Paper Mario (Yuka Tsujiyoko)

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Super Mario RPG had been a late-life hit for the Super Nintendo. It had combined Nintendo’s trademark characters in a light role-playing adventure that mixed in new characters and an element of timed button presses courtesy of the RPG specialists at Squaresoft (of Final Fantasy fame). A sequel seemed like a no-brainer…until the Nintendo 64 console arrived and Squaresoft jumped ship to the rival Sony Playstation, throwing the in-development Super Mario RPG 2 into doubt. Not only could Nintendo, who had handed off development to subsidiary Intelligent Systems, no longer use any of the original characters Square had helped develop, but the N64 lacked the processing power to render the vast new game in full 3D. Intelligent Systems took the creative route of revisualizing the game in a papercraft world, turning the N64’s weakness into a strength, and the game (renamed Mario Story in Japan and Paper Mario elsewhere) turned out to be an engaging and surprisingly deep RPG adventure like its predecessor, frequently cited as one of the best games on the platform.

Yoko Shimomura had written the best score of her career thus far for Super Mario RPG, but as a full Squaresoft employee at the time, there was no chance of her return. Instead, Intelligent Systems handed the assignment to one of its staff composers, Yuka Tsujiyoko, whose primary work before then had been for the Fire Emblem series of hardcore tactical RPGs. In many ways, Tsujiyoko came from a similar place as Shimomura: extensive experience with generally dead-serious RPGs thrust into the role of writing a lighthearted and jokey score with full license to use the iconic Mario themes penned by Nintendo’s Koji Kondo.

Tsujiyoko incorporated far more of Kondo’s themes into her work than Shimomura had; Paper Mario is in fact suffused with classic Mario tunes from the NES and SNES generations, some openly, others so subtly that one might miss it on first listen. She also began the score with a very light touch before gradually moving into more straightlaced and even occasionally even downright serious music before ending with a parade scene that served as a sonic recapitulation of the music that had gone before. One can’t deny that the resulting score feels every inch a Mario score, and a Mario RPG score at that.

However, Tsujiyoko’s music suffers throughout from an extremely thin presentation. Large sections of the music are only one or two musical lines, sounding very stark and isolated even as they try to be quirky and fun. She’s also not able to make a significant impact with original thematic material; the music tends to shine its brightest when Tsujiyoko is referencing Kondo’s classic tunes. When Tsujiyoko’s own original compositions take center stage, they generally feel like too little musical butter scraped over too much musical toast.

Part of this is, of course, not Tsujiyoko’s fault. The N64 was theoretically capable of playing a variety of music formats: PCM, MIDI, even MPEG, with a theoretical maximum sampling rate of 48 kHz with 16-bit audio. But with the space on the Paper Mario cartridge limited to just 20 megabytes, sound quality was the first thing to be sacrificed in favor of more game data, leaving Tsujiyoko and her synthesizer performer/sequencer “vAin” to struggle with some of the lowest-grade synth on the N64. This is both one source of and an aggravating factor for the aforementioned tinniness and thinness that is the major hallmark of N64 music and Paper Mario. At times, the sound seems less lush and well-synthesized than that of the SNES–while the older console had less raw capability, its SPC700 chip allowed music to be stored in only 64 kilobytes, preventing the kind of pilfering of resources and marginalization on the N64 despite even greater space limits.

That’s not to say that, whether due to lackluster composition or technical issues, that Tsujiyoko’s music for Paper Mario is a total loss. The lovely music box “Mario and Peach’s Theme” opens and closes the game with synthy fairytale charm, for instance. The late-game sequence including “Crystal Palace Crawl,” the battle theme “Freeze!” and the lovely group of tracks from “A City in the Stars” to “Sanctuary!” are all able to make the best of technical limitations and show some of Tsujiyoko’s compositional chops; it’s not hard to get the impression that she struggled somewhat with lighthearted music but is more in her comfort zone with relatively serious music in the Fire Emblem vein.

Ultimately, whatever the reason, Paper Mario is probably the weakest Mario RPG soundtrack. It is also, perversely, the only game in the Paper Mario series to have a soundtrack: a two-disc set was put out in Japan alongside an incredibly rare American release with identical contents that was available by special order from Nintendo Power. Neither set includes all the music in the game, both suffer from failing to properly loop the music they do present, and both have become sought-after collector’s items in their own right (much like the game they represent). As for Tsujiyoko herself, she would return with fellow Fire Emblem composer Yoshito Hirano to pen Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door on the Nintendo Gamecube; that score, free from the constraints of the N64, is far superior and as yet unreleased. The first and only available Paper Mario score, on the other hand, will probably only be of interest to dedicated collectors and diehard fans of the game.

