Composer Compendium: Motoi Sakuraba Part 1: A Pack of Wolves

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RPG fans have likely heard much more of this composer than they have realized. The stars aligned rather early in Motoi Sakuraba’s composing career, letting him become one of the most respected Japanese composers of all time, but one seldom discussed when compared to a few of his peers. Progressive rock has always been a massive influence on Sakuraba, and he was in a few bands of this style before he started composing for video games. He started his career by joining two other composers, Masaaki Uno and Yasunori Shiono at a small, but talented developer called Wolf Team. At first Wolf Team made games for popular Japanese PC systems of the time, namely the X68000. The company made games of many different genres, and were known for making high quality games, and well done ports.

Sakuraba started work in 1989, and some of his work appeared in the same year in the games Zan: Kagerou no Toki, Arcus II: Silent Symphony, and Arcusyu. The following year saw some of Wolf Team’s first games leave Japan. This was because Wolf Team’s majority holder of the time, Telenet Japan, opened up Renovation and began publishing many of their titles for North American release on Sega’s Genesis and its CD add on in later years. Granada was the first of these with Sakuraba’s work, followed by Final Zone and Sol-Feace the same year. Sol-Feace was his second solo soundtrack, Zan: Yasha Enbukyuoku is the first one, while all other games so far were at least dual efforts.

Afterwards he started to work solo more often than not. Some more of Wolf Team’s games got released in North America in 1991, a trilogy of games starting with Earnest Evans released, as did its first follow up El Viento. El Viento’s release oddly came first, since it was a simple region port and translation, while Earnest Evans was completely downgraded from a Mega-CD game to something that could fit on a Genesis cartridge. The third game in this series is called Annet Futatabi, and stayed in Japan. Arcus Odyssey also made the trek across the Pacific this year.

Sega’s CD add on saw some support for ports of older Laserdisc based arcade games, the type that have QTE patterns and had high quality animation. The high point of this genre is considered to be Dragon’s Lair, but there were many examples of Japanese arcade developers that used the style in the mid-80s. Wolf Team ported Time Gal, Road Blaster (as Road Avenger), and Ninja Hayate (as Revenge of the Ninja) with Sakuraba doing the new arrangements for the first two, and sound effects for the last. Only Time Gal and Road Avenger were released by Renovation in North America.

After this Renovation’s efforts in North America waned, and Wolf Team started work on an ambitious new game, a role playing game. This is essentially the end of Wolf Team, as Telenet signed a contract with Namco to show the game with a label from a publisher that could pull in more sales both domestically and overseas. This game ended up releasing as Tales of Phantasia. With Wolf Team splintered it opened up new contacts for Sakuraba. Camelot Software Planning was released from Sega in 1995, and quickly managed to release Beyond the Beyond for the Playstation, they also hired one of Wolf Team’s former composers, who had glowing reviews for her old coworkers. So Sakuraba composed all of Beyond the Beyond.

Most of old Wolf Team proper founded a company called tri-Ace, and invited Sakuraba along to compose their new RPG, Star Ocean. It is through all of these contacts that Sakuraba branched out and became the main compositional force behind many classic franchises, with the Tales series being a current rising force in the Western Markets.


The Science of Grinding

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You know what I love? RPGs. You know what they have? Grinding, most of the time. And there’s a lot of it here. The further back you go the more grinding there is! There are many different ways that grinding is implemented. At its heart the main goal is to gain levels, but sometimes this is a secondary goal. Because of the difference in philosophies, even going back to near the dawn of RPG games period, I have thought long and hard on different styles of grinding. I have four to discuss with the class today.

Grinding Style 1: Levels

Call it a level grind, or an experience points (EXP, XP, whatever) grind depending on the way the game handles its leveling system. This is the most common style of grinding, and it dates back to the earliest college mainframe RPG MUDs and earliest PC RPGs. Wizardry is a prime early example of needing levels to get further in the game, usually having an invisible wall where enemies get much stronger and harder, but with better rewards.

This style of game usually gives you more money than experience in terms of need that is, so gear is usually quite easy to obtain in the natural progression of the game. Just moving over the world and grinding in the dungeon should give the player enough money to deck out their party at the next town, maybe with some help from a boss drop or stolen item. Final Fantasy games are a good example of this. If you spend a little bit of time building some levels between towns then the first trip to the next one will be the big weapon and armor buy up, probably with enough left over to restock on healing items.

