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10:16 AM on 01.15.2015

My 2014 EarthBound Journal

Last year, I replayed EarthBound for the first time in many years. I always find something new when I play this game, but the big difference this time around is that I was playing it on the Wii U. One of the greatest features to this system is the Miiverse, which allows one to post screenshots and comments as they play. I used the Miiverse as a journal for my journey through EarthBound, and was able to record my thoughts during this wonderful game like never before.

The following is my EarthBound 2014 journal.


12:29 PM on 11.17.2014

Giving Thanks: The Miiverse

Though touted as one of the greater evolutions in gaming, I’ve never been a huge proponent of online gaming. Indulging in a game’s world and story is a personal experience for me. The voices and actions of other players, particularly when set against scripted plot devices, tends to dissolve the illusion of immersion. That said, I love hearing about the experiences of others, sharing my own, and helping others achieve their goals. In other words, I love playing games online, just not with other people.

I was once a dedicated World of Warcraft player. This is the only instance in the MMoRPG genre where I felt as though I could truly quest on my own (well, there are some MUDs that qualify as well but WoW is more relatable). I only worked with others when I desperately wanted some instanced dungeon reward and was otherwise content to explore at my own pace. But I loved wandering about and seeing other people doing things, or striding into a capitol city bustling with other players. Though I was a loner, the presence of other players made the world feel alive.

I was actually in a WoW guild, though we hardly ever interacted with one another and loved every moment. It was much like Ron Swanson's best friend.

Much as I loved the possibilities of WoW’s solo-yet-online gameplay, I’ve found something that seems almost custom-tailored to my style: the Miiverse. The first time a friend brought over his Wii U, I sat in awe of its Mii-filled breadth. I had read about this feature and dismissed it as pointless social media shoehorning, but when I watched all the Miis scurrying about to share their little slices of gaming experience, I felt an undeniable sense of kinship.

Since buying my own Wii U, the Miiverse has become my beloved little porthole into the gaming universe. There’s something invigorating about reading the message-in-a-bottle type thoughts from other players. Of high importance is the fact that the Wii U never harasses the player about these posts, such as popping up notifications or forcing a visit. There’s no agendas, no politics, trolling (aside from the occasional cock), or egotism. Truly this is the purest incarnation of gaming’s lifestream.

Though by far, my favorite use of this feature doesn’t involve direct interaction. So often in the past I wish I would have kept a journal of my thoughts as I experienced memorable and standout moments. Keeping a pen and paper nearby was generally too much of a hassle – not to mention I’m left handed and can’t handwrite for shit. Any time something amazing happens now, I can flip to the Miiverse and record my thoughts along with a screenshot. Nowhere is this advent more appreciated than with a game like Earthbound.

A common criticism of Nintendo tends to be the family-friendly approach (and therefore irrevocably anti-gamer), and this extends to the heavily moderated posts of the Miiverse. While I’d agree that the Wii era found the company catering to a new demographic, I’ll argue that the Miiverse is indicative of Nintendo understanding the essence of gaming better than any other company on the market today. A memorable experience to me will always outweigh a false sense of importance derived from arbitrary numbers and virtual trinkets, and that is why I am so very thankful for the Miiverse and the new dimension it has added to the way I play games.


2:43 PM on 10.10.2014

Fangs for the Memories: The Ruins of Pandora

I’m an insatiable magnet for fright. I was in my twenties when I saw The Grudge at a midnight showing, and slept with the closet light on for longer than I care to admit. The last time I went to a haunted house the ghastly actors had zeroed in on me within minutes, calling out “let’s get goldilocks!” as I screamed at their every jump scare. There’s a litany of videogames that have scared the daylights out of me (most notably the original Silent Hill), but one of the more surprising titles in that bunch happens to be Secret of Mana.

Though a jump scare or gory moment will never fail to hook me, they are largely fleeting and leave little more than an anecdotal impact akin to the prior paragraph. Context plays a huge part of how deeply a scary moment will cut into my consciousness. For instance, when I played Resident Evil, I knew I was in for something frightening as much as I was aware when I walked into that haunted house. It’s kind of like how you can’t tickle yourself – my brain prepares me for the scare which diminishes the effect.

What my mind can’t prepare for are those scary things which are entirely contrary in spirit to nearly everything else in the video game.  This is a certain pedigree in horror that, as far as I know, has no official nomenclature. I like to call this phenomena ‘terror by contrast’. Think about the ReDeads in Ocarina of Time: here you have a heroic adventure full of magic and wonder…then all of sudden there’s screaming corpses that slowly creep in to devour your flesh as you shudder from their sonic sneak-attack.

And don't forget about ol' Dead Hand!

Secret of Mana is a bright and colorful game with a beautifully whimsical soundtrack. It’s hardly the kind of place one would expect to find themselves with shaky hands and an overwhelming sense of dread, and that’s why the sequence involving the Ruins of Pandora is so effective. The strange happenings in the town of Pandora are introduced early in-game, where some townspeople have gone mute and are said to have lost the will to live; all that aimless wandering RPG NPC’s do is so much more bizarre when they have nothing to say.

At the south end of town, there are ruins where the affected citizens are gathering, but the entrance is barred by two guards wearing strange cyclopean masks. Instead of venturing immediately into the ruins, the party is sent on other tasks, periodically returning to Pandora as the mystery grows. With each visit, more citizens are stripped of their souls and the accompanying music becomes more poignant.

Even before setting foot in the ruins, this concept of people becoming empty shells had me on edge. At a young age, I experienced a series of recurring nightmares wherein my mind was lost through varying circumstances, such as everyone else in the world copying my identity or an invisible monster eating my mind. The dreams themselves were pants-wetting enough, and waking up in the twilight hours feeling like I was dead inside was worse. While this portion of the game didn’t start those nightmares, it absolutely gave them an amplified resurgence.

When one of the party members spots her friend going into the ancient and decrepit structure, she pushes the guards aside (apparently no one else had thought of that brilliant stratagem – videogames). This is where that whole context thing comes into play. There were typically ‘dark’ locations presented before this dungeon, including caves, forests, and a witch’s castle. But those locales were still very much fantastical and arguably alluring in their design, especially given the musical selections. The ruins are a complete stylistic shift.

Just take a listen as to what greets the player when stepping into the ruins of Pandora. I believe this is what a music box slowly committing suicide sounds like.

To date, I’ve never heard a piece of gaming music so utterly discordant. Coupled with the contextual shock, my first playthrough of this area involved several instances of setting the controller down, calming my shaking hands, and gathering up the courage to press onward.  The game never fully divulges what happened in the ruins. We see grotesque monsters, some mask-wearing victims standing in front of an altar and Thanatos, the leader behind the cult, attempts to kill the party by dropping them into a room with a wall-demon. This lack of details actually made for a scarier experience overall.

It would be nigh-impossible for a 16-bit game to illustrate a disturbing ritual, so why not let the player’s imagination do the legwork? My mental picture of what happened to people when they were brought back into the ruins and given those masks to cover what I assumed were brutalized and eyeless faces was much scarier than anything the game designers could have come up with. I pictured unholy séances summoning fecund demons to devour the souls of the townspeople. When it comes to horror, the unseen is so much worse than a vivid depiction, and whoever designed this sequence did an extraordinary job using that tactic to create something I won’t ever forget.

