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I stumbled across this article today, and thought it worth sharing:

The Best Final Fantasy Music

I love game music.  If I could only listen to three composers for the rest of my life, I’d be happy with Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura.  Of course there are other greats, both in the game industry and in the rest of the music world, but those three shaped my music sense in ways only Mannheim Steamroller, Enya, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach can match.

Uematsu is particularly important because of his work on the Final Fantasy games, which had a marked influence on my spare time as a teen and my present career in video games.  I’m not making epic RPGs, but I see good potential in games, which is why I’m doing what I’m doing instead of pushing for a career animating in movies, like I thought I would when I was a child.

Anyway, here are a few of my favorites from Mr. Uematsu.  Easy picks, perhaps, but still, ones I’m very fond of.

To Zanarkand (the simple piano version is still my favorite, though the orchestral version is really good, too)

Aeris’ Theme (one orchestral version is here)

FFIX Overworld

Piano arrangement of Fisherman’s Horizon (the original game music is good, but I really love the guitar and piano arrangements, and the orchestral pieces are most excellent)

Terra’s Theme

Troian Beauty

And then there’s this gem, which isn’t entirely in English.  I actually prefer game music with lyrics to be in languages that I don’t understand.  That way I listen to them purely as music.  This one isn’t even Japanese.

Home Sweet Home

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Syp of BioBreak and Syl of MMO Gypsy contacted me a little while ago, asking for some art for their newest project, the Battle Bards Podcast.  I’ve been looking forward to this, since I’m a big fan of video game music, and these two have tipped me off to some great stuff.  MMO Gamer Chick is on board as well, and it sounds like they are having fun with it.

The soundtrack for Chrono Cross by Yasunori Mitsuda is perhaps my all-time favorite album in all music genres.  (Though it has stiff competition from The Piano Guys, Chrono TriggerSleepthief, Enya, Austin Wintory, and pretty much any Nobuo Uematsu CD.)  I’m still just dipping my toes into the MMO music scene, but from what I’ve heard so far, there’s a lot there to like as well.

So go check out what those Battle Bards are up to!

Oh, and here’s a set of 1080p desktops of the art that I did for it, and even some shirt options, or maybe a mug, should you feel so inclined.  There’s just something entertaining about an Epic Lute in the MMO conversation space.  Yes, that has to be bolded and italicized.  And purple.  Do not question the Epic.

EpicLute1080pRightText EpicLute1080pLeftNoText EpicLute1080pLeftText EpicLute1080pRightNoText

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…and other uses.

Who knew violins were so flexible?

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…and just because…

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Merry Musical Christmas

Merry Christmas, everybody!

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…and just because, there’s this.

…and a couple of musical toys: Otomata and Circuli

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I like music.  I like games.  Intersections of the two make me happy.

A good chunk of my musical library is game music.  I’m a fan of AudioSurf, a slick little “sound rider” game that can be played as a relaxing cruise through my favorite music or a skill-testing scramble.  Lately, though, maybe because I’ve had a lack of vitamin BSU in my gaming diet (Blow Stuff Up), I’ve really been enjoying Symphony.

Symphony takes your music library (or the one they provide) and asks you to clean out corruption in it, imposed by a malevolent digital entity of some sort.  You fly a ship with four cannons (you wind up with a variety of weapons that you can slot in), reacting to the algorithms that the game uses to make bad guys based on your music.  It’s a delightfully flexible system, with no two songs really playing quite the same way (and each song plays differently for each difficulty level).  The story and character are just kinda… there.  Not bad, just not all that compelling.  I’m not convinced you really need a reason to play a game that’s this simple at its core; just go blow stuff up and have a blast doing it.

The TRON-flavored visuals are excellent, if a bit overwhelming before you get used to filtering the visual chaff.  It’s really satisfying to upgrade your guns a few times, maybe angling them or using a spread cannon or shotgun, and throwing up a huge swath of happy, glowing death, blasting a swarm of bad guys into note-shaped shrapnel.

