Friday, July 31, 2009

Game Music Reviews "Rockman 1~6 20th Anniversary Arrange Ver."

Oh, Rockman 1~6 20th Anniversary Rock, Techno Arrange Ver.: you could've been so much more: vision, execution and value.

Ever since the early 1990s, I like many others in my now early 20s age range, in my childhood grew up playing Mega Man games. Not just playing them, living (live role playing, yes I did it), playing outside the game (had the Bandai show-based action figures), watching (the U.S. TV series) and humming the music outside the game since before there was even an internet to distribute line-in rips of each track. Delving deeper into the wonderland of game music arrangement seeking, never found was a full-blown arrangement treatment done to the original Nintendo/Famicom series. Sure, it took some indie bands and later doujin covers to do a few tracks here and there, but nothing grand.

Now Rockman X received an outstanding jazz-fusion arrange in 1994, but the original series was limited to keyboard-frenzied mixes done by mainly by Alph-Lyla (Capcom's in-house sound team moniker). The closest we ever got was the fun remixes included in the "Complete Works", but they skimped and swiss-cheesed on the first three in the series.

Wanting more, I had always imaged hearing the catchy, melodic 8-bit tunes done up in something of an eclectic live musical foray -- which is why my jaw was on the floor when TEAM Entertainment released early bits on two arrange albums for the 20th Anniversary of the blue bomber.

To commemorate Rockman's 20th Anniversary, Capcom commissioned two albums be made to celebrate a decade or so of wondeful Rockman music (considered by myself as some of the greatest video game music ever composed) with a Rock Arrange Ver. and a Techno Arrange Ver. Thinking the Rock Ver. might follow in the mighty path of the recently released Wild Arms Rocking Heart, the results were of high expectation -- and the result was not of that same ilk.

In fact, dare I say whom ever commissioned these albums should be shamed -- I want a do over.

It's not to say both albums are terrible. In fact, they're decent -- but the expectation of waiting far too many silent years for a quality musical treatment will have to wait even longer for a true arranged musical tribute. Instead of gathering up a team of the industry's greatest, the Rock Arrange Ver. was given to Tohru Iwao, a heavy-rock guitarist known for his work on a couple Guilty Gear games but mainly Valkyrie Profile while the Techno Arrange Ver. was given to techno and sampling king, Shinji Hosoe who needs no such introduction.

After learning of the arranger choices, I believed these were golden from the start (well, at least with Hosoe). For Iwao, I had thought he won a raffle or something. Having not really heard of him, it was expected having anything to do with Guilty Gear would qualify for doing a rock-centered remix album. However, this selection as a guitarist of such a shallow resume in front of a line of the myriad brillant guitarists to be chosen is beyond me. Not to say one with a shallow history can't do great works -- Nittoku Inoue certainly surprised us all on Wild Arms Rocking Heart.

Either way, a mystery it shall remain.

Let us begin with the Rock Arrange Ver.

I don't know what happened here. Call it an uninspired couple of weeks in the studio, a lacking budget or a dubious director in charge of the playlists on both albums -- the burden to undertake Rockman music is something of a colossus. What's here is highly disappointing, steming right from the production. Skimpy, non-creative arranges and a short, oddly picked track list leaves too much more to be desired here begging further question. And why not two discs? If we're covering 1~6, why only ten tracks spanning the entire series?

The musician breakdown was another blow -- a simple "quartet" Tohru Iwao (guitar), Atsushi Hasegawa (Bass), Okky (Who? Drum *programming* -- not even live drums!), Masao Nakano (Keyboards/Programming). There's no guest artists, no eclecticism or surprises (truth be told, I was hoping for a sax or trumpet inclusion), and the guitar solos are slouchy in spaces. Did I mention those drums aren't even live? Not to dis Mr. Iwao, but these are lethargic and a giant slap to the face of the composers who worked legend to create the legendary Rockman sound tracks.

Putting aside the juggernaut disdain for the lackluster production of the album, that doesn't go without the tracks being engaging and ultimately salvagable though the material here never quite lifts off and results in being dry, often flat. They're all listenable, even if you try to block out what could've been. Actually, Dr. Wily 1 (Rockman 2) mix is pretty mean; exactly the amount of slobbering guitar meat I'd expect minus the extra polish and steam found on other superb guitar-centric albums like the aforementioned Wild Arms Rocking Heart, Konami Dracula & Shooting Battles, SEGAROCKS, Metal Slug 5, Shin Sangokumusou (Dynasty Warriors series, but specifically 3 & 4) and F-ZERO X Guitar Arrange Edition.

