Gradius Perfect Selection
Back when I first discovered game music, one of the first albums to become a hot topic of conversation was Perfect Selection Dracula. Much like the metal-laden Dracula Battle Perfect Selections, this CD was an arrangement of many familiar tunes from the original Castlevania series, though unlike the Battle albums it focused more on a variety of music styles. Unfortunately, this CD was pretty much cursed with a negative image from the start due to three of the songs on it featuring two guys rapping (in English) to some of the more familiar Castlevania pieces. Because of this, I became a little apprehensive about the remaining Perfect Selection discs that the Dracula Perfect Selection arrangers, the Nazo Nazo Project, had done. This CD in particular was one that had my curious side breaking out in an indecisive sweat... I was a giant fan of the Gradius scores and the potential for some top notch arrangements of the classic tunes was too good to pass up. On the other hand, there was the chance I could very well end up with a Gradius Rap Album. Since many of the other Gradius arranged albums were of the orchestrated variety and had little appeal to me (plus the fact that I've always loved the artwork for this particular album), I finally decided to look into Nazo Nazo's handiwork. I was rewarded with an exceptionally elaborate and well-executed treatment to some of the best game melodies this side of the Mega Man series. Perfect Selection Gradius is one of my favorite arranged albums of all-time and one that I would recommend any fan of melodic game music to hunt down without regard to life or finances.
The thing that this album does very well is that it succeeds in working within a theme from beginning to end. Much the way Mega Man music has always had much of an 80's pop/rock sound, Gradius music (even in its 8-bit incarnations) has largely relied on an epic, melodic sound. Think Star Wars music combined with Mega Man music and you've got the basics for the Gradius scores that this album encompasses. What makes this album so great is that it recognizes these traits and works to enhance them. The track selection is comprised of many of the themes that even casual Gradius fans will instantly recognize (though it is slanted more towards the music from Gradius III moreso than Gradius and Gradius II). Instead of opting for strictly metal arrangements (the Konami Battle series) or something outrageous (like Nazo Nazo's Dracula rapping), we are presented with a mock orchestral and light rock combination to enhance the originally great melodies. It's very easy to match where each track originates from, due to the arrangement style. It's somewhat predictable, though never to a fault, but it's still the best way to present music such as this. The epic-sounding pieces that rely on mood are given the chance to do their business, while pieces that need to rock-out are given the chance they need to make themselves shine, with the occasional orchestral element spilling into them. The best part is the way these two styles mesh together on the CD and complement each other, making for an enjoyable and fun experience from start to finish.
The contrast between the two styles can be heard in the first two tracks alone. "Introduction ~ King of Kings" (originally the ranking music for Gradius III) gets the CD started off with a pretty synth-orchestra arrangement which has that understated, yet bombastic feel that the main theme of Star Wars has. After an ambient lead-in, the trumpets come in at full blast, with their way of saying, "And now, the awesomeness is about to start!" The piece mellows out after that, with a couple of trumpets on the main melody and a combination of drums and horns in the background to give the feeling of moving through space. A nice piano solo is thrown into the mix at no extra charge. This track effectively sets up the high point of the album, which comes in the form of an arranged version of Gradius III's "Sandstorm", one of the greatest tunes to come from the entire Gradius series. "Sandstorm" is to Gradius what Mega Man 2's "Dr. Wily Stage 1-2" theme is to the Mega Man series. The arrangement is done so perfectly, it's basically a model for the right way to arrange a strong melodic piece. The opening is 15 seconds on intro guitar work that is complemented by an organ. After that, we are taken straight into the core melody. The organ plays the first couple of notes and right when it starts to pick up, the guitar comes and blows the roof off of the original with an absolutely amazing performance. The original melody of "Sandstorm" is one that just builds and builds until it reaches the climax, then once it does, it proceeds to build and build on the momentum its already gained. The arrangement accurately reflects this, with a guitar that makes the building part very obvious. The post-climax riffs are exceptionally powerful, as their high-pitched nature lends itself perfectly to the excitement of the piece's original melody MUCH better than the original arcade synth could ever hope for. All the while, the drums and organ have the guitar's back with some smooth complimentary work. It all adds up to one of the best and most satisfying arrangements of a classic tune out there.
