Monday, March 20, 2017

Setting the Stage: My Favorite "File Select" Themes

Outside of the title screen, nothing sets the mood for the player's upcoming adventure/fight for survival/round of tetris than a game's file select (or password) theme. Let's talk about them!

This will be a small selection of some of my all time favorites. Of course I love em because they're excellent, so chances are good that you love them too--don't expect too many deep cuts here. If you see one of your favorites though, why not give it a listen and take a trip down memory road with me?

I'm terrible at putting things in a specific TOP TEN order, so let's just say: these are the ones I like.

Klonoa - Inquisitive Waltz
What a great song to get you ready to play! The waltz timing and carefree tune is evocative of a fair or circus, and does an excellent job of tricking you into thinking that this is a totally lighthearted game that didn't make me cry at the age of 14.

Dragon Warrior (et al.) - Intermezzo
This one is totally iconic, and I respect Enix for sticking to their guns and making this the file select theme for EVERY game in the decades-old franchise (barring the first two entries, which had different music).

I won't say it completely fits the theme of a fantasy adventure, but it's a jaunty kind of tune that I guess would fit a tavern or some shit. The composition was done better in later games of course, but as it was my first real RPG, Dragon Warrior/Quest IV will always be my personal favorite.

Castlevania Bloodlines - Password Screen
Yikes--this one is at the top of the admittedly un-crowded list of "creepiest password themes".

I was tempted to put Symphony of the Night's operatic file select music here, but as I prefer "Creepy and Kooky" Castlevania over "Extravagant and Gothic" Castlevania style, this one gets the nod.

The Legend of Zelda - A Link To The Past (et al.) File Select
Does this one have a real name besides File Select?

Another tune that spans the entire franchise (again, aside from the first two!), this is a wonderfully memorable song in a series full of iconic music. It's brilliantly picturesque in a way; the gentle, hesitant piano melody combined with the simple harp accompaniment bring to mind the theme of eternal heroes and love that lasts throughout time. Very romantic. I don't think they could've done better than this one.

The theme has been iterated on many many times but the clean MIDI sound of the SNES version has always been my favorite!

Sonic The Hedgehog 3 - File Select
Switching gears to something completely different, here's Sonic 3. "File select" doesn't really come to mind when you think Sonic, does it...?

Sonic 3 takes place on Floating Island and the music is appropriately tropical in theme--I love that 16 bit marimba. Actually, there's not really anything else like this in the rest of the soundtrack, is there? Maybe that's why I've always liked it. It's unusually laid back for a Sonic game and kind of feels like the "waiting room" before you get down to business.

Faxanadu - Mantra
If I were a better writer I'd go on at length about how big an impression Faxanadu left on six year old me. A game that begins with the world already in ruin and a race of people facing extinction, full of monsters that are often alien (and sometimes straight up incomprehensible) and THIS MUSIC!!! I don't know if Faxanadu was even appropriate for me to even play. Maybe I'm overstating things since it was so traumatic to me back then? Look up the boss theme if you don't believe me--that shit was too much for a child to handle.

The mournful "Mantra" theme kind of makes you feel like you've lost before you've even begun the game. I have a vivid memory of burning the hell out of my tongue on Hamburger Helper while playing this game. It was "lasagna" flavor, but it didn't even taste like tomato, let alone lasagna. Wonder if they still make that flavor? It sucked

 Phantasy Star 2 - Step Up
Damn it I love this song. The bouncy Retro Anime Future aesthetic can be hard to pin down but Tokuhiko Uwabo's work on Phantasy Star II nailed it! Peak 80's Sega if I ever heard it.

I've always described the original Phantasy Star series as something that makes me nostalgic for a future that will never happen. Maybe there's a word for that in another language.

Got any favorite file select menu themes you like? Let me know.

Monday, October 24, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Hellnight

"None of it seems real, like it shouldn't be happening..."

