the artistry and psychology of gaming

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Sound

Sound

If you haven’t yet, it’d likely be prudent to check out the first article in this series; it provides a proper context for what you’re about to read. You may also wish to read the previous article.

Sound is sometimes considered less necessary in an RPG because there are usually no audio cues in time with the action to help you out.  However, I propose the opposite; sound can be even more important because there is less action.  You don’t have legions of baddies storming toward you, giving you a split second to react, and so you need something to set the mood; something to get you excited during battle, sad during the somber scenes, and on-edge during the tense scenes.  Music can evoke primal senses, or it can create a deeper experience; in either case, it is a good way to stir something within the player so that his or her own mood will mirror that of the game.

I must begin this with a set of disclaimers, however; there is no eloquent way to put this, so I’ll be blunt: I suck at music.  I have rhythm, but music theory is so far beyond my comprehension that my lady once spent nearly an hour trying to explain the concept of major and minor keys – including some doodles on a restaurant napkin – to absolutely no avail.  I am simply incapable of adequately describing music, so for this article, I will be describing songs and soundtracks the best I can – often using the same terms over and over – but I’ll mainly let the truckload of YouTube links do the talking for me.  As this is the Internet, and most of these games were made in Japan – and therefore translated from a different language – actual titles of the songs may vary; I cannot promise you that all of my titles will be correct, nor can I promise you that all of them will be wrong where there are conflicts.  You’ll get to see me squirm and awkwardly fumble at my keyboard, just in case you’re into that sort of thing.

Another disclaimer is that I have synaesthesia; a condition in which your senses play with each other.  Simply put, I can see sound, hear color, etc.  This quite literally colors my taste (also literal) in music.  The last is not so much a disclaimer as a notice that I will not be addressing a topic some of you might find crucial in RPG music: vocal tracks.  While, some, like the introductory theme for Legend of Dragoon are okay because they’re separate from the actual game (you can bypass them altogether), most of them feel unnecessary and inappropriate to the medium.  I hate it when movies completely stop what they’re doing to break into some crappy song and dance; it ruins immersion.  This is even worse in an interactive medium; it’s bad enough having lengthy cutscenes – during which the game yanks control from your hands and plays itself for a while – but to have it for something as meaningless as some crappy pop song is sensationalist garbage, not to mention that it can be downright embarrassing.

The best way to make a good first impression with an RPG is to assault your eardrums with a fantastic opening theme.  Dragon Warrior is such a great example of this, that the theme persists in Dragon Warrior games, even today.  The first time I heard those chiptune trumpets blaring out of the speaker of the monaural TV in my bedroom, I was enchanted.  The rest of the game continues with music that feels like it belongs in a classic work of Fantasy, with a setting reminiscent of “Jolly Old England.”  The rest of the soundtrack in a Dragon Warrior game is typically good, but not outstanding, but that opening theme never fails to impress me, no matter the instrumentation; it’s one of the most instantly recognizable themes in an RPG series this side of Final Fantasy‘s prelude.

From there, it’s up to the developers to decide where they want to take the music direction.  Many developers have a style that’s very recognizable, and Kemco is one such developer.  One of the first things that jumped out at me when I played Legend of the Ghost Lion was the distinctive musical style of Kemco during the Third Generation.  As soon as I stepped out onto the overworld, I was instantly reminded of the first world of Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Blowout.  Whether you like it or not, it still reminds you of the developer’s other works.  It was expected on the NES because of how the sound mappers work, but Kemco developed and continued its own musical style for its SNES titles, even though a few of them were ports.  During that time, Kemco adopted a style heavily inspired by the Midi sound format.  It’s cheesy, but I love it, which is why I found the soundtrack to Phantasy Star 2 so pleasant; it’s not a Kemco title, but it still uses a sound very similar to the Midi format.

Music in any medium is often used to convey mood and emotion.  Many emotions are conveyed in RPGs, since they are known for being of a story-heavy genre.  One emotion rarely explored, though, is abject terror.  Few RPGs use this, since most are concerned with telling a story of knights and wizards, battles in outer space, or even a tale set in modern times.  Sweet Home is based upon a Japanese Horror movie of the same name, and so fear is its primary goal.  The music does a great job of this, even though some of its songs just seem like ambient noises.  There are parts that are considerably less scary than others, but when the visuals become dark and foreboding, the music follows suit.  Of course, spooky music isn’t relegated to Horror-themed RPGs; the Dark World from Mystic Ark, though admittedly a horror-themed area, uses music that is very typical of the Horror genre, and has a chaotic feel to it.  Final Fantasy 4: The After Years also has some creepy music.  Part of what make the Mysterious Girl so scary, aside from her demeanor, is the disturbing theme that plays whenever she is present.  When you finally have to battle her, the theme distorts into an intense and appropriately chaotic one, which very effectively conveys one message: you’re going to die.

Final Fantasy 6 has a soundtrack that complements its theme of deep sadness quite well.  The plaintive calls of oboes and flutes resound not only through your speakers, but also within the heart of the player.  Most characters’ themes are very sad, even those of minor characters.  This does more than simply cause the player to feel the overwhelming despair of trying to make things right in the world when so much is wrong; it acts as a foil to the more inspirational moments and songs, giving them a far greater impact, and making you feel the same inspiration that your characters feel.  You start believing that you really have a chance, and in that moment, the soundtrack has you swaying along with it.

