Tag Archives: soundtrack

GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH: X Squad

From one X to another, we move from talking about the highs of Mega Man X and how much it brought to the somewhat stale format to diving into X Squad, a PlayStation 2 launch title that, if I’m being honest, wasn’t all that good, but still holds a special space in my heart because it was one of a handful of games I owned after acquiring my hard-earned console. Also, by we I of course mean me, because this is Grinding Down, a singular voice shouting into an echo chamber, praying anyone is out there listening. If you are all ears, please, don’t be afraid to say hello. Tell me your favorite Animal Crossing villager or type of sushi roll. Anything.

Well, in X Squad, you play as John G. Ash, leader of the titular group. It’s the year 2037. Graduating at the top of his class at West Point, he excels in both marksmanship and urban-combat simulation, which is probably what got him the commanding role after forming his personalized team of problem-solvers. Something bad is happening, and the X Squad is called in. I think it has to do with a bio-terrorist organization releasing a devastating plague upon a major metropolitan area, but that’s only known from reading a summary over here. There’s not much story to go on from the get-go, with much of the plot kept secret even as you progress through the early levels. The opening cinematic is extremely vague, immediately starting with Ash talking about investigating “the situation” and ensuring that recon is passed on to the right people, but it doesn’t get any more specific than that, which makes it come across as an empty action hero romp–which is most certainly wants to be.

If I recall correctly, X Squad plays a lot like 989 Studios’ Syphon Filter, minus the cool animation you get when you don’t stop tasering an enemy or Gabe Logan’s hypnotizing swaying hips. You can roll in a bunch of different directions, as well as duck or peek around corners to get the upper hand on unsuspecting enemies. That’s all fine and somewhat standard for this type of run-and-gun action title, but the aspect that ends up making X Squad stand apart from its competitors ultimately detracts from the entire experience, offering next to no value. With only a few simple button presses, Ash can bark orders to his teammates, tasking them with things like scouting out an area to backing you up with gunfire. SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs this is not. These commands fall under terms like “follow,” “recon,” and “stay.” Your teammates are never really as helpful as they should be, running into rooms of armed men wildly without even bothering to take cover, but thankfully you don’t need to rely on them 100% to make it through a mission with skin still attached to your bones. Still, the point of a squad is to fight as one singular unit, and that’s not the case here. Ash is better on his own, using his teammates more as distractions than anything else.

Also, X Squad is not a looker. I mean, it was a launch title for the PlayStation 2, and it shows. Besides having a bland, flat look to the environments and character models (save for Ash’s spike-tastic hair), glitches are bountiful, with flickering being a common issue. Sound-wise, there’s a lot going on here. The voice acting is stiff and uninspired, and though I like the inclusion of voiced tutorial prompts, it’s not executed well. Still, the door opening sounds are pretty good. The biggest compliment I can give X Squad is that those are some sick and consistent drum beats playing in the opening level (warning: they don’t kick in for at least a minute, but it’s worth the buildup). Also: really great slap bass lines throughout. Honestly, the OST is the reason to play X Squad, but you could also not play it and simply let your ears enjoy everything over on YouTube. Your call, boss.

Still, all that said, and I continue to lack the words to explain this phenomenon, I regret trading in my copy of X Squad. Maybe it has less to do with the game’s quality and more to do with the fact that the PlayStation 2 was the first console I purchased myself as a working lad, busing tables, and so every early game in my collection was special, regardless if it ultimately was special or not. I’m seeing copies on Amazon for around $8.00, and I sadly think that’s too steep of a mountain to climb. I’d love to see this come to the PlayStation Network as a downloadable, but I think the ship for digital PS2 games on that system has sailed, with no map or fuel reserves or even captain, never to be seen again.

GAMES I REGRET PARTING WITH is a regular feature here at Grinding Down where I reminisce about videogames I either sold or traded in when I was young and dumb. To read up on other games I parted with, follow the tag.

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A congregation of cassette tapes transforms Small Radios Big Televisions

I grew up on the cusp of mix tapes and mix CDs, that span between the late 1980s and into the 1990s, spending my time as a young boy listening to the radio, waiting for a specific song to come on and record it with a tape deck cradled in my lap. Frustratingly, I’d often capture a snippet of commercial in there or the DJ talking over the first few seconds, permanently changing the song to my ears for years to come. Oh well. There are still several mix tapes in my possession given to me as Christmas gifts from my sister Dina that I cherish and no longer have a way to listen to anymore, and I’ll always prefer tapes over CDs despite now using a thumb-drive in my car full of MP3s.

