Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #1: Smiles And Tears

#1: Smiles And Tears

So this is it. It's been a long journey, it's been tough, it's even been painful at times; but we've bonded together and worked through it all together, and yes, we've even had fun. I'm talking, of course, about this Top 50 list. And there's no better way to end it than with this.

I called Aria de Mezzo Carattere the most beautiful video game music ever, and that it is; but this is a close second. And while the Aria was 100% pure beauty, there's something uniquely stirring about this track that you hardly ever find anywhere else. If you just clear your mind and sit back and listen to this music, it will take your mind to unusual places.

Throughout EarthBound your play will be repeatedly interrupted by a random cameraman dropping out of the sky and taking photographs of you. (There are 30-some places in the game this can happen.) He has no apparent connection to the story and his presence in the game is never explained until the very end of the ending. EarthBound's credits come in two parts: first the in-game credits set to a funky beat (see #11), and then EarthBound's magnum opus, this music playing while the game shows you all the photographs that were taken and the credits roll. It is actually quite powerful.

I've had 15 years to think about what exactly makes EarthBound so different from every other game--and no doubt EarthBound is a unique game--and so prone to being either loved with devotion or detested with scorn by almost everyone that plays it. And I think one of the important reasons for this is, there is a very strong undercurrent of sentimentality all through EarthBound. You don't really get that with other RPG's; you get epic stories and, sometimes, deep character development, but almost every time the character in question is angsty and broken to some extent. That's absent from EarthBound; the four heroes are early-teenage kids whose regularly scheduled childhood was interrupted by the urgent need to save the world from the horror of Giygas' eternal darkness. EarthBound mixes jokes and lightheartedness with "this is serious business and these kids are really struggling" unusually well, and the further you go in the game the more it slowly tilts toward serious business. By the time you finish the Lost Underworld, the jokes are gone. Right after that is Magicant (i.e., Ness's subconscious) and it's a silly and whimsical place... but not really. And it turns dark fast and culminates with Ness confronting the evil in his own soul. Before Earth's 13-year-old chosen champion can defend it from the encroaching darkness, he must first conquer himself.

There's something a little tragic about so much being dumped on a 13-year-old's shoulders. EarthBound is full of whimsy, but the game also very subtly points you back to that point. For Ness and his friends, this was a tough road.

Leaving off the game, let's talk about this music on its own merits. Of all the video game music I've heard, this track stands up better than almost all others separated from its source. And like the game, this is because it is very powerfully sentimental. It combines EarthBound's whimsy with its nagging sense of loss. And the music is perfectly titled. Smiles and tears.

This would be perfect music to set to a five minute slide show or video show in loving memory at a funeral. Go ahead: quiet everything else in the room, put this music on, close your eyes and focus your thoughts on some departed friend or family member of yours. Or even a beloved pet, or a TV character you were especially attached to, for that matter. See if the room doesn't get dusty at some point. If it doesn't, you are a 15-to-30 year old male. Try again in a few years. It'll pass.

And so this list ends. Thanks for reading, everyone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #2: For The Savior

#2: For The Savior
Lufia II

It was an endless, brutal journey through danger after danger, all the way to the end of the earth, but you endured, you fought through the pain and despair, and you've done it. You have defeated the Sinistrals and saved the world--but at a devastating price. Your wife, mortally injured in the battle, has just died in your arms. The Fortress of Doom is collapsing around you. You refuse to leave her side; your friends have teleported to safety and you, savior of the world, are left alone to die in the wreckage.

But Daos, Master of Terror, is an evil bastard, and with his last gasp he sent the airborne fortress careening on a course that will cause it to crash on, and destroy, your hometown--where you and your beloved wife's infant son sleeps.

You have one chance to stop it, to alter the crumbling island's course. You have three minutes to live. You'll never hear the accolades or the thanksgiving for saving the world from the Sinistrals, but that doesn't matter anymore. One thing matters.

You rise from your knees, your hands and armor stained with her blood. If you can't get there in time, the last of her blood will be gone forever. Three minutes.

This music encapsulates the flavor of that scene, one of the most heart-wrenching in any storytelling medium, so perfectly it gives a man chills. Triumph. Determination. Desperation.

Friday, March 25, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #3: Staff Roll

#3: Staff Roll
Mario Kart 64

The tracks I listed #4 through #8 on this list are all very highly regarded music that is almost always cited in the top 10 or 15 of anybody's list. (Except One Winged Angel, which is too popular to be popular.)

The tracks I list #3 through #1 I suspect a lot of people have never heard before. This one is probably the best known of them, as Mario Kart 64 was the most widely played game of the three represented.

Anyway, you'll notice how 4 through 6 were the three most awesome Final Battle themes of all time. At heart I am attracted to the drama and tension of that final struggle, but even more I love the thrill and triumph of final victory. And no video game music has ever been composed that says thrill and triumph of final victory better than this one. It is triumphant music, exuberant music, music that makes you instinctively want to raise your fists to the sky and exult in the sound of 30,000 people chanting your name. Funny that you'd find it in a fun little package of a game like Mario Kart 64--notable for being far, far easier to beat than Super Mario Kart, but also for being a beautiful game in graphics, design and especially music.

There is a category called "best music to set to a three-minute montage celebrating your favorite sports team winning the championship", and this track runs away with that category like Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. (Which wouldn't be a bad thing to set to this music, come to think of it.) If you don't believe me, try it: find such a montage (they're all over Youtube), mute whatever piss-lame music it's set to and put this music on instead. Behold how awesome it is.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #4: Dancing Mad

#4: Dancing Mad
Final Fantasy VI

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the granddaddy of all Final Battle themes. One Winged Angel was a phenomenon, but Dancing Mad will probably never be topped.

Of all the great RPG's I've played, Final Fantasy VI feels the most epic. 'Epic' is a word you see thrown willy-nilly around the internet these days, but when I invoke it here I am using its classic meaning: grand and deep both in scope and impact; a long, involved and life-altering journey. By that definition, no game's story carries the weight Final Fantasy VI's does. And it all culminates with--and I mean this both in the classic sense and the internet sense--an epic final battle accompanied by epic music.

I think the second-longest piece on this list, not counting loops, is yet to come; it's about five and a half minutes long. Dancing Mad is three times that length, or about twice that length if you discount the fact each of the first three movements is played through twice.

Which brings me to my next item: This music comes in four distinct movements, which you will see called 'tiers' since they correspond to the four tiers of your fight against Kefka. Each has its own distinct flavor: the Face/Arms tier is menacing, the Four Parts tier is relentless and oppressive, the Hit/Girl tier is dark and spiritual, and the Kefka tier is powerful, out of control and insane. All the music falls into place. This is the closest thing to a bona fide symphony video game composers have ever assembled. Listened to in whole, the effect is tremendously impressive. Like Final Fantasy VI.

Consider the general story flow of Final Fantasy VI. You start out as the loosely-defined leaders of an underground resistance against the Evil Empire (yes, they're just called the Empire) led by Emperor Gestahl, who is swiftly and bloodily conquering the world with Magitek, machines infused with magic power drained from Espers, mythical creatures made of magic. Against Magitek no army has a prayer of standing. Gestahl is supported by three powerful generals who are kind of aligned against each other on the Magitek spectrum: Leo, Honorable Warrior Extraordinaire who refused to be infused with magic; Kefka, who happily accepted the magic transfusion but went semi-crazy and started dressing like a clown and generally became a very loose cannon; and Celes, who wasn't given the option but instead was infused with magic as a very small child, and who eventually goes rogue and joins/arguably takes leadership of the resistance.

I mean, right there, even if you'd never heard it before, you'd have to agree that's a hell of a basis for an epic story, right?

And so it is. Your Returners spend the first half of the game struggling against the Empire--and making use of Espers and magic themselves in doing so--and generally finding mixed success. But Gestahl proves a very wily opponent indeed, and successfully tricks the Returners into walking into an ambush right in his own capital city, resulting in the slaughter of pretty much all of them except your party of PCs. After which Gestahl reaches his ultimate goal: meddling with the statues of the three goddesses that created the world, the source of the very power of creation.

At which point a monkey wrench gets thrown into Gestahl's grandiose plan: Turns out Kefka had world domination plans of his own and Gestahl doesn't fit into them. And it also turns out Kefka has been studying. He knows a lot more about the Statues than Gestahl does. As soon as they find said Statues, and just as your party arrives to try to save the day, Kefka whacks Gestahl, tosses his dying body off the Floating Continent a couple miles up in the sky, and starts moving the Statues around. Which results in ripping the world apart and rearranging it pretty much at random.

