Monday, August 10, 2015

More Mellow Videogame Music

Hey, if it takes just copying a fellow Five-O-Ramaer's list to help keep myself productive, I'm not above that. Ryho's idea of creating a playlist out of some of the more soothing tracks videogames (I follow the EGM example and write it as a single word) have to offer is a good one and I plan to implement it myself.

So here are some of the songs that will definitely be on it.

*note: For this list I selected the in-game versions of these songs, foregoing any remixes or different versions like orchestral, piano solo, etc. just so that those seeing them for the first time could experience them as they are in their respective games. But I encourage you to explore different versions as well.

Here's ryho's list as well.

5. "Lazy Afternoons" (Twilight Town's theme)  - Kingdom Hearts 2 (PS2) - Yoko Shimomura
Huge surprise, me picking a Kingdom Hearts song, I know. But how can a song titled "Lazy Afternoons" NOT be mellow? Backed by soft, elegant guitar  picking with the compulsory strings overlaying as the melody comes on (clarinet in the high registers), the song conveys a definite feeling of warmth and tranquility. That's what summer afternoons have always felt like to me, particularly in the later stages and particularly when I was around the age of the game's main characters.

The song also meshes well with sunsets (I must have experienced a thousand of these in Twilight Town), as it gives you a feeling of something pleasant and peaceful just about drawing to a close. When Roxas says the line "Looks like my summer vacation is over" (in the game, not the song), my heart always breaks a little bit, not just for him and his situation but also for myself, as I recall the summer vacations of my own childhood and their inevitable endings.

4. "Tifa's Theme" - Final Fantasy VII (PSX) -  Nobuo Uematsu
And now a Final Fantasy song. I guess the list isn't shaping up to be very original so far but I can't really help it. I can only assume Ryho left selections from that series off his own list because he figured those soundtracks and Nobuo Uematsu are already extremely well known and celebrated. Whatever his reasons, it was a good call because it introduced me to a couple songs I wasn't familiar with. That said, I still feel I have to put "Tifa's Theme" on here.

Now, there is a difference between songs that are mellow and songs that are more...I'm not sure how to put it, starkly beautiful? Anyway, I think the case of "Tifa's Theme" vs my personal favourite track from FFVII, "Aerith's Theme" provides a good example of that. While "Aerith's Theme" starts off very soft and peaceful, it eventually builds into a crescendo that can literally get your heart racing and give you goosebumps. "Tifa's Theme" remains slow and subdued throughout.

I know it's pretty melancholy, which is itself somewhat different from mellow, but I still feel it belongs here. "Farm Boy", also from FFVII, might have been the more obvious choice since it's pretty much all laid back peaceful days without any sadness, but I think for myself personally, I almost prefer a bit of sadness, as this list will reflect.

Much of the mood of this song is based on Tifa's past, growing up with Cloud, starting to have feelings for him that went beyond friendship, and the realization that she's going to lose him. Even though they're reunited after six years, she still carries this feeling (and this song) with her because, in many ways, the Cloud she knew and loved never really came back. Maybe by the game's finale he's actually become a stronger, better Cloud but still I think she yearns for the boy she knew in Nibelheim, when they were both innocent.

3. "Soft Tones On The Sea Breeze" - Lunar: Silver Star Harmony (PSP) -  Noriyuki Iwadare
Once again, with a title like that, how could this song be anything but mellow? Lunar's major theme is music (the other is love) so its soundtrack is even more prominent and important than in most other games. So it's no surprise that it's one of the very best game soundtracks out there. And as far as songs that are mellow go, I'd say nearly half of them would qualify as such. I re-listened to them all and picked what I feel is the best of the bunch. Like many others in the game, the song is carried by a combination of strings and ocarina. I actually do prefer the piano solo version though.

Silver Star Harmony is, of course, the second remake of Lunar the Silver Star (Sega CD), the first being Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete (PSX). Additional music was added with each remake but I do recall this track was in Silver Star Story Complete as well and while I've never played the original game (although I'd buy a Sega CD just so I could), I can't imagine it not being on the original soundtrack (although it isn't listed on the soundtrack that was sold separately). In any case I've selected the newest version of the song for this list.

Listening to this song is a bit like wandering along a deserted beach in a dream. If that's not mellow, I don't know what is.

2." Xion's Theme" - Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days (Nintendo DS) -  Yoko Shimomura
Ok, let's face it: for me, "mellow' is rarely just laid back and peaceful, it also has to be heartbreaking as all hell. It's just how I'm wired, I guess.

