Famicom 20th Anniversary Arrange Soundtracks :: Review by Chris
Almost everything about the Famicom 20th Anniversary Arrange Soundtracks sounded good in theory. With a series of famous composers arranging some of the most memorable Famicom themes, what game music fanatic could resist eagerly antipating its release? Something happened down the line, however, that made the majority of the arrangements either be underwhelming or utterly stink. Track allocation was one problem what producer in their right mind would give Motoi Sakuraba the chance to arrange the light-hearted "Super Mario Bros." in the style of a Star Ocean final battle theme? What were the producers thinking when they also sanctioned an arrangement to be made by a fifth-rate metal band? Quite clearly, the administration behind this album were either out-of-touch with the game industry or collectively insane. However, even so, unless the administration decided to drug some of our favourite composers, it doesn't explain why some arrangements, notably Shinji Hosoe's "Dr. Mario" and Kimitaka Matsumae's "Stack-Up / Gyromite" failed completely. The rest, a few pleasant exceptions aside, were either downright boring or totally underwhelming. I'll spare you all from a complete analysis of each track not only will having to analyse each piece in detail make me go mad (some are really bad), but it'll also be unsuitable when the tracks themselves are generally so infantile. I'll write it in the format of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The Inappropriate, as there's an approximately equal mix of each (sure 9 divided by 4 results in a decimal, but I did say approximately). Read this review if you're still unsure about the album or think I'm being biased or subjective. Also read it it if you want some entertainment from the perspective of learning about the third-worst album covered on this site (only rivalled by good ol' Mr. Sherman F. Heinig's Music Inspired by Final Fantasy and the dire Hanjuku Hero 4 soundtrack, of course).
The album's opener gets the album off to a good, albeit misleading, start. Anime and game composer Chiyomaru Shikura creates a solid big band rendition that emphasises the original melody in an appropriate way, with the brass creating the camp factor needed. The added jazz samples are also very well done, with a piano-led solo being one of the more subtle features away from the standard saxophone and trumpet improvisation otherwise featured. It also includes some male voice samples towards the end, which is certainly an original addition, even if the balance is a little off, making the man practically inaudible. It's clear a lot of thought went into this rendition and it comes off well, despite these slight flaws and the fact it would have been more authentic with a live performance. Studio Carnaval's Takayuki Aihara does an effective job handling the arrangement of the "Shin Onigashima" theme, its accompanying game being unknown to international audiences as a result of it being released on a Japan-only Famicom Disk System add-on. It blossoms straight from the start with its symphonic introduction before moving into an amazingly effective tension-buiding section that undergoes an impressive crescendo and accelerando. It's the introduction of a solo Japanese flute passage that really eases the listener into the track, however, combining an oriental feel with a heartfelt melody before being joined by traditional percussions and some stately strings. The track goes off on a pleasant jazz-oriented tangent at the 3:00 mark, though soon returns to becoming a splendid orchestral theme once more, with even further diversity added by its bossa-nova conclusion. It's actually the conclusion that is the worst part, as it ends in a very abrupt way, though it remains continually entertaining during the 7 minutes it plays nonetheless and is an amazing display of Aihara's ability to manipulate such a wide variety of instruments and styles. Former Zuntata turned Super Sweep member Yasuhisa Watanabe also stands out for stunning use of Japanese instrumentation in his delectable arrangement of "Nazo no Murasama Jo," the major difference from Aihara's arrangement being the integration of techno beats, vocals, and a harp, though a slightly smaller array of styles are also present. It's definitely these two themes that are the true masterworks on the soundtrack and some may say the album is worth purchasing for these alone for hardcore fans of the musicians concerned.
The bad arrangements on the album are ultimately tolerable, yet fail to stand out. The earliest example of this is founder of Konami Kukeiha Club Motoaki Furukawa's "Yoshi's Cookie," which suffers from a complete lack of originality, first exemplified by the integration of one of Furukawa's trademark guitar solos a few phrases in. While the theme's well-articulated and catchy melodies are a winning feature at first, this delight soon wears off when the arrangement drags on for over 4 minutes lifelessly. After two listens at the most, it becomes difficult to listen to it in full without growing sleepy, and a so much more fun arrangement would have been created if Furukawa weren't designated it. Personally, I think Shinji Hosoe would have been more suited here, giving it a pleasant dash of electronica that it deserves. Basiscape's Manabu Namiki's subsequent arrangement is also disappointing, though the producers are largely at fault here rather than Namiki himself for cramming arrangements of the main themes of Kid Icarus, Metroid, and Famicom Wars theme into a 5:40 piece. The Kid Icarus theme particularly deserved better, only ever receiving one other arrangement apart from this, and it simply doesn't play long enough to achieve much satisfaction despite Namiki getting the instrumentation just right and giving it the upbeat treatment it needs. As for the Metroid theme, the transition into a rock and electronica fusion is a little awkward diversity of Famicom music is expressed much better without rushed and major changes of genre though the upbeat arrangement of the "Brinstar" theme makes up for this to some extent. The last section of the track with the Famicom Wars (the foundations of the Advance Wars series, available in Japan only) arrangement is the best feature, nicely combining the light-heartedness associated with Kid Icarus with a touch of light rock associated with Metroid's arrangements. It adds coherency to the cluttered arrangement, boasting a great melody and fine transition to top it off. Nonetheless, seeing these three tracks receive individual treatment would have been much more satisfying, though what Namiki actually did wasn't too bogus.