You can guess why the rest of the game is called the World of Ruin.

So you flash forward a year, and then spend the rest of the game, starting with Celes, reassembling your party that was scattered to the winds to form one desperate assault on Kefka, who now is both certifiably insane and a god. Literally. Most Big Bads think they're gods or aspire to be gods, but this is the only game other than the Lufia games I know of where you are actually expected to fight and defeat a god.

So anything less than truly epic music to accompany your battle against a god would be disappointing. Final Fantasy VI does not disappoint.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #5: One Winged Angel

#5: One Winged Angel
Final Fantasy VII

Had I published this list ten years ago--and every track on this list was extant ten years ago--I would likely have been criticized for rating this track as low as #5. I might have gotten away with rating it #2. But mostly people would have expected it to be #1. That was the height of FF7-mania and Sephiroth-mania, and one of the big reasons Sephiroth got to be as popular as he did was this music.

There has never been a more popular piece of video game music in its own time. One Winged Angel was probably the first video game music to be so popular it got noticed outside the video game world. Remember how I speculated Bloody Tears (#13) may have been remixed more times than any video game track in history? If anything beats it out in remix count, it's this track. One Winged Angel launched (or, perhaps, re-lauched) a vogue in Ominous Latin Chanting that lasted a while and was seen in numerous big-budget films. (For a superb example of Ominous Sanskrit Chanting, check out the climactic fight in Matrix Revolutions.)

This music was something brand new to the video game world; that was a lot of its charm. It rolled hard rock, opera and brass into an ass-kicking package; virtually everyone that played it (on the Playstation; the music in the PC version of FF7 sucked) was blown away. It's not even that the final battle in Final Fantasy VII was tremendously great in itself; really it was pretty anticlimactic even by Final Fantasy standards, you beating the tar out of hapless ol' Safer Sephiroth and the battle mostly being slowed down by his various long-execution attacks so you can enjoy the music. But oh man, the leadup to that final confrontation: the opening horns and drums of this music blaring as the Kefka ripoff One Winged Angel himself descends to do battle with you. There has never been anything better for instant heart-pumping... with possibly one exception (still to come on this list).

But now it's 2011, and I am likely to be criticized for ranking this music far too high. Because no music was ever more popular, and that means no music ever suffered more from It's Popular Now It Sucks backlash. Especially in Internetland--and you probably noticed that there is a lot of overlap between Gamerland and Internetland--nobody wants to be seen liking what everyone else likes. It's a rule in Internetland that you have to be at least as unique as everyone else. That means you have to like stuff that isn't popular, preferably stuff most people have never heard of. (Find a movies forum and witness how 75% of the posters turn up their nose at all Hollywood films and seek out European or Asian movies that are obscure even in Europe or Asia to heap praise upon. And also how 90% of them are pissed off I just used 'film' and 'movie' interchangeably in the previous sentence.)

So now One Winged Angel is overrated. One Winged Angel being overrated has become so universal that it is now comfortably underrated. It is epic music, it was groundbreaking music in its time, and above all, it stands up extremely well today. It is by far the trophy winner in the category of "best video game music for a baseball closer to have blaring on the sound system as he walks to the mound to finish a close game". (For your reference, the most iconic rock songs that closers have actually used are Hell's Bells and Enter Sandman.) The message this song would send to opposing hitters can't be mistaken: I am a complete badass and you are doomed. Plus the lyrics would be good for your ass-kicking closing image. Burning with vehement anger and all that.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #6: Battle With Magus

#6: Battle With Magus
Chrono Trigger

Now, you would have to have gotten hold of Chrono Trigger the instant it was released and be somehow cut off from all information about the game (since information on important plot events was already known to many gamers before it was released) to play the game truly organically. But if you did, the game elaborately leads you to believe that Magus, Jackass Dark Wizard and Evil Overlord Extraordinaire of A.D. 600, is the Big Bad, that your mission to save the world will successfully conclude if you can get to Magus and kill him dead before he can create Lavos, the Planet Eater that will destroy life 1,400 years later. Because Magus is a dick. He really is. He slaughtered countless Guardia soldiers and civilians, and he turned Frog into a frog just for the lolz (no, really; he stated himself he did it just for fun).

So you spend a good half of the game running all over time collecting the various MacGuffins you need to gain access to Magus's Evil Castle of Supreme Darkness--no, it really is dark and evil and makes you want to run home to Mommy--and then when you finally get there, it proves to be as wicked and grueling as any Very Definitely Final Dungeon you'd care to name. Probably never has a dungeon's theme been so well executed; by the time you finally whack First Lieutenant Ozzie and gain access to Magus's shrine, the tension is so palpable you're a zombie if your heart isn't racing.

After you heal up and save up, you walk down a very long, dark stairway while ominous chanting grows slowly louder and you get slowly stalked by bats that, unless you sprint down the stairs, you have to kill. Then you walk into Magus's chamber in total silence and total darkness, and with each step forward you take eerie blue-purple flames erupt on both sides of you while Magus chants.

Neuga, ziena, zieber, zom...
Now the chosen time has come...

Exchange this world for--!

That, friends, is a summoning ritual. Which we sure as hell are here to interrupt.

And when it shortly comes down to throw down for the fate of the world and Frog's amphibian honor, the Black Wind will embrace you with this music while you battle the Jackass Wizard. Which isn't easy. But listen to this music; did you think it would be easy?

Magus's theme music, like all good character theme music, fits him. Dark, threatening, dangerous, evil... even a little taunting. Like Magus, the music calls to you: "Give me your best shot... if you're prepared for the void!"

Then you finally whip the bastard and it turns out the game's only half over and Magus didn't create Lavos. He just summoned Lavos. Because he wanted to kick Lavos's ass. Which incidentally aligns with your goals. You can only imagine the awesome insanity that ensues.

So Magus wasn't the final battle of Chrono Trigger, but if you were completely uninitiate, the storyline would very much convince you he was. And he has the heart-pumping battle music to back it up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #7: Aria di Mezzo Carattere

#7: Aria di Mezzo Carattere
Final Fantasy VI

This is, beyond all question, the most beautiful video game music ever composed.

Really I would be best off just leaving the above sentence stand for itself and moving to the next track; there isn't much else to say about it. This is beauty. Of course I'm wordy and scatterbrained so I'm going to add to it, but I don't blame you if you don't read it. Much better to just close your eyes and let the music lift you to a place more delectable than your computer chair.

This might be the first, and for that matter perhaps the only, piece of SNES music that was and is undeniably iconic. That this was music like no one had ever heard before in a video game was instantly and permanently understood.

Here is where I commit brazen heresy: I cannot stand Locke. His attitude annoys me, his sense of humor annoys me, his appearance annoys me, and most of all his relentless emotionalism annoys the hell out of me. I am convinced that this character has no redeeming qualities and deserves nowhere near the love he gets from fans.

So why is he so popular? Because he nailed Celes, that's why. Now, Celes, that's a different story. Celes is a very deep and very sympathetic character; in fact she is, from the time she's introduced into the story through the endgame, probably the protagonist of the game. (Never has an RPG defined its protagonist so unclearly as Final Fantasy VI, but I would argue Celes's case and would hear no other case but Terra's.) The only real problem with Celes as a character is the way she falls instantly lovesick for a tool like Locke and follows him around like a lost puppy dog the rest of the game, which has always seemed very out of character for me even setting aside what a tool Locke is. But hell, I think the official game material pegs her at like 19 years old, and emos gonna emo, I guess.

Locke is the primary male character for at least the first half of the game, and it is obvious the game designers intended the player (the player is always male) to name Locke after himself; he is after all the first male character introduced, and his first mission is to rescue a pretty girl that's in trouble. That the player will name this character after himself is a layup. (I did. So did you. Don't lie.) So the events that lead up to the Opera Scene get the player very well prepared for their own vicarious love affair with the beautiful ex-Imperial general with a spirit as pure as snow.

And the Opera Scene--you never need to identify it any further than just 'the Opera Scene'-- is possibly the single most memorable scene in all RPG history; it's that or Aeris's death. Why? Because of this music. The Opera Scene was so amazing, and it was amazing because the music was so phenomenal, that it overshadowed all character development. The implication set up by the story is very clear: As Celes sings her poetic love lines like

Must I forget you?
Our solemn promise?
Must autumn take the place of spring?
Oh, what shall I do? I'm lost without you
Please, speak to me once more!

she is singing to Locke. Or, cutting to the point: She is singing to me. Locke and Celes were an inseparable couple for all eternity after that tour de force, whether I like it or not.

