Saturday, January 16, 2021

My favorite game soundtracks of 2020

When I was younger, I didn't have the greatest appreciation for game music. Oh, I dug a good background tune now and then, like Matoya's Cave theme from the original Final Fantasy or the overworld theme from Super Mario Bros. 2, but listen to entire game soundtracks (OSTs) when I was done playing? Never.

Nowadays, I regularly listen to game OSTs during my "down time," especially while working. The OSTs for Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light, Hotel Dusk: Room 215Kirby's Epic Yarn and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince are a handful of good examples.

The game OSTs discussed in this post, which are my favorites of the past year, have joined this rotation—for all the reasons shared below and more.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

In the run-up to Mad Rat Dead's release last fall, I asked folks on Twitter if they were planning to buy and play it. A few people replied they had pre-ordered copies simply because of Dyes Iwasaki's involvement. At the time, all I could say in response was "that's interesting," as I had no idea who Iwasaki was or why he would inspire such action. 

After experiencing, and thoroughly enjoying (yes, despite including it in my most disappointing games of 2020 write-up), this game and its soundtrack, I can see why. The electro-swing and glitch-hop tracks Iwasaki—and others, like Camellia and a_hisa—produced for the Mad Rat Dead OST are blissful. Not only are they the kind of tunes you can enjoy (over and over again) after you're done playing Mad Rat Dead, but during the act they provide exactly the kind of push you need to successfully complete this game's often-brutal side-scrolling stages, too.

Moon (Switch)

The hallmark of Moon's soundtrack is that it's full of songs made by actual indie musicians. As such, its vibe is decidedly different from what you normally get from game music. 

That isn't to say the tunes here are better than what is typical for the medium; rather, it's to say they're structured differently. I guess you could say they sound more like the kind of pop or rock or dance music any of us listen to in our daily lives—particularly if you tend to listen to music from more experimental artists. 

To put it another way, most of the music on Moon's soundtrack isn't as obviously epic or rousing or triumphant as it can be in other games, especially other RPGs. It's the sort of OST you might put on while enjoying a drink at the end of a long day, or even during a chill get-together with some adventurous friends.

Paper Mario: The Origami King (Switch)

This Paper Mario sequel's OST is as eclectic as the rest of its contents. Some of its musical creations sound like they came straight from one of Mario's platformers. Others sound like they belong in a Broadway production. The rest? Many defy easy categorization. 

Most are also surprisingly subtle—to the point that you probably won't hum or even think of them much after you save and quit you globe-trotting adventure for the day. While you're actually playing The Origami King, though, they seem like perfect accompaniments to the action or activities at hand. 

That said, I often found myself daydreaming about tracks I had no idea I'd internalized, so maybe the music here is more infectious than I'm giving it credit for right now?

Part Time UFO (Switch)

Part Time UFO's soundtrack is as gorgeously simple as its graphics and balance-puzzler-ific gameplay. It basically consists of a single melodic hook (which centers on a robotic vocalization of its Japanese title) that is broadly interpreted into different musical genres, like country, disco, and jazz. 

The resulting tunes are so whimsical and adorable—not to mention really damn catchy—that I can almost guarantee you'll walk away from every stint with Part Time UFO incessantly humming its main theme.

SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions (Mobile, PC, PS4, Switch)

All the best role-playing games have stellar overworld themes and similarly sensational battle themes. The soundtrack for SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions checks both of those boxes—the latter one, especially.

That's a big deal, as Kenji Ito's battle themes are the star of this game as well as its OST. I say battle themes, plural, here because SaGa Scarlet Grace: Ambitions has several of them, including one for each of its four main characters. They're all splendid—filled with swirling strings that inspire even during the toughest of fights. (And let me tell you, you'll encounter some challenging bosses in Ambitions. Hell, you'll encounter plenty of challenging low-level baddies, too.)

In that way, at least, this enhanced version of SaGa: Scarlet Grace is more traditional than the rest of the game's components. Even then, it's hardly ho-hum or average. If a game OST could be described as "elegant," this one is it. Maybe that's why it feels like such a breath of fresh air, despite not being altogether unique.

