Friday, March 27, 2015

Mellow Video Game Music

I often find the stresses of my job, and day-to-day life, can be soothed almost instantly by the right song. I've created a playlist of music that helps me mellow out and it is entirely comprised of tunes I've picked up over my many years of gaming. I thought I'd share some of those songs, so kick up your feet and get ready to chill!

5. "The Starlit Wilds" - Shovel Knight (Wii U) - Jake Kaufman

I've written about how much I enjoyed last year's retro indie release Shovel Knight in my last list, so check that out for more on the game. I mentioned in that list how much I enjoyed the music in Shovel Knight, but there was always one song in particular that stood out above the rest.

"The Starlit Wilds" was the music that accompanied all of the campfire scenes in the game (you'll have to play it to know what I mean!) and every time I made it to one of those moments I would instantly relax and take in the pseudo 8-bit world of Shovel Knight. It's a really beautiful piece from Jake Kaufman aka virt. I'd never heard of his name before Shovel Knight, but he's been in the business since 2000's remake of Q*Bert.

I don't know if there are plans for a Shovel Knight sequel at Yacht Club Games, but I'd love more retro-inspired games with music from Mr. Kaufman!

4. "Colony 9/Night" - Xenoblade Chronicles (Wii) - Yoko Shimomura

Although I loved my Nintendo Wii from the moment I opened it back in 2006, nearing the end of its lifecycle the "Little System That Could" received some serious titles, and none so famous as Xenoblade Chronicles, which many can thank Project Rainfall for having released here in North America.

There is so much to love about Xenoblade Chronicles, but I think anyone playing it for the first time will be gripped by two things: the spanning, gorgeous landscapes and the beautiful orchestral soundtrack that accompanies them.

There are a great many tracks from composer Yoko Shimomura's Xenoblade Chronicles soundtrack that stick out in my mind, but none so beautiful as "Colony 9/Night". It's a moving, calming piece that I typically don't go through my workday without listening to at least once.

Yoko Shimomura has had a mind-blowing career, which includes creating music for such classics as Street Fighter II, Parasite Eve, and the Kingdom Hearts series, but make sure to do yourself a favour and listen to some of the tracks she composed for Xenoblade Chronicles.

3. "Conquest" - Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS) - Hiroki Morishita

Another game to knock my socks off in recent years was 2013's Fire Emblem Awakening on the Nintendo 3DS. I had only played one other Fire Emblem title many years previous on the Gameboy Advance and the time was nigh for a new tactical/strategy RPG experience.

The soundtrack for FE: Awakening has many stand-out titles to choose from, but the moment I heard "Conquest" by composer Hiroki Morishita - whom from what I can tell is a relatively new composer with a handful of Nintendo titles under his belt - I instantly had to search the song out and add it to my aforementioned video game music playlist. In fact, it is the first song I listen to from that playlist daily.

From what I can tell "Conquest" is only played when you take on random encounters with enemies and in some of the DLC battles from FE: Awakening. If you were to play the entire game only battling the story-required fights and didn't play any DLC you might never hear it, which would be a crying shame!

2. "On the Beach of Dreams (Another World)" - Chrono Cross (PSX) - Yasunori Mitsuda 

The first time I played Chrono Cross was with a sense of trepidation. I had a great reverence for Chrono Trigger on the SNES and I knew that this game was not a direct sequel to that, but some sort of spiritual successor and I wasn't sure how to feel about that.

I remember that all those thoughts were dashed away in an instant the first time I booted up that game on my Sony Playstation. The music that plays in the intro of the game is called "Scars of Time" and you are instantly swept up in it. Created by Yasunori Mitsuda, composer of hit games like Xenogears and Chrono Trigger itself, "Scars of Time" takes you on an emotional roller coaster and coupled with the exciting video montage from the game I knew in a matter of moments that I was going to enjoy Chrono Cross.

And I'm not even here to talk about that song! It's far from mellow, but you should most definitely check it out.

It's been about 15 years since I've played Chrono Cross, and the details are a little hazy, but I believe "On the Beach of Dreams" is the main theme for the world map in Another World. If you want to know what I mean, you'll have to play the game!

It's an incredibly soothing piece comprised mostly of guitar and violin, but most definitely captures the feel and beauty of El Nido and the world of Chrono Cross.

1. "Aquatic Ambiance" - Donkey Kong Country (SNES) - David Wise

There are a lot of songs from video games that hold a very dear place in my heart, but I don't know if any hold a candle to "Aquatic Ambiance". The instant I hear it I'm drawn back to another time and place; to my Mom and Dad's house in 1994, a cold, wintry setting outside, the houses on the street lit up with Christmas lights, and my little sister and I warm in my bedroom wiling away the evening playing Donkey Kong Country on my Super Nintendo.

The soundtrack to DKC, by composer David Wise, stood out for me as something I'd never heard before in a video game. He so perfectly captured each setting in the game with a different theme; in the mines everything is industrial, in the cold, mountain settings the music is desolate and foreboding, and in the underwater, swimming stages you have "Aquatic Ambiance", which perfectly captures the quiet of the deeps and its constant ebb and flow.