This is in the Top 10 and I still expect to be mostly criticized for not rating it higher. It's because it's this music's fault Locke got the girl, dammit.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #8: Corridors Of Time

#8: Corridors Of Time
Chrono Trigger

Now we reach what's most frequently cited--and deservedly so--as Chrono Trigger's best track.

This is the theme music of the magical, beautiful, and quietly sinister kingdom of Zeal, Chrono Trigger's iconic setting. And if I dare say so, the music itself is so comfortable that on some level you can't help but suspect something's not right. Just like Zeal kingdom.

Every track on this list is tremendous music. I have them all on a playlist on my mp3 player. There are only a handful that I would not hesitate to just lie in bed and listen to for an entire day. This is probably the number one item on that short list. A track is doing the Right Thing when it elicits such a response. It's tremendous background music for almost anything you would want to do short of a building demolition--try putting it on for a couple hours next time you're working on your term papers. Instant stress relief. Just beware you don't get so soothed you don't care enough to finish the term paper.

Something so delightful couldn't possibly last, and Zeal kingdom doesn't. Let's bear in mind that Zeal produced the Ocean Palace (#18) and Black Dream (#36) and those show its evil, deadly side. It was a wonderfully serene place to live for most of its inhabitants--but they were supporting a psychopathic queen bent on destroying the world just so she could dominate the ashes. May we never find ourselves quite that comfortable with life.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #9: The Land Nobody Knew

#9: The Land Nobody Knew
Lufia II

Every RPG includes a Mysterious Ancient Long-Lost Town. The specifics can widely vary: EarthBound offers the goofy Saturn Valley, Final Fantasy VI offers the awkward Thamasa, and Super Mario RPG offers the whimsical Star Hill. Then there's Final Fantasy IV, which offers the damned moon, and Chrono Trigger, which offers all of 12,000 B.C.

But the really memorable ones are the really mysterious ones. The ones that were so mysterious they felt dangerous--and they're set to music that thrills you and makes you nervous. This is a special place. A spiritual place, even.

There are three games that offer really spectacular Mysterious Ancient Long-Lost Towns. Final Fantasy V includes the Town of Mirage, which has been trapped in the Void, lost beyond time, for 1,000 years; its theme music is very haunting and just barely missed the Top 50 cut.

Final Fantasy VII offers the Forgotten City, which we already covered. Epic.

And Lufia II has Narvick, the city that sits on top of the world, the city cut off from the world for thousands of years, where Maxim and the gang are the first mere mortals to set foot for centuries. And unlike the Forgotten City, Narvick is the very last town you reach in the game; from there it's straight to the Fortress of Doom to throw down with Daos and his Sinistrals. And from the moment you set foot in Narvick, this music makes very, very clear that you're a hell of a long way from Kansas. You're messing around with gods now.

Few pieces of music exist that can get your heart pumping just from the overwhelming sensation of importance.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #10: The Red Wings

#10: The Red Wings
Final Fantasy IV

And so we enter the very best of the very best, the Top 10. And it leads off with the holder of the coveted award for "best video game track that shares its name with a major sports team".

Put it this way: This is the first track in Final Fantasy IV after the iconic Final Fantasy title screen music--and that means that as soon as you start up your first game, within 5 seconds you know beyond any doubt: this game is going to be awesome. And lo, it comes to pass.

There is an unstoppability to this song that I love. Even if you've never played the game before, as soon as you hear it you cannot help but vizualize the boots of an army beyond number, marching in unison toward irresistible victory. That's what makes this one of the heavyweight contenders for the "best music for a football team to run onto the field for a championship game to". We will not be stopped, this music says, emphatically.

It's also Cecil's theme music, of course, and that's appropriate, as the things I said above fit his character. He's a determinator; he marches forward no matter what stands against him or what people tell him he can or can't do. His king, who raised him from childhood, turns into a despicable bastard? Fine. I'm outta here, and I don't give a damn what you think, Kain. Only way to do anything about that asshole Golbez is to haul my Dark Knight ass up Mt. Ordeals and become a Paladin? Fine. Let's do it. Suicide mission to the moon is humanity's last hope? I'm all over it. That's Cecil, and this is his music.

And so really, and this is very impressive, this music reasonably can fall into three categories: atmosphere music, character theme, and Very Definitely Final Dungeon (yes, it is the music the first half of the Very Definitely Final Dungeon is set to).

My Favorite Video Game Music, #11: Good Friends/Bad Friends

#11: Good Friends/Bad Friends

Back at #17 I said that EarthBound offers the best endgame of any game in existence. It really does. And by "endgame" I mean from the events that set up the Very Definitely Final Dungeon, through the end of the ending. I described back at #17 EarthBound's uniquely haunting confrontation with its alien monstrosity of a Big Bad.

And man, do you get one heck of a reward when you fell him.

EarthBound features the most downright enjoyable ending I've ever seen. The ending comes down in three prongs: First, where you reassume control of Ness and can freely wander, as leisurely as you like, anywhere in the entire world, and talk to whoever you want, and most of the people you talk to have new things to say, while terrifically soothing, peaceful music plays. That by itself is ten pounds of awesome in a five pound bag.

Prong two, which you instigate by going back to your house, is the in-game cast of characters, which is set to this life-threateningly awesome music. (Prong three is your reward for enduring that bastard cameraman all through the game. We'll get to that in a bit.)

If you've played through the game you'll recognize this music as a remix of some of the Runaway Five's rock/blues music, or more aptly, the Runaway Five after taking a level in awesome. When people try to describe EarthBound and come up with the adjective EarthBoundy... this music is EarthBoundy. It's upbeat and cool and fun.

And you'll notice the odd name, but that's exactly how the in-game credits present everybody: not as friends and enemies, just good friends and bad friends. Everybody's a friend. That's an example of the strong undercurrent of sentimentality that, as much as anything, divides players into the "I LOVE EarthBound" camp and the "this is the stupidest game I ever wasted my time on" camp.

I could sum it up this way: if you've never played EarthBound, and you like this music, play it. You will probably love it.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #12: Chrono Trigger

#12: Chrono Trigger
Chrono Trigger

Ladies and gentlemen, the only track on this list that bears the same name as its game.

If you put a gun to my head and made me name one, I would tell you Chrono Trigger features the best soundtrack of any video game ever. And this is the Chrono Trigger theme song. It stands to reason that it is so awesome it just might blow your ears off.

Technically, this particular track is what you hear if you refuse to press start at the main menu and watch the intro movie. Crono's character theme is identical except it doesn't end with the spectacular flourish that the intro movie music does; it just loops.

This is the music that captures the spirit of Chrono Trigger. Chrono Trigger is epic, grandiose, noble, and a little frantic. So is this music. Nobuo Uematsu and his crew really hit the ball out of the park right from the first pitch in this game; I believe this is the only track on this list that is the very first piece of music you can listen to in its game.

It doesn't matter what the occasion is. It could be the Battle of Helm's Deep, the state championship game, or your final exam. If you listen to this music beforehand, you will get inspired. You will get pumped. And I can only hope my life turns out so well that someone might suggest setting this music to it.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #13: Bloody Tears

#13: Bloody Tears
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest

I could easily write 5,000 words here about Simon's Quest, which is one of the most interesting of all video games. It was a fascinating game because it was a different game; there has never really been another game quite like it. Zelda 2 was sort of similar, except Simon's Quest had no overworld map or anything of the sort, and also the NPC's in Zelda 2 would, once in a while, tell you something useful. Whereas almost every single NPC in Simon's Quest--and there are quite a few of them, for a mid-era NES game--is a godless communist liar.

Anyway. I think it's interesting that the most iconic piece of music from the ghastly long Castlevania series originated in its most obscure game. Everyone that's ever played a Castlevania game, or heard of Castlevania games for that matter, knows Bloody Tears and has probably heard several different versions of it. Surprisingly few of the casual Castlevania fans know that Bloody Tears traces its lineage all the way back to Simon's Quest.

Bloody Tears might be the most oft-remixed piece of music in gaming history; there's a different version of it in almost every Castlevania game, to say nothing of the myriad fan remixes. And it deserves its lofty status in the gaming world: it is, hands down, the finest piece of 8-bit music ever composed. One of the many interesting things about Simon's Quest was that the music was genuinely blow-me-away for its time.

And if you're wondering if I finangled the list a little bit to put this piece in slot #13, to line it up with the 13 clues to Dracula's riddle*: Yes. Yes, I did.