Each game receives a good two tracks (for the most part), which includes the Boss Mix medley, and well-performed at that (my blood starts to go when original Rockman comes on halfway through) even if they burned my ears by using Rockman 2's lame battle as the foundation here. The melody idea should've carried seeing the team only sought to pick ten tracks, but the "mix" at the end of each track will mislead a bit. Upon intial listen, I was hoping for "mix" to suggest inklings of other themes thrown in for good, well, mix.

And for gosh-darn-darn, who thought Get a Weapon (Rockman 3) should get its own of the sacred ten? A good track, but hearing three plus minutes of an originally under-minute tune to do nothing terribly special in that time is unacceptable.

Yamatoman mix
was done with a native Japanese twist, Shadowman mix sounds off-beat at the chorus, Cutman mix is decent but don't know why Tomahawkman mix had to be here -- perhaps to get something in there that diversifies with a Western sound a bit? Not hearing trumpets here is just wrong. Dr. Cossack 2 mix was good on the Complete Works iteration, but is just ho-hum here. Most of the tracks pace too slowly, even ones intended to be slower, like Dr. Wily (Rockman 5) mix doesn't have the intensity, so I found it hard to really rock out to these arranges.

The disc rounds up the list with ten bonus tracks -- but don't get too excited. They're all the original 8-bit versions of ones arranged here. You can have them all on Suleputer's now-I-can-finally-die-in-peace three-disc complete boxset of the original tunes released back in 2003.

Shortly after, Techno Arrange Ver. reared itself.

Here's a brilliant composer whose career and diversity in arranging talent was built upon the vast Namco sound history including the hyper-sampled Ridge Racer, later the fusion-edged Street Fighter EX series and simply far too many games to mention and his work with the first six Rockman titles' is nothing short of painful mediocrity. Did you hear Rockman EXE Transmission (Mega Man Network Transmission)? I thought that might influence him here a bit -- a smooth electronica. Nothing of it here. Instead, the techno used on the album is more of his classic, foundation material -- not bad, but not satisfactory by any means.

Still, Hosoe exhibits his mastery in the field of techno -- though not to the best of his abilities here. The tracklist is what it is -- like the Rock Arrange, Hosoe likely chose a bunch of tunes that would be ideal for a techno arrange -- and he chose well. Again, there's too much material left aside, and the creativity train has no steam. Though my musical umbrella is spacious enough for a plethora of genres, these are tried and true techno mixes -- like the rock ones, you won't find any surprises here.

Though I know Dr. Wily 1 (Rockman 2) is a sensation across the world (a BA song, yes, appearently, they're nuts for it in Japan too), I'll take the rock version over this raver edition. Snakeman might take you back to racing 170 kph on a the highways of a Rave Racer, especially with the voice samplings. Quickman takes a while to warm up, Magnetman is just too slow and Dr. Wily 2 (Rockman 4) misses out. Starman can't help feeling off-sound, which disappointed the most after expecting something as funky as the aforementioned Complete Works version. And poor Rockman 6, again for the shaft. Who picked this? Flameman? Oof.

Oh, and they put Dr. Wi -- I mean "Mr. X". Aside from the contrast to the Rock Ver. cover, there's no such Mr. X Stage Arrange here.

We're glad Rockman got some official recognition for its 20th on the arranged music front, but both albums had high standards to live up to -- and both have failed to meet them. Both albums were handled like late-term projects, feeling rushed, soulless and underproduced. To reiterate, both are not horrible, but the lackluster production values halt both albums tremendously.

But there's still time to pull out all the (guitar) strings for the forthcoming 25th...





All scores are graded on a scale of 1~10 (1 / Worst, 10 / Best).

Here samples on YouTube, Buy Them at CDJapan or Play-Asia.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Game Music Review "Gunstar Heroes"

NON & Nazo² Unit's collaborative Gunstar Heroes arrangement has a constance of catchy melodies, superbly-peppered with instrumental solos and downright funky, bouncy space-vibed dance beats faithful to the original sounds

My history of video gaming is fruited. I grew up in what I consider to be the golden age, or the 1990's. But even in such a time of rich exploration for gaming combined with advances in technology, I've realized now that I missed out on some of what are considered by enthusiasts as Treasures. We're talking about the company "Treasure", responsible for many of today's rarer, more sought after, steep-difficulty curved titles in the shooter genre. Just a handful of their titles include "Guardian Heroes", "Radiant Silvergun" -- all of which either didn't reach the North American shores or were marred by their limited print runs due to their SEGA-only formats (mainly, the ill-received Sega Saturn in the West).

