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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Obscusion B-List: B-Tier Fighters with S-Tier Soundtracks

Otakon is approaching next week & I'll be there after missing out last year. While I do have a review planned for before the con, I also want to be topical for what's happening this weekend: Evo. Short for Evolution Championship Series, Evo is an annual esports event where fighting game fanatics meet up & compete against each other to see who's the best. Technically starting back in 1996, it wouldn't be named Evo until 2002, the tournament is always highly anticipated by hardcore fighting game fans, so with it happening this weekend I want to give notice to a part of fighting games that (understandably) tends to get the short end of the stick.

Yeah, Dee Jay knows what I'm talking about!

That isn't to say that fighting game music isn't celebrated. Almost every stage theme from Street Fighter II, for example, is in the mind of every person who's ever played it, and there are all sorts of awesome songs from franchises like Tekken, The King of Fighters, & BlazBlue. Still, there are plenty of lesser known fighting games that have amazing music that either no one's ever really heard of before, for a variety of reasons, or have simply been forgotten because the game or series has gone the way of the dodo. Therefore, I now introduce a variant of Obscusion B-Side called, what else, Obscusion B-List... Because I love dumb puns & self-deprecation. Anyway, unlike my more standard "12 Anime" lists, Obscusion B-List entries will only be a single post & limited to only six entries (though considering how well I adhere to twelve entries in my anime lists, I can't make any promises). So let's take a look at, to borrow terms from the fighting game community, six B-Tier (or less!) fighting games that have S-Tier soundtracks.

[NOTE: I have not & cannot play every single fighter out there, so this list only reflects my own personal experiences & feelings. If you have any other soundtracks out there in mind, by all means share them in the comments.]

It all started as a bit of on-the-job fun... Character designer Masahiro Sugiyama decided one day in 1995/1996 to insert Sonic the Hedgehog & Tails into Fighting Vipers for the fun of it. Legendary game designer Yu Suzuki saw was Sugiyama did & thought it was neat, so he brought up the idea of a 3D Sonic fighting game to FV director Hiroshi Kataoka. After Kataoka was on board Suzuki talked to Sonic co-creator Yuji Naka about the idea, and though Naka was initially hesitant he decided to trust "Mr. Yu". So, in May of 1996, Sonic the Fighters debuted in Japanese arcades, marking the first time ever Sonic & gang were portrayed via polygons instead of sprites. It had super-limited North American & European distribution under the name Sonic Championship, as Sega in those territories felt it was like playing a "Mickey Mouse fighting game", but eventually the game saw wider release around the world, first in 2005 as part of the Sonic Gems Collection (alongside Sonic CD & Sonic R) and then in 2012 digitally as part of the Model 2 Collection series, both using the original name. While some people absolutely hate StF, I find it to be a fun & silly little fighter with tons of charm to it. It's not a supremely deep fighter by any means, though there's apparently some hidden depth, but it's intensely easy & fun to pick up & play.

One thing that almost no one knocks the game for, however, is its soundtrack. Composed by Maki Morrow, with Sega music specialist Takenobu Mitsuyoshi creating a couple of short jingles, Sonic the Fighter's music is absolutely superb. Right from the intro theme, "Advertise - KIYO", you immediately want to jam out & have a grand old time, & that's the general style of the music here. Lots of energetic, zany, & just plain amazing beats are housed within this simple 3D fighter, and a couple of them are honestly some of my all-time favorite themes in a fighting game. Once you start a single-player game you always fight Knuckles first, whose theme, "South Island - Lovers", fits the fast & wacky pace of the fighting system itself. The game, though, does mix it up somewhat by having some harsher beats in there, like Metal Sonic's "Death Egg - Never Let It Go" or the rarely heard "Super Sonic - Everything" if you can manage to activate Super Sonic. My favorite theme of all, however, is easily the theme of Fang the Sniper (a.k.a. Nack the Weasel), "Casino Night - Here We Go", which has an absolutely insane beat & a rhythm that's just infectious. Hell, even the unused theme "Sunset Town - Bonus Track 2", which was to be for Honey the Cat (based on the FV character Honey/Candy) is really damn good. Sadly, this is Maki Morrow's only real notable work, with his only other soundtrack being the one for arcade rail shooter Rail Chase 2. It's really shocking that Morrow has gone into obscurity & seeming-hiding, because his work on Sonic the Fighters really showed that he could have been a force in video game music.

No OST cover, as there is no separate OST for this game.

