Famicom 20th Anniversary Arrange Soundtracks :: Review by Z-Freak
The Famicom (short for Family Computer) was a machine designed in 1983 by Nintendo to play games exclusively from a floppy disk or a cartridge inserted into a slot on or within it. The sound processor had a limit of four channels; three of these were varying tones for music while one was reserved mostly for sound effects.
Despite these technical limitations, this didn't stop the composers at Nintendo to create some of the most memorable game music of the '80s. 20 years following the original release of the Famicom, a project was started to have arrangements of the most recognizable music from Hirokazu Tanaka (Balloon Fight, Dr. Mario, Metroid, Kid Icarus), Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Nazo no Murasame Jo) and Kenji Yamamoto.
Most selected arrangers have been in the industry for 15 to 20 years by the time this album was released. More importantly, they were given complete freedom over which games they would arrange and how they would arrange their choices. With that said, expect the unexpected in most cases.
The album begins with Balloon Fight, which is one of the several games here scored by legendary composer Hirokazu 'Hip' Tanaka. The arranger Chiyomaru Shikura is mostly known for writing songs for dating-sims and similar genres of games. The style of arrangement is big band jazz which presents the usual improvisation segments of the music genre. The melody is very easy to recognize and it does not take long to tap your feet to the pace of the theme. By the end, Shikura chose to record himself saying some comments in English, but the music is too loud to be able to make out most of what he says. Following Balloon Fight is Dr. Mario, which has Shinji Hosoe of Internal Section and Ridge Racer fame providing an arrangement in the style he knows best: electronic. The robotic voices will make or break this arrangement, depending on whether the listener can treat the voice bits as an accompaniment to the music. Some phrases such as "I am a doctor" are repeated often to provide some room to build up into the main melodic part of the arrangement. Like a few arrangements that will follow, Dr. Mario is a case of either you love or hate it.
Moving on with Yoshi's Cookie, we have Konami veteran Motoaki Furukawa providing the arrangement in a 'playful' fusion style. The guitar itself is never over-exposed and the fun feeling on the original theme is retained. For those looking for a light-rock arrangement of a classic theme, here it is. Next we have the first of two medleys, this one having music from Kid Icarus, Metroid, and Famicom Wars. Basiscape's Manabu Namiki whom is mostly know for Raizing and Cave shooter music surprises with the arrangement done in three distinct styles for each segment. Kid Icarus has a proper orchestral sound, which fits it perfectly. Those who played this game will fondly remember the main theme as it plays and eventually goes through a beautiful passage before the transition to Metroid. Metroid's Brinstar theme is arranged in a pleasant synth-rock style, which complements the ambitious adventures of Samus Aran. It eventually moves to the Famicom Wars segment on the medley, which is done in a 'synth-pop' style. Having no nostalgic connections with Famicom Wars (it wasn't released out of Japan), I can only credit it for having an excellent melody which likely stood the test of time. What follows is another Japan-exclusive title by the name of Shin Onigashima -Part 1-. Knuckle Heads and Drag-On Dragoon composer Takayuki Aihara provides an orchestral arrangement which has a very epic tone and would make the listener wonder exactly how good the original music was. It goes from a dramatic sound to a calm/mischievous one to an adventurous passage. It eventually brings up a jazzy segment and later returns to a calm stance and ending with a bossa nova sound. During the 6 minutes and 45 seconds playtime of this arrangement, this reviewer cannot find a dull moment.
The last Japan-exclusive arrangement is from Nazo no Murasame Jo, which was a game that played a lot like Zelda, except that it had a Feudal Japan setting. What better way to arrange than to use traditional Japanese instruments in this piece is likely what Border Down and Metal Black composer Yasuhisa Watanabe had in mind. The shamisen begins with a few ascending and descending notes like a harp followed by Watanabe's unique use of a sampled choir. The synths and shamisen then play an exotic melody accompanied by wind sound effects. Rain starts pouring as a techno beat is introduced with percussions and well-timed bells. An erhu eventually joins with the other instruments. Watanabe inserts his usual highly enjoyable improvisation in the end by re-using the sampled choir for just effect as it fits just right within the melody. As with the previous arrangement, no moments of dullness reside here. We return to some familiar music, this time a medley of Stack-Up and Gyromite, the only two games that required the use of the peripheral known as the Robotic Operating Buddy (or R.O.B.). Former S.S.T. Band keyboardist Kimitaka Matsumae provides the least accessible arrangement on the album. It is basically a collage of the various themes with sound effects of robots and toys. This reviewer still hasn't quite warmed up to this track yet he can credit it for its original factor.
Ending the album is two of the biggest series from Nintendo: Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Super Mario Bros. is arranged by Star Ocean and Tales composer Motoi Sakuraba. Ever wanted to hear the music from the game completely devoid of its whismical sound? Sakuraba chose to show a very different side by arranging the music as if it were an epic RPG battle theme. This approach may be a welcome change or a joke to listeners depending whether they can accept this radical change in sound and tone. It is very bombastic and sounds like his highly appreciated RPG works. The Legend of Zelda has a slightly different arrangement, having two parts being in two opposing styles. The Yuuki Metal Group, composers best known for their compositions and arrangements on Konami's popular Tokimeki Memorial series, gave their own view of the music without any major changes. The first half of the theme is the overworld theme being done in a synth-orchestra style which goes hand-in-hand with the original music. The second half is a true surprise though... it is the overworld, underworld, and Death Mountain themes being done in a speed-rock fashion. Unless one absolutely hates rock music, this part should be a very pleasant listen.
What sets this album apart from most other tribute albums is how different most of the arrangements are from the original themes. While they are vastly different from their original versions, they do provide a unique musical perspective you'd likely not hear anywhere else. Thankfully, Shikura's jazzy version of Balloon Fight contains enough of the original melody to hook most listeners familiar with the title. Hosoe's Dr. Mario and Furukawa's Yoshi's Cookie both retain the original feel while bringing a new sonic element to them. Namiki proves that he can arrange in various styles while Aihara still attains his high mark with orchestral and jazzy music. Watanabe managed to mesmerize with a fresh oriental sound while Matsumae definitely alienated most of the R.O.B. players. Sakuraba wanted to show a completely new side of Mario while Yuuki Metal Group chose not to alter the feel of the Zelda music but just play with different instruments. It's all a matter of personal taste in the end. Those wanting to hear completely different styles of arrangements will enjoy this album the most. For those that want arrangements close to the original, it's unfortunately lost in the mix. 30$ for nine tracks of about 50 minutes of playtime might seem a bit much, but those willing to look past traditional arrangements will be highly rewarded with this unique collection of arrangements of some of Nintendo's best themes during their early years.
Overall Score: 8/10