On a final note, Thanatos shows his final form towards the end of the game as a giant skeleton. He’s not intimidating on his own but his theme music – a version of the ruins music on acid - is brick-shitting bliss.


4:01 PM on 09.07.2014

Sanctuary, or why video games are so personal to me

Since my first days of laying hands on a Commodore 64, there’s been something I adore about video games that I’ve never been able to articulate. For a time I thought my enjoyment of video games was derived from living vicariously through story, art, and music. As it turns out this is only a slice of the delicious mental pie. I had a revelation while playing through Earthbound recently. The “Your Sanctuary” locations in the game are a typical trope – you collect x number of mystical things to become the hero and complete the final quest.

The Sanctuaries have a bit more behind them than say, pieces of the Triforce. They evoke a nostalgic link from Ness’s childhood and help him better understand himself as a person. He’s not getting some magical power or artifact. The sanctuaries are inspiration, often housed in nondescript locations. I’ve come to realize that I have countless sanctuaries of my own buried within all the games I’ve played over the years. Until now, I have so often paused at various locales never fully comprehending why they were so special. They are what attracts me to the world of video games, and why gaming remains a pure outlet for me despite all the changes it has undergone over the years. 

This was the one of the inspirational moments. On a side note, I love Miiverse so hard. It's basically like a video game journal. I just wish more people got my Simpsons reference instead of assuming I'm a promiscuous thrill seeker. 

The Final Fantasy series is a fine example of this phenomena. Of course there is some dopamine association with seeing stats go up as the party gets stronger. And there is a draw to the story line. These are but ancillary elements; when I recall Final Fantasy IV, my mind immediately goes to Mt. Ordeals. Not because Cecil becomes a Paladin there or the epic battle against Scarmillione. It’s because I first climbed that mountain after recently starting middle school. To give a short description in my time in middle school, I ate most of my lunches in the bathroom – climbing a mountain and seeing that glorious 16-bit vista made me feel like I actually was able to accomplish something in those dismal years.

Mt. Ordeals

When I’ve replayed Final Fantasy IV, the in-game events at Mt. Ordeals always take a sort of backseat to that sense of wonder. The same goes for Super Mario Galaxy’s Space Junk Galaxy, explored in a chaotic period during a new career step where I felt there was no room left in my life to just wander in a state of awe. Or there’s stage 2 of Metal Mech, a pretty awful NES game with a maddening second stage. But I still put in the cart from time to time and get annoyed anew because my stubborn attempts to beat the level paralleled that of my stepdad, who gave me the game and wouldn’t give up trying to forge a relationship. I see visions of myself as a child, trying so hard in vain to understand my budding emotions.

Metal Mech

It's like Blaster Master, but terrible!

World of Warcraft was an amazing world for me, not because I could interact with other players and collaborate, but because I had the choice not to. No other world felt so alive and thriving. I loved wandering the countryside and seeing people run off to fight in the Deadmines while I took a stroll along the Westfall beach. People always talk about Shadow of the Colossus’s amazing journey and all I think about is how I spent weeks riding around on my horse and exploring before ever bothering to start the story. There are so many special little places I'd rather visit in that game than replay any of the battles.

The way I process video games is exemplified in a title such as Fez. There is a vague story, and there are mildly challenging components, but the world largely exists to be a series of sanctuaries. On my first outing with Fez, I must have sat outside the lighthouse watching the cat play for a half hour. At the time I had been suffering the consequences of a horrendous mistake in my life, and a moment of clarity on how to recover dawned in that pensive moment. I truly believe it wouldn't have happened had I not been spending that cold winter morning playing Fez. 

Video games are a shelter for its players. I’ll listen to the story and enjoy a tune, but I’m really there to find a little place to call my own and reflect on the affairs I’m currently wanting to jettison. That said, the world of videogames has become dangerously similar to the one it was designed to escape from. It is an industry rife with political strife, rampant egotism, and social identity. Companies leverage greater profits through all means of underhanded tactics. People fight with those inside and outside of the industry to posture some sort proper way to be a gamer (which is as laughable as those who incessantly argue about what constitutes true black metal).

In short, it’s a fucking mess and I want nothing to do with it.

The great thing about video games is that indulging in all that noise isn’t a requisite lap. Outside of this little blog I don’t really trumpet my love of playing games to the world and I wouldn’t bother arguing any of the controversies that have sprung up over the years even if someone was screaming in my face – I’d more than likely laugh and offer ActRaiser as a therapeutic release. My recent time with Earthbound has revealed that I have a rather unorthodox use of the medium. And that’s just fine, because games are what you make them.

In closing, a lovely song that so elegantly describes the pursuit of one's own sanctuaries.   


5:25 AM on 11.26.2013

It's good to feel like a gamer again

My shower door may be a portal to Lorule.

Early in the morning of November 22nd, in those twilight hours between night and morning, I found myself unable to sleep: I had been dreaming of playing a Link Between Worlds. Giving up on the prospect of getting back to sleep, I started my morning routine. While in the shower, I noticed for the first time in the three years Iíve been living in this house that there was an upside down Triforce on one of the walls! I thought better of waking up my wife to share this startling discovery, and instead started thinking about why this game had me so wound up, unlike so few titles in the last two generations of video games.

Flash to today, and Iíve realized that I spent a majority of my weekend playing Linkís latest adventure - not since the launch month of World of Warcraft had a game made my food and restroom breaks negligible necessities. Somewhere in the sixth generation, video games became a world that moved on without me. I tried in vain to enjoy Super Mario Sunshine. Every Final Fantasy since VII made me want to scream the opening line of Minor Threatís Filler. I played Call of Duty and Halo in a befuddled state, wondering why each respective series was so revered. This is the part of my plight where many gamers are still with me, but then I reveal that I couldn't get into BioShock or Mass Effect either.†

I was a latecomer to the current generation, lured back in after listening to RetroforceGo! and hearing them speak of titles that embraced the retro aesthetic (way back when that was a novel idea). I enjoyed a small handful of titles, mostly on the wii. Still, I always felt like I was attending a hip party without an invitation. Nowhere was this more evident than when I attempted to play Left 4 Dead 2: I would join a game, take a few steps, and then see the voting dialog appear wherein players elected to remove me from play.

Every time.

At first, I chuckled, assuming they didnít like my gamertag. After an hour or so of failing to play a game for longer than a few minutes, I was sure that video games just didnít want me anymore. I felt like a relic of a bygone era. I didnít want to see achievements; I celebrated my first one by disabling all notifications. I would often get annoyed when friends would appear uninvited in my Borderlands 2 games, derailing whatever plans I had in motion. I couldn't care less if people were able to see my activities. I forced myself through Skyward Sword, cursing every time I had to bowl a bomb or listen to Fi explain the same thing over and over.†

Seriously, was this necessary?

But A Link Between Worlds helped me rekindle that long-extinguished sense of immersion and wonder. Stepping back into the realm of a Link to the Past was like going to visit a ďmassiveĒ mountain from childhood, and instead of it being long-gone or disappointingly small, it was everything you remembered and more. This game is what nostalgia yearns to be Ė memories bearing the magic of age. Not only is there no guiding companion, thereís also no messing about in dungeons learning to use each key item.

