Melody Muncher (DDRKirby)

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Ludum Dare is perhaps the best-known of all game development jams, challenging teams to create a fully-realized video game on a common theme in as little as 48 hours. Taking its name from Latin “to give a game,” the contest has run since 2002. While the games themselves have long been offered for distribution online, there has been an increasing trend of putting their music out on platforms like Bandcamp or Loudr.

One of the entrants for Ludum Dare 2015 (which had the theme “you are the monster”) was Melody Muncher, a game about a voracious plant devouring all that came before it. Super Mario Bros. from the perspective of the piranha plant, perhaps. Melody Muncher was given a score, composed within the same 48-hour time limit, by Timmie Wong (AKA DDRKirby), who had participated in the scoring of several other Ludum Dare and indie projects.

Melody Muncher takes inspiration from the classic 8-bit sound palette of Nintendo Entertainment System chiptunes, matching the similar aesthetic of the game, while jazzing up the soundscape with more channels and effects than the old grey console could possibly handle. The resulting music has a distinctly retro flair but more than a little influence from later genres of electronic music on the web.

Perhaps most importantly, Wong’s music does a generally excellent job of capturing the potent melodies that made the NES originals classics in their time. Tunes like “Solar Beam” and “Sunny Day” explode with terrific melodies and inventive electronic rhythms, at times reminiscent of Jake Kaufman’s scores in the genre or the terrific (and unreleased) effort by Naoko Mitome and Chika Sekigawa for Super Paper Mario. There’s a good amount of variety too, with tracks like “Song of the Sea” offering a more chill melody and tempo.

Some of the tracks show the rough edges of their extremely short composition times, of course. “Flower Fang” relies a bit too much on electronic dance music cliches, for example. While fun, “Undying” has a distinct,and likely subconscious, echo of many other songs (Smash Mouth’s 1997 groaner Walkin’ on the Sun being the first to come to mind). But in general, the music is highly impressive and enjoyable considering the constraints under which it was created.

A few months after Ludum Dare, Wong released a pair of Melody Muncher albums to Bandcamp: the original soundtrack as prepared for the challenge, and a second deluxe album with later remastered versions of the same songs. Both the basic album and the deluxe album offer a terrific value for the suggested donation amount, and are well worth sampling for fans of innovative NES-style soundtracks.

Rating: starstarstarstar

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Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony (Hiroki Kikuta)

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Original music has been composed for video games, films, TV shows, slot machines, and even Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. So why not for trading card games? That’s exactly what Japanese video game industry veteran Hiroki Kikuta did when he wrote Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony. The aforementioned vacuum tube girls are the heroines of a game called Shinukan, a Kickstarter-backed project that billed itself as “The Kawaii Steampunk Android Trading Card Game” and sought to bring a Japanese fanservice sensibility to a milieu dominated by straitlaced games like Magic the Gathering. The game was able to make its $20,000 goal in August 2014 and shipped in June 2015 (Kickstarter projects being rather infamous for their slipping deadlines).

Whether Kikuta was attracted to Shinukan as a commissioned artist, as a backer, or simply as an enthusiastic fan, his Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony accompanied its release as a digital download on the Bandcamp indie music platform. After a long drought in the 2000s, the 2010s had seen the composer back in the saddle with numerous projects, from full-fledged video game soundtracks to guest tracks and arrangements to solo endeavors. Seemingly comfortable in his role as a video game music elder statesman, Kikuta began experimenting with more longform compositions that seemed influenced by the cellular and minimalist structure of musicians like Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Stephen Reich. Indeed, Kikuta’s the two most recent solo albums, Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony, had been lengthy experiments in that regard, with the latter expressly dedicated to Reich. Those albums, fascinating meldings of the worlds of minimalist concert music and VGM, often strayed rather far afield from the sound that had endeared Kikuta to a generation of gamers.

The Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents an even more fascinating attempt to combine Kikuta’s quirky signature style with Reich-style minimalism. Like Secret of Mana +, Kikuta’s legendary experimental arrangement album based on his first video game score, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony is arranged into a single, 42-minute track that cycles through several distinct movements. From 0:00-4:00, the music takes the form of a string and solo piano duet strained through heavy analog noise to mimic the sound of an ancient 78-RPM vinyl recording, presumably as a nod to the retro-futurism design aesthetic Shinukan embraces and mixes with its fanservice. At 4:00, a full-quality militaristic motif in Kikuta’s signature style emerges, punctuated with the sound of breaking glass as a percussion instrument among the drums and marimbas (an experiment the composer also used in Secret of Mana 2). This builds up to, at around the 7:00 mark, the full blossoming of the album’s primary theme, a glorious brassy statement backed up by a blazing orchestra hits and a full silverware drawer’s worth of unorthodox percussion. Beginning around 13:00, the music switches to a different and much more low-key melody, carried on woodwinds with pizzicato strings and pianos, and very much in the style of the composer’s post-Koudelka works. A percussion phase similar to the first one but stripped of many of the odder instruments comes in at 13:00, particularly similar in its doubled pizzicato and normal strings to Kikuta’s efforts for the Shining series beginning in 2011.

A gentle woodwind melody is cut in with the Shining percussion at 18:00, segueing to a return of the gentler style, this time with a more pronounced and quite lovely theme and veering, at times, into the mysterious and sinister–again, very much in the style of the adult games Kikuta scored between Koudelka and Shining Hearts. The percussion returns by 23:00, serving to add a militaristic edge to the continuing woodwinds before eventually bringing back the Shining Hearts doubled strings for an extended outing. By 28:00, a reprise of the low-key melody from 13:00 has subsumed the percussion and serves as an introduction to the return of the brassy primary theme and its glass-shattering backing at 30:00. Kikuta gives the theme a workout, continuing it to the 38:00 mark, where the scratchy 78 RPM music returns to close out the remaining four minutes.

