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9:24 PM on 06.25.2015

Danganronpa | Critical Hit Records #2

Hey! And welcome to sort-of episode 2 of my rarely-updated series, Critical Hit Records. In it, I talk about a game that had an effective soundtrack, and discuss why their tunes worked so well. More will be coming, sometime. 

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc was one of the biggest surprises for me of 2014. On paper, it sounds like a supremely strange mix of concepts - a collage of game ideas and tropes that could have a pretty hard time fitting in together. Many great tastes that may not taste great together. The world of Danganronpa is a weird, twisted thing. Mainly, this game is a Visual Novel, with a heaping serving of Phoenix Wright-style trials and investigation making up the gameplay portions. It’s a whole bunch of reading, and if you want to fully enjoy it, I recommend going in prepared for an excellent novel with bits of gameplay thrown in, instead of a game with higher than average amounts of reading involved.

For the uninitiated, the game requires a considerable amount of explanation. So before we get to the music, I have to explain why a bunch of teenagers are about to murder each other. Danganronpa is weird, man.

At it’s core a murder-mystery whodunit sort of affair, Danganronpa puts you in the shoes of Makoto Naegi: a wide-eyed young student accepted into the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy as one of this year’s Ultimate 16. Only a talented select few are accepted into it’s legendary ranks, and history proves all who graduate are destined for great things. Unfortunately, when he arrives, Makoto is knocked unconscious and upon awakening, and finds himself and his 15 classmates in a deadly competition.

Makoto and the rest of the ultimate students find themselves at the mercy of Monokuma, a super sophisticated animatronic robot bear. Monokuma tells the trapped kids that, under his new reign as headmaster, the only way to graduate his version of Hope’s Peak Academy is to murder - and get away with it.

Disbelief and incredulity naturally wash over the students as their new reality sets in. Under Monokuma’s rules, once a murder takes place the students must find out who did it. If the killer gets away with it, he gets to escape If that were to happen, the rest of the class is killed. If the killer is found out, they themselves get executed and the killing game continues. Monokuma’s goal is to rid the students of hope, and only the most cunning and devious of them will make it out alive.

It sounds like heavy stuff, and it really can be. Many of the murders and executions are  exceptionally brutal. To take the edge off, all the blood in the game is colored a bright pink, and the whole thing is drenched in anime tropes and over-the-top personalities. The characters really drive the story, and each one of the students ends up being extremely well fleshed-out, even in the face of the crazy ridiculous plot.

Being a visual novel, the plot demands high quality, and it certainly delivers.  Once your disbelief has been properly suspended, the devious and paranoid world Makoto is forced to live in becomes gripping, like a good book should, and will hook you until you see through the end of the plot. It twists and turns, with mystery and intrigue available in droves.

I’m trying to avoid exposition, as there’s tons to explain. It’s not an easy one to summarize - as the premise would suggest. I’m not here to review the game, though it does get my wholehearted recommendation. Instead I’m here - as blatantly given away by the title - to talk about the music.

With such a far-out plot, you can reasonably expect far-out music. Atmosphere is supremely important. I’m not going to say the music is what ties the package together - the superb writing is the real star here. However, the music matches the rest of the super awesome quality the game brings to the table.

 The soundtrack is incredibly diverse. I couldn’t really nail down a specific genre the tunes belong to, but each one has a deserved place in the narrative to add emotional emphasis.

Since I can’t make blanket statements about the soundtrack, I’ll be picking apart a few key songs, and describing how they fit into the game and work as an asset to the narrative.

DANGANRONPA

Naturally, we should start with the theme song. The idea of the theme song is awesome in itself, because how many games nowadays have an honest-to-God theme song?

It’s not very long, and it doesn’t need to be. The main melody is one the game comes back to in a lot of tracks, and it emphasizes the eerie urgency the game constantly throws at you. The murder mystery setting never lets you ease into comfortable safety. Once the story really kicks in, it’s a non-stop edge-of-your-seat thriller, and the theme song and it’s accompanying melody enforces that.

The lead-in starts out slow, with an almost spooky sound. It crescendos, and DANGANRONPA speech signals the shift in tone. After that it’s full force, guitars and percussion kicking in to drive home the thrill.

It’s a good tone summary of the rest of the soundtrack, both in instrumentation and presentation. But the best is yet to come.