Hellnight (known as Dark Messiah in Japan) feels like a bad dream come to life. The crude, lo-fi graphics give the impression of some cursed VHS tape you found abandoned in the gutter. The soundtrack is eerie, minimal and super effective, consisting almost entirely of 2-4 second loops interspersed with foreboding stretches of silence. Despite this the music never gets annoying or repetitive in a bad way; the mood is set perfectly by it.

Great atmosphere, bad proofreading

Even though the world of the game is ostensibly populated by other characters, you never actually see them in the "flesh". Rather than depicting characters as 3D models in-game, when you run across a character they appear as a 2D graphic overlaid on screen, to off-putting effect. Though this approach was probably taken due to technical limitations on the part of the developer, it ultimately succeeds in creating the surreal feeling of a lifeless world--even with other NPCs present.

The premise of Hellnight drew me in right away: below the streets of Tokyo is another, darker world--the Tokyo Mesh. Built during World War II, this subterranean labyrinth was meant to be a base of operations for the Japanese army. Now it is home to outcasts and criminals, people who are unable or unwilling to coexist with the outside world.

The unnamed protagonist finds himself in the Mesh after being chased into a subway car by a group of cultists calling themselves the Holy Ring. A man appears in the middle of the tracks and the subway crashes--soon after, the man mutates into a monstrous humanoid creature and begins killing passengers. The player escapes with a high school student named Naomi and the pair find their way into the underworld, and then the shit really hits the fan.

What is at the bottom of the Tokyo Mesh? Where did the creature come from and what does it want? And how is Holy Ring involved in the whole mess? Having recently beaten the game I can guarantee that wherever you think the plot is going, you're wrong.

Basic gameplay involves escaping the creature's pursuit while trying to find a way back to the surface. This involves dealing with the odd and often disturbed citizens of the Mesh; generally involving a series of fetch quests or light puzzles. In classic RPG style, fulfilling an NPC's request usually results in a clue or item that brings you a step closer to finding an escape from the underground.

The monster cannot be killed. If it's close enough for you to hear it breathing, it's time to run! The Tokyo Mesh is full of dead ends, blind corners and locked doors so awareness of your surroundings (and frequent map checking) is critical.

It's also critical that you keep Naomi alive; if the monster touches you, your partner will die. If it touches you again it's game over. Other partner characters can be met throughout the game, but Naomi is the only one with extra-sensory perception! It doesn't work all the time, but if you're lucky the monster's location will be shown on the map when it draws near. Take care of Naomi, for real.

Things get very surreal as you get deeper underground.

Hellnight was released on PS1 in Summer 1998 in Japan, and hit Europe a few days before the end of 1999. And that's it--no North American release whatsoever, making the game somewhat attainable (the PAL version is in English, French and German) but off the radar of many western gamers for years.


Talk about a blog long in the making! I was trying to get my hands on this game for two years before I found a copy affordable enough for me to take the plunge (still expensive). I'm fortunate enough to have a modded PS2 so playing it on real hardware is an option for me. For everyone else that isn't in Europe I STRONGLY recommend giving it a try via emulation! The atmosphere is truly one of a kind and I believe this is gonna be one of those legendary horror game gems in the future.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Silent Hill Shattered Memories

Developed as a 'reimagining' of the first Silent Hill game, Shattered Memories retains the names of characters, the "dark world" mechanic, and series composer Akira Yamaoka. Everything else is so far removed from the franchise as a whole that it might as well have a different title altogether.

This isn't to say I don't like it! the atmosphere, gameplay and visual style of Shattered Memories was super god damn refreshing in a series that, through familiarity and repetition, has gone from "revolutionary" to "expected". Like the original Silent Hill, the town is shrouded in fog and snow. However, Shattered Memories' visual style replaces the usual "dark world" blood and rust theme with ice. Once things start to freeze over(in a totally awesome effect) it's party time.

Combat is off the table this time around; similar to Clock Tower, your only recourse is to run and hide. Unlike Clock Tower there's no downtime during these segments though! the enemy is always on your heels (or jumping out from in front of you), leading to some seriously anxiety-inducing escape sequences.

