Game Music Highlight: Tactics Ogre (but it’s really a lot of words about “improving” chiptunes)

Things happened when CD-ROM was introduced to gaming in the late 80s. Look at this new technology, they said! 600-some megabytes — not megabits, megaBYTES — of storage, more than any human being could ever need! Cinematic video with REAL VOICES! And, oh my gosh, actual CD-quality audio played right off the disc itself! Forget those bleeps and bloops from FM synth, you could get actual ORCHESTRAS playing music for a video game! WOOOOOOWWWWW!

Indeed, the moment you’d put on Ys Books I and II for the Turbografx CD and watch the opening cutscenes play, people would be stunned. Game characters were animated and actually talking! The music was amazing! Yet the price tag on CD game technology then was so prohibitive that only the kids with the richest parents could possibly afford it, even after the prices began to come down in the early 90s and more CD consoles began to hit the market. That barrier to entry and the low install base of CD systems made a lot of developers wary of investing significantly in developing CD-based games. More than a few of them opted to take a “safe” route: low-cost ports of cartridge games to CD with some added cutscenes, maybe a handful of new levels or something else taking advantage of additional tech, and, of course, a redone soundtrack. This practice persisted well into the 32-bit generation: you can find quite a few ports of 16-bit console games (and Japanese PC games of the era) to the PlayStation and Saturn, and even the 3DO.

To young game music nerd me, the idea of new soundtracks was perhaps one of the most appealing points of these platforms. I never owned a Turbo CD or Sega CD when they first came out, much less something crazy like a 3DO. But boy, was I ever jealous! I’d beg the people I knew with Sega CDs (because seriously, nobody my age owned a Duo) to record the soundtracks off their games for me onto cassette. Yet somehow, when I actually heard most of this music, I’d come away disappointed more often than not — especially with the redone chiptune music. Something about the chiptune-to-“real”-music conversion just felt off.

Of course, now that I’m older and am not trying to constantly justify my hobby’s legitimacy, I fully understand that sound chips of old hardware are instruments in themselves, capable of producing distinct, powerful sounds that make fantastic songs — these compositions have no need to be orchestrated and played with anything else to be recognized as true music.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how these attempts to make “enhanced” chiptune soundtracks frequently turn out to be disappointing — including a fairly recent example, in my opinion, does a disservice to one of my favorite 16-bit-era compositions

There are a lot of arranged CD soundtracks that embody this problem, but I think the best example of sucking all of the soul out of the original chiptunes is the arranged version of Megaman X3. This is, honestly, one of my favorite SNES soundtracks — it uses the hell out of that “Capcom guitar” sample that was heard in every game they made through like 1999, but it works well with the overall compositions, which are incredibly catchy and memorable. When they ported the game to CD on PS and Saturn, though, the compositions suffered significantly in the process.

Here’s one of my favorite tracks from X3, the Toxic Seahorse stage. It has a nice, harsh, loud and grimy sound to it that fits the tone of the sewer level it accompanies.

Then there’s the arranged version from the PS/Saturn re-release of the game. It’s got problems.

Besides it being weirdly slower, it feels like the arrangers were trying way too hard. It’s still got a sludgey feel to it, but there’s a weird bounciness present as well that makes it feel much less fitting than the original chiptune song.

It’s not just that one, either: ever arranged track is significantly worse: Doppler Stage 1, another song from the game I really like, has a CD version that misses the point so spectacularly that it’s hard to believe they’re the same piece at times. (“Hey, how about we take a song that’s all guitar but completely dump the guitar?”) Hell, the Blast Hornet remix is so bad I’m not even going to link it.

Not all of these chiptune-to-CD transplants were bad, however. Taito’s Mega CD ports of The Ninja Warriors and Night Striker offered completely rearranged soundtracks that are both excellent, primarily because they take the same approach as a typical Zuntata arrangement album: give a specific song to one of the Zuntata musicians to re-arrange and let them go nuts with it. The results are fascinatingly eclectic and unique. I’m personally a big fan of the Night Striker arrangements (which were released in extended versions on the Night Striker Complete Album soundtrack), though I knew a fair few folks that aren’t. I’ll admit that the quality of the tracks varies pretty wildly, but the really good tracks are, like, really friggin’ good.

