[Music De Jeux (literally 'music of games' in mangled French!) is a new column from Henry Cao which looks at the history, present, and future of video game music from a multitude of angles - some of them interesting! Here's his first scribblings.]

Game music has come a long way since the beeps and bloops we first heard on our original Nintendo’s. But outside of the countless Mario, Zelda, and Final Fantasy soundtracks, there doesn’t seem to be any other arranged albums worth listening to. Of course, this isn’t really the case.

As with regular music, you’ll have to wade through a sea of unmemorable albums to find one actually worth listening to - these are the overlooked Japanese soundtracks that take the original game's musical concept and run with it. And what better way to kick off the birth of a new column than to highlight just a few of these? (There probably are better ways, but meh.)

[Click through for full reviews of the neglected, including Langrisser II, King Of Fighters 99, and Arc The Lad arrangement albums .]

Langrisser II Original Game Music
(Details and song excerpts are available at RPGFan Soundtracks)

langrisser2_cover.jpgThe history of Langrisser is a long one. This long-running series has never been released Stateside save for the original (which was renamed “Warsong” and released for Genesis). Langrisser II for Genesis has since been translated by fans in the emulation community, and the superior-yet-easier remake for the Super Famicom partially translated. The gameplay can best be described as Fire Emblem meets Advance Wars, and subsequent releases soon followed, as well as compilations (Langrisser I & II and Langrisser IV & V for Playstation), ports (Langrisser III for PS2), and spin-offs (Langrisser Millennium for Dreamcast).

Rumors of more Stateside releases grew when Working Designs announced that it would be releasing Langrisser’s sister series, Growlanser, in the US. After many delays, Growlanser Generations was finally released for PS2, but Working Designs closed down soon after that. With no signs of a domestic release in the near future, fans of the series can only look to their fellow fans in hopes for another English Langrisser title.

It’s especially a shame when the music is so good. Composed by Noriyuki Iwadare of Grandia and Lunar fame, this soundtrack is unsurprisingly outstanding. What is surprising, though, is that this isn’t the original soundtrack despite what the title claims, and is actually an album of well-arranged synth-rock. From the very first track, this album perfectly captures the desperate-but-never-relenting mood of the game’s storyline with its quick and upbeat tempo, and the character theme songs really fit the images of their respective characters, particularly of the villains’. The less stellar tracks can be found near the middle of the album and aren’t too bad – at least not worst than the game’s – but I was disappointed by one or two tracks which actually sounded worse (in terms of composition, not fidelity) than the ones found in the Super Famicom version (I’m looking at you, Leon’s theme).

The cover of the album is illustrated by acclaimed, uh…pinup artist Satoshi Urushihara. The back is even more interesting because it’s a little more risqué and features the tracklist in both English and German, but not Japanese. I guess they came for the pictures.

King of Fighters '99 Arrange Sound Trax
(Information and tracklisting available at Chudah's Corner.)

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King of Fighter and Street Fighter fans can argue which series is better until they’re blue in the face, but this album is one of the better ones among both series. The only caveat, of course, is that no two tracks sound alike. King of Fighters ’99 Arrange Sound Trax covers a wide range of genres including electronica, jazz, and hard rock; what’s even more amazing is that most of it doesn’t suck. Just how many albums can say that?

More surprising is the fact that each track stands on its own without feeling disjointed – you don’t even have to like the games to like the music. You don’t need to know the characters, their backgrounds, or the laughably absurd storylines to appreciate the tunes because - like all good music - the tunes will offer a glimmer of insight as to what kind of story the characters tell. Yet, at the same time, this soundtrack easily revokes memories of the KOF universe if you already are familiar with the series.

Take fan-favorite “Esaka [Acid Mix]”, for instance. This rendition will instantly be recognized by the most casual of KOF fans as the theme of Japan Team, specifically of series protagonist Kyo Kusanagi. This track is harder than previous versions and matches Kyo’s rough-around-the-edges demeanor in addition to his new, flashier makeover for this installment of the series. Likewise, “176th Street” captures the personality of the brash and confident Hungry Wolf, Terry Bogard. The track starts off with a few piano notes followed by saxophones going back and forth in a steady and upbeat rhythm, slowing down enough so that both piano and saxophone are playing concurrently (the latter of which holds the melody), and finally ending as quietly as it had started.