The use of cellular rhythms, repeated with minor variations, is prevalent at each stage of the work, giving it at times the minimalistic feel that characterizes Glass, Nyman, and Reich, and was the overwhelming style present in Pulse Pico Pulse and Integral Polyphony. But the melodies, the use of percussion, and the employment of doubled strings and pizzicato plucking, is classic Kikuta, referencing works from Secret of Mana 2 to Shining Hearts and all points in between. There’s no denying the minimalism, but there’s also no denying the indelible fingerprints of the composer’s unique style. The only part that seems out of character is the lengthy into and outro, where the simple music is mangled by vinyl filters–truly one of the more tiresome musical devices in use today. Along the same lines, Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony‘s gigantic length does allow for remarkably fluid transitions between the various parts of such a diverse work, but it can be a bit of a bother hunting and pecking for a favorite section (a problem it shares with Secret of Mana +).

Still, the Vacuum Tube Girls Symphony represents perhaps the best merging of Kikuta’s unique rhythmic and melodic sense with his interest in minimalist experimentation to come along thus far. Whether you put it on in the background while playing a game of Shinukan or simply listen to it on its own, it’s a fascinating work. As of this writing, the full 42-minute album is available at Kikuta’s Bandcamp page for $10; his fans and those interested in the techniques with which he experiments will both appreciate what the work has to offer.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Game Music Bundle 8 (Various Artists)

Cover The fine folks at the Game Music Bundle have once again unleashed a cornucopia of video game albums for fans’ auditory pleasure. Often penned by new, up-and-coming composers eager to make their way in the industry, the tunes mostly come from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry. Fittingly, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers outside the scope of the contemporary music industry! Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier of albums, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, appropriately, $13.37. These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again! This particular Game Music Bundle is now available! Go here to purchase!

$1 Minimum Albums

Gods Will Be Watching Original Soundtrack (fingerspit) A self-described “point and click thriller centered on despair,” GWBW is a crowdfunded survival resource management game with a deliberately late-1980s Sierra adventure game aesthetic. True to that design, the music is often dour and desolate with electronic pulses and beats to provide momentum; it often feels like an attempt to evoke the overall sound of that era in gaming history without the drawback of wonky MIDI and a thousand different sound cards. Some of the music is a little too textual and unpleasantly downbeat to appreciate outside of the game, particularly the lengthy “20 Days Of Empty Words” and “Legend,” but more melodic tracks like “Everdusk Headquarters,” “Human Experimentation,” “Farewell,” and “Nemesis” help make up for this (the synth voices in “Nemesis” in particular are a nice touch). Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Monsters Ate My Birthday Cake (Disasterpeace) A tile-based exploration-based puzzler for mobile devices, MAMBC is self-consciously cutesy and sugary. Disasterpeace, probably most familar to gamers from 2012”s FEZ, dedicates the album to Nintendo maestro Koji Kondo, and indeed the music is very much in the style of Kondo’s earliest 1990s music for the SNES. This is a double-edged sword; it means capturing both the retro charm and the undeniably “thin” sound that the SPC700 exhibited in its earliest days before it was fully mastered by later titles. As a result, while the music has plenty of cutesy melody (and even a few more troubled songs like “Legend of the Shiversnap”), the thinness of its excellent approximation of very early SNES games keeps it from having the in-your-face retro aesthetic of 8 bit or the lush SPC700 grandeur of later SNES music. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately The Sailor’s Dream Original Soundtrack (Jonathan Eng) Less of a game than an interactive narrative based around exploration, Swedish developer Simogo’s iOS TSD has received favorable notices for its unconventional storytelling and relaxed presentation. Composer Jonathan Eng traveled to Mölle with the designers to inspire the nautical feeling of the game, and the music uses many of the instruments that mariners would have: whistling, plucked-string instruments, concertina, and the human voice (occasionally supplemented by things like a piano which would have been unlikely to be found shipboard). The overall result is a very warm and melodic sound with a seafaring lilt and a deep vein of sadness and longing, without falling too deeply into the trap of using nothing but sea shanties and stereotypes. Seven songs, each named for a day of the week and crucial to the game’s plot in mysterious ways, are sung by Stephanie Hladowski; her delivery adds another layer of melodic melancholy to the work, and the songs are as much a highlight as the instrumental pieces–a rare feat. Highly recommended. Rating: * * * * * Purchase Separately Super Time Force Original Soundtrack (6955) Another deliberately retro throwback to late 1980s and early 1990s PC games, STF is a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek, platform shooter with an innovative time-rewinding mechanic that debuted to good notices on the Xbone and PC in 2014. Canadian composer 6955 was charged with producing a high-energy retro soundtrack to match the game’s high-energy retro visuals, responding with an effort that seems straight out of the early 1990s tracker demoscene with strong electronic beats and plenty of bleeps and bloops. While it nails the aesthetic and the rhythm requirements for its game, there’s not much melody to be had among the loops. As such, it doesn’t function terribly well away from its parent game and is probably best experienced inside of it. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Zombies/Corporate Lifestyle Simulator OST (bignic) The third of three deliberately retro-80s indie games in the $1 minimum albums (hmm, could faux late-80s aesthetics be a trend?) ZCIS is an isometric actioner in which an office drone slaughters zombies using improvised weapons. Composer bignic takes a very modern approach to the music, combining his retro electronics with a fragmented soundscape and the occasional vocal and dubstep effects that seem fresh off a contemporary dance floor. In its better moments (“Children of Dune”) it’s a refreshing approach, but at times (“Modern”) it shades too close to the nightmare that is contemporary pop music to be comfortable to anyone who’s not a fan of the latter. It’s probably best to listen to the samples on Bandcamp first; the music is likely astonishing to people who dig its style but much more of a series of highlights to those who don’t. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately

$10 Minimum Albums

Dreamfall Chapters Reborn – Original Soundtrack (Simon Poole) The first two Dreamfall titles are beloved by adventure game fans, and interest was eventually strong enough to lead to a new episodic game series to continue the story of characters trapped between two worlds in the Telltale mold. The first game was scored by Bjørn Arve Lagim and the second primarily by Leon Willett, but Chapters composer Simon Poole wrote additional music for the title as well. The most heartening thing for longtime series fans will be the return of several themes from Dreamfall, remixed and adapted by Poole from Willett’s originals: “Return to the Hospital Room” takes the vocal melody of the original and turns it to piano, for example, surrounding it with soft ethereal effects and electronics, gradually building in intensity to become a near-action track. The overall sound of the album follows that pattern: pianos, the occasional vocals (“Prologue”), and electronic manipulation; it can best be described as a combination of Willett’s approach to the second game combined with Poole’s own harsher efforts for the same title. It may not be quite up to the standards of its direct predecessor, but is nevertheless a worthy effort in its own right. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Freedom Planet Official Soundtrack (Woofle and Strife feat. BlueWarrior and Dawn) Once a Sonic the Hedgehog fan game, the makers of FP eventually decided to file the serial numbers off and use a cast of original characters (perhaps due to the legendary lack of quality in recent Sonic games); a similar style of speed-based platforming and combat to the early 1990s Sonic titles remained, though, and led to some positive feedback from the community. The team of composers recruited to score the game responded with music that very much captures the Sonic zeitgeist: lively, melodic, and slightly retro. With a whopping 71 tracks, there are relatively few duds, with just a few naff vocal tracks and one bizarre, if short, bit of dialogue to distract from the pleasant tunes. Recommended. Rating: * * * * * Purchase Separately FTL: Advanced Edition Soundtrack (Ben Prunty) The sci-fi roguelike game FTL needs little introduction for indie game fans; its brutal difficulty, randomly generated content, and comparatively hard science have made a huge impact in the genre. Its “Advanced Edition” expansion dropped in 2014 with a wealth of new content, including a new game area co-created by Chris Avellone, necessitating fresh music from original composer Ben Prunty. Like his original score for FTL, the Advanced Edition is an ambient synthetic soundscape, not melodic but very atmospheric and with a heavy influence from 1980s sci-fi scores like Blade Runner and Dune, similar to the original Mass Effect in many ways. The lack of melody for the most part makes the music in the expansion, like the music in the original, best experienced in the game itself, though the delightful faux 8-bit bonus track “Colony” is a highlight. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Gods Will Be Watching Alternative Soundtrack (fingerspit) This “alternative soundtrack” for GWBW consists of unlockable background music for the game’s second chapter. It’s very much in the same style as the main soundtrack, but with much beefier track times, making it a bit more of a slog. Enthusiasts of the game or the composer’s sound will enjoy more of the same, though it works better as a supplement than as a stand-alone listen. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Hack ‘n’ Slash: Original Soundtrack (Paul O’Rourke) Double Fine Productions is best-known for its founder, designer Tim Schafer of Lucasarts fame, but it has also been a hotbed of game innovation with its regular “Amnesia Fortnight” game bashes. HNS, a Legend of Zelda-inspired game with a strong puzzle element, was one of the games developed at the 2012 bash, and it was eventually made into a full-fledged retail title with a score by Paul O’Rourke. O’Rourke doesn’t attempt to imitate Koji Kondo’s Zelda style or the various 8-bit, 16-bit, or 64-bit incarnations thereof, instead opting for a perky, electronic approach more reminiscent of Jake Kaufman. The best tracks have a bouncy melodic energy enhanced with electronics, though significant parts of the album are unable to keep up the melodic strength and suffer somewhat for it. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Halfway Original Soundtrack (Gavin Harrison) Another deliberately pixel-retro offering, Halfway is a sci-fi tactical combat game with the look and feel of a mid-to-late SNES-era Japanese RPG. The music by Gavin Harrison doesn’t attempt to evoke the retro style but rather occupies a more textural, ambient, and tracker-esque space. Aside from a few tracks, (like the opening with some lovely synth voices and the closing with a heartfelt violin solo) the game’s field music is electronic ambiance while its battle music is more lively tracker-inspired loops with a hint of Vangelis. Melody is at a premium, with texture being the overriding concern, and as such it probably is best experienced in-game or by aficionados of electronic textures. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Immerse (Lifeformed) Immerse is unusual in that it’s not a game score per se but rather a score for a documentary about the making of a game–in this case, the making of Double Fine’s Broken Age, the soundtrack of which was features in Game Music Bundle 7. Lifeformed makes music that sounds absolutely nothing like the game’s actual score by Double Fine’s Peter McConnell; while the latter was almost entirely live music by ensembles in Melbourne and San Francisco, Lifeformed creates an entirely synthetic sound with a heavily electronic, at times almost 8-bit sensibility. The album is essentially a series of extended electronic and synth grooves with a sound that’s more Minecraft than Broken Age; the music is tonal but melody takes a definite backseat to the grooves. Not a bad rainy day listen, and depending on your preferences you may appreciate it more than the music Broken Age actually got. