It’s a new month, and the beginning of the double digits for this column. Did I think we’d make it this long? Nope. But then I don’t know if I thought videogames would make it this long. I certainly never expected to be 37.
But here we are. Me, still old and nostalgic. Games, still going through some serious shit. And the world, still in the grip of a pandemic as government officials continuously display their regressive, selfish malice and abject incompetence, all to prop themselves and their rich buddies up in an increasingly failed and morally bankrupt economic and political system.
“Games are about feeling powerful, and you getting your way,” Leigh Alexander once remarked. She deployed it with the layered potency only a sharp, envenomed media critic could. But I’m borrowing from her so that we can talk about a genre where you can hang out with your cool friends and go slay fascists, zealots, and God.
I know Japanese role-playing games are often about reestablishing a monarchic status quo, or feature a problematic pastoralism, or indulge in deeply conservative ideology at times. But the tunes fucking rip.
Yes, we’re doing more JRPGs this week, because I say so. But not full soundtracks. This is a new month. A prelude to hope. Maybe August will be better. Probably not, but the tracks I’ve selected for you this week bring hopeful inspiration and an awareness of the grim determination you need to kick ass. Let’s start a new adventure.
Games are about being powerful, and this column is me getting my way.
I want to rock out and punch God with my overleveled anime friends and maybe save the world.
I never finished either of the first two RPGs that came out in America for the PlayStation. The first, Beyond the Beyond, was a fairly styleless, by-the-books “JRPG” (I know it’s a silly complicated term but it’s what we have) held over from the 16-bit era before it.
And then there was Wild Arms.
I don’t like Westerns. I don’t find the aesthetic compelling, and I generally hate the political underpinnings of the genre. And while Wild Arms had decent enough 2D artwork, the 3D battle sequences were neither visually nor mechanically compelling to me. It’s still pretty good though? And there sure are a lot of them now. While I might have fallen off, I have to tell you…
Damn did the opening hit! Still does!
Borrowing from the budget-constrained sound of Spaghetti Westerns, Michiko Naruke pulls musical ideas from Ennio Morriccone as much as she does Classical European composers. Minor keys shimmer over with major tonalities. Brass and strings course through moments of hand claps, harmonica, and reverb-heavy guitar. The resultant mix is one of dense high fantasy bombast and the echo-y expanse.
But it’s the opening that has always stuck with me. “Into the Wilderness” sets the stage for Naoki Takao’s plaintive frontier whistling with lone acoustic fingerpicking, then builds into a sweeping anime adventure where the intrusion of industry pierces a magical environmentalist urging.
Of course, long before Wild ARMs brought us the slick MADHOUSE directed anime opening, there was Working Designs’ localization of Game Arts’ Lunar: The Silver Star.
The Sega CD never really landed, and aside from animated cutscenes unrealized on cartridges and higher fidelity CD audio (with the resultant issues of waiting for the track to restart the short BGM loops—it was a thing), it wouldn’t be until the next generation that the media format truly came into its own for JRPGs.
Until then composers Noriyuki Iwadare, Hiroshi Fujioka, Isao Mizoguchi, and Yoshiaki Kubodera would use this new technology to propel Lunar: The Silver Star from just another RPG on an uncompelling console extension to a classic, charming expression of the genre, if one overshadowed by the ascendant dominance of Final Fantasy and the myriad of other JRPGs released in America.
I didn’t have a Sega CD, but I was fortunate enough to have a mother who let me rent one from Blockbuster week after week until I finally beat Lunar (those dungeons are no joke). That was the only game I cared about. Really, it’s a fairly by-the-numbers 16-bit JRPG. It was 1992, and both the mechanics and aesthetics reflect that. Right down to the opening theme.
Slightly rearranged, and given new lyrics by Victor Ireland, “Into the Darkness” is the most late ‘80s/early ‘90s localized AnimEgo OVA-like nonsense imaginable. Yes, it is embarrassing, and it unequivocally slaps. Vocalist Shiya Almeda kills it.
Fun fact: you could plop the game disc in your average CD player and totally rock out to the soundtrack, a benefit of the format for this and many other games using the same audio standard. And I absolutely did this.
What? Don’t look at me like that. You can’t deny this whips.
Okay, sure. The introductory monologue by Laura Bailey isn’t technically part of the opening theme, but we cannot discount it. That’s the first thing you hear before the collection of cutscenes spliced together are forcefully injected into your body as Yoko Taro’s more creative, problematic, multimodal, and bizarre prequel to Automata begins.
