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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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

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