big AAA title.

**I’m going to start throwing out spoilers now, so continue as you please.**

The protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is an a-hole. As gamers, we’ve played the role of loads of a-holes, like Kratos (God of War), or any Grand Theft Auto game. Never once did I mistake Kratos or Tommy Vercetti for good guys, yet Watch Dogs tries to play Pearce off as a good guy on occasion. It rarely works.

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An exemplary citizen..

Nicky Pearce, Aiden’s sister, is infuriating. Ubisoft makes Nicky seem like a useless, clueless and weak human being. Throughout the game, Aiden promises her he’ll stop pursuing the persons who ordered a hit on him (that hit resulted in the death of his niece, Nicky’s daughter).

“Promise me you’ll stop,” she demands from Aiden, who quickly promises, although we know he’s lying with each empty promise. This lie happens several times throughout the game. Aiden is a selfish prick, hell-bent on vengeance.

I understand that Nicky is kidnapped for a good portion of the game; she catches onto the fact that Aiden is the “Vigilante” after he rescues her. This is problematic. For the duration of the game, Aiden has been the subject of every TV or radio news broadcast. He wears a stupid, stupid outfit, which no one else in the game wears. It’s insane to ask me to believe that she didn’t know, or that someone didn’t tell her. That sh*t irritates me in games.

Once she finds out and confronts him, she loses it for about a half a second. Then she’s cool.

Right.

Ubisoft goes to some lengths to make it clear that Aiden is a vengeful person, but that piece of his story breaks when we get to Clara Lille.

If I were to say to you, “Hey, friend, let’s put a female character in this game. She’ll be a badass hacker and we’ll call her Clara,” how do you imagine she’d look? If I explained to you that, at a certain point, Aiden and Clara would meet in person, how would you imagine that meeting would go?

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Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With Tattoos That Hacks Good

Clara, predictably, is gorgeous. Punk gorgeous. So, obviously, when Aiden and Clara meet, there’s this unnecessary and nauseating sexual tension between them immediately. I tell you, I roll my eyes every single time I think of that scene.

And then there’s this gem of a scene, where Clara is subjected to the condescending misogyny of T-Bone (another hacker).

From the opening of Watch Dogs, we’re introduced to a character named Maurice. Maurice is the dude who was hired to kill Aiden, but Maurice accidentally kills the niece. Throughout the game, Aiden uncovers audio logs of Maurice telling his story. Maurice was blackmailed by a gang to do the hit. He didn’t want to do the hit. When he killed the niece, he all but lost his mind from the guilt.

That last piece is of no matter to Aiden. He doesn’t care that Maurice is sorry. Aiden doesn’t care that Maurice was blackmailed into doing the hit. Aiden has no sympathy for Maurice.

But how did Maurice know where to find Aiden? That would be because of Clara. Clara gave Aiden’s location to Maurice (whether directly or indirectly) for the hit. When Aiden finds out Clara gave him up, he’s like, no biggie. It’s cool. You’re a woman. You didn’t mean it.

WTF.

Then Clara dies. Whatever. Of course she dies. It would be unpredictable if she lived, and god forbid Ubisoft ignores a trope for once. I can’t decide if this is what great storytelling is like in France and Canada, or if French and Canadian game developers think this is what we as consumers like in a story. Either way, it’s whack.

One more character, and then I feel like I’ve dissected enough. Let’s talk about “Iraq” – the leader of the “Viceroys” gang in Watch Dogs.

Firstly, that’s not how you pronounce “Iraq”.

Every time I heard them say “eye-rack”, I wanted to scream. Regardless, let’s also talk about how Iraq, the character, is a carbon fricking copy of Vaas Montenegro from Far Cry 3, the type of antagonist that kills his (always a he) followers at the blink of an eye, just because.

I can’t take stories like this seriously. No matter how fun the actual mechanics and game-play are, it’s never going to be enough to hold up a horrible story – an all-too familiar pattern in the gaming industry.

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Indeed.

Did you play Watch Dogs? I totally loved all the hacking. Did you dig it?

