Saturday Summaries 2018-10-06: Soundvenirs Edition

Something I've been doing for the longest time is taking single VGM tracks from the soundtracks of video games as "sound souvenirs," or "soundvenirs," and adding them to an ever-growing shuffled playlist. I've been doing this for two reasons: first is to venerate those soundtracks that were especially great, and the second because those tracks reminded me of what it was like to play those games and the enjoyment I derived from them. Memories and nostalgia seem indelibly linked to certain sensory input, as I'm sure any Proust fan can attest, and so my memories of previous games are at their most vivid when I'm listening to a track that perhaps played at a pivotal moment of the game's story, or scored a particularly challenging and decisive boss battle.

While I don't do this with every game - either the music was too unremarkable to remember, or the games themselves were - I have built myself a small library of bangers to stick on while writing or exercising. I'm loath to download too many music tracks from one game without purchasing the soundtrack proper, but I find that just narrowing it down to one can be a fun if challenging part of the process. The following list is just a few of games I've played this year with stand-out tracks that have all since joined my "soundvenir" (yeah, that word's not going to stick) playlist, and I've included why I selected that music in particular. If you get as sentimental as I do over old video games, try picking up the practice yourself if you don't do something similar already.

The Falcom Sound Team JDK might be my favorite video game composers full-stop. I'll have to get caught up with Trails and Ys: Memories of Celceta sooner rather than later, I think.
The Falcom Sound Team JDK might be my favorite video game composers full-stop. I'll have to get caught up with Trails and Ys: Memories of Celceta sooner rather than later, I think.
  1. "Jump Up, Super Star!" - Super Mario Odyssey. I started this year still playing the new Super Mario platformer after making the slightly impulsive choice to buy a Switch for Christmas, and nothing really represents the madcap joy of that game than the big flashy musical number of New Donk City, which was also all over the game's marketing.
  2. "Opening Credits" - The Wolf Among Us. TWAU had a very subdued noir soundtrack that worked well for the grim stories it wanted to tell. Most of it was very ambient and moody though; the sort of thing that doesn't lend itself well to individual tracks in a playlist of eclectic music as it would a setlist full of BGM with the same tone. It was the stylish opening credits to the first episode though, where Bigby strolls through Fabletown with its noirish obtuse angles and lighting, was where the game first got its claws into me and left its strongest impression.
  3. "El Machino" - SteamWorld Dig 2. This game had a great atmospheric soundtrack, really emphasizing the loneliness and otherworldliness of the locations you'd find deep underground, but it was that chill town theme that kept me entranced for hours as I sold all my materials and pondered what upgrades to buy next from the store. It was the type of track that, if you felt like doing something else for a moment, you'd just leave Dorothy idling in the safe confines of El Machino for a spell and let the soothing vibes wash over you.
  4. "Rivers in the Desert (Lyrics)" - Persona 5. Persona 5's spectacular sense of style certainly wasn't limited to just the music, but it was definitely a highlight nonetheless. Something this game (and another one further down the list) does is suddenly introduce lyrics to monumental tracks to make them that much more impactful, usually after a turning point in the battle. That's the case for Rivers in the Desert, the phenomenal track for the sorta final boss fight, which is both rousing and cathartic in the same way Persona 4's The Almighty was.
  5. "Main Theme" - Chroma Squad. Chroma Squad's enthusiasm for Japanese tokusatsu/Super Sentai shows became infectious after a while, and I particularly liked that they scored their own Super Sentai TV show theme for the main menu, letting you know upfront what to expect. Sometimes you can be only mildly invested in a particular theme or fandom a game is feverishly homaging and be swept up in it regardless.
  6. "All-Out Attack!" - Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana. It is DOWNRIGHT IMPOSSIBLE to select just one track from Ys VIII as the overall best or most representative, and I regularly find myself choosing between four or five of my favorites whenever the mood strikes: Crimson Fighter, Deadly Temptation, Sunshine Coast, or Night Survivor might be my choice any other day. I went with All-Out Attack here, the BGM for the game's manic "suppressions", for the way it goes full ham in that middle section. God, I love Ys music so damn much.
  7. "Apocalypsis Noctis" - Final Fantasy XV. XV's story pacing was disorganized and difficult to follow, and maybe I preferred the quieter moments exploring the countryside with my bros completing side-quests, but there are certain points where the game's story leans into its big set-piece moments in truly dramatic fashion. None are more so dramatic than the Astrals, the game's eidolon equivalent, which are literal colossi waiting for the chosen Noctis to come along and awaken them. When you encounter the enormous Titan beneath the earth and are forced to simultaneously contend with a legion of enemy soldiers and a fifty-foot tall pissed off God, you need a music track with the proper amount of gravity. That's what Apocalypsis Noctis is. (I like the similar Apocalypsis Aquarius too; those guitars were a good addition.)
  8. "The COOL GUY SOSUKE" - Yakuza 5. Like Ys VIII, Yakuza 5's soundtrack is as expansive as it is impressive, covering so many different genres and styles that it's hard to select a single exemplar. A lot of it is licensed, especially where Haruka's dance music is concerned, but most of the game's tracks are the game's composers having fun with various Japanese conventions and tropes, like the Initial D-style faux Eurobeat for Kiryu's driving side-missions. My favorite is the battle BGM for Sosuke because of how perfectly it suits his persona as this badass tryhard looking to school old man Kiryu with the moves he learned from his grandfather (who happens to be Kiryu's sensei also). Sosuke was just one of many fun combat trainers with apropos music: I also really liked the oddball mountain monk that taught Saejima his specials, along with his eccentric leitmotif.
  9. "The Stains of Time" - Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Metal Gear Rising's boss fight music, which do the same thing I mentioned with Persona 5 by introducing lyrics after a pivotal moment of the fight, is really goofy nu-metal fun that suits perennial dork Raiden and the half-machine, half-angst mercenaries that he finds himself contending with. Monsoon's moody ode to pain and rain and rainy pain might be my favorite, but there's not a bad choice in the lot: A Stranger I Remain, Red Sun, Rules of Nature, and It Has To Be This Way are also front-runners.
  10. "City of Tears" - Hollow Knight. It's hard to pick one track from Hollow Knight because it all blends together so well, but the beautiful melancholy of City of Tears makes a stark difference from the more dangerous and creepy areas of the game. Though there are enemies and perils aplenty in the former capital of the Hallownest civilization, you mostly get a sense of lugubrious peace from this place. As the enigmatic NPC Quirrel once tells your diminutive hero, sometimes what's best is just to sit on a bench for a while and listen to the rain hitting the windows.