Either way, these tapes were listened to over and over and over, taking me away from the bullies outside my window shouting mean things about me keeping to myself to musical worlds ruled by the likes of David Bowie, the Steve Miller Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival, etc., and so I really resonated with the cassette tapes you find in Small Radios Big Televisions that transport you elsewhere when you drop them into your portable player, the TD-525.

Small Radios Big Televisions is the very title that inspired the My Laptop Hates These Games feature here on this gracefully aging blog of mine, and so I thought it only fitting that it be one of the first games I try to run on my brand new, fancy laptop. And good news–it worked perfectly. Not a single hitch or stutter or black screen of death or obtuse error message laden with computer jargon. So, that’s good. Also, the game’s pretty good, a bite-sized adventure that sees you descending into abandoned factories in search of lost cassette tapes which hold mystical, door-powering gems for you to find. Sometimes you need to manipulate the tapes first by tossing them against a magnet, distorting them. Progress is hidden within the spools of magnetic tape.

Most of the puzzles in Small Radios Big Televisions focus on fixing dormant machinery in these deserted locales, and these honestly don’t require that much effort. You’ll find doors you can’t open, which means searching for a gem in a tape. If you can’t find a tape, it’s probably behind a door or gate, which can be opened by correctly utilizing gear pieces. If you have all the tapes, then you need to search within them more for a bright green gem, which means try all versions of a tape to see what, if anything, changes. I forgot to mention that, for most of these sections, you are a distant viewer, clicking on things from afar; when you enter a tape, it’s more of a first-person perspective, with limited movement. Towards the end of the game, you’ll actually control someone with WASD and move around a limited area looking for key items.

Alas, there isn’t much story to go off here. After completing each factory section, you’re treated to a short dialogue sequence playing over a radio, with some words cutting off due to static. The conversations are between two unidentified men and tease the origins of these cassette tapes, implying their use as a means of recreation, as well as escape for those in need. Especially as the world outside these factories is crumbling away. Or something like that. Really, it wasn’t at all clear, but that’s okay. Because the Small Radios Big Televisions soundtrack, written and produced by the game’s developer Owen Deery, does an amazing and even better job than any words could depicting worlds within worlds and contemplating the manipulation of audio-visual data through its haunting, transformative synths.

Small Radios Big Television can most likely be completed in a single sitting, seeing as I put in a little more than two hours and saw credits roll, but I did that over several sittings, pausing after each completed factory session. To think, to ponder. To listen to the soundtrack on the side. Also, after you complete the game, you can go back to all the levels and find any missing tapes, and the game tracks which ones you have or don’t have, which is a feature I would kill to have in every single videogame ever going forward from this time and date.

2017 Game Review Haiku, #126 – Small Radios Big Televisions

Analog, baby
Find tapes, gems hidden inside
Unclear narrative

I can’t believe I’m still doing this. I can’t believe I’ll ever stop. These game summaries in chunks of five, seven, and five syllable lines paint pictures in the mind better than any half a dozen descriptive paragraphs I could ever write. Trust me, I’ve tried. Brevity is the place to be. At this point, I’ve done over 200 of these things and have no plans of slowing down. So get ready for another year of haikus. Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.

Grinding Down’s Chrono Cross week – Music

gd chrono cross week music and tunes

The Chrono Cross soundtrack is simply legendary. I’ve been listening to it for years and have certainly spent more time nodding along and tapping my foot to tracks like “Termina – Another World” and “Fragment of a Dream” than actually playing the game, which, for those curious, took me just under 40 hours to see to completion. That’s saying a lot because, to drop some truth bombs here, I dislike a lot of videogame music, especially a lot of 8-bit and 16-bit stuff. It all sounds too–and forgive the phrase here–videogamey for my tastes. When I want music, I want music–strings and soaring climaxes and tempo changes and so on–and composer Yasunori Mitsuda delivers the goods seemingly effortlessly, drawing on old world cultural influences and alternating between bright and dark themes.

I’ve actually touched upon the game’s soundtrack before, back when I did a 30 Days of Gaming meme thingy. Remember that? Of course you do, ya loyal, devoted reader who I haven’t yet scared away with all my Chrono Cross jabbering this week. Anyways, here’s a link for the lazy. I will now try to think of some other things to talk about.

