Thursday, January 4, 2024

SuperPhillip Central's Best of 2023 - The Ten Best Game Soundtracks of 2023

Oh, hey there! Been awhile, huh? You think I'd be better about providing for you, the reader, better on this blog of mine! After all, what kind of writer throws some scraps in the way of a mall level list, and then goes AWOL for another three months!? Well, that certainly sounds like your pal Phil here... Ahem.

Regardless, it's 2024! First and foremost, sending everyone positive wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year. Here's hoping your 2024 is a fantastic one for you all. With a new year comes new opportunities--as well as resolutions. For instance, "how about posting more on SuperPhillip Central, Phil?" While I can't promise the world here, it's a goal of mine I'd like to accomplish, in all truthfulness. 

Let's begin with a subject that is near and dear to my heart: that of game soundtracks. 2023 was an incredible year for games. Note: I'm talking about video games released, not so much the industry itself, which continues to see disappointing and depressing layoffs for its employees who put forth incredible work, time, and effort to make the games we enjoy. (Not to sour or spoil the mood here, of course.)

At any rate, it feels like a good time to dust off "SuperPhillip Central's Best of" end-of-year series of articles that I used to enjoy doing, and retool them for the year that was 2023. Rather than doing several top fives for various categories and a final top ten list, I'm doing something different this year--Not just for my workload's sake, but also to mix things up. (I love keeping readers on their figurative toes, after all!)

This year we're going to start SuperPhillip Central's Best of 2023 with a look (and listen) to my ten favorite game soundtracks of the past year. These are listed in alphabetical order with the name of the game (that's obvious enough), the composer or composing team behind the soundtrack, as well as three sample tracks picked directly off of YouTube for your listening pleasure and perusal. I hope you'll enjoy this musical journey through the year that was 2023 that we're about to go on together. 

Of course, I'd love to hear your picks for favorite game soundtracks from the past year as well, so please feel free to share your selections (and even soundtrack samples) in the comments.

Disney Illusion Island (NSW)

Composer: David Housden

Sample Tracks: 

Illusion Island 

Downtown Gizmopolis 

The PostOfficer

Let's begin our tour of some fantastic favorite 2023 game soundtracks of mine with an often overlooked game both generally and musically, too. Released over the summer of 2023 exclusively on the Nintendo Switch, Disney Illusion Island essentially presented itself as a beginner's Metroidvania, readily accessible and suitable for all ages. Fun? Yes. Musically captivating? Yes, as well. Composer David Housden delivered a superbly composed soundtrack full of perky, happy, and peppy orchestral arrangements. The main theme, Illusion Island, presents players and listeners with an introduction to just the kind of spirited adventure they can expect with the game proper.

Final Fantasy XVI (PS5)

Composers: Masayoshi Soken, Takafumi Imamura, Daiki Ishikawa, Saya Yasaki, Justin Frieden

Sample Tracks:

Title Screen

The Grand Duchy of Rosaria

No Risk, No Reward

Say what one will about Final Fantasy XVI itself--whether that is its disregard for traditional RPG gameplay for a more action game-oriented feel, a dramatically dark and rather generic medieval world, or its lack of compelling side quests (I'm cutting into the game too much here, and I apologize)--but there can be no mistake that XVI's soundtrack in every facet is masterfully written. Helmed by Masayoshi Soken with support by Takafumi Imamura, Daiki Ishikawa, Saya Yasaki, et. al, Final Fantasy XVI's music harks back to compositions by the great Nobuo Uematsu himself. That's certainly some of the highest praise I can give, and it's wholeheartedly given, too. The latest mainline Final Fantasy delivers music for all moods, and it accentuates the action, melodramatic moments, emotional happenings, and more quite fantastically. 