Melodic soundtracks are just the thing to put on while writing blogs, but maybe it also enhances the pleasure of reading them too? Only way one to find out. Here's some to test it on:

  • The Indie Game of the Week revisits the grim magical cyberpunk world of Shadowrun with Shadowrun: Hong Kong, the third of Harebrained Schemes's reboots of the venerable table-top game. Hong Kong isn't too distinct from the previous two, but it feels like the developers have found their groove in terms of delivering cyberpunkian narrative if nothing else. I'm enjoying the overarching story, the self-contained vignette tales of the individual shadowrunner missions, and the idiosyncratic characters I'm working with. Lots of backstory and worldbuilding for the reading, but only if you seek it out. My kind of RPG.
  • The SNES Classic Mk. II feature returns this week with Episode XX: Sci-Fi B-Movie Double-Feature, highlighting a couple of sci-fi RPGs of its own: Quintet's Robotrek, perhaps the least known of their SNES outings, and Squaresoft's Secret of Evermore, in which the JRPG giants gave their US localization team (along with their secret weapon of a young Jeremy Soule) a shot at their own game. I have a lot of affection for both as quirky titles going for something a bit off-kilter, though they're not unfortunately without their issues. They might have to fight to stay on the objectively-determined final list, but I'm rooting for them. (We're also down to the last five episodes! I hope people have been enjoying the feature.)

Addenda

TV: My Hero Academia (Season 3)

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My Hero Academia, or Boku no Hero Academia as anitwitter would prefer, recently concluded its third season with a hopeful message of a fourth to come soon. If you didn't catch my first season rundown, please be sure to check it out here for my impressions thus far and a small synopsis of the show if you need it. Suffice it to say, My Hero Academia continues to balance a mix of moral earnestness that lies at the core of almost all superhero fiction with a certain amount of anime ridiculousness that tends to shine brighter in MHA's world of comical side-characters. It's no mistake that superpowers are called Quirks in this universe; they don't just define what the character can do, but also that character's personality in a nutshell too. A little one-dimensional at times perhaps, but MHA benefits from having a hundred-plus characters, only about a third of which you really need to care about. That lets the other two-thirds be the type of one-joke characters that The Simpsons used to cultivate until it got to be 30 seasons long and had to fill those schedules with dramatic stories for all those paper-thin archetypes - a similar problem that affects Koei Tecmo's Dynasty Warriors franchise too, as I understand it.

I'm still not used to serial anime that in turn is based on an ongoing serial manga, but it feels like there's a certain level of disconnect between when a manga arc ends and when the anime season does. That can't be helped; for various reasons, TV production can't be as fluid as comic books when it comes to stopping and starting new major arcs or the smaller storylines that fill the gaps between them. The pacing of the comic books can be all over the place, especially one like My Hero Academia that balances comedic interludes with more serious, peril-filled adventures that moves major characters like protagonist Izuku "Deku" Midoriya or his burly mentor All Might forward. When you adapt that to an anime season with only a specific amount of episodes and story progress that's possible, you end up with something that feels as... well, lop-sided as Season 3 was.