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Izakaya Ōmen ~MINI~ (Maxo) Izakaya Ōmen bills itself as a horrific deconstruction of a Cooking Mama-style cooking game, with a chef’s disembodied spirit forced to experiment with bizarre ingredients to prepare dishes for a variety of supernatural gourmets. As a work-in-progress for a capstone seminar in game design, the game has a very brief soundtrack of just three tracks in a deliberately retro 8-bit style (a style it shares with the game and seemingly 2/3 of all recent indie game releases). The music is a spot-on match, aurally, to a NES or original Game Boy, though the music isn’t as optimized for the platform as something like Koji Kondo or Hip Tanaka might have produced in their heyday. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Lovely Planet Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen) Among all the indie games straining for a retro look these days, most seem to have their sights set on the blocky aesthetics of the late 80s and early 90s–not incidentally a time when most of today’s developers were game-playing tots themselves. Few if any games seem to aim for the Playstation 1/N64 era of blocky untextured 3D, but the surreal first-person shooter Lovely Planet does just that. Calum Bowen’s score is bright and melodic, sounding like a bouncy Japanese platformer from the Playstation 1 era. There are a few places where the music skirts close enough to straight-up Japanese classical music that people who don’t care for that style may be put off, but overall it’s a fun little musical journey. A bonus track, remixed by Maxo of Izakaya Ōmen, is more the latter than the former. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Majestic Nights Volume One: All Lies on you Original Game Soundtrack (Das Fokks) MNM postulates an alternate, neon, out-of-control 1980s rife with conspiracies, aliens, and other strange goings-on. Accordingly, its brief soundtrack by Das Fokks is highly, highly 1980s itself: a cocktail of electronic dance music from the decade mixed with synthesized bleeps and bloops common to video games as well as music in that era. It gets major points for capturing the era’s style, but the music’s aggressive energy can be wearying, and it doesn’t have much in the way of melody to latch onto beyond the glittering 1980s sheen. Rating: * * Purchase Separately Monarch: Heroes of a New Age Original Soundtrack (Goomin Nam) MHOANA is an massively multiplayer online RPG from MMORPG-hungry South Korea, available since 2012 in its home country, that focuses on medieval investment and siege warfare moreso than the standard looting and questing of typical games in the genre. Countryman Goomin Nam, a veteran of similar South Korean projects like TalesWeaver, composed the soundtrack for a partly live ensemble of strings, woodwinds, and guitar backed up by synthesizers. It’s clear that the composer and developer were angling for a massive Uematsu-esque fusion of quirky contemporary elements with orchestral grandeur, and for the most part it succeeds–though not nearly as well as Uematsu himself in his classic scores, naturally. The most interesting thing about the album is its distinct Latin flair in orchestration and arrangement. The solo guitar in particular makes the score seem at times positively Iberian, and in combination with some of the more unusual elements is enough to earn it a firm recommendation. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately The Novelist: Official Soundtrack (Kent Hudson) The Novelist posits the player as a spirit affecting the decisions of a vacationing and deeply unhappy family, with the power to influence them toward happiness or despair, often inadvertently; it was widely acclaimed on release. Composer Kent Hudson responds to the game’s simple yet intimate story with a score that is played entirely on solo piano in an airy, impressionistic, and ambient mode. For piano fans and those with a need for quiet contemplation, the music works wonderfully; those who aren’t predisposed toward the instrument will likely be bored out of their skulls. It definitely sets itself apart from the other GMB8 albums that value texture over melody, though, in its quietude. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately Spell Team Death Match OST (bignic) STDM actually hasn’t been released yet–developer Piñata Games has been working on the 2D pixel art shooter for at least a year (even acknowledging the current pixel art market saturation in their design docs), but in the brave new world of digital distribution and prototyping, it’s not unusual for games to be released after their soundtracks–and indeed, Bandcamp is littered with the soundtracks of games that never came to be. Composer bignic uses an approach very similar to that from his ZCLS: harsh if creative retro electronics, and an emphasis on catchy, fragmented grooves over straightforward melody. The short soundtrack lacks ZCLS‘s highs but also its lows, making it an admirable companion piece. Rating: * * * Purchase Separately Wanderlust Adventures (Chris Christodoulou) A retro-styled pixel art (sigh) MMORPG with a look and feel intended to evoke SNES JRPGs of bygone times, WA is actually the second game in an ongoing series. Greek composer Chris Christodoulou scored the game with a self-described “mixed bag of orchestral, electronic, ambient and rock music,” which could not be more accurate. The music’s entirely synthesizes save for a guitar solo but has a terrific clarity with plenty of great melody, and at times reminds one of the best parts of Jeremy Soule’s Secret of Evermore. The quirkier tracks in particular are a delight–especially the duo of “Fantasia No. 1” and “Wanderlust,” perhaps the dual highlights of the entire bundle. Only the few very sparse and harshly minimalistic tracks keep the album from the highest rating, but it still comes with a recommendation. Note: As of this writing, there is an issue with this album as downloaded from Loudr which causes three tracks–including, unfortunately, “Fantasia No. 1” and “Wanderlust,” to be truncated. Loudr has been notified of the issue and will presumably reissue a corrected file shortly. Rating: * * * * Purchase Separately