Fire Emblem Engage (NSW)

Composers: Yasuhisa Baba, Kazuki Komai, Hiroki Morishita, Takeru Kanazaki, Fumihiro Isobe, Takafumi Wada

Sample Tracks:

Engage (Main Theme)

Your Journey

Faraway Holy Land (Flare)

Another RPG--though of a different type, of course--that received quite a divisive opinion from both fans and critics alike, Fire Emblem Engage may have delighted and disappointed many, but the soundtrack of this series continues to impress and, well, engage listeners (I HAD to say it). It's no different with Fire Emblem Engage, offering sublime songs, action-packed, rocking melodies, subtle and somber tunes, and a magnificent mix of music for all moods. The main theme is used as a leitmotif throughout a number of pieces in the game's soundtrack, much like Three Houses utilized the same trick before it. It's a good trick, too, as it only heightens the pieces that it's reused and refurbished in, while also providing plenty of original songs to suit any vibe you're looking--or in this case, listening--for.

Hi-Fi Rush (XBS, PC)

Composers: Shuichi Kobori, Reo Uratani, Masatoshi Yanagi

Sample Tracks:

Production Destruction

Through the Halls of History

Surfacing

While Hi-Fi Rush certainly has myriad licensed songs used to brilliant effect, with my pick for the game here, we're focused solely on the original songs composed and performed for this superb, shadow-dropped game of early 2023. Those within the Xbox ecosystem certainly got a glorious gift in gameplay, presentation, and--as it's relevant for us right now--musically as well. Hi-Fi Rush absolutely rocks with high-adrenaline, groove-driven music, perfect for taking out enemies and baddies in beat with the rhythm. Full of awesome anthems, rocking instrumental songs, vocal delights, and supremely catchy ditties as well, there's no limit to how well the crew behind Hi-Fi Rush blended the music with the action on screen so mightily. 

The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails (NSW, PS4, PC)

Composers: Hayato Sonoda, Takahiro Unisuga, Saki Momiyama

Sample Tracks:

To the Undiscovered World

Temple of the Continent

Illusions on Ice

Although The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails previously released on the PlayStation Portable back in the early 2010s, it never saw our shores or sides of the world. In fact, the recent fall port on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC gave Western gamers our first officially localized version of the game. And, thankfully, the wait was most certainly worth it. Not just for the addicting action and stage-based RPG goodness, but for the subject at hand of this article, a stellar soundtrack worthy of the Falcom Sound Team name. With The Legend of Nayuta: Boundless Trails, you get everything from casual, chill themes, pulse-pounding action tunes, and also catchy songs to accompany you during dungeons and stages. The Falcom Sound Team continues to make some of the most stunning, impressive game music out there, and have done so for decades. This tradition definitely continues with The Legend of Nayuta.

Octopath Traveler II (NSW, PS5, PS4, PC)

Composer: Yasunori Nishiki

Sample Tracks:

Main Theme (Day)

Ochette, the Hunter

Partitio, the Merchant

The original Octopath Traveler is a game that I've not played, but I loved its soundtrack to bits. It invoked so many positive feelings, so much admiration, and left a strong impression on me, even without fully knowing the context behind many of the tracks and themes I listened to. That's no easy feat for a game soundtrack to perform for this tough critic, but Yasunori Nishiki was up to that challenge. (Although, to be fair, Nishiki-san probably didn't know he was taking on that challenge to begin with!) Regardless, Octopath Traveler II continues where the original game's soundtrack left off, creating more marvelous and magnificent music that tugs on the heartstrings, gives goosebumps, and takes an emotional toll on its listeners, in and out of the game. Maybe I'm speaking for myself here, but that's most definitely what it did for me. Again, no easy feat! As expected, each track takes its listener on an adventure, much like the adventure our eight heroes go on throughout the game. Although this is an adventure of the musical variety, it's one that has the same emotional highs and lows that makes a stellar soundtrack.