Void Terrarium (PS4, Switch)

Is Nippon Ichi Software secretly the best producer of game soundtracks these days? I'm not sure, but I'd certainly make the argument that NIS is one of the best in this area at the moment. 

Not only is Void Terrarium's OST a prime example of the kind of brilliance that has regularly come out of this pint-sized publisher over the last few years, but so are the similarly noteworthy soundtracks concocted for Destiny Connect (highlighted below), Mad Rat Dead (discussed above), and The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince

All three are completely different, and delightful, beasts, with Void Terrarium's OST being full of synthy, sometimes crunchy, sometimes crystalline, backing tunes that, like their counterparts in Mad Rat Dead, positively propel you through the game's murky, post-apocalyptic dungeons.


All of the soundtracks discussed up to now were made for games that released--and that I played--in 2020. The following pair were produced for games that came out prior to last year.

Destiny Connect: Tick-Tock Travelers (PS4, Switch)

The Destiny Connect soundtrack is probably the most traditional of all the OSTs discussed here. Even so, it's eminently listenable—in large part because it does a masterful job of tugging at the ol' heartstrings. A lot of the music in this Nippon Ichi Software-made RPG features twinkling piano melodies that help drive home the game's wistful and nostalgic story.

Don't worry, the Destiny Connect OST isn't limited to tearjerkers. It features several heart-pounding tunes, too. Most are string-heavy, all are properly dramatic. Again, they don't exactly break the mold as far as RPG soundtracks are concerned, but they're still impressive for how well they complement the overall experience.

The World Ends With You (DS)

If Moon's OST leans indie, The World Ends With You's tilts toward the mainstream. While the former is full of funky, dub-like ditties, the latter is bursting with pop-rock bangers.

Which one is better? Don't ask me. I think both are beyond magnificent. I'll tell you what, though: I never tired of hearing any of TWEWY's background tunes. Sure, I had my favorites, like "Give Me All Your Love," but the fact is, they're all gems that will energize you while you tackle the game's often-frantic battles. And, of course, they might energize you after you shut down your DS or 3DS, too. That's certainly been true for me in the months since I finished this dual-screened classic.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

My most disappointing games of 2020

According to my notes, I played 44 games in 2020. (Yes, I keep notes on the games I play.) Not all to completion, of course, though I did finish a good number of them.

I loved most of them, too, as those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know. Some pleasantly surprised me. And while I can't say I downright hated any of them, I can say a small handful—the ones discussed in this post—disappointed me. Here's why.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)

I know, I know—I must be one of the few people in the world who found Animal Crossing: New Horizons disappointing. Especially since it's not like I'm a newcomer to the series. I've played, and loved, every single entry. Yes, even City Folk. Also, I put just under 100 hours into New Horizons before I walked away from it early last summer, so I must've liked a thing or two about it, right?

I did, actually. It's easily the best looking Animal Crossing game around, or at least the cleanest looking. (I personally prefer the chunky, chibi-esque aesthetic of the original release, but I'm odd like that.) Its soundtrack is wonderful, too—though I once again hesitate to flat-out declare it the series' best.

Another feather in Animal Crossing: New Horizons' cap is it gives players more to do than ever before. Loads of people love that, of course, but I can't help but think it's chiefly responsible for souring me on the game. (Also helping matters: the animal villagers in this iteration seem to have less personality and less to say than they did in earlier ones.)

You see, I've long wished the series would go in the opposite direction—streamlining and simplifying things so the overall experience is more tranquil and languid. I know I could just ignore all of the busywork New Horizons throws my way, but that's easier said than done. Plus, it makes up the bulk of the game's content; I get the feeling giving it a cold shoulder might transform what remains into a snooze-fest.

In the end, I decided Animal Crossing: New Horizons just wasn't for me. No hard feelings, and all that. Oh, well. At least I didn't shelve it with my nose wrinkled in disgust like I did with two other games discussed here (Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, in particular).

Bubble Bobble 4 Friends (PS4, Switch)

I guess I should've known 4 Friends would be yet another crappy Bubble Bobble sequel. What was the last acceptable Bubble Bobble title, after all—1996's Bubble Memories?

Regardless, I bought a physical copy of Bubble Bobble 4 Friends hoping for the best. Clearly that didn't pan out. Although it doesn't look awful in early screenshots and video clips, it's dreadfully and depressingly boring when you actually play through it yourself.