Leaf Me Alone (David Fenn)

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The Ludum Dare is an indie video game competition that challenges participants to come up with a functioning game in an absurdly small amount of time. The “Game Jam” category allows a developer team only 72 hours to make a game, and the August 2013 Ludum Dare Jam winner was a simple browser game called Leaf Me Alone which followed the adventures of a tiny forest denizen seeking a place to rest. It was developed by a team of two, Mark Foster and David Fenn, and Fenn wrote the game’s score which was later released for sale as a standalone product.

Fenn uses a surprisingly sophisticated set of synths for his music, lending it a very organic sound despite the game’s 8-bit NES-era aesthetic. It is also strongly thematic, with a fetching pastoral melody appearing right from the outset in “Home,” one which has a feeling of Greig or Copeland about it but most strongly resembles the beautiful Viva Pinata score by fellow UK developer Grant Kirkhope. The theme returns both in whole and in fragments throughout the album, but is most gorgeously rendered in “Night,” which features stunningly synthesized woodwinds passing the theme back and forth over a bed of peaceful piano and mallet washes. “Night” is easily one of the finest video game music pieces of 2013 and worth the price of the album by itself.

The other tracks in the main score are all largely very attractive as well, with a variety of sounds and tempos all incorporating the same organic and melodic aesthetic. “Tree” and “Sky” both feature warm melodies, while “Mountain” and “Temple” are more percussive and troubled. The brief “A Place of Rest” and “A New Leaf” bring the album to a soft solo piano close, the latter giving one last interpretation of the main theme. The main score is rather brief, only 15 minutes, so the album is rounded out by a series of six remixes by various artists, and it’s there where the album stumbles somewhat. The remixes rely far too heavily on overused and trendy sounds like record scratches and generally muddy the simple and charming originals more than they offer a meaningful reinterpretation; the electronic sounds so common to modern remixery are a particularly bad match.

Leaf Me Alone is a very strong score and comes recommended, especially “Night.” However, while it is available on the composer’s Bandcamp for the low price of $3, the fact that half of the music is inferior remixes does hold the album back from a top rating. Even so, it is a musical journey well worth taking for anyone who considers themselves a fan of pastoralism or Grant Kirkhope, and “Night” is an absolutely essential purchase (the song can be had on its own for only 50¢). Hopefully Leaf Me Alone is a sign of great things yet to come from a rising talent.

Rating: starstarstar

Aiko Island (Sean Beeson)

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A puzzler for the iOS from developer Iceflame, Aiko Island was an entry into the post-Angry Birds genre of physics puzzles. It brought a few innovations to the table, like a colorblind mode and the deep integration of cookies at every level of gameplay, and was well-reviewed by those able to locate it amid the explosion of similar iOS games in the early 2010s. Perhaps the game’s most distinctive feature, though, was a lush score by composer Sean Beeson, a veteran of similar indie and iOS projects.

For a game about fuzzballs in bright primary colors chasing down cookies, Beeson’s Aiko Island score is unusually sweeping and powerful, with a full (synthesized) orchestral sound complemented with a (synthesized) choir. It’s music that seems most suited to an epic fantasy adventure, and it is highly rewarding once listeners get past the seeming tonal mismatch between the score and the game. More than anything, the music is reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s approach to game scoring in the 1990s during the beginning of his career: a combination of excellent synths, sweepingly ambitious melodies, all applied in a lush and slightly ambient manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy film or TV miniseries.

The album can be broadly divided into epic and more quirky tunes, though it never approaches the level of Carl Stalling parody cartoonishness that the game’s art style (and its genetic relationship to Angry Birds) might suggest. The opening “Aiko Island” sets the more epic style in motion with racing strings offset against bold brass and a distant choir, a style that’s replicated with bolder woodwinds and choral work in “Enchanted Seasons” and with a strident string presence in “Chip off the Blocks,” all of which use the game’s primary thematic construct. Other pieces, notably “Ye Olde West,” take the sound to a more triumphant and heroic mode. The same building blocks are turned to whimsy in “Blue Timbers,” which tackles the same theme with a gentle combination of voices, pizzicato strings, and malleted percussion for a flight of Elfmanesque fantasy. “Aiko Beach” brings a woodwind sound with a faint calypso vibe while the longest piece on the album, “Ice Dream Spires,” takes a more deliberate tempo with icy percussion effects to bring about a dreamy and contemplative sound. There are a variety of other styles as well, like the waltz in “Dance of the Cookie.” Throughout it all, the album maintains an ethereal and quasi-ambient tone that’s very affecting and displays many of the strengths of Soule’s musical style (though without succumbing to the bloat that occasionally mars that composer’s later works.

The Aiko Island sountrack is available on the composer’s Bandcamp page, and with over 30 minutes of music at an asking price beginning at only $3, it’s a steal. Provided listeners can distance themselves mentally from the tiny cookie monsters in the game, the album will provide an excellent companion to masterpieces like Icewind Dale or Guild Wars.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Game Music Bundle 7 Addendum

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Game Music Bundle 7 is no longer available, but just before the clock ran out its producers sweetened the deal by adding three additional bonus albums to the roster: Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack by Dale North, Ether One Original Soundtrack by N. J. Apostol, and The Music of Junk Jack X by James Primate.

While these bonus albums can only be purchased individually now, the following capsule reviews are provided for the sake of completeness. Go here to be notified of future Game Music Bundle releases!

