Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top 5 Video Game Music Composers

A question asked way too rarely is - what kind of music are you into? Everyone loves to go on about their favorite music band, but a lot less people like to hear about it, unless they happen to love that same band (which is almost never the case). However, let's assume someone hypothetically asked me this question - I may even dare say it's actually happened once or twice during my lifetime - what would I tell them?
I could tell them I enjoy listening to everything from Prokofiev to Björk to Prodigy to Kate Bush to Frank Zappa to Infected Mushroom to Busta Rhymes to electro swing to whatever this is but frankly they would've probably got stuck on "Pro... what?". A much easier way for me to keep their interest, or at least sum up what kind of music I'm really into in as few words as possible is for me to simply say - video game music.

Now "video game music" in itself is a confusing term since there is a huge difference between music from say Super Mario Bros and Mass Effect. Then there's also Bitpop and Chiptunes which is music made with the same "instruments" as video games to varying degrees, but that doesn't actually feature in any video game. Some video game music we like for nostalgic reasons and some we like because they're just simply damn awesome. This is a list I've been wanting to write for some time now, because I feel like Video Game Composers often don't get half the recognition they deserve. Most people know the names of a dozen artists they dislike only because they're mentioned every ten seconds on the radio, but can only mention Nobuo Uematsu when you ask them about VGM, eventhough they might love the music from so many more. I'm not saying I'm much better unfortunately, but I've really been trying to improve. This is one way to do it, I guess. This has been a challenging post for me though, mostly because I've needed to limit myself, like a lot. The Top 5 was pretty easy for me to do, but to then grab only a handful of songs to represent those people! Almost impossible...

In the name of fairness I will mention that the people on this list haven't necessarily done work on these songs on their own, sometimes it's in collaboration with other artists. But they're listed as the main creator, as far as I know.

5. Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka
Hirokazu Tanakas music perfectly encapsulates something that I've always had the utmost respect for regarding the whole 8-bit era - the ability to create something brilliant from such limited technology. Although 8-bit games are not among my favorites to play (with some few exceptions) for reasons I can only speculate about, I've always been fascinated in how these people could squeeze out so much from so little and the inventiveness that must lie behind it. I am very happy to see a throwback to those days in the new indie-scene but obviously there is never anything like the original style. Hip Tanakas does with music what the game designers did with programming - he manages to make music, some that I am sure you've all heard by now, easy to listen to, recognizable and charming with what limited capabilities the NES sound chip had, keeping it brilliant in its simplicity and in something that sounds like it squeezed every last drop of energy from the sound chip. With only a few notes he manages to make anyone smile or just wanna get up and dance. It's so great because it's so minimalistic and yet makes you feel like it fits the game perfectly.

4. Nobuo Uematsu
I have something of a love-hate relationship with Nobuo Uematsus work. On the one hand he can bring me close to tears with the pieces I have a connection to, ie the music from the FF (or Chrono Trigger) games that I have played. On the other hand, I feel nothing for his music if I haven't played the game it's connected to. I'm not sure what to make of that. He clearly manages to create very catchy tunes, but they're not much outside their setting. They basically need the surrounding and the story for you to understand their greatness, they live off of bringing you back to those places. They are brilliant at being memorable, but only if you have a memory of them. For instance, I think basically every tune on the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack is amazing. And since I've played almost every Final Fantasy I am a pretty big fan of any of those soundtracks as well. But he's done a lot of work I don't care much for, like the Final Fantasy spin-offs (Chrystal Chronicles comes to mind, Blue Dragon). But there is no denying that Uematsu is probably the VGM creator I've listened the most to and I hold his work in very high regard.