Rating: starstar

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Kingdom Hearts II (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Yoko Shimomura left Square Enix and went freelance during Kingdom Hearts II‘s development period, many feared that the composer would choose not to return to the series as had happened with Nobuo Uematsu and Final Fantasy that same year. Such was not the case, of course, and fans got their wish when Shimomura was hired to score the sequel. One could be forgiven for thinking this automatically guaranteed a home run–after all, the original Kingdom Hearts is one of the finest game scores of Shimomura’s–or anyone’s–career. Unfortunately, the end result was decidedly mixed.

The resulting album has a number of strengths. It introduces a theme for the character Sora, something missing from the original, and the resultant track (creatively named “Sora”) is a heroic and upbeat anthem that, while brief, is a highlight. The Gummi Ship music has gotten an overhaul as well; a whole suite of driving, quirky, and often beautiful tracks (such as “Shipmeisters’ Rhapsody” and “Cloudchasers”) with the lovely counterpoint of “Shipmeisters’ Shanty” leading the way.

In addition, many of the best tracks from Shimomura’s score to the Game Boy Chain of Memories title have been carried over and upgraded, most notably the jazzy “Lazy Afternoons” and off-kilter “Sinister Sundown” tracks from Twilight town, and the “13th Struggle” battle theme for the mysterious Organization XII. Shimomura builds on this darkness , as well as themes she introduced on the Final Mix album, to conjure up a suite of intense battle music on disc 2 (“The Encounter,” “The 13th Dilemma,” “Sinister Shadows,” “Fight to the Death”), though the final battle (“Darkness of the Unknown) is sadly limp, lacking the choral majesty that made its predecessor so impressive.

On the other hand, much of the material from the original Kingdom Hearts is reprised, often without much modification. The worlds of Agrabah (“A Day in Agrabah,” “Arabian Dream”) and Halloween Town (“This is Halloween,” “Spooks of Halloween Town”) in particular feature music that is almost identical to the original tracks. Others, like “Rebuilding Hollow Bastion” feature new material added to tunes from the previous game, which often is a jarring contrast–half of “Rebuilding” is the ominous music that was a fan favorite, while the other half is upbeat and joyous! Fans and detractors of the Pirates of the Caribbean score will note with some amusement that the single cue from that score, “He’s a Pirate,” results in no less than three composer credits, including one for Hans Zimmer himself, but none for the score’s credited composer Klaus Badelt.

Some of the tracks are live recordings–the finale march (which features a lovely orchestral rendition of Sora’s theme) and reprises of “Hand in Hand” and “Destiny Islands” are spectacularly moving. On the other hand, the less said about the songs that begin Disc 2, the better: Howard Ashman is spinning in his grave. The obligatory title pop song is also disappointing, even when compared with its underachieving teenybopper predecessor.

One more thing of note is Takeharu Ishimoto’s synth programming; it’s very inconsistent, and occasionally downright poor. The result of this is that many of the returning songs from Kingdom Hearts are inferior to their predecessors (compare the Kingdom Hearts Final Mix version of “Disappeared” to the Kingdom Hearts II version for a good example). In addition, due to being squeezed onto two discs, many of the best songs loop only once instead of the industry-standard twice. One would think that, after its success, Kingdom Hearts II would be allowed the coveted three- or four-disc treatment, but this isn’t the case. Many songs are missing as well, most notably the flying carpet minigame theme (later released as “Arabian Daydream” in the Complete Box) and the lightcycle race theme (later released as “Byte Striking” in the Complete Box).

In the end, there’s enough good material to justify an album purchase, though the music is not anywhere near the home run that its prequel was. It’s not clear if this was a case of Shimomura being content to rest on her laurels, or if the development team insisted on the current sound. Either way, remarkable though the game itself is, on balance the music does leave something to be desired. The later Kingdom Hearts Complete Box expanded the soundtrack to four discs, with full loops and unreleased tracks, but it is harder to locate and far more expensive than the original release, and has the same problems with regurgitation, occasionally dodgy synth, and dreadful singing performances. Buy it if a solid extension of Shimomura’s Kingdom Hearts style is enough to convince you to ignore subpar album presenation and synth, as well as considerable recycling from the first album, but don’t expect the same excellence as the earlier title.

