Friday, October 21, 2016

The Great PokeClone-Off Part 2: Audio

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, every other possible sexual orientation and all manner of living creatures on Earth (except sharks): Welcome back to The Great PokeClone-Off!

This week’s installment of The Great PokeClone-Off is brought to you by PokeMart Incorporated. Remember: Shop smart, shop PokeMart! (Guys that, uh…that line doesn’t work as well with the letter swapped out. Also, I don’t think our target demo will get the reference? That movie came out like 6 years before – okay okay I’ll stick to the script!)

Last time we explored a feast for the eyes by comparing game visuals. This time the meal is moving a few inches back on your cranium, because I’m serving up a feast for the ears. I’m assuming that’s where your ears are. If you have eyes on the side of your head you’ll have to go elsewhere, sharks.

Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker

When I went to examine the Joker soundtrack in detail, I was surprised for a few reasons. The first is that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was. (Wow, way to spoil the ending, me.) It was decent, as you might expect from an entry in such a prolific series. But a lot of it was simply rather…average. Music passed in one ear and out the other without much impact. Several of the songs only stuck because I heard them so often, which brings us to surprise number two: This soundtrack is really small. About 20 tracks, many of them quite short, for an RPG of a couple dozen hours or more. Even Spectrobes far outpaces it in quantity, though the quality judgement I’ll reserve for later.

Image unrelated.

The final surprise was that the YouTube upload of this soundtrack was…unfortunate. I typically link songs via YouTube playlists for my articles, because it’s quicker and more accessible than linking to full soundtrack rips. Old games don’t require the highest quality audio anyway. But the only upload I could find on YouTube? They play each song loop only once, abruptly cutting off at the end instead of fading out. They leave a solid 40 seconds of silence after each track, which is very noticeable on the songs under a minute. The titles of the songs are a weird mix of English and French(?), with varying levels of capitalization. Basically, it stinks.

Let me be clear here: I hold nothing against the uploader. Performing a free service poorly is a shame, but doesn’t merit any hatred. It’s just irritating that there’s nothing else available, and so for the first time here on this blog I’m also providing a direct link to the soundtrack.

Now let’s get to the music already!

Up first we have the music for the hub town, Domus Isle. You may be confused by the name, as the music rip I linked named it “Appearance of the Town”, and the YouTube upload called it “Civilia”. However, I have a compelling, intricately constructed list of arguments carefully and thoughtfully crafted to explain why I did not call it either of those things:

Genericide’s Top Reasons He Didn’t Call It Either of Those Things

1.       That’s dumb

Back to the song, it’s quite pleasant. It has an enjoyable, mildly catchy main melody. None of the instruments sound particularly dated or grating, and they’re all well implemented. Such things are easy to take for granted until you hear a track where, for example, someone holds a MIDI horn for too long. Though it’s all easy on the ears, I’d say my favorite part is the last 20 seconds of the loop with the fluttering flute. I’m always a sucker for trill notes.

The simply named Island theme is heard more often than any other song. It plays everywhere except dungeons. And the hub town. And the last island. And all other indoor areas. And every time you enter any sort of fight or LOOK IT STILL PLAYS A LOT OKAY? Fortunately for your eardrums, it’s a decent little ditty. It’s got a couple slower segments so the mere minute of music doesn’t melt your mind after mindless masses of monster murders. As with most of the score it’s nothing fantastic, but I don’t have any complaints for it.

Seeking Treasure (going off the soundtrack names at this point because the YouTube playlist is silly) is the theme for the game’s many dungeons. Yes, theme. Singular. This soundtrack is really small. Fortunately, this is a good tune for runnin dungeons. It’s got a clear melody you can follow but it’s a little more on the atmospheric side than the other songs. Continual low strings in the background keep things from sounding empty, but it isn’t exactly a high octane thrill ride. It’s got a vaguely mysterious vibe to it but is generic enough that it doesn’t sound out of place in the varied selection of dungeons. Not incredible music, but well-suited to the economical score.

Although somehow I don’t think “These songs aren’t necessarily awful” will make it to the back of the box.

I wouldn’t want to leave you without any fight music, so take a listen to Monster Battle. It’s a nice, bouncy battle theme that might tease a toe tap outta ya. But I didn’t choose this as the last song because it was my favorite. No, I chose it because you have now heard about 90% of the soundtrack by volume. There are plenty of other songs, and some of them are quite good. In fact, it’s a short enough list I encourage you to take your ears for a quick jog through the playlist. But I can’t give a better representation of gameplay than these tunes, as they make up the vast majority of its runtime.