3. Naoki Kodaka
Although I only discovered this composer recently and aside from Blaster Master never played any of the games he's composed for I immediately fell in love with this fantastic piece of music. How can you listen to that and not turn your speakers up to max and start bopping your head? Impossible I say. And it's not an isolated event either. Or this. You know in fact, just go listen to the Journey to Silius soundtrack and you will know what I mean, otherwise I'll just end up linking the entire thing here. And yes, that is a NES sound chip you're listening to. If you think Journey to Silius is the only time he got it right (because you're crazy and didn't like the Blaster Master tune), let me prove you wrong. Kodaka manages to create music that make the game seem unworthy. He is a perfect example of what I mean when I talk about video Game Composers that deserve more recognition because all this really good music deserves to get listened to a lot more than just when someone happens to stumble upon the game. So go listen to them.

2. Michiru Yamane
Michiru Yamane is most famous for her Castlevania music (although the music for the first Castlevania on the NES was actually done by another woman, Kinuyo Yamashita), but she also did work on the soundtracks of the Rocket Knight games and Contra: Hard Corps to mention a few. Michirus Castlevania music is some of the very first VGM I got really into listening to, that was long before I even played any of the games myself (which I didn't really do until just last year). So even without any nostalgic connection to the music I was immediately hooked by the tunes. I think a big reason for my love of her Castlevania music especially (although the Contra: Hard Corps music is epic as well) is that I am big fan of classical music and this strikes the same chord within me. Her tunes manage to capture the essence of the game and bring out the exact right mood while also being fantastic tunes just on their own.
Like I mentioned I've since played a couple Castlevanias, mostly the handheld ones (GBA & DS). I've decided to save what I think might be the best for last - Symphony of the Night. And this song that is actually my mobile phone ring signal at the moment. Now if that isn't proof of love, I don't know what is.

1. Yuzo Koshiro
The main reason Yuzo Koshiro ends up as number one in this list (because frankly, it's been damn difficult to grade) is because his music always makes me think "why is this music so damn good?". Somehow the music he creates manages to feel like it perfectly fits the game it's in without in any way falling into the obvious tropes of music creation (like bongo drums on the jungle stage). Koshiro has his own inventive and very recognizable style that just makes me go "hells yeah!" when I hear it. How does this not make you want to punch faces with rage. Yet there is no no agressiveness in the tune, just pure upbeat to get your blood pumping. Even when you start thinking a tune is nothing special he just puts something in there to pique your interest and make you go "oh? This is cool!". There is just so much in each tune to listen to, they're almost stories in their own right.
Here, still recognizable yet with a completely different feel to it. And you know shit got real when you hear something like this.

I'd love to hear what VGM you like listening to, if any!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Best of 2014 Gaming No-Shows

No comments:
I stumbled upon a Swedish PC Gamer magazine from early 2014 the other day (practically a relic by now) and found a big list of games to look forward to in the upcoming year, that is 2014. As I read through it for the second time, I recalled reading it a year ago and reading about some games that I got really interested in but never heard from again. As the year passed and my brain got filled with other stuff, so did these tiny fragments of information get pushed out for other ones. Re-reading it however I got curious as to what had happened to these no-shows. Had I simply missed their release, were they delayed (as seems to be the cool thing to do among game developers nowadays) or did they just vanish into obscurity? Here's my pick for the best 2014 no-shows;

This point-and-click adventure game caught my attention when I saw that it was created by none other than Doug TenNapel, the guy behind Earthworm Jim and The Neverhood. That's got to be interesting, right? I don't know much about The Neverhood except that it has a pretty cool soundtrack and an even cooler graphics style in claymation (love claymation!). Armikrog looks to follow this idea and looks a lot like The Neverhood. It was said to be released in July 2014 in my magazine, but the homepage now states a release for 2015, though not further specified when. At least it seems to still be in the works, but it also looks a bit like another Kickstarter take-foreverer (that's a word). It's also worth noting that the Wikipage says that Rob Paulsen, whom my bf has a huge man-crush on, will do one of the voices in the game. Rob Paulsen being the guy who voiced Raphael (1987 TMNT), for some inexplacable reason Donatello (2012 TMNT) and Pinky in Pinky & The Brain.