This is the only licensed fighter on the list, and it's really damn unknown. I've covered Kouji Kiriyama's Ninku slightly before when I wrote about its first episode of the anime a few years back, but it is astonishing that so much came from such a short Shonen Jump manga. Though only lasting roughly two years across nine volumes, Kiriyama's tale of the Ninku Ninja Corps who take on an evil Empire who wish to rule the land really resonated with readers. It not only received a 55-episode TV anime adaptation from 1995-1996 (as well as an earlier pilot & later short movie), but it also wound up getting a Second Stage continuation in Ultra Jump from 2005-2011, adding another 12 volumes to the total. It was also a huge influence on Masashi Kishimoto, who once admitted that he started up Naruto in 1999 partially because he wanted to treat it as if more Ninku was being made. There were also seven video games made based on the series, most of which were released in 1995 for the Game Gear, Game Boy, & even Playstation. The game I'm focusing on, though, is the last one, which came out in February of 1996 & is not only the only one released on the Sega Saturn but also is the only traditional fighting game released on a home console.

Ninku ~Tsuyoki na Yatsura no Daigekitotsu!/Great Battle of the Strong Ones!~ is an interesting game, as it features highly detailed 2D sprites (argued as some of the best on the Saturn) fighting it out on 3D polygon backdrops. It's a admittedly simple fighter with only eight characters (the four heroes & the four villains), but one thing I did not expect was that the music would be so amazing. Composed by Hikoshi Hashimoto, whose resume ranges from composing the music for 32X fighter Cosmic Carnage to composing & arranging the OP for the School Days TV anime, the soundtrack is similarly small (a theme for each character, plus a character select tune, victory jingle, & the TV version of the anime OP), but I can easily state that every single song in this game hits it out of the park. While one could argue that not every one of them is exactly what you'd expect to hear in a fighting game, like Kisumi's theme, all of them are excellent from a composition perspective & overall there's a really cool variety to be found. There's a jazz sound with Aichou's theme, a surprisingly dark style to lead character Fusuke's theme, & near-naked Ninku Touji's theme seems to fit him perfectly (even if I don't know much of the character in general). It's a shame that such a varied & excellent soundtrack is so unknown, even having no videos on YouTube; the one's I linked to are ones I just uploaded privately for you guys to check out. While the actual game itself isn't anything spectacular, though it's neat in small doses, the Ninku game for the Saturn just sounds amazing.

Yeah, some of the faces are a bit odd, like Ken & Zangief, aren't they?

Now while Street Fighter is a supremely well-known fighting game franchise, it does have some lesser known entries (like the original game, amusingly enough) & spin-offs. Probably the oddest spin-off is the Street Fighter EX series, which was developed by Arika, a company founded by Akira Nishitani, one of the creators of Street Fighter II. Naturally, the first game from Arika would be a SF game, and it would be the first time the franchise went into the 3D realm. It featured a mix of the usual stalwarts as well as a number of original, Arika-owned characters, some of which (like Doctrine Dark & especially Skullomania) would wind up getting notable fanbases, and some of the moves characters used in this offshoot would be referenced in later main entries (like how M. Bison in SFIV has his Deadly Tower kick throw from EX). The entry I want to put focus on for the music, though, is the final update of the original game, 1997's Street Fighter EX Plus α for the Playstation.

Composed by the trio of Shinji Hosoe, Ayako Saso, & Takayuki Aihara, who have worked together on games like Spikeout ~Battle Street~, Fighting Layer (which featured a couple of EX characters), & the Ridge Racer series, the music in the original game is sublime. Utilizing a mix of jazz, rock, & electronic dance, the trio's various character themes range all over the place. Take, for example, Ken's theme, "Guardian of Light" (by Saso), which features an addictive back beat as well a lot of variety. Once the original "verse" ends about a minute in it goes into a completely different beat for a bit; also, the part at around 2:15 is downright amazing. Now to showcase the mix of genres, listen to Sakura's "Precious Heart" (Hosoe), which not only sounds oddly fitting for a fighting game, but also could double as something you'd hear in a television series about the character (also, I'm a super sucker for a sick sax, which this song has in droves). Finally, we've got songs like Bison's "Irreconcilably" (Aihara) & Garuda's "Stronger" (Hosoe), which are completely rock-influenced songs that drive home the sheer force & awe of either of the two boss characters. In fact, in my mind, Bison's theme here is his most iconic one, even beating out the spectacular "Brave or Grave" from Alpha 3. Why it was never re-used in later EX games astounds me, as other characters, like Ken, Sakura, & Garuda, kept their original themes throughout all three games. Even if some people aren't exactly fans of how the EX series played, or even how well the graphics have aged for all three games, there's no doubt that this spin-off series upheld the amazing music the franchise tends to have.

