Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon Original Soundtrack :: Review by Dave
Needless series spin-offs like Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon are bound to do poorly, and when this is combined with a 'Japan only' status, the sales are inevitably even worse. Nonetheless, even the worst games can yield a satisfactory soundtrack, and with Masashi Hamauzu being the man behind this score, the game has one thing going for it, and that is its music. Indeed, Hamauzu is renowned for making awful games such as Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon all the more bearable, with the likes of Unlimited SaGa and, to a lesser extent, Dirge of Cerberus Final Fantasy VII also featuring on the list. However, this soundtrack has some costly flaws that will render it unappealing at times; although the prospect of excessive arrangements of the "Chocobo" theme, firmly established in the Final Fantasy series, may be just what the doctor ordered in some cases, the melodic basis of the soundtrack is nonetheless weak even though Hamauzu does his best efforts to manipulate the theme.
The overusage of the Chocobo theme has ensured it has been transformed from a classic melody to one of the most annoying and hackneyed features in Final Fantasy scores. However, as this soundtrack proves, it can become sophisticated and far more worthy of a listen by applying just a few basic features. The first of these is creating suspense, a powerful tool that serves many pieces of music with the perfect atmosphere, no matter what the genre is. The first track on the album, "Prelude (orchestrated)," is an ideal example of this; with the integration of dramatic crescendos, rapacious subito pianos, and some well-timed silence, the tension created in this theme is awe-inspiring. Tracks that don't receive such a fine orchestration, such as "The First Dungeon" and "A Mystery," are also helped out, to a certain degree, with even more of Hamauzu's pressure-building methods; although these aren't arrangements of the Chocobo theme, they demonstrate Hamauzu's fine ability to craft such atmospheres, carrying some of the pseudo-melodrama from the 'Prelude'. The second theme-enhancing factor is the use of secondary and tertiary melodies in a track to take away the prominence and importance of the primary melody. Once again, "Prelude (orchestrated)" reveals just how effective this is, but perhaps a better example is "Beginning of a Journey"; this theme features so many different melodic lines that the simplicity and superficiality of the Chocobo theme is shadowed right from the start, interwoven into a pleasant polyphony. Last but not least, the final factor that Hamauzu utilises to make the Chocobo theme more bearable is the use of different moods. Happy, sad, militaristic, and ominous themes fill up the album, so diversity doesn't seem to be a problem. Indeed, although the Chocobo theme seems to have outstayed its welcome, these three basic factors do the score a lot of justice, and certainly make it all the more bearable.
With Hamauzu's versatility being somewhat undermined by the presence of the theme, the lighter tracks often prove among the shallower additions, some exceptions aside. Certainly, one of the soundtrack's major flaws is that far too many of the light-hearted themes are carried by their melodies, and it is only really the darker themes that have any substance or musical assets. The laid-back "Chocobo's House" is a prime example of a typical light-hearted track; with the theme being in a waltz time, a swaying melody plays against a bare xylophone accompaniment that offers no supporting features other than its rhythm. Indeed, tracks like these are disappointing, and when compared with the likes of the ominous "Let's Go Underground," it is easy to see which has more depth. On top of this, only a handful of themes are exceptions, meaning Hamauzu doesn't often learn from his mistakes, which seems disappointing when there is so much evidence of his creativity elsewhere. That said, it is all too easy to concentrate on the limitations of such themes, and, since quite a few listeners will enjoy the cheeky atmosphere created by the majority of Hamauzu's light-hearted tracks and it is undeniable that they suit the game effectively, the chances are that quite a bit can be overlooked. Indeed, tracks like "Scythe Man is Coming" demonstrate Hamauzu's ability to create melodic and enjoyable, yet highly intricate and original, themes, while the relaxing "Store Man" is also notable in that it demonstrates one of Hamauzu's fingerprints, distinctive piano use in conjunction with wider forces. one of Hamauzu's fingerprints. The dominance of themes written in the 'melody with accompaniment' format in its most baneful form quickly grows tiresome in places, though Hamauzu's sprinkles of creativity and the fact it fits the game doesn't damage the composer's largely spotless career too much; still, a fitting score would have been possible without some of the light-hearted Chocobo drivel.