MCD Night Striker also gave us the version of Burning Road Zuntata used as a basis at concerts for years, so there’s that!

There’s also the weird phenomena of backwards CD-to-chiptune soundtracks: games that were ported from CD to cart and needed chiptune versions of the redbook audio tracks. This happened with releases like Earnest Evans, Sol-Feace, and SNES Dracula X. The former two honestly turned out pretty great: they’re early Motoi Sakuraba works (his musical peak, IMO), and I sincerely think the FM synth version of Earnest Evans sounds better than the CD version. (I daresay it’s the only thing worth playing that game for!) Dracula X is a bit more hit-or-miss, but Konami certainly put in some effort to make it sound good.

Anyway, I talked about Tactics Ogre in the title, right? Well, that was the game that got me thinking about this subject, as I’ve been listening to its OST a fair bit as of late. I missed out on Tactics Ogre when it was first released, but I loved the hell out of the more recent PSP remake. I daresay it’s superior to Final Fantasy Tactics, even!

The remake is really, really well-done, making the game feel incredibly fresh and accessible while keeping the gameplay and tough story choices that make the game so special. One of the elements that got a serious overhaul was the music: it’s an early soundtrack from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, and they went back and totally reworked everything for the PSP version. These aren’t just the same songs with new instruments: in many cases they actually expanded and changed up existing pieces. Having heard the PSP versions and having gone back to hear the originals, my opinions on this are… well, I think they went a little too far.

Here’s the track I wanted to highlight: Avilla Hanya. It’s a fantastic piece, probably one of my favorite RPG battle compositions. Take a listen to the original SFC version:

Isn’t that a great piece of of music? It starts with that slow, creeping crawl, leading up slowly to something big with drums and strings coming in, and then BAM! It gets loud and intense and awesome. And don’t those samples sound great for the hardware? It’s just so, so good.

So here’s the PSP version. At first, you might just think “oh, it’s just the same song with far superior instrument samples,” but listen a little longer…

Yeah, that long-ass bridge they added that effectively double the length of the song? Not a fan at all. While it does have a few nice callbacks to other Tactics Ogre musical bits, it reduces the effectiveness of the piece as a whole by adding more soft, quiet downtime to a song where the central appeal is the contrast between the first half — the quiet, uneasy intro — and the second half — the part where it gets REALLY LOUD and gets you totally pumped to smack some enemy troops around the grid. The SFC version really is the better of the two, on numerous levels.

Honestly, though, it’s the fact that people still feel like there’s a need to go back and re-do or “fix” classic game chiptune music in modern re-releases that bothers me. Sure, putting in some better instrument samples is fine to an extent — though a lot of the old samples that were used have their own distinct charm that risks getting lost. When you’re doing things like adding parts to songs that weren’t there originally, though, that’s when things start to feel awfully iffy to me. With a new wave of HD retro remakes and callback-heavy stuff like Sonic Mania cropping up, I hope people won’t go overboard in attempting to make game music “better.” At the very least, give us a way to switch between the old and new music, please?

The Seriously Delayed 2016 Gaming.moe Waifu Awards: A Disaster (much like 2016)

2016, man. What the hell even happened?

Well, it’s time for us, once again, to attempt to look back on 2016 in gaming through the lens of the gaming.moe Waifu Awards. No, we’re not here to award actual waifus — rather, we’re here to take a look back on the year in gaming in a somewhat different light than just pointing out what had the best graphics or story or whatever.

