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Gamer Tuesday

May 8, 2012

Pap the Disney Gamer Presents A Year Long Celebration...

Ten Years of Hearts, Keyblades and Disney Magic: A Kingdom Hearts 10th Anniversary Celebration

Last time on the Kingdom Hearts retrospective...

'Disney animation is awesome! Mary Blair, the Nine Old Men, Glean Keane, oh my gosh! Wacky Japanese hairstyles! Preserving the Disney animated essence in video games!'

And now...

Part 5: Symphony of Sorcery...


Music. Can you imagine how dull our lives would be if we didn't have music in our lives? One of the older forms of artistic expression, music can be used to convey some of the most complex and subtle human emotions through any fictional medium. Walt Disney was a man that knew the importance of music, and during his years on Earth he fought hard and spared no expense in order to make sure his films and short animated features had the best music ever. Whether it was something as simple as Mickey Mouse's whistle at the start of Steamboat Willie, to a whole feature film about scenes set to classical music (Fantasia), Disney believed that everything would be better told through music. This belief went on even after Walt's death, in the process creating some of the most beloved names in Disney music history. The Sherman Brothers, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Elton John, Phil Collins and many, many more helped Disney develop a selection of musical scores and songs that defined the company for a very long time.


Square Enix is also a company that loyally follows the belief of music as a method of illustrating a narrative. When one thinks of video games, music is always something that tends to be taken for granted since many of the early days of gaming were focused on players performing simple tasks, and thus the bigger need was for just basic sound effects. Heck, the original Pong games had no music, just simple beeping sounds in order to give the illusion of a bat being hit with a racquet! But as video games kept evolving, so did the musical presentation. From the very early days of gaming, Square Enix was always seen as a pioneer of musical legacy in gaming. The very first Final Fantasy game for the Nintendo Entertainment System had one of the most thrilling soundtracks in the digital medium. This is all attributed to the talents of Nobuo Uematsu. Now a legend of the video game music world, Uematsu's biggest strength lies in creating unforgettable melodies using the technologies available at the time. The Final Fantasy crystal theme, for example, has a very basic beat that can easily evolve into a full melody. For years Uematsu would be identified with the Final Fantasy name, creating elaborate soundtracks for the first ten games in the series.

With Kingdom Hearts being strongly influenced by the Final Fantasy legacy as well as the musical depth of Disney animation, there was a strong need to make sure the music would live up to the standards established by the two companies. Who would be the right person to take on such a daunting task?


Enter Yoko Shimomura. It does seem surprising that with Nobuo Uematsu having such a presence in the company, he wouldn't be there to compose the music, but his essence can be felt through Shimomura's compositions. Known as one of the most famous female video game composers in the industry, Shimomura's resume is quite extensive, having worked with the likes of Nintendo and Capcom. For Capcom, she wrote some of the music for the super popular fighting game Street Fighter II and even did some work for a Disney game, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom (which you can read about here and here). For Nintendo, she is vividly remembered for composing the music for Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and the Mario and Luigi handheld game series.

Regarding the Kingdom Hearts project, Shimomura is known for creating fantastic themes. Not only that, she can also do a lot of whimsical tunes, as seen in her work on Nintendo's Mario and Luigi titles. Whimsical tunes are a staple of Disney culture thanks to tunes like 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious' from Mary Poppins to 'Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo' from Cinderella. As epic as Kingdom Hearts would be in terms of scope and storytelling, there still needed a level of whimsy to be there in order for it to be an authentic Disney product. Of course, that's not to say that she can't do epic music. On the contrary, her work on the Kingdom Hearts series has yielded some of the most epic tunes in modern gaming, such as the orchestral version of the Kingdom Hearts theme. Her boss battle music, in particular, inspires the player to take on the massive Disney villains in larger than life battles. So whether the story needed something fun and lighthearted, or dark and foreboding, Shimomura was more than capable of bringing that to the table.

When you are working on a Disney video game, most expect the composer to just adapt the songs and use them in the game. Yoko Shimomura did something different: she created 100% original music inspired by the look, feel and theme of the Disney movies featured in the game. True, she still did use some classic Disney songs as backdrops for some of the levels like 'Under the Sea' from The Little Mermaid and the Winnie the Pooh theme as they are too iconic to not be featured in the game. But rather than just borrowing songs from Disney's catalog and creating her spin on it, Shimomura decided to focus on music that would be original but still feel like they came from the Disney film that inspired it. As an example, the Wonderland theme is one that is soothing yet with a playful nature that best captures the wackiness of this world.


Fun with numbers: The first Kingdom Hearts soundtrack consisted of two discs. The first disc contained 41 songs, the second 35 for a total of 76 songs for over 2 hours of music. Only four of those songs originally came from Disney.