Over the many years of my preponderant existence, I’ve come to appreciation a couple other videogame soundtracks, but not many. Dark Cloud 2 has some solid tracks and ranges from dark, unsettling and nearly off-putting carnival-like songs to slower, prettier pieces like “Starlight Temple” and “Veniccio Coast”. Radiant Historia came with a bonus CD, as did Shin Megami Tensei IV, which I burned onto my computer and listened to a few times. And then there is Fez and Bastion, the two most recent examples of game soundtracks I’ve found myself listening to and enjoying separate from the time I spent finding cubes and shards, respectively. Supposedly Journey has a great one too, but I’ve yet to play it (though I do own it now thanks to a recently stellar sale on PSN). Other than that, a lot of music in games these days is kind of forgettable; certainly it does the job of setting the mood and blocking out background silence, but it only exists for then and there, never meant to be listened to again, unless you play that part over again.

I love that, for every town and place you visit, there are two themes: one for Home World, one for Another World. Some vary quite differently from one another, while others are strikingly similar. Take, for instance, Arni, the first town–well, it’s a fishing village if you want to get specific–that players will experience in Chrono Cross. In the Home World version, you can almost hear the waves crashing against the docks, feel the sea-carrying wind against your face, and be quite content with the day, as the song is both pretty and peaceful, perfect for running around and talking with your neighbors. In the Another World version, a piano riff takes center stage, playing nearly the same guitar part found in the Home World version, but this time it is slower, softer, maybe even a little unsure–which reflects perfectly on Serge because, at this point, he has now traveled to a different realm where he no longer exists and is looked upon as a stranger. The music pairs up like this in a couple other spots, but this is my favorite.

Thankfully, the battle music never really grows old after hearing it a couple of hundred times. I can name some other games where I’m sick of hearing the same battle theme minute after minute after minute: Ni no Kuni, Dragon Fantasy – Book 1, and Kingdom Hearts. Sometimes, a few battles are fought using drastically different songs, but for the most part it’s the adrenaline-pumping, button-pushing beat of a truly epic battle theme. Granted, it pales in comparison to Chrono Trigger‘s battle theme, but that kind of isn’t a fair fight.

It’s difficult to find something to truly dislike about Chrono Cross‘ original soundtrack; the entire compilation isn’t perfect, as some songs are too dreary to handle, but it is brimming with a sense of hopeful continuity, and that reminds me greatly of a large bedroom, once my sister’s, where I’d sit on the floor in my pajamas on a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, just a foot away from my television, slotting Elements and listening to this strange, colorful world, feeling somehow right at home. It stirred me then, it stirs me now, and it will continue to be an important part of my life, no matter which realm I end up in.

The sights and sounds of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

The longer I don’t play any of those PC games I’ve gotten over the past year or so from too many indie bundle collections to name, the bigger my collection grows untouched with each new tantalizing bundle that adds to it. In fact, I’ve started passing up great deals simply because my digital collection is truly bloated. If I was to be honest, I still have a hard time remembering I have a gaming laptop now, as I mostly use my Macbook still, especially since that’s where I do a lot of my writing and all of my comics. My bad. But I finally bit the bullet, pulled the plug, kicked the can–what have you.

Seeing as Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP is the new Braid/Cogs in terms of being coupled in nearly every new bundle that drops, I figured it was a good place to start. Plus, the look of the thing alone has had me intrigued since word-of-mouth about the little sound-based fantasy adventure came out, but since I’m the type of person who lacks both a smartphone and/or an iPad–and I can’t really even forecast when I’ll ever get such a device–I’ve had to wait  for it to get ported to the PC. Which was done back in May 2012. I got my copy of Sword & Sworcery from Humble Indie Bundle V, installed it to Steam, and quickly forgot about it because I have that tendency to do so. Maybe this is a forthcoming 2013 New Year Resolution in the works…

I guess the easiest way to describe Sword & Sworcery is that it’s an indie adventure game. Sound and atmosphere play extremely important roles, but there’s also some timing-based combat and puzzle elements to boot. You control The Scythian as he/she explores a mythic realm, uses a sword to do battle, and wields sworcery–song-based magic to get down to it–to solve musical mysteries. You’ll meet a small cast of humble locals as you move around the land, as well as some nefarious monsters, like a pursuing demon wolf-beast. There’s some other stuff that’s not really clear, like these tomes and mentions of antlered gods, but it all does a wonderful job of sustaining a fantastical yet believable other-world. Strange structures, that flipped Triforce symbol that appears now and then, an actual usage of a record to represent Side A and Side B of a place–moments of wonder, all of them. It makes each new location exciting to explore.