One of the ugliest arrangements is Shinji Hosoe's arrangement of the absolutely zany "Dr. Mario" theme. Initially, it captures some of the original's flair through combining the original's extremely camp 'old skool' melodies with an 80's robotic voice that recites phrases such as 'I am the doctor'. Such a bizarre combination creates even more psychadelic images than the original did, but these images soon become nightmarish, unfortunately. The theme relies far too much on the voice throughout, with Hosoe painfully emphasising its monotone nature by making it repeat a small selection of phrases over and over again for almost 5 minutes in total. Further, the original's melodies, though cute, soon become irritating because of their lack of development. This, in conjunction with the fact that interesting harmonies or musical features are devoid from existence here, ensures the arrangement quickly fails. It had potential, but suffered from an overall lack of inspiration, which is quite a shock coming from an electronica master such as Shinji Hosoe. For once, I can't pin the blame entirely on the producers, as this arrangement could have been a masterpiece if Hosoe were at his most inspired. Nonetheless, "Dr. Mario" is a work of sheer genius compared to "Stack-Up / Gyromite," almost certainly the worst arrangement ever created. Its purpose on the album seems to be simply to exist, to annoy, and make one want to jump out of a six-storey window. Kimitaka Matsumae attempts to arrange a large number of themes into one, including two abrupt fanfares and lots of sound effects along the way, apparently emulating gameplay, yet drastically fails there's no coherency there, as each piece 'arranged' just exists on its own and transitions from piece to piece are non-existent (so much so, in fact, that I thought my CD was scratched when I first listened to it). Indeed, the arrangement has no redeeming feature and just drones from each piece to the next lifelessly and infuriatingly for nearly 8 minutes, complete with cringe-worthy sound effects to top it off. It sounds like a pile of sounds thrown together senselessly, and, quite frankly, my tortoise could do better.
It's really with the inappropriate arrangements that this album becomes truly hilarious and the producers definitely decided to leave the best to last in these respects. Motoi Sakuraba's "Super Mario Bros." is, quite simply, unmissable, though mostly for the wrong reasons. It's the most melodramatic arrangement of the traditionally light-hearted Super Mario theme available and the Star Ocean-esque symphonic approach taken completely misses the point of the Mario series. To Sakuraba's credit, he makes the best of the arrangement he is given while using his trademark style and this results in the creation of some sweepingly beautiful passages where the Super Mario melody is not featured. While there's no denying the arrangement is a complete misfit, it is the loopy producers made yet another grave error designating him such a track when he would have been much more fitting to arranging Zelda's "Underground" theme or something else that is naturally dark and epic. Mikio Saito's interpretation of "The Legend of Zelda" shows two groups of dunces join forces, however, and is much worse for three basic reasons. First, this classic theme is far too light and melodic to suit a heavy metal interpretation in the first place the ultimate destiny of arranging in such a way is comparable to the failure Metallica would have by making a rendition of W.A. Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Even if the theme did suit such an interpretation, however, the quality of the arranging is absolutely dire anyway. It suffers from its hackneyed and repetitive drum samples, a complete lack of any invigorating improvisation passages, and, worst of all, the absence of any guitar mastery, the fundamentals behind practically every heavy metal piece. Worst still, proof is provided immediately that Mikio Saito Group are simply a bunch of amateurs out of their depth, as their unforgivably jarring and unmusical transition at the 1:40 mark from a traditional yet straightforward rendition of the theme to the otherwise mentioned metal interpretation could rattle even the calmest person's nerves. Save for those in "Stack-Up / Gyromite," I haven't heard such a poor transition from official arrangers before.
That's all folks. Yes, just nine tracks are featured. A meagre number, indeed, especially in light of the fact that the three Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Soundtracks contained about 300 tracks between them. This is only a superficial disappointment when only three of the tracks actually have any musical worth whatsoever, however. As we learnt earlier, 9 divided by 4 results in a decimal, so I thought I'd make the mathematics behind the album seem a little simpler by dividing 9 by 3 instead. Back to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (screwing The Inappropriate, which was, quite ironically, inappropriate) connotation, there are three of each, with "Super Mario Bros." being a bad arrangement and "The Legend of Zelda" being the third ugliest creation on the planet ("Stack-Up / Gyromite" and Britney Spears are both considerably worse). With inspiring source material and talented faces behind the arrangement save for Mikio Saito Group and possibly Matsumae what went wrong? Well, like all collaborative arranged albums, this needed clearly defined production in order to excel. Remember, if you ever produce such an album (you never know what the future holds, I guess), it's no good telling your arrangers to go off and do their own thing, adding whatever quirky idea comes into their mind, as the album just ends up being an incoherent mess, exactly like this one. The absence of this ultimately made this album pale compared to the Street Fighter Tribute Album and similar albums, no longer being an intriguing tribute, but an amusing insult. Only buy this one if you have money to burn and are looking for a source of great amusement, a pleasant cover to look at, or three strong arrangements in a sea of concentrated sulfuric acid. If you don't live in a mansion and are sane, avoid this one at all costs.
Overall Score: 3/10