I grew up playing a lot of games that came out of Japan, like many insatiable otaku tweens did. Outside of fighters, I mostly played Action-Adventure or RPG-style genres. These genres hinge on their ability to use both setting and music to create ambience and atmosphere. I began to hone in more on not only the composition and production of the music, but also its “placement” in the game; did it match its occasion in both tone and gravitas? Did it amplify the atmosphere of the scenario with a certain musical piece? One company that I found very rarely let me down in this regard was CyberConnect2.
CyberConnect2, which was known as just CyberConnect back in 1997, is famous for two very large franchises: .hack// and Naruto Ultimate Ninja. For all of that fame, their card in the opening reel often gets somewhat overshadowed by Namco-Bandai in top billing. However, any game that CyberConnect2 has developed has featured masterfully scored soundtracks.
Even as superficial as the title/opening menus may be for some, these segments typically feature excellent music. The menus for Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm (which I’ll refer to as “NUNS” from here on) invariably have a piano track playing in the background that use a low-tempo, somber tone and a somewhat “minor” feel.
And then to quickly contrast, the music that it features in the Victory screen
And as a third point of comparison, just to add to their musical breadth, this song is played in a cathredral-like stage in .hack//G.U. Vol.1 Rebirth
For Naruto, an aspect of the music that I greatly appreciate is that it used largely “neo”-classical elements with classical Japanese flares such as shakuhachi and taiko drumming to create either a pulsing energy or reverent quietude. Since Naruto has very earthy and rustic environs, it was a point to reflect that when thematically appropriate. The music is also not heavily embellished, and has mostly simple arrangements, except situations in which doing that would be reductive; the boss themes, for example, feature appropriately ominous and “big” pieces.
For .hack//, which is a steam/cyberpunk futuristic MMORPG, it frequently takes advantage of ambience by writing music that amplifies the qualities of its environment. I believe that CyberConnect2 does this exceptionally well. Here’s a piece it uses throughout .hack//G.U. for one of the main cities, Eternal City Mac Anu, which features stone buildings, glittering canals, gondolas, and maintains the feel of a bustling port town:
Where the ball does get dropped on occasion is in the more thrilling parts of the story or during boss battles, where the music can feel incongruous or simply doesn’t rise to the occasion. For example, the music for the fight against one of the endgame bosses, Cubia Core, didn’t really add anything to the fight thematically.
Featuring synthesized organ and deep, rumbling drums, the music here detracted from the fight experience, even though the fight itself is somewhat anticlimactic. To compare, take the Final Showdown against Tobi theme from NUNS 3:
Making use of bass drum and horn lines to add a dire sensation, coupled with wind and string to make the capture a feeling of desperation or struggle truly adds to the playing experience. Unfortunately, it also falls short by sucking the vigor out of the moment and being drowned out by the actual battle itself.
In both games, you do spend a lot of time traipsing through environs. Its these parts of a game that can be the most mundane and frustrating. Its my belief that CyberConnect2 does a good job of mitigating this platitude by bringing you into the moment with a soundtrack that is wistful and captivating, that also enriches and captures the subtlety of its areas. Overall, CyberConnect2 is truly a musical titan through its use of music to add emphasis to both ambience and atmosphere.