Let me take a moment to discuss the real meat of Sword & Sworcery: the music. The music, Grinding Down readers. It’s both calming and hypnotic, and at times absolutely unnerving. Just like the soundtrack from Fez. I’ve spent more time listening to the tunes than playing the game at this point. “The Ballad of the Space Babies” does something to my insides that I can’t, without a medical degree, accurately describe. But I’ll try. It fills me with air, it lifts me up. There’s a promise of friends whispered off the horizon, and cloud-walls that ripple with each breath to lead me there. I am floating, moving through space and heading home. Only I know the way. It feels like forever, but the speck of light is growing, crowning, now radiant, with eyes open. When I get there, they close; the ballad’s journey is over, and I’m safe.

Another part of the game that I’m enjoying, but those that follow me on Twitter are likely not is the fact that nearly everything can be tweeted directly from the game. Small bits of narration, descriptions, instructions, and even dialogue. I’m choosing my tweets carefully, but because there’s a lot of whimsy and downright silliness to the writing in Sword & Sorcery, it is often hard to resist tweeting out every encounter. For now, here’s some I’ve done:

More to come though.

So far, I’ve completed Session 1 and Session 2. Both sessions are around thirty to forty-five minutes long, depending how fast you move and how quick you figure out the song-based puzzles. The sheep one in Session 2  took me a little bit to figure out, but otherwise nothing too difficult. Moreover, the boss fight that completes Session 2 is more stressful than challenging, requiring constant attention and quick reflexes, which are probably easier to do on an iPad or phone that moving a mouse cursor left and right. I’ll get better, now that I know what to expect from these situations, but I got that Gold Trigon with only one star of health left. Whew.

I’ve taken some time off of work next week for the Thanksgiving holiday, and besides catching up on a lot of drawing for my 365 BAD COMICS project, I’m looking forward to playing some of these games of mine a wee bit more, with Sword & Sworcery‘s Session 3 high on the list. I’ll be back. Until then, keep clicking, listen hard, and float away.

Can’t say if I love Katamari Damacy or not, but its soundtracks absolutely rock

I’ve never played Katamari Damacy or its sequel We Love Katamari, but both games sound great. And by that, I don’t mean their plots are unique and stellar, their characters true works of art, going deeper than just rolling bags as flesh and bones. No, I mean these games sound great.

I use Grooveshark for streaming music while I edit text all day long, as it’s a better choice than burning CDs onto my work laptop or downloading a bunch of crap from the Interwebz. Much easier to just stream a huge playlist and never look back. The other day, tired of my listening staples, I decided to see if Grooveshark had any videogame-related tunes, and was pleasantly surprised to see that, yeah, they got a ton ready for groovin’ to. I played some Suikoden II, some Metal Gear Solid, and a few tracks from Chrono Cross (I touched upon how great its soundtrack is here). Then, for no reason other than pure curiosity, I looked up Katamari Damacy.

The Katamari Damacy series is the kind that I, unfortunately, judged before playing. Not that I even ever got to play it. I judged before I even played it and continued to judge it even after never playing it for several years. Shame on me, right? Maybe. I wrote it off as weird, kooky, too left of center. Gameplay involves rolling a ball called a “katamari” covered in an adhesive substance to collect objects until it is big enough to become a star in the sky. You’d think that with my love for Marble Madness, any game involving ball-rolling would hook its tethers in me deep. You’d think.

But yeah, Katamari Damacy tunes on Grooveshark. I added a bunch to a playlist, no specific order, and continued editing. However, I had to quickly stop editing as several of the tracks were of the ilk that demanded I do more than just listen to them. These were weird, but catchy weird. Kind of like the first time I delved into Passion Pit. A strange mix of electronica, jazz, pop, and even country. Yuu Miyake, of Tekken and Ridge Racer fame, wanted music surely as unique as the game, and I think he succeeded and then some. Each song goes for gold, trying to be more quirky and eclectic than the last, and they never stray into unlistenable territory.

I won’t bother listing tracks and talking about them specifically as there seems to be unclearness on what each track is actually called. I’ve found several varied names for the same bouncy pop number. Might as well just make up my own titles. In fact, my favorite song from Katamari Damacy‘s soundtrack is “Paul, the Wonder Hobbit”; what’s yours? That said, I might just have to track down a copy of either the first game or its sequel. Yeah, I still don’t know how much I’d love playing the game, but rolling a ball around to many of these tunes seems like a natural thing to do now that I’ve heard what’s on display. The problem is that with each trip to GameStop, there are less and less used PlayStation 2 titles on shelves to buy, and I’m not one to buy online, especially with all my latest mailing woes. Until then, I’ll just keep streaming the songs.