As far as conveying moods is concerned, though, Final Fantasy 9 is an absolute masterpiece.  It has so many excellent songs that convey so many different moods, and they all fit into the context of the game without turning it into an emotional train wreck.  The overworld music is just bursting with emotion; my limited emotional capabilities prevent me from assessing just what emotion that is, but you can tell that there’s a lot of feeling put into it.  There are songs that motivate you, like the panicked Run, the heavy Hunter’s Chance, the noble Something to Protect, and the badass You’re Not Alone.  Some are very classy, like the sad elegance of Beatrix’s theme, Roses of May, or the simple, yet organic-sounding Freya’s Theme, which was rearranged and mixed with a bit of despair to create Burmecian Kingdom, which plays when you’re exploring the ruined kingdom of the same name.  Kuja and Beatrix both have excellent villain themes that are very sinister, and thus, quite fitting, as you spend a lot of time knowing the true intentions of neither.  The music you hear on the other planet to which you travel sounds very alien.  Finally, for as much as people complain about the final boss and its revelation, the music is quite fitting, starting off with the shock of agonized voices mirroring your characters’ own shock at being alive, and eventually working into a high-energy fight for your life.

Live-A-Live also encompasses a wide range of themes and emotions, though that is largely due to the fact that its chapters function as self-contained stories.  Even though some are variations main theme – something I find to be very lazy in a soundtrack – they all have a significant impact upon the feel of the game.  You have moments that are very sad, some that are incredibly foreboding, and even those that are downright cheesy, and it all works together very well because of the way the chapter system is structured.  The various themes of the Demon King Odio are all incredibly well done, and make him into quite the fearsome villain with their deep bells and organ work.  As much as it may make me sound like a raving fangirl to keep saying how great every aspect of my favorite game is, I feel I’m entitled; to be my favorite game out of the well over a thousand I’ve played, it would definitely have to be something special to be my favorite, would it not?

Suikoden and Suikoden 2 have their fair share of emotional themes, as well.  When you have one hundred eight main characters, you have to do something to create emotional moments among them, and you can’t rely on character themes when there are so many important people.  The first installment has both of its Themes of Sadness, as well as the Theme of a Moonlit Night, the latter of which is emotionally ambiguous, but is used within the game to convey a number of different feelings, including a homey feel like the town music in Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai; I find this idea of an emotionally adaptive piece of music to be quite fascinating.  The second game has more of this sort of thing, but also has a few character specific themes that work very well.  How was the problem of one hundred eight main characters circumvented?  Simple: write the musical themes for the villains instead.  Luca Blight, an absolute monster, takes an entire army to bring down in an exciting and climactic scene, accented in flame by the music that plays while you engage him in battle.  Neclord also has a battle theme that is the most incredible organ piece that I have ever heard; it’s fast and intense enough to cause in me a mild obsession with organ music for a few weeks.

Each of the first four Breath of Fire games had a distinct musical style, and I’ll be mentioning them all separately.  The soundtrack of Breath of Fire 4 had a very interesting dynamic; the game’s central theme is that of a former emperor trying to reclaim his empire, but the underlying theme – the one that your party encounters – is the war between the empire and the rest of the world.  The empire’s architecture is modeled after that of the Orient, specifically Ancient China.  The rest of the world, by comparison, has a far more European feel to it.  This persists in the music, as well, and not just in the individual towns and dungeons you explore, but even in the battle music.  Outside of the empire, the battle music – both in random encounters and in boss battles – is fairly generic for a JRPG; it’s not bad by any means, but falls far short of noteworthy or even memorable.  Once you enter the empire, on the other hand, the battle music takes on a distinctly Asian feel.  The random encounters feature some of the most fast-paced samisen pieces I’ve ever heard, and it creates a very unique experience.  The boss battles have a very different style of chorus than the one you’re likely used to hearing.  This subtle echoing of the two warring nations brought deeper immersion in the story to the player.

Another game that has excellent battle music is Mystic Ark, which certainly doesn’t skimp in that department; counting music played both in random encounters and boss battles, the game has at least eight different battle themes.  Some of them have names that are absolutely ridiculous in length, but they’re all quite memorable and intense.  Some are slower, whereas others are a great deal more fast-paced, but many of them make battles very exciting.  Among my favorites are the boss theme, Hey! Don’t Attack Me!, and the random encounter theme I Am a Powerful Ally.  If you ask me, Mystic Ark has some of the best battle music not just on the SNES, but in the RPG genre as a whole.  Arcana, by comparison, has only three battle themes, but each of them is excellent.  The main battle theme is sounds like an epic struggle if you listen to it long enough, the boss battle theme is fast-paced, and the final battle theme has this indescribable quality to it that really adds quite an impact to the last conflict.

How does one make great battle music?  Well, I’m certainly unqualified to answer such a question – refer to the introduction to witness my musical talents – but I know what I like.  Those who know me know that I’m biased heavily toward Rock and Techno, especially in action sequences (such as battles), so keep that in mind, although I’m able to appreciate great battle music that does not fall into either of those categories.  Final Fantasy Mystic Quest has some very rockin’ tunes, both in and out of battle.  Among my favorite non-battle songs are the ones that play in the Volcano and Doom Castle.  The various battle themes are also great, and the final battle has sort of a rock opera feel to it, mixing electric guitars and drums with a string section.  The soundtrack isn’t all Rock, but the Rock tunes are the ones that stood out because it was so unorthodox at the time for a video game, much less a Medieval-themed Fantasy RPG, to use them.

Rudra no Hihou also had some great Rock music, mostly in its boss themes.  The boss themes themselves are quite interesting, too, because of their origins.  Each character’s scenario has a different overworld theme and a different song for its boss battles.  It took me a few boss battles to realize it, but the boss battles are rearranged versions of the overworld themes.  What makes this very interesting – as opposed to lazy – is that the themes are used only for two songs, meaning both that over saturation of the theme is not a problem and that you get to see the interesting dynamic between the two versions.  The overworld themes sound like typical overworld themes for an RPG, whereas the boss music sounds like intense rock music, which gets you pumped to fight the bosses in question.  Whether it’s Sion’s heroic theme, Surlent’s elegant theme, or Riza’s melancholy theme, they all become fast-paced when it comes time to do battle.  This, of course, goes along with the excellent soundtrack that’s already in place, which makes for a fantastic experience; it is truly one of Squaresoft’s greatest masterpieces.

Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne used the old Rock trick to punch up its soundtrack, but it also relied on my other favorite genre: Techno.  This takes two genres known for fast-paced music – though not exclusively so – and fuses them together quite well.  The battle music in the optional dungeon, the Labyrinth of Amala has a hard Rock feel to it, but adds synthesizers to make an interesting creation.  The other Amala areas have battle music with a similar blend of genres, but it has a vaguely Egyptian feel to it as well.  Both of the title themes also use this style, effectively, even though they convey very different moods.  The style gets a bit more avant-garde with the main boss themes, which use this weird, too-close-to-the-microphone shouting vocal track; I’m not even sure what language it is.  The boss themes specific to certain characters are better, though, returning to the Rock/Techno fusion for bosses like Beelzebub, Lucifer, and even Devil May Cry‘s Dante.  Both the overworld music in the final area and the ending credits use music that sounds like a Rock Ballad, and while it’s not a style I usually enjoy, I really like it here.

Tons of other games have used Techno to create a fast-paced soundtrack.  In fact, I’m fairly certain that the genre was born as a result of both the Funk movement and games like the Mega Man series, though in the chiptune days, it was almost out of necessity due to the hardware.  Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium used a high-energy Techno theme in its introduction, and it was at that moment that I said to myself, “This is the Phantasy Star game for which I’ve been waiting.”  Mother 3 also had an excellent soundtrack, much of which was Techno.  It’s somewhat ironic that a game that makes you focus on its battle music by implementing it into the battle system would have a score that actually stands out quite well even without it.  I suppose it’s possible that it was because of this that the developers focused on making a memorable soundtrack, as opposed to a soft one that just fades into the background, but it doesn’t need the extra focus to get the tunes stuck in your head.  Of course, this particular genre of music isn’t a cure-all; it’s there’s such a thing as bad Techno.

When I first played Valkyrie Profile, I didn’t know quite what to expect.  Even well into the first chapter, the music sounded very bleak and gritty, much like you’d expect from a game with its basis on Norse Mythology.  The first glimpse of something spectacular is the let’s break some spines theme, which really makes you want to stand proudly and face your enemy.  As soon as you reach your first dungeon, though, you’re given a very hard Rock theme that sounds great.  Every dungeon in the game – along with a great number of the boss battles – has its own music, and a lot of them are Techno.  Some are great, but others are best described as obnoxious and abrasive.  I love Techno, but some of the boss themes made me feel like an old lady shouting at her bratty grandkids to be quiet and stop climbing the curtains.

Other RPGs have fallen into this trap, as well.  Mega Man X Command Mission had a bit of a daunting task: take the great, action-packed Techno themes for which the classic series is well known and adapt their style to a less action-intensive genre.  They tried, and in some cases succeeded, but some songs, like the main boss theme, can make it feel like Quincy Morris is trying to stake an imaginary Dracula living in your ear.  What makes this odd is that Capcom has already done this more or less successfully, and they took a more direct approach.  Breath of Fire 2 took the auditory conventions of Mega Man X2 and crafted a number of battle tunes.  Since Command Mission was really just Breath of Fire with robots (they even used the same font in battle), they should not have had much of a problem with adaptation, but by the Sixth Generation, Capcom was definitely in a very different place from where it was when Mega Man games – or Breath of Fire games, for that matter – were at the height of their popularity.  They were more interested in their Devil May Crys and Resident Evils at that point, so it stands to reason that they’d strayed a bit stylistically.

Legend of Dragoon had a very hit or miss soundtrack, as well.  It had a lot of great, distinct songs, but they’re very hit or miss.  The songs that play in the different environments are usually very atmospheric in nature, but they’re not just background noise; you notice their presence.  The boss battles, are mostly great, encompassing a fairly wide variety of moods.  The problem lies in the rest; some of the character themes are particularly goofy or even abrasive.  They’re not necessarily bad, but I can see how some might get on a player’s nerves.  It’s a bit like in Grandia when you’re on Marna and the music, while good, is only a ten-second loop (I clocked it), so after prolonged exposure, you’ll notice that your face has started to twitch.  It’s very catchy, too, so the exposure lasts well after you turn off the game, but as a lot of Pop songs will tell you, catchy doesn’t always mean that it’s good.

While some soundtracks are bad for one reason or another, at least you notice them; my biggest gripe with modern RPG music – and modern video game music in general – is the orchestral soundtracks.  I know, an orchestral soundtrack is totally awesome and “maeks teh gaem liek a movee; teh awesomz,” but might I suggest that games shouldn’t mimic movies?  When my lady and I moved in together, I started looking at her CD collection.  One of the things that caught my eye was the soundtrack to The Matrix.  I was stoked; a whole CD full of fast-paced Techno music!  So, I popped it into the CD player in my car and headed off to work.  By the time I got there, I was shouting, “Where in the movie was any of this!?”  It was almost entirely orchestral, and I hadn’t remembered hearing any of it before, even though I own the entire trilogy on DVD; I’m a bit familiar with the movies.  Dragon Quest 8 is a prime example of this; aside from the gorgeous overworld theme and one other song, I remember very little of the soundtrack.  I remember the battle theme – because it’s a Dragon Warrior game and encounter rates and grinding are incredibly high – and some awful music that sounds vaguely reminiscent of Vivaldi’s work because it’s from a town where I spent weeks trying to figure out what to do before discovering that I shouldn’t have been there yet.  I am confident that it was only my prolonged and repeated exposure to these songs that has caused me to remember them.

