Timed Hits List Review: SQUARE ENIX JAZZ -FINAL FANTASY-

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The world of Final Fantasy arrange albums is as complex as the franchise itself; replete with nearly as many masterpieces-that-shouldn’t-be-missed as there are one-offs-that-you-could-probably-live-a-satisfying-life-never-experiencing. It’s not unreasonable for someone to see the dozens upon dozens of albums released in the past 20+ years and be intimidated enough to leave the whole darn thing alone. But for fans of Final Fantasy, fans of the music of Nobuo Uematsu and his successors, and those who are interested in videogame-adjacent music, there’s a lot to love if you’re willing to take the dive.

There’s no doubt that I’ll be covering many of these albums throughout the years but the first on the list is the most recent;

SQUARE ENIX JAZZ –FINAL FANTASY—

Released: November-22-2017

World-renowned jazz musicians, Eijiro Nakagawa and Ryu Kawamura have taken well-known tracks from nearly every game in the main series (sorry, fans of VII, XI, and XII) and infused them with the horns, swung rhythms, and improvised solos that make jazz what it is. But ‘jazz’ is a broad term and just slapping it onto some of the most memorable tunes in videogame history doesn’t necessarily mean instant success.

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Before we even dive into this music I have a bone to pick. The history of jazz album art is as nuanced and beautiful as the music itself. It’s a history of high-contrast photography, energetic shapes and colours, high-impact fonts – it is mid-century graphic design at it’s absolute best. Maybe it’s too much to ask but SQUARE ENIX JAZZ –FINAL FANTASY- has easily one of the dorkiest covers I’ve seen in a long time, regardless of genre. Nothing to hang on the wall, that’s for sure. It’s too bad because Square has produced some excellent, if conceptually abstract, album art over the years. The cover features Vivi playing a saxophone over a blue background with the album title in a decidedly unattractive font in the top let corner. It’s criminally uninteresting. Nothing about this cover lets the listener know what they’re in for beyond the idea that Final Fantasy and ‘jazz’ are involved. It doesn’t take too long to discover that this lack of specificity and direction encompasses the style of (or lack thereof) jazz we’re about to experience.

The music starts off with a bang. A high energy, latin-infused rendition of Final Fantasy XIII’s “Blinded By Light” kicks things off and sets the stage for what we can expect from a lot of the tracks on this album; technically fantastic solo sections book-ended by well-trodden melodies. “Eternal Wind” from Final Fantasy III heads toward the more relaxed end of the spectrum but the instruments used give it an unfortunately “spa-waiting room” feel that rears it’s ugly head several times throughout the album. It’s unfortunate because “Eternal Wind” is one of my favourite songs in the series and I always look forward to a new arrangement of anything from FFIII. Luckily the melody is as infectious as ever and the drums and piano add interesting texture in the latter portions.

“Searching for Friends” from the tragically underappreciated Final Fantasy V falls into a similar trap as “Eternal Wind”; it’s a competent enough piece with excellent solos but the instruments chosen and the lack of contrast throughout the piece keeps it in the realm of background music. Final Fantasy IV’s famous “Battle With the Four Fiends” is the first track that feels at home. The bass is featured more prominently and the guitar takes a backseat to the tight shots from the horns. Everything backs off during the solos and gives the whole piece room to breathe, which is important when you’re fighting Golbez’s four best. Despite being a stressful song to listen to because of the memories tied to these moments in-game, this feels like one of the most fully realized pieces of music on the album.

Probably the most recognizable melody from Final Fantasy II, “The Rebel Army” takes the jazzier ideas from Four Fiends and runs with them; this tune gets swung to hell — where it kills the ruler of that fell place and returns even more powerful than before. Just bass, horns, piano, drums and backphrasing that won’t quit, this is one of the few tracks that would sit comfortable on anyone’s regular jazz playlist. It’s a genuine treat.

Kawamura’s call-and-response thru-line in Final Fantasy V’s “Clash on the Big Bridge” makes it a standout. This song goes plenty of fun places, none of which are expected from this boss fight theme. It builds to a fantastic battle between the piano and the sounds of the Super Famicom that culminates in Gilgamesh “running away” at the end. It suits the theme song for Final Fantasy’s most loveable villain.

“Serah’s Theme” from XIII is by far the most relaxing piece of the album and serves as an excellent intermission. Just some excellent jazz piano, a few bars of featured bass, the drums having a hell of a time, and one of Masashi Hamauzu’s finest melodies. This is another highlight that is bound to satisfy even those unfamiliar with Final Fantasy. X’s Zanarkand is a bona fide earworm. It seems a tad out of place with it’s Spanish guitar and oboe but it’s nice enough on it’s own.

The first of the back-to-back Final Fantasy IX tracks is the completely bonkers “Not Alone”. The original sounded very much like something you’d hear from a busker at the quay. This arrangement pays homage to that sound briefly and then proceeds to go all over the place. It brings in some New Orleans sound but drops it too soon. This song captures the feeling of the album almost perfectly: a lot of different components indicative of jazz that get abandoned too quickly to contribute to a theme. “Melodies of Life” is a lovely version of IX’s ending theme but it feels completely out of place. It’s a lovely ballad that unfortunately only adds to the confusion of what this album was trying to achieve. Certainly worth listening to if you’re a fan of that piece, but sticks out like a sore thumb.