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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 cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

SF 1

Consider the emergence of Street Fighter Alpha 3 in the summer of 1998 as the end of your youth. While you might disagree, you should consider it anyway, because it marks the end of Street Fighter’s decade long movement from infancy to adulthood. For readers of a certain age, Street Fighter was close at hand for most of their awkward and sullen teen years. The transformation was side-by-side and blow-by-blow. Certainly, Street Fighter Alpha 3 is far from the end of the series, but it does signal the beginning of a coming permanent change in play: Street Fighter would never control quite like this ever again. The turbo engines were used to fire up Street Fighter Alpha 3 and its aging counterparts began to give way: stalling, grinding to a halt, no matter how many gallons of lubricant were applied daily. Time was running short. As final runs go though, Street Fighter Alpha 3’s final set of worldwide dates employed only the most expensive and costly set of stage crews, make-up artists and celebrated musicians to play its to-capacity amphitheaters and stadiums. Of incredible note… Alpha’s all-star house band featuring longtime Capcom composers Takayuki Iwai, Yuki Iwai, Isao Abe, Tetsuya Shibata, and Hideki Okugawa. This is a celebration of their raving, and impeccable fusion, archived to tape on their final night of performance: Here are 4 of the best cuts from Street Fighter Alpha 3.

SF 2

Listen: Crimson (Theme of Vega)

4. Crimson (Theme Of Vega) – Vega’s character is one of distinctive panache, and while his past is littered with themes each playing to his arrogance and unabashed flamboyance, it’s only Yuki Iwai’s relentless brandishing of escalating, bestial, and zigzagging rpm’s that discards outright the scenic, fashion forward and international flavor of his persona, pushing forward Vega’s most instinctual traits: killer first, effeminate, preening shampoo model later. Iwai’s low crawl resuscitates that once prowling and charmless man to full figure, proving once and for all, that you don’t dress up a knife’s edge; it’s a knife and nothing more.

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Listen: Doll Eyes (Theme of Cammy)

3. Doll Eyes (Theme Of Cammy) – Most fighting game tunes walk a classic fine line, straddling a fence, unsure of its own identity. Will it be Montana or Wyoming? To whom is it paying lip service? Which side nurtured its roots? Does its tempo make grittier the brawl unfolding onscreen? These atypical questions usually have but two predetermined answers, each of which offers little to no true pabulum whatsoever. There will be gratuitously distorted techno spun by low-end DJ’s or heinously dated chainmaille rock of the ages. Doll Eyes bypasses this inquisition, outwardly rejecting these recycled rules. Who wants to live uncomfortably in their own skin? Doll Eyes is obsessed with the hustle of the dance floor and the repetitious anodyne properties of a beat. Cammy’s theme foams and bubbles hypnotically, accentuating the movement of legs to rhythm , and not the obvious nod to the oncoming deluge of jabs. This one’s going to do exactly as she pleases. Where once stood a stoic Malaguena… now Saturday Night Fever.

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Listen: Performance (Theme of Dan)

2. Performance (Theme Of Dan) – Like the friend who you begrudgingly grandfathered in, Dan similarly needs you to prop him up. His social graces are lacking and his luck with the ladies as arid and flat as the Mojave. He talks too much… to himself even, and he collects the most ridiculous of things. He’s a good guy, but he needs that ever-vigilant guidance. After weeks of one-on-one personal instruction, composer Hideki Okugawa emerges unbroken, if somewhat annoyed by the close proximity and constant torrent of day-in-day-out Dan Hibiki. Okugawa’s work was not in vain though, as his method of polish and brand of turtle wax finally removes the layers of mud and debris of questionable origin, revealing the man who was always there, but never actually present. Cool, confident and now overrun with screaming groupies and devotees, Hibiki begins to shrug off your company in favor of his minions, but that was the goal this entire time – setting him free.

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Listen: Shining One

1. Shining One (Sagat’s Theme) – Every encounter you will ever have with Alpha 3’s version of Sagat begins with his laugh. It’s a small gesture, almost tiny enough to ignore, but you can’t, it’s there. He’s taller than you, physically superior, completely self-assured, and by the time the bell rings for your match, he knows it, so he laughs! This idea of pretending to scuffle with you, him holding you like a dog by the scruff of its neck as you flail and hiss, it’s amusing. You’re garbage to this man. And of all the scenarios to play out in your head, the ones where you might lose, might win, and might escape with a few minor bruises? None of them are likely to match the reality of the wretched and grisly beating you’re about to receive. Composer Tetsuya Shibata equates Sagat’s gleam of commanding superiority with the jaws of the possessed and rabid bullmastiff: slovenly, cruel and without remorse. Shining One is a punishing performance that trumps the brood of tracks that make up Street Fighter Alpha 3. It’s the one that never forgets its own storied history of violence. You can hear him now, can’t you?        