"Heartbreaking as all hell" is definitely what's required if you're going to compose a theme for Xion, as she is easily one of the most tragic characters in all of videogames. Like a lot of people, I was first introduced to Roxas, the main character of 358/2 Days, in Kingdom Hearts 2. You play his little bit and it's definitely sad. But then to play 358/2 Days is that much more heartwrenching. For those who haven't played it, I won't spoil anything specific but I do think it's fair to warn you that if you have any kind of a soul, by the time its end credits are running, you're going to be feeling a sadness and emptiness that will cling to you for days. But it's worth it.

The song is structured around a slow and sombre piano part with drifting strings eventually overlaying. An echo-y, xylophone punctuates the melody later on and things eventually get downright Chrono Trigger-esque in the middle. The juxtaposition of high notes over low without ever really much in the middle registers adds to the dreamlike quality - doubly important in this game as its major themes are highly existential and identity-based.

As sad as this song and game make me, it's important for me to relive it. That way, Xion and Roxas will always live on in my own heart.

1. "Smiles and Tears" - Earthbound (SNES) -  Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka
One of the greatest videogame soundtracks of all time - featuring tons and tons of awesome songs - requires a pretty amazing tune for its ending and "Smiles And Tears" certainly doesn't disappoint. Like most good videogame music, it's really best experienced within the game but I'll let you cheat and hear it here. Just know that within the context of finishing the crazy, emotional, funny, surprising, post modern experience that is Earthbound is really the way to go. Of course it's too good of a song to limit yourself to just this rare occurrence, I know. But believe me when I say you owe it to yourself to play through this game in its entirety if you never have before. And if you have, you need to do it again. Even twenty years after its release, it remains a truly unique game, memorable for its visual style, unconventional storytelling, philosophical themes and, of course, brilliant music.

As I said, as a final track, "Smiles and Tears" doesn't disappoint. It carries within it many elements of the songs you've heard throughout the game so, while something wholly different than what came before, still feels very familiar. Hearing it for the first time is like hearing this melody that's been with you the whole time but just under the surface. It's new to you and yet it's like you already know its every note.

One of the more pronounced and obvious themes (of which there are many, some less obvious) of Earthbound is childhood and it's expressed musically (and in other forms as well) beautifully throughout the game at various points. But the ending is where it all comes together. The first time I beat it (seems so weird to me to still use such terminology; the best games out there you don't "beat", you just complete the experience; it's not about winning - too bad Roger Ebert never wrapped his fat head around that) and this song began to play, I felt all the emotions the game had spurred in me during my journey: joy, mirth, longing, sadness, regret, vulnerability and more, all come washing over me. By the time we hear Shigesato Itoi's voice (a very surprising phenomenon on the SNES) utter the words "I miss you", it almost became too much for me. But that was just right. As I've said, it's the way I'm wired.

RIP Satoru Iwata


RyHo Magnifico said...

Fantastic list, man! My playlist just received a few additions.

I think my favourite entries were Soft Tones on the Sea Breeze and Xion's Theme, Xion's Theme being my favourite of the two.

I didn't let myself listen to the Earthbound song, because I've never finished the game. I bought it on the Wii U Virtual Console with the electronic version of the Game Guide, so when I play it to completion I'll be able to hear it as it should be.

cole d'arc said...

i have to commend you for holding off on Smiles And Tears. Earthbound is such an amazing game; it's too bad so few people in North America have experienced it. I'd kill to have Mother and Mother 3 released over here too - i don't suppose the Wii U has those?

RyHo Magnifico said...

I've been listening to Xion's Theme a lot since I read this list. I absolutely love it.

The Wii U actually does have Mother now! They recently released it as "Earthbound Beginnings" on the Virtual Console.

Here's the trailer.

Shane said...

Very chill music indeed. I love Tifa's Theme and I love listening to the FFVII Piano Collection on the regular.

I listened to the ending theme to Earthbound just now even though I've never finished the game. Does this make me a bad person? I've gotten right to the end and ... got distracted? I don't know. I should really go for it again because you're right that it's a unique game with brilliant music.

cole d'arc said...

Shane> Haha, no I don't think it does. And getting right to the end of a great game and then somehow never getting around to actually finishing it is like my calling card. I've done it with a LOT of games over the years and only recently have i set out on a quest to try to correct some cases. So you're doing it with Earthbound is completely understandable, regardless of how great the game is. But hopefully you will push through sometime because the ending lives up to the rest for sure.