“Love Grows” from Final Fantasy VIII is a sitcom theme song with a solo section. And it’s kind of great. Just imagining the cast of FFVIII in front of a studio audience is enough to sell this song for me. I don’t even care.

The album concludes with the tried and true “Final Fantasy Main Theme”. The wonderful solos are bookended by a guitar line that feels like a slap in the face. Though I suppose without a real theme for this album why NOT throw a rock ballad in at the end?

If the album’s goal was to create a Final Fantasy tribute that featured elements of jazz then I suppose it succeeded. Unfortunately it feels far too often like ‘jazz’ just happened to be a common denominator as opposed to the ethos of the arrangement process. Very rarely does this album explore interesting territory and when it does you’re bound to get a jarring return to “waiting room” jazz far too soon. Still, the handful of excellent tracks are worth listening to regardless of your familiarity with the source material. A lack of a cohesive thesis is what keeps the album as a whole from rising above it’s novelty.

Review – BitBoy

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Wander into any used game store across North America and there’s a decent chance that you’ll spot a couple Game Boy Cameras; a charmingly bizarre accessory/game released during the Game Boy renaissance of the late 90s. Equal parts tool and toy, the Game Boy Camera is the brainchild of longtime Nintendo composer/designer/programmer Hirokazu ‘Hip’ Tanaka. And if there’s anyone out there who would appreciate what the BitBoy can do for the Game Boy Camera in 2016, it would be him.

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Originally released in a limited 100-unit first printing in October 2015, the BitBoy is a third party device that has been created for the express purpose of extracting pictures from Game Boy Printer-compatible software and transposing it into a .bmp format that can be easily transferred to a computer. And once those pictures are on your computer the sky is the limit. The potential behind the BitBoy is virtually limitless and breathes new life into the Game Boy Camera — one of the most unique and versatile game peripherals of 90s.

Technically speaking the BitBoy is a cinch to use. Simply connect the little black box to your Game Boy of choice using a game link cable (generously included with the BitBoy, but your own cables from 20~ years ago will do the job) and use it the same way you would use a Game Boy Printer with any compatible software. That means your photos in Link’s Awakening DX, your high scores in Pokemon Pinball, and even your Pokedex entries from Gold and Silver are all extractable.

The BitBoy also comes with instructions that show you how to batch extract multiple photos from a Game Boy Camera at a time, making what could have been a patience-testing affair into a simple push of a button. Everything about the BitBoy is user friendly and designed to maximize ease of use.

The unit itself is a lightweight, minimalistic, 3D printed black box that could easily fit into a pocket – it’s so non-descript that it’s almost nefarious-looking. Both connector ports are easily accessed and the SD card is easily removed. It has LEDs showing power and transfer status – a feature that designers with less passion and talent would have easily looked over. And it’s these small details that make the BitBoy such a curious and exciting device. Having the monopoly on the Game Boy Camera transfer tool market means that the BitBoy could easily have been much less impressive and still been received by the market with open arms. That these standards have been set so high for such a niche product is kind of incredible.

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Instructions, a game link cable, a USB charging cable for the BitBoy’s built-in lithium-ion battery, a 4GB SD card and the BitBoy itself are all included with price tag. A price tag that will seem prohibitive to some, but considering the number of items included in the package — and features included in BitBoy that streamline the process — 100 USD plus shipping isn’t the most expensive thing in the world. And for the relatively tiny market that this little guy is designed for, it’s a small price to pay for an item that by all rights shouldn’t even exist.

But with the advent of BitBoy it’s likely that market will only continue to grow as 90s nostalgia is reaching its zenith.

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Small but passionate communities of Game Boy Camer photographers (not sure if I’m willing to appropriate the title of ‘FUNtographer’ just yet) have cropped up in the last few years. Facebook groups, blogs, and Instagram pages dedicated to exclusively Game Boy Camera photography aren’t taking the world by storm, but they exist and produce some remarkable work that would look right at home in their own gallery. It’s easy to chalk it up to nostalgia but there is something genuinely beautiful about good Game Boy photography – you want to see an artist push composition to its limits, give them only 4 shades of grey. My personal favourite is showcasing found photos on second hand Game Boy Cameras. Lo-res pictures of brothers and sisters and family pets, their anonymity protected by the sheer fact that no one can really make out faces on a Game Boy Camera to begin with. It’s a wonderful little world that I can’t wait to see grow in the coming years.

And none of this would have been possible without a way for people to extract their photos from the Game Boy Camera.

After its initial limited run of only 100 units, BitBoy is available again for purchase from gameboyphoto.bigcartel.com. I can easily recommend BitBoy to artists and photographers or fans of Nintendo’s bizarre history of accessories that can afford it. I can personally testify that a number of art projects I’ve been experimenting with lately just wouldn’t have been possible without BitBoy. I hope that others out there find the same joy and creative satisfaction that I have while using BitBoy to resurrect one of Nintendo’s strangest and most wonderful peripherals.