Beautiful Dead

This next one plays when the game is setting you up for suspense. It’s also eerie, but with enough positive vibes to lull you into thinking that maybe everything will be okay. The synth melody with accompanying piano harmony work super well. It’s something in the way of a fucked up lounge tune.

It’s cautious music, and music that emphasizes many of the emotions one goes through while nervous. The track doesn’t stick to one specific mood. It’s all over the place. Symbolism! It’s repeated throughout the game pretty often, and the end result is typically unpredictable. Sometimes it leads you to a devastating reveal. Sometimes it leads you to a false alarm. You never know what the game is setting up for, and that’s what I like about it.

Living to the Fullest / Buzzkill

Living to the Fullest kicks in when the game goes full sinister. the shit has hit the fan, and most likely your school life has been pretty rocked. After a blast of sound comes fast tempos and hard tones.

You may be mourning the now-recent loss of a favorite character, or reeling from a brutal plot twist. Whatever the reason, it’s usually accompanied by a feeling of general despair. A key theme of the game, and anyone who’s played it will be all too familiar with that despair.

Despair-Syndrome

This one is the aftermath. You’ve been hit hard, and you need to deal with it. Moving forward, things won’t be the same. What the hell is going on? How can I possibly win in a scenario like this? It’s a hopeless one, and despair is the clear theme here. It’s all about the atmosphere.

 It's so spooky. This is probably the track that will make you feel the most uneasy, the most vulnerable. In this world, anything can happen. 

Box 15

Without a doubt, this one is my favorite - and also one of the most important. This is the investigation theme. Once a murder has been discovered, it’s your job to figure out whodunnit. Being a video game, of course it’s entirely up to you to figure out what went wrong. While you have a (depleting) number of classmates, for the most part save a few exceptions they’re relatively useless. You need to seek out Truth Bullets, pieces of evidence you use to enforce your argument once trial starts.

It feels urgent. And impressively, it makes you feel important.

While the soundtrack to Danganronpa clocks in at almost 60 different tunes, many of the same themes get repeated pretty frequently. 60 sounds like a huge number, but it runs into the dangerous territory of becoming repetitive, as many of the narrative moments rely on the same audio cues to set up their atmosphere.

Box 15 never got old, though. Investigations were always something I looked forward to, they’re the part of the game that lets you feel the most directly involved in this super-twisted reality. This is one of the most high-energy tracks in the album, and it works really well to give the player motivation.

The resolution of Danganronpa will devastate you. Once the climax of the story has been reached, it’s a roller coaster ride of twists and revelations that leaves you drained. Most of the music in the game doesn’t make for engaging listening on your own, but in context and with proper emotional story hooks, they blend in flawlessly. A good soundtrack punctuates story and visual emotional cues, and the soundtrack backing for Danganronpa makes for some awesome experiences.

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6:49 PM on 01.26.2015

Bomberman Hero | Critical Hit Records #1

Welcome to Sounds Like Games, a tentatively-titled fairly-regular column in which I talk about video game music, and why it works so well when implemented correctly. 

Sometimes, I can’t tell the difference between a game I legitimately think is great, or a game I remember being great when I was a kid. Nostalgia has a way of glossing over a game’s faults, when back in the day you were more inclined to be happy with what you had. We remember games for what it did, and not what it didn’t. Bomberman Hero is a game that probably isn’t objectively that great, but I loved it then so naturally I have a soft spot for it now.

It’s a 3D platformer that came out during the time when everyone and their mothers wanted to cash in on the 3D platformer trend. Super Mario 64 had just hit the scene, and hot damn did everyone want to ride that gravy train until it derailed. The Bomberman games had - up to that point - stuck to a tried and tested formula up until the 32/64-bit era. They featured top-down adventures slightly reminiscent of Zelda, sans exploration. Developer Hudson Soft first brought Bomberman to the polygonal age with Bomberman 64, which has aged considerably better than the subject of today’s article. Bomberman 64 was a top-down adventure game that had as much emphasis on exploration as it did action. It also included the traditional Bomberman multiplayer, which I feel justified enough to call iconic. It’s a worthy title in the pretty stellar N64 library.