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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.

Jesper Kyd.

My writing could end there. Just: Jesper Kyd.

In 2007, I was in grad school, getting a master’s in music theory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The proud owner of a new PS3, I couldn’t wait for Assassin’s Creed. The trailer was mind-blowing.

As much as I adored the game, it was glitchy. Not Skyrim glitchy, but I did reach a point where the game broke and I couldn’t proceed. Due to that, I never finished it. Weird, huh?

I didn’t need to finish the game to fall in love with Jesper Kyd and his music.

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At the time, I’d never played Hitman, so his music was new to me. Kyd’s attention to detail greatly impressed me. His AC music in general creates an enrapturing sense of location – I go places when I hear his music, and I’m pretty sure I go exactly where I’m supposed to go: a trip to the Third Crusade, where the sounds of plucked guitars, recorders, percussion and men chanting abound. Yet Kyd’s modern twist on these sounds helps place me in the future, and it’s a lovely journey.

Ubisoft made a giant mistake by not continuing to use him as a composer. The music of the major AC titles by Lorne Balfe, Brian Tyler, and Oliviere Deriviere are reputable. I adore Deriviere’s Freedom Cry music above all, but I feel Deriviere and Kyd share some compositional characteristics.

Consider the success of Deriviere’s Freedom Cry. Deriviere chose to incorporate traditional Haitian music into that score. He took time with that music and created a sound unique to his abilities. Deriviere did not write a traditional orchestral score (which might have been just fine would’ve been amazing), but he also didn’t piggyback on the success of Kyd’s electronic prowess.

Above all, that might be the key to Deriviere’s achievements with that score: he became the first composer to capture a new sound for Assassin’s Creed in Kyd’s absence.

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As for Balfe and Tyler, I’m a fan of both composers and have written and spoken favorably about them each in the past. If asked to choose a favorite score by both, I wouldn’t choose an AC score by either of them. Balfe and Tyler are fantastic composers with much better soundtracks in their lists of credits.

I want Kyd back, and I know that’s impossible. I miss him, though; State of Decay and Borderlands aren’t enough at the moment. I want more. I even started watching Metal Hurlant Chronicles just so I could hear his music.

Luckily, there is more music coming from him, for sure. Kyd is always writing whether it’s for film, TV, games, or trailers, there’s always something to hear. Do be sure and listen!

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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 cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

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Listen: Fanfare

For me, when it comes down to it, anything claiming to be fantasy has but one job, and that is to accurately convey the neighing of horses and the clopping of their hooves. Perhaps that’s oversimplifying and obviously there is more to it than just the sound of a stampede: regardless of the context, however, be it mountains, burning villages or wizened sages taking quill to paper… the most paramount necessity is that clippety-clop. Why? Everything else is just cars, guns and urban sprawl… who cares about that? I want magic and my own horse. You see now? Fantasy! With Capcom’s brilliant 1996 arcade release Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, this understanding of stallions is not only ingrained and inherent, but rapturously expanded upon by composer Masato Koda, who has chosen to abandon a cautious ride on Capcom’s D&D steed, choosing instead to gallop at a full tilt, side-saddle and bareback. Giddyup.

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Listen: The Journey

You’d think tackling the lore and universe of such an established and legendary franchise as Dungeons and Dragons would require the work of a vast and coordinated sound team. Each of these musicians would be focused, pained in creating a very specific string of notes:  lowering drawbridges, the clanging of metal on a sword smith’s table, and the aerial spread of wings from a wrathful clan of dragons. Every facet of sound in this score would employ a different set of tradesmen. BUT… Capcom was wise to fault this approach as they must have anticipated a score far too antiseptic in nature. This path would have ensured a soundtrack so banal and insipid that the final flavor would stand as flat and barren as the many low-lying plains the game’s multiple protagonists were tasked with crossing. Too many hands in one pot: No this wouldn’t do at all. So like any good king would, Capcom placed the duty on the head of ONE of its many knights in service. This mission required a singular vision stirred within the consciousness and mannerisms of a single man; he alone would add his slant and skew to the lines and bars of music yet to be filled. He would have some help of course, but this party of his would be a small one. Masato Kodo began his travels on foot waving a large colorful banner of sigils despite being oblivious to their meanings and origins.