Many fans praise the dungeon designs of Zelda where a new item is introduced, and the proceeding areas help the player utilize their new tool, often culminating in a boss fight that does the same. But this concept wore thin fast for me. By the time Twilight Princess came around, dungeons all bore a similar pattern, and boss fights were predictable breezes. With the latest title, a player is able to rent the tools and figure out for themselves how to use each one. Each dungeon and cave then becomes reliant on the more free-form experience of the player. I had no idea what the Tornado Rod was going to do, and I had a blast simply running around and creating vortices.†

Amazingly, A Link Between Worlds doesnít sacrifice story for this freedom. Rather than use cutscenes for thinly veiled handholding, most of dialog actually feels relevant. On the rare occasion that the wall is broken, it truly feels necessary. Remember the library in Linkís Awakening or the Know-It-All Birds in the Oracle titles? This is where guidance should be contained, and the tradition is continued with the hint goggles. I havenít used this helping item once, but Iím glad it is there for those who do need the extra assistance. Rather than going point by point, it would make more sense to simply state that A Link Between Worlds contains everything that made the series alluring, and sheds all the unnecessary fluff and candy-coating it has gained over the years.

I donít seek to argue that thereís something wrong with video games today. Nor is this blog my admitting to being an old curmudgeon who bitches about what the kids listen to on the radio nowadays. But like music, the years make it harder for me to find my way back to a pure gaming experience, where I can simply fall backwards into a gameís world as I would a pile of fluffy leaves on a crisp autumn day. This time around, I didnít have to dig deep into the indie titles or try my luck at something completely random in the hopes of stumbling into the magic. I just had to come home.   read

2:43 PM on 04.11.2013

How Theatrhythm helped me ring bells

There is no bigger interest in my life than music. When Iím not actively engaged with someone, chances are good Iíll have my headphones on and cranked to a borderline unsafe levels. I carefully select the music that wakes me up each morning. When considering driving distance, I measure by the number of singles, EPs, and albums that would fit into the trip (my current commute to work is about a half album). And when it comes to videogame soundtracks, Iíll just say that my highest playcounts in iTunes largely belong to the ranks of Shimomura, Koshiro, Mitsuda, Kikuta, and Kondo.

But for all endearment I exude for music, Iím not terribly talented at creating it. Apparently, the skill traveled thoroughly through my older and younger siblings, then promptly skirted around me, as my musical aspirations were quelled after years of fruitless attempts to play the bass guitar. While Iím able to read music decently enough, I have no ear for notes, and ultimately hit the wall when I found that I couldnít write bass lines. Not wanting to be one of those bassists, I relinquished myself to my high schoolís sparsely populated choir, and quietly retired from the world of music not long after.

I mean, I figured I had long hair, what else did I need?

This all changed about ten months ago, wherein I would once again begin a musical endeavor by joining a handbell choir. The bells seemed easy enough to master. My assumption was that one simply held two notes at a time, and summoned them at will when desired. The first indicator that I may have underestimated the challenge was when the music was not, in fact, a series of ďring, donít ringĒ instructions. On the contrary, it was written in traditional notation, along with many symbols that I hadnít a clue how to decipher:

Iíll spare the details of the many harrowing rehearsals which were to follow, but suffice to say, I once again faced an impassible monolith of aural feats. I would fight mentally tooth and nail to establish a beat count, yet find myself floundering whenever Iíd miss a note. Iíd barely be exploring a sense of triumph for recognizing and performing gyros, hand Martellatos, plucks, and singing bowls, when Iíd be singled out for not recognizing that I should be playing my G# bell when there was an A♭ on the staff. When it seemed as though I had once again met my limit, hope appeared in the form of a nostalgic-tinged Final Fantasy title.

Like many others, the music of Final Fantasy is particularly near and dear to my heart. The Theme of Love from Final Fantasy IV plays when my wife calls. I use Uematsuís character themes and the opera scene as examples when arguing the unique potency of videogame music. So a videogame solely based around these melodies was predetermined to be amazing. Though my eyes and ears reveled in the memories evoked by Theatrhythm, I also couldnít help but notice a marked improvement in my bell choir performance since the game was first inserted into my 3DS. Initially, I was bold enough to consider the idea that I had awakened some long-dormant talents, and while there may be a shred of truth to this notion, it's not as though I was suddenly able to keep a steady count or hear the notes.

I would find myself recovering after dropping notes by sheer intuition. Entire songs would pass and I wouldnít bequeath myself even one count or ever glance to the conductor for direction. After nailing a piece and considering it a perfect chain, I came to realize how much that little game had helped me. Just as with the bells, the player doesnít have to hit certain notes in Theatrhythm, and instead has to be concerned with slightly varying techniques. Missing a few beats of a particularly complex sequence can be irrevocably damming, until the proper hand-ear coordination is built. The most incredible development has to be how Iíve been discerning notes Ė I still cannot hear a bell ring and have any sort of guess as to what was played, but while performing, I can feel where each piece should be placed, and know when I should be playing which accidentals.

That said, Iím not anything of a prodigy, and in terms of the game, I still canít beat any of the battle tracks on Ultimate. But I like to think these two musical fixtures in my life are aiding one another and furthering my extremely limited abilities, sort of in the same way that reading might expand a personís vocabulary. Iíve never been one to insinuate that videogames are some untapped resource for developing real-world skills, but after this experience I would absolutely contend that their breadth as a supplement should never be dismissed.   read

3:02 PM on 10.06.2012

Aural Emotions

There's many reasons why I adore the music of video games, from those that extract ridiculous potential from short loops, to those which are unbelievably catchy, binding themselves forever into one's memory. But by far, my favorite pieces of video game music are those that evoke an emotional response. While I've come across plenty of moving songs in the world of music, finding one within a video game is a rare pleasure. What follows are the most evocative tracks I've heard. Some have been companions through tough times, others became memorable solely for the content they accompanied in-game, but all carry immense musical potency.

Though many of these games are older, I'll still warn in advance that nearly every entry contains spoilers. In most cases, I found it necessary to speak to the context of the music.

Super Mario RPG - Sad Song (Yoko Shimomura)

This gem in the Super NES library certainly isnít known for an emotionally charged story, but it does slip in a handful of tear-jerking moments, mostly found within Mallowís story. One particular sequence has been forever cemented in my memory. Near the end of the game, the party encounters Boomer, a katana-wielding warrior who resembles a Shogun, and a fight ensues atop two chandeliers. Upon being defeated, Boomer doesnít simply vanish into coins as other bosses. Instead, he has what appears to be an asthma attack, wondering aloud how he could have been defeated. Mario offers Boomer a reprieve, which he staunchly refuses, stating with pride that he is prepared to go out like a warrior.

Öand he proceeds to cut the chandelierís chain, plummeting presumably to his death. The Shy Guy holding the chain then openly weeps for his fallen companion, assuring himself that a little fall won't hurt Boomer. How freaking sad is that? The context of being within a Mario game makes it even worse, as the series is generally a safe haven from Pixar-style emotional sucker-punches. I think this moment passes by most players without making an impact, but for whatever reason, I canít play Super Mario RPG or hear this song without feeling my eyes well up a little for poor Boomer.

Listen to Sad Song
Watch the scene from the game

Xenoblade - Imperial Capital Agniratha / Night (Ace+)

In one of the more interesting game worlds of late, Xenoblade takes place on the bodies of two dead gods known as the Bionis and Mechonis, which house biological and mechanical life respectively. Much of Xenoblade is spent on a quest for vengeance against the denizens of Mechonis, who have been waging war on the residents of Bionis. When Shulk and his party finally reach the enemy's homeworld, they find it to be a massive factory designed to produce the Mechon. Their goal is to reach the capital city of Mechonis Ė Agniratha.