Rating: starstarstar

Kingdom Hearts (Yoko Shimomura)

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When Kingdom Hearts was announced out of the blue in 2001, the idea of a Squaresoft/Disney collaboration that would blend Final Fantasy with Mickey Mouse was met by disbelief, uncertainty, and bemusement. But against all odds, the action RPG turned out to be a superior product and a smash hit on release in 2002–not only reaching platinum status itself, but spawning a franchise that continues to this day. Not bad for a project that started as an elevator pitch, only possible because Squaresoft and Disney shared the same office building in Japan!

When fans first heard that Squaresoft composer Yoko Shimomura had been assigned to score the project, reactions were mixed. While Shimomura had had success bringing new life and creativity to established worlds through her work on Super Mario RPG and Legend of Mana, many feared that the album would be overrun with the poor-quality arrangements of Disney themes that many Disney-only titles suffered from. Luckily, this was not the case, and Shimomura developed Kingdom Hearts into her greatest score to date both on album and in game.

Anyone who was afraid that the entire score would be terminally cute has only to listen to the complex and dark tracks that begin and end the two-disc collection. Built around heavy choral use and the Italian word “Destati” (literally “Awaken”), tracks such as “Dive Into the Heart -Destati-,” “Fragments of Sorrow” and the climactic “Guardando nel buio” are filled with gothic atmosphere and powerful instrumentation. That same gothic feeling is present to a lesser extent in several other fine tracks, like the organ-dominated “Forze del Male” and the fan-favorite “Hollow Bastion,” which features stunning harp work.

Of course, being a Disney game as well, not everything is gloom and doom. Surprisingly, the arrangements of Disney tunes are both sparse and well-done. In fact, it’s quite nice to hear some familiar tunes (like Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” from The Nightmare Before Christmas or the Sherman brothers’ bucolic Winnie-the-Pooh) in-game, and the borrowed tunes are all arranged to fit in nicely with Shimomura’s originals.

The original, lighthearted tracks are generally excellent, from the Russian-sounding “Monstrous Monstro” to the kooky “Merlin’s Magical House” and the jazzy, laid-back “Traverse Town.” The Traverse Town battle theme, “Hand in Hand,” is easily an album highlight, action-packed but sad and hopeful at the same time, and has been extensively arranged in this and the sequel album. Also of note is the lovely, understated piano title theme, “Dearly Beloved,” which went on to be a series staple, and the wonderful orchestrated tracks at the beginning and end of the album.

In fact, there are almost too many highlights to list, and nearly every track is looped twice for maximum enjoyment. On the other hand, the synth programming (by Ryo Yamazaki) is sometimes inconsistent. Sometimes it’s stellar, the equal of any other PS2-era game, but it falters at other times, especially where brass is concerned. The album, like its sequel (with the regrettable Takeharu Ishimoto operating the synths) but to a lesser extent, could have used a better synth programming.

There are also a few duds, generally repetitive pieces like “No Time To Think.” The “Kairi” tracks are also somewhat weak; as the only character theme per se, one would expect more varied performances, but the three such tracks are largely identical. Another annoyance is the fact that several tracks were left off the release, particularly the dark, brutal “Another Side, Another Story” and “Disappeared.” With a little creative rearrangement, there would have been room on the album for these and the remixes of Uematsu’s “One-Winged Angel” and Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” as well–instead, fans have to seek out the rare Final Mix or expensive Complete Box albums for these songs. And the pop songs that open and close the album are forgettable fluff, notable only for their skillful arrangement into instrumental themes elsewhere.

Still, when all is said and done, Shimomura’s work on Kingdom Hearts is truly remarkable, and easily a career highlight. The album is everything video game music fans could hope for, and brings a level of maturity to the wonderful game itself. And while Shimomura would return for all subsequent sequels to some degree, the original Kingdom Hearts remains her best work for the franchise. It’s a highly recommended purchase For anyone willing to give a strange hybrid of Disney and Japanese styles a chance, and the resulting music is enchanting and among the strongest of Yoko Shimomura’s career.

* * * * *

Dawn of Mana (Kenji Ito, Tsuyoshi Sekito, Masayoshi Soken, and Ryuichi Sakamoto)

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Dawn of Mana, known in Japan as Seiken Densetsu 4, was been a long time coming; despite a variety of other games in Square-Enix’s long-running series (known as the Mana series stateside), none have come close to the popular and critical acclaim that Secret of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan) or Legend of Mana received in the 1990’s. While reactions to the game were decidedly mixed, there was been considerable interest in the new game’s score among video game music enthusiasts. After all, the list of composers attached to the project in one way or another is extremely impressive. The album clocks in at an impressive four discs, longer than any of the previous series sets, with Disc 4 given entirely over to new remixes of thematic material from previous games in the series, including music by fan favorites Hiroki Kikuta from Secret of Mana and Yoko Shimomura from Legend of Mana.

