Awesome(?) 90s gaming hip-hop music

Ahh, the early 90s. It was, indeed, time for Klax, but also time for a sharp rise in popularity of rap and hip-hop music. Anyone who was a kid watching cartoons on North American TV during the late 80s and early 90s was well aware of how companies quite cynically exploited hip hop music and culture to look “cool” and “with it” to the youth. We got all manner of terrible faux-rap theme songs, new and improved character designs with backwards baseball caps, and some of the most hilariously awful commercials ever transmitted through the airwaves.

Game companies were no exception when it came to utilizing hip-hop’s popularity for commercial means, with predictably bad results.

(To be fair, Nintendo would eventually improve Zelda rapping significantly.)

Making a commercial with a rap theme song was one thing, but taking inspiration from hip-hop and combining it with game music was something else entirely. The rapidly improving sound quality of VGM, bolstered by the introduction of CD-ROM redbook audio, gave enterprising game music composers the ability to implement things like samples and voice into their songs, allowing for them to create original rap and hip-hop tunes for games. The songs were still predominantly hilariously bad, of course, but there’s a weird and lovable kitsch to them that makes them incredibly fun to look back on. Most of them, anyway.

So today, we’re going to be looking at several of these awkward game-related attempts at jumping on a musical fad. I’ll be leaving out one really obvious track – the Street Fighter III Third Strike character select theme – since we featured it previously. (I’m also leaving out Parappa because it’s just too obvious.) Everything else on here should hopefully either jog memories or be completely new to you lovely readers. So put on your Reebok Pumps and bootleg streetwise Looney Tunes shirts, and get ready for a game music time warp!

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Cool Runnings: The Underappreciated Speedruns of Awesome Games Done Quick 2015

If you’re anything like me, you had the Awesome Games Done Quick charity speedrunning marathon running throughout most of last week. The great thing about AGDQ is that, since it runs 24/7, there’s always something going on. However, since our frail humanoid bodies require things like “food” and “sleep” and “jobs through which we acquire necessary funding to live,” it’s almost impossible to watch everything that looks interesting on the AGDQ schedule as it airs live. While a lot of us make time to watch the speedruns of really big games, there are a lot of smaller titles with really fantastic play that get shown as well. But since they’re at odd times, or they’re of relatively unknown titles, or they’re not really viral-video material, they have a tendency to kind of happen and be forgotten. Even people who see the schedule and think “Yeah, I’ll watch this later” may likely forget them amongst all the other stuff happening that week.

But personally, I think there were a lot of really noteworthy speedruns at this year’s AGDQ that I worry a lot of folks missed out on. Yes, we all saw and enjoyed stuff like Tetris TGM and the Megaman X race and Boshy and Shovel Knight and blindfolded OoT, but just because you missed it and it wasn’t trending on Twitter doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great run. Here are some of my picks for the best runs of AGDQ 2015 that you might have missed!

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(Sort of) Review: Why NES Remix maddens me

It’s a feeling I think we’ve all experienced: the uncomfortable notion from withing that there is something deeply wrong with us for not enjoying a particular piece of media. It’s especially discomforting when it’s something that seems engineered to push all of our individual Like buttons, as though somehow we’re the ones that are flawed for not properly adoring this work made to cater explicitly to us.

This feeling cropped up when I started playing the NES Remix games on Wii U. Here were cleverly conceived compilations of classic NES titles with the addition of “remix” games: parts of classic titles remodeled and mashed together in unique ways to deliver bite-sized new challenges. I certainly love Nintendo history, having grown up on so many of these titles, so the concept excited me immensely. But actually playing NES Remix 1 and 2 on Wii U felt strangely unfulfilling,  even downright frustrating. I wondered if it was the platform – these sorts of short objective-driven challenge experiences, I feel, tend to work better in mobile games that you can dig out and play for ten minutes. With this in mind, I picked up Ultimate NES Remix on 3DS, but even playing it to break up long Persona Q sessions left me feeling more irritated than amused.  Obviously, it wasn’t the platform that’s the problem. So then, what is it that makes NES Remix considerably less than the sum of its parts?

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Awesome Gaming Stuff: Fighting Game Vocal Songs

So as we’re all aware by this point, Street Fighter V is a thing that’s coming. From the bits of gameplay footage we’ve seen so far, there’s already a tremendous amount of speculation over what is and isn’t in the game. Are parries there? (Probably not.) Is guard crush there? (Definitely.) Are there noodle hats? (Very, very yes.)