Star Ocean: The Second Story R (NSW, PS5, PC)

Composer: Motoi Sakuraba

Sample Tracks:

The venerable forest

Field of Exper

Shower of blossoms

The following two soundtracks are not only returning favorites of mine redone and remade for a new generation, but they also come from two veterans in the game music biz. Our first stop is to the great sea of stars. No, no. Not THAT one. I'm talking about Star Ocean: The Second Story, namely its remake released this past November, Star Ocean: The Second Story R. Everything received a facelift and improvement in this remake--from the graphics, to the lighting, to the camera angles, to the battle system, and of course, our focus currently, the soundtrack. I was skeptical about how much I'd enjoy this remake's remade renditions of a soundtrack I already thought was next to perfect with its warm synths giving me such nostalgic feelings. However, Motoi Sakuraba took his famed compositions from the original Second Story and made them even more impressive. Field of Exper, the world map theme of the game, gave me chills upon hearing it for the first time with its goosebump-inducing choir. Each song is lovingly remade to make for a whole new listening experience, and one I absolutely adore.

Super Mario RPG (NSW)

Composer: Yoko Shimomura

Sample Tracks:

Still, the Road is Full of Dangers

Forest Maze

Nimbus Land (Let's Do the Fooka Fooka!)

Speaking of veteran composers and classic games remade, we have Super Mario RPG, which was like a dream come true. It was a game that most figured would never, ever get a remake, and lo and behold, the magical deed was done to most everyone's delight. Super Mario RPG brought a beautiful new coat of paint to the Super Nintendo classic in terms of graphics, and in terms of audio, it brought the wonderful works of Yoko Shimomura and turned them into musical near-perfection. Heck, maybe we can strike out the word "near" and just call it perfection! Is that too much? Either way, hearing familiar tunes that I loved during my childhood get remade with gorgeous instrumentation in glorious new arrangements made the kid in me beam from ear to ear upon hearing each theme reimagined. Yoko Shimomura is one of gaming's greatest gifts to music, and Super Mario RPG's remake is strong evidence of that.

Tchia (PS5, PS4, PC)

Composer: John Robert Matz

Sample Tracks:

Main Theme

The Sea Race

The World

Another soundtrack that came out of nowhere for me, Tchia was an early 2023 release (a PlayStation Plus title, if memory serves correctly) that I dabbled with playing as the premise looked fun and the art style seemed charming enough. What I got was not only a thrilling and cozy adventure, but it was accented by an absolutely astounding soundtrack. Whether it's the folksy island vocal themes, the catchy tropical beats and melodies, or the main theme that serves as a leitmotif throughout many of the game's tunes, Tchia offers a breathtaking world and an equally breathtaking musical package. Most of it will easily put a smile on your face listening to its lovely vibes, and for me, that's after multiple repeated (and I DO mean repeated) listens.

Trinity Trigger (NSW, PS5, PS4, PC)

Composer: Hiroki Kikuta

Sample Tracks:

Nome della Rosa

Cathedral

Unsteady Love

Although Trinity Trigger received a staggered release (it originally launched in Japan in 2022), North American and Europe only got the game just last year in 2023. Thus, I'm counting it as a 2023 release. (But really, it's 2024 now, can we stop with the staggered releases if at all possible, please?) At any rate, Hiroki Kikuta composed Trinity Trigger's soundtrack, and if that name is at all familiar, he was the composer behind various games in the Mana series, particularly Secret of Mana and Trials of Mana. His same signature style and touch is present and accounted for in Trinity Trigger's soundtrack. Now, don't get me wrong--that doesn't mean you won't be surprised or impressed by the music in this game. Far from that! While you may get some familiar vibes from Trinity Trigger, the music itself offers a blend of cozy town themes, mystical dungeon tracks, and adrenaline-inducing battle themes worthy of cementing Trinity Trigger as a top ten game soundtrack of mine for 2023.

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I hope this was an enjoyable read through some of my favorite game soundtracks of the past year. If you have any soundtracks from 2023 that you'd love to share, please post them in the comments for me and others to admire and enjoy! 

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Top Five Mall Levels in Video Games

No, don't be confused about your whereabouts. You are HERE. That is to say you've arrived at a brand-new article on SuperPhillip Central in 2023--the first of 2023, at that! You might expect some colossal comeback of an article with a huge game review or super special editorial, right? Well, instead with the closing out of summer comes a place that's somewhat of a relic nowadays, but one that stood as a great place to waste time and beat the heat simultaneously. Though still present in many places in the world, the mall is nowhere near as popular or prevalent in today's culture.

