Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top 5 Video Game Music Composers

A question asked way too rarely is - what kind of music are you into? Everyone loves to go on about their favorite music band, but a lot less people like to hear about it, unless they happen to love that same band (which is almost never the case). However, let's assume someone hypothetically asked me this question - I may even dare say it's actually happened once or twice during my lifetime - what would I tell them?
I could tell them I enjoy listening to everything from Prokofiev to Björk to Prodigy to Kate Bush to Frank Zappa to Infected Mushroom to Busta Rhymes to electro swing to whatever this is but frankly they would've probably got stuck on "Pro... what?". A much easier way for me to keep their interest, or at least sum up what kind of music I'm really into in as few words as possible is for me to simply say - video game music.

Now "video game music" in itself is a confusing term since there is a huge difference between music from say Super Mario Bros and Mass Effect. Then there's also Bitpop and Chiptunes which is music made with the same "instruments" as video games to varying degrees, but that doesn't actually feature in any video game. Some video game music we like for nostalgic reasons and some we like because they're just simply damn awesome. This is a list I've been wanting to write for some time now, because I feel like Video Game Composers often don't get half the recognition they deserve. Most people know the names of a dozen artists they dislike only because they're mentioned every ten seconds on the radio, but can only mention Nobuo Uematsu when you ask them about VGM, eventhough they might love the music from so many more. I'm not saying I'm much better unfortunately, but I've really been trying to improve. This is one way to do it, I guess. This has been a challenging post for me though, mostly because I've needed to limit myself, like a lot. The Top 5 was pretty easy for me to do, but to then grab only a handful of songs to represent those people! Almost impossible...

In the name of fairness I will mention that the people on this list haven't necessarily done work on these songs on their own, sometimes it's in collaboration with other artists. But they're listed as the main creator, as far as I know.

5. Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka
Hirokazu Tanakas music perfectly encapsulates something that I've always had the utmost respect for regarding the whole 8-bit era - the ability to create something brilliant from such limited technology. Although 8-bit games are not among my favorites to play (with some few exceptions) for reasons I can only speculate about, I've always been fascinated in how these people could squeeze out so much from so little and the inventiveness that must lie behind it. I am very happy to see a throwback to those days in the new indie-scene but obviously there is never anything like the original style. Hip Tanakas does with music what the game designers did with programming - he manages to make music, some that I am sure you've all heard by now, easy to listen to, recognizable and charming with what limited capabilities the NES sound chip had, keeping it brilliant in its simplicity and in something that sounds like it squeezed every last drop of energy from the sound chip. With only a few notes he manages to make anyone smile or just wanna get up and dance. It's so great because it's so minimalistic and yet makes you feel like it fits the game perfectly.

4. Nobuo Uematsu
I have something of a love-hate relationship with Nobuo Uematsus work. On the one hand he can bring me close to tears with the pieces I have a connection to, ie the music from the FF (or Chrono Trigger) games that I have played. On the other hand, I feel nothing for his music if I haven't played the game it's connected to. I'm not sure what to make of that. He clearly manages to create very catchy tunes, but they're not much outside their setting. They basically need the surrounding and the story for you to understand their greatness, they live off of bringing you back to those places. They are brilliant at being memorable, but only if you have a memory of them. For instance, I think basically every tune on the Final Fantasy VII soundtrack is amazing. And since I've played almost every Final Fantasy I am a pretty big fan of any of those soundtracks as well. But he's done a lot of work I don't care much for, like the Final Fantasy spin-offs (Chrystal Chronicles comes to mind, Blue Dragon). But there is no denying that Uematsu is probably the VGM creator I've listened the most to and I hold his work in very high regard.

3. Naoki Kodaka
Although I only discovered this composer recently and aside from Blaster Master never played any of the games he's composed for I immediately fell in love with this fantastic piece of music. How can you listen to that and not turn your speakers up to max and start bopping your head? Impossible I say. And it's not an isolated event either. Or this. You know in fact, just go listen to the Journey to Silius soundtrack and you will know what I mean, otherwise I'll just end up linking the entire thing here. And yes, that is a NES sound chip you're listening to. If you think Journey to Silius is the only time he got it right (because you're crazy and didn't like the Blaster Master tune), let me prove you wrong. Kodaka manages to create music that make the game seem unworthy. He is a perfect example of what I mean when I talk about video Game Composers that deserve more recognition because all this really good music deserves to get listened to a lot more than just when someone happens to stumble upon the game. So go listen to them.

2. Michiru Yamane
Michiru Yamane is most famous for her Castlevania music (although the music for the first Castlevania on the NES was actually done by another woman, Kinuyo Yamashita), but she also did work on the soundtracks of the Rocket Knight games and Contra: Hard Corps to mention a few. Michirus Castlevania music is some of the very first VGM I got really into listening to, that was long before I even played any of the games myself (which I didn't really do until just last year). So even without any nostalgic connection to the music I was immediately hooked by the tunes. I think a big reason for my love of her Castlevania music especially (although the Contra: Hard Corps music is epic as well) is that I am big fan of classical music and this strikes the same chord within me. Her tunes manage to capture the essence of the game and bring out the exact right mood while also being fantastic tunes just on their own.
Like I mentioned I've since played a couple Castlevanias, mostly the handheld ones (GBA & DS). I've decided to save what I think might be the best for last - Symphony of the Night. And this song that is actually my mobile phone ring signal at the moment. Now if that isn't proof of love, I don't know what is.

1. Yuzo Koshiro
The main reason Yuzo Koshiro ends up as number one in this list (because frankly, it's been damn difficult to grade) is because his music always makes me think "why is this music so damn good?". Somehow the music he creates manages to feel like it perfectly fits the game it's in without in any way falling into the obvious tropes of music creation (like bongo drums on the jungle stage). Koshiro has his own inventive and very recognizable style that just makes me go "hells yeah!" when I hear it. How does this not make you want to punch faces with rage. Yet there is no no agressiveness in the tune, just pure upbeat to get your blood pumping. Even when you start thinking a tune is nothing special he just puts something in there to pique your interest and make you go "oh? This is cool!". There is just so much in each tune to listen to, they're almost stories in their own right.
Here, still recognizable yet with a completely different feel to it. And you know shit got real when you hear something like this.

I'd love to hear what VGM you like listening to, if any!