* Half the NPC's in the game tell you about Dracula's riddle, and you can even find "clues" to it here and there, but the joke is on you: there is no riddle.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #14: Overworld Theme

#14: Overworld Theme
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

There were lots of Hyrule Themes, Hyrule Field Themes, and so forth to pick from, and several of them are plenty good enough to make this list. But I picked one, and it was the Link to the Past version. This may be because of my personal belief that Link to the Past was the best Zelda game and it's not close. (I loved the original, and I loved Ocarina of Time, and I had no use for anything else in the series.) But I think you'd be hard pressed to argue for any Hyrule music better than this piece, and reprised in Super Smash Bros. (Shame that Link sucks balls in every Super Smash Bros. game to date.)

This is another strong contender in the competitive field for the "best opening riff ever" trophy. There's nothing quite like this piece's opening notes to get you pumped up to go light up some Moblin ass. And there's nothing quite like the rest of the piece to accompany you doing so.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #15: Kingdom Baron

#15: Kingdom Baron
Final Fantasy IV

Vaguely Medieval Castle is probably the most common of all fantasy settings. This is the greatest Vaguely Medieval Castle music ever composed, in any genre. Even if you've never played a Final Fantasy game in your life, it is not possible to listen to this music and not immediately think of stone walls and knights and throne rooms spear-wielding infantrymen preparing to march off to battle. So for that, this track is right at the top of the list for setting the mood just so.

It's interesting that really with no further input, when you start playing Final Fantasy IV you could figure out that Baron is the most powerful nation in the world just by listening to its theme music. It might not quite rise to the level of "I'm about to cram this spear up your ass", but it's definitely at "we both know you could never get anywhere near me with that spear" level. Somehow the music works both when Baron is under dark control and when it's freed and turned back to the good.

Musically, Final Fantasy IV did the entire RPG genre a favor by showing how it's done, and setting the bar very high. There's one more FF4 track left to go on this list. It'll come up soon.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #16: Cid's Theme

#16: Cid's Theme
Final Fantasy VII

This track rates very highly on this list because it is awesome in every conceivable way. It's grand, it's deep, it's endearing, it's catchy, all of that.

What it isn't is appropriate for the character it's supposed to be the theme for. At all. I don't know about you, but if you describe to me a character who, yes, may be a Jerk With a Heart of Gold deep inside, is nonetheless an over-aggressive loudmouthed, chain-smoking misogynist... this is certainly not the kind of music I would expect to have attached to him. (Actually, I would expect such a character to be a villain, at least to start off. FF7 blurs the lines a little bit.)

Don't get me wrong: Cid is awesome. And his theme music is very awesome. I just don't necessarily see the connection between the two.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #17: Pokey Means Business!

#17: Pokey Means Business!

Ladies and gentlemen, I present the greatest track in video game history whose title includes an exclamation point.

EarthBound does an exceptional job of priming you for the ultimate confrontation with Giygas. Most RPG's I can think of don't make clear who the Big Bad is until you're at least a little ways in; EarthBound throws him at you in Chapter One. Whereas Lavos is a distant disaster you're trying to prevent, Kefka is an evil god you're trying to reach high up in his tower to dethrone, and it's been almost 15 years and we still don't really know what the hell Sephiroth's deal was... Giygas is an ever-present malevolent force throughout EarthBound. The game reminds you of this in several unusual ways, notable among them in straight text after you drink some drugged coffee or tea (no, really). "Your enemy is also struggling." "You are drawing near to Giygas."

And when you finally reach Giygas and are confronted by his twisted henchman Pokey (or perhaps more properly, Porky)... well, there are several video games in which you fight an alien. Your encounter with Giygas is by far the most alien of them all. There's no contest. It's eerie, it's upsetting, it is frankly terrifying.

And enter this music.

At first you think, especially if you played Mother, "huh. 8-bit music in the final battle." And indeed it's very good 8-bit music with a certain haunting quality to it. Then you get about 50 seconds in, and it kicks your ass. Alien thrash metal, ladies and gentlemen, and if you listen carefully you'll notice it's set to a similar beat to many other tracks in the game. Good soundtracks are like that.

This is only the first of four stages of your fight with Giygas, the all-mighty idiot, whose own mind was destroyed by his incredible power. The background noise gets creepier in every phase, but it can't really be counted here since it's not really music.

The endgame of EarthBound was magnificently done and remains unsurpassed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #18: Undersea Palace

#18: Undersea Palace
Chrono Trigger

This is the greatest dungeon music ever composed.

The Undersea/Ocean Palace actually isn't Chrono Trigger's Very Definitely Final Dungeon; that's the Black Omen/Black Dream (#36 on this list). But it sure as hell feels like the final dungeon. So did Magus's Castle; Chrono Trigger really threw some epic dungeons at you. And this is, apologies to Magus's Castle, the most epic of them all.

Actually, the setup is almost the same as Magus's Castle: Race to the arch-villain and hope you get there in time before the power-crazed idiot unleashes Lavos a few thousand years too early. But while the build-up to Magus may have been more elaborate, the build-up to the Ocean Palace and Queen Zeal is much more intense. The pace of the game picks up dramatically when you reach Zeal Kingdom in 12,000 B.C., and doesn't really stop until after your meeting with Lavos at the Ocean Palace.

And when you arrive at the Ocean Palace, you get punched right in the nuts by this music. Get your ass in gear, son, this music yells at you, drill sergeant style. You either haul ass to the end of this eerie nightmarish temple NOW or the world dies. Go go GO! And so you do. There's a save point at the beginning of the dungeon, which is itself unusual and another clue that this is a manly dungeon you're about to venture into. And just in case you haven't gotten the message yet, when you save the file is titled Lavos Beckons.

And the programmers knew exactly what awesome music they had on their hands here. It is so badass that it does not stop for battles (unique in the game), not here and not in the other place in the game it appears. You see, near the game's end, a scenario arises where the circumstances are desperate, you are the only hope and you have only minutes to get what has to be gotten, with numerous monsters opposing you. So the game designers thought about how to set that atmosphere just so, for about ten seconds, and then said, "set the whole thing to Undersea Palace and don't stop it for battles. Done." And they were right. This music is badass.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #19: Bowser Battle

#19: Bowser Battle
Super Mario RPG

I fudged things a little bit, and rated this track a little more highly than I might on its own for history's sake. Bowser is the end boss. He originated the concept and has carried the mantle more than probably any other villain in video game annals. And in nearly every appearance, Bowser's battle music kicks ass. (It's too bad Bowser never does, but still!)

I chose this music to represent Bowser, edging out the Super Mario 64 iteration, because (a) this is the best music of the group, and (b) Bowser peaked in Super Mario RPG. Most Valuable Character in that game, if you want my opinion. And if you disagree, please, allow me to retort.

Like the moon over
the day, my genius and brawn
are lost on these fools.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #20: Main Theme

#20: Main Theme
Final Fantasy IV

Well, it certainly gets no points for imaginative naming. "Main Theme" is even worse than "Clash on the Big Bridge." But it is, I suppose, considered the theme music of Final Fantasy IV; I remember it as the overworld map music. And there has never been better overworld map music. Every Final Fantasy game after IV had progressively weaker overworld music, in fact, with the sole and regrettably brief exception of the genuinely creepy pre-Falcon World of Ruin music in Final Fantasy VI. (Which just missed this list.)

I think this track was one of the very first to open my eyes to the idea of "holy crap, video game music is awesome!" And the more you play Final Fantasy IV the more you realize what good theme music for the story this is.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #21: You Can Hear The Cry Of The Planet

#21: You Can Hear The Cry Of The Planet
Final Fantasy VII

Mysterious. Otherworldly. Exotic. Creepy. Forlorn.

This track hit the bulls-eye. By which I mean, if you try to think of what the soundtrack to a semi-alien and long-deserted capital of a long-extinct culture called the Forgotten City should sound like, it sounds exactly like this. Bulls-eye.

In general I did not find Final Fantasy VII's soundtrack overwhelming; it's right about on par with Final Fantasy VI's, which is to say good but not Chrono Trigger good. But one thing Final Fantasy VII does do, several times, is really nail the perfect music for the moment. This would be one of the most notable of those times.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #22: Koopa's Road

#22: Koopa's Road
Super Mario 64

I described back in #30 how a piece of Super Mario 64 was iconic for me personally. The first time I heard this track, I thought, "wow, this is pretty awesome!" but really I was talking more about the Bowser in the Dark World stage I was playing than the music itself. It just fit seamlessly into the world I was in. A little dark. A little inevitable. And very dangerous.

