Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid V – Love Deterrence (Acoustic)

I haven’t had much free time to play video games lately, but I’m finally starting to dig into the backlog I’ve accumulated. The first title on my list was Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. You might recall that I’m a huge Metal Gear fan, and for good reason; the series has some of the best cinematic storytelling and cleverly designed gameplay mechanics in the industry. Ground Zeroes wasn’t a full game; it was essentially an early-release prologue for The Phantom Pain, which came out months later. It’s set in 1975, and you’re tasked with infiltrating an American black site in Cuba – a not-so-subtle commentary on Guantanamo Bay – and rescuing two of your allies imprisoned inside. Despite being a playable preview for the bigger game, Ground Zeroes more than proves its concept; you’re allowed to freely explore this massive map, discover its layout, and evade dozens of guards the entire time. The interactivity with objects and vehicles, the use of lighting and perspective, and the acoustics of the rain and voices are amazing.

What I enjoyed most, however, was the music. The series has always been known for its killer soundtracks, but only a handful of the games let you change the background music during gameplay. This time, you can listen to different cassette tapes – again, this is 1975 – thus giving your spy mission a little more flavor. One of the unlockable songs is this acoustic version of Paz’s character theme, “Love Deterrence.” She’s one of the prisoners you have to save, and the somber, romantic guitar melody sums up her relationship with Big Boss perfectly. Explaining the details would spoil the story of Peace Walker, but let’s just say there’s a good reason why a young woman like Paz would be locked up in a military prison…

If you want something a little more lighthearted, you can hear the original J-Pop version of “Love Deterrence” from Peace Walker here. If you want more Metal Gear Solid V, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

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Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid V – Sins of the Father

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned the sheer awesomeness the Metal Gear Solid series before. It revolutionized gaming as a medium; it made storytelling an essential aspect of how people play, resulting in games that felt more like blockbuster movies. Thanks to the technological developments and a popular following, the series has escalated with each passing entry. It’s not just about the incredibly detailed graphics, but the memorable characters, setting, theming, voice acting, and (of course) music. Sung by Donna Burke, Sins of the Father is the main song of the recently-released Metal Gear Solid V. It’s a reflection of the game’s theming: loss and pain, and to what lengths someone will go for the sake of revenge. It’s not a happy song, but it’s appropriately epic for a story about the world’s greatest hero becoming its worst villain. For better or worse, a legend is about to ride again.

If you want more MGSV, the full soundtrack can be found here and here.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Silent Hill 2 – Theme Of Laura

Trying to explain Silent Hill 2 is tricky business. It’s not because it’s difficult to understand from a narrative perspective, but because I really don’t want to spoil anything. It’s about a man named James Sunderland who comes to the titular town after receiving a letter from his wife…who died three years ago. What starts as a forlorn trip down memory lane quickly develops into one of the best psychological horror stories and character studies in gaming history. I could spend hours analyzing Silent Hill 2’s storytelling – particularly how Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment influenced it – but I don’t want to ruin it for those who haven’t played yet. After all these years, Laura’s Theme is still one of the most emotional songs in an already memorable game.

If you want more Silent Hill 2, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Smash Bros. Brawl – MGS4: Theme Of Love

It’s yet another week leading up to the release of Smash Bros. on the 3DS, so I figured another look into the previous games’ soundtracks was fitting. This particularly epic song comes from Metal Gear Solid 4; Snake, its protagonist, was a guest character in Super Smash Bros. Brawl. However, it’s worth noting that Brawl came out before MGS4; this song and the stage it’s used on were actually little teasers and cameos for MGS fans waiting for the latter game to come out. As a result, the Theme of Love debuted in a completely different franchise and console than the game it was designed for. Funny how video game crossovers work…

If you want more Brawl, you can the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – I Am The Wind

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Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is one of the most popular video games ever made, and for good reason. It whisked you away into a gothic spectacle that was both beautiful and nightmare-inducing. The sheer amount of customization, weapons, and tiny details were mind-boggling. It had everything: zombies, ghosts, succubi, skeletons, werewolves, demonic possession, Death itself, culminating in a final showdown against Dracula. You’d think the hero of the game would be some kind of whip and cross-slinging badass, like in previous Castlevanias. However, Alucard was anything but. As the half-human son of the big bad himself, he was subdued, thoughtful, and distant from his allies. You’d be too, if you were tasked with killing your own father! His bittersweet attitude is reflected in I Am The Wind, the ending credits song exclusive to the Playstation version of the game. With a soundtrack that covers everything from classic and rock to jazz and heavy metal, Cynthia Harrell’s soulful tune is the perfect sendoff.

If you want more Symphony of the Night (and trust me, you do), you can find the full OST here.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Metal Gear Solid 3 – Snake Eater

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Metal Gear Solid 3 was one of the most anticipated games of its generation. After its unveiling, there were some doubts; the MGS games usually involved sneaking through buildings and industrialized areas, not the jungle depicted in the trailer. Once the game finally came out, all those doubts were quickly forgotten. You still played as Snake, albeit a previous version of him set in the 1960s Cold War. The Snake Eater theme deliberately took cues from the old James Bond movie intros. Since the in-game technology was designed to fit with the setting, gamers had to rely more on actual sneaking and use of the environment instead of high-tech equipment. And it showed. The natural sounds and ambiance were some of the finest on the PS2. You blended into the environment the old fashioned way: looking at your surroundings, and painting your body accordingly. Since guns attracted too much attention, you could take everyone down with newly-implemented grappling techniques.You want a tough boss battle? Try an hour-long duel against a near-invisible sniper. It’s even more awesome that it sounds.