From the moment they step off the elevator to the city, what is presented before them in Agniratha is not a battle-hardened military capital, but an actual sprawling city, abandoned and in decay. A somber atmosphere seeps from the piano melody, exposing sensations of misplaced anger and sudden empathy. The brutal moment for me was reaching the security system, which distributes most of the quests for the area. The cityís security assures your party that collecting certain plant life and destroying some malfunctioning Mechon will restore balance to the capital and make it safe for the residents, despite the fact that the city is irrevocably ruined, and its citizens long gone. Like a bully who lashes out because of an abusive home life, it's hard not to feel sympathy; moments like this are what make the world seem so tragic.

Listen to Imperial Capital Agniratha / Night

World of Goo - Are You Coming Home, Love MOM (Kyle Gabler)

I adore the storytelling style of this game, where the player isn't so much performing a role in the game as they are facilitating the plot and bearing silent witness to its events. If one takes the time to learn exactly what is going on with the goo balls, it almost becomes unbearable to advance the game further. In Act 4, they reach the supercomputer MOM. Purported as an all-knowing superbeing, MOM turns out to be a spambot, and the questions she makes available merely exist to harvest more information from the user.

The child-like naÔvetť of the goo balls is what gets me, and it comes to a head during this sequence. Are You Coming Home, Love MOM absolutely nails that sympathetic edge with the understated chorus. The emotions evoked by this music are like helplessly watching a displaced animal struggle to grasp the world of humanity around them.

Listen to Are You Coming Home, Love MOM

Chrono Cross - People Imprisoned by Destiny (Yasunori Mitsuda)

A persistent challenge in life seems to be that one will be faced with decisions that have no positive outcome, where all involved will be hurt. The slow swell of this track, with its brief pauses for effect and its crushing climax, is an eloquent companion for a struggle against the fates. Though it only plays twice in the game, it is among the more memorable in the OST, as in both instances, the song accompanies the need to raise weapons against a friend. Whether it's delivering bad news, ending a relationship, or trying in vain to help, I've known this feeling all too well, and People Imprisoned by Destiny always coerces a reappearance of those memories.

Listen to People Imprisoned by Destiny

Silent Hill - Not Tomorrow (Akira Yamaoka)

Akira Yamaoka captured a realization of hopelessness in such a poignant way with this piece. Played in-game when Lisa begins to understand that she is actually dead, this song not only punctuates her awakening, but Harry's reaction to her transformation and pleas for help. Whenever I encounter an account of the world's horrendous denizens - murderers, rapists, dictators and all in between - I'm reminded of Not Tomorrow, and can't help but feel sorrowful.

Listen to Not Tomorrow
A great piano arrangement by Verdegrand

Fragile Dreams - Tsuki no nukumori (Riei Saito)

Those who persevered through the many flaws of Fragile Dreams were rewarded with an incredibly moving story. Seto's journey is relatively simple - he's looking for a girl encountered early in the game because he doesn't want to be alone anymore in the post-apocalyptic city. The stark atmosphere is wonderfully accentuated by the graceful soundtrack, which primarily employs the piano, and never fails to ignite each moment. After a bittersweet ending sequence where Seto finally unites with Ren, the credits roll with Tsuki No Nukumori playing.

Fittingly, the song has a precious frailty about it, with soft and soothing vocals over a beautiful melody. After accompanying Seto through the seemingly endless night, seeing him at long last achieve his desire to no longer be alone is overwhelming, and Tsuki No Nukumori is what pushed it over the edge for me. A journey often is in itself a reward rather than the actual destination, and this song properly reflects such a notion. While it is hard to recommend this game to all but the most patient players, it is without a doubt worth every broken weapon and camp by the fire waiting for the chicken-headed merchant.

Listen to a cover of Tsuki no nukumori
(The original isn't available on youtube due to copyright claims, but this is a very good version nonetheless)

Super Mario Galaxy - Stardust Road (Mahito Yokota)

Stepping out into the Space Junk Galaxy for the first time, I felt as though I had tumbled back into childhood, struck by a long-dormant sense of wonderment. Super Mario Galaxy, and this level in particular, represents how I envisioned outer space before my blissful ignorance was shattered by that all-spoiling bastard called knowledge. The soothing instrumentation evoke a magnificent serenity, as Mario bounds through a brilliantly illuminated backdrop. In the face of such unfettered beauty, it's nigh-impossible not to be overcome. Which is why this is always the game I reach for when I've had a lousy day.

Screw you, adulthood.

Listen to Stardust Road

Final Fantasy VII - Aeris's Theme (Nobuo Uematsu)

Yeah, you knew it was coming. Usually, this song is associated with Aeris's death, and we're all quite familiar with it, so I wonít elaborate on that scene. In actuality, I am often reminded more of the first time it plays in the game, when Aeris is taken away by Shinra, and the party visits Elmyra. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how Elmyra came to be Aeris's guardian, and how Aeris helped her through the loss of her husband.

Nobuo's excellent theme perfectly captures the fragility of life, particularly with its porcelain-like opening; it is a testament to finding beauty even in the darkest of times. While a superior eye-roll may be appropriate when Aerisís death is referred to as ďthe moment gamers learned to cryĒ, there is a reason why everyone remembers it, and I largely attribute that memorability to this song.

Listen to Aeris's Theme
Reunion tracks - orchestral arrangement
Piano arrangement
The aforementioned scene

Mother 3 - Sunflowers and Illusions / Name These Children / Mother?! (Shōgo Sakai)

Like the Lumine Mines and Magicant segments from Earthbound, my favorite moment in Mother 3 is when the narrative turns to the silent protagonist. In Chapter 6, Lucas has a sort of out of body experience, and the player is given a direct look into what has been going on his mind. What we see is a field of sunflowers, his deceased mother's favorite.

Three pieces of music play during this chapter, starting with the dreamy Sunflower Field. This gives way to Name These Children, as a flashback of Flint and Hinawa naming their children is presented. Lastly, Mother?! starts when Lucas witnesses the appearance of Hinawa's apparition. The scene and music together are an absolutely heart-wrenching reminder that, despite fighting the evils of the world and going on an epic quest, Lucas is still a kid, who misses his mother dearly.

Watch this scene

Bit.Trip Flux - Catharsis (Gaijin Games)

While many of the games in the Bit.Trip series move me to tears by way of frustration, they all nonetheless contain an incredibly affective story and soundtrack within all the daunting challenges. Following the events of Bit.Trip Fate, wherein the protagonist, Commander Video, has died, he finds himself returning back to the nether from whence he came. Flux is unlike any other game I've played; its entire breadth is one elongated death sequence. There is no way to fail a level, as Commander Video's death is an eventuality.

Catharsis is both the name of the third level and the title of the music which accompanies it. The stage begins with a cut scene showing him coming to terms with the events of his life, reaching a state of complete understanding. The song starts with a driving rhythm, building slowly as Commander Video begins to embrace the end. About six minutes in, the wall finally bursts, revealing a melody from Bit.Trip Runner's Impetus. Hearing this celebratory song return is as though Commander Video's mind is focusing on his most triumphant moment, a final bout of unrestrained joy before passing away.