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Listen: Lost Forest

Regardless of his initial numbers and novice, Kodo must have been the charismatic type, as he seems to have won the affection of hundreds, if not thousands of soldiers, all of them intent on and committed to raising his gorgeous noise: brigades of horn, lines of them, thick gobs of blaring brass complemented by a colossal and exorbitant variety of chimes, flute, and barrage of woodwinds, but this symphony is a grand illusion. Remember Kodo is very much working alone with an odd squire or two. His phantom orchestra, however, lays out a series of movements, equal parts concentrated wallop and much softer dulcet tones. Victories are won through colossal magnification of this man’s once-impish shadow.

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Listen: Timbre of Rejuvenation

Masato Kodo is more than one single trick though. He’s unpredictable, personable and funny, and after months of tolling the bells of war, he seems quite ready for a drink. While he could simply order himself a single dark ale and turn in before sundown, he prefers to let loose – ready to gamble away the spoils of his armies’ victories, ready to drink all of them under the table, ready to heckle the next table over, and ready to run when he realizes he’s unarmed, outnumbered and has lost his shirt. This is his journey, and he’s going to write you a tune for all of it. The sound of hamlets, tavern stops, open air markets all bear his signature.

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Listen: Spiral Battle

Kodo’s score also carries great distinction for its length. Side scrolling brawlers were not known to encompass much more than E.P.’s worth of material. With Shadow Of Mystara, however, Kodo crafted his very own White album: a multi-sided double L.P. of lute solos and bards’ tales that fluctuate wildly in both mood and timbre. Kodo’s music covers so many set pieces and speaks so many different languages here; it’s amazing that his final set of minstrels are as cohesive as they are brilliant. Each track stands as a varied orchestral tome of the lands he’s traversed and the spells he‘s cast. He’s never treading water or filling these levels with anything gratingly repetitious or seemingly auto-pilot. Fantasy is about the unexplored and the foreign, and Kodo’s every step works towards detailing that empty map with every point of interest.

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Listen: Final Decisive Battle

Masato Kodo is one of few composers to successfully translate the daunting lands of Dungeons and Dragons into song. Like Monty Python’s migrating coconuts, Kodo took something so completely foreign to him and transformed it to fit a more diverse and global fantasy palette. Now his coconuts are found everywhere. Those curious to ride with Kodo are in luck; he still gives daily tours on your console mare of choosing and his work still sounds every bit as audacious and resonant as when it was first scored almost 20 years ago. Dungeons and Dragons:Shadow Over Mystara stands as one of Capcom’s greatest musical and arcade achievements: one of the very last of its kind.

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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.

Over the next few weeks I will be highlighting Capcom game soundtracks from the CPS-1 and CPS-2 Q-Sound era. Today begins a series of articles celebrating Capcom’s proprietary arcade musical blends of the 80’s and early to late 90’s. To start us off, let us look at the work of composers Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, Yasuaki Fujita, Yoko Shimomura, and Kumi Yamaga and their contributions to Final Fight.

Final Fight 1

Listen: Opening Theme

I often describe the music I am reviewing as something bold, and not to be missed. I mean that each and every time I write it, but when talking about the score to Capcom’s 1989 arcade title Final Fight, I REALLY mean it. For the music snob ensconced in soulless avant-garde, to the audiophile concerned only with per-grams of vinyl, and the noise-canceling, over-the-ear-wearing headphone enthusiast… if you haven’t heard Final Fight, haven’t counted it among your inventory, have never pressed your fingers over its raised, embossed LP cover, than by my measure, you’re not only missing out but you’ve also heard nothing. So let me ask you: do you even music?

Final Fight 2

Listen: Warehouse

So why should you listen to this particular record? What makes it such a breakthrough? Why even bother writing home about it? I am glad you asked.

