Thursday, 24 November 2011

A change of pace...

Chicks dig...ocarinas?
Ever since the heady days of my youth when I first heard the magical, jingly melody of Bubble Bobble on the Commodore 64, I've had a deep seated love of video game music. From the epic to the chilled, these days my iPod is overflowing with music from some of the industry's most gifted composers, and there aren't many days go by without me having a little listen to the likes of Kondo, Mitsuda and Uematsu.

As this is music that I genuinely enjoy listening to, I thought I'd share some of the more downtempo examples with anyone and everyone who visits Crystal Blue Dreams.

Below is my first and (to this day) favourite playlist, first created in 2007. It is very RPG heavy but that's because RPGs tend to have the best relaxing music...and for those not fond of the genre, there are some non role playing bits and bobs knocking about in there too.

Anyways, here is the complete track listing, and for anyone who's interested in having a listen, the download link can be found below.

VGM Unwinding Vol I: Original and Best
  1. The Prelude - Final Fantasy IX OST
  2. Theme of Crysta - Terranigma OST
  3. Kakariko Village - The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Symphony 
  4. Holding my Thoughts in my Heart - Final Fantasy VII OST 
  5. Reminiscence - Genso Suikoden Music Collection: Produced by Hiroyuki Namba
  6. Another Gardov - Chrono Cross OST 
  7. Shattering the Egg of Dreams - Xenogears Light: An Arranged Album 
  8. 600 AD (Chrono Trigger) - OC Remix
  9. Descendent of Shinobi - Final Fantasy VII Piano Collection
  10. Orrizonte – Genso Suikoden II Music Collection: Orrizonte
  11. In the Earthen Womb - Illusion of Gaia OSV
  12. Because I Love You (Mother 2) - Orchestral Game Concert Part 1 
  13. Radical Dreamers (Chrono Cross) - Eminence Symphony Orchestra: Passion 
  14. Theme of Celes - Final Fantasy Potion: Relaxin' with Final Fantasy
  15. The Sandy Beach of Ganbo - Grandia OST
  16. Theme of Evergreen - Terranigma OST
  17. Stickerbrush Symphony - Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest OSV 
  18. Torvus Clockwork (Metroid Prime 2: Echoes) - OC Remix 
  19. Maian Tears - Perfect Dark OSV
  20. Faraway Promise - Xenogears OST
  21. My Lady's Sigh - Genso Suikoden II OST
  22. The Place I'll Return to Someday/Melodies of Life - Final Fantasy More Friends: Music from Final Fantasy
  23. Village Theme - SimCity OSV
  24. Fisherman's Horizon - Final Fantasy VIII: Fithos Lusec Wecos Vinosec
  25. Theme of Final Fantasy - Final Fantasy: 1987 - 1994
I own physical and official copies of all albums/games this music was taken from 

Download VGM Unwinding Vol I: Original and Best

I'm probably going to post a few more of these playlists over the coming weeks, and if they prove popular enough then I'll make sharing them a regular feature on the site.

Also, if there are enough requests, I'll definitely consider suggested playlists.

Happy listening!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Sneaky and unassuming NPCs part I: Jianmin from Shenmue II

Behind those wrinkles hides a martial arts phenomenon! 
None player characters (NPCs)...pretty much every RPG has them in one form or another. Historically the NPC species can be split into two predominant groups; the first are your average run of the mill town folk, who will spend their days and nights aimlessly milling about villages and cities sharing snippets of (often crucial) information, running shops and inns or generally just misbehaving (ala Johnny from Final Fantasy VII). Common traits amongst these characters include looking identical to their neighbours, having their houses pillaged by adventuring types and kind of just being there to make up the numbers...it's not a prestigious existence but someone has to do it, right?

The second group, is brimmed with much more interesting and alluring personalities. It's here we find the characters that are chosen to make up the core of the story and fulfil vital roles within it's plot. Beings in this most hallowed NPC group can range from the angelic to downright satanic, usually each one will have their own distinct persona, a properly developed back story and outrageous dress sense. These are also the characters responsible for some of the most famous moments in RPG history...the wondrous Leknaat reviving the ever faithful Gremio in Suikoden for instance (guaranteed to make fans of all ages weep with joy!).