Bomberman Hero came out a year later, and with it a drastic shift in focus. Before, Bomberman had never really done much in the way of platforming. Hell, I don’t think he could even jump in any game before this. The added mobility dramatically changed how the game was played. Instead of sprawling, puzzle-like worlds, Bomberman Hero set you loose in short gauntlets of action and combat. More focus was put on the enemies and the platforming, with an actual health system and big boss fights.

Replaying it now, I can’t say that it’s a bad game, by any means. It’s simple. Which is okay! Playing it after running through a master class game like Banjo-Kazooie or Super Mario 64 however, will leave you feeling a little let down. The stages are nothing special, and the combat is nothing to write home (or articles on the internet) about.

 

However, In an inoffensive game that can be mostly summed up with a “meh”, one wouldn’t expect to find such a rockin’ soundtrack. Indeed, the soundtrack to Bomberman Hero is the one part of the game I can confidently call “great” - with a bit of a catch.

Longtime Bomberman composer Jun Chiki Chikuma sets up a soundtrack that has an obvious consistent musical focus throughout. Never straying too far from a set style of drum beats and synth tones, most of the songs share the same defining characteristics in their sounds.  If you’re familiar, it’s easy to recognize any one of these songs as a Bomberman Hero song, and that’s mostly thanks to the drums.

Listen to this song, which is my absolute favorite from the game. It comes in during the first stage, and it’s found in a handful of stages after that. It defines pretty much the rest of the soundtrack. If you don’t like this you’re probably not going to like the rest.

The urgent pitter-patter of those drums never slow up on nearly every single one of these songs. Repetitive? Maybe, but the neo-future melodies and synth do good work to pull their weight and make those beats feel right at home, especially in the context of the game. Bomberman goes planet-hopping on his way to the big bad of the game, and the space theme gets reflected in the music.

It may be polarizing, I expect this brand of music can be pretty love-it-or-hate-it. And man, if you hate it, you’re going to hate every bit of it.

 

Luckily, I like it. And I liked it during a period of time where this kind of stuff defined my future taste in music. The kinds of things you like as a kid eventually evolve into your modern taste, and I see that reflected in Bomberman Hero and it’s soundtrack.

The spacey melodies are really damn great at getting their hooks into me. They’re the kind of tunes I find myself humming throughout the day, for no reason other than it’s so damn simple and pleasant. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it simple, as there’s an obvious amount of production value in the set, but the lack of variety in the sounds hold it back from being considered a classic.

These are the kind of tunes that, while great in the context of the video game world, may not necessarily encourage a lot of independant listening. Having it on while writing this piece, I’m already getting a little tired of the non-stop percussion pressure. Sure, I can listen to an hour-long loop of Redial completely through, but most of the other songs don’t stand up to that kind of repetition.

The music works best as an atmospheric asset. The graphics and the art style don’t do a whole lot to support the space-opera theme the game goes for, so the music steps up to fill in those gaps. Granted, the N64 and many of it’s games haven’t aged too well, and their music is one of the only things that consistently hold up.

On the whole, Bomberman Hero is worth checking out, if you’re in the market for a decent action-platformer. It’s rough around the edges, but what it does right it does oh so right. The soundtrack is a curiously strong standout to an otherwise mostly forgettable game.

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1:29 PM on 08.30.2013

Soundtrack Showcasing: PixelJunk Eden



Throughout this piece I'll be sprinkling highlights of the soundtrack. Now, a lot of the songs take a long time to build. So, if you don't have the patience, please skip around to get a feel for the songs, at the very least!



Like a lot of niche indie titles, PixelJunk Eden (and to reduce redundancy Iíll refer to it as just Eden) is a game I wish had gotten more attention. The third game in the (mostly) PSN-exclusive PixelJunk series, Eden seemed to be the first that received a heavy focus on art style and presentation. Developed, like the rest of the PixelJunk series, by Q-Games, they collaborated with Japanese artist Baiyon for the soundtrack and the art style. (It was a good choice.) Defined by itís crazy super saturated colors and pulsing soundtrack, Eden was met with immense critical acclaim when it was first released.