With some more difficult level based games, like the Shin Megami Tensei and Wizardry series, it puts less emphasis on the new gear your characters can use, and instead focuses on the natural strength of the stats. Getting a new weapon might only lead to a slight damage increase, so good control, strategy, and tactics come into play. Or you could stay with the lower level monsters and work to afford the best gear.

Having great music helps alleviate the pain.

All this talk about money leads me into my next part of the lesson.

Grinding Style 2: Gold

Sometimes a game limits the amount of money that drops from each and every battle. This completely reverses the dynamic I went over above. Dragon Quest is an excellent series in this regard. Experience and money start off fairly evenly, but soon enough experience outpaces money besides certain monsters. This series is more of a hybrid of both styles introduced so far. Even though you get more experience per battle it still takes quite a bit of time to level up as you get stronger and stronger. But, it seems the level grind is always secondary to getting enough money to fully deck out your entire party with the best gear. The level gains just happen while you save up your gold.

There are as many examples of the money grind as the level grind. Phantasy Star is Sega’s vision in this philosophy. The first one was recently featured as an RFGeneration Playthrough, so some more people there should understand the way the series starts off. It stays this way through the Genesis games for those that haven’t played them. You don’t worry about grinding levels, you just get enough money to buy the new equipment when you find some.

Money is necessary in all RPGs though, so even in games centered around any other style of grinding, you may find yourself having to stop and kill monsters for a half hour or so to afford a piece of equipment or two if you’ve been blasting through the game by being overleveled for some period of time. Eventually you exhaust your resources and have to stop to start it all over again. Grinding is a vicious cycle that some of us just can’t stop.

Give me all your gold!


Grinding Style 3: Skill

Some games offer the ability to use skills, and by gaining extra points to learn them or level them up, you create a much more powerful party than any other style of leveling. Final Fantasy IX has skills that you can learn by equipping certain items and gaining AP to learn the skills. You can then use skill points to equip these learned or learning skills to give bonuses, learn spells, gain immunities, and add certain behaviors to your characters. The skill system is quite deep, and the player retains complete control over the entire party to see this skill grinding come to fruition as you level. Final Fantasy VI, VII, and VIII have similar systems with the Esper, Materia, and Guardian Force systems respectively. My least favorite Final Fantasy, Final Fantasy II has a system where you use a spell repeatedly to level it up as well. This is also the backbone of all the games in the Final Fantasy series that feature the Jobs system.

Legend of Dragoon has a skill system that involves using combat combos in order to level up your Additions. Each character gains their Ultimate Addition by leveling all the other ones up to their maximum level. This creates a paradigm while playing through the game of whether you stick with a level 4 addition to finish leveling it, or start with a brand new level 1 addition you just unlocked. I usually stick with the weaker one so I never have to go back to it. You consistently get stronger this way even if you take a temporary dip of damage output.

Many tactical and real time RPGs have a similar system. The Star Ocean series has a system where you can earn skill points when you level up. These are allocated to skills that you want to level up, but this method by itself will fall far behind what can be done with a literal interpretation of skill point grinding. By gathering multiple parties of enemies together in one battle you will gain a green gem to add to the Bonus Board, and end up with extra skill points at the end of each battle.

Even Mario is guilty of this.

Grinding Style 4: Item

Item grinding is essentially the cornerstone of the endgame for every single MMO. When you no longer need experience and money flows like water, and you have maxed out skills, all that is left is to grind for rare items. These can be mini grinds in many other games, such as an item only being dropped by one monster before specific events happen. This happens with some of the runes in Suikoden II, they can only be obtained in short windows.

Item grinding probably leads to the most types of sub-grinds, but these all lead back to actually having the items to fulfill these obligations. MMORPGs commonly feature this idea. You can use items to increase your level of crafting skills, increase your reputation with certain factions, sell for money to just stockpile it or buy very expensive skills or weapons with, get better gear for your character, or help your guild out. There are many possibilities but all center around killing hundreds of monsters for a handful of items.

Farming felcloth made you insane in the membrane.

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