I swear something is behind you! - youtube.com

A Hat in Time
I only mention this platformer because it takes its inspiration from some games I think are really cool, like Banjo & Kazooie and every other 3D platformer on the N64 basically. Otherwise I'm not so fond of platformers, but the N64 era is just special to me for some reason. There is something about that blocky graphics... A Hat in Time seems to smoothen out the graphics a bit but I swear some of the animations look like they're taken directly from Mario 64. Although my magazine says it was to be released in Q1 of 2014 this game is still in its Alpha build. There has been talks about a release on the WiiU but as of now it's only been greenlit for a Steam-release. Apparently initial previews have been positive so I am definitely still looking forward to this.

Suits on the beach? That's crazy! - hatintime.com

Hyper Light Drifter
HPL (as I am going to call it because I am lazy) is another one of those games that owned it's own Kickstarter and got more than 23 times the money they were asking for. No wonder, just reading the first few lines about it on Wiki makes me reach for my wallet;

"The game is a homage to 8-bit and 16-bit games of the late 20th century, and is considered a combination of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Diablo. ".

Unfortunately, all the extra money expanded the game enough to force the developers to delay it for more than a year. Health issues also came into play. Not much you can do about that, just keep your fingers cross this baby is as awesome as it seems to have potential to be.

Pixel graphics at its best - kickstarter.com

This is just the kind of game I could sink endless hours into. It's about building colonies and it is set in space. I love it already. This one is actually on Steam (yay!), albeit in an Early Access form (boo!). The initial reviews are mixed, which I am going to put down to it being in EA, without even reading them. I am definitely going to keep my eye on this game, but it still seems far from complete.

First thing to do, get better lighting - gamedev.com

Radio the Universe
I can't find much more information on this top-down sci-fi RPG than this other article from PC Gamer from early January this year stating that it is indeed still around. People are falling between hope and despair however because of how silent the creator has been and how little progress there seems to have been made. By the looks of it it's expected somewhere in the middle of 2015, but I think it's probably best to not hold your breath. I really hope this isn't going to be another one of the Kickstarter failures, because it really does look like fun.

Missiles on the dance floor? - gamekult.com

This isometric 2D adventure game reminds me of some classics like Planescape: Torment and the Fallout games. According to its homepage it will also be scored by Mark Morgan who did work on Fallout and Wasteland 2. It's still in development and seems pretty open with its progress, so I've got high hopes that this will come to a release. Cleverly enough, no release date has been set on the homepage however, so it's yet another wait and see (or wait and forget about in my case).

Seriously though, why so dark? - gamespot.com

The world doesn't seem to be for want of awesome gaming ideas, nor the money or people with money to create them. What really seems to be lacking is the actual people creating the games (which is interesting considering I know so many who say they want to be game designers). Another lesson that should've been learned by now is to never underestimate how much time and work it takes to complete a game, this seems to be a mistake that far too many game developers do all the way from the one man studio to the big AAA game developers. It still baffles me how, especially the game developers who by now should know better (I am looking at you EA and Ubisoft), they still either release incomplete products and hope no one will notice (?) or push the release date over and over again. Wouldn't it just be best to give yourself more time and if you happen to complete it sooner you'll make everyone happy, rather than make everyone disappointed with the opposite? I don't know, seems like simple logics to me (although I realize it's probably not that simple in the world of money).

Friday, February 6, 2015

To WoW or not to WoW

So I started playing WoW again. I had decided somewhere in november, actually just after the release of Warlords of Draenor, that I was going to make a come back come the new year. My bf was sceptical, worried that I might get sucked in when I don't really have that much time to put into playing anymore. I was worried as well, not that I might neglect my daily chores but that I'd neglect other games. Because that was the one issue I always had with WoW - it was all or nothing with that game. Every other game had to step back. So when I finally took the step to quit, a process that in itself took several months for me to actually go through with from first thoughts to cancellation of account, it was sad but also somewhat relieving. I would finally have time to play other games.If I felt that WoW ever made me miss out on anything, it would be that. It was worth it of course, I regret very few things about WoW. Some harsh words said on occasion perhaps, but not the time invested.