Now before you mention my upbringing and start mentally dressing me in only a pair of overalls and a straw hat – though I’ll have you know that I’m always wearing socks, unless I’m in water – just put down your wine glasses for a second and allow me to explain.  I don’t hate Classical music; I’m a huge fan of DeBussy, and my grandfather and I used to listen to all sorts of composers when I was younger.  I don’t even dislike an orchestral soundtrack.  The first Breath of Fire had one, and so did Final Fantasy 4, and my playlist features twenty-one songs from the former and thirty-five from the latter; I’m a bit of a fan.  The difference with the music in these games is that you notice them; if you don’t notice the music in a game, then it has no reason to be there, since its purpose is to set the mood, whatever that may happen to be.

Breath of Fire has some very strong tracks; the game opens with a very intense song that conveys deep suffering, and after the introduction, the title comes in with a very powerful string section.  See?  String sections don’t have to be soft background noise!  Of the three overworld themes, the later two are both string heavy, but very impressive; they make you feel like you’re on a quest.  The battle music in the second half of the game does this as well, not to mention the music that plays during the battles with the last several bosses.  The soundtrack is a very early example of an orchestral score in a video game – made possible by the Super Nintendo’s new sound chip – and it does it well.  It’s not an isolated incident either; Capcom had a number of good orchestral scores in their earlier SNES releases, such as Super Ghouls & Ghosts and The Magical Quest starring Mickey Mouse.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Final Fantasy 4: the champion of orchestral video game soundtracks.  Just to be clear, I’m referring to the SNES version, and not the myriad remakes.  As soon as you turn on the power, you’re greeted by the beautiful sound of a lyre playing the preludeFinal Fantasy‘s theme as a series since the first game – which soon gives way to a gorgeous symphony with so much emotion that it breathes new life into the old theme, which originally used only a single sound channel.  That’s before you even press Start; it’s hard not to be impressed the first time you hear it.  Upon actually beginning the game, you hear the theme of the Red Wings as a squadron of red airships flies majestically forth, and the feeling is incredible.  Events unfold when you return to the kingdom, and eventually, you leave the castle to begin your journey in earnest.  As was the case when you crossed the first bridge in the original Final Fantasy, the prologue plays, and it is single-handedly the most powerful and inspirational piece of music I have ever heard in a video game to date.  It begins with brass, giving it a noble feel from the beginning, and follows up with a string melody that just makes you want to puff out your chest with pride and face any and all adversity.  The overworld theme carries emotion, but sounds like travel music.  You have character themes that border on perfect; Rydia’s theme is very sweet and innocent, Golbez’s theme is dark and sinister with its organ work, and the theme of the Lunarians is simple, elegant, mysterious, and noble.  Even the fanfares are great; there’s a really melodramatic fanfare that plays when something really bad happens, and the theme that plays when Cecil becomes a Paladin made me feel like I had just shed my own dark past.  Even the dungeon themes are great; the music in the underground caverns is mysterious and beautiful, the Tower of Bab-il has music that really feels like an adventure, and that doesn’t even count the endgame.  When you enter the final dungeon, the theme from the beginning plays, getting you excited for the final showdown, and when you reach the second section, you hear what is quite possibly the greatest final dungeon theme ever composed.  This is followed by an inspirational scene set to the prologue and the final battle itself, which sounds like the world is falling apart, which is appropriate when you’re being hit by attacks like Black Hole and Big Bang.  The music and its placement within the story – reusing songs only when they’re able to adapt to new situations – makes this easily among my favorite video game soundtracks of all time.

Perhaps the SNES has a bit too rudimentary a sound chip to be a convincing example of orchestral music for some.  Fair enough; Chrono Cross on the Sony Playstation also has an excellent orchestral score that covers a wide range of moods.  It takes a page from Dragon Warrior and begins with the excellent Time’s Scar in its introduction that really pumps you up before you even reach the title screen.  When you first awaken and the adventure begins in earnest, you are in the village of Arni, which has a very cozy sound to it.  The interesting thing about this soundtrack is the dichotomy between the same locations in different worlds; the other world’s Arni has an arrangement of the same song, which has a subtly different feel to it, much like a parallel universe would.  Perhaps even more poignant is the distant, haunting melody that plays on the overworld in the other universe; its melancholy tone perfectly fits how the protagonist might feel, knowing that he may never be able to return home.  When you enter the haunting Dead Sea, an equally haunting melody plays the entire time you’re there; it is a song that will follow you around for a long time after you’ve left the area and turned off the game.  To boot, the music that plays during the conflict at the end of the area is so incredibly sad that it punctuates its ending so perfectly.  Some of the soundtrack has instrumentation that is nothing short of intriguing, such as that which plays in Fort Dragonia.  Something about the synthesizer just offsets the rest of the piece in a very unusual way, and tweaks my synaesthesia like I have never experienced before.  The music in the El Nido Triangle has neat instrumentation, as well; the synthesizer sounds almost like it is produced by the sound chip for the Sega Genesis, crafting a piece that would fit perfectly into Ecco the Dolphin.  If you pay close enough attention to get the good ending, the music that plays is deeply emotional, and provides the perfect conclusion to the strange tale that the game has woven.

