August 25, 2009

GENRE PROFILE: '90s-era Videogame Piano Collections from Squaresoft + Falcom

Many fans of ambient music have a soft spot for subdued, melancholy piano noodlings as composed by Harold Budd or Ryuichi Sakamoto. While technically this might be more appropriately classified as "neo-classical" music, it is essentially just really pleasant keyboard music. One source for music in this same style is Japanese videogame soundtracks, which often were inspired by the early works of Sakamoto or fellow-Yellow Magic Orchestra-founder Haruomi Hosono, who composed many game and anime soundtracks from the '80s to current day (his sublime Night On The Galactic Railroad is a personal favorite). Beginning in '92, Squaresoft began releasing Piano Collections for their Final Fantasy games, beginning with volume IV, which was FF2 in America. As a bit of a game/Japan nerd in my teenage years, I tracked down an import copy of the "Final Fantasy IV Piano Collections" CD and was blown away by the gentle reinterpretations of the many catchy pieces of music featured in the game. While vol. V of the game was not released domestically, vol. VI, released as FF3 in the US, was a classic among many of my friends, and the Piano Collection was equally impressive. All of the pieces in the Final Fantasy series were composed by Nobuo Uematsu, whose distinctive composition style reminds me vaguely of Debussy and Tchaikovsky. The soundtracks also came with piano sheet music, but I have to admit I never got my chops up enough to play any of it smoothly. I haven't kept up with the newer editions in the Final Fantasy series as I stopped buying video games after the Sony Playstation, but the music is still memorable and the CDs stand on their own. While Squaresoft got a lot of the attention of game music fans in the US, there was also some fantastic music produced for the under-appreciated Turbo Grafx 16/Turbo Duo system, known as the PC Engine in Japan. The Ys game series in particular gained a strong cult appreciation for some of the highest quality game music ever produced at the time (early '90s), and a pair of "Ys Piano Collections" were produced. While both were enjoyable, my personal favorite was "Symphony Ys '95", which featured long-form synthesized symphony renditions of themes from the first three games in the series. As far as I can tell, all of the game music was credited to Falcom's in-house Sound Team J.D.K., a shifting group of fantastic composers whom I have never heard of otherwise. While these CDs were only released in Japan, they were occasionally available via import mail order in the '90s, or at weird little bootleg shops in Chinatown, NYC, where I found many gems. One particularly amazing find was the "Legend Of Heroes Piano Collection" released in '96, also by members of Sound Team JDK. Legend Of Heroes was pretty much unknown in the US, with only one volume of the series released on the Turbo Duo under the name "Dragon Slayer". The piano collection has tracks from the first four games in the series, so much of it is unfamiliar to me, but the overall sound and vibe is just beautiful, with a melancholy edge strongly colored by childhood nostalgia. If you are not familiar with the games, I could see how the music might make less of an impression, but much of it stands on its own and makes for very soothing, evocative ambient sound. Finally, no discussion of videogame music can forget to mention Yasunori Mitsuda, composer of the epic Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross series and many more. Unfortunately, a Chrono Trigger piano collection CD never came to pass, but the sheet music is out there and people are posting their renditions on youtube...