If there's one fighting game franchise where music is appreciated as much as the gameplay, & sometimes even more so, it's Arc System Works' Guilty Gear. From the very first entry in 1998 to the recent Xrd, every single entry is known for having superbly composed music, though a lot of it simply re-used or remixed throughout entries. In fact, before Xrd there were only two times where the entire soundtrack was thrown out & replaced (GG2 notwithstanding, but I'm only counting the fighters): The Korean version of GGXX #Reload, which featured nation-exclusive music by Shin Hae-chul & N.EX.T (though Robo-Ky's EX theme "Holy Orders?" did see inclusion in later games), & the 2004 spin-off Guilty Gear Isuka. If there's a spin-off that receives more vitriol from fans of a fighter franchise than GG Isuka, then I'd be amazed. In concept, Isuka sounded amazing as it offered 4-player fights, utilizing two planes ala the Fatal Fury games, as well as a beat-em-up "Boost Mode" that gave the player points to use in Factory Mode, where one could customize a special Robo-Ky II character. Unfortunately, Guilty Gear's general fast-paced gameplay was a little too hectic for four players, and the need to use a "Turn" button to swap the direction your character was facing (so as to not mess with special motions that required pushing backwards) wasn't ideal by any means. Still, much like with Sonic the Fighters, nearly nobody has anything bad to say about the music in Isuka.

Once again composed by series creator Daisuke Ishiwatari, with some shorter jingles done by Yoshihiro Kusano (character songs for Sakura Trick & Fairy Tail) & Tetsuya Ohuchi (Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch), Isuka's soundtrack has a lot of similarities to the songs in the regular entries, but overall are still their completely own works; also, the titles are outright bizarre in the best ways. For example, "The Irony of Chaste" sounds almost a sister song for Milla Rage's iconic "Writhe in Pain", but is still different enough to not just be her song. On the opposite end, while "Drunkard Does Make Wise Remarks" has a similar title to Johnny's "Liquor Bar & Drunkard", the song itself sounds nothing like what came before it. Ishiwatari tends to stick to his usual metal-influenced sound more often than not, but then you get a theme like "Home Sweet Grave", which is definitely a different beast altogether (& was apparently used wholesale in the game I Wanna Be the Guy). In fact, the only real character theme in Isuka would be "Kill DOG As A Sacrifice To DOG", which plays when you fight giant boss character Leopaldon, who would never bee seen in the series ever again. In fact, Isuka has a couple of the franchises best songs, like "The Cat Attached To The Rust", which is easily the best ending theme in any of the games. While the concept of Guilty Gear Isuka may have been the best part of the gameplay itself, Ishiwatari certainly didn't slack off when it came to scoring the music, & the fact that none of these songs have ever made reappearances in later games helps make this spin-off even more curious than it already was.

SNK's King of Fighters series has always been a slight underdog, always in the shadow of Capcom's Street Fighter, and that kind of applies to the music as well. While not quite as iconic as some of its competitor's songs, KOF's music has (almost, can't forget KOF 2001) always been outstanding, with some of the themes being intensely memorable in their own rights, like '96's "Esaka?", XI's "KDD-0075", or '98's "XXX" (not to mention any carryovers from other SNK fighters). Like the other entries taken from big franchises, though, I'm looking at a spin-off for this entry, specifically 2004's KOF: Maximum Impact, which took the series into 3D for it's 10th Anniversary & focused on 1-on-1 fights instead of the usual 3-on-3 team battles (though it's still an option for Versus). It also put the focus on a cast of newcomers who would only be seen in the Maximum Impact games, like the Meira Brothers (Alba & Soiree), Lien Neville, & Mignon Beart. This is the only entry in the list where I have never played the game itself, but I have heard the music & it upholds the standard of quality that the main KOF games demand.

The soundtrack was composed solely by SNK veteran Toshikazu Tanaka, who is the man behind the music for games like Sengoku 3 & the original Fatal Fury. This is the man who originally composed "Geese ni Kissu" (later Katakori, Mustard, Soy Sauce, etc.), the amazing theme for Geese Howard. Therefore, it's no surprise that Maximum Impact's soundtrack is spectacular. Take, for example, "Rooftop Realism", the theme for the Southtown stage, which immediately grabs your attention with the intro before going into outright synth/rock bliss. The KOF series, however, has always been known for featuring a variety of styles, and "Unbreakable Stained Glass" from the Ancient Ruins stage stays true to that idea by delivering a excellent gothic/rock mix, complete with especially foreboding chanting. Similarly, there's "Requiem for 50,000 People", the Show Time stage theme, which is just as dark & evil sounding as the prior song, but in slightly different ways. Naturally, Tanaka had to also add in a remix of Geese's theme with "Kiss Geese Once More", for the Infernal Gate stage, and it's just as outstanding as what it's accompanied with. It really makes me want to finally try out the Maximum Impact spin-off series, though maybe I should just move on to Regulation A, as it has the most characters, puts the focus back on 3-on-3, & is probably the most polished of those entries. Plus, it's got Makoto Mizoguchi from Data East's Fighter's History series in it; that's awesome.