The takeaway here isn’t that DQM has a bad soundtrack. It’s just that Dragon Quest is a very popular and well-regarded RPG series and I’m used to ridiculous quality from the genre. This isn’t the band behind Attack on Titan making a full soundtrack twice as awesome. This isn’t Nobuo Uematsu being basically the greatest composer ever. It’s fine. It’s okay. It’s generally pleasant and satisfactory in every way, but I can’t give it higher praise than that.  One half of a Pokemon.

Spectrobes: Beyond the Portals

I’m having trouble putting into words how I feel about the Spectrobes soundtrack. I’m having trouble because, contrary to how previous jabs make it seem, I don’t hate this game. I appreciate the effort it put in and very little is outright awful. But it’s just so dang generic. Its music is no exception. There’s nothing particularly offensive about this soundtrack. There are, however, a lot of things that are bland about this soundtrack. Since music is so emotionally driven, I can’t really fake enthusiasm here. I’d just end up passing out pity platitudes. So instead of my usual “here are some good songs”, I’m going to pick songs that illustrate Spectrobes specific faults. It’s fine if you enjoy them, but here’s why I don’t:

I find the sound fonts in Spectrobes dated to an off-putting degree. Take a listen to the game’s world map theme. If you didn't know when this song was from, would you guess 2008? Probably not. It sounds like a really cheesy 70s or 80s synth keyboard. Part of this is the sounds the game uses, but also how they’re composed. Remember how the instruments were well used in that first DQM song? The lead of this map theme is an example of how not to do it. That particular synth sounds really fake and unappealing when played in quick ascending and descending notes. It’s not helped that this song, like most of the soundtrack, is both repetitive and short. Speaking of...

Direct your eardrums towards High Krawl Battle. This boss song fares better than others due to convincing sounding percussion and a decent main melody. The problem is that it’s 6 seconds of main melody, repeated over and over and over. The entire loop is only 30 seconds to begin with, and 80% of it is recycled. This is a reoccurring problem with the Spectrobes score. Were they strapped for time or storage space? If so I’d have preferred they composed fewer songs and worked to make each of them more varied and memorable. The high level of repetition, limited range of instruments and short running time makes all the songs blend together into mush before long.

I’d like to put this GAME in the blender!

Because I said the word blend!

And Spectrobes is bad!

This isn’t helped by extremely uniform tempo and volume levels. Take Nessa. There’s a half-decent melody here and its different from the wave of similar synths that's engulfed many other songs. But everything is just so constant, so repetitive. Listen to that perpetual drumbeat and droning guitar in the background. It never goes away for the whole piece. It keeps the beat and volume steady, preventing the song from striking any meaningful contrast. We need more moments of complete silence, more rising crescendos, more swing beats or differing time signatures. I’m not asking for completely freeform music, but everything here is so totally flat it fails to make an impact.

The music of Spectrobes is also oddly bereft of harmony. Each song has a few repetitive background riffs, but I wouldn’t call those harmonies. In order for something to distinguish itself as a harmony, it needs to be more active and distinct. In Spectrobes, only one audio track ever feels “on” at any given time. Listen to Darkmos. There are several different segments using various instruments. But as soon as any segment starts, whatever was taking lead previously stops. Sure, you don’t want to give harmonies equal prominence to the melody and muddle both in the process. But Spectrobes rarely leaves anything playing but the melody and some flat, steady backing beats.  A proper harmony keeps things more interesting, weaving itself in and out of the melody in such a way that both are enhanced. Spectrobes has none of that.

It does have this thing though! So, uh, y’know. Enjoy that.

The final and possibly most damning criticism I can level at Spectrobes is that it simply isn’t catchy. The melodies are not strong. Sure, they’re not muddy, indistinct or random. They meet the minimum requirements a melody should. But they all failed to grab my attention, to stick in my head, to get me to hum along as I go. Listen to the alternate battle theme. Those few seconds of repetitive music are the start of a melody. But they just leave it at that. The song introduces a melody, never elaborates on it and before I know it the song is over. It’s hard to describe because, well, being hard to describe is the flaw in the first place. It just doesn’t leave an impact, and that’s all I can say about it.

Beyond the Portals tries its best and has at least some basic competency in terms of audio. But the music is bland and uninspired. 3/10ths of a Pokemon.

Pokemon Pearl

You guys.

I am so excited.