I've never felt more connected to a character in a video game than in this moment. I've had to cope with two deaths in 2012; one was an agonizingly gradual passing of an elderly relative, the other a sudden decline in health of a formerly healthy co-worker. Both were emotionally devastating, and I found myself replaying Bit.Trip Flux almost daily and listening to Catharsis endlessly as I struggled to comprehend and cope with death's inevitability. In those moments where I was alone, severed from immediate contact and support, I truly believe the only thing that kept me from the brink was this music.

Listen to Catharsis   read

2:45 PM on 12.02.2011

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best

RetroforceGO! was what brought me to Destructoid, and more importantly, what brought me back into gaming. To say the least, it was the only gaming podcast I had come across that was just about hanging out and talking games, rather than stressing whatever the latest news is or clobbering the listener with gamer cred. For years I assumed there was nothing left in gaming for me, and was content to keep my head down and stick with older systems. RFGO! eased me back into the world of gaming, and provided hours of entertainment.

A few months ago, I started listening to some of my favorite episodes on the commute to and from work. at first, I was merely leaving each episode set at the best moments so that they could easily be queued up whenever I needed a laugh at work. Then I started noting all of my favorite moments as a guide. Not long after, I began extracting said moments into clips, and before long I was making a collection, and knew the end result would be too great not to share with anyone who enjoyed the show.

After pulling about 72 clips, nearly 40 minutes total, I called it quits. There's still plenty more classic moments, so there may be more installments in the future. But for now, I present RetroforceGO! Perfect Best parts 1-3:

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 1

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 2

RetroforceGO! Perfect Best Part 3   read

8:27 AM on 11.19.2011

Zelda Week: Upon the Isle of Dreams

Even before the idea that Link's Awakening is the definitive series experience was broached in the original post, I immediately knew this would be my contribution to Zelda week. To date, Iíve played through every entry in the series except for Spirit Tracks and three titles that I wonít besmirch the glory of Zelda week by mentioning any further other than this obtuse reference. While I enjoy every game, Linkís Awakening has always stood far above the rest. Iíll get to the argument soon enough, but first I want to share my initial experience with this title.

I bought my first Game Boy as a Linkís Awakening bundle. For my birthday that year I was given a gift of cash from my grandparents: $50. I had never been given a cash gift up to that point, and nearly lost my mind when my dad clued me in that I could buy a whole new game system with it along with some allowance money I had been saving (with a little help from dad when my feeble ten year old mind didnít calculate the sales tax right). Playing as Link on the go that summer was engrossing, to say the least.

So much so that when the family spent a day at a Lake Erie beach, I suffered horrendous sunburns from sitting hunched over my game boy all day in the heat, never bothering to put on sunscreen: the fact of the matter was, I HAD to finish Bottle Grotto that day. Never before had any Zelda game, or any game at all caused me to sustain personal injury because I was so hopelessly enraptured. In preparation for Skyward Sword, I pulled out the old cartridge along with the Game Boy Pocket and revisited Koholint Island. Following this playthrough, I can say with absolute certainty that there is no finer game in the series, and hereís why.

The Music
Might as well start with a big one; the Zelda series had already established a strong aural component at this point, but Linkís Awakening brought it to a new level. Aside from a portion of the main Zelda theme, this title is packed with original music that maximizes the melodious purity afforded by the Game Boyís sound chip. Every dungeon has a unique theme that plays off of the atmosphere of each beautifully; from the looming sense of terror woven into Catfishís Maw to the understated eeriness emanating throughout the Face Shrine, the dungeon music alone is a masterwork of video game music.

But thereís so much more. While the main theme covers most of the outdoor locations, the mountainous areas are blessed with a gem of a tune that is still one of the more driving tunes of the series. By far though, my favorite entries are the variations on the Ballad of the Wind Fish theme. The melody shows up throughout the game, often at pivotal moments, and ties the story together. With so many outstanding tracks, the only thing left to do is wonder why the hell this game still has yet to receive any sort of OST release!

The youtube BBCode isn't working for me, so here's some links:
Tal Tal Heights
Face Shrine
Key Cavern
Ghost's House
Sword Search

The Humor
While fourth wall jokes and quirky humor have become a standard in many of the games, Linkís Awakening did it first, and still did it best. The children in Mabe Village offer gameplay advice then acknowledge that they really donít know what that means. A villager bluntly tells Link heís going to be lost later in the game in a rather subtle self-deprecating jab.

When Marin is following Link around sheíll criticize his Ocarina skills, terrorize the crane game operator, scold Link for looking inside dressers, and land on his head when the two jump down the village well. You can actually shoplift in Link's Awakening, resulting in everyone from that point on calling you THIEF instead of your chosen name. They even manage to squeeze in some slapstick when Tarin tries to knock down a beehive with a stick, resulting in a sort of Yakety Sax scene. The DX Version adds even more, with the photographer snapping pictures on the game's quirkier moments.

Sidescrolling in a Zelda game
The original Zelda used side scrolling segments, but they were little more than connecting passages. Linkís Awakening turned this mechanic into actual platforming segments, requiring the player to use acquired items to traverse hazardous terrain in a two dimensional perspective. These challenges range from jumps to dashes and melting a path through ice cubes. Best of all, two of the dungeon bosses actually occur in this view, adding even more variety to the already diverse boss lineup.

The Combat System
Zelda games arenít known for overly complex battle systems. However, this game has one simple distinction that sets it apart from the rest of the pack: your item buttons are fully customizable. While that does equate to two whole buttons, it was amazing at the time to be able to not always be holding your sword. Hell, you canít even do that now.

This not only afforded total freedom, it allowed for what I still consider the best two weapons in any Zelda game Ė bomb arrows, and the endless boomerang. The former should be self explanatory, but for those who arenít familiar with the latter, you can throw the boomerang, pick up the flying rooster with the power bracelet, then hover around as the weapon follows your path, annihilating everything below. Which brings me to my next point:

The Boomerang is an Unstoppable Killing Machine
Generally this item is used to stun enemies, retrieve far items, and activate switches. In Linkís Awakening, the boomerang demolishes almost every enemy in one toss. Of course, you have to earn it by doing a rather extensive side quest that canít be completed until well after the halfway point. And you canít even get it until you trade a greedy moblin one of your key items. But good god is it worth having.

The Best Glitch Ever
This one only applies for those who have an earlier version of the cartridge. Before it was corrected, one could warp across a given screen by applying the select button just as the screen began to scroll to the next area. While this may not seem like much, it could be used to bypass obstacles, dungeon sections, and warp randomly across the island, sometimes ending up in entirely glitched zones. When I first discovered this trick (thanks to Nintendo Power), I completed the dungeons out of order, and often had the key items even before entering them.

Of course, the gaming karma got me good when I warped into Eagleís Tower, then tried to exit and found myself lodged in a stone wall, as you have to unlock the tower from the outside before the stairs and entrance actually appear. In a brilliant maneuver, I then saved and quit, failing to realize that I would start in the exact same place when I loaded up the file later. Sure, it ruined my saved game, but I had a ton of fun and still experimented with it on a separate file on this most recent outing.