SF fans can argue for days about what gameplay systems they do and don’t want to see in-game, but there’s one thing we can all agree on:

Ah yes, Indestructible, aka The Next Door in its Japanese-lyrics incarnation. It seemed like Capcom was trying to attach some big-name Japanese musical acts to its games for a while: Dragon’s Dogma had a theme by B’z (actually a remake of a much older song of theirs, which was one of the first J-rock songs I downloaded in my high school MP3 hoarding days), while May’n did a song for the sadly-never-to-see-Western-release EX Troopers. Indestructible was by EXILE, a massive, number-one-hit-producing band consisting of many, many dudes. (I hesitate to call them a “boy band” because the Western concept of the term is very different.) When the time came to release new upgrades for SFIV, however, Indestructible was not included – likely a casualty of a higher-up not wanting to fork over additional royalties to an S-tier Japanese band.

However, the EVO crew somehow managed to secure the rights (and pay the royalties) to use the song again in the 2014 Ultra SFIV Grand Finals intro sequence. Having been in the crowd, I can assure you that people went bonkers at those opening notes, and a massive sing-along ensued. (Of course I joined in, what kind of terrible person do you take me for?) See for yourself in this footage someone else got from the event:

As much as we love Indestructible, however, it’s one of a wide variety of vocal songs related to fighting games and fighting game characters, which I touched on a little bit in my look at Virtua Fighter Costomize Clip. It’s not even the first song by well-known Japanese singers to be used as a game’s opening theme. This doesn’t make it any less awesome, of course, but there are lots and lots of other goofy fun fighting game vocal songs out there that we all should sing along to. Let’s have a look at some!

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Obscure gaming anime: Virtua Fighter Costomize Clip

A lot of folks are aware that I am a giant supernerd for Sega-AM2, and their fighting games in particular. Besides owning entirely too much stuff related to Virtua Fighter and Fighting Vipers, I collect various factoids and trivia about the games in an important area of my brain most people would reserve for something like remembering the names of their relatives. One such factoid has been the existence of a Virtua Fighter OVA released in 1996 by Production I.G., a 30-odd-minute outing that’s completely separate from the more well-known TV VF anime by Studio Pierrot. Called Virtua Fighter Costomize Clip, it was released in 1996 in very limited quantities, and it’s so unknown that even Anime News Network’s otherwise comprehensive catalog lacks any information about it.

I’ve been actively seeking a VHS copy out for a while (along with more chapters of Virtua Junky, a mid-90s manga about people playing Virtua Fighter 2), but actually obtaining a copy, even through a proxy, has proven extremely difficult. However, it was recently brought to my attention that the whole thing is now up on Youtube in a VHS rip. I’m not quite sure how I missed it for so long (maybe because I was looking under what its correct English spelling should be, “Customize Clip”?), but what matters now is that it’s found and oh my lord is it ever a nostalgia trip to the height of VF’s mid-90s popularity.

Let’s watch it together, shall we?

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Book review: Shigeki Toyama Works Artworks Volume by Zekuu/circle Game Area 51

First off, I apologize for this review taking so long – I haven’t been in the best of physical health this week, and that combined with the craziness of family obligations over the holiday weekend meant that I couldn’t update the site as I wanted to. I’d intended to have this up around last Monday or so, but those plans came crashing down fairly quickly. I don’t want to disappoint gaming.moe supporters with a lack of site content, but alas, sometimes real life foils even the best-laid plans. I’m working on a manner of contingency plan for the next time such a thing happens. Anyhow, on to the main piece!

A while back I wrote a piece for WIRED about the subsection of the Japanese doujinshi subculture that caters to gaming devotees. Part of the reason why doujin fascinates me so much is because of the sheer variety of stuff people create under the term, and the fact that there are other extremely passionate nerds self-publishing books about all manner of delightful gaming minutae makes me very happy indeed. I interviewed a publisher under the name Zekuu for the piece, as his circle, Game Area 51, does some of the most impressive and in-depth doujin publications on retrogames and important people involved with their creation. Thanks to his work, I’ve become more aware of the contributions of many creators to games and companies that have notable places in gaming history.

Such is the case with Zekuu’s books about Shigeki Toyama, who has a lengthy history at Namco. I was mostly unfamiliar with Toyama’s contributions to gaming, but the two volumes of doujin Zekuu published – two interview books and an artbook – have taught me a great deal about the man who designed Mappy, the iconic graphical imagery of Xevious, and several arcade cabinets and logos. He was also a robotics designer, helping create everything from small animatronics to massive amusement attractions (such as the gigantic Galaxian³ setup at the Osaka Expo in 1990). Later, he’d also be a key contributor to the design of Sony’s AIBO robot dog. After learning so much about everything Toyama had helped create, I found myself filled with a profound respect for his incredible talent. (And, to be honest, I felt a little bit embarassed that I hadn’t properly recognized it sooner.)

Out of the three books, I chose this one for review because it’s largely art-based – and since I’m writing for a primarily English-speaking audience, it doesn’t really do folks much good to recommend an interview book in Japanese. It’s 242 pages long, B&W, and contains a truly astounding amount of design material for some of the coolest, most ambitious stuff that Namco ever produced. Without further ado, let’s look over….

