Let’s start with something basic: Badly-placed music. Here are a couple of my favorite tracks which are inventive, well-composed, catchy even, but simply aren’t used at the right time in the game. Or maybe they aren’t even in the right game.
Shining the Holy Ark (Sega Saturn) ~ Motoi Sakuraba
As was his habit for STHA, Sakuraba wrote a clever, ballsy, exciting piece in an irregular meter that really makes you want to get out there and kick some ass… but it’s for a shrine. A SHRINE. Let’s review the definition of a shrine for a moment.
1. A building or other shelter, often of a stately or sumptuous character, enclosing the remains or relics of a saint or other holy person and forming an object of religious veneration and pilgrimage.
There is no veneration happening in this piece, only ass-kicking.
Life of Harmony
Shining Force III (Sega Saturn) ~ Motoi Sakuraba
This is the theme of the city of Saraband, a neutral site chosen to host the peace conference been the Republic and the Empire. It is breezy, cheerful, and heartwarming, and I find myself whistling it idly all the time. What’s problematic about it?
That’s A Tiger of Honesty and Affection, the theme of the Republican general Synbios (silent protagonist of SF3 Scenario 1). The melody is inappropriately identical to that of Saraband. The neutral city. This might seem trivial, but the political setting of this world is central to the plot, and the whole exposition of the game hinges on Saraband’s neutrality in the conflict between the Republic and the Empire. To musically align it with the Republican hero (who has no personal connection to the city himself) is greatly misleading to the player, who is just being introduced to the complex politics of the game.
Final Fantasy VII (PS1) ~ Nobuo Uematsu
A devastating Leviathan-beast of geological origins deserves a menacing and catastrophic-sounding theme. And it got one; the Weapon attack on Junon is one of the most tense and exciting sequences of the game. The problem lies in climax of the piece at 1:02 which quotes Sephiroth’s theme verbatim. To my ear this implies some kind of collusion between the two that doesn’t exist in the plot. Weapon is supposedly a defensive mechanism of the planet, to be unleashed in times of crisis (in this case, the delivery of the Black Materia to Sephiroth and the subsequent summoning of Meteor). This would make them bitter foes, not allies.
A case could be made that this quotation instead signifies the Weapon’s pursuit of Sephiroth, but I’m not getting that from its usage in the piece (or Weapon’s own appearance in the game for that matter, as it spends most of its time terrorizing cities instead of hunting its would-be rival). The theme appears in its entirety, and with such force and grandeur that it really feels like an alignment of the two forces, not a dissonance.
Spring Yard Zone
Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis) ~ Masato Nakamura
I’m not tremendously fond of the music from the first Sonic game anyway, but this particular track has always bothered me. Spring Yard is the first of what would become the archetypical “Fun Zone” of the Sonic series: a colorful obstacle course with lots of bumpers, spring boards, bright lights, and a lot more rings than usual (see Casino Night, Carnival Night, Chaos Collision, Spring Stadium, Casino Paradise, etc). The music however…..doesn’t strike me as all that fun, springy, or bright. There are two themes in the loop, the first of which has very sparse instrumentation and a “fifth-y” hollowness, lacking middle support in the harmony. This gives it a downright harrowing sound, evoking a sense of terrifying height (which is at least partially appropriate, as the zone features some very deep chasms to roll down). The second is more comfortably in major key, but this doesn’t sufficiently counterbalance the coldness established by the first. It also doesn’t help that the whole track is only 100bpm, the slowest in the game by a wide margin.
Compare this with what I consider to be the best of the “Fun Zone” themes: Balloon Park, one of the 2-Player split screen stages from Sonic 3.
Raucous, madcap, and effusive. Fun.
Ok, that’s probably enough for now; this is already longer than I intended. More on the topic later!