One of the key differences that separates Final Fight from other game scores, and scores of this same kind of formula (i.e. Double Dragon, Crime City, Burning Fight, River City Ransom) is that those compositions are at best contrived, composed on some expensive piano, directed by screenshots and written to convey something foreign to its creator. They read books, watched films, and talked to people associated with the undesirable element. Final Fight on the other hand sounds authentically criminal, crafted, bred and born by the hands of gifted sociopaths who have meticulously projected the odor of gas burning flesh, the blight of trash laden alleys and the corner peddler of illicit trades. When these composers get together, you either pay tribute or get out of their way.

Final Fight 3

Listen: Metro City Subway

Gritty violence is key to Final Fight, and musically, the execution of its primary tenet comes across as just that. This is intimidation, initiation and calling out the gun-shy member among the group. It’s one of the few arcade experiences I have ever had where the actual machine shakes in the presence of its accompaniment, the speakers just barely able to handle the task to which the factory set them. I thought perhaps that was just a made-up idea in my head, a memory I put there, and so a few days ago, I fired up my arcade machine, and found that recollection to be no figment, but rather simple and total fact. It shook in fear. There will be casualties tonight, the ruckus neither gentle nor clean. People will beg for their lives, and you’ll hear their pleas through those slithering, angular guitar lines. The bass and drums throb in unrelenting chunks: spasms of noise landing their knuckled hooks into tender rib and bone. Things are going down!

Final Fight 4

Listen: Bay Area

Final Fight compositions serve as both a gateway to dangerous mischief, and to lurid powerful suggestion that leaves nothing to the imagination, one that seeks to fill every conceivable gap. While younger minds may come to its joysticks filled with victimless playground gossip and knowledge of the best secret places in which to build makeshift clubhouses, Final Fight brings that innocence to ruin, with thoughts left seasoned and vice-riddled. Filthy, decadent and overwhelming to the senses, Final Fight as a score is the equivalent of growing up too fast, seeing things you can’t un-see, suddenly feeling things once alien to you, and perhaps most importantly making you the most experienced child on your block. Now viewed as a sage among your friends, they will come to you with their questions, seek your counsel, and ask you to take them under your wing.

Every element of every terrible thing you were ever warned about or shielded from finds a nefarious definitive musical chord in Final Fight. These composers trade dirty for sleazy, and opt for depravity over perversion, however, there are no grades of wretchedness here: it’s all scum and mold with a different name.

Of course…this is also WHAT makes it sound SO incredible, SO vital and WHY it still holds up almost 3 decades later.

Final Fight 5

Listen: Slum Restroom Battle

Final Fight offers up the most vividly fleshed-out and vicious game score of the 80’s, effortless in capturing the sound of opposing gangland factions and the clinking of their knives. 25 years after its release, it remains every bit as inexorable, savage and guilty of stealing many a childhood, mine among them, and you don’t see me complaining… it’s all about the company you keep.

P.S. – My friend Val would be miffed if I didn’t at least mention the re-arranged and amazing Final Fight CD score. Also make it a point to check out Simon Vikland’s own brilliant take on Metro City here.

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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.

The video game industry creates a perfect opportunity for composers to experiment with music.

mad scientist

In film and television, music is concrete and unchanging within an episode or feature. And this happens in games, too; cinematics are carefully crafted to sync with visual events. In the “old days” of games, music was concrete too – you hear the same 2:30 loop every single time you play Super Mario Bros.

You’ll find examples of experimentation all over gaming. AAA titles like Garry Schyman’s innovative score for BioShock Infinite, in which he chose to use a far smaller ensemble of musicians compared to the first two BioShock games. Jason Graves constructed a soundtrack for Dead Space using samples of live sounds, resulting in a score that borders on procedural music, then chose to scale things back and use a string quartet for Dead Space 2. Olivier Deriviere demonstrated his penchant for creativity by recording an orchestra, then digitizing aspects of it in his soundtrack to Remember Me. Deriviere switched gears and worked with a Haitian music group called La Troupe Makandal for Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry.

In indie games, the examples seem broader, although I think this is an illusion. I have two recent examples in mind: Curtis Schweitzer’s Starbound and Mike Raznick’s Spate.