The top five greatest things about L.A. Noire

L.A. Noire is not Grand Theft Auto IV set in the 1940s, and for that I’m eternally happy. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted that open-world feel, but more guidance, more direction, and that seems to be the case here, pun intended. A linear game set in an open Los Angeles that, if you want, you can go explore and get lost in and attempt to run citizens over. But you’re a good-natured detective, and a detective like that moves slowly, meticulously, combing crime scenes for clues and interrogating suspects and musing with partners over possible plans of action. Sometimes action takes precendence, with Cole chasing suspects on foot or car, or trying to survive a shootout, or desperately trying to keep his hat on during a fistfight. But it’s the detective work and questioning of suspects and branching paths that make L.A. Noire its own game, and not just Grand Theft Los Angeles.

Oh, and here are five other great things about L.A. Noire:

5. Make a face, any face

This might surprise some to find my praise of the facial animation not number one of this insignificant list of mine, but that’s how I roll. I like the face work, I do. It’s very impressive, especially considering that both Tara and I immediately recognized Greg Grunberg as Hugo Moller just on his face alone. We were like, “Hey, it’s that guy!” And we were right. It was that guy. And we recognized him before he spoke, whereas it is often the opposite that confirms a suspicion about a voice actor in a videogame. And then Hugo began to talk, and it was like I wasn’t even in a videogame anymore, just a show on TV, where a guy was being questioned, and he was answering accordingly, twitching and looking away and furrowing his brow as we all do, and we had judgment calls to make.

4. All that jazz

In the late 1940s, after the horror of World War II, music reflected American enthusiasm tempered with European disillusionment. Jazz and solo singers breaking free from big band ensembles ate up the limelight, and Rockstar took it a step further for L.A. Noire‘s soundtrack, utilizing the remixing skills of some of today’s best DJs to create new versions of the old. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Lionel Hampton are re-imagined in spectacular ways. Take a listen, I promise you that the songs are intoxicating and hypnotic. It’s a shame that I don’t drive around more to listen to them, but more on that in a bit.

3. That carrot is not irrelevant

When at a crime scene and searching for clues, Cole can pick up and inspect a number of items, many of which are either red herrings or simply inconsequential to the case. My favorite pick-ups are inside a suspect’s house, where Cole will meander into the kitchen, pick up a carrot, and stare at it for minutes before finally deciding that, yes, it’s most likely not the murder weapon. I’ve also noticed his love for picking up boxes of laundry detergent. Either way, it’s nice that they kept these items in, as it does give the feeling of truly examining a crime scene, no matter how silly they ultimately are. Always examine shoes, too.

2. Baby steps up the stairs

Y’all might think the facial motion capturing work in L.A. Noire is its greatest achievement, but you’d be wrong. Somehow, after seven years of programming and coding and researching, the people at Rockstar and Team Bondi were able to perfectly capture the way people climb stairs. If you don’t hold down the run button, Cole will climb a set of stairs in itty bitty steps, bobbing his head all the way up, like a jogger running in place. It’s hilarious and at the same time instantly recognizable; we’ve all gone up stairs like this at one time or another, placing both feet on each step all the way to the top, and it only helps to nail down immersion and authenticity.

1. You drive, I’m lazy

Most cop-work is done in pairs. Partners are not just a stereotype of the cop genre, but an integral aspect of working the streets and solving crimes. Plus, they can act as a personal chauffeur. At just about any point, you can hold down a button and have your partner drive to the next location. This is wonderful. You still get to listen to the interactive dialogue you’d hear if you yourself drove, but now you can listen without worrying about running into another car or careening off a cliff. If there’s no dialogue to be had, you simply warp to the desired location via a short loading screen. Again, this is wonderful.

One of my biggest gripes with Grand Theft Auto IV is how sadistic the mission structure was, often having you drive across two bridges and many miles to start a mission. Upon death or failure, you’d have to do all that again. It was even hard to stay on track in games like The Saboteur and Red Faction: Guerrilla. Here, in L.A. Noire, arrival at your destination is guaranteed. Occasionally, I do drive, but it’s always messy, and I rear-end a lot of cars, which gets my partner all huffy and puffy. Not needed. Hopefully this is something every open-world game can implement though how is not a quick answer to me. The fact that you are constantly paired up with a second person surely helps.

Don’t think I’m 100% sweet on the game though. There’s plenty I dislike, and if y’all are good and enjoy this post and share it with Reddit and Kotaku and StumpledUpon and the whole Interworld so that I can get rich and famous fast, then I’ll do a post on the five worst things in L.A. Noire.