SaGa Frontier does well with different tempos and moods as well.  There are mellow tunes, like that which plays in the terminals in most towns, the music in Kyo, the Junk arena, and even the music that plays when you’re beginning or loading a scenario.  When the music needs a bit more emotion, it’s able to step it up with some wind instruments as it does in Owmi, Emilia’s endgame, or even her ending.  You’ll hear some very ominous songs – sometimes reaching the level of oppressive – in places like Wakatu, Omble, and T-260G’s endgame.  These are all on the slower side, but the game knows how to get the player moving: brass!  Yes, adding some powerful brass to your orchestra can put a lot of “get up and go” into your music, and SaGa Frontier uses this a great deal in its battle music.  Whether it’s the regular battle theme, any number of boss themes, or even some of the final boss themes, the soundtrack uses this technique to make battles and even some areas more exciting.  So many orchestral soundtracks focus so heavily upon the string sections that brass is either downplayed or outright eschewed.  That’s the neat thing about a soundtrack; like every band – or at least every album by a particular band – there is a definite sound that the songs have in common.  That applies to video game soundtracks as well, but the composers can build upon this base sound by adding or subtracting elements here or there to make it more adaptive.  You’ll see this a lot during the Fourth and Fifth Generations, namely because before that, everything was chiptune, and everything after that had perfect, CD quality audio, even without utilizing the Red Book Audio format; the Fifth Generation hardware was close, but not quite there.  It is because the composers had to work harder that their brains were more stimulated, allowing them to think of many creative directions in which to take the soundtracks of their games.

Sometimes, the basic theme of a soundtrack is a bit out of the ordinary, and while this is a risky endeavor – the theme will make or break the entire soundtrack – some wonderful things can come of it.  Breath of Fire 3 has one of my favorite RPG soundtracks not only because of how unusual it is, but because I have a confession to make: I enjoy Smooth Jazz.  Yes, if I had cable, I’d likely put on the Weather Channel when I’m writing these pieces, and as often as I pause, turn to my coworkers, and say, “Local time… and temperature,” when I’m put on hold by some office building or medical facility, I’m bobbing my head to the music on the inside.  Except maybe for that one that sounds like Dick Tracy dancing the Charleston to a fifteen-second loop played on a bad Midi keyboard…  Okay, I like that one too.  My musical dorkdom aside, the Smooth Jazz theme actually works as a fully fleshed out soundtrack for an RPG.  A lot of it is exactly what you’d expect, like the two overworld themes, the second of which is hauntingly gorgeous and fits the sunset aesthetic of the game’s second half quite well.  The music you hear in places like the arena, and especially Wyndia – which sounds like the opening credits of a soap opera – is very cheesy, but I love it.  The high-tech areas are very smooth and pleasant, and there’s a song that sounds exactly like what you’d imagine when both Capcom and Smooth Jazz are used in the same sentence.  The music can become quite intense when it needs to, though.  There are quite a few boss battle tunes that are incredibly badass, including the final encounter.  Better yet are the songs that are downright morose, like the various caverns and roads.  The first time I entered the Dump, I was actually a bit unnerved; between the music and the gigantic lava pit, the area truly freaked me out, and though I was only fifteen, that was rare for me, even then.  So while a Smooth Jazz soundtrack might seem like a horrible idea for a soundtrack in a Role-Playing Game, it still forms a comprehensive musical gallery, capable of conveying a full range of different moods, while making the experience very unique.

7th Saga also had a bit of a strange twist on the typical RPG soundtrack.  Most of it has a kind of New Age Retro Hippie (Earthbound reference only semi-intentional) vibe to it.  A lot of the game’s music was very mellow and heavy on the pan pipes (it was the early ’90s; you kinda had to be there).  I have to admit that it sounds bad on paper, but once you hear the introduction, you begin to understand.  Upon choosing your character, you’re in a throne room as the impressive castle theme plays.  You head out into the city to prepare for your journey, noting the unique song, and then out into the world.  The haunting overworld melody, along with the scarcity of any signs of life (aside from those that wish to kill you), brings a real sense of desolation and loneliness to the game’s barren world.  There are three other overworld songs, and they each convey this same sense of isolation, as does the music you hear in empty ruins, which also brings a sense of relief.  It’s not all completely mellow, though; one of the dungeon themes makes it sound like you’re charging through an intense obstacle course.  The battle themes both in and out of dungeons might not be among the most swiftly-paced, but they both sound like they’re accompanying an arduous struggle, and if you’ve ever played this game even just to the first boss, you’ll know this to be quite appropriate (in its North American version; the Japanese release, Elnard, was a lot less difficult).  The boss battle music also has this same feel of simultaneously being hopeful while trying to drown you in despair; it makes the encounter seem like a big deal, and unless you’re killing the first boss the cheap way, it most certainly is a big deal.  Even something with as strongly-themed a base as this can create an interesting dichotomy if sufficient thought is put into it.

The Mother series also takes an interesting approach to the style of a soundtrack.  The first game wasn’t all that special, except for the music that plays in the obligatory acid trip area, Magicant.  It’s a mysterious, beautiful, dream-like area, and the music reflects that well.  The sequel, Earthbound, has a soundtrack with a similar feel to it.  It starts out with something that captures the feel of a sleepy little town, which is the sort of place you begin your adventure.  The majority of the soundtrack has the vague feeling of a daydream, which is how the journey must seem to our teenage heroes.  The battle music has a proclivity toward the trippy, and a lot of the town themes have a very ’90s feel to them.  Some areas have music that is just bizarre, often the more surreal areas, like Happy Happy Valley, Moonside, and, of course, this game’s incarnation of Magicant.  The music from the final encounter starts out like the typical adrenaline-pumping final battle music, but then fades away to creepy gasps and sighs in the second half.  The final installment, Mother 3 didn’t really follow this style so much, but did have its own distinct sound.

I apologize in advance for the following paragraph; there are very few songs for the following game on YouTube, so I’m uploading a pack of appropriate songs to their respective links.  Their track numbers are rearranged so that they’re in the order in which they appear in this article for your convenience.  Despite the fact that I cut their lengths and added fades and metadata to them, I do not own the rights to these songs, something that should be obvious if you read the introduction to this article.

Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito also has a soundtrack that begins with a very dreamy feel.  The place where you begin, and the overworld that follows both have this style.  This all goes right out the window when you encounter your first enemy; the battle music uses brass for added intensity, but still has an instrumentation that makes it seem very alien.  The boss music also sounds appropriately intense.  This all comes together to make a surprisingly cohesive experience; you’re on an alien planet, so everything seems bizarre, and encountering a hostile creature – the likes of which you, the player have never seen – in such a world would be a very intense and adrenaline-pumping encounter.  The battle themes against the four main demons each fit their respective personalities, and the shrines dedicated to the individual spirits sound very spiritual, making it seem like a peaceful place.  When you enter a place where all is not well, the music turns into something downright unnerving; something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a haunted mansion.  Then, of course, when something catastrophic happens, your speakers let you know it.  The other overworld themes that play perfectly reflect the tone; the first sounds like an adventure, while the second and third sound like cataclysm is only moments away.  This is all done very well, of course, but there is one thing in particular that is done extremely well through the soundtrack: the climax.  Near the end, you return somewhere that will be very familiar to you if you’ve played the first game, and after a nostalgic trip through a long corridor, the music leans back and knocks your chair across the room with you still in it.  This music never stops while you battle enemies, even the boss of the area, during which, some powerful forces jump in and you all attack the menace at once.  It’s an incredibly powerful scene, and it does all of this without ever breaking stride; it’s one of most awesome climactic battles I’ve ever experienced in a game, and it’s all done with a battle system that’s anything but action-packed.  Yes, music can do that much.  The ending is beautiful, bittersweet, and dream-like, and the music playing reflects this perfectly.  It’s a shame that this game never left Japan, because it has one of the greatest soundtracks on the SNES.

Lufia 2: Rise of the Sinestrals also did a great job with the music in its endgame, and it starts before you can even access the final dungeon.  When you enter the town of Narvick, the music isn’t the typical happy “people going about their daily lives” type of song you’re used to hearing in a town; it’s very grave in tone, as is evident from the powerful bells ringing in the background.  From there, you enter three different towers, with a very driving sound to them, pushing you onward in your quest.  It really adds a lot of feeling to a set of dungeons that, unlike most of the rest in the game, have very little to them, especially in terms of puzzles.  This is an example of how the music can make the pacing a bit more obvious, getting the player to go along with it.  After a few emotional scenes, you’re off to Doom Island.  The same music plays here as it did in the first game, only now, you have context behind it.  It is also uninterrupted for the most part, since there are no random encounters.  After battling the Sinestrals, a surprise crisis arises, and you have to run into the deepest part of the fortress to prevent it all from falling and crushing a lot of people to death, including your newborn son.  The music is both fast-paced and noble, conveying exactly what Maxim must feel at this moment, realizing that he is now the world’s only hope.  The ending plays a very cheesy arrangement of Maxim and Selan’s theme, but it still has a great emotional impact.

Final Fantasy 7 also had a pretty good endgame, musically speaking.  The music that plays in the final dungeon sound like an precarious journey to the center of the planet, which is exactly what we’re doing.  Once you get to the final stretch, there is a cutscene that ramps up the action, and Jenova’s theme starts playing.  Up until now, you’ve only ever heard it while battling the titular being, but now you’re leaping along a downward spiral of rocks floating over an abyss filled with green energy, all the while battling some of the biggest and nastiest non-boss creatures you’ve encountered yet.  It really gets you moving, and then you encounter Jenova Synthesis.  Unlike the previous three incarnations, which were a headless body, you’re now battling the creature’s head, and the music, while not as fast-paced, still sounds like a strenuous conflict, which it certainly can be to the underleveled.  After the battle, the ground gives way and Sephiroth’s theme begins as you float helplessly in front of him.  You choose members for three teams to tackle his new body, and you’re thrown into a crazy marathon of a battle, while a swiftly-paced Techno song starts up.  You’re back to moving again, scrambling to disassemble him before he tears your party to shreds.  You finally topple the fiend, and… it all falls apart.  He descends from the skies, a one-winged angel, as an appropriately titled song starts playing.  It’s trying so hard to be Final Fantasy 6, but failing miserably.  Let us recapitulate: Final Fantasy 6 has an angelic final boss with a chaotic, up-tempo song playing for the final conflict, which has been built from the other three slowly rising boss themes before it, which flow into each other.  Final Fantasy 7 has a long battle song, a quick Techno piece, and a big, overblown gospel number complete with an over-the-top chorus singing Latin.  This song could possibly have worked had the musical events leading to it have built their way up to it, rather than jumping all around.  It also would’ve worked better in a game with a different tone.  So no, I wasn’t impressed with One-Winged Angel, but I felt that the songs leading up to it were fantastic.

Now, since I don’t think I’m going to get enough hate mail just from saying that I didn’t like the most popular song from the most popular JRPG of all time, let’s compare this to the endgame of its sequel, the oft-reviled Final Fantasy 8.  I think the game has a great soundtrack overall, especially with its use of the Rock Organ, an instrument rare to video games.  Some of the songs fit the mission structure – even the one that sounds a bit like ’70s porn music – of the game quite well, while others just fit the mood while sounding cool.  At any rate, the endgame starts when time becomes compressed.  You’re in a very bizarre representation of somewhere your characters know well, and this absolutely haunting melody plays.  I could listen to this music for hours; it’s so beautiful and strange that I imagine it would fit my own dreams quite well, were someone I’ve known a long time exploring them.  After that, you enter a massive castle with an introduction that is quite pleasant, although that might be the soft beiges provoked by my synaesthesia talking.  The soft tones soon give way to a darker piece full of heavy organ work.  It’s not one of the zippiest final dungeon themes, but its dark tones fit the look and mood of the castle quite well.  Eventually, you meet the final boss, which starts with music you’ve heard before.  It’s just a warm-up, though, and when you start fighting in earnest, this heavy piece starts up, which serves to add a sense of severity to the next three forms of the boss.  The last piece plays during the last two phases, and it starts off very slowly with music reminiscent of Final Fantasy 7.  You start to notice elements from songs from other Final Fantasy games as it creeps along until about a minute and twenty seconds in, when the tempo ramps up with the beginning of every Final Fantasy battle theme from 1 to 6.  From there, it becomes one of the greatest final boss themes I’ve ever heard in an RPG, going on for nearly four minutes before looping.  It’s everything a final battle theme should be: swiftly-paced, intense, and loud, and, most importantly, it makes you feel like you’re in the climactic battle determining the fate of the entire world.  The “saving the world from unspeakable evil” thing is a little done to death, so a half-hearted final boss theme just doesn’t cut it anymore; make me feel the intensity!