As effective as the chase sequences are, they are the only part of the game where you can be harmed; the sense of surprise from other SH games is gone because you know you're completely safe when you're not in a chase scene. These are the story sections, and as atmospheric  as they can sometimes be, the lack of any sense of danger is very unlike silent hill and unfortunately lends the game an episodic feel.

Ah, the seldom implemented (because it's useless) "look behind you" mechanic. I'll just assume there's ALWAYS something behind me when monsters are about, thanks

I won't recount the plot here; suffice to say that what starts similarly to the original Silent Hill (Harry Mason searching for his daughter Cheryl after a car crash) goes in an entirely different direction. It's not the most unique plot I've ever seen, but there is enough weirdness to keep it interesting. This is not even mentioning the novel, if flawed, "psychology system" that changes story and gameplay elements by recording your choices throughout the game.

Overall, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is a creative experiment in game making that we just don't  see much of. The lonely atmosphere is spot on (the game seriously feels cold) and the music, as always, is excellent.  A few snags in presentation and pacing hurt the overall package, though, and the disparate approach it takes to the Silent Hill formula gives me the feeling that it has been left in the dustbin when one takes the SH franchise as a whole. This is a shame. If Shattered Memories had left the name Silent Hill off of that title screen I believe it would be more fondly remembered.

I will give this game a try once it thaws out

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Month of Horror Games - Clock Tower

 "Who will survive this game of murder?"

As amusingly dated as it looks now (and let's be real; the game looked like fried dog shit in 1996 too), this PS1 point-and-click horror game actually got my heart pounding back in high school!

What western gamers knew back then as Clock Tower was called Clock Tower: The Second Fear in Japan. (the original was released a little over a year before on Nintendo's Super Famicom). This somewhat explains the sequel's straight-up baffling intro cutscene, which opens with the climax of the previous game, in which the protagonist Jennifer Simpson escapes an enormous mutant baby before blowing it up.

The point-and-click interface between the two games is similar. The switch from the original's moody, thoughtfully constructed pixel art to full 3D, though...

fried dog shit

The general flow of the game is described thusly: players control one of several characters as they travel around through interminable story sequences, talking to NPCs and making seemingly innocuous decisions that determine which of five endings they will reach. Eventually we get to the main event, in which the character finds his or herself alone and pursued by the Scissorman, a mysterious and seemingly unstoppable masked killer. Players must collect items and solve puzzles to escape, all the while ensuring that they aren't cornered and perforated by our boy.

All screenshots were taken from the first stage. Sue me, I've got a lot of posts to write this month
The developers were obvious fans of classic horror (at this point can we call 80's slasher movies classic?), as evidenced in many of the action beats during chase sequences. Scissorman can seemingly come out of anywhere--restroom stalls, under beds, through the floorboards, and god knows where else. Each encounter is randomized to keep you on your toes.

Speaking of variety, if you have the patience for multiple playthroughs there are 10 endings to uncover depending on your actions during both the story and escape sequences. Many of these are quite cryptic, but hidden "hint files" around the game can give the player...hints. Just use GameFAQs.

Pictured: Me, Hiding Under That Couch
Crude as Clock Tower's presentation is, this part got me good; I was examining lockers in this hallway when I just happened to check one that Scissorman was hiding in. He leaped out with a classic horror soundtrack stinger and I hauled balls to the nearest office, where I hid under a couch like a coward until he lost my trail.


The number one reason this game still works is its minimal but excellent soundtrack. There are only a few pieces, with only the sound of the player's footsteps comprising the bulk of the gameplay. During horror beats the silence is broken by a low, foreboding drone. And when shit gets for really real we're treated to the awesome chase theme, usually accompanied by the instantly iconic sound of Scissorman's shears opening and closing with every step. Just awesome. Here's a great scene that illustrates the flow of the escape stages:

I love Clock Tower. The characters and script are dumb. The gameplay is ponderous and the premise strains credulity to the limit. But damn it, I still get scared. Give it a try!