When I heard that the new expansion was everything everyone had hoped for (albeit the launch was a shamble as always) and a bit more, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to jump back in. I knew of course that all the things that had made me quit in the first place were still a factor. The fact that I don't have time to raid, the fact that most people I used to play with don't anymore or that I don't really have contact with them anymore. But I thought I had come to a point where I could go in and not need those things anymore. Turns out I was right and wrong.


I remember back when I started playing WoW, it was definitely the social aspect that got me hooked. I got interested because the game is very well designed and extremely rewarding to play, but what made me stay for 8 years and countless hours (seriously) were the people and the interaction - the good and even the bad times. Early on I didn't have those things yet, I was just another scrub questing around I recall playing for an hour or so and feeling like I was done, like I was bored and wanted to do something else. In my heyday I could literally play all day and not be bored because there was always something to do with someone. This "someone" was the key, I realize now. Even if I did random dungeons on lowbie alts with strangers, it was still the interaction with the group I enjoyed. I loved tanking or healing, because making the party run smoothly was the whole challenge to me. Even if we never said a word to eachother (which rarely happened, I loved to chatter), the silent actions of people spoke plenty.

With changes, streamlining and simplifying many things a lot of the challenge for me disappeared. As I've said many times before, I never felt like these changes made WoW a bad game, but we've grown apart. When I saw other social aspects around me going away as well I felt like WoW had turned into just another game to me - and as such one I had spent way too much time on. It was time to move on and try other things.


But I missed it terribly. The olden golden days of raiding, sure. All the fun in guild chat, of course. But mostly just running around in Tirisfal Glades and listening to the ambient music. Swimming in the waters outside of Stranglethorn Vale and killing pirates. Questing in Howling Fjord. I miss Shimmering Flats, Desolace, Duskwood, Blasted Lands, Zul'drak, Barrens and almost every other place in the game (Borean Tundra not so much). I wanted to go back and reminisce about old times the same way you go back to where you grew up as a kid and think about all the fun you had running around in the fields, forests and playgrounds. Although I don't need those things anymore, I want to go back and remember what it was like. For this, WoW is still brilliant, although I am a bit sad that Cataclysm had to change so much of Azeroth.

In every other aspect however, WoW has failed to draw me in. I can see how the Garrison is addictive, and sending your followers on missions is definitely fun. Questing is still an entertaining past-time, but I still feel instancing is too easy to be very rewarding. Raiding, even LFR is still something I just don't have time with, and frankly the thought of LFR (which is the only raiding option for me) doesn't attract me at all. The fact that WoW doesn't make it easy for you to just up and leave at any moment makes it further difficult for me to find a good time to play. They've made a couple of changes to the game that I find quite neat though, like the rare mobs you can find around the map and the way you get loot in instances. I can see what everyone loves so much about it, but somehow I just feel like I am part of it anymore. It reminds me of when I tried other MMOs while playing WoW. Be it Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, Warhammer Online - I always felt like I was a visitor. WoW was home, I knew that place inside and out. Every other game was like going on vacation - at first you were excited about all the new things and how they did things differently, but I always ended up missing my own bed to sleep in. To me I get that same feeling of being a stranger when playing WoW now. Like I don't really belong.


Now I am torn between two places - the one that wants to leave and the one that wants to stay. Now I log in maybe every third day, send some followers on a mission, do some quests, maybe an instance if I have time (with 30 min queue time that is rarely so). I don't feel like I need WoW as a game. But I do feel like I need WoW as a memory. I still want to be able to log in just to be able to walk around areas and relax. I need WoW as a place to visit. There is no other game I can do that in.  Does that warrant the monthly fee though? I haven't decided yet.