I have such an attachment to this song that I can often have different reactions upon hearing it, depending on my mood. I listen to it almost every day while I work and it has an instant calming effect, but also some times it can play on my nostalgia and make me very homesick for those old days back at my Mom and Dad's without a care in the world.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cole's Favourite Movies of 2014

I figured I might as well do one of these since seeing Shane's was quite different. Once again, I haven't really seen a ton of releases from the past year so there wasn't a lot for me to choose from. So probably no big surprises here if any at all.

*Note: A lot of people consider Miyazaki's The Wind Rises a 2014 release since, while made and released in 2013 in Japan, it didn't come out in North America till early 2014. That's when I saw it in the theatre but I still consider it a 2013 release, otherwise it'd easily take the #1 spot here.

5. Big Hero 6
Disney's first take on a Marvel property since buying the big M and everything within it basically takes the title and throws everything else out the window. Which was really the best way to go if you ask me. And that they chose such an obscure thing (a limited series from 1998 featuring the X-Men's Sunfire plus some newly-created characters that was basically a sort of tribute to manga and anime) was probably a good move too. As soon as Disney acquired Marvel there was an outcry amongst fans who were concerned they'd start messing with the brand. But they really haven't. They knew Marvel was already awesome and didn't need any "fixing". No one wanted to see "Disney presents Spider-Man" or "Disney's Uncanny X-Force" and thankfully, they knew it. Although that Ultimate Spider-Man show is annoyingly kidsy...but I can live with it.

So Big Hero 6, despite all its changes, still is a superhero movie of sorts. From the same studio that brought us Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, it does also somewhat maintain the Japanese style with its look, some of the character names and its setting, Sanfransokyo - a fictional combination of...well, I think you can probably work that out on your own. It's bright and colourful, fast-paced and quite funny. The robot Baymax is an instant classic character with lots of funny lines and moments and the rest of the cast, while not nearly as memorable, still works quite well.

With all the more serious and complicated superhero movies coming out these days (which naturally, I think is a very good thing), it's still nice to have a more simple and lighthearted option both adults and kids can enjoy.

4. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
I wasn't the biggest fan of taking a three hundred page novel and stretching it into a trilogy of movies two and half hours each but hey, they did pull it off pretty nicely. A lot of content had to be added for this to be achieved and while I was expecting this to annoy me, by the time the third film came along I was actually looking forward to seeing what additions there would be. In a lot of ways, the added stuff helps tie the story together a little better.

A good example of this would be the prominence of the orc leader, Azog. In the novel, he's simply mentioned by Gandalf as having killed Thorin's grandfather, Thror, in a battle in the mines of Moria. Well. In the films he is front and centre as a major antagonist and it really gives a sense of purpose and continuity to the various clashes Thorin's group has with orcs leading up to the huge battle in the third part. In the book, Bilbo, Gandalf and the dwarves encounter several different groups of orcs but in the films, it's understood that they're being purposely hunted by a group led by Azog, whom they (the dwarves) had believed dead. (Incidentally, in the novel, he was dead by this point, having been killed by the dwarf Dain after Azog had killed Dain's father Nain. Dain also appears in the film, played by Billy Connolly).

Also, Fili and Kili's deaths are given a bit more meaning (they also died in the novel) by having their characters greatly expanded on, up to and including an almost romance between Fili and the elf Tauriel (a character not in the book but invented for the films). Tauriel's inclusion also creates an opening for Legolas, who doesn't appear in the novel either but since he is the son of the king of the Mirkwood elves, Thranduil, who is quite prominently featured, having him appear doesn't seem far-fetched or gratuitous.

The film has great performances and everything has the proper epic feel we've come to expect from the franchise. Even though things can be a bit convoluted at times, it all comes together in this finale. Some critics have dismissed this movie, saying it lacks the feeling of adventure the book conveys and is overly violent. But they're really missing the point since this is the third part of a trilogy and its title is the name of a BATTLE. How could that not be violent? The book itself may not go into as great detail of the final battle as the film does, but isn't that the entire point of having a movie version in the first place? To give us a different perspective?

I feel I'm definitely a Tolkien purist (in case you couldn't tell from all that stuff above) and these movies satisfy me for sure. I think most critics who took the "too violent" angle were really just being lazy because it's so easy to point to other current movies that are full of CGI and violence and try to make the claim The Hobbit trilogy is just following this shallow trend. And what makes this even more offensive to them (or so they claim) is that this is such a break from the great book upon which it's based. But it's clear to me those critics don't remember the book so well or even that some of them have never read it to begin with.

So I went on a bit of a tangent there. All you really need to know is that this movie, while perhaps an easy target for lazy critics, is still one of the best of 2014.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel
As with pretty much any film directed by Wes Anderson, I went into this one fully expecting to like it. And - surprise - I did. It features all the hallmarks of an Anderson film: visually striking and memorable locations, quirky and complex characters, charming music that fits each scene perfectly and an unconventional plot.