Itís hard to categorize Eden game in any specific genre. Side-scrolling platformer would probably be the closest, but it has a few fresh and unique qualities to it that removes it from typical genre definement. Without getting into too much of an in depth gameplay summary, the basics can be summed up like this: The player takes control of Grimp, a small something-or-other whose ultimate goal is to collect five Spectra in each stage. There is absolutely nothing for exposition to set the game up, which I think works to itís credit. Grimp is dropped into the overworld right when the game starts, the first level immediately in front of him. In each level, Grimp gathers pollen to fill seeds, from which plants grow to create platforms that allow Grimp to reach the Spectra. The more Spectra he gets, more levels become available. Grimp is able to reach Spectra using jump skills even a certain famed plumber would envy. You stick to every surface you hit, an ability which shows off an immense disinterest in gravity. A timer is constantly present and ticking down, and unless you collect more time droplets (Thereís probably a technical term for them. I donít know what it is) the level ends when it runs completely down. Hereís a gameplay video to give you an idea:



For reference, here's Destructoid's review, for a more in depth look at the game as a whole:†http://www.destructoid.com/review-pixeljunk-eden-pc--221378.phtml

It all works together to create a platforming game that imbues the player with a sense of curiosity and exploration, while still emphasizing the importance of haste. This, here, is what leads us to the subject of the soundtrack.

Without a good audio backdrop to the game, If, say, you had to play it on mute, I would still consider it worth playing for the mechanics alone. The music is an enhancer, a companion to the mechanical strengths the game brings to the table.



Iím going to again ask you to give these songs time to build up. Listen all the way to the end, if you have the patience. Most of these songs donít really ďhitĒ until further into them, but they usually have many layers and instruments that donít kick in until much later. That being said, this actually compliments the gameplay wonderfully. Each stage as itís own song, so when Grimp returns for each of the 5 Spectra, the same audio will greet him. When the player starts any particular stage for the first time, everything is open and ripe for exploring. Youíre largely directionless, and thatís okay. As the player gets closer to the Spectra, determination ramps up, and so does the music. Instruments are added and the repetitive beat gets more fleshed out. Itís effective because itís a perfect companion to the environment around you, and the nature of how the gameplay is guiding you.



Though there is terrain and obstacles around you, as far as plant life goes the stages usually start out fairly empty. I like to think that mirrors the songs themselves, since most of them start out fairly simplistic. The way the songs loop in the game is set up so that they never really drop much intensity. The level starts out barren, the songs start out slow. The tunes grow with the literal growth of the stage, so as the player starts to fill the level with pollen and seeds, so too does the songs fill with additional sounds. The implications of this are incredibly smart, and I have to applaud the clever game design for this.



By the end of a level; say, when Grimp has found 4 of the 5 Spectra and the pollen-collecting balls have been filled to bursting growth, it feels like a garden. Plants are everywhere, creating a platforming playground to jump and swing from. Sometimes I get frustrated with the timer, since itís a world thatís a joy just to spend time in, and I would like to linger every now and then. Unfortunately, the music drives on, and the search has to continue.

The soundtrack is all electronic, and usually fairly minimalistic. When looking at the saturated, monochromatic art style of the game in front of you, the sounds fit in snugly. I knew the credit to artist Baiyon for the music, but when I learned he had a part in producing the art and style of the game, it made complete sense to me. They fit together wonderfully, each a compliment to the other. Itís striking, simple art, to support a simple gameplay style.



Most of the songs are slow building like these, so if that isnít your bag it might not be a good fit for independant listening. The argument can be made that it can get repetitive. While I would sometimes agree with that point for the sake of listening on my own time, any repetitive annoyance never hit me when I was actually playing. Still, I end up turning to this soundtrack frequently while doing everyday tasks like homework and writing. Needless to say, I recommend both the game and the soundtrack. If you are interested, make sure to pick up the Encore DLC pack, which comes with a few extra stages and thus, extra songs.



Pixeljunk Eden is available on both Steam and the PSN. As of writing the Steam version retails for $9.99 (without discount), and the soundtrack bundle is $14.99. These prices include the ďEncoreĒ pack, and the Encore songs for the soundtrack. Having spent time with both versions, Iíd give the Steam version the edge, since the mouse controls work much better for the gameplay style.

The price is worth it, both for the game by itself and the independent listening that should come after.

Iím so sorry for just gushing this entire time. I promise I can be critical, but there honestly isnít much to be critical about. This is just one of my favorite games.

So thatís it. Let me hear some of your feedback, what you liked and what you didnít. Iíve been on the internet, and Iíve read a comment or two, so donít hold back. Thanks for reading!

You can contact me on Twitter, or leave a comment below!   read


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