This is a particular unsettled time, that much is beyond reproach. That we will eventually emerge from it bleary-eyed to a changed world is a certainty. But despite all the uncertainty, despite all the panic-buying, home-working, and isolation, time moves on. Life moves on. As an almost incomprehensible number of us transition into the endless, boring Sunday of social distancing, I’ll do my best to continue to expand your horizons with my potted rambles about the music that, for whatever reason, I am currently digging. Gotta maintain some semblance of normalcy. Gotta keep that cultural interchange up and running, if only to give me something to do! “So Harry, what incredibly moving piece of music have you chosen to soothe us at this time of great sorrow?” Strange times call for strange approaches, today we’re not talking about one tune, we are talking about many. A whole soundtrack of them, to be precise. So sit back, make some tea as I humbly present the OST to Mystical Ninja Starring Goeman, the greatest soundtrack from the greatest game ever made.
Some context, this game was released way back when, a time of dial-up internet that was cheapest after 6 and parentally limited to 1 hour a day. A year prior I had received an N64 as a birthday present, it was my first console and, while I didn’t have many games, my love of it was total. With great pride I had signed up to N64 Magazine and quickly developed a habit of poring over every new release and development rumour with a near religious fervour. Thing was, I knew I’d never be able to afford half the games written about, but that didn’t stop me building worlds of possibilities around the pictures and promises each new release brang. The hype train was a very personal thing back then. I can’t quite remember when I first came across Mystical Ninja in these pages, but I do know that by the time of its release I had built it into this experience where everything was possible! A kinda hybrid between Zelda-esque RPG and Sims-style life sim with endless land to explore and adventures to be had. I was young, I didn’t really understand technical limitations. When my beloved N64 Magazine gave it a glowing review the die was cast. I knew that, somehow, I would make it mine.
“Dude, this is supposed to be a music blog, get on with it!” Well, my dude, I know. But music (like all aesthetic distinctions) is subjective. I can’t tell you what is good or not but I can explain to you why I think it so. Beyond that it’s up to you. Context is important, otherwise I might as well just right “listen to this” every week and be done with it. So, having begged my parents for a copy (along with acquiring a memory card so I could save the damn thing) my impossible expectations were finally able to collide with reality. It wasn’t what I expected. Not at all. As will become a recurring theme with this game, the claws of appreciation came out of left field. Far left. Momentum left. Like, this game is weird, properly weird, even by the anime obsessed gaming (nay, cultural) standards we have today. How are a few selective plot points from the Wikipedia, just so you can ground yourself:
“While shopping in Oedo Town, Goemon and Ebisumaru feel the ground quake as a peach-shaped flying object sails overhead. The vessel fires a laser at Oedo Castle, turning it into a European-style castle with spires and flags … Inside is Baron, a member of the fashion-loving Gang of Four who reveals he was sent to turn the castle into a stage … Yae joins Goemon, and they learn that children with dancing talent have been kidnapped around the region … With the dwarf power the group infiltrate the Ghost Toys Castle, a dark house of traps, toys, and a giant pool table … The hidden man aboard the peach ship at Oedo comes out calling himself Spring Breeze Dancin’ … Goemon confronts Poron, the final weirdo, who jokes that he lost the last miracle item in Zazen Town … Lily enters by hologram to ridicule the party, but is rudely interrupted by Dancin’, who continues to call Goemon “Fernandez”.
There’s more, much more, but at the very least we can agree that it’s not the most traditional plot. Now you have to ask yourself, were this to be made by a Western studio, how would you construct the sound design? How would you present the music? Commercial surrealism out has a tendancy to be an all or nothing affair, if you’ve got weird and wonky ideas chances are you’ll present them with weird and wonky music. It’s a perfectly valid thing to do and likewise has created some exceptional experiences (Banjo Kazooie, much), but where the soundtrack to Mystical Ninja rises above the dross is that it’s music is played almost uniformly straight. A glorious confection of sound clearly written for the sheer love of the thing and not just to underscore plot points. This is music designed to be front and centre, to be listened to and not heard. A music that somehow sees the personality and charm beaming from the art style and goes one better. For someone who had built their expectations on images, it was quite the pleasant surprise.
This soundtrack predates 90% of my musical experiences, it predates my love of surrealism and certainly predates my penchant for writing quirky pop ditties (something I could probably read into…) My Recommendations? All of the castle themes are incendiary (Transformed Oedo Castle, Festival Temple Castle, Ghost Toys Castle, Gourmet Submarine Castle), as are the koto-bop of Kai Highway, the longing tranquillity of Festival village, and, of course, the sheer insanity of the fully voiced I Am Impact [Impact, for those that don’t know, is a giant roller-skating robot who is summoned by conch shell so, yeah, let’s give him a theme song.] But in light of the stress and anxiety many of you are likely feeling, I shall leave you with the most beautiful of them all, Zazen Town (as covered by FamilyJules).
Stay safe, stay calm, and wash your hands!
I’ve been writing this blog on and off for a while now, so why not dip back into the halcyon years by having a read of these related posts:
Judge not, lest ye be judged. If you feel the urge to subjectively critique my own musical work you can find it by clicking here.