I love video game music. I love it so much I want to make a career our of it.
In my pursuit of making a career out of it, I've met some people that work in the field and have learned some of the differences between the method from American composers, versus the Japanese counterparts.
Let me explain where I'm coming from by giving some insight on how video game music is sequenced. It's become customary to record video game music today with a live orchestra versus the use of MIDI from the SNES and Genesis days. The term "orchestrated" has been used to describe when this happens, or when journalists think it was recorded. In the case of smaller budgets, the composers rely on technology to trick the listener. Technology has advanced quite a bit to convince the listener that they are hearing real instruments. Sample libraries can be purchased for hundreds, thousands of dollars to convince movie go-ers and gamers that what they're hearing is real. In other cases a "hybrid" score may be used instead, where some of the players are real, but most of them aren't.
This is the standard for European and American composers, but Japanese composers seem to be resistant to the idea. Take Super Mario Galaxy for example. This was the first Nintendo game to use a live orchestra and not even all of the tracks had a live orchestra. I'm not sure if any of you readers out there noticed it, but I certainly did. When a live orchestra (or a good sequenced mockup) is present one can kind of hear the placement of all the instruments within the orchestra:
Notice how far back the percussion guys are? So when I hear a tune and hear the drums really close up, and then farther away in other tracks, it's incredibly distracting. Take a listen to two tunes in Super Smash Brothers Brawl:
Here's the Zelda Overworld Theme
Here's the Termina Field Theme form Majora's Mask
Notice how much closer the drums sound? The top one is real (or really good samples). The other one is clearly MIDI. I'm amazed they come from the same game.
This seems to be common with Japanese game music, and the music sounds not only archaic but old fashioned. This isn't 1997 anymore. So why is it so different with their western counterparts? Kondo argues he had to pull strings to get even some of the tunes recorded for Super Mario Galaxy and he lamented on the lack of live players in Twilight Princess. It seems almost as if Japanese developers look at game music as secondary. Nintendo isn't the only culprit either. Listen to the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack. It's not much better, for example.
All is not well on the Western front either. The production values are much better, but there is a stigma that western scores have to be big and bombastic. It's to the point where they all sound the same to me. This isn't to discredit my colleagues. I've met some amazing composers who know their shit. One colleague said this to me "It's funny how we all want to be like American composers, but it's the Japanese composer's whose music we remember." This is extremely true. I'm hopeful given how beautiful and intimate the score to Bioshock was (which was recorded live). But for every Bioshock, there's twenty other scores that have big drums loud brass and repetitive strings. You've all heard those before, right?
I want to point out some of the differences to people that may not have noticed it before, or who may have noticed, but didn't know what was going on. We need to see some changes and improvements in video game music from all parts of the globe. To the western developers: let your composers take more risks. I've heard some of you complain that Japanese game music has too much activity, but there could be a happy medium compared to some of the ambient tracks. Some woodwinds would be nice once and a while. To the Japanese developers: Go to soundsonline.com and buy the East West Gold bundle for orchestra. Start there and get some better samples. There is no excuse to why we should still be hearing 90's MIDI. There is better stuff out there without having to make a huge budget for players.
I'd like to see composers from different parts of the world learn from eachother because in the end it just leads to more immersive and better music for everyone.