Generally speaking, it's easy to spot when one of these alpha NPCs is about to get unpleasant or is plotting the hero's demise. It is often signalled by a sudden dramatic musical score or a sweeping cut scene, occasionally though one or two will catch us out, and that meekly innocent non player character will turn to be a bit of a sly dog.

The classic text book example of this unassuming NPC has to be Jianmin Tao from Shenmue II. Although he looks very much like your typical Chinese pensioner going through his daily exercise routine, Jianmin is actually a master martial artist. And after a brief introduction he subsequently decides to teach our hero Ryo a comprehensive a lesson in speed and counter attacking, much to his own amusement it seems!


After leaving Ryo sufficiently bemused by his speed and guile, the roguish old codger decides to teach the na├»ve young warrior his awesome Iron Palm technique of the Tai Chi style. Aside from looking the business, this move is also powerful enough shake the very leaves from the trees! Who'd have thought it eh...

Jianmin can be found day or night (where he lives is somewhat of a mystery), practicing his Chen style Tai Chi in the beautiful Lotus Park, located in the South Carmain Quarter of Wanchai...which incidentally is also home to some of my favourite music from Shenmue II. And although his role in the game's story is ended when Ryo learns the Iron Palm technique, Jianmin is always ready for another sparring session should you wish to engage him, good luck besting him in combat though.

The South Carmain Quarter itself remains one of my favourite areas in the entire Shenmue saga. It's faded glory really captures the depth and real life feel that Sega painstakingly attempted to portray to the player. The run down and built up streets are completely without glamour and it's oppressed residents display that stoic heroism often synonymous with decaying and deprived inner city areas. Also hailing from the South Carmain Quarter is Jianmin's friend and resident Shenume II battle axe, Guixang Lee...this stern old lady also happens to be a master of Tai Chi so best be polite to her.

So the next time you're wandering around an RPG town or city, remember to keep a beady eye on the quiet and retiring NPC in the corner...you never known what surprises they might have in store for you!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Obscure gems part II: Turbans, capes and cartridge slots...

Turban? Check. Cape? Check. Weird egg mascot that you can throw? Check!
Following in the recent footsteps of Xandra's Big Adventure is another dazzling yet largely (and sadly) unknown masterpiece from the from the 16bit generation, this time for the Sega Mega Drive...or Genesis if you live on the other side of the big pond. The hilariously titled Magical Hat no Buttobi Tabo! Daiboken, loosely translated as Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure, is a platform game that was released by Sega in the pre Sonic era of 1990. To this day I still find it to be far and away the finest example of the platform genre on not just the Mega Drive, but on any Sega machine, period.

This game may seem strangely familiar to some people…even those who’ve never even heard of it. This is probably because it was developed by (the usually underwhelming) Vic Tokai, the same company responsible for the equally fantastic but ultimately shunned Psycho Fox on the Master System and Kid Kool on the NES. Whilst Magical Hat isn't a direct sequel to either of these titles, the lineage the three games share is plain for all to see, and many of the traits and ideas you come across in the Mega Drive title are derived straight from it’s 8bit ancestors. The other reason this wacky game may look familiar is that it did actually receive a release in the west...albeit in horrifically bastardised form, more on that travesty later though.
After 18 years, my very own copy...yay!

Magical Hat is something of a gaming Holy Grail for me. Back in 1993 I was among the staunchest of SNES fans, however the first time I encountered Hat’s fantastic world it left me floored. There were very few games around at the time that married such vivid and wonderful graphics with genuinely addictive game play. My love for it was such that I promised myself I would one day own a copy. I sort of forgot about that until recently though, and so some self-indulgent eBay action ensued and I'm now the very proud owner of an immaculate copy of Magical hat Flying Turbo Adventure! I have to say, it was worth the £20 for box art alone.