Gunstar Heroes, released for the Sega Mega Drive in late 1993 around that same time made its way over to the Sega Genesis shortly after. We'll spare the usual hideous U.S. box art commentary to pale in comparison to the superior native version for this album evaluation (and if you think that's bad, go compare Guardian Heroes: U.S. and Japan).

A few months later, Pioneer Records released an album for Gunstar Heroes. Like many game music releases in Japan, the vague cover art doesn't suggest the music on the disc is actually "arranged" (for those unaware, "arranged" music is typically reworked as to remix, extend for the purpose of utilizing broader musical capacity or genre that may or may not have been limited by the original hardware) and not the original game's soundtrack. Luckilly, the team commissioned to perform the album with staple Treasure composer Norio Hanzawa (known as "NON"), a well-known in-house group led by Jun Irie, Hideki Matsutake and the phantom guitarist Nazo² Suzuki called the "Nazo² Unit", whose done composition work for Treasure (see: Dynamite Headdy, Alien Soldier, Silhouette Mirage).

Nazo² Unit, just another variant of a more commonly known "Nazo² Project" under Konami and its "Perfect Selection" releases in the early 90's and before that "Akihabara Electric Circus" under various Nintendo releases. "Nazo²" has also appeared on countless other works, mainly for Konami and even Falcom, nevertheless employs a signature electronic-funk fusion sound. And, if you can forgive them for their infamous' Dracula "rap" album (to which I'm a proud owner of), you'll be glad to hear of their vocal-free Gunstar Heroes effort.

Irie (Keyboards) and Matsutake (Synthesizer) know how to arrange; they've been doing it since the early 80s under their group "Logic System." The results are, as usual, nothing short of excellent with arranges that never stray too far from the material. Over the course of the 90's, they've carved a signature sound for themselves that makes them rise above other arrange groups.

If you don't know the original soundtrack well, you'll be oriented to enjoy it anyway because of its constance of catchy melodies, superbly-peppered instrumental solos and downright funky dance beats making it faithful but also supplemental to the original works.

To go along with the theme, those who've heard Nazo² works will known of their well-stocked bevy of always impressive guest musicians who spice-up various tracks against Irie and Matsutake's funky-electronic sound. Following with the trend, this one's no slouch with the frequency of such musicians as Masato Honda (A. Sax, S. Sax), Ken Shima (Keyboards) and Willie Nakao (Guitars) -- with some of those names who've appeared on their previous Konami works.

NON & Nazo² Unit have selected 12 tracks to arrange (though opening and endings are on the shorter side), the ten on here are heavy on the bass and satisfying. Whether it be my long-time favorite "Last Party on the Moon" with Nazo² Suzuki's signature cool guitar riffs against bouncy beats or "Dice-Dance-Days" with Masato Honda belting out a series of fantastic, tight alto sax solos, the album has steam from start to finish. Other favorites include "Military on the Max Power" and "Stairs to High" which has their synthesizer sound in-tact against. Honda later appears on "End of Our World" with a slower, nasaly soprano sax effort and a taste of the group's chilled-out diversity.

Gunstar Heroes is a successful effort; faithful to the original music and co-existing with a happy medium to make it a solid arrange album. While this one has always been a lesser preferred Nazo² works to, say, mainly because this album leans more dance-funk across the board with less musical diversity than their superb Konami discography. Still, it stands up there as a classic, having been apart of my digital library for many years now. Though long out-of-print, and pricey to obtain on the used market, there's no exception as to why anything by Treasure is a sought after Treasure.


Gunstar Heroes

01 Legend of the Gunstars
02 Empire~The Final Assault~
03 "Good Night, Baby!"
04 Theme of Seven-Force
05 Dice-Dance-Days
06 The End of the Battle ~to our world~
07 Dancing~Smash~Hero
08 Military on the Max-Power
Stairs to High
Last Party on the Moon
11 Rolling chaser
12 Heroes~reprise for Yellow

Cover Image Courtesy: VGMdb (submitted by Kewing Darksun)