The year was a disaster by the standards of most sane human beings, and honestly, it’s hard for me to write 2016 awards because it’s really challenging to look back at the year and see anything beyond a pile of flaming wreckage. Also, it has been declared by HeatStreet to be an Affront to True Gamers and Developers to write end-of-the-year awards that contain things like “humor” and “commentary” and aren’t just slobbering over high-scoring AAA releases, so presenting the Waifu Awards makes me a fundamentally terrible person.

why am I even writing if I can’t win the approval of heatstreet dot com :,(

Nevertheless, I am here to provide you all with my hot, cold, and lukewarm takes on gaming-related happenings of 2016, both well-publicized and obscure, complete with snarky commentary and taking people to task for doing stupid things. The awards honestly took me a while to write this time around — not as many happenings and trends really jumped out at me this year as they did last year, and the things that I did take note of were generally (and, fittingly, given the overall tone of 2016) trainwrecks, many of which had been written about at length here and elsewhere. There’s still plenty to commentate on, though!

Enough chatter, though. Let’s make an attempt to dig through the smouldering rubble of 2016 in hopes of squeezing precious drops of entertainment out of it!

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Masaya Nakamura Tribute: Namco arcade classics (that are just as important as Pac-Man)

With the passing of Masaya Nakamura, founder of Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company — better known to everyone as Namco — we’ve lost a man who was a pioneer of the game industry in many ways. When Nakamura bought out Atari Japan’s flagging division back in the 70s (offering far more money than rival Sega), he was spurred to add video game development to the company’s core business of kiddie rides, prize games, and other electromechanical amusements. From there, Namco went on to become one of the Japanese game industry’s arcade powerhouses during the game center boom of the 80s. Their competition with the other heavyweights in the arcade arena at the time — Sega, Taito, and Konami — spurred an incredible era of arcade innovation that helped advance game hardware and game genres to amazing new heights.

But here’s the problem: A lot of people don’t know much about that beyond Pac-Man.

While Namco had a US branch during the 80s, it was mostly a licensing arm until quite late in the decade.1. Games that looked like they’d have strong global appeal were quickly snatched up by the likes of Bally/Midway and Atari, while many others languished as Japanese exclusives, never to be seen outside of the country until MAME and the Namco Museums came about.

As a result, we have plenty of memorials dedicated to Nakamura speaking of him as “The Father of Pac-Man” (a title that really should go to creator Toru Iwatani), treating his legacy as if Pac-Man was the only thing that really mattered. Even without taking into account more modern Namco hits like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the Tales series, this reductive titling ignores numerous games he helped spearhead into existence that had a tremendous impact on the industry. Sadly, because these games didn’t see much attention in the West, many players don’t know how important they really are. I’ve decided to highlight three very important Namco arcade games here to show just how important Nakamura’s legacy is — there are plenty more examples, but these three titles embody what Namco meant to a generation of Japanese arcadegoers and game creators alike.

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  1. One of my biggest frustrations in studying arcade history is how poorly-documented a lot of dealing between US and Japanese companies during the 80s and early 90s are. Details like when Namco US started to sell their own cabinets are scarce. And furthermore, how did companies like Taito USA decide which games to sell themselves and which to sell out to Romstar?! ARGH

Arcade Road Trip: Anata no Warehouse (Kawasaki Warehouse)

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I went to Japan again over the holidays. My trip was a good one: I went to Comiket with a bunch of cool people from Lab Zero, went to the annual Fighting Vipers 2 crew bounenkai, dropped by Osaka to see rad folks and acquire a Raimais PCB, and somehow wound up in two different Sega-themed cafes over the course of my visit. Among other things!

Of course, I made sure to swing by a few arcades in the process. Much to my anger and disappointment, Akihabara HEY stopped selling its most recent round of exclusive merch the day before I got to go there, but I still managed to bring ANN’s Mike Toole inside and inspire a column in the process. TRF in Nakano was another stop, and it’s still as full of beautiful poverty fighting games as it ever was — though they seem to have brought in some Magician’s Dead machines as of late.1 And, of course, I swung by Mikado to do some work there (stay tuned for more on that).