In Spate, Raznick had the chance to create a narrative with the music, performed by a string quartet that sometimes becomes a quintet. If you’re unclear how to think of narrative music, consider Austin Wintory’s music for Journey, in which the music starts in one place, with a focus on evolving the sound along with the evolution of the story in the game. I also can mention Remember Me again – in that game, the music is more orchestral in the beginning, and becomes more and more digitally manipulated throughout the game.

spate

Raznick did this too; in Spate, the soundtrack ends with more players than it began. I like that. I like the music to take me on an adventure, even when I’m not playing the game.

For Starbound, Curtis Schweitzer told me in an interview for Top Score that he and the developer considered making procedural music for the game – music that’s composed in several layers (emphasis on “several”) that all work together, perhaps changing due to actions, events, motions, objects, day-night cycle, or any other number of variables within a game.

The complication with procedural music is that, as a result of its construction, it’s quite difficult to write procedural music that’s narrative. If a composer is asked to write dozens of layers that have the ability to interact over a long period of time (say, 20 minutes), it’s hard to write that music melodically.

Schweitzer and company realized this was an unsatisfying way to write the score. Instead, developer Chuckefish gave Schweitzer free rein to write individual tracks that were as long as he wanted (one track flirts with 20 minutes).

starbound

The music is still quite ambient, but it has a depth that procedurally-based scores lack. Perhaps it’s as simple as this: Schweitzer intended each piece, or cue, to have a definite beginning and end. Procedural music can do this only artificially. For now.

I fear I’m giving off an I-dislike-procedural-music vibe. Not the case. I figure procedural music will grow and develop alongside the technology on which it’s dependent, and I look forward to that development.

I get excited when I think about video game music. We can’t have these sorts of conversations about film music, or television, or any other type of music in media. There are countless opportunities for video game composers to innovate; to experiment.

Do you have a favorite example of what you’d consider experimental music?

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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 cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

Video games save lives, and last week we looked at the first entry in a series of games that have personally saved my life.  These titles are so powerful they may just aid you through your own crisis. We were talking about Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I should point out that I played the next game on this list back to back and during the same time period I spoke of in the last article. Today we look at the second entry: the psalms of El Shaddai: Ascension Of the Metatron. Next week…something lighter it’s almost summer for God‘s sake!

El Shaddai 1

Listen: El Shaddai: The Faraway Creation

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

So let’s go back to the mid 2000‘s – In retrospect, I should never have answered the phone that afternoon, because the call I was about to take was one of the most blundered and capitally botched conversations of my life. I can still hear the static on my end of the line, that silence. Half of it was my brain processing, sifting through an enormous registry of incarcerated emotions, feelings held palms down, my hands trading in shifts, alternating the chest compressions. This constant daily weight, the angle of the pressure… it wasn’t meant for my feelings to draw breath, it was in fact, the only means of keeping them silent. As for the other half, it was a total lack and inability to phrase: where the idea of actually forming a sentence with your lips feels physically painful, and the words that are to make that sentence stand fail to coherently collaborate with one another. You have something to say, and you need to say it, but all that your mouth and grey matter can come up with is gaping, slack-jawed, mute panic. This girl just told me at some point in the recent past she HAD liked me, and all I can muster is some ridiculous catch-all phrase like “ that’s awesome!”. …That’s awesome? This is the girl I am in love with, and instead of telling her so, I opt to become the poster child, the number one billboard star of half-witted, poindexter morons everywhere!

Where is my moron-o-meter? It was a scene, man.

El Shaddai 2

Listen: Dignified Time

When this happened initially, I was completely insulated from the trauma of that first blow, but years went by and one day that shielding, that cocoon gave way. Without protection, I was about to take the brunt of over a half decade of bottled emotions. One of the more painful of these wildcards centered around that phone call made some years earlier. It’s now 2012, and I have just completed Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I am not yet in the clear.

El Shaddai 3

Listen: Twilight Overture

While Deus Ex: Human Revolution was charged with rebuilding me, a nuts and bolts structure isn’t necessarily fit to pass inspection, nor truly ready for habitation. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron’s focus was three-fold: actual nourishment, correction of obvious deficiencies and spiritual renewal. It needed to take me beyond Deus Ex’s threshold of impoverished misery. It needed to do more than hold my hand. If El Shaddai was to be the final stop in my retreating, fearful gestation period, then it actually had to speak to me, but do so softly, and reach for me when my head goes down on that table in frustration. The professional boundaries set by its predecessor were something to be broken at the hands of El Shaddai. The final set of obstacles set in front of me were perhaps the most difficult, and any therapeutic approach taken would have to be slanted at an angle much wider than 90 degrees.