Still, I have a soft spot for malls, as I was alive and active at the highest of their cultural zeitgeist. My dad used to take me to a mall in our city that was home to one of the coolest arcades around, and many quarters were wasted playing games like The Simpsons Arcade Game, Mortal Kombat, and--well, let's just use this as a segue into the first game featuring a fun mall level within the gaming sphere!

5) Mall Meltdown - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder's Revenge (Multi)

Yes, to me, arcades in the 80s and early 90s were simply synonymous with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, as that was THE main reason I wanted to go to the mall in the first place. Having a group of four rowdy kids and/or teens huddled around the '89 arcade game or better yet, Turtles in Time, was quite the common occurrence at least at American arcades. 

At any rate, our first level of this top five list celebrating mall levels in video games cycles us back to the heroes in a half shell. We've come full circle. Mall Meltdown is the sixth stage of the TMNT's latest arcade romp (and let it be known, now my absolute favorite beat-em-up) Shredder's Revenge. It begins outside of the mall in a back alley, as the turtles bash and beat their way through a side entrance, into the food court where Foot Soldiers humorously work behind the counter, and up into the second and third floors via escalators. 

The second floor is home to numerous shops, enemies to battle, Foot Soldiers and robots to stomp out, and plenty of clothes racks to knock over and vandalize. Take THAT, consumerism!! Regardless, it's the third floor where the real action happens, featuring the arcade itself. (Hence my "we've come full circle" comment earlier.) Inside are various games, but the granddaddy of them all--or should I say, grandmommy, is that of Tempestra's. Not only does her machine summon her virtual spirit as the primary boss of the stage (as well as digital copies of Tokka and Rahzar who debuted in the TMNT II: Secret of the Ooze movie) but also houses a part of Krang for the Foot to reassemble. 

All told, Mall Meltdown is a cartoony, colorful, and delightful take on a mall. It really encapsulates 90s vibes, which is perfect considering the time frame that the developers of Shredder's Revenge were most likely aiming for.

4) Mall - Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (Multi)

Unlike the standard open sandbox-style--for lack of a better term--take on the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater level formula, THPS 1's Mall marks the first appearance of a Downhill Jam-style level. That's to say, it's a point-to-point level where you start at the top and work your skater's way to the bottom where the goal is, all the while ollieing, tricking, grinding, and vaulting your path through the abandoned mall. 

There are some insane lines that are possible in this mall, including the albeit immensely unlikely capability to start a trick at the start of the level, the parking garage, and carry it to the very bottom of the level, the mall's exit. Between those destinations are ample trick opportunities, goals to complete (such as smashing mall directories and finding the secret tape hanging over a courtyard), and hidden areas to venture. 

This mall may be abandoned of people, but it's certainly not vacant of places to skate the snot out of and have a totally terrific time doing in the process. The remake of the mall in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 is even more impressive, and this time around, you don't end your run upon exiting the mall. Instead, you're warped back to the start of the level to continue your skateboarding shenanigans. 

3) Alivel Mall - Kirby and the Forgotten Land (NSW)

Kirby and the Forgotten Land was one of my favorite games released last year, and a part of that is the creative and incredible levels that HAL's developers and designers crafted. Like Pikmin 4 released this year, Kirby and the Forgotten Land delved into a world largely (see: completely) left behind my humanity. Only their now-decrepit creations live on, including an early building within Kirby's first fully 3D adventure, that of Alivel Mall.

Alivel Mall greets you with an absolute banger of a tune, first of all, before throwing you and our pink puffball protagonist through the wringer of obstacles and hazards to push and persevere through. Of course, like any mall, there are plenty of sights to see, such as stores, hidden rooms, a food court containing a puzzle that only the most observant will solve correctly. Meanwhile, Kirby can find and secure (read: gobble down) a quintet of delicious doughnuts, battle baddies of all shapes, sizes, and abilities, and pass through Alivel Mall with his pink puffiness intact. 