Visually, it reminds me of Super Bomberman R. Which is to say it resembles its full-of-character predecessors, but only at a glance. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that most of what made the earlier releases so charming has been power-washed from existence and replaced with dull imitations.

This is true not only of Bub, Bob, and the game's selection of baddies, by the way, but of its backdrops, too. The same component of the classic original release may have been on the stark side, but they were still both colorful and comely. In Bubble Bobble 4 Friends, they're frankly hard to tell apart. How someone could make a new Bubble Bobble without going wild on whimsical backgrounds is beyond me.

Sadly, the gameplay offered up in 4 Friends doesn't even begin to compensate for its uninspired graphics. Controlling the dynamic dragon duo just doesn't feel right. It often feels slow and sluggish—or, the polar opposite of this title's quarter-munching precursor.

Popping bubbles is even worse. The shimmering globules of gas and liquid that traditionally serve as both weapons and stepping stones in this series seem almost unbreakable here. That screwed up my go-to strategies so much that it all but ruined the rest of the game for me.

The only reason I soldiered on and finished Bubble Bobble 4 Friends was that it took me just two hours to reach its credit roll. Had it taken any longer, I surely would've dropped it like a hot potato right around that same milestone.

Kirby Mass Attack (DS)

I played Kirby Mass Attack after playing Hey! Pikmin. This is noteworthy because the two titles boast surprisingly similar gameplay that combines tactical thinking and puzzle solving with side-scrolling platforming. Unfortunately for Kirby Mass Attack, Hey! Pikmin does all of those things better—or at least it does them in ways that are actually fun.

That's too bad, because the idea of Kirby Mass Attack is a good one. Controlling multiple (up to 10) Kirby clones using your system's stylus and touch screen is intriguing—at first. Unfortunately, those intriguing controls lose a lot of their luster over the course of this DS title's overly long stages. The vast majority of them go on and on, as does the adventure that encapsulates them. This one-two combo thoroughly dampened my enthusiasm for Kirby Mass Attack—so much so it took me several months to complete. (And it's only about a 10-hour game.)

The thing is, Kirby Mass Attack could have been so much more compelling. The handful of surfing and tank stages offered up here are not only brilliantly entertaining, but delightfully brief. Sadly, they're the exception, not the rule.

In the end, I doubt I'll ever play through Kirby Mass Attack again. A shame, as every aspect of it suggests it should be a great game. Which it is, I guess; it's just not an enjoyable one.

Mad Rat Dead (PS4, Switch)

OK, this is a weird one to include here. Even weirder than Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in fact. How so? Well, I finished Mad Rat Dead, for starters. Also, I spent more than 10 hours with it along the way. And the cherry on top: I actually enjoyed—even loved—the overall experience.

All that said, Mad Rad Dead, which is one part side-scrolling platformer and one part rhythm game, regularly pissed me off. To the point that I often worried I might break my Switch in half over my knee, or maybe slam it into the nearest wall.

What about Mad Rat Dead caused such aggravation and anger? The gist is that it's difficult. Often brutally and cheaply so. There were numerous occasions during my playthrough when I thought I'd never successfully complete a certain section of a stage. I eventually did, but every time I swore under my breath that hell would freeze over before I'd attempt them again.

Of course, I only got through those seemingly impossible stage sections by using—over and over again—Mad Rat Dead's rewind function. It's a nice option to have, especially in a tough game like this, but it comes with some pitfalls, too. As in, constantly dying and rewinding kills the flow of the game. That wouldn't be such a big deal if this were a typical platformer, but the platforming in Mad Rat Dead is closely tied to the title's background music. Mad Rat Dead is at its best and most enjoyable when you're in a groove, dashing, jumping, and smacking baddies to the beat. That high takes a hit whenever you croak, and if you're anything like me, you'll croak a bunch while playing this quirky Nippon Ichi Software release.

If only Nippon Ichi's developers had thought to, or been able to, include an easy mode. That alone would've made Mad Rat Dead a lot less disappointing for me. Granted, I'm still glad I bought and finished it, and I even have strangely fond memories of the experience, but I'd be more glad if it had been a less halting and harrowing affair.