The bad news regarding this little impulse purchase is that I own a PAL Mega Drive…which doesn’t play NTSC games. So rather than bother with a boring universal adapter I decided to perform some minor "home surgery" on my console, which involved filing away the little plastic tabs that shape the cartridge slot. Once these had been rounded off, the game slotted in perfectly, I adore this novel approach to regional security from Sega, it's wonderfully barn door. To anyone who is thinking of attempting this little operation, I can happily confirm that it is fairly straightforward and only took me about 30 minutes in all. Just be sure to refer to one of the many useful internet guides, like this rather helpful one I happened across.

Back to the game then…

The story (I think) goes something like this; an earthquake has literally ripped apart our hero's island home and so he dons his excellent turban and sets off to reunite the scattered lands and defeat the (awesome looking) Demon King. To accomplish this feat, Hat must traverse seven different continents, each containing three stages laden with cunning traps, numerous secret passages and insane looking enemies. Although the game features the obligatory ice, desert and water levels, the design and complexity is nothing short of exceptional...especially when you take into consideration the game's age, eighteen years old! As well the traditional left to right routes, the player must explore the heights and depths of each level whilst scouring all over for hidden objects (necessary for progression in later stages).

I'm chuffed to say that Hat is a breeze to control, and his epic quest is made so much more enjoyable by the magnificent array of abilities he has at his disposal. Accompanying the main man on his journey is a strange grinning egg which can be hurled about the place to help fend off enemies. As well as helping Hat with attacking his enemies, the little maniacal egg also acts as a kind of extra layer of protection, offering to take a hit for you. Hat can also collect various different potions and pills which unleash a plethora of flashy moves such as; a rapid fire attack, a shield (which a certain Hedgehog seems to have took a shining to), a hidden turban gun and the best by miles...he can even transform into a giant robotic ape (how Japanese is that)!! It's true to say that every quality platfomer begins with a lovable and distinctive character and Hat's game is no different, his mannerisms are top notch and his wacky animations would put the likes of Bubsy to shame...the face he pulls when you accidentally walk off a ledge for example, is nothing short of hilarious!
Go go baggy pants...

In graphical terms, Magical Hat really is up there with the best the Mega Drive has to offer...it even rivals some of the more illustrious offerings from the Super Nintendo. The characters are large, bold and bursting with colour, the artists really outdid themselves by blessing the game with hoards of amazingly well designed sprites, all of which perfectly fit the setting and background of the game. Kudos must also go to the music composer because this game is awash with gloriously upbeat tunes that really get inside your head from the first level onward. It's this almost unnecessary level of detail that propels Hat's world to the top tier of the platform theatre.

Although this game looks cute and colourful, it also possesses a proper mean streak and it can easily catch you off guard. The difficulty level can make it extremely frustrating at times and as with most platformers of the day, one hit and you're dead. Luckily the delightful bonus levels in-between the stages will keep you stocked with extra lives, this is countered though by the fact that you'll probably end up ploughing through them at rate of knots.

Understandably Sega wanted to push Magical Hat into the lucrative markets of Europe and North America, at the time however, the localisation of many Japanese games went much further than mere text changes and a bit of censorship here and there. Games of Japanese origin were often considered a bit too weird and wacky for us easily offended westerners, as a result some would undergo a process known as Americanisation. This was a practice that pretty much ripped out any and all interesting content and ideas, and set about replacing it with stuff that was deemed more "familiar and acceptable" for it's new audience. Basically, it would amount to nothing more than removing the heart and soul of games that underwent the process, and Magical Hat along with Ranma 1/2 on the SNES (which became the appalling Street Combat) is by far the worse example of this that I've ever witnessed.

And so, as a result of this questionable and deplorable method of localisation, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure emerged in the west as as Decap Attack.

"Whaa...where'd all the colour go!?"
Now to be honest, (and putting aside my bias for Japanese games) Decap Attack is actually a pretty solid attempt and if you've never had the pleasure of trying Magical Hat, then you quite could happily consider Decap Attack to be a title of real quality. However, when the two games are compared side by side, the ugly truth is impossible to hide from. Decap Attack is completely devoid of life and imagination, also (just to make matters worse) it was swathed in some of the most dull and drab colours you could possibly think of. It's worlds are home to boring characters who inhabit not very interesting surroundings. It is obvious to me that Sega were trying to make a game that would appeal to a mass market, but what depresses me most about Decap Attack is that by removing the patented Hat lunacy, they also took away the majority of the game's charm and identity...which is unforgivable.