El Shaddai 4

Listen: Echoes of the Gods

El Shaddai was absolutely lyrical in the way it defined all things found in its world, Here its divisions are black and white, good and evil: Simple, but written with such a striking and squiggly penmanship that the original source material resembles something closer to Abba visiting the Wailing wall as a sequined Barry Gibb with pant suited Barbara Streisand duet behind them. Isn’t this the parable of Enoch? Despite its artistic liberties and truncation of many of the events in that story, it is absolutely beautiful. Its use of stone-washed Prismacolor biblical imagery, the narrative of God versus throngs of fallen angels, the levity of heaven, and the feel of clouds all helped to realign my waning strength.

El Shaddai 5

Listen: Scarlet Liturgy

Never setting its heels firmly to the ground, El Shaddai moved from maternal warmth and tearful coddling to polarizing moments of confrontation. It gave only as much as I could handle, but then expected me to actually handle it, all the while reinforcing its teachings, reminding me verbally what it was I needed to do, how I needed to proceed, and always mindful to praise my dedication and celebrate my milestones. Forward momentum.

El Shaddai 6

Listen: Enoch’s Darkness

Light, however, is but one way to leave the darkness. El Shaddai knows this. This darkness is at the core of everyone, however, and here it’s something you’re expected to explore, to question and take great pains to defeat. For a while though, you’re allowed to wear your heartbreak: live in it, sulk, (oblivious to those offering comfort), and become a recluse to a dangerous fault. It goes so far as to facilitate the time and place, leaving you to decide how long is too long, even offering the choice to stay wrapped up in it permanently.

El Shaddai 7

Listen: Receiving the Blessing of the Gods

El Shaddai is one of the few games ever to manifest itself in deity form: didactic, watchful of your actions, concerned for your well being, all-knowing, and free of judgment. This is a God ardent in his belief that you have value and possess redeeming qualities. He knows when to back off and when to insist, mercifully covering your eyes when necessary, but never afraid to show you the damage your actions have wrought. El Shaddai’s poignant and jolting ascent heavenward was essential to my recovery, and it finally provided the means for me to leave all of this behind.

When the spirit moves you…

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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.

TJ here, your friendly, neighborhood Sumthing.com editor! I don’t normally post blogs of my own, but I feel the need to step in here, Internet. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 game is getting absolutely dumped on by reviewers and I just couldn’t stand by in silence any longer. The game is not that bad!  In fact, I particularly enjoyed it. Sure the story is pretty wack-tacular and the camera is frustratingly unintelligent (but manageable – Pro-tip: Try using your left thumb for the right stick during combat sequences), the web-swinging mechanics are SPOT ON, seriously so fun, and I’m beginning to love the Hero/Menace reputation system. Allow me to explain why…

spiderman 2

Before yesterday, my biggest critique of ASM2 was the complete separation between open-world web swinging and combat. In ASM2, Side missions exist throughout the open world map of Manhattan – car chases, shootouts, and potential B&E’s are constantly taking place, just waiting for Spider-Man to throw a web in their gears. My peeve stems from Beenox’s presentation of these side missions: basically, each one is bookend-ed by an intro cutscene of the crime taking place and a final cut to a local news flash, in which a reporter recaps Spidey’s heroic (or failed) actions. This completely breaks immersion (not unlike my other greatest issue with the game: no HUD options – I’m still receiving basic button prompts as if I’m stuck in an eternal tutorial). All I want to do is sneak up on three thugs trying to break into a car, take them out with either the fun stealth takedowns or the Arkham-style combat system, and zip away to watch from the safety of a nearby fire escape as police arrive and book the perps.  But no, outside of certain story missions, you can never go seamlessly from breaking faces to swinging over room tops without bearing witness to these two repetitive cutscenes. Or so I thought.