The rest of the rock arrangements are similar to structure of "Sandstorm", yet oddly enough, few of them feature the guitar quite to that extent. "Cosmo Plant", another classic Gradius III theme, and Gradius II's "Crystal World" both feature an electric violin as the instrument doing most of the melodic work, making for some spicy action with the frantic drumbeats found in both. "Try to Star", yet another classic Gradius III theme (saying "classic Gradius III theme" is starting to sound like an oxymoron... The whole score is classic!) has an energetic synth trumpet on the main melody, while a guitar plays back-up and comes in for a fun solo. This is definitely one of the more frantic arrangements found on Gradius Perfect Selection and probably second-best after "Sandstorm". Oh yeah: That deliciously addictive harmony found in the original is here too, in all its' glory! At about 1:49 into the arrangement, it sounds like someone yelling "F*ck!" in the background.... I've listened to this piece dozens of times and there's no mistaking it. Whether this was intentional or an error on the part of Nazo Nazo remains a mystery.
The guitar does have some key parts in the remaining rock tracks. "Free Flyer" is a smooth, laid back rock piece from the first Gradius that fails to stand out, but excels in simply fitting in with everything else. "Burning Heat" from Gradius II was one where I was completely unfamiliar with the original, yet it definitely has that distinct "Gradius" sound of the other tracks around it and the guitar made this awesome melody much easier for my brain to dissect on its' virgin boatride through my ears. Finally, one track that definitely had a say in my purchase of this album was "Challenger 1985", the level 1 music from the first Gradius. The original melody is somewhat on the simplistic side, but Nazo Nazo updates it perfectly for the album. They extend it a bit by using repetitions of the melody rather than inserting mindless filler (which is good, considering the original piece is about 20 seconds long) and by inserting a new guitar section after the "soft synth" part of the original. It all makes for one groovin' update to a proven classic that deserves mention in the same vein as the Zelda 1 Overworld or any of the Castlevania Level 1 themes.
Most of the more moody pieces are found smack in the middle of the album, between "Cosmo Plant" and "Free Flyer". "Prelude of Legend", an oxymoronic classic from Gradius III (it's the title theme, actually) gets a classy arrangement featuring an electric violin and an electric guitar taking turns on the main melody. Even the guitar solo in it has something of a "proper" feel to it, unlike the crazier ones found on the rest of the album. "Into Hostile Ship" is another stab at an epic feel, except this time it does it entirely with synths. This is actually not one of my favorite arrangements, as it doesn't feel as strongly put together as the others, but it's good for a breather in mid-album. "Farewell" is a quirky attempt at a sad piece, again featuring an electric violin and two beats that rotate from start to finish. To close the album off, "Return to the Star" is arranged with much fanfare and receives similar string/horn/techno treatment as "Introduction ~ King of Kings".
If you like classic game music, this is an arranged album you can't afford to miss. Each track is well done and stands well on its own, as well as fitting in well with the whole picture. Despite the aforementioned Perfect Selection Dracula rap songs, Nazo Nazo Project is a group that really knows their stuff and deserve mention among powerhouse arrangers such as Ryo Yonemitsu and Motoi Sakuraba, for their ability to make the core melody and feel of the original tracks they arrange really shine. Their whole Perfect Selection series is an impressive display on how to arrange game music the right way and Perfect Selection Gradius is one of their best efforts (topped only by the awesome Perfect Selection Sound Racing History , in my opinion). The only problem that surrounds this disc, like all of the Perfect Selections, is actually finding them. They're all out of print and, because they're associated with Konami and (often) familiar brand names, can be pricey because of high demand. That said, this CD is well worth the $50 or so it would take you to add it to your game music collection. Best advice is to cough up the money and enjoy the music.
Introduction ~ King of Kings