The molestation of Magical Hat was truly abhorrent in my eyes and the fact that Sega, a company well renowned for bold (if possibly ill judged) gaming decisions, made the call to basically lobotomise it, makes the whole situation even more rancid. As is well known, the 90's thrust upon us an extensive collection of generic and unimaginative platform pulp in the form of smelly turds such as Family Dog and Cool World. Magical Hat would certainly have brought some welcome creativity and spark to these shores, had it arrived here untouched. As it was, we in the west were fobbed off with another run of the mill platform game, and this is truly a great shame because Magical Hat had so much to give us. It boasted not only the visual finery to match the very best of the generation, but also, terrific game play...most of all though it was fantastic fun to play.

So if you enjoy great platform games or just happen to be searching for a bit of the magic and humour that seems absent from many of today's games, then Magical Hat is an absolute must. Along with the likes of Streets of Rage 2, Gunstar Heroes and Phantasy Star, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure finally made me acknowledge the Mega Drive as a truly great console…one thing I would say though is do yourself a big favour and play the proper Japanese version, it's just better.

In my humble opinion, it was this game and not Sonic that was the Mega Drive's true answer to Super Mario World, and praise doesn't come much higher than that.

As a final note, Magical Hat Flying Turbo Adventure also occupies a slot in my Underrated games list. It's a place where unloved games can be showered with much deserved attention, have a quick gander, you might just find your new favourite (old) game!

A67GAD4D7E33

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Gaming's great intros part III: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time



I think it would be fair to say that the majority of Nintendo fans will forever remember their virgin experience with the colossal Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Rarely has a game so massively hyped delivered so comprehensively, and rarely has one game singlehandedly revolutionised not only a single genre, but also the games industry as a whole. Within days of it’s release in 1998, Ocarina of Time had cemented itself in the hearts of gamers across the globe as one of the most revered titles in video game history.

Something else that most fans will doubtless remember is the first time that they fired this game up and witnessed the majesty of Link in full polygonal glory, sat astride Epona, as she gallops through the stunning vista of Hyrule Field. Watching as the two of them are bathed in the glorious pink light of dawn...even today, is a sight to behold, and then as the camera sweeps by we get a glimpse of Hyrule Castle, resplendent in all it's grandeur. By this point it was clear to most people that this game would be beyond special.

Nintendo’s controversial choice of cartridges as storage medium infamously left the N64 unable to produce the outrageous CG and FMV sequences that were proving so popular on the CD based consoles (PSX and Saturn) of the time. On the plus side however, this decision left Ocarina of Time without the unnecessary burden of CG costume jewellery, and gave it the ability to show off it's (very) ample assets in a more subtle and natural light. Nintendo's almost minimalist approach here gently alluded to what awaited the player and ensured that no gamer would be left downhearted by a flashy looking intro that the game itself couldn't hope to match...(cough Dragon Valour...cough).

The storage space (or lack thereof) afforded by cartridges did have a large effect on the N64's ability to produce quality music, and it's games were often criticised for containing very basic tunes that looped much sooner than their CD counterparts. Step in veteran Nintendo composer and all round genius; Koji Kondo, who somehow managed to eke out a soundtrack of genuine class and an intro aria fit to rival almost anything from Square, Capcom or Enix. The simple yet elegant piano and the unmistakable melody of the now series signature ocarina, make for a delicate and intensely warm harmony...in short, there was very little at the time to better it.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time showed the world and proved to Nintendo's critics that even without huge storage space, the N64 could produce cut scenes that were simply without superlative. And even though today the character models are beginning to look a little dated and the backgrounds look even fuzzier, this intro sequence is still beautiful in every way I can think of. More importantly and perhaps more impressively though, it still gives me that massive buzz of anticipation at just what is waiting to begin...and as any serious gamer will tell you, that is all too rare.