What begins as a generic spy mission quickly evolves into a sad tale of trust, betrayal, and sacrifice. The passing of time and how it affects your beliefs is its defining theme. While it has plenty of silly moments – it wouldn’t be MGS without them – the plot gradually builds in tension and poignancy. Snake might be one of the greatest game heroes ever, but it comes at a terrible cost. For every moment of epic action, there’s tragedy to balance it. It’s not done in a cliched, way, either; by the time you beat the game, you’ll realize just how much effort went into humanizing what could’ve been a one-dimensional character. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s become famous for being one of the few video games to make people cry. Look for spoiler videos at your own risk.

If you want more Snake Eater, you find the rest of the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Contra: Evolution Review

Shot through the heart…

Once upon a time, there was a game called Contra. While it wasn’t the first run-and-gun scrolling game, it was probably the best of its kind. It featured Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, whose flagrant machismo and Rambo-esque exploits made them stand out amongst other arcade heroes. With their trusty, oversized guns at the ready, they bravely ventured forth into a futuristic wasteland and systematically slaughtered an invading alien horde. It was a grueling, harrowing task. Not only were the enemies and landscapes unforgiving, but the heroes could die with a single hit. Beating Contra quickly became the stuff of childhood legend; no one would blame a young gamer for resorting to the now-famous Konami Code and all the extra lives it offered. The game’s reputation only grew from there, spawning a long-running series that spanned decades and consoles alike. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, Contra was poised to make a triumphant return for a whole new generation…

And it failed miserably.

The problems with Contra: Evolution begin before the game even starts. Due to a programming bug, the app crashes almost every time you make it past the first menu. It looks so full of promise; a few bonus modes, a couple of unlockable characters, flashy colors…and a loading screen that takes so long that it freezes. After being kicked back out into your phone’s home screen, you summon enough patience for a second attempt. The official Konami logo pops up, almost reassuring you that no, this was all just a silly misunderstanding. The title screen appears again, giving you shadowy glimpses of the alien queen and desolate, fiery wasteland. Eagerly, you start up Arcade Mode and watch the little red loading icon spin merrily in the corner…and suddenly you’re back on the home screen, this time with a slight but ever-growing headache.

When the law of averages (or just blind luck) finally works in your favor, the game will load and you’ll be thrust into Contra’s world. If you grew up with the older game, it’s easy to be swept away by the nostalgia; the iconic levels have all been revamped with updated graphics and backgrounds. The rocky outcroppings and tree lines have better textures and scaling, and that first wall boss actually looks metallic. The characters look better proportioned and animated. Not bad, you might think. Maybe this will be worth it after all! Then you try actually getting through the first level, and you realize how horribly wrong you were. As a run-and-gun game, the original Contra required accurate directional inputs; responsive controls allowed you turn around, duck under enemy fire, aim at different angles, jump to avoid attacks, and manage the uneven terrain. In Contra: Evolution, the controls are mapped to a touch screen directional pad and a jump button. It would’ve been fine, if the buttons actually responded to your fingers. Missed landings and ducks, accidental kamikaze runs into enemy fire, and abysmally inaccurate diagonal shots are common.

The control layout makes things physically worse as well. The original Contra was built as an arcade game, with a large display and easily-accessible buttons. When you try to cram all of that into a smartphone screen, everything becomes cluttered and difficult to see. The buttons obscure huge chunks of either side of the level, which potentially leads to unnecessary deaths. Not that it’ll matter much, though; there are fewer enemies to kill, and your characters fire their weapons automatically. As you’re frantically wrangling with the controls, you might mow down a small army unintentionally. The game has the usual assortment of laser beams, spread shots, and machine gun power-ups, but you probably won’t need them. Since you spend in-game gems on extra lives, it’s possible to finish the game in a single blind run. However, using those extra collectibles can come back to haunt you; without gems, you can’t earn as much money for weapon upgrades or character levels. That’s where the game tries to trick you into using in-app purchases. You can either grind through levels with the frustrating controls, or you can spend a few more dollars to max out all of the stats. But you don’t need to; the game is beatable without additional upgrades. It’s just thinly-veiled attempt to fake longevity and get your money.

The game desperately tries to keep your attention with its extra challenges. The Mission Mode puts you back into the same levels, but with focus on high scores, completion times, and the number of deaths. Elite Mode does something similar; the weakest cannon fodder enemies take more hits, explode after dying, etc. It’s a welcome twist on the otherwise bland gameplay, but still lacks creativity. Nostalgia-prone gamers will likely dive right into Boss Rush, though the luster fades quickly. There are trophies and leaderboards to contend with, but they’re probably not worth the time. Your efforts also result in more funds for weapon upgrades, as well as medals that go towards unlocking another character. Unlike Bill and Lance, Ricci and Sally have more unique play styles; the former can dual-wield guns, and the latter a katana and shurikens. They exist for the sole purpose of adding variety and bragging rights – killing an alien queen with a shuriken is pretty cool – but offer little else. It would’ve been interesting to see a story mode, some dialogue, or anything resembling a reason to keep playing.

But there isn’t. Contra: Evolution is easily the worst version of its classic predecessor. It’s as if the designers attempted to capture everything that was awesome about the arcade experience, only to completely miss why it was great. Yes, the graphics look amazing for a cell phone game. Yes, there’s plenty of nostalgia go around. But the joy of Contra didn’t come from its graphical details; it was due to the satisfaction of surviving the brutally difficult levels and mastering the controls. There’s none of it to be found here; the touch screen buttons are clunky and unresponsive, the continue system makes it easy to blindly charge through levels, and there’s no reason to bother with any of the extra features. The hardest part of the game isn’t the bosses, but actually getting it to run in the first place. It’s so glitchy and broken that it makes you want to quit before you even begin. Ironically, Contra: Evolution is anything but.

Originally posted here.