Speaking of world themes, each world comes with two different themes: the normal theme and the battle theme. The normal theme is the song that plays while walking the world. When Sora and friends encounter enemies on the field, the theme switches to the battle theme. The battle theme is very energetic and reflects the atmosphere of the battle. This small idea was a clever one as it allowed the mood of the game to change in real time, thus making it easier for the player to get involved in the action on-screen.

It was these little touches that made the Kingdom Hearts soundtrack a very popular one. Her work on the first Kingdom Hearts game was so good that she has become the official composer for the entire series, providing music to the most recent entry in the Kingdom Hearts franchise: Dream Drop Distance. Outside the Kingdom Hearts series she is a freelance composer, doing work for various companies. Many of her works have been compiled in various soundtracks and musical collections, such as Drammatica: The Very Best of Yoko Shimomura.

The musical backdrop has been set. Now all that is left is a theme song, a song that would be forever linked to the Kingdom Hearts legacy. Theme songs have been a staple of both Disney and Square Enix, specifically pop songs that would play at the end of a movie or game. In Disney's case, examples include Elton John's 'Can you feel the love tonight?' from The Lion King. Square Enix's first ever original song appeared on Final Fantasy VII, when Chinese pop-star Faye Wong sung 'Eyes on me.' The song was so successful that their biggest games would feature an original song interpreted by a famous pop star. Kingdom Hearts' theme song would be 'Simple and Clean,' and its singer would be Hikaru Utada.

Hikaru Utada is a very influential Japanese pop-singer whose albums have been some of the best selling ever, with twelve of her songs being number one in the Japanese singles charts. It is estimated that she has sold over 52 million records worldwide. Success and all, she would remain relatively obscure in North America until the debut of 'Simple and Clean' in Kingdom Hearts. Clearly, Square Enix knew that the project demanded more than just the latest pop singer to headline Disney's RPG, making it the first time Utada would lend her vocal stylings to a major video game project.


In Japan, 'Simple and Clean' was known as 'Hikari,' which is Japanese for 'Light' (The theme of light and darkness is a very common theme in the Kingdom Hearts series). It came in two distinctive flavors: the Remix that opens the game, and the soothing version that closes the game. The song was highly successful as a stand-alone single and a video game theme song. Such was the song's success that it has remained to this day Kingdom Hearts' theme song, opening some of the newest Kingdom Hearts games and appearing on television commercials.

The full lyrics to the song are as follows:

When you walk away
You don't hear me say please
Oh baby, don't go
Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel tonight
It's hard to let it go

You're giving me too many things
Lately you're all I need
You smiled at me and said,

Don't get me wrong I love you
But does that mean I have to meet your father?
When we are older you'll understand
What I meant when I said "No,
I don't think life is quite that simple"

When you walk away
You don't hear me say please
Oh baby, don't go
Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel tonight
It's hard to let it go

The daily things
that keep us all busy
all confusing me that's when u came to me and said,

Wish I could prove I love you
but does that mean I have to walk on water?
When we are older you'll understand
It's enough when I say so,
And maybe some things are that simple

When you walk away
You don't hear me say please
Oh baby, don't go
Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel tonight
It's hard to let it go

Hold me
Whatever lies beyond this morning
Is a little later on
Regardless of warnings the future doesn't scare me at all
Nothing's like before

When you walk away
You don't hear me say please
Oh baby, don't go
Simple and clean is the way that you're making me feel tonight
It's hard to let it go

Hold me
Whatever lies beyond this morning
Is a little later on
Regardless of warnings the future doesn't scare me at all
Nothing's like before

Hold me
Whatever lies beyond this morning
Is a little later on
Regardless of warnings the future doesn't scare me at all
Nothing's like before

In conclusion, the music of Kingdom Hearts would be fondly remembered as one of the best soundtracks of the era. Yoko Shimomura creating a soundtrack that paid great respect to Disney's great musical legacy while weaving her own style that gave Kingdom Hearts its own identity.

And with this, we have completed the first half of the Kingdom Hearts Retrospective. We discussed how the game came to be, its gameplay design choices, the art style and now, the music. These technical elements of Kingdom Hearts made it a special event in Disney gaming, all because these talented men and women understood the magic that makes Disney one of the most respected companies in the world. But there is something we have yet to touch upon... the story.

Kingdom Hearts' story is one that is so expansive that I decided to dedicate the rest of the retrospective to just the story. From the main characters to the main themes behind the plot, all will be highlighted as we approach the release of Kingdom Hearts 3D in July and Kingdom Hearts' 10thAnniversary in North America in September. Thanks for joining me in the first half of this journey, and hope you enjoy the rest!

 

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