Bonus Albums

Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack (Dale North)
Many artists, both indie and mainstream, have attempted to capture the sound and feel of classic 1990s RPG scores, and that is what this album attempts. Its clearest influence is Noriyuki Iwadare’s often goofy music for the Grandia series, but references to VGM majordomo Nobuo Uematsu are thick on the ground as well. These artists were successful because they had a pop songwriter’s ear for melody, no fear about crossing genres in search of the right sound, and worked skillfully with the synths at their disposal. Many imitators fail at one or all of the parts of that formula, but this is generally quite pleasant and successful, even if it fails to approach the genre’s high points.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Ether One Original Soundtrack (N.J.Apostol)
One might expect, given the title, for Ether One to have an ethereal sound, and at times it certainly does. But the album is, all in all, heavy and repetitive (if often good-natured and occasionally attractive) ambience, good at establishing a mood but less successful at maintaining interest with the best of such sounds.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Music of Junk Jack X (James Primate)
This album presents a very spare sound, like an early and raw SNES or Genesis game, occasionally recalling the most ambient and hard-edged moments of Earthbound. The music is affable enough but is so thin and occasionally harsh in its employment of sound effects and bleeps that only the most devoted fans of this sort of sound and approach are likely to get much out of it separated from the game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Game Music Bundle 4 (Various Artists)

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The Game Music Bundle folks are dedicated to releasing discount selections of (often obscure) video game soundtracks for the enthusiast market. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of anything that would get a major album release or CD pressing, and often by newer composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers, often with unlockable bonus albums. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37; bonus albums are unlocked as the donations become more generous over time.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

This particular Game Music Bundle is no longer available, but many of the individual albums are; I have provided purchase links where appropriate. Go here to be notified of future releases!

Albums

Horn Original Soundtrack (Austin Wintory)
Wintory is probably best known for his thatgamecompany work alongside Vincent Diamante. Given how neat Journey was, this seemed like an easy home run. Sadly, it’s kind of a whiff: lots of very sparse, dark, medieval stuff without a lot of melody; the more atmospheric tracks are vaguely Journey-like but not nearly as good. It might appeal to fans of dark medieval moods, but isn’t my cup of tea as a stand-alone listen.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Squids Wild West (Romain Gauthier)
I really enjoyed the last Squids, which had a bubbly melodic charm that was utterly infectious. This sequel has an odd wild west feel compared to the more genre-neutral first game, but with lots of great melodies the juxstaposition somehow works. While there are quirky and fun tracks, a lot of the music (nearly three times as long as the original) is surprisingly, and deliciously, dark.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Puzzlejuice Original Soundtrack (Big Giant Circles)
I already listened to this on Bandcamp prior to the bundle, and probably would have bought it full price before. It’s bright melodic synth poppy stuff from the guy who did some of the best parts of Mass Effect 2 (and whose absence from its sequel was keenly felt). Short and sweet highlight of the bundle.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Globulous Original Soundtrack (zircon and Jeff Ball)
Andrew Aversa, AKA zircon, is one of my favorite indie game composers (though with some of his tracks in Soul Calibur V, one has to wonder how well the indie label sticks these days!). The three tracks where he and Jeff Ball, who I’m not familiar with, directly collaborated are fantastic highlights, especially “Dawn Oblique,” even if the rest of the album and their solo tunes are occasionally a bit lacking in comparison.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Organ Trail Director’s Cut OST (Ben Crossbones)
A version of Oregon Trail that replaces oxen with zombies? I was sold on the game’s concept instantly. To its credit the music mostly sounds like something that your old 2nd grade class’s Apple IIgs could spit out, but the music is really dour and really sparse, and kind of hard to sit through unless you’re a fanatic for C64-style synths.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Aliens Incursion Original Soundtrack (elmobo)
el mobo has been at it since the earliest days of VGM, and his Bandcamp page is equal parts treasure and trip down memory lane, and even the newer titles are an exercise in great music for obscure and sometimes awful games. I wouldn’t say this is his best stuff, but there’s synthy techno and some of his gift for melody to be had.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Wyv and Keep Original Soundtrack (Luke Thomas)
This was one of those “soundtrack’s done but game isn’t” things you sometimes see on Bandcamp at the time of its release, though the game has since been completed. Most of it is percussive synthy jungle music that probably does well as background but translates into a pretty blasé listen. A few tracks like “Mysterious Hat Seller” do lift it up somewhat though.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Flight of Angels: Splice OST (Dain Saint)
A game about splicing DNA with angel track names? Okay, sure. This takes the flOw/echochrome route of having quiet vaguely classical vaguely ambient music for a puzzler. Sounds kind of like Philip Glass, which means most will probably love it or hate it. I loved it; the heavenly, ambient sound is able to overcome the limits of its synths to be a wonderful, relaxing listen.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Mecho Wars HD Original Soundtrack (Sean Beeson)
I stumbled on Sean’s website a while back and I’m now a big fan. He reminds me of a younger, hungrier Jeremy Soule who writes moving, wistful stuff without resting on his laurels quite so much. This is exactly that: fans of Soule will eat it up.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Polymer Original Soundtrack (Whitaker Trebella)
What’s up with so many indie games being named after material types? Regardless, there are some nice sounds and beats here but the music falls into the trap of too much repetition without much variation, so when the music if over you feel like you’ve heard it 50 times instead of just once.
Rating: * *
Purchase

iBlast Moki 2 Original Soundtrack (Romain Gauthier)
Another fine Gauthier songtrack. It’s solid stuff, mostly pastoral and relaxing with some quirk here and there, but pound for pound I prefer Squids (in musical terms if not at the dinner table).
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Super Hexagon EP (Chipzel)
The first “bonus album” unlocked by people buying stuff. Probably closer to the actual kind of techno you’d hear in clubs than anything I offhandedly label “techno” in passing despite (or perhaps because of) that 8-bit sheen. Each of the three tracks starts out kind of uninvolving but gets better later on as more layers are added, but it’s probably really only for big fans of this sort of thing.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Game Music Bundle 7 (Various Artists)

Cover

Once again, the good folks at the Game Music Bundle have released a selection of video game soundtracks for the perusal of enthusiasts. Largely hailing from indie games outside the scope of the contemporary industry, and often by young and hungry composers eager to make their mark on the industry, the Game Music Bundle offers digital downloads of multiple albums across two price tiers. Donating a minimum of $1 unlocks one tier, while a minimum of $10 unlocks the other, with a minimum suggested donation of, fittingly, $13.37.