Everyone has their personal biases when it comes to music. It’s a highly subjective topic. The Pokemon series has a particularly phenomenal set of soundtracks. Since the series inception even its most basic tunes contained rock solid melodies that would kick around in the heads of millions of fans for decades. Given this consistent quality, competition for which game has the best soundtrack is fierce. The games stretch across decades, so whether you enjoy a given title can depend a lot on the musical technology and sound-fonts available. Long time readers may notice what I’m doing here. I’m making a bunch of qualifiers, so I’m probably about to say something drastic and don’t want to invalidate others opinions. Well fine, here ya go:

I intensely enjoy every generation of Pokemon music.

…but this game is my favorite of all.

The others are close enough that they run even on certain days. But good ol generation four is at the top of my list more often than any other. For my personal music library, I try to trim the fat from game soundtracks so that only the primest cuts remain. And…okay apparently primest isn’t a word either. Spell check has been wrecking me this series. Fine. I ensure only the most more better prime good cut primes remain. I keep the good stuff. And despite a judicious amount of trimming, Pearl still sits atop a mountain of over 50 tracks. In other words, there is no more time for intro. Prepare for an avalanche of music!

Ha! I said the word avalanche and Avalanche is the name of a move in Pokemon! ISN’T THAT FUNNY?! BOW BEFORE MY MASTERY OF NOTICING WORD ASSOCIATIONS!

What better place to start than the beginning? I dunno, like the midway climax? Depends on what type of narrative framing device you’re using. But we are starting at the beginning, with the soothing tunes of Twinleaf Town. The first town in every Pokemon game starts you off with something laidback and light, and Twinleaf may be the most mellow melody of them all. You’ll notice that it’s the night version. Every outdoor song in Pokemon Pearl has two variants depending on the time of day. Generally night-time songs replace some of the perkier instruments with softer synths and chimes, and if the song has a prominent harmony it’s emphasized more than normal. I chose the night version here because I think the instruments work well with the peaceful mood. Everything past 0:24 just sounds so gosh darn pleasant. There’s a gentle ebb and flow of ascending notes and they do a great job leaving space for silence.

But night is not just a time for calm and relaxation! Night is the prime(est) time for Batman, werewolf attacks, and gangs of ruffian teenagers ingesting The Drugs whilst listening to their Raps music. It’s also a time where Oreburgh City really perks up. As you can hear from the day-time version, the differences are deceptively small. It’s mainly just a more manic harmony coming to the fore, but it’s enough for me to clearly prefer jamming when the sun has set. It takes an already catchy melody and gives it that extra kick of bouncy energy. Who knew a small mining town had such a night life?

Dragging ourselves back into the daylight we have Route 205. This adventurous tune is one of my favorites among the many roads you traipse through tall grass and trainers. I like its bold and enthusiastic opening. I like the lovely little piano rounds of the second segment. I like how it manages to keep things feeling cohesive between a bunch of different melodies and instruments. And I like most of all that crisp, upbeat crescendo it slowly builds to at the end of the loop. I guess you could say: I like it.

I am completely out of ideas for images to break up these paragraphs, so here’s the last one upside-down. Just…just pretend I was funny, okay?

Some Pokemon soundtracks focus on a particular instrument. It’s generally agreed that generation three (Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald) are all about horns. I’d never thought about this for gen four, but I recently heard someone say it focused on piano and I could immediately see it. Well, hear it. There’s a big emphasis on the instrument if you’re listening for it, which helps make this the jazziest Pokemon soundtrack to date. Nowhere is this more apparent than Route 228. This night-time jingle kicks the horns to the backburner and brings out one of the slickest, smoothest, and most gracefully groovy piano processions I’ve ever laid ear to. I dare you to listen to this song and sit completely still. Tamp down the toe tapping, hold up the head bobbing, and refrain from rolling your shoulders. Personally, it’s a challenge I’m happy to fail.

We’ll round out this roster of routes with Route 216. This snowy northern road features a song that’s slow and soft, like the gently falling snow. It’s extremely calm and relaxing and HA! FOOLED Y – wait, did you reach 42 seconds yet? No? Uh, go ahead and reach 42 seconds. Go on. I’ll wait.

…okay, are you there? Good.

HA! FOOLED YOU! What starts off as a seemingly gentle trek through the frosty plains turns into a ridiculously catchy and upbeat song. The central melody is memorable, the breaks from the chorus are jazzy toe-tapping trills, and the piece adds a dash of bells and chimes to give it a refreshing wintery feel without trending too far into that cliché Christmas sound. My favorite segment is those sumptuously satisfying piano parts near the end of the loop (1:24), but the whole thing is excellent.