Chief among the exciting factors in Dawn of Mana was the involvement of noted concert and film composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, an Oscar winner for The Last Emperor, though his work turned out to be limited to the game’s introductory theme. Sakamoto’s four-minute title track is fairly subdued, piano-driven, and mostly effective. It introduces a few melodic fragments that are taken up later by the game’s main composers, but does stick out a bit, as it’s the only piano track on the album and one performed in a far more classical style than the rest, to say nothing of being acoustic rather than synthesized.

Kenji Ito, who has been the most prolific composer in the Mana series, with scores to the original Seiken Densetsu, its remake, and side games like Children of Mana under his belt, returns for Seiken Densetsu 4. Ito’s work has never resonated with the VGM community the way Hiroki Kikuta and Yoko Shimomura’s series contributions have, but Ito’s music has been consistently pleasant and professional. Ito obligingly dusts off his old theme from the original Seiken Densetsu, and offers performances of it in “Rising Sun” and again near the end of the album. Ito’s tracks are generally soft and pleasant, but many are unremarkable as well, with few strong melodies and even fewer consistent melodic ideas shared between tracks. It’s also very curious that the older Ito material on Disc 4 isn’t arranged by Ito himself, since he clearly was involved with the project and rearranging his existing themes to an extent.

In many ways, Tsuyoshi Sekito was the most exciting name attached to Dawn of Mana. Sekito’s previous arrangements of Nobuo Uematsu’s work for various Final Fantasy remakes has met with fan approval, and a high-profile series entry seemed the next logical step in his career. It’s unfortunate, then, that Sekito’s work is the weakest on the album, and generally subpar in every way. The composer leaned heavily on a sound that’s dominated by synthesized beats and ambiance. While this produces a few good tracks like “Emerald Shine” and “The Beast God’s Labyrinth,” they are by and large dull and meandering, and don’t share any themes or instrumentation with Ito’s portion. The rock tracks that Sekito brings to the table again produce a few positive results (such as “Burning Spirits”) but are most often extremely limp and uninteresting, especially when compared with the rock arrangements on Disc 4. It’s telling that Sekito’s best tracks are actually rearrangements of Hiroki Kikuta’s work (“Guardian Holy Beast Flammie”).

While early indications were that Junya Nakano, Masayoshi Soken, and Hirosato Noda would be functioning as co-composers in their own right, they are essentially arrangers in the album as presented. Nakano and Noda don’t have any original compositions, while Soken has a handful of generally pleasant original tunes at the tail end of the set. Their real work, though, was to arrange work from earlier in the Seiken Densetsu series. The rearrangements are generally strong and very involving, especially the music by Kikuta. “Don’t Hunt the Fairy,” “Weird Counterpoint,” and “Splash Hop” from Seiken Densetsu 3 (a game unreleased in the US and therefore without a Western title) and “Meridian Child” and “Child of the Sprite Tribe” from Secret of Mana get not one but two arrangements apiece. One is close in instrumentation to the original, serving as a sort of upgrade to the 16-bit Super Nintendo sound of the original, and the other is a sped-up rock version that takes severe liberties with the original.

Kikuta’s music is far more involving and interesting than the majority of Ito’s and Sekito’s, and the rock arrangements of Kikuta’s themes easily outshine the original rock pieces on the preceding discs. Shimomura’s original music from Legend of Mana isn’t as well represented, with only two arranged tracks, but Ito’s music for Seiken Densetsu gets a splendid treatment. Comparing Ito’s rearranged tracks, given delightful new life by Square Enix’s resident chiptune expert Hirosato Noda in particular, to his original Seiken Densetsu 4 compositions is almost an embarrassment.

One wonders why Kikuta or Shimomura weren’t hired outright, since their music so easily dominates the new material; from the limited material available, it seems as if Nakano or Soken could also have provided superior musical accompaniment to Ito and Sekito. As a result, Dawn of Mana is, despite the big names and bloated length, a disappointment, with largely mundane new material alongside fine rearrangements of older songs. Worst of all, the multi-composer approach destroys the album’s coherence, with wild variations in style and tone the norm. Though the album is to be commended for respecting the series’ musical roots in the rearrangements, none of the new material comes close in tone, instrumentation, melody, or memorability to Kikuta and Shimomura’s earlier, seminal work in the series. You are better off buying Kikuta’s Secret of Mana, its Genesis remix, and Shimomura’s Legend of Mana directly.

Ito: * *
Sekito: *
Others: * * *
Overall: * *