We need to talk about Japanese videogame music with English vocals

I recently checked out an arranged album of Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross music by the one and only Yasunori Mitsuda. Imagine my surprise to find that six of the ten tracks included on the album feature vocals, given that the original soundtracks – with one notable exception in Chrono Cross’s credits music – are entirely instrumental. I wouldn’t necessarily mind this, if these vocal tracks didn’t have English lyrics. Sadly, most of them do. And I’ve found it creates this strange effect of making some tracks feel like Disney songs. (Not hating on Disney by the way – they do great stuff.) At the very least the cheese factor goes up significantly.

Welcome to my cheesy world.

This is most noticeable for me in the arrangement of Marle’s theme from Chrono Trigger. The original is a music box-like theme, while the arrangement turns it into a full blown pop ballad.

The SNES original:

The 2015 vocal arrangement:

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this experience. When I played Final Fantasy IX a few years ago, I found the end credits music incredibly cheesy. Long after the fact I heard the Japanese language version and found it much better. The performance is almost identical, but I am no longer distracted by the ridiculous lyrics and the gorgeous melody can take centre stage.

English vocals:

Japanese vocals:

Why does this happen? Well, part of the reason I enjoy videogame music is because it is so removed from popular music trends, and very much its own thing. Game music as a genre, if it can be called that, is a true hodgepodge of technical limitations, pre-existing music genres, and matching action happening on a TV screen. In many cases there’s nothing else quite like it. Take one of my all-time favourite pieces of music from a game, the intro music from Devilish: The Next Possession, a pinball game released for the Megadrive back in 1992.

Exactly what kind of music is this? Pop, jazz, classical? I struggle to say, except that it’s better than it has any right to be.

Bringing in vocals, and especially English language vocals, forces my ears to hear game music as if it is a pre-existing genre of music. That experience, more often than not, brings with it a lot of cultural baggage, and forces a comparison that rarely ends well for game music.

Thankfully it’s not all doom and gloom. There are a few notable cases where Japanese composers have somehow beaten the odds and overcome those cultural barriers (to my ears at least). Super Mario Odyssey is a recent game with sterling vocal tracks, and going back to the nineties, the staff roll from NiGHTS Into Dreams with the wonderful kids’ vocals. Perhaps my favourite of the bunch is Pollyanna, sung by Catherine Warwick, from the original 1989 Mother soundtrack.

The lyrics and the vocal performance shouldn’t work, and yet somehow they do, and I love it. Based on my picks here, it’s obvious that the way to my heart is through eye-watering levels of cuteness. Get some kids singing earnestly on a game soundtrack and I’ll overlook any cheesiness. That’s why I love the music of Katamari Damacy, and you should too.

So, am I crazy? Let me know in the comments below!

One comment

  1. moresleepneeded

    I agree that music used in computer games seems to be very different to many other types of music, with the effect of playing music using the sound capabilities of a console differentiating it from film music. Unfortunately, many games combine the music with lyrics and singing seemingly targeted towards young audiences (which may explain why many songs sound like innocent pop songs or teen rock). Although, I did used to enjoy the music that played over the ending credits of NiGHTS Into Dreams.. and the music used in Sonic R stages because of the gentle, innocent songs.
    Did you enjoy the English lyrics for the Sega Saturn game 1080 Snowboarding?

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