The Story

The primary plot arc is relatively simple, and all but spelled out for the player early on: Link needs to wake the Wind Fish in order to leave Koholint Island, which is the creature's dream. Waking the Wind Fish is achieved by gathering eight mystical instruments, hidden in each dungeon. It's a slight variation on the standard Zelda mechanic. On the surface, it seems straightforward enough. Looking deeper, however, opens a plethora of thought-provoking realizations. You are on a quest to destroy this intricate world - everything except for you and the Wind Fish will disappear at the end.

It's a plot device that grants a pensive portal into the realm of dreams. Is Marin a manifestation of the dreamer's longing and hope, with her desire of becoming a seagull and flying away to sing for far-away lands? Or is she simply a memory fragment of someone in the real world? Because we're never given any information on the Wind Fish, it's all a manner of interpretation. And if you just want to play a Zelda game, Link's Awakening delivers there too.

The Dream Shrine and the Ghost
Lastly, I'm bringing up two specific moments in the game that have always stuck with me. The first is the Dream Shrine. In Mabe Village, there is a small building blocked by boulders that can only be accessed after obtaining the Power Bracelet. The Dream Shrine is nothing more than an altar and a bed, an obvious nod to Zelda II. When Link hops on the bed, he enters a micro dream world, populated by bizarre creatures that mimic his movements and guard the Ocarina. While it's a short mini-dungeon, the mere idea of a dream within a dream blew my mind.

The last portion of this wonderful game I want to talk about is among my favorite moments in any video game. At one point between dungeons, a ghost begins following Link. He is unnamed in the game, but later given the name of Nakura in the Manga. He floats far behind our protagonist, and has a creepy little musical sting that plays every time you enter a new screen with it in tow. Nakura prevents Link from entering dungeons, and cryptically insists that he be taken home. Home, as it turns out, is an abandoned house by the island's south bay. Once inside (and joined by another fantastic piece of soundtrack), the ghost simply says,

As a kid, this was my introduction to the word nostalgia, and gaining a grasp on the concept was moving, to say the least. This little diversion stitches a seam between happiness and remorse that moves me every time, especially when the ghost then requests to be taken back to his grave. I've found this little episode particularly affective. The ghost clearly didn't need Link for transport - he was looking for an escort, a companion through the ghost's memories of another world, and someone to accompany him to the final resting place. And when one considers the ghost's role in the dream world, this whole side quest becomes as provoking as the main plot.

So that's my worship of Link's Awakening - the most Zelda Zelda game ever. Even if Skyward Sword surpasses it in every way, this game will always have a special place in my collection.


10:41 AM on 05.16.2011

Mega Man 3 is a dirty, dirty game

Apologies in advance to anyone who can't look at Mega Man 3 the same way after this.

In the original Mega Man, the robots are designed to perform industrial tasks, and conveniently double as a world domination task force for Dr. Wily. For the second attempt, Dr. Wily takes things a little more seriously and designs 8 robots who are all basically walking weapons (unless youíd like to argue that Quick Man has a nonviolent purpose). For me, the first two titles are the only stories where Dr. Wily takes himself seriously.

Formerly, I would lump Mega Man 3 with its predecessors. On my most recent play through, courtesy of the Anniversary Collection, I started to notice some peculiar characteristics on the third title. Initially, I wrote them off as products of an overactive (and Internet-tainted) imagination, and longed for the days when Dr. Wily turning into an alien at the end of Mega Man 2 still scared the shit out of me. But as I finished the game, there was no question: sure as Mega Man 6 is full of racial stereotypes, the robot masters of Mega Man 3 are part of Wily's new perverse scheme, bent on luring Mega Man into some bizarre trysts.

Rather than make an overarching argument, Iím going to go through each boss and share exactly what Iíve found when I took a closer look at the functionality of each one. But first, let's take a look at the stage select screen. In all other games, the center piece is either a static Mega Man or a sigil of the boss. Here, Mega Man's eyes follow the cursor wearily between each robot master. And upon closer look, their twisted intents are blatant: just look at how hungrily Hard Man is eyeing our protagonist!

Top Man

He clued me in, so Iíll start with him. At a young age, my friend and I would snicker about how Top Man liked to be on Top. And that really says it all. Look at that smirk on the stage select screen, thatís the smarmy little smile of mechanized rapist. His strategy is to dazzle the eye with spinning tops, and then whips himself into a spinning sexual frenzy at poor Mega Man, no doubt intending to buffet the blue bomber with a whirling steel shaft. He even grasps his crotch MJ style and throws out a fisting salute. Thatís a pose that will strike fear into robot virgins for generations to come.

Magnet Man

Atop his head is a giant U, as in ďTonight. You.Ē Like his depraved buddy Top Man, Magnet Man opts to distract and lead his prey by launching three magnets, no doubt designed to intimidate and confuse. The loud noise emitted with each launch serves to further distract so that he can deploy the trap Ė a magnetic field that drags Mega Man helplessly towards his captor. The double M can barely contain his excitement when the blue guy shows up, so much that his knees quiver in anticipation.

Hard Man

Obese and bound in leather, Hard Man is clearly a Bear in the robotic community, and he wants Mega Man as his cub. Upon entering his lair, Hard Manís animalistic urges take over, growling and thrusting his arms in the air. As his name implies, this robot master likes it rough Ė he starts by literally fisting our hero, then loses control and simply pounces, crushing Mega Man in rolls of robotic fat.

Snake Man

Green penis cannon. It's pretty obvious what those trouser snakes are searching for.

Spark Man

A younger version of myself might be skeptical at this point Ė how could a walking power plant possibly be a meant for dirty activities? Well, thanks to the Internet and an insatiable curiosity, itís quite obvious that Spark Man is all about erotic electrostimulation (hey don't look at me like that, I learned about it from Wikipedia!). He doesnít just want to put his angular dong into M squared Ė the Sparkster wants pain with his pleasure. Spark Man can be seen shocking himself through the freaking head, building his pleasure, before launching his flashy discharge. And once his helpless victim has been subdued, he leaps with reckless abandon, ready with his evil rods.

Shadow Man

Shadow Manís game is obviously bloodplay, with all his vats of the crimson liquid, brought forth by his endless supply of throwing stars. The only way to halt this vile ingress is to completely dominate Shadow Man, utilizing Top Manís trademark robot crotch-y whirlwind to beat the bastard into submission. But this clearly plays right into his desire to be a switch. Thatís why his life bar goes down so fast. Just look at how eager he is to accept it in the above screen shot.

Gemini Man

Also known as Mťnage ŗ trois man. He is only defeated when overloaded with the green penis cannon. Need I say more?

Needle Man

Wrapping up our list of cybernetic perverts is the robotic gimp. Heís sealed up in a vinyl suit, complete with a big red ball gag. Clearly turned on by piercings and injections, Needle Man flings his needles endlessly, pummeling Mega Man so that he can get close enough to launch his spiky tri-penis apparatus, allowing for maximum penetration. More than likely, Needle Man was Hard Manís cub until a scrawnier, sexier robot came on the scene. Desperate for the suffocating embrace of his lumberjack bear, Needleman is a scorned lover out for vengeance.

Proto Man
He shows up occasionally, and serves as the interlude between Dr. Wily's bodysuits and the castle stages. His pattern of attack is simple and laughable. He's obviously trying to help Mega Man from the other side, as if to say to the other robots "hey, look I'm gonna get him! Yeah look at me hop suggestively!"