These capsule reviews are provided to help anyone who might be wavering in their decision to purchase and support the musicians and projects involved. The window to buy is very limited, and while many of the soundtracks are available on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere…some are exclusives that will never be available again!

This particular Game Music Bundle is no longer available, but many of the individual albums are; purchase links have been provided where appropriate. Go here to be notified of future releases!

$1 Minimum Albums

The Banner Saga (Austin Wintory)
The Banner Saga is one of the most famous Kickstarter success stories, a game funded by 20,000 backers with just the promise of what was to come. Girded with that cash, the developers were able to hire rising star Austin Wintory and a live ensemble, The Dallas Winds, replete with soloists and singers. The percussion and string-heavy score is a relatively close cousin to Skyrim, with the same sense of Nordic-ness about it and singers bringing the full force of ancient languages to bear. There are times when Wintory’s music outstrips the sonic abilities of his limited group of performers, primarily in the large action cues; anyone annoyed by singing in what sounds like Old Norse will be turned off as well. Still, the album is overall a very sparse and finely crafted work.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Device 6 (David Olsén & Jonathan Eng)
Device 6 presents the sound of swinging 60s spies as filtered through the lens of swinging 60s acid trips. It features a core of well-done, off kilter spy sounds and tropes and then passes them through odd audio filters, adds bizarre sound effects in places, and generally does its best to create a blindsiding reversal of expectations. It’s an interesting effort when the pieces lock together (as in “An Elaborate Study,” which offsets a cool 60s melody with towering brass hits) but the techniques fail or distract as often as they succeed.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Broken Age: Act 1 (Peter McConnell)
Another Kickstarter game development success story, The Broken Age reunited the lead developer and composer of Grim Fandango, Tim Schafer and Peter McConnell, to attempt another adventure game in the grand old tradition of Lucasarts. Financial difficulties with the project led to it being released as two separate “acts;” this is the first, and thanks to Kickstarter McConnell was able to work with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a San Francisco ensemble to record the music live. The result is a touchingly melodic score that often incorporates a very innocent sound, often on malleted percussion, to echo the “childhood’s end” theme expressed through the game’s twin protagonists. McConnell proves as adapt at managing an orchestra as he was with a jazz ensemble for Grim, and the music winds up as more a unifying force than anything, bringing together two two disparate environments and characters. Highly recommended.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

The Floor is Jelly (Disasterpeace & Ian Snyder)
A really bizarre album, part affable indie guitar strumming, part white noise relaxation CD, with a 20-minute track of synthesized ambient music as its stinger. People who know Disasterpeace from works like FEZ will probably be disappointed by the sound here, and while individual tracks by he and Ian Snyder are highlights, the album as a whole is a bit of a discordant mess (though that may have been exactly what the composers were aiming for).
Rating: * *
Purchase

Luftrausers (KOZILEK)
This aerial shooter has a soundtrack made up of three disparate elements fused together: heroic major-key music modeled on that of shmup soundtracks of yore, aggressive techno/trance beats, and the sound effect of boots stomping in unison. Nearly ever track has all three elements present, each taking their turn onstage with interesting and sometimes uneasy transitions between them. The music would have been stronger without any sound effects at all, but it presents enough of an interesting fusion of diverse styles to be worth a look.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

$10 Minimum Albums

Transfiguration (Austin Wintory)
Journey was in many ways Austin Wintory’s breakout score, highly regarded and well-received. For the Game Music Bundle 7, Wintory unveils an arrangement of highlights from Journey for solo piano. Stripped to the bare minimum, the sparse solos are quietly involving and the lively “Road of Trials” in particular is a virtuoso performance. The final song, “I Was Born For This,” marries the vocals of the original to a new piano arrangement for an entirely new spin on it. Piano lovers and Journey fans will find much to like here.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Starbound Orchestral OST (Curtis Schweitzer)
The score to a still-in-development, massive game incorporating facets of popular titles like Minecraft and Terraria, the Starbound Orchestral OST offers an equally massive amount of music: over three-and-a-half hours. The majority of the music is gentle, classically inclined, and surprisingly acoustic for a science fiction score. It’s music that is more about tone than theme, but it is always melodic even at its most classical; the best tracks are those that feature the piano (“Eridanus Supervoid”) or allow lightheartedness to creep into the equation (the delightful, album-highlight “Stellar Formation”). It’s worth noting that the concluding 45 minutes, the “Experimental OST,” are quite different, offering up a Hans-Zimmer-inspired cocktail of electronics and occasional ostinatos that’s much closer to the “stereotypical” sci-fi game sounds of exploration and combat, but no less compelling for it. A long, occasionally somewhat draggy journey, but a delightful one.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

The Yawhg EP (Halina Heron & Ryan Roth)
This quirky and visually arresting indie RPG is all about preparing for doomsday, and its soundtrack reflects that bleak, navelgazing mood (if not the vibrantly quirky art of the game itself). Seemingly mastered from vinyl, it features analog white noise throughout and most of the tracks feature singing that seems to be coming from a room or two over. More than anything the album, even the instrumental tracks, seems like a self-distributed indie concept album with appropriately dour and spartan, well, everything. If you’re a sucker for this sound, you may find this album a revelation; otherwise, it’s best enjoyed in the context of its unique game.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Magnetic By Nature (Lance Montgomery)
Magnetic by Nature is, as one might intuit from the title, an entire;y electronic album. But save for a few moments of harshness near the end, it is almost entirely gentle, flowing synths. Made up of long, meaty tracks of electronic ambience, Magnetic by Nature will probably play best to lovers of Brian Eno and Michael Nyman.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Escape Goat 2 Original Soundtrack (MagicalTimeBean)
With a name like “Escape Goat,” one must hope for some kind of all-redeeming wackiness, and the soundtrack, at least, delivers. It’s bright, self-consciously synthy with bubbly melody and intense motion, all with a light, light dusting of 1980s synth flavor which some might call cheese. Aficionados of that sound, and of winsomely catchy synthesized music, will call it delightful.
Rating: * * * * *
Purchase