For the last entry, I'm going to go with possibly my absolute favorite soundtrack from a lesser-known/celebrated fighting game. When Sony Computer Entertainment America/SCEA debuted the original PlayStation in 1995 it needed a killer-app that could show off the 3D capabilities of the hardware, & Tamsoft's Battle Arena Toshinden was the apparent golden child of the time. A fighting game that utilized 3D polygons & had a sidestep maneuver (technically side-roll, but semantics) that made it a "true" 3D fighter compared to Sega's Virtua Fighter, which was technically still 2D in execution? The gaming press was as much in love with the game as Sony was & it was an obvious success, so Tamsoft went straight to work on a sequel. Unfortunately for the studio, SCEA had no need to promote it anymore, not with Tekken now out, so while Toshinden 2 was still known because of what came before, it wasn't anywhere near as synonymous with the system anymore; SCEE (Europe) did support the series up through the third entry, however. Admittedly, the Toshinden series has aged somewhat roughly since it debuted, with the first two games feeling a bit stiff & sluggish in particular. Still, I find the second game to be enjoyable enough, mainly due to it's interesting line-up of Tsukasa Kotobuki-designed characters, gameplay that's half Street Fighter/half Virtua Fighter &, in my opinion, of the greatest fighting game soundtracks of all time. No, I am not kidding... Battle Arena Toshinden 2's soundtrack is absolutely, positively euphoric.

While the original arcade machine's soundtrack is really cool in its own right, mainly because it utilized the QSound hardware that gives it that mid-90s Capcom-esque sound, I'm specifically talking about the PlayStation port that every thinks about (actually, how many people even knew that this game was arcade first?). Composed mainly by Fumio Tanabe (Choro Q Wonderful!, Road Trip), with four tracks done by series regular Yasuhiro Nakano & an intro theme by the group BANG HEADS, Toshinden 2's music is an amazing mix of synth, rock, & even a little jazz at times. It all starts with Eiji's theme, composed by Nakano, which not only has a memorable guitar riff in the background, but also has that sweet sax that I oh-so-love, plus a general pace & beat to it that mixes together into sheer perfection. Another thing to note of all of the themes in this soundtrack is that these aren't simply about minute or so of music that just loops repeatedly, like most fighting game music of the time was, but rather these are fully composed & realized songs; even two or even three minutes in, the themes are liable to throw in something new & unexpected. While I won't call this a first by any means, the Toshinden series may be one of the earliest fighters to have music that was what people could consider complete songs.

Getting back to the songs themselves, another excellent example would be Duke's theme, which is much more on the rock side of things, yet still gives off the feeling that this would be fitting for a knightly person like Duke B. Rambert. One of the most interesting inclusions would be for Sofia, who doesn't have just one theme. Instead, fighting on her stage gives you two different songs, depending on the round. "TAKE 1" is a slower-paced but still hardcore performance, while "TAKE 2" is the complete opposite by being fast-paced & exciting, almost making you want to take out your opponent as fast as possible. The absolute best song, however, is easily Sho's theme, another Nakano composition. It starts off just like the original game, which simply used Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor", but something's amiss; the original theme had wind blowing throughout the song as well, but it's missing here. That's because once the Bach reprise is done with, 32 seconds in, the real song starts... And it's absolutely beautiful. The rocking back beat, the amazing guitar work, the superb synth work in the middle, and then a sax that's even more sugary-sweet than what was played for Eiji's theme almost three minutes in all add up to one of the greatest boss themes of all time. It's an absolute crime that the actual game resets the music for every round, and since rounds in Toshinden 2 tend to end really quickly on average, that means that you normally never get to really hear how exquisite these songs are; when fighting Sho you'll almost never get to hear the real song! Really, I could just go on, like with Tracy's theme, or the great ending theme, or even how Vermilion's theme having nothing but deep forest ambiance sounds outstanding for what it is. And I won't even get into the URA side story game on the Saturn, which has some outstanding exclusive music of its own...
So, after that extended overt gushing about Toshinden 2's soundtrack, this is the end of the very first Obscusion B-List. While I'm no expert at fighting games, I prefer to consider myself a jack of all trades (i.e. I can pick up & play them well enough, but never enough to truly master them), I am a big fan of the genre. One thing I've come to really love about this genre of video games is that it can be home to some absolutely outstanding music. With Evo happening this weekend, why not play a fighting game yourself, and take a listen to the character/stage themes housed within it. Maybe you'll find some new favorites that you'll want on your mp3 player, smartphone, or whatever you use for music.

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