This track rates this highly because it has stood the test of time very well. It's a great piece to have on your playlist even if you've never played Super Mario 64 before; it fits nicely into the category of "background music for an army preparing for/marching into battle". Just gandering around Youtube, it's a very popular piece for various remixes, another indication that it's just good music.

And, once again, it has an awesome opening riff.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #23: Clash On The Big Bridge

#23: Clash On The Big Bridge
Final Fantasy V

Today this track is more commonly known as Battle With Gilgamesh or something similar, and may even be listed on some soundtracks as such. But originally it was called Clash On The Big Bridge, so that's what I'm sticking with.

In case you've never played a Square game in your life, let me explain: Gilgamesh is the greatest Ensemble Darkhorse in the history of gaming. He was kind of the vice president of Team Evil, Exdeath's right hand man, in Final Fantasy V, an extremely fun game most Americans didn't play until after they'd been through VII or even VIII for the very simple reason that it wasn't released in the U.S. until after those games. (Hence why Final Fantasy VI was called Final Fantasy III in the U.S.) FFV was a transition game between the interesting but fairly boilerplate plot and gameplay of FFIV and the very deep and polished FFVI that forever raised the bar for RPGs. Some story elements were lacking--just to pick an obvious example, the big bridge was called "The Big Bridge"--but the gameplay was very fun, and the job system now well known from later games was invented by FFV.

Back to Gilgamesh. He was a surprisingly affable guy for a servant of Exdeath, not that it's ever explained why he's defending an eldritch abomination like Exdeath in the first place. The guy never shuts up. It's not like he's constantly taunting you or anything; he just likes to make casual conversation while he's trying to kill you. Truly Gilgamesh takes the concept of "hey, it's nothing personal, just doing my job, you know?" to higher levels. Then in the Very Definitely Final Dungeon he performs the most predictable Heel-Face Turn in history, and then blows himself up. The end.

Gilgamesh was the most popular villain ever until Sephiroth came along, and it's become traditional nowadays to include a Gilgamesh battle in every Final Fantasy game, somewhere. The question has been posed, why is Gilgamesh so ridiculously popular? Well, it's true: he's cool, and funny. But someone, somewhere said something I never forgot:

It's the music.

And he was right. It's the music.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #24: Last Battle

#24: Last Battle
Chrono Trigger

This is it. You've fought your way through countless dungeons, past myriad abominations and Evil Overlords, and even across millions of years of time. Your heroics have been accompanied by more awesome pieces of music than you can count. You have finally shown Lavos who's boss--perhaps by crashing your DeLorean into it at approximately 250,000 miles per hour and somehow surviving--only to discover the real Lavos was deep inside, a hideous cycloptic alien monstrosity with appropriately awesome Final Battle music. You bashed its brains in.

Only to discover that was actually just a giant alien mech, and, no, really, the real Lavos, the Lavos Core, was inside that. And just so you know this time it's really real, the Lavos Core sends you spiraling through an insane mishmash of time warps while it makes its last stand, its final attempt to kill you so it can get back to being Devourer of Worlds.

You have to admit, that is really damned epic. And it requires an epic piece of music to accompany such a battle for the fate of time itself.

And it got an epic piece of music.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #25: Weapons Factory

#25: Weapons Factory
Super Mario RPG

So we enter the top half of the Top 50, the 25 greatest musical pieces in video game history. OK, my video game history. If you disagree, go ahead and draw up your own Top 50. I'll read it.

It's unexpected that a whimsical game like Super Mario RPG would come up with such an aggressive piece of music as this, but this is the Very Definitely Final Dungeon, Junior, and shit is real. It's an alien world... you know, I spent the entire damned game assuming the giant sword stuck in Bowser's Keep was Smithy. Turns out its name is "Exor" and it's some kind of mystic portal that connects Planet Mario to Planet Smithy. So when you kick Exor's ass you gain entrance, through his giant sword mouth, to Planet Smithy. This is the overworld music on Planet Smithy, where the factories churn out poorly-made mechanical monsters 24 hours a day. Or however many hours are in a day on Planet Smithy. Assuming they have hours.

After the happy fun time Disney Land that was Nimbus Land through Bowser's Keep, this music actually hits you in the face pretty hard. It's high pressure the rest of the way. And this music stands up really well on its own, and is a worthy addition to any mp3 player playlist.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #26: Billow Of The Dark

#26: Billow Of The Dark
Ogre Battle

As far as final battles go, you just don't get any more sinister than Ogre Battle's. And it has the music to match.

The final boss, the Big Bad of Ogre Battle, the one guy you have to defeat to prevent the destruction of the world, is--wait for it--Satan.

No, seriously. Satan.

Technically he's called "Diablo" in the U.S. version; that's the Spanish name for Satan. There is no question who "Diablo" is supposed to represent. The presumed Big Bad, Rashidi, with his Dragon, Gares, take off at the very end of the game to a super-secret dark temple where you have to race to track them down (OK, not really; you can take forever if you want, but the story makes it clear you're supposed to hurry) before they summon Satan. Which they're doing pretty much out of spite, because they're pissed off the Rebellion showed up and authoritatively kicked their asses. Stay classy, Rashidi.

Anyway, you might expect--I did--to show up just in the nick of time and deliver one final beatdown to Rashidi--but no! You don't show up in time, and you show up just in time to confront Satan.

This is the theme music, then, for your battle with Satan. And it works. The music is, simply put, very evil, and very intense.

Incidentally, if you use an appropriately pumped up unit and bust out your full deck of Tarot cards, Satan is kind of a pushover. But then, everyone is, by that point in the game.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #27: The Fortress of Doom

#27: The Fortress of Doom
Lufia II

Lufia II's debut entry on this list is a spectacular one.

Lufia II (and its little brother, Lufia I) was lost in the shuffle of the great RPGs of the mid-1990s, mostly because Taito/Natsume distributed very few copies of the game in the United States. But Lufia II was a tremendous game fully worthy of placement alongside Square's masterpieces. It was unique and different. It somehow pulled the simultaneous feats of presenting a tremendously epic story alongside a maddeningly endless string of fetch quests for a plotline. Seriously, the entire game was fetch quest, story, fetch quest, story, fetch quest, story, fetch quest, story, until you're done. But the story is really phenomenal--even better if, like me, you manage to play Lufia II FIRST and then the original Lufia after.

As for the gameplay, well, it couldn't be farther from Lufia I. The first Lufia was the most grinding-intensive RPG ever created Lufia 2 focuses very little on grinding, and instead borrows some roguelike elements--enemies appear onscreen rather than random battles, and move only when you do--and presents probably the closest thing to Zelda gameplay in the RPG realm. Every dungeon presents unique puzzles to solve in between your battles, which you frequently need the aid of your bag of tools to conquer. Sound familiar?

Now, this track is a very strong contender in two categories: "Most awesome opening riff"--it really might be the most awesome opening riff ever--and "best video game music for a fighter to play while he walks to the ring".

But, and this is a little weird, this track is misnamed. The Fortress of Doom is in fact the Very Definitely Final Dungeon in both of the original Lufia games--in fact, the full title of the first game is "Lufia and the Fortress of Doom"--and it has its own unique theme music.

This is not the Fortress of Doom's theme music.

Seriously. That's a different (and inferior) item on the Lufia 2 soundtrack. In fact this supremely awesome music, among the very best ever produced by video game composers, is used in only two spots in the entire game, one of which has LOL glitched graphics, like someone used a game genie and messed up, and the other of which is optional, EXTREMELY difficult to reach and most players never go there. That would be the Submarine Shrine, where you first find the legendary Dual Blade, and the bottom level of the Ancient Cave. (The Ancient Cave is a full-on roguelike sidegame which can easily take as long as the entire normal game to complete. And you can't save without leaving and starting over.)

Anyway, it's weird, and it's unprecedented for such an awesome track to be tucked away in a secret compartment. But it's here for you to enjoy nonetheless.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #28: Schala's Theme

#28: Schala's Theme
Chrono Trigger

This is one of two tracks I most commonly see cited out there in Internetland as the best piece on the juggernaut Chrono Trigger soundtrack. The other one we'll get to in a little bit; I rate that one about as highly as everyone else. This one I rate lower than most.