00_art_hyoushiShigeki Toyama Works: Artworks Volume (Toyama Shigeki Sakuhinshuu: Artworks Hen)

Cover image: A sampling of titles Toyama’s talent has touched

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Libble Rabble (Namco, arcade, 1983)

Like many folks in the games media, I got a copy of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U a few weeks before it released to the public. Priority #1 was unlocking as much stuff as I could (A task that’s proven surprisingly tough – I’m still missing a few stages), particularly the extra stages and music. Among the unlockables is Pac-Land, which is an extremely cool stage with a lot of neat implementations of the progression and hazards found in the original arcade game.

Pac-Land, however, doesn’t include the original Pac-Land theme, probably because of rights reasons (it’s a chiptune version of the old Hanna-Barbera Pac-Man cartoon theme song). There’s no shortage of songs to pick from in the stage, though, and among them is a medley of music from something called Libble Rabble.

I’m pretty sure most folks outside of Japan are going to look at this and just say “Libble Rabble? What the HELL is that?” If you’re here, however, you more than likely took that next step of actually attempting to find out what the hell Libble Rabble is. Well, folks, I’m here to tell you all about it. Get your magic ropes ready, ’cause we’re going to take a good look at Namco’s beloved-among-devout-Japanese-retrogamers-but-utterly-unknown-in-the-West arcade cult classic.

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Interview: Robert Jerauld, former producer at Enix USA

Before there was Square-Enix, there was Square and there was Enix, two Japanese publishing houses well known for their RPG output. During the heyday of the SNES, both companies had a US presence based out of Redmond, Washington, where they published some of the most beloved games of those eras. The inner workings of Enix USA during that time, however, have always been the subject of much rumor and fan speculation. What happened to localizations of Dragon Quest V and VI, Enix’s flagship franchise? Why did Nintendo publish Illusion of Gaia? And how did King Arthur and the Knights of Justice wind up the way it did? Is there really an Ark of the Covenant? Will we ever find Noah’s Ark? Where exactly is Atlantis and did Amelia Earhart land there? Are we alone in the Universe…

Ahem. I had the opportunity to talk to Robert Jerauld, producer during the first incarnation of Enix USA on all titles titles throughout the NES/SNES’s life. Robert’s early career trajectory took him from working as a Nintendo Game Counselor to working many roles on some of the most beloved games on the platform. Robert continues to work in the game industry to this day – he is currently an Executive Producer at Microsoft Game Studios, with credits on games like Zoo Tycoon, Gears of War, and Alan Wake. I am incredibly thankful and excited that Robert took the time to talk about his experience at Enix USA with us. Read on for a fascinating look of what Robert’s time at Enix USA was like!

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Play it Again for the First Time: Buster’s Hidden Treasure (Konami, MegaDrive, 1993)

An experience I think many have had is revisiting a game that we had memories of playing in our youth. While we all had those games that we had essentially memorized – I know stuff like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Sonic 2 so well that the ten-year-old me in my head gets actively angry when I see people not taking bonus-optimized paths through them – there are others where the memories are a little more vague. We enjoyed them at the time, but we’ve essentially forgotten the vast majority of the experience, to the point where replaying the games is like enjoying something completely new. Sometimes it’s a harsh lesson in reality, as you find out that game from your youth was utter garbage you liked because you were young, dumb and ate up anything with your favorite characters on the box. Other times, you find yourself rediscovering what you enjoyed so much, and perhaps even appreciating these titles in a brand new way through the eyes of experience.

So there’s a series of podcasts and media under the collective banner of Laser Time that I’m fond of. Most of the folks doing shows and articles there are previous or current employees of Future Publishing (whom I’ve done a fair bit of professional work for), who run the show as a way to talk about interesting pop-culture things and their own subjects of interest with friends they came to connect with through work. Laser Time manager Chris Antista recently did some stuff about Tiny Toon Adventures videogames, highlighting the many titles Konami (and others) published with the license. Among them is the Genesis/MegaDrive entry, Buster’s Hidden Treasure.

Buster’s Hidden Treasure was actually among the first games I got for the Genesis, and I remember spending way too much time defending it against my SNES-owning friends who insisted on the superiority of Buster Busts Loose as a game. It wasn’t uncommon in the 16-bit era for different platforms to get entirely different titles in a franchise or license, and Konami in particular made very, very different games for the SNES and the MegaDrive. So since you couldn’t argue over which had the better framerate or textures, you had to fight over what game was actually better, and boy did I fight tooth and nail for this one. But was I actually right, or was I just doing my duty as a pre-adolescent console warrior?

I wanted to find out. I played Buster’s Hidden Treasure again, and I’ve got a fair bit to say about it 20-some years later.

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