2) Coconut Mall - Mario Kart Series (Wii, 3DS, NSW)

Coconut Mall originally debuted as a new track within Mario Kart Wii. It has since become quite the popular track, appearing in both Mario Kart 7 as a retro cup track and a second return appearance in the first wave of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's Booster Course Pass. The mall itself is for Piantas and persons of all persuasions with its bright, cheery exterior, full of shopping sprees both big and small to engage in. For karts and bikes, within the hollowed halls and colorful corridors of the mall lie in wait plenty of rowdy racing opportunities. 

Revving your engines through the interior of the mall is such a blast, whether going up and down escalators and ramps, through storefronts for fun shortcut possibilities, tricking off of fountains and curbs, boosting through the food court, or launching into the parking lot where Shy Guys (or Miis, depending on the game) attempt (and fail) to back up safely, requiring racers to avoid them.

It's no wonder that Coconut Mall remains such a popular pick online in Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Mario Kart 7 as it's a super stellar track that's both fun to race on as it is to look at. It's packed with enjoyable and challenging racing lines, spots to trick off of, and means to get ahead of your opponents. 

1) Willamette Memorial Mall - Dead Rising (Multi)

When malls were at their most popular, shopping--especially around Christmas--could be quite brutal. In Dead Rising's Willamette Memorial Mall, that statement could be taken quite literally, though that's thanks to the hordes of the undead taking up residence inside. The sales are no longer the only thing that are killer within the shops and plazas of Willamette Mall.

And really, how could I NOT pick Dead Rising's main attraction as my favorite mall in a video game? Well, let's not be literal with that rhetorical question, but the fact of the matter is that Dead Rising entirely takes place within Willamette Mall, and it's just as much a star of the show as our unlikely and reluctant hero Frank West is. Quite frankly (no pun intended), the mall might deserve more of the credit than Frank's heroics for putting Dead Rising on the map.

Everywhere within the zombie infested corridors and shops of Willamette has something provocative and interesting inside. Stores are home to plenty of tools and weapons to assault the undead with, costumes and articles of clothing for Frank to play "dress-up" in, food to help restore Frank's health, and sections of the mall--from the amusement park-esque hall to the main courtyard--that makes Willamette feel like a living, breathing place. The way areas connect, the paths that players must take to rescue survivors, tackle the terrifying time limit (more so terrifying than the damn undead!), and beat down psychopaths standing in his way--it all requires planning, knowing the lay of the land, and strategy to accomplish. 

A poorly designed world would make the repeated requirement of starting over upon death in game a serious pain in the butt, but Willamette Mall keeps players coming back for more due to its great design, entertaining attractions, and wonderful sense of space. You know what--after thinking about this further, forget Frank West. Willamette Mall, you truly ARE the star of Dead Rising. It's why you're my pick for the best mall level, stage, area, place, etc. in a video game.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Final Fantasy VII Rebirth (PS5) First Look Trailer

It seemed like a prime opportunity to let loose a first look of the second part of Final Fantasy VII's remake project, and lo and behold that Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, part two in the remake project, was indeed shown at the end of today's Final Fantasy VII 25 Anniversary stream. It was officially revealed as well that this game will be launching next winter, exclusively on PlayStation 5, and will be the second of three parts to the Final Fantasy VII remake project. 

Crisis Core –Final Fantasy VII– Reunion (Multi) Announcement Trailer

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII is making the leap from the PlayStation Portable to all modern platforms with a brand-new, heavily overhauled remake known as Crisis Core –Final Fantasy VII– Reunion. Promised to be more than a simple HD remaster, Crisis Core's remake releases this winter.

Sonic Origins (Multi) "Game Modes" Trailer

Gotta go fast with some Speed Strats of the upcoming 30th anniversary compilation title Sonic Origins courtesy of the Sonic the Hedgehog YouTube channel. Sonic Origins features Sonic the Hedgehog 1, 2, CD, and 3 & Knuckles in one stellar-looking collection. Play through the games individually or one after the other in a special story mode. Play the original mode or the special anniversary mode. Collect currency known as Coins to unlock new content within the museum and more. That's just the tip of the Ice Cap Zone iceberg as well, so check out the full video for all the details below! Sonic Origins speeds onto all major platforms on June 23rd.