There was one arcade I had to go to this time around, though. Last year, I saw pics a buddy took of a place referred to as the “Kawasaki Warehouse.” What I saw looked incredibly bizarre: an arcade modeled after the infamous Kowloon Walled City of Hong Kong, filled with decaying signs, dim lights, and musty, decrepit structures that appeared to be falling apart. Among all of this was a swath of arcade machines: white cabinets, bright screens, and colorful lights standing out starkly against the tarnished brown and gray of the surroundings. I knew this was something I’d have to see for myself.

That’s exactly what I did. And now, I come back to you with pictures in hand of what might be the coolest “theme” arcade I’ve ever been to, Anata no Warehouse.

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  1. As a friend put it, “Given what gets played at TRF, if Magician’s Dead is there, that means it probably bombed everywhere else.”

Interview: Taka Maekawa of Natsume-Atari

It’s undeniable that there’s been renewed interest in certain retro genres as of late, but there’s one old-school arcade genre that rarely sees any modern-day love: the third-person crosshair shooter. The likes of Cabal, Blood Brothers, and NAM-1975 simply aren’t being made anymore in any format, and that’s extremely unfortunate.

So when Natsume announced that Wild Guns – a SNES game that served as both a loving tribute to the genre and one of its last great examples in the past few decades – was getting a revised an enhanced PS4 reissue as Wild Guns Reloaded… well, I knew that Gaming.moe would have to do something involving the game. This site is built on love for classic gaming genres and underappreciated gaming gems, after all! Even more exciting was the news that original development staff from Natsume-Atari was working on the game. Not only were they going to adapt the game for a new platform, but they planned to add all-new levels and characters as well! My hype was officially through the roof, and I doggedly pursued the chance to interview the game’s creators for a rare look into the creation of a true modern retro revival.

Thanks to the help of Mika and other great folks over at Natsume, we were able to arrange a discussion with Mr. Taka Maekawa, the game’s producer over at Natsume-Atari in Osaka. Please enjoy this exclusive interview about the creation of Wild Guns Reloaded — which, by the way, is now available on PSN and in a limited physical release!

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Interview: Hiroyuki Kimura of Tanoshimasu, Ltd.

日本語版はここです。

The landscape of Japanese gaming has changed tremendously over the past decade, and perhaps the most seismic shift is the explosive popularity of mobile gaming on smartphones. The accessibility, low cost, and ease of development for iOS and Android systems combined with the tremendous installed user base has created a brand new market for niche genres and retro-styled games. Shooting games in particular have encountered something of a resurgence on these platforms: Recently, CAVE’s Gothic wa Mahou Otome, a free-to-play shooter with touchscreen-based movement, has become the company’s biggest hit in years.

But Cave’s not the only face in the mobile STG scene. Recently, a new company called Tanoshimasu unveiled Aka to Blue, a mobile-based STG with a style akin to many of the late 90s-early 00s danmaku classics that established the bullet hell subgenre. It wasn’t terribly surprising to learn that the head of Tanoshimasu, Hiroyuki Kimura, was himself a former employee of CAVE.

Being a longtime CAVE fan, I’m pretty excited for this game, and I feel like it’s also the sort of game that would benefit greatly from more exposure and word-of-mouth. I reached out to Hiroyuki Kimura via a mutual contact and asked him if he’d like to talk a bit about his industry experience, the formation of Tanoshimasu, and the current state of Aka and Blue’s development. Read on!

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Review/Build: Sega Astro City 1/12 cabinet model by WAVE

“Candy cabinets.” It’s a catch-all English term to refer to Japanese-style sit-down arcade cabinets where you can fairly easily switch the games contained within. There seems to be a bit of speculation as to where the term came from… though I’d wager the most obvious source is the Neo Candy cabinets, which commonly housed Neo-Geo MVS units.

There are a lot of different models of “candy cabs” out there, but to many, the de facto candy cabinet is the Sega Astro City, a model you’ll still see around many a Japanese arcade in this day and age. Countless matches of Virtua Fighter 2 were played on these machines back in the day, and their versatility and adaptability have made them a popular choice for retrogaming setups to this day.