I think this music is a little overrated because Schala is a little overrated. It's not hard to see her appeal: she's a mysterious and kind-hearted teenage girl trapped in a nightmare by her eldritch monster of a mother. Everything about her character screams "rescue me" and she takes an immediate liking to the mute hero--it's everything teenage boy wish fulfillment dreams on. She was far and away the Ensemble Darkhorse and probably has always been the most popular character in the game (only Glenn/Frog is even close).

(Incidentally, I think the Schala obsession also has a lot to do with the appalling lack of an interesting female playable character in the game. Marle is irritating and useless, Lucca is probably the most asexual female character in RPG history, and Ayla is a slut but she's a cavewoman and you can only run so far with that in your dreams. Schala fills the "I wish SHE was my girlfriend" vacuum that in most other games is filled by more sensible PCs like Rydia, Celes, Paula, Selan, Aeris, etc.)

But if you step back and see Schala for what she is, she's a mid-importance NPC on about the same level as Cyrus or Kino or Tata; but it is clear the writers intended her to be a little more important than that, because after all she gets theme music that kicks more ass than any of the playable characters' theme music save one. Schala is also a little more memorable than those guys because of her sacrificial death in the Ocean Palace, sending the tattered remains of your party to safety. (Although, you remember how I mentioned Shadow was the only PC that ever committed suicide? I actually think if you consider Chrono Trigger alone, there's a strong argument Schala, though not a PC, actively chose to stay in the Ocean Palace and die.)

But. But there is no denying this music is Grade A awesome.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #29: Shadow

#29: Shadow
Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI took the concept of Loads and Loads of Characters to new and unmatched heights, offering fourteen (14!) playable characters in all, of which only two (Gogo and Umaro) are gimmick characters. All of the other 12 have impressively rich back-stories, most of which are tied in some way to someone else's: Locke/Celes/Terra, Edgar/Sabin, Strago/Relm/Shadow. Only Cyan, Setzer, and Gau were strangers to everyone else in your final party (Mog was known to Locke), though everyone except Strago/Relm were long separated from their friends or family at the time the game picks them up.

OK. Got all that?

Anyway, Final Fantasy VI also was the first RPG I remember that offered a distinct theme song for every (important) character. Final Fantasy V did, sort of, but those pieces always doubled as the area music for their homes. In FF6 that happens only in Edgar/Sabin and Strago's case, I believe. Anyway, many of the character themes were terrific pieces, and it became standard after Final Fantasy VI to have theme songs for every character. Chrono Trigger does, FFVI does, even EarthBound does.

Shadow is one of the great badasses in gaming history. This being a Square game after all, naturally he has a mildly emo backstory and ended up standing as the only playable character in 20th century gaming that ever killed himself. But crazy rumors persist nearly 20 years later of bizarre things you can do to get a different "Shadow survives" ending. That should clue you in to what a badass he is. He is a decidedly unrighteous killing machine, and his theme for the events of the game is "Shadow develops a conscience. A little one."

This is Shadow's theme music. It is one of the all-time greats for being appropriate for the character it's attached to, and maybe the #1 track of all time for how much it demands you whistle along, no matter how hard you try not to.

Tangential story: One of my all-time favorite things to do in FF6--this really amused me to no end--was to power-level Shadow, Gau, Umaro and Gogo and take those four, and only those four, into the Very Definitely Final Dungeon. Properly leveled and equipped, they could handle it with Umaro and Shadow in one group and Gau and Gogo each going it alone. (The Gambler God setup is your friend.)

Why, you ask, would anyone do such a thing? Because of the dialogue in your confrontation with Kefka. It's non-character specific; the dialogue is always the same, and the game picks from a hierarchy of preferred characters in your group to deliver it (it goes Terra-Locke-Celes-Edgar and on from there, if I recall.) It just so happens that, of your 14 playable characters, two are effectively mute (Gogo and Umaro), one speaks English very poorly (Gau) and one is extremely taciturn and is about the last person on Earth you would expect would deliver a monologue about the joy each day can bring (Shadow).

So you guessed it--if you bring a party of only those four guys, Shadow gets the speaking role. The dialogue looks like this:

Kefka: I will exterminate everyone, and everything!
Shadow: People will keep rebuilding the things you take from them.
Kefka: Then I'll destroy those too. Why do people rebuild things they know are going to be destroyed? Why do people cling to life when they know they can't live forever? Think how meaningless each of your lives is!
Shadow: It's not the net result of one's life that's important! It's the day-to-day concerns, the personal victories, and the celebration of life... and love!
(Kefka does some badass stuff with the mountains and tosses Shadow around a bit)
Shadow: It's enough if people are able to experience the joy that each day can bring!
(fast forward)
Kefka: I will destroy everything... I will create a monument to non-existence!
Shadow: Life will go on! There will always be people, and dreams!
Kefka: No! I will hunt them down! I will destroy it all! Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!!
Gau: We will not allow you to harm another living thing.

(Now, on that last line, bear in mind that like three days ago Sabin was screaming at Gau not to say "Uaooo" when he means "yes". This is high comedy.)

So it's not necessarily character-specific, but it's obvious that this dialogue was written for Terra or Locke. So it was worth a million laughs to tweak things to make Shadow deliver them. The absurdity is endlessly entertaining.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #30: Dire, Dire Docks

#30: Dire, Dire Docks
Super Mario 64

The very first contact I ever hard with 64-bit gaming (or anything above 16-bit) came in a Wal-Mart in my hometown, when I was about 14 and still playing the living hell, and most of the dead hell, out of various RPGs on the SNES, mostly EarthBound and Chrono Trigger at that point. The Nintendo 64 had been on the market a month or so, and the Wal-Mart had a demo unit out that you could play, but there was ALWAYS someone playing it and at least one other person waiting to play it whenever I went.

Finally, one glorious morning when I walked into the Wal-Mart with my mother, I bolted as usual to the electronics department the instant I walked in the door, and found the Nintendo 64 wonderfully, terrifically, unoccupied. I tried to walk as casually as I could over to it, but I was 14; you can imagine what that must have looked like.

And I instantly realized why this damned thing was never unoccupied: because the Nintendo 64 was so awesome it blew your mind.

Of course, it later turned out it was mostly just Super Mario 64 that was that unbelievably awesome, but playing that game for the first time was an epiphany. Or maybe 'epiphany' is too mild a word for it. Something closer to 'orgasm' might be closer to the mark. Video games can be like this???

And it just so happened that whoever had last been playing the game had left it off right at the beginning of Jolly Roger Bay, on the first star. Now, as Seifer would definitely want me to point out, the first star is unique--only upon your first entrance to Jolly Roger Bay do you see mists rising out of the bay. Even if you pick Star 1 after you clear it and go back again, the mist is gone forever. (Or until you start a new save file and kick the Big Bob-omb's ass.) But that mist was awesome, and the world was awesome, and 3D gaming was awesome, but most of all, what left the deepest impression was that the music was AWESOME.

And so for the life of me I cannot fathom and cannot accept that this track would be called Dire, Dire Docks. It should be called Jolly Roger Bay, dammit.

I still believe today that Super Mario 64 was, all things considered, the greatest video game in history. You had to be there, and had to be a certain age, to really appreciate the blow-me-away experience of playing it for the first time. It will never be duplicated.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #31: Cosmo Canyon

#31: Cosmo Canyon
Final Fantasy VII

I have sat here for ten minutes trying to come up with an adequate way to describe this music, and I'm giving up. It's awesome. There.

I am no big fan of anything Eastern. I don't watch anime, I don't listen to eastern music and I'm not interested in any eastern religions or disciplines. I'm aware, of course--I'd have to be blind and deaf not to be--that every RPG has a couple eastern-themed locales at the very least. (Even the bizarro EarthBound offers Dalaam.) Final Fantasy VII presents Wutai, of course, but before that Cosmo Canyon. It isn't exactly identifiably eastern, but it is vaguely so, or anyway strikes me that way. Very... communal. Spiritual. And the music is appropriate, and is awesome.

Red XIII's Theme is actually a different track on the FF7 soundtrack, but it's substantially the same as Cosmo Canyon's theme here. It's the one place in the going-to-technological-pot world of FF7 that's connected to nature and spirit and all that stuff and never gets wrecked by Shinra or Jenova or whoever. OK, one of the two places (Wutai). OK, one of the three places (Fort Condor). But still!

Also, this track gets bonus points for being one of the most natural tracks of all time to whistle along with. Even if you're never heard it before in your life, if you're not whistling along without even thinking about it by the second time through, you're tone-deaf. Or just deaf.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #32: Forest Temple

#32: Forest Temple
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

First off, I'll say up front that this is the only one of the five temple themes in Ocarina of Time to make the list. All of them have their arguments--the Spirit Temple was the last cut, and my music expert friend Seifer swears by Fire Temple, which I didn't care for much. Forest Temple is the one that does the most for me.