Of course, sound isn’t just music; sound effects can have an impact on a game, even an RPG.  Dragon Warrior‘s sound effects have been preserved even into modern installments, sometimes maintaining the original chiptune sound, despite full orchestral soundtracks.  Where they usually shine, though, is in battle.  Chrono Trigger‘s Luminaire, Suikoden‘s Hell (from the Soul Eater Rune), and countless spells, techniques, and cannons, from SaGa Frontier all have sound effects that make the attack really sound like it’s going to hurt, adding impact beyond the visual spectacle.  Final Fantasy 4‘s sound effects are perfect to me, from weapon swings to spells, and even the sound it makes when you enter a battle; they just seemed lackluster in the installments before and after it.  Earthbound‘s psychic powers (the game’s spells) are neat in this regard; since they are so visually abstract, you rely on the sounds to tell what kind of attack it is.  PK Thunder – PSI Thunder for you North American translation purists – sounds like the crash of lightning and PK Freeze sounds appropriately icy.  I don’t know what Ness’s signature spell is supposed to sound like, but it definitely sounds scathing, whereas, without sound, it would just seem like an exploding psychedelic disco ball; it would be cool, but wouldn’t have quite the same impact.

Sound effects have fallen by the wayside in today’s modern gaming landscape, though, because more focus has been placed upon voice acting.  Today, we can get something to sound however we want on a console, and have been since the previous generation, but voice acting can still be fantastic or abysmal due to the actors.  It’s a nice feature, especially if, like my grandfather and I, you play RPGs with others watching and feel the need to read the text aloud.  Back in the day, it wasn’t a big deal, but with the size of today’s scripts, it can become exhausting.  This is especially true since there’s usually a lot more story than action to break it up, and I like to assign a unique voice to each character when I read their lines; I get worn out after a while, and actual voice acting provides a nice break.  I won’t be talking much about it, since it’s really not a huge deal to me, but I will address a few examples in which it didn’t quite work out.  I’ve already discussed Dragon Quest 8 at length, but a lot of the problems arise from the voice actors.  If you’re going to go for over-the-top – and this game does it with nearly every character that speaks, making it exhausting just to listen to it – that’s one thing, but there’s a difference between good cheesy and bad cheesy.  Good cheesy is a little too melodramatic, but with a conscious decision to play it straight; bad cheesy is just making everything as silly as possible, which doesn’t work well in an interactive medium.  Honestly, would you want to play a several-hundred-hour “epic” called Clown Quest?  Wait, don’t answer that; I don’t think that even my calloused sludge pump of a heart could take the answer.

Legend of Dragoon‘s voice acting suffers a similar fate.  It’s not quite as bad, and it seems unintentional, but a lot of the voice acting is really cheesy.  Dart growls most of his lines, Albert sounds like a nerd, and Kongol’s voice acting makes him sound like a total dope, even though he’s quite intelligent; he just doesn’t speak the human language, so his vocabulary is limited.  Sometimes, the voices get mixed up; Shana and Miranda’s voices switch places when they’re in Dragoon form.  Shana herself has a particularly hilarious “scream” at the end of the game; everything’s blowing up (we’re talkin’ seven mushroom clouds stacked on top of each other; I’ve counted) and she lets out this pathetic little “aaaaaaa” that’s so goofy that I can’t even imitate it.  It almost sounds like it’s being read by one of those computer programs that (poorly) attempt to speak what you’ve typed.  There are even moments in which the voice acting is just fine, but what the actor says doesn’t match what’s on the screen.  Of course, Legend of Dragoon is an excellent game, so I don’t let the voice acting ruin it for me, but it definitely provoked a few unintentional chuckles.  At least it’s not like Rogue Galaxy in which you have characters that, while acted well, never shut up, especially when you’re grinding, though thankfully, you can deactivate that feature.  You don’t need to be constantly reminded of your next task when the plot is so simplistic.

Every once in a while, you’ll get a game with excellent voice acting and only a few noticeable flubs here and there. Valkyrie Profile had some wonderful voice actors – Lenneth’s voice actor, Megan Hollingshead, has a gorgeous voice – but there are a few deliveries that just made me laugh.  Occasional melodrama aside, when Lenneth executes her powerful attack, she begins with, “It will be engraved upon your soul!”  It’s a cool line, but the way she delivers it makes it sound like she should follow the line by sticking out her tongue and saying, “Nya!”  Of course, some of it is the fault of the writers; I don’t care how talented you are, it’s very hard to deliver a line like “Icicle Disaster” and make it sound menacing.  The sequel had problems with writing, too; the character, Mithra, occasionally says – upon victory – “What is left of your life, now that you are dead?” in a very stern yell.  Go ahead, read that again; just let it sink in.  He’s trying so hard to sound like a badass, but when you have a line that is so absurd, it’s really hard not to laugh at it.  Of course, Liam O’Brien always plays a good lunatic, so it’s not all bad.  As I said before, sometimes the voice acting is great, but the writing screws it all up.