Most importantly, though, blowing stuff up is glorious fun.  For me, the visuals and story can make or break a game, but only at the margins.  The gameplay is what really matters, and Symphony is simply fun to play.  Set your cannons to autofire (holding down the mouse button for constant fire is a good recipe for carpal tunnel, so autofire is the way to go), and you can just concentrate on flying.  Or maybe try out a Subwoofer weapon that only fires according to the music (where a subwoofer would be used, of course, nicely demonstrated in the game’s trailer).  Or how about a Crescendo weapon, a “charge and release” sort of weapon, or a Missile Rack that functions much the same way, offering devastating firepower in a narrow arc.  Perhaps it’s best to put in that Shotgun or Spread Cannon and just dominate the play field.  Maybe even use that Dual Cannon that fires behind you for those sneaky bad guys that push you out of the “bottom of the screen pocket” that lower difficulty levels allow.

Speaking of difficulty, it’s also a forgiving game.  It presumes that you want to actually play through your whole song, so while your ship may be destroyed, you just respawn after a few seconds.  Your ship can also be partially destroyed, and picking up the “Inspiration” that bad guys drop repairs your ship.  So you can wind up with just one cannon as your wings get clipped, but you can get back in the game after you destroy some bad guys and pick up their offerings.  Of course, your score suffers if you do completely crash, both with a straight score penalty and with missed opportunities to score while you’re regenerating, but there doesn’t seem  to be a penalty just for ship damage that subsequently gets repaired.

Here’s a quick video that I found online that goes over some of the basics.  I kind wish I could make a video, but that’s way down the priority list.

There are some fun “progression/collection” mechanics that unlock the variety of weapons and let you upgrade them, and player-selected difficulty levels which unlock as you play through your library.  This incentivizes playing through different songs, as there is the occasional rare variant of a weapon that packs more punch.  I do wish there were more weapons that did different things, and more that interacted with the music itself, but the dozen or so weapons in the game do provide a good mix of attack options without becoming overwhelming, and simplicity in game design isn’t really a bad thing.

…there’s room for a sequel, that’s all I’m saying.

In the meantime, though, Symphony is a sweet game that even stole some time I might have been playing Torchlight 2, the other game I was really happy to pick up in the Black Friday sales.  I got Symphony at GoG.com’s “five for $10″ sale, along with the Blackwell Bundle, Botanicula, Resonance and Unmechanical.  …as if my game backlog wasn’t full already.  Still, for $20 I picked up 9 games that I’m really looking forward to playing.  I’ve dabbled with all of them except for the Blackwell games, and so far, I’m happy with them all… though Symphony is the one I keep coming back to.  Yes, yes, Torchlight 2 is a gem, packed with vitamin KSALI (Kill Stuff And Loot It), but it’s more involved.  With my rather constrained game play time of late, the quick play of Symphony really fits the bill.  I’d love to just settle into some marathon sessions of Torchlight 2 or Guild Wars 2, or even Tactics Ogre for the PSP that I got for my birthday, but my schedule is… squirrely.

At least there’s plenty of good gaming in the wings, when I can get to it.

Oh, and just because I wanted to get these out there while I’m thinking about them, I ran into some pretty crazy photographs lately.  Some very cool stuff can be done with very high speed photography and water, as Tim Tadder illustrates with these shots:

Water Wigs

Fish Heads

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More Music

I have been acquiring music at a faster rate lately.  I’ve collected game soundtracks for almost two decades now (the power trinity of Nobuo Uematsu, Yasunori Mitsuda and Yoko Shimomura are still the backbone of that collection, some of which is noted in my last music article thisaway), but it has sort of been a trickle.  Part of that is the expense of getting CDs often only released in Japan.  Part of it is just that I have other things to spend money on.

So what changed?  The Humble Bundle guys started including soundtracks with the games they sell.  The Indie Royale people followed suit.  GoG.com always offered soundtracks when possible, but I’ve been getting more of their games lately, too.  OCRemix.org has always been great at cranking out good music (free!), but I’ve been perusing their projects more lately, and they recently stepped up with a big Final Fantasy VI orchestral project.

I’ve also been more aware of articles like this one from Syp.  The game music industry is growing up.  (I still wish I could get to a Play! concert.)

Edited to add: I also just stumbled across this little gem of a site… I’ll be keeping an eye on their bundles. GameMusicBundle.com

Anyway, I just wanted to share a few of my more recent favorites, and a few oddball pieces that just seemed worth sharing for one reason or another.

Thoroughly Blue, Crystal Chronicles… I love the light, almost Celtic feel to a lot of the music for Crystal Chronicles, and this one covers a lot of the themes in the game.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s “Inner Light” Ressikan Flute music, performed by a full orchestra.  I love that episode.  I’m not the only one.  (And is that a Starfleet uniform on the conductor?  Awesome.  Nerdy, I’ll grant, but I love that nerdiness isn’t a kiss of death any more.)