Nonetheless, the experience gets better when Hamauzu's more serious themes take over, with these themes offering far more than just a simple melody. Indeed, along with the 'darker' themes, such themes include the battle, mystical, and militaristic themes. His mystical tracks, like "In Search for the Illusionary Item" and "World of Darkness," seem to be one of Hamauzu's strong points on this album; with it becoming easy to see that he concentrated on developing the bass line here, it is also clear that the atmospheres created are far more clear and intriguing. Not only this, but the timbre and texture is also improved, often showing Impressionistic influences; this is especially evident in "Wooden Room," in which bells, strings, a harp, and many other instruments all feature. Further, Hamauzu makes sure that the listener is exposed to the most suitable atmospheres he can create, keeping them entertained by making each piece have an individual feel, avoiding most clichês altogether. Action themes provide further evidence that Hamauzu rarely fails in an action-based setting. "Challenge" has one of the best development sections on the album, and, with the bass line driving the whole theme, the melody is free to glide and lure the listener into the depths of action. The final boss theme, "Fight, Chocobo!", is no exception, and, although it doesn't develop as much as it could do, the overall effect is a successful one, paying homage to many modernist composers. Each of these themes are a great step up from his light-hearted tracks, so it just goes to show what a bit of atmosphere can do. As for militarism, the march "Atora's Theme" delights with its buoyant rhythms and light yet meaningful melodies.
Out of all of the themes on this album, there are four that can't be missed, and I am sure that you won't be surprised to learn that they are all orchestrated and were originally performed live. The aforementioned "Prelude (orchestrated)" is the first, already discussed quite considerably, while it requires the listener to go straight to other end of the soundtrack to experience the second, "Finale," perhaps the principle highlight of February 2006's rerelease. It starts off in a cunning fashion with many areas suggesting a forthcoming development, and, indeed, after a brief pause, the track really gets moving, demonstrating a huge amount of sophistication, despite still being very melodic and light-hearted. The soundtrack needed more tracks like this overall, even if a full-orchestration would not be feasible for a PlayStation game. The other two themes are held on the bonus 8cm disc, which, rather unfortunately, was only a limited edition release. The jingling bells of "Chocobo's Happy Christmas," combined with its quaint orchestration, makes it yet another delightful Christmassy arrangement of the Chocobo theme, but it is the hidden organ part that is most admirable, since it ends the track with a sense of dominance, despite being unheard throughout the first few minutes. Currently available at Square Enix's iTune's store, those who haven't heard it would be advised to consider purchasing it for a few pennies. Unfortunately, the upbeat "C/W: Dreams on Wings" is impossible to legitimately obtain, though is the worst of the four themes, less creative and highly predictable. Though it was a nice bonus to the initial soundtrack, do not be too depressed by its current lack of availability.
The Chocobo no Fushigina Original Soundtrack seems to be a good score when considered in terms of the context nature of the game that it accompanies, but as far as stand-alone listenability is concerned, it is extremely hard to take it in less than two doses. Initially, the album's main flaw seemed to be the overdependance upon the Chocobo theme, but the further that the listener delves into the score, the greater the need for more fulfilling light-hearted themes becomes. Hamauzu's melodies may be uplifting and his sprinkles of creativity may bring joy, but he almost continually leaves out any effective harmony in the majority of these themes, so it is left to the darker themes to provide the listener with any substance. Indeed, it seems somewhat surprising that Square Enix chose to rerelease this, when it has obvious deficiencies and the game itself was highly unpopular, though it's likely a testament to Hamauzu's current popularity that it receives this honour, even if by far his least inspiring score. Hardcore Hamauzu fans would be advised to buy this above average album, as would Chocobo enthusiasts, though it isn't globally recommended and outrivalled by many other releases, both by Hamauzu and otherwise. Further, it is worth noting that the most inspiring material here is successfully improved upon by the soundtrack's arranged album, Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon - Coi Vanni Gialli, which, though an ill-fated DigiCube released without the benefit of a rerelease, is a perfect arranged album for the game and still readily available at Game Music Online. Consider both, though the arranged album is the best of the two.
Overall Score: 7/10