Dr. Wily
Of course, we all know Dr. Wily was quick to cover his tracks, playing the whole attempt off as renewed world domination attempt once Mega Man showed up at his doorstop. So aside from the attempted Mega gang bang at the end of stage 3, the rest of the game is relatively innocuous. At least until, Wily shows up in this wide-eyed robot spewing white bursts from a flexible tube-like appendage, which just happens to be located in the nether quarters - luckily, some well placed hard knuckles can render his nefarious yogurt hose flaccid.

People refer to this as the fake Gamma, but I'm thinking once again that Dr. Wily had a quick backup plan to obscure his dirty secret. Look at what is purported to be the actual "ultimate weapon":

Yeah, it's a big mouth and some other robot's head awkwardly grafted on top who just chatters mindlessly, probably asking to be released from its awful existence of being half torso, half Julia Roberts-sized mouth with what looks like a white bra draped on top. While Mega Man dispatches this sin against nature, Dr. Wily quickly threw together a cockpit (which apparently draws eyes on the mouth-boob abomination). Then when the Doc finally shows up, it's a classic case of him declaring that if he can't have the Blue Bomber, no one can.

The only way to stop the maniacal old deviant is to give him all the robo wood he can handle. It's up to the Top Spin or Search Snakes to bring this perverted chapter in the series to a close, leaving Mega Man to wander along a grassy field, tracing Dr. Light's journals trying to figure out what went so very wrong, wondering if he'll ever sleep comfortably again.

On a serious note, what exactly is that thing floating on top of the tree?   read

3:45 PM on 03.29.2011

Technical Difficulties: Upon the Threshold

When it comes to challenge, the general thought drifts to terms such as the number of player lives/continues, enemy health, enemy AI, ease of control, whether or not the game has cheap shots, and the presence of broken gameplay (bad cameras, mechanics). Ultimately, challenge itself is in the eye of the player. All of the above are basically deterrents Ė a common argument against newer titles is that if you have enough time, youíll get through it regardless of skill. But either way, you put in time, and how much a game succeeds in slowing you down is determined by your frustration threshold. I was only recently able to properly articulate the presence of such a thing by a couple of games Ė Iíll get to them later.

In the shortest terms, the threshold is the period of time a player stays with a game before declaring ďfuck it!Ē and hurling the controller across the room. So what determines this breaking point? As stated prior, everyone has a different tolerance, but these tend to be the common factors:

Death Screens Ė with many games, the player doesnít simply die and reappear. You are smacked in the face with a death screen, such as the flashing colors in Zelda II, Deathís piercing gaze as in Shadowgate, and probably the most discouraging, The Silver Surfer weeping in defeat. Itís basically the game pulling you aside and chiding you for dying. You already knew you had failed, and probably knew it a moment before death even occurred, but the game just has to get its say in the most jarring way possible. I always liken them to a comment once left on my old geocities website, which simply stated ďYOU MIGHT DO IT BETTER DUDEĒ.

Those effing jetpack guys are made so much worse by hearing the musical equivalent of "OOPS YOU FELL DOWN!"

Death Rattles Ė More common than the debilitating death screen is the little tune that plays when you die, the best example of course being Super Mario Brothers. Ninja Gaidenís is particularly long and caustic, as is Castlevaniaís. Again, the cue is entirely unnecessary; you know you messed up, and hearing that little sequence every single time is akin to some irritating spectator. Weíve all had an annoying onlooker who just canít help but add commentary to your gameplay, with exclamations like ďoh that sucksĒ, ďso closeĒ, ďit was a pitÖĒ Or in other terms, itís like hearing the horns from The Price is Right.

Both of these elements expedite the process of a player quitting, because thereís only so many times one can withstand hearing and/or seeing them before they crack. Some games even combine the two for maximum frustration. Goldeneye is a prime example Ė you get the long drawn out death song as the blood covers your view, then youíre shown a long death screen where your failure replays three times. Sure, you can skip the second sequence, but it always manages to squeeze in a second just to make sure you saw it.

What really made these elements stand out to me were the games that completely side-step them, and in exchange, present challenges that border on absurdity. Super Meat Boy, VVVVVV, and Tower of Heaven are perfect examples of this phenomenon. When you die in these games, there is no death chime, no death screen, and most important of all, the music does not stop. Streamlining the music through the death process was a stroke of genius. For me, music is a massive factor in gaming Ė I highly doubt I would have put up with all the times the Dragon killed me (or to be more accurate, all the times the auto-scroll killed me) in Mega Man II were it not for the rocking Dr. Wily theme.

The worst part of the aforementioned components is that they were so disturbing; they rip the player out of their concentration, forcing them to recollect or give up entirely. Itís like trying to see a Magic Eye poster, and some bastard kids come up and ruin it for you. Leaving it all behind allows these games to get away with such cruelty as Doing Things the Hard Way in VVVVVV or taking away the ability to walk left as in Tower of Heaven. Had any of these titles been equipped with even just a death theme, chances are good not nearly as many would complete them. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the games all have incredible soundtracks.

Look at this. LOOK AT THIS.

I experimented while writing this entry to test my theory. While playing Super Meat Boy, I had my iPod queued up with the death theme from Ninja Gaiden. When I would die, I played the theme, then exited back to the stage select screen. On an ordinary day, Iím liable to shout curses at Super Meat Boy, but still press onward. With this style of play, I gave up after a few attempts. Try it out sometime Ė if youíre anything like me, chances are good youíll go insane with rage.

When I see this, I know it's all over.

Of course, some games have done the exact opposite. Iíve never beaten a bit.trip game, and can only finish the first level of Beat. The reason being is that you not only have to endure a death throe and a death screen, but the music breaks up whenever you make a mistake. For me, thatís the perfect combination to set my threshold unbearably low. I can complete Battletoads, Iíve finished Ikaruga (though not with one credit!), but toss a game at me where itís designed to constantly poke and prod me whenever I do wrong, capped off with your paddle shrieking and a neon flashing death screen, and I crumble.

So, what builds your threshold?   read

2:34 PM on 09.02.2010

More than just noise: Encapsulating a Character

One of the more potent aspects of music is the innate ability to attach itself to memories. Times and people long past are often associated with songs; even non-visual facets of oneís memory may be affected. For instance, whenever I hear Johnny Cash, I can smell my grandparentís study (where I was introduced to his fantastic music) - the scent of musty books, old furniture and their many cats wafts in from the past through some mental trickery. Music affixed to a visual interactive medium is naturally even more cohesive in that same way. Any gamer could probably hear one second of the Level 1-1 theme from Mario Bros. and immediately know what it is with an instant visual picture and the sensation of holding a controller. Thatís how powerful a game soundtrack can be.

Let me get it out of the way, I love video game music more than I probably have the right. As a child, I held my tape recorder to the TV to make soundtracks, and still play them on occasion. My main cell ringtone is Pokey Means Business! My text message notification is the Legend of Zelda secret chime. When my wife calls, I hear FFIVís Theme of Love. Most of my friends are set to a segment of I MAED A S0NG W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT! And when my brother calls, the Dr. Wilyís castle theme from Megaman II starts playing. When I play a game and like the soundtrack, I do whatever it takes to obtain a copy. If I canít buy the album, Iíll spend hours tracking it down online. If I canít find a downloadable version, I will extract it from youtube or wherever it may be available in some form (The Secret of Evermore OST was the most recent acquisition through that method).