So, it is clear that sound is more than just background noise; it can set the mood, enhance the mood, or even create the mood.  Some songs are so powerful that they can adapt to different contexts and still give the player a strong feeling.  A good soundtrack fits its game perfectly; a superior soundtrack is worth hearing outside of the context of the game itself, and there are many that do.  I have over one and a half thousand video game songs in my playlist (more than I have of “real” music), and a great many of them are from RPGs.  Similarly, good sound effects and voice acting give a greater impact to what’s happening at any given moment.  While I find sound to be the least important of the big four, that does not mean that it isn’t important in creating a masterpiece.  Bad sound can be muted and replaced by something from your own collection, but good sound can greatly enhance the experience.

Thus far, I’ve talked about a great number of aspects of RPGs – everything of worth I could think to say – but it has been somewhat disjointed.  Yes, this series has been full of insight into the details – not to mention packed with more references than a Dennis Miller routine – but I’ve said little about how this all fits together.  The next and final installment will aim to create a more cohesive picture, one that attempts to detail just how to make a great RPG.  I’ve only ever made one full – quite lousy, if you ask me – RPG using RPG Maker on the Playstation, so I’m no expert, but I know what I like.

 

Next

 

Works Cited:

Format: Game Title (Alternate title: Region). Developer, Original system of release, Original Release Date.

7th Saga (Elnard; Japan). Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/23/1993.
Ancient Magic: Bazoo! Mahou Sekai. Hot B, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/23/1993.
Breath of Fire (Breath of Fire: Ryuu no Senshi; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/03/1993.
Breath of Fire 2 (Breath of Fire 2: Shimei no Ko; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/2/1994.
Breath of Fire 3. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 09/11/1997.
Breath of Fire 4. Capcom, Sony Playstation, 04/27/2000.
Bugs Bunny’s Birtday Blowout (Happy Birthday Bugs; Japan). Kemco, Nintendo Entertainment System, 1990.
Chrono Cross. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 11//18/1999.
Chrono Trigger. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 03/11/1995.
Devil May Cry. Capcom, Sony Playstation 2, 08/23/2001.
Dragon Warrior (Dragon Quest; Japan). ChunSoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 05/27/1986.
Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (Dragon Quest 8: Sora to Umi to Daichi to Norowareshi Himegimi; Japan). Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 11/27/2004.
Ecco the Dolphin. Novotrade, Sega Genesis, 07/29/1993.
Final Fantasy. Squaresoft, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/18/1987.
Final Fantasy 4. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/19/1991.
Final Fantasy 4: The After Years (Final Fantasy 4: The After Years: Tsuki no Kikan; Japan). Square-Enix, NTT Docomo FOMA 903i Mobile Phone, 02/18/2008-12/24/2008.
Final Fantasy 6. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/02/1994.
Final Fantasy 7. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 01/31/1997.
Final Fantasy 8. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 02/11/1999.
Final Fantasy 9. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/07/2000.
Final Fantasy Mystic Quest (Final Fantasy USA; Japan). Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 10/05/1992.
Legend of Dragoon. SCEI, Sony Playstation, 12/02/1999.
Legend of the Ghost Lion (White Lion Densetsu; Japan). Kemco, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/14/1989.
Lennus 2: Fuuin no Shito. Copya Systems, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/26/1996.
Live-A-Live. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 09/02/1994.
Lufia 2 (Estpolis Denki 2; Japan). Neverland, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 02/24/1995.
The Magical Quest: Starring Mickey Mouse (Mickey no Magical Adventure; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 11/20/1992.
Mega Man X2 (Rockman X2; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/26/1994.
Mega Man X Command Mission. Capcom, Sony Playstation 2, 07/29/2004.
Mother (Earthbound Zero; North America [Prototype]). Pax Softonica, Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/27/1989.
Earthbound. (Mother 2: Gyiyg no Gyakushuu; Japan). Ape Studios, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 08/27/1994.
Mother 3. Brownie Brown, Nintendo Game Boy Advance, 04/20/2006.
Mystic Ark. Produce, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 07/14/1995.
Phantasy Star 2 (Phantasy Star 2: Kaerazaru Toki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 3/21/1989.
Phantasy Star 4: End of the Millennium (Phantasy Star: Sennenki no Owari ni; Japan). Sega, Sega Genesis, 12/17/1993.
Rogue Galaxy. Level 5, Sony Playstation 2, 12/08/2005.
RPG Maker (RPG Tsukuru 3; Japan). Kuusou Kagaku, Sony Playstation, 11/27/1997.
Rudra no Hihou. Squaresoft, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, 04/05/1996.
SaGa Frontier. Squaresoft, Sony Playstation, 07/11/1997.
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne; Japan). Atlus, Sony Playstation 2, 02/20/2003.
Suikoden (Genso Suikoden). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/15/1995.
Suikoden 2 (Genso Suikoden 2). Konami, Sony Playstation, 12/17/1998.
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Chou-Makai-Mura; Japan). Capcom, Super Nintendo Entertainment System 10/04/1991.
Sweet Home. Capcom, Nintendo Entertainment System, 12/15/1989.
Valkyrie Profile. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation, 12/22/1999.
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria. Tri-Ace, Sony Playstation 2, 06/22/2006.

4 Comments

  1. Did I ever mention that your articles are as long and epic as the RPGs that inspire them?

    • Why thank you! I don’t know that I’d describe my writing as epic, but I’m glad that they are enjoyed, especially the one that had the length that concerned me the most.

  2. My all time favorite soundtracks usually tend to be those by Falcom Band JDK. Their work on the Ys and Legend of Heroes series is wonderful.

    • Falcom has some great soundtracks; of those I’ve experienced, Ys 2 on the NES and Ys 3 on the SNES are among my favorites, but Popful Mail tops them all. Oddly, despite being a huge fan of the SNES sound chip, I prefer the Sega CD version of Popful Mail, which doesn’t even use Red Book Audio, but rather, the Genesis sound chip.

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