Yes, the Astro City is practically synonymous with arcade games to many Japanese arcade fans. Which is why we all exploded with glee when we found out that model maker Wave, who had previously made replicas of modern Vewlix cabinets and the riding Hang-On cabinet, was going to make an Astro City model.  This was gonna be great!

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And yes, it is a pretty spectacular kit! It’s not too tough to build for the beginner, but offers a lot of potential for customization if you really, really want to create the miniature arcade machine of your dreams. In my case, I wanted to put a very particular game inside one of these cabinets. But I wanted to build it together with you, my dear readers – and that’s exactly what we’re going to do today!

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Gamest’s Favorite Character Rankings from 1987 to 1991

Hey guys, it’s almost election day!

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Yeah, that’s more or less my reaction to the shitshow of US politics, too. But instead of depressing ourselves, let’s look at the polls of yesteryear that truly mattered. I am, of course, talking about the favorite character polls published in seminal Japanese arcade gaming journal Gamest from 1987 through 1991.

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Gamest, for those unfamiliar, was an early Japanese game magazine whose focus was almost entirely on the culture of arcade gaming. The magazine was founded in 1986 and enjoyed plenty of success, going from bimonthly to monthly issues fairly quickly thanks to strong fan response. When Street Fighter II rolled around and became a phenomenon, however, the magazine became even bigger, eventually going biweekly at the height of the fighting game boom. Bolstered by the strength of arcades in the mid-90s, the publisher, Shinseisha, expanded briefly into spinoffs like Gamest EX (console games) and Comic Gamest, and even had a store focused on selling arcade game-related merchandise called Marugeya. But everything ended rather abruptly in 1999 with Shinseisha’s bankruptcy, killing off the magazine and other business operations tied to it. (Several former Gamest staff migrated to publisher Enterbrain to create Arcadia magazine as a successor, which would encounter its own abrupt death many years later.)

The magazine had a ton of passionate, talented writers throughout the years: as the Japanese Wikipedia article on the magazine notes, many of Gamest’s early writers came from VG2 and VG3, early arcade gaming doujinshi publications that were the contemporaries of Satoshi Tajiri and his Game Freak doujinshi. Graphic artist Han, who’s best known for his work at Treasure, was part of their writing staff at one point, and artist Mine Yoshizaki cut his teeth doing various art pieces for the magazine.

Amongst all of the strategy guides, interviews, reports, high score tables, and special features, however, every Gamest issue would contain a section called “Gamest Island,” which was dedicated to reader submissions. In early 1992, Gamest collected all of its Island sections up to that point into one giant book, called Gamest Island Mokushiroku.

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One of my current fixations is trying to snag cheap Gamest issues when they pop up for media preservation purposes, as the Japanese arcade scene of the 80s and 90s is a fascinating subculture that the West knows next to nothing about. When I saw this book for a good price, I jumped on it — and when I got it, I wasn’t disappointed in the content. This tome has 500-some pages of reader submissions that give a candid look into the Japanese arcade culture of the late 80s and early 90s from the very people who were the most passionate about it. There’s tons of art, plenty of letters, lots of terrible jokes, a bunch of reader-made “How much of a gamer are you” polls, parody game ideas, and even odd bits like someone’s Night Striker fanfiction. There are early memes and trends that show up, heated opinions (you start seeing some anti-Street Fighter II art and sentiment after the game blows up in popularity), and even in-column conversations between readers: one issue features a woman writing in to complain about men treating her badly at the arcade, the next issue has a guy sending in a drawing he did to support her, and the issue after that has her replying with more art as a thank-you. (It really seems charming and quaint compared to internet interactions today, especially since nobody got called a beta cuck.)

Every year Gamest would also hold reader polls on various subjects — and among them were various “favorite character” polls. From 1987 onwards, Gamest would have a reader-voted “favorite character” poll, along with rotating sub-polls in various other character categories. The results of each of these are also published in this book, and how the votes played out is pretty amusing: there are clear winners, some head-scratchers, and some utterly bizarre picks that appear to be ancient memes and jokes from a bygone era in Japanese gaming. Let’s take a look at how the polls went!