Curious Merchandise (Ben Prunty)
Perhaps the most aptly-named album in the bundle, Curious Merchandise mixes low-key electronics in a diverse set of styles with occasional intrusive sound effects and filters. When the music is allowed to breathe on its own it’s quite interesting, if often content to meander in the background. One has to wonder why the melodic, astounding “Ashur the Sky God” at the end of the album is so much of a one-off; if that sound were more prevalent over the affable but occasionally anonymous electronics and sound effects elsewhere in the album, it would be a sure winner.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

Winnose: Original Soundtrack (Calum Bowen & Todd Luke)
Bizarre. There is no better or more apt descriptor for this aggressive cocktail of high-pitched synth, scratchy guitars, and the occasional indie vocals than that. It’s an assault on the senses, creative to be sure but also headache-inducing. If anything, it’s like the scores to The Yahwg, The Floor Is Jelly, and Into the Box stuck in a blender set to “frappé.”
Rating: * *
Purchase

Eldritch Original Soundtrack (David Pittman)
A game best described as “Minecraft meets Cthulhu,” Eldritch took the roguelike aspects of the world’s best-selling cube simulator and married them to H.P. Lovecraft. The music, though, seems to take the most inspiration from Matt Uelmen’s score to Diablo, with acoustic guitar hits and squealing electrics amid dark sound design. Watery burbles and whispers certainly add a layer of uneasiness to the music, but with little or no tonality or melody in the ambient sound design, ultimately this is a score to appreciate in the context of the game, not as a standalone listen.
Rating: *
Purchase

Bardbarian OST (Maximum Satan)
With a picture of a barbarian literally and figuratively playing his axe on the cover, and an entity named “Maximum Satan” in the artist field, no one should be surprised at the hard rock sound that comes through. This single-track album is single-minded in its pursuit of an authentic instrumental heavy metal sound; people who don’t like that particular sound or prefer a different variation thereof should prepare for ten minutes of headache.
Rating: *
Purchase

Tribes: Ascend (Chris Rickwood)
A revival of the decade-old Tribes franchise (itself a somewhat confusing (but popular) spin-off of the Starsiege games) Tribes: Ascend sought to recapture the fun of that old multiplayer jetpack shooter. One area in which the authenticity shines through is in its score: the music sounds very much like that of a Western video game from the early 2000s when a sort of generic techno-rock sound with echoes of the Hans Zimmer blockbuster sound was completely dominant. Western games’ music has undergone a revolution since then, influenced by Japanese VGM on the one hand and classic film scores on the other. As such, workmanlike music like this is well enough in-game, but aside from the occasional highlight (like the choral-inflected “Arx Novena III”) there’s not much to recommend it.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Into The Box Soundtrack (Talha Kaya & Doğaç Yavuz)
Probably the most “authentic” sounding chiptunes in the bundle, Into the Box is clearly inspired by the SID chip music of the Commodore 64 demoscene and game composers like the Follin Bros. In fact, overall it seems to be an attempt to meld that decades-old style with the structure of modern trance music more than anything else. It certainly nails the overall sound, but to many people unfamiliar with the unique sound of the SID chip, or to anyone who finds the sound to be chalkboard-nails irritating, won’t find much to like in this brief album.
Rating: * *
Purchase

Soul Fjord (Austin Wintory)
The third and final Wintory album in the bundle is one that seeks to combine, of all things, 1970s blaxploitation funk with 970s Norse myth and warriors. Wintory hews much more strongly to the former, adding the occasional Nordic grunt or other background element to bring in the “fjord” aspect along with the “soul.” Your tolerance for the music will be strictly proportional to how much you enjoy music that is true to the funky-fresh blaxploitation styles of old.
Rating: * * *
No purchase link available

Bonus Albums

Dragon Fantasy Book II Original Soundtrack (Dale North)
Many artists, both indie and mainstream, have attempted to capture the sound and feel of classic 1990s RPG scores, and that is what this album attempts. Its clearest influence is Noriyuki Iwadare’s often goofy music for the Grandia series, but references to VGM majordomo Nobuo Uematsu are thick on the ground as well. These artists were successful because they had a pop songwriter’s ear for melody, no fear about crossing genres in search of the right sound, and worked skillfully with the synths at their disposal. Many imitators fail at one or all of the parts of that formula, but this is generally quite pleasant and successful, even if it fails to approach the genre’s high points.
Rating: * * * *
Purchase

Ether One Original Soundtrack (N.J.Apostol)
One might expect, given the title, for Ether One to have an ethereal sound, and at times it certainly does. But the album is, all in all, heavy and repetitive (if often good-natured and occasionally attractive) ambience, good at establishing a mood but less successful at maintaining interest with the best of such sounds.
Rating: * * *
Purchase

The Music of Junk Jack X (James Primate)
This album presents a very spare sound, like an early and raw SNES or Genesis game, occasionally recalling the most ambient and hard-edged moments of Earthbound. The music is affable enough but is so thin and occasionally harsh in its employment of sound effects and bleeps that only the most devoted fans of this sort of sound and approach are likely to get much out of it separated from the game.
Rating: * *
Purchase