Without getting into too much detail, the series climaxes during a very tense encounter with the franchise's chief antagonist: the enigmatic All For One, who was born with the Quirk to absorb the powers of others. A pivotal fight between him and All Might changes the course of the world of heroes and villains; something that the rest of the foreseeable future of the show will continue to build from. But big shifts like that can't happen overnight, and the students still need a relatively stable learning environment if it's going to get back to the focus of the show of training to be a superhero - it's sort of like how the Harry Potter stories never stopped being about going to school and learning some damn magic until things got real late in that series. The focus of the show has been Midoriya's slow climb to the top and adjusting to his powers, his relationships with rivals like Bakugo (a.k.a. Explosive Trash Boy) and Todoroki (a.k.a. Icy Hot), and his lessons from his taciturn homeroom teacher Eraser Head and the other lecturers at the U.A. institution of learning. It can and will take breaks for silly interludes and the extracurricular mayhem that affects the whole world, but like Persona it sort needs these longer stretches of normalcy to ratchet up the impact of these occasional bouts of jeopardy, and also because otherwise these students would have to bail from such a dangerous school and we wouldn't have a show.

What this all means is that Season 3 tossed spent its big game-changing moment early and then more or less petered out with a conclusion to that arc that promises dark clouds on the horizon but really felt like the show winding down after an exciting juncture, and then continue to wind down for another fourteen episodes. Those were exciting too, to a lesser extent - they involved a large interschool competition for provisional hero licenses - but the stakes were decidedly less severe. I'm in some ways torn about this; obviously, we can't be in life-and-death situations all the time or these poor kids would melt from the stress. At the same time, it feels weird to structure a season around such a turning point by putting it smack dab in the middle. To bring us back to the Harry Potter comparison again, it'd be like if Harry foiled Voldemort's latest plan during the winter holiday and then we saw the following six months of the school year play out relatively incident-free. Not a bad thing if you enjoy these characters and having a fly-on-the-wall view of these special classes that they're taking, but still a departure from the norm in terms of narrative structure. The alternative would be to have half a season - while, honestly, 10-11 episodes is entirely reasonable for a season of animated television I'm not sure people would be all that satisfied given how slowly this show tends to move.

At any rate, I still really like this show and its characters and even its more grounded highschool dramas and lesson plans. I didn't mean to kvetch so long about the weird pacing this time around, because I feel like the show hit its groove back in season 2 and has yet to bounce out of it. The animation, music, voice work, and especially its handling and delivery of the major "heck yeah!" moments are all top-notch, and I can't wait to see what future seasons will bring (keeping in mind that I'm deliberately avoiding learning anything I can about the manga, which is still many episodes and arcs ahead).

Movie: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

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I have a certain amount of bad luck when it comes to bailing from franchises. I left Lost when it was getting interesting again in season 3 (citation very much needed), I thought Syndicate would be my last Assassin's Creed until all the approbations that went to Origins changed my mind, and I figured I was done with the Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible movies after III was - though a fine movie in most respects - starting to feel like the series was disappearing up its own ass a little. However, it seems to have pulled a Fast & Furious where they've not so much continued to develop a deeply multi-layered canon but rather took a moment of self-reflection and decided to just be rad, mostly self-contained espionage action movies instead. At least, that was the impression I got with all the hubbub around this year's Mission: Impossible - Fallout.

Hence, I'm catching up with the three latter movies of the franchise this year. My intent is to space them far enough apart that in a month or so I'll be watching the next, Rogue Nation, and then a month or so after that the new Fallout will be available via some manner of home streaming solution. Watching Ghost Protocol, which was thoroughly entertaining, has only made me more determined to see this plan through. If anything, Ghost Protocol is refreshingly straightforward as these types of movies go - there's no big double-cross, no big twist, and no sudden revelation that recontextualizes the last two hours of runtime. Not that those are all necessarily bad in espionage fiction, just that they tend to be the rule rather than the norm for the genre outside of Bond movies (which also something have a formula they like to stick to, even the mildly iconoclastic Craig ones). It's refreshing to have plot ingredients as simple as a ticking time bomb, a bunch of specialists working together to stop it, and a decent mix of outlandish stunts - that Burj Khalifa climb! I'm glad I never seem to get vertigo in movies - and action scenes. Oh, and a whole lot of requisite running for Mr. Cruise's character Ethan Hunt. Gotta get that cardio in where you can, I suppose.