As of this writing, I've only seen it the once, which was more than a year ago, so I can't remember a lot of details. I plan to watch it again soon. But I do remember that Adrien Brody's performance is probably my favourite of his career so far. He plays one of the film's villains and he's excellent.

I also recall that the narrative doesn't just use one framing device but two. Maybe three? The story unfolds as a flashback which then dives into another flashback. This isn't as confusing as it sounds because the action stays on course and doesn't do any more time-jumping. Actually, when it's wrapping up, it's easy to have forgotten how it started so when we jump back to the "present" and then it happens again, it's kind of weird. But in no way detrimental, I can assure you. The story flows very well.

I can't really delve much further into detail since the movie isn't fresh in my mind at the moment but I still feel confident in giving it this lofty #3 spot. So you KNOW it's good, right?

2. The Raid 2: Berandal
If not for the makers of this movie and its predecessor, The Raid: Redemption (2011), I might have lost all faith in the action genre moving forward. Let's face it, after the bounty that was the eighties and nineties, the 00's were a big letdown in the action department. Sure there were definitely some standout gems to be found but if you ask me, not all that many. Both Raids are simple and straightforward in their plots and brilliant in their execution. As for Berandal, which is the one I'm supposed to be discussing here, it was tough to believe it could top Redemption. Hell, Redemption was so good it was tough to believe Berandal would even measure up. But I believe it does measure up for sure. And while longer and more complex than Redemption, I believe it succeeds by still keeping things simple.

After all, the plot is one of the most used we've seen in the action and crime thriller genres. We've got our hero going deep undercover to infiltrate an extremely dangerous organization. He even gets himself sent to prison to further cement his status as a real criminal. Yeah, we've all seen that once or twice before. But when it comes to the element that matters the most for this movie, that is, the action, I doubt you've seen much before that compares to this film.

Once again we're treated to spectacular fight scenes showcasing multiple styles of martial arts (although still predominantly Silat, but hey, that's a very diverse one) as well as multiple weapons. And where Redemption offered us one comic book-type of bad guy (Mad Dog), Berandal gives us several. This includes a female antagonist (something totally absent in the former) whose weapons are hammers and a guy who gets a lot more out of wielding a simple baseball bat than you'd think possible. I'd say more about that but don't want to spoil it for the uninitiated. But yeah, this movie is violent as all hell and it's awesome.

The character of Rama has been cemented in my mind as one of the all-time great action heroes and if you haven't yet seen his handiwork, do yourself a favour and check it out.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Hey, check it out: a comic book film in the #1 slot. Who would have guessed? OK, maybe that's not too shocking to some of you. But those who know me and my love of comics are also acutely aware of how said love makes me intensely hard on movies based on them. And sadly, I'm yet to see a movie based on my very favourite Marvel characters that I think does them any justice at all. The second Spider-Man series of films pleases me more than the first but still, not enough. And don't even get me started on my INTENSE SEARING HATRED for most of the X-Men movies. Seriously, don't go there.

Captain America was a character I never appreciated until I actually started reading some comics where he was a main character, that being Brian Bendis's initial run on New Avengers (that being the entirety of Volume One). Before that I'd always been quite disdainful of Cap and the rest of the Avengers. They were Marvel's premiere superhero team and I never could understand why. The X-Men and their related teams were all so much cooler. I still feel that way but I've definitely developed a new appreciation for "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" over the past decade and Cap is probably the character I've gained the most respect for.

But it's time to digress, I think. There is, after all, a movie to talk about.

I loved the first Captain America film and was anticipating its sequel as soon as the credits started rolling. I had to wait a few years but it was worth it as I was presented with the best Marvel movie I've seen so far. I don't just mean Marvel Studios movie either. I mean best movie based on a Marvel property, period. Yes, Avengers is the big one and a lot fun and, for reasons I don't fully understand, everyone lost their minds over last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy. But Winter Soldier tops them both in my mind. It's pretty cool that the top two films on this list are both sequels to movies I adored. Usually sequels just let me down or piss me off.

Anyway, as far as the merits of this movie go, I don't really feel like getting into them too much after such a long-winded introduction. Just see the movie. It really succeeds in bringing some of that secret agent-style feel that Ed Brubaker brought to the comic in the mid 00's. Which makes perfect sense since the whole Winter Soldier arc was his doing. Black Widow and The Falcon are good in supporting roles (which is doubly impressive for a character as lame as Falcon) and you've even got Robert Redford in the mix. It's also just really convenient timing that we currently have a French Canadian martial arts champion branching out into film just in time for this film -  we get to see one of Cap's longer-running villains given life on the big screen and actually made to look cool. In at least his early, believe me, this really wasn't the case. Anyway the result is a really strong cold open culminating in a great one-on-one fight scene.

Like most people, I am super excited for the next Avengers movie but to be honest, Cap 3 (which will draw from the "Civil War" storyline in the comics) is what I really can't wait to see. Think about it - a trilogy of comic book movies where ALL of them are good? Has that ever happened?