Secret of Mana has some great tracks, and this is but one collection/overview.  I really would like to find that soundtrack on CD someday.  For less than $30.  Pesky imports.

Tangled soundtrack’s town music… sorry, I’m not sure on the title for this.  It’s just one of my favorite parts of a movie I’m very fond of.  I wish this piece had been longer.

Magic Taboria, Van Canto… this one is really odd.  It’s an a capella metal rock group, weird enough to start with, but they also appear to be… nerds.  They based this song on the MMO Runes of Magic.  There’s just enough absurdity involved that it makes me smile, even though metal rock is far from my favorite.  Really far.

The Bard’s Song, Van Canto… this was my first exposure to Van Canto.  A coworker submitted this to our weekly “Bad Music Tuesday” event, and, well, I kinda like it.  It doesn’t scream “metal” to me, it’s more of the sort of thing I’d expect from a modern “Gregorian Chant”-ish group, infused with gaming and storytelling sentiment.  Weird, I know.

The Final Fantasy Piano collections all sound great to me.  I’m a fan of pure, simple music (like the FFX piano version of To Zanarkand), and I grew up around pianos.  My mother teaches piano, my wife plays sometimes, my sister plays as well, and my daughter is learning.  This is one of my other favorite piano pieces, Eyes on Me from Final Fantasy VIII

And last, but far from least, there’s Austin Wintory, my newest addition to the “favorite composers” group.  He has a lot of great stuff at his site, but this one is one of my favorites, with touches of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack, shades of Mannheim Steamroller (one of my biggest musical influences growing up) and hints of Celtic and Viking spice:

Horn Soundtrack

I like all of it, but Bound in Stone (track 12) is especially fun.  Oddly, perhaps, it reminds me of some of the fun music in the recent Sherlock Holmes movies, but with a more epic feel.

There’s a LOT of good music out there.

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If the eyes are the windows to the soul, I tend to think the ears are… um… also important.  More for the intake than the output, obviously.  So… doors, maybe?  Anyway…

Good music does good things for people.

No, I’m not talking about sappy hippy gunk like Lennon’s Imagine (can’t stand that song) or celebrities pontificating about Christmas in third world nations and whining about first world problems on their day off, no, I’m talking about music that doesn’t set out to preach.  I’m talking about music that sets out to entertain and maybe uplift.  I see it as something akin to Walt Disney’s famous quote:

I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.

…as in, I’m looking at music that just starts out to entertain, and if it happens to feed the soul or teach something along the way, that’s a bonus.

Anyway, I suppose I blame Syp and Syl for this, somewhat.  They share good music clips here and there, so it gave me the itch to do the same. (Should I change my name to Syh or something to fit the mold better?  Decisions, decisions…)

Most of the music I listen to while working or at home is from video game soundtracks.  Occasionally I’ll splash something like Daft Punk’s TRON Legacy soundtrack in there (really good! …but how is putting the whole soundtrack online legit?), but it’s mostly game music.  Convenient, then, that I work in the game industry, perhaps.  Some of my favorites are as follows:

Mirror’s Edge, a quirky first person Parkour platformer, has a great theme song thisaway, titled Still Alive:

Which, of course, should not be confused with Portal‘s Still Alive song, which is also really good, but very different.

Bastion, a great little game, has a wonderful soundtrack.  It’s different from the laid-back sort of music I usually prefer, but it just hits the spot when I’m looking for something a bit more adventurous.  There’s the great Terminal March

and Spike in a Rail for some sweet, sweet banjo rock,

and the incredible Setting Sail, Coming Home duet

(now in acoustic!)

I don’t play Skyrim, but this makes me want to.  Sorta.  I know, the game won’t let me be a killer violin-wielding bard or a chanting Viking, and it’s M-rated, which I avoid, but… that’s some good, stirring music.

And this definitely makes me want to play a Zelda game or two.

Torchlight 2 has a pretty good soundtrack, as does The Ur-Quan Masters (Star Control 2), especially the fan-made remixed version.  There are a LOT of good pieces of music out there, completely free.  Others I picked up during Humble Bundle promotions, like the Swords & Sorcery soundtrack, which is also good… just not free.  You can listen to pieces of it over at their sales site thisaway, though.  I’m particularly fond of the And Then We Got Older track (track 26).