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An overly elaborate and painstakingly detailed account of the events of Arcade Superplay Expo 2016

I first heard rumblings in some of the Discord channels I hang out in that Twitch was planning something interesting in the fall. It was going to be a charity marathon, but with a twist: a focus exclusively on arcade games, a segment of gaming that didn’t really get much exposure outside of a few select streamers and the occasional arcade game run at a GDQ. I received a message from Romscout, Symphony of the Night speedrun superstar and Twitch charity event manager. Was I interested in helping out the event in some way?

I swiftly answered. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. Jeez, you had me from the words “arcade event!”

The idea was a 48-hour marathon to raise money for Save the Children, to be held in October. The event would have players showcasing both classic and newer arcade games, from Donkey Kong and Track and Field to things like Tetris the Grand Master, some modern pinball games, and Beatmania IIDX. I wanted to at least help promote the event and get the word out, but I wondered if there was anything I personally could run at the event…

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Oh, right. There was Raimais, a game I had spent a month writing a novella’s worth of text about. But despite having written extensively about it, I had yet to actually complete a single-credit clear (commonly referred to as a 1CC). There was a little over a month until the event. Could I manage to not only juggle work and site responsibilities, but also route the game and master a path that would take me to the end with as few deaths as possible?

It was a daunting proposition, but after proclaiming so much love towards this obscure little Taito game, I felt like I had to carry its torch at what came to be called Arcade Superplay Expo.

“Put me down for Raimais,” I told Romscout. From that point on, I was officially committed.

It definitely wasn’t an easy task: for the first week or two I was diligently making notes, drawing powerup locations and scribbling level notes in a small Ubisoft notebook I’d been given for being runner-up in PAX West Jeopardy. When Jed from our discord channel showed me a custom Raimais level viewer he had whipped up, I was floored and overjoyed. This was going to make the process so much easier!

Finally, after hours of diligent practice, I got my first Raimais 1CC a week before the event was set to start. Now I had to find a way to try and make it consistent for my run, which had been slotted in at a risky 3:20 AM PST timeslot in the schedule. (It was originally set for around 7 AM, but I felt it would be better to try and stay up late than attempt to wake up early.) The event was fast approaching, and I had a review of a big-name JRPG on my freelance plate at the same time. There was so much going on, so much to do… and I couldn’t have been more excited for what was to come.

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Figure review: figma Akira Yuki and Sarah Bryant from Virtua Fighter

I knew the day would come where I’d be reviewing a figma on this site — Max Factory figmas, along with Bandai’s Tamashii line, are essentially the standard for Japanese pop-culture action figures in terms of size, quality, and price. There are a ton of figmas based on a wide spectrum of anime, manga, games, and the occasional real-life figure, all recreated in 1/12 scale with a good amount of articulation. Of course, not all figmas (figmae? figmata?) are made equally: some are clearly better-made and more interesting than others, but generally, the quality baseline for them is pretty solid — the “bad” figmas aren’t so much poorly-made as they are a bit on the dull side in terms of playing with them.

I was actually expecting the first figma I’d review here to be Kazuma Kiryu from the Yakuza series, as he was due out in August, but he got hit with a serious delay, pushing him all the way back to a December release… which makes me think that the manufacturer discovered some horrible engineering flaw as they were wrapping up production and they needed to redo the whole thing. It’s okay though, we have something that’s just as blue-blooded Sega as our hot-blooded ex-Yakuza pal: Virtua Fighter figmas!

If you’ve been following the site for a while, you probably remember me being really excited about these back when they were first announced at Wonder Festival a few years back. Hell, I’ve been a VF fan for most of my life, why wouldn’t I lose my mind over VF characters finally getting the figma treatment? Sure, they were the polygonal VF1 models and not the slick, realistic models of VF5, but at least they were something! And let’s face it, there’s something really lovable about that flat-shaded model 1 look.

But enough talk. Let’s review some plastic! Ready… GO!

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