It has no impressive melody, or harmony, or beat, and it doesn't want to make you dance, sing, fistpump, or kick somebody in the face, like a lot of good music does. But as atmosphere music it is tremendous. All of Ocarina of Time's music is like that--the soundtrack is full of tunes that don't stand alone very well, but are very, very good at setting the mood. The Forest Temple is strange, foreboding, and treacherous. So is this music.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #33: The Fierce Battle

#33: The Fierce Battle
Final Fantasy VI

This is not music you can assign to just any punk boss. It's not even music you can assign to just any non-punk boss. This is music that makes it clear right from the first note that you are in some serious shit. It's assigned to only one boss in all of Final Fantasy VI before the Very Definitely Final Dungeon: Atma Weapon. There's no build-up to the fight with Atma Weapon except a few rumors you heard around town about "a monster bred for mass destruction" and the fact that you're on the Floating damn Continent while Gestahl and Kefka are screwing around with the damn Statues. So you figure you're in for something rough when you get up to the top of that thing.

And boy, are you ever. Atma Weapon is no girly monster. Why exactly Atma Weapon wants to prevent you from interfering with Gestahl seems like a mystery, but it does make sense: he's all about mass destruction after all. Since Kefka (if not Gestahl) is there for the express purpose of wrecking the hell out of the world, it stands to reason that puts him and Atma Weapon on the same team, more or less. Ergo, Atma Weapon lets Team Evil right on by but is not about to let Team Good crash the party.

Then this music plays, and you think: oh shit. And with good reason.

You won't hear it again until you happen upon Atma Weapon's big brother, imaginatively called Atma, who is sitting around minding his own business in a random prison cell in the Very Definitely Final Dungeon. By then, of course, unless you're doing a low level game, you will confront him with a party full of gods and wipe the prison walls with his organs. But still.

And then, of course, the Goddesses themselves get this heart-pumping music. They're just the hors d'oeuvres before you throw down with Kefka. (You won't see THAT music on this list for a while yet.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #34: White Storm

#34: White Storm
Ogre Battle

Ogre Battle was one of the neatest video games I ever played. I wouldn't call it legendary, and it doesn't quite make my top ten favorite video games ever list, but nonetheless it was awesome, and it was uniquely awesome. It featured a rich story complete with backstory and an ominous future even after you save the world, and events and characters would change substantially depending on your actions as Opinion Leader of the Zenobian Rebellion. But it's not an RPG, not like the various Square classics; it's a real-time strategy game with RPG blended in. Starcraft meets Dragon Warrior, if you will. For 1995, this was all very, very cool stuff. Come to think of it, it's still cool in 2011. Not many names had as much thought put into their story and design as this one. And it's very deep--one of the deepest stories ever, filled to the gills with deceit, betrayal, aggression, compassion, sympathy, and (depending how you play it) corruption or justice.

And the soundtrack fit the various moods of the game very well. This first of two Ogre Battle entries into this Top 50 is the overworld music for winter-themed lands; your enemy is located in the Highlands, and the further you penetrate into Zeteginean territory the more snow you see, and the more you hear this music. The music has a knack for making whatever you're doing sound urgent and inevitable. Perfect for a struggle for the soul of the continent in the snow-smothered Highlands.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #35: Battle With The Four Fiends

#35: Battle With The Four Fiends
Final Fantasy IV

Final Fantasy IV really did have awesome, awesome battle music.

This is FFIV's offering in the Major Boss category. And somehow, it manages to be even better than it's all-time-great Minor Boss music. It starts with one of the great opening riffs--that's another list I'll compile sometime, my favorite opening riffs, and this one will rate highly--and remains intense, high-tempo, and aggressive throughout, just like your battles with these Elemental Bastards.

I have no idea what they're really supposed to be called. In the original SNES "Final Fantasy II" they were called the Four Fiends of the Elements, which I read for about a year as the Four Friends of the Elements before I took a level in Hukd Onn Fonix and figured it out. Whichever mp3 I put on my player years ago is called "Battle With Golbeza's Four Emperors," and I've seen them called Lords a few times.

Well, they were all bastards. So the Four Bastards of the Elements suits me fine. Well, except Cagnazzo or however the hell you spell the water guy's name. That guy got his ass handed to him deep-fried courtesy of Tellah's Bolt3. But Rubicante more than made up for it by being, in many ways, a truly magnificent bastard. All in all, they were one of my favorite Quirky Miniboss Squads. (Though, as long as we're invoking tvtropes, Rubicante was really more The Dragon to Golbez, who turned out to be The Dragon to Zemus, and... yeah.) And they have the heart-pounding battle music to back it up.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #36: The Black Dream

#36: The Black Dream
Chrono Trigger

As far as Very Definitely Final Dungeons go, the Black Omen is unsurpassed in magnificence. It has everything going for it: critical importance to the story, arch-villain at the end of it (the deranged Queen Zeal), the feeling of impending finality, grand architecture, a tinge of weirdness, and above all, the inescapable feeling that this is some major, major shit going on right now.

Oh, and of course the ass-kicking music plays into that a lot.

Oh, and did I mention that if you really want to, you can run this dungeon three times? In the same game. Hey, it's time travel after all.

What was, acceptably translated, called the Black Dream originally was renamed the Black Omen in the U.S. version, for reasons completely mysterious to me. Maybe they thought they'd run afoul of Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy, I don't know.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #37: Rainbow Road

#37: Rainbow Road
Mario Kart 64

The high-octane awesome that is Rainbow Road has been a Mario Kart staple since the original SNES classic. On the SNES, Rainbow Road was a bitch. No retaining walls anywhere, so the slightest misstep sent you plummeting out of the race, and it was manned by special glowing Thwomps that would not just impede your progress, but would send you spinning. Got a mushroom? Great! Good luck using it without sailing off into the long night or smacking into one of the hyper-Thwomps. Conquering Rainbow Road, and then being able to do so consistently, marked you as a Mario Kart expert.

In Mario Kart 64 it's the exact opposite.

Don't get me wrong; Rainbow Road in Mario Kart 64 is awesome and remains my favorite Rainbow Road in the series. It's very, very long--much longer than the second-longest track, Wario Stadium, which itself is nearly twice as long as the rest of the tracks--and there are giant chomps wandering around to dodge, but after the wackiness that was Yoshi Valley and Banshee Boardwalk, that was a welcome relief. And the track was 100% covered by retaining walls, although there was a gigantic jump where, if you angled it just a little cockeyed, you would sail into oblivion. Difference being that the track was so long you had plenty of time to catch up. Also that if you practiced it a lot--and here "a lot" is defined by "as much as I did when I was a teenager"--you could use the ramp as a massive shortcut. Not that it mattered; the computer guys would run like bats out of hell and catch back up in about a lap anyway.

Yeah. Rainbow Road on Mario Kart 64, like Mario Kart 64 itself, was a lot more fun than I just made it sound. But that might be mostly because of the music. It's damn fun. And it's easily the best Rainbow Road music yet seen.

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #38: Searching For Friends

#38: Searching For Friends
Final Fantasy VI

You'll recognize this as the overworld theme for the World of Ruin, which you listened to for many, many hours while you were flying about and/or level-grinding in Jurassic Park. Actually, the first World of Ruin theme--you might say the real World of Ruin theme--is the haunting riff you hear as soon as Celes steps off the remarkably durable raft on the mainland. That track is just pure despair. Emptiness. A world of nothing but tumbleweeds.

You get your first taste of Searching For Friends, of course, when Setzer leads you aboard the Falcon, and the music is very appropriate for the moment, and indeed for the rest of the game after that moment, for which it serves as the theme song. It's morose, but it's hopeful. It's serious, but if you listen closely it's just a tad optimistic. Just like most of your World of Ruin game, as you slowly re-accumulate your team and gain uber-god powers. (Kefka gained his godlike powers by messing with the Goddesses; you gain yours by beating up dinosaurs and stuff while he sits around and watches.)

I'm not a big fan of most overworld music because it gets old fast, but this one is a no-doubt classic.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #39: Tecmo Super Bowl Ending

#39: Ending/Credits
Tecmo Super Bowl

This was for a long time the gold standard for triumphant music, and still stands near the top of that field. Ending music is supposed to be among the best on the soundtrack, of course; it's part of your reward for completing the game, so it SHOULD be awesome. So epic ending tracks will make frequent appearances on this list (though not as many as final battle tracks do.)