Oh, and for the next 7 hours or so, the Humble Bundle guys have another great bundle up… and they are including the soundtracks.  This is a fantastic move, and I hope we see more of this in the future.  That’s how I got the Bastion and Swords & Sorcery soundtracks, which were each worth the price of the bundle alone, never mind all the other yummy goodness in each bundle.  Games?  Who has time to play those?  The soundtracks, though, I can listen to while I do something else.

Kingdom Hearts is a favorite series of mine, ever since it was announced and I said “wait, er, what?” to the bizarre but fanboy dream pairing of Disney and SquareSoft.  Y’see, I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator (and I could have worked into a Pixar job, but I won’t work in California), and played a fair dose of SquareSoft (now SquareEnix) games in my teens.  My cultural DNA is infused with Disney and SquareSoft, so the pairing of the two just fit for me.  It helps that the games are pretty fun.  The first piece of music I heard was in the teaser trailer for the game, and I’ve been a fan of Yoko Shimomura’s work since.  It’s a delightful mix of an orchestral score and Disney-flavored whimsy.

The intro for Kingdom Hearts is really good, too.

Utada Hikaru’s work is really good in those games, too, with the theme song for the first (Simple and Clean)…

…and second game (Sanctuary) among my favorites to just listen to.  Sanctuary is a bit odd in that it uses lyrics played backwards to punctuate the piece.  It fits with the theme a bit, and just works as mysterious music.  Sometimes I prefer these game pieces in Japanese, since I don’t understand Japanese.  I can just listen to it as music, and not engage the linguistic part of my brain.  It’s a bit like those Gregorian chants that are good listening sometimes; I don’t understand them, so they are just something delightful to listen to.  I think that’s valuable sometimes, as I wrote about a bit in this old article about hummingbirds (sorta).

I would be remiss not to mention Nobuo Uematsu while we’re talking Squaresoft.  He is brillant, even though he’s turning to the dark side in his old age *coughOtherworldBlackMagescough*.  Dear Friends is an oldie but a goodie, though even better on the N Generation CD.

Terra’s Theme is great,

Roaming Sheep is slightly weird, but good,

and almost every gamer has heard Sephiroth’s One Winged Angel, for better or worse.  (I like it, but it’s overplayed sometimes.)  The whole S Generation CD is really good as well.

Uematsu has such a big body of work that this snipped doesn’t really do it justice, but I’m a big fan of his orchestral work.  My favorite, though, is this lovely little solo piano piece, To Zanarkand.

The orchestral version is good, too, but I love the simple piano version best.

Speaking of SquareSoft, I’m a big fan of Yasunori Mitsuda’s work on Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross.  The OCRemix (a great resource, by the way) fan compilation “Chrono Symphonic” is also really good.  My music appreciation gained a lot of depth staring with this ticking clock.

…and Frog’s Theme still makes me smile.  Repetitive as it is, thanks to the nature of game music, it’s still a rousing theme for one of my favorite game heroes.

… but when I really need something to make my day better almost instantly, I often turn to Radical Dreamers (Chrono Cross OST, Yasunori Mitsuda).  The whole 3-CD soundtrack is excellent, Scars of Time perfectly sets the mood (it plays during the game’s intro cinematic)

Dream of the Shore is great “wandering” music…

and Life, Faraway Promise is a fine culmination of the action,

but Radical Dreamers, that’s just right for me.  It’s just… good.  Food for my soul; sweet, delicious fudge.

It’s telling that I know these Japanese artists’ names as well as I know Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Mozart.  I love classical music, and in many ways, I think of these modern composers to be just as talented as the old masters.  That idea may be heresy to some, but even the PLAY! folk see some value in this game music, else there would be no efforts to employ it with a full orchestra in sold out concerts world wide.  (But never in nearby Salt Lake City, the meanies.  Always in the bigger cities, for crying out loud.)  Also, there are gems like Sailing to the World, Yasunori Mitsuda’s non-game composition.  I’ve only heard parts of it, but it’s almost as hauntingly beautiful as the Chrono Cross soundtrack.

These artists are more than mere chiptune flunkies.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with chiptunes… DuckTales in the NES days had some great music.)

There’s a lot here in this industry to value.  Even if it sometimes takes a distant back seat to the other trappings of modern gaming.  There’s a lot of eye candy for those windows to the soul… and a lot of ear candy, too, for… um… whatever portal they are.

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