Once Kainé’s done yelling at Weiss, the choir hits, arcing over the murmurs of organ, the deep resounding church bell. It recedes only for a moment to make room for the cavalcade of militant drumming that drives the rest of the song with the choir swelling—triumphant, elegiac.
I know I’ve talked about Nier’s soundtrack before, with good reason. It’s indomitable. But the opening of Nier sets the stage for a messy, inspired adventure in a way that only Chrono Cross can beat. And, in an era of everyone using muddy mixes of boring choirs in their games, we have no choice but to stan a master who truly understands how to wield it.
If you ask me if I love Yoko Shimomura, I will tell you without hesitation, “Yes, I love Yoko Shimomura.” But the answer is perhaps more complicated. See, I don’t love Kingdom Hearts’ soundtrack, and I don’t even remember Final Fantasy XV’s. There’s a few soundtracks that just didn’t land for me.
I definitely still hold a grudge against Adventures in the Magic Kingdom.
But when freed from the constraints of Disney Bullshit, and unimpeded by the existential nightmare of Tetsuya Nomura’s Boy Adventures with overlong development cycles, she is an unrivaled queen.
The icy piano of Parasite Eve’s opener that creeps and drips with all the grim dread of ‘90s Thriller as we pan over the Statue of Liberty? Love it. The angry, abrasive guitar cranking to life like the crunch of a diesel engine? Love it. And then the explosive dance that brings the established guitar and piano motifs into an extended rapture of mid ‘90s electronica with martial drumming and the evocation of siren? Shit yeah.
Look, if you’re going to open a body horror pseudoscience cop thriller in the wake of Se7en, this is how you fucking do it.
So, yeah, I love Yoko Shimomura. I love her when she’s dressing up a decisive win for me in the arcade with Street Fighter 2, when she’s a mess of mixed-up world music and Celtic strings in Legend of Mana, and sure, I even still love her when Traverse Town has earwormed its way into my brain for the ten-thousandth time.
But when it comes to Parasite Eve, I would wage eternal war against an army of dude composers who think they understand how to sell “urban noise” for a queen who actually knows what she’s doing.
You know this. Gamers have this baked into their DNA like genetic memory at this point. Nobuo Uematsu’s “Prelude” to Final Fantasy is arguably one of the most iconic themes in videogames.
It’s just two arpeggios. Let’s be real. That’s all this really is. Chords played one note at a time. Dueling and harmonizing into one pleasurable delight. Full of magic and potential, it’s gone through countless (metaphor, I know plenty of you are opening up your mp3 folders right now, counting every version just to DM me—don’t do that) orchestrations over the years, been given increasingly higher fidelity treatments, and established itself as an endearing classic in game music.
But let me take you back. All the way to 1989, sitting cross-legged on the floor in a wood-paneled living room, in front of a giant wood-paneled Sony TV and two giant wood-paneled JBL loudspeakers, hooked up to a thankfully not-wood-paneled hi-fi stereo stack. Little hands wrapped expectantly around the grey, black, and red rectangle of the NES controller as this hits, full force, over that sound system, by way of a distortion-prone RF cable.
You kids today think you have it so good with your digital audio. But this? This is why we videogaming. As white-on-blue text fades in on a fuzzy, nearly spherical glass television screen. You’ve never heard anything like this. Zelda? Nah. Metroid? I mean okay, but… Super Mario? Pfft.
This is the real shit right here.
Fuzzy, distorted, loud. The rudimentary capabilities of the Ricoh 2A03 fed into a sound system that has no idea what garbage it’s being asked to perform.
Your delight in that moment. One that carries you for 30 more years. Still inspires and renders you an uncritical child with goosebumps in your Robin, Boy Wonder pajamas. Your parents will never get it, they’ll shriek at the horrible mechanical chirping coming from their expensive sound system they use for Boomer hits like Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender” or the Dire Straits’ Alchemy double live album on the then-practically-unheard-of Compact Disc audio format. And even when the Fantasies stop being Final and become more expensive and more dire productions as the decades wear on…You’ll carry this with you.
In your heart, in your gut. You’ll know.
This is why we videogaming.
Audio Logs is Dia Lacina’s weekly non-linear, non-hierarchical aural odyssey through gaming’s great soundtracks.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.