I dunno. I guess one concern I had when it came to reviewing Mission: Impossible movies is that I'd have to talk around the inevitable twists, or regurgitate a bunch of elaborate Tom Clancy-ish terrorist machinations to put the plot into context, but Ghost Protocol is really just the core tenets of the franchise in a flashy package. That might lend it a certain forgettable nature, though it was a highly competent movie that aimed to please and accomplished it, so I can't find myself wanting to dissect or denigrate it too much. Paula Patton as the distracted bombshell, Simon Pegg as the suddenly competent comic relief, and even Jeremy Renner as an IMF analyst with a secret past were all fine in their roles, all ably supporting Tom Cruise's protagonist as he gets most - but not all - of the fun stuff to do. It was great seeing Michael Nyquist and Léa Sedoux as the villains too; both of whom would later rise to further fame with similar projects (John Wick and Spectre, respectively). Overall, a surprisingly direct spy movie that probably thought that it was more important to deliver a satisfying action yarn than to constantly subvert the audience's expectations with post-modern left turns and guessing games. Can't say I disagree.

Game: Sproggiwood (2014)

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We once again had one of those weeks where the two games I played for blog features - Robotrek for SNES Classic Mk. II and Shadowrun: Hong Kong for Indie Game of the Week - were too substantial to let anything else get a look in. That is, except for Sproggiwood. Sproggiwood was a potential IGotW candidate that I wrote off almost immediately once I realized that its purported "town-building sim-slash-dungeon crawler" combination was really a plain roguelike that let you occasionally buy new upgrades and buildings between runs with the cash you'd earned, similar to Rogue Legacy. From the description, however, I was hoping for something more like Dark Cloud and was - as you might expect - left forlorn by the reality.

Even with that in mind, and the fact that I've been on the outs with Indie roguelikes of late, Sproggiwood was something I kept coming back as an ideal "podcast" game. One of its pros is that Sproggiwood is specifically built for smaller play sessions: each of its many dungeons can be completed in 10-15 minutes if you're in the flow, though a successful run can depend a lot on luck and how capable you are with each class. As a turn-based roguelike, in the traditional sense where each step or attack equates to one step or attack for everyone else, you can totally screw yourself over by moving around too quickly, but you can eventually navigate the dungeons on muscle memory alone, side-stepping enemy charges or even manipulating them to damage each other.

The game starts with one class - Farmer, who has something of a major ace up his sleeve in terms of his skillset - and you frequently acquire new ones as you complete dungeons. In addition to the big one-time reward for finishing the dungeon for the first time, completing each dungeon with a separate class provides a large cash reward for further developing your town: buying upgrades that increase the frequency of roguelike staples like chests and random-effect shrines or boost player character health, or unlocking gear permanently that you can then equip as part of your pre-dungeon loadout rather than hoping to come across better gear randomly in a chest. Like many scenario-based roguelikes, you start at level 1 each time and must scrounge for resources, acquiring or upgrading class abilities every level. Each class plays very differently as a result, and each of their four abilities are built to support the way they're meant to be played. An archer, for instance, is best employed at range with their bow attack - they also have skills that unlock a stronger arrow attack that pierces through rows of enemies but is limited to the four cardinal directions, and another where the archer rolls out of danger if enemies are in dangerous melee range.

That normal-looking mushroom enemy opens a lot of portals to alternate dimensions, letting a whole bunch of purple weirdos through. If you don't stop them in time, your screen is filled with extradimensional visitors who randomly teleport you with every hit. They are THE WORST.
That normal-looking mushroom enemy opens a lot of portals to alternate dimensions, letting a whole bunch of purple weirdos through. If you don't stop them in time, your screen is filled with extradimensional visitors who randomly teleport you with every hit. They are THE WORST.

Between the short and intense sessions and that slow creep of progress being made even if you're constantly crashing and burning on one pernicious boss or enemy type - a balance which Rogue Legacy did very well also - I found myself putting a lot of hours into Sproggiwood without realizing it. When I eventually finished the game by completing every dungeon with every class, I was left unsure whether I would write that experience up as part of the Indie Game of the Week - which has already been planned and scheduled in advance with other games I wanted to play, notably Hollow Knight and Yoku's Island Express most recently - or find somewhere else to talk about this strange but oddly compelling little game. Somewhere like, say, the addenda of a Saturday Summaries entry? It's crazy enough to work.

Talking of crazy work, it's time to start planning next week's blogs. I have a special one-off intended for the alternative Tuesday slot that will require a lot of work, and then there's another Indie Game of the Week as per usual. Hopefully by then I'll have completed both Robotrek and Shadowrun: Hong Kong - I really can't stand having too many games on the go at once. See ya then.

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