There's not much NES music on this list; after I'm done, with some help, I'm going to do a best of the NES list. Tecmo was a quirky little company, but it sure delivered the goods when it came to music. (And awesome sports games.) (But definitely NOT SNES RPGs.)

My Favorite Video Game Music, #40: Battle Against A Machine

#40: Battle Against A Machine

You could make a list of the top 50 ways in which EarthBound is unlike any other RPG if you wanted to. One of them is: there are about ten or twelve different random battle tracks, rather than the standard one. They range from mundane battle music (Black Antoids) to goofy (Spiteful Crows, Sharks) to trippy (Frank) and so forth.

But this one is the most "EarthBoundy" (remember that word?) of the bunch, which is fitting since it's the battle music of EarthBound's mascot villains, the Starmen. This music accompanies your fights against all varieties of Starman except the first one, Starman Junior, which gets EarthBound's rare "Super Boss" music for some strange reason.

It's not just the Starmen; it's kind of the "alien machine" theme, shared by some Spinning Robos and Wooly Shamblers and Octobots and such. Giygas doesn't throw a bunch of his alien spawn at you; EarthBound's designers figured, quite reasonably, that an advanced alien lifeform would probably show up with an army of robots.

In EarthBound you start out fighting mostly plants, animals and people that have flipped out thanks to Giygas's evil aura or whatever; but the further you go in the game, the more you have to hack your way through minions directly in Giygas' employ, which include lots of robots. And you hear this music more.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #41: J-E-N-O-V-A

#41: J-E-N-O-V-A
Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII is confusing as hell.

That's part of its charm; you spend most of the game just trying to figure out what exactly the hell is going on, and just when you think you've teased most of it out, the game laughs at you and says, "ha ha! WRONG again, bucko!"

Anyway, for all you hear this stuff about Sephiroth is the baddest bad guy that ever walked the bit-field, Sephiroth was just certified batshit insane. Even Kefka was the textbook diagram of sound mental stability compared to him. The real sinister evil you're struggling against in Final Fantasy VII is Jenova, the mastermind alien lifeform that crashed into the FF7 world (I think it's mostly called "The Planet" or "Gaia" in-game) a long time ago and has been plotting to eat out its soul since.

(If you're thinking, "it sounds a lot like Square's plotters said, hey, Kefka and Lavos were both crazy popular, so let's PUT THEM TOGETHER!", you are exactly right. And it worked exactly as they hoped. Sephiroth/Jenova remains the most popular video game villain in history.)

There's little to say about Jenova's boss battle theme except it's awesome, the high-pitched background beat is iconic, and yes, it can be done in an 8-bit version that is equally awesome. This is Final Fantasy VII's Super Boss music; actually, almost all of FFVII's Super Bosses are Jenova. Every time you think you're finally about to throw down with Sephiroth, sure enough, you hear those opening notes of J-E-N-O-V-A and here we go again with Jenova instead. You get used to it after a while. And maybe you even pick up the somewhat-subtle hint that what you think is Sephiroth you're chasing all over the planet is actually more like Jenova manifesting itself as him, or through him.

My Favorite Video Game Music, #42: Giott, King of the Dwarves

#42: Giott, King of the Dwarves
Final Fantasy IV




My Favorite Video Game Music, #43: Fight Against Smithy

#43: Fight Against Smithy
Super Mario RPG

This is the first entry in the Top 50 from the "Final Battle" category. Final Battle music should kick ass, of course. After all, this is the specific thing you've been pouring all those hours of gameplay into; this is where you save the world, once and for all.

Super Mario RPG is one of the easiest games ever produced, and its final battle doesn't disappoint; you would have to be so woefully unprepared to get killed by Smithy that you almost would have to have done it on purpose. (You got this far, after all, so unless you've been intentionally trying to play a low level game, your level won't be a problem.) Even without the invincibility items (Lazy Shell, Super Suit), you're not getting killed unless you're not paying attention at all.

This, I should mention in case you don't know, actually isn't the FINAL final battle music; it's the tune for the first of the two back-to-back Smithy battles, and the better of the two. Very appropriate for the weapons factory background, whereas the second and final phase is more of a Rule of Cool thing where you fight him deep underground because the fiery background is awesome.

By the way, Super Mario RPG is close to unique in that you never see the Big Bad even once until the final confrontation. (In fact, the first time I played the game I assumed, right up until the Exor fight, that Smithy was the big freaking sword stuck in Bowser's Keep.) There are two other RPGs I've played that are like that: EarthBound, which makes a very big deal about how threatening Giygas is and then follows through with a final battle sequence that will make you wet your pants; and Final Fantasy IV, in which the guy you spend the whole game THINKING is the Big Bad turns out to be a good guy that was under mind control the whole time. (It works better than it sounds.) And don't yell at me about spoilers, either. The game's probably older than you are, for Leviathan's sake.

In most RPGs the Big Bad haunts your steps at every turn, and you usually confront him a few times before the end. (Even Final Fantasy IV kind of falls in this category.) Not so in Super Mario RPG and EarthBound, and they both pull off the big reveal well, albeit in completely different ways.

This music is also the second runner-up in "Best Video Game Music to Use For a Boxer's Intro Music."

Saturday, February 19, 2011

My Favorite Video Game Music, #44: Boss Battle

#44: Boss Battle
Final Fantasy IV

Yeah, I know. Some of these tracks are imaginatively named, eh?

If I were paying much attention to historical significance of musical pieces, this would be rated much higher, I reckon. But I'm not; I'm mostly just rating them by how much I like them, and honestly there's not much separating #44 from, say, #24.

This was THE boss battle music that set the bar for boss battle music. That bar remains where Final Fantasy IV set it today, pretty much. In fact, this is the only "standard" boss battle music to make this Top 50, though several "this is BIG" boss battle pieces are going to be seen here (including Final Fantasy IV's.)

The bottom line is, I'm not sure if, on the whole, Final Fantasy IV's slate of battle music has ever been matched. It's been 20 years now since that game blazed the path for the great RPGs of the 1990s, and I do believe that with each passing RPG that came along, battles were emphasized less and less, story more and more, until we got to Final Fantasy VII, which was the tipping point. Brought to you by the power of CDs, Final Fantasy VII introduced FMV, Full Motion Video, to the gaming world. There wasn't actually all that much FMV in the game--not much more than Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the N64, only a year newer and on inferior technology, offered--but it was very well received and that opened the floodgates. Since Final Fantasy VIII, the series has been less and less battling and more and more watching a movie with every installment, at least until it turned MMORPG.

But Final Fantasy IV, in addition to having one of the best stories of any video game even to this day, was very battle focused. By which I mean, if you wanted to get anywhere with the game (short of tweaking some very advanced stuff), you had to grind. And grind. And grind. The only way to beat the bosses was to gain more levels. And the challenge factor, by which I mean the grind more levels factor, was tuned down, a lot, from the original for the American version.

Of all the RPGs I played over and over from that era, the only one that required you to spend more time grinding levels was Lufia. And I'll be honest: Lufia had a great story, and that's why I stubbornly kept to it, but the gameplay was god-awful. That game still holds the all-time record for tedium.

Anyway, as I recall this was supposed to be about music. No piece of standard battle music was considered for this list; sorry, but I just listened to it all too damned much. But Final Fantasy IV probably also sets the enduring standard for regular battle music. (Well, EarthBound does, actually, but no one EarthBound track individually stands up to the standard music you heard in every battle in the Square games.) And this is the best normal boss battle music. And Battle With Golbeze's Four Emperors (or Fiends, or Gods, or whatever) ranks near the top of the super-boss battle music list.

Bottom line: Battling in Final Fantasy IV was a LOT more tolerable than in Lufia, and I suspect the music is a big reason why.

While we're here: In terms of battle system design, Square peaked with Final Fantasy V (the least known of the Super Nintendo series, as it wasn't released in North America until like three years ago.) IV's battle system was pretty good but tedious, and VI's was excellent except some options were pretty broken and over-centralized the game. VII's battle system was, honestly, poorly designed, and wasted ridiculous amounts of the player's time. Final Fantasy VII did not require much grinding at all, but mundane random encounter battles were aggravatingly long, causing you to spend about as much time in-battle as you did in Lufia. I keep a book handy to read while waiting for battles to end. That game REALLY needed an "animations off" button, like Ogre Battle had.

Or, Final Fantasy IV's battle music. If it had that, I might not mind so much.