No comment.

We’ve gone an awful long time in a game about battling without battle themes, haven’t we? So I suppose it’s time we start of the with the fight theme of HA! FOOLED YOU AGAIN!

When an enemy trainer sees you, a little encounter song plays as they walk up to you and say one or two lines of pre-fight dialogue. In early games there were only a few of these, but Pearl has over a dozen and they’re all fairly catchy considering they’re heard for like five seconds. The above linked Team Galactic encounter is a delightfully groovy tune for the villainous grunts of the game, which is good because and you’ll be hearing it often. May I also present for your examination: Encounter Artist. Listen to that thing, it’s over a minute long! A song purely to introduce a few random NPC with less than a tweet’s worth of dialogue ends up being charming and memorable in its own right. I get the feeling the composer was as into these jazzy piano solos as I was.

Getting to the actual fight songs, the two most common are just okay. You’re welcome to give Wild Pokemon Battle or Trainer Battle a listen, they certainly aren’t bad. But I have a vast preference for the game’s boss themes, of which there are several. Galactic Boss Cyrus is a great place to start. The song strikes a steady bass beat as notes frantically flitter up and down with a dramatic flair. I’d say my personal highlight would be the climactic crescendo after 1:30 which ends in a cool little section of the music breaking down and reassembling.

Champion Cynthia is another one of my favorite battle themes. The main melody is catchy, the backing beat is bouncy, and it’s generally good for getting the blood pumping. But the star of the show is definitely that percussive beat that slams in right around the start of the loop. It gives a high energy edge to the proceedings that’s intense without being overpowering.

And the song is right to be intense, because Cynthia’s Garchomp will kick your ass halfway to Tuesday.

Okay okay, only one more song described in detail. Professor Rowan’s Lab is the song you hear soon after starting the game, when the titular character grants you your first Pokemon and imparts your globe-trotting quest. I love this song. I love the soft synths, the striking piano melody, and the subdued bass. And then as your mission is given, the song morphs into Professor Rowan. The instruments get louder and grander, a marching drum beat kicks in, and swiftly ascending scales fill out the soundscape. It is a song of solemn resolve, of enthusiastic discovery, of a huge, sprawling adventure expanding out in front of you. I confess my opinions here may be swayed by nostalgia. However: I played Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker at around the same age, and nothing I heard came close to being as stirring as this.

In a completely expected turn of events, I’m gushing way too much about music. But actual restraint is for losers, so instead of stopping here we’re going to quickly blaze through some more auditory highlights. Ready? Go!

Lake is a pleasantly low-key shoreline song, the first half in particular.

Sunyshore City is one long, triumphant, excited burst of energy.

PokeMart is yet another catchy tune I could describe as “jazzy”. I’m starting to notice a trend among my favorite songs.

Eterna Forest is a relaxing smattering of piano and flute with proper respect for silence.

Dialga and Palkia Battle is a memorable and kind of beautiful fight song with a magnificent crescendo at the end of the loop.

Team Galactic Building is a smooth, laidback jam for a dastardly domicile. And yet another jazzy one.

Encounter Champion Cynthia is a pre-fight song with a high score on the shit-getting-real-o-meter. Pretty, too.

Pokemon League will finish off our musical journey with something more calm and contemplative. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening as much as I’ve enjoyed gushing.

Listen to these songs. Not to pick on the underdogs, but nothing from the other competitors has the level of intensity or passion on display here. Even if Pearl wasn’t catchier, even if it didn’t make better use of the audio tech, even if it didn’t have double the songs of both games combined, DQM and Spectrobes simply lack the same punch. At the end of the day, music is about making people feel an emotion. It has the power to do so on a much more raw and visceral level than writing or visuals, and thus is highly subjective. But for my money, Pokemon Pearl does an incredible job. So much so that in this one category, I’m actually putting it above the series average. Not by too much, as the other games still sound marvelous. But Pokemon Pearl earns an emphatic 11/10ths of a Pokemon.

And so we must adjourn our assessment of audio. It'll probably be the largest gap between contestants. It wasn’t so much a competition as limply-worded lip service followed by a one-man musical cheerleading squad. I promise that not every category will feature such savage destruction of one participant by another. Well okay, maybe for Spectrobes. There’s keeping things fair and then there’s blatant dishonesty. Next time we’ll be really digging into the meat of things, because we're finally going to discuss gameplay! See ya then!

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