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By Jeremy Parish 6
Japanese game music composers aren't shy about deriving inspiration from musicians outside their home country. Sometimes they do one better and outright sample bits and pieces for their own works -- a fact that hit me like a runaway Maverick when I played Mega Man X3 then made a casual decision to listen to Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction for the first time in ages.
American and British rock songs seem particularly influential. There's a Wall running through the middle of Chrono Trigger, if you get the hint.
That's fine, though. It means the music that accompanies us as we play through our favorite games is inspired by the best of the best. It sticks to our brain, and then we turn around and create art out of that inspiration. It's like a being a link in a huge, friendly ouroboros.
That's not to say things get uncomfortable sometimes. There was a kerfuffle last month when Powerman5000's Facebook page pointed out Final Fantasy XIV's Sephirot battle theme sounds very similar to Powerman5000's When Worlds Collide.
Honestly? It does. Moreover, as one Kotaku commenter pointed out, Good King Moggle Mog, also from Final Fantasy XIV, is pretty much Danny Elfman's This is Halloween from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
But copyright laws and laws regarding music sampling are different in Japan. Heck, these days, artists outside of Japan are arguably sampling Japanese-made music far more often than the other way 'round. So we all just may as well keep doing what we're doing. Despite the occasional speedbump, Japan and America seems to enjoy dipping into one another's brains at this juncture, and we're all richer for it.
All that said, game composers who purposefully sample others' music to turn it into something that's inspired but still unique deserve special praise. I can't think of a better example than the overworld theme for 1996's Western-themed RPG, Wild ARMs.
Officially titled Lone Bird in the Shire, the overworld theme for Wild ARMs was composed by Michiko Naruke, who went on to compose music for the series' follow-up games, as well as a couple of pieces in Super Smash Bros Brawl for the Wii.
For some of us, Wild ARMs was our first PlayStation RPG, and thus our first taste of an expansive fantasy world presented through the seemingly boundless CD format. That's probably part of why Lone Bird in the Shire purposefully conjures mental images of wide plains and wandering loners. The dusty world of Filgaia is a slightly grim place because it's slowly dying -- but the people who live there are determined to hang on until it all falls apart.
The other reason Lone Bird in the Shire dredges up memories of all things beige and sandy is because the track lifts a chunk of Ennio Morricone's Ecstasy of Gold, one of the most famous themes for Sergio Leone's epic Western film, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Given Wild ARMs' thematic content, it's not hard to understand why Naruke chose to sample the song.
When you listen to the tracks side-by-side, however, you immediately notice key differences. Ecstasy of Gold famously accompanies the bandit Tuco as he scrambles through a graveyard to find a fortune in buried gold coins. The song picks up speed as he searches, but overall, Ecstasy of Gold moves slowly in order to build up the tension Tuco is certainly feeling.
Wild ARMs, on the other hand, turns Ecstasy of Gold into a travelling song by quickening (and unifying) its pace, adding noticeable percussion, and rolling in a unique hook at 0:17. These small but significant acts of musical wizardry completely change the mood of Morricone's theme, making for a lively but still-melancholy RPG overworld map song that's been sitting at the top of my heart for decades.
So why talk about a Wild ARMs song when the series seemingly died out with the PlayStation 2?
For one thing, Note Block Beat Box exists to highlight excellent game music across the ages. Second, there's no such thing as a bad reason to talk about Wild ARMs' music. Its compositions are excellent and, sadly, often overlooked.
Third: The 20th anniversary of the first Wild ARMs looms near, and series creator Akifumi Kaneko is well aware of that fact. In January, he met with Sony to talk about the future of the sleeping series.
For all its brilliance, the Ecstasy of Gold has nothing on the ecstasy of hope.
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