The SNK sound team really outdid themselves here, and whether you’re a fan of the series or not, this excellent album should not be missed. Unless you plain just don’t like good music. Then, uh… there’s always radio.

Genso Suikoden Celtic Collection 2
(Information and tracklisting is available at Chudah's Corner.)

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Genso Suikoden II is a lot like your typical Final Fantasy, except the graphics suck and the game itself is good. I kid, I kid (or am I?) – the game is good, the music is great (an understatement), this album is whatever’s beyond great, and I’m pretty sure this sentence came just centimeters shy of being run-on (I have no doubt that the grammar and punctuation are a little awkward). Words can’t describe how much I love this album (apparently not as much as parentheses!), but I’ll sure as hell try.

The Celtic Collection reflects Suikoden’s more melancholic moments. It consists of three albums - this one arguably the best. The range of instruments featured in this album read like a who’s who list of instruments no one’s ever taken seriously - the recorder, harp, tin whistle, accordion – but it takes only a short while to dismiss this notion completely. The album opens with “Time of Calmness” – a soft, somber piece that suddenly breaks into full swing two minutes and makes you want to rise up and dance à la Riverdance. The next track “Chant” is nicely done and similar in composition to the first, only it comes alive a minute sooner with violins blasting away, and the recorders answering back. It ends gently with whispering vocal chants and harp plucks. Harmonizing vocals are then again featured prominently on the fifth track, “Mysterious Forest”, and help to provide the calm and ambient mood of the piece.

The most stunning track is “Forgotten Days”, hands down. This piece literally makes me just sit down and retrospect on my own life - I know of very few musical compositions that have the power to do that. It opens with a measure or two of acoustic guitar, and is then shortly accompanied by a lone tin whistle. This continues for about 26 seconds; before you even realize it, the accordion sneaks in with a few long notes and melts in completely. The piece nears to an end with the trio getting softer and softer until the music can no longer be heard, like a memory fading away.

“Touching Theme” follows and, despite the weird name, is one of the more uplifting pieces of the album. This mood is further brought into realization with the next piece, “Ending March”, which resonates a feeling that nothing can ever go wrong with its soothing vocals. I was surprised by the next piece, “Green Gravestone” since its beginning sounded almost as sorrowful as “Forgotten Days”, but halfway through the piece, the accordion is played in such a manner that makes you believe that it’s a living creature – fully embodied, breathing, and talking. “Eternal Empire” concludes the album and features a mixture of vocals, keyboard, harp, and recorder. Similar to “Ending March”, the vocals here play a prominent part in setting the tone, and wraps up the album satisfyingly.

Arc the Lad Piano Album
(Details and song excerpts are avaialble at RPGFan Soundtracks.)

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Arc the Lad Piano Album has the distinction of having not only an Engrish-y title and a bland album cover, but more exceptional music than it has any right to have considering that the original soundtrack was fairly lackluster. It’s only once in a blue moon that I find an album I could listen to in its entirety without skipping a track. Clocking in at just under an hour, this album is made up of twelve tracks you can’t miss if you’re a fan of piano music.

The opening piece, “Theme of Arc the Lad”, which has been featured in every Arc the Lad game in one variation or another, translates well enough into piano, but is a little on the short side. The next track, “Arc” reminds me why I love piano music in the first place with its rich variance of dynamics and composition, accented with light staccato notes in the background in the latter half of the piece. “Way to the Earth” is another beautiful piece, albeit, slower and mellower. Most of the piece is played in the traditional manner of containing both a melody and harmony, but at about 3’47”, both hands take turns playing the melody for a few measures, providing for a nice contrast to the rest of the piece.

If I had to choose my least favorite piece of the album, it would be the next one, “Battle with the Four Generals”, because it doesn’t vary much in composition and is even a bit repetitive, and the piece itself has a very different tone when compared to others on the album. “Elk”, however, is a piece that proves that it doesn’t need to be played perfectly to be enjoyable. The pianist sounds a bit stilted at times here. This track is the shortest and most repetitive one on the album, but you won’t mind when the melody is this catchy and addictive.

The last few tracks are the weakest, but all are excellent pieces nonetheless. The last piece, “To Tomorrow”, takes exception and is as good as the ones found in the first half of the track. More delicate and gentler in tone, the track aptly fits its title and gives the sense that a tomorrow is always promised, forevermore. I’m hard-pressed to name a piece more suitable to conclude an album.