This brings me to the Hero/Menace reputation system.  Completing the aforementioned side missions successfully raises your Hero meter. Failing or ignoring them contributes to your Menace rating. The greatly responsible Peter Parker that I am, I never let the Menace meter dip below one of its three tiers throughout my time in the campaign. It wasn’t until I had finished the campaign and began focusing on finding collectibles that I started ignoring my side missions and contributing to my status as a city-wide Menace. This is when things got good and I felt some reprieve from the sting of my biggest gripe.  At 1/3 of the Menace meter, Kingpin’s task force sends weak drones your way (easily dispatched by our favorite arachnid). At 2/3, force fields are deployed in the street that disable your web-shooters, allowing foot soldiers to jump you once immobilized (this is the first time open-world swinging meets combat, YAY!). And at 3/3 on the Menace meter? A seemingly innocuous little silver sphere zips around and tries to scan Spider-Man – and once it gets a lock, it calls in a giant bug-like war machine with its phasers set to “kill spiders”. This war machine is called a Hunter, and its unique enemy design (and the high-flying fight scenarios it encourages, that so nicely complement Spider-Man’s move set) has effectively provided me the courage to publicly absolve Beenox of their sins.

spiderman 1

I was actually able to document my initial encounter with all of these Menace-status obstacles in the below video for our very first Sumthing MIXTAPE. Sumthing MIXTAPE is a feature we will be running from our YouTube page, in which we mash one game’s gameplay with another’s soundtrack.  Results so far have been nothing short of epic. Today’s MIXTAPE pits Oscar Araujo‘s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 score (available for purchase here) against the beautiful New York skyline of The Amazing Spider-Man 2.  Be sure to watch until the end to see one of my personal favorite gaming battles in recent memory. Check out the video and see why I just can’t stay mad at this game!

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MIXTAPE is a mash-up of one game’s soundtrack and another’s gameplay. Contact us if you’d like to submit your own MIXTAPES and be sure to suggest some mixes for future entries in the comments below. Turn it up!!

I’ve been working on three different posts for you over the last several weeks, and planned on talking about Mike Raznick’s terrific soundtrack for Spate today.

And then I read this. Raznick can wait.

All you really need to see is the headline of that BBC article: “Activision commits $500m to Destiny game.”

Let’s talk for a moment about $500m, or as I like to say, one half of one billion dollars.

destiny 1

I know Activision is rich (numbers here), and that’s cool. I’ve helped them get there every year for a long time, and you have too. They’ve done some neat-o things with all that money, particularly war veterans, like establishing the Call of Duty Endowment.

Yay for Activision. It’s nice when companies do that kind of thing, whether it’s a convenient tax-shelter or consumer confidence move, or it it’s truly to help folks in need, go for it, Activision.

I understand that inflation, population and demand will continue to drive up the cost of creating AAA games.

I was surprised? Impressed? Disturbed? Amazed? Shocked? All of those things, when I heard how much Grand Theft Auto V cost ($265 million), I thought, this game better be effing flawless. And it was, mostly, until I got that cell phone bug. That stupid bug ruined my experience shortly after I completed the story. I haven’t touched the game since. I had no way to make money (quickly) without a working cell phone. Boo.

Anyhow, when I hear that Destiny is costing a half a billion dollars, I think of those amazing films like Pearl Harbor and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Correction: these movies suck. When a business spends that kind of money on a project, there is a proportional amount of bureaucracy attached and a proportional increase of things that can go wrong. Science says so somewhere, I’m sure.

destiny 3

With a half a billion dollars, there are hundreds upon hundreds of people involved, many of whom are more than capable at art, design, code, marketing, writing story and music, testing, and all of the steps required to build a good game. Just remember, no matter what “Top Ten Most Expensive Films Ever” list you read, none of those films appear in the list of “Top Ten Best Films Ever”. Not a single one.

What lesson are we to take from that?

Seven people made the game Bastion. Seven. I’ve already said hi to more than seven people this morning. Bastion was next to flawless. It never froze or crashed. It was beautiful. It had an amazing soundtrack and a compelling story told in a unique way. I thought the beginning was a bit slow and the end was mildly disappointing but I still replayed the hell out of that game.

Destiny is poised to be the next big thing. I thought Titanfall was supposed to make waves, but it seems not to be the Halo of Xbox’s yesteryear.

destiny 2

Destiny needs to be amazing, or Activision will emerge with quite a bit of egg on their company face. I am skeptical that Destiny will succeed in making giant leaps in gaming. But still super-excited, and I’ve already pre-ordered it. Sigh.

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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 cats Atticus, June Bug and Lee, and loves gaming, with or without friends.

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