With the requisite fapping off the tableÖIíd like to use this entry to discuss my absolute favorite aspect of video game soundtracks: character themes. The typical memorable theme will remind one of a certain level or an obstacle. With the advent of storytelling in video games, the themes began to expand to allow certain characters to have an aural sting. Ostensibly, it began with boss themes, not unlike villainous scores such as the Imperial March. Around the 16-bit era, we were graced with character songs that became more than just a cue for the player to know this guy or girl is the enemy. They became a summation of a character, taking their most identifiable aspects and translating them into music, and were played at key points of the story. Rather than expound on this concept generically, Iím going to use the remainder of this entry to focus on my favorite character-based songs.

Iíd apologize in advance for the heavy use of Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda penned songs, but they are the masters of the craft.

Chrono Trigger (Cronoís Theme) ~ Yasunori Mitsuda

Might as well start off the list with a piece that is the quintessential ďfuck yeah, letís go!Ē theme. Crono never utters a word through the game (sans that one ending), yet emotes so much throughout. His devotion to his friends and their quest to save the future never falters for a moment. Crono serves as a perfectly written avatar for the player, who also wants to do whatever it takes to rid the world of Lavos. Played at key points throughout the game, Chrono Trigger is the perfect blend of bravery and compassion for our favorite time traveling, spiky-headed hero.


Cidís Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu

When it comes to Final Fantasy VII, Aerithís theme and One Winged Angel are usually the two everyone remembers. And not to take anything away from those pieces, as they are excellent by their own right, but Iíve always found Cidís theme just as moving. Here was a pilot who lived his life with a dream, to reach the stars. His seemingly one and only opportunity was taken from him when he sacrificed the mission to save his friend, who then became the focus of his anger in the following years. Cidís theme perfectly evokes imagery of a grizzled old man, worn out and strung along by his failing dreams. The song begins in sad form, yet betrays a glimmer of hope as it builds, a notion that the dream may not be as lost as all those years past. It makes the climax of Cidís story all the more powerful.


Ceremony / The Oracle (Thanatosís Themes) ~ Hiroki Kikuta.

The Seiken Densetsu series is loaded with brilliant music, but doesnít offer much in the way of character themes. However, Secret of Mana held a pair of themes for the villainous Thanatos that have stuck out in my mind ever since I first heard them. These two are hands down the most bizarre and unsettling pieces of music Iíve ever heard in a game. The dissonant bells of Ceremony and the pummeling trip-hop beat of The Oracle clash heavily with the rest of the soundtrack, as well as the vibrant art style, a contrast that is simply ingenious.

Moving from the bright landscapes to the misty drear ruins with this music playing is an example in oppressive unsettlement. You never know exactly what heís doing to the townpeople there, or why they wear those hideous masks, and it just adds to the tension. When you finally face him at the end of the game, he turns into a giant skeleton with a pink and purple robe. Sure, the colors are a bit frightening, but the music is insanity. The tolling bells of Ceremony now swirl around, driven by an infernal beat, and just when you get used to it, the song goes batshit crazy at the 1:24 mark. Mysterious, unnerving, and clinically insane, these two themes will haunt my dreams for years to come.


Celes's Theme ~ Nobuo Uematsu

I had two goals in mind with this list Ė keep the Final Fantasy to a minimum of two entries, and make one of them from FFIV. But I couldnít do it, because Celesís theme is undeniably gorgeous. Throughout the story, she promotes a tough faÁade, though often shows cracks in her emotional armor.

Side Story: In my first draft, I didn't use the word "cracks" there, I used another word that apparently sets off the filter here. I spent 15 minutes combing my draft and saving with certain paragraphs cut out, until I narrowed it to this one. It was until I had to the exact sentence that I realized this word was also a racial slur. This is why we can't have nice words.

This theme is one of fragility, of a conflicted woman who has found herself between two worlds, torn by her emotions and duties. Her longing for Locke grows as the story progresses, and is arguably at its most beautiful during the opera scene. Hearing Celes sing her actual theme is heart wrenching every time I hear it. It taps a self-referential moment visible only to the player, who canít help but be swept into this love story.


Simonís Theme ~ Konami Kukeiha Club

The Castlevania series is another known for great music, but not necessarily great character themes. The fourth entry brought along the definitive theme for Simon Belmont, who is typically the flagship character for both the series and the Belmont family. Itís a perfect aural match to Simonís quest. TheÖquest, not the game subtitled Simonís Quest, oh nevermind. It begins with a slow ominous creep: fitting for Draculaís castle, with a buildup that insists more of the same is to followÖuntil that darkness gets its face whipped off by Simon. Itís classic video game heroism at its finest. And the best part is that when you finally reach Dracula, and wear down his health, it doesnít play some harrowing boss theme, the game plays Simonís theme! Itís the ultimate form of musical badassery in video games. Simon doesnít give the Count one fucking inch; he beats that bloodsucking bastard down on Simon's terms.

And I always do the air drums at the 0:49 mark.


Schalaís Theme ~ Yasunori Mitsuda

Chrono Trigger brims with wonderful themes. I could have made this list entirely devoted them, as they all perfectly exemplify the idea of compiling a character into a song. Schalaís has always stood out to me, even more so than the others. She is a latecomer to the story, and only has a few lines of dialog, yet she is a key component to both the overall plot and Magusís backstory. Her theme manages to say more than any visual cues, painting a kind, loving girl who, despite all the trouble sheís been put through, and faces a tragic destiny she canít avoid, still does all she can to help others, particularly her brother. The song retains that dreamy, magical feel that is prevalent in the Zeal theme, giving it an ethereal elegance that perfectly captures Schalaís story.


The Opened Way (Gaius) ~ Kow Otani

I know itís a stretch since this is more a boss theme, and wasnít solely devoted to Gaius, but I couldnít make this list and not include this incredible piece of music. Everyone probably knows exactly when, while playing Shadow of the Colossus, he or she was hit with pangs of guilt. For me, it was this battle, and this theme that did it. At first, the Opened Way seemed to be portraying the struggle the player was going through, but as I caught a glimpse of Gaiusís eyes Ė that look of confusion and anger Ė the music took on a new form. It was reminiscent of reading Frankenstein, when the Monster talked of trying to understand and live in the world of man and was shunned and attacked.

And that is the brilliance of this track. It plants a seed of remorse in the player that may sprout at any moment, whether itís during battle or in conjunction with the end of battle theme. For me, The Opened Way compacts all of what the player goes through into one piece. So it actually makes it more a theme for the player than any character in the game. Itís epic, tragic, and above all, beautiful.


Overworld BGM (Linkís Theme) ~ Koji Kondo

Ah yes, how could there ever be a list about memorable character themes or even memorable game music without this piece. Itís a fine place to end because like the Mario theme, I donít even need to talk about this one. If youíve played Zelda, you already have the song in your head. You can already see Link from the first Zelda game that comes to your mind. Itís a classic character theme by every definition of the word: a summation of a heroís journey, the exploration, the danger, the triumph, and it revolves on a perfect loop.


So thatís about it. I know thereís a million other character themes, and at least a few of them not in a Squaresoft game, but these are the ones that have always stood out to me. Each piece is a masterwork that bridges the player to an intangible character and ensconces itself in their memories. Often taken for granted, a working character theme is something unique to video games. Movies and TV shows come close, but never nail it. There isnít much better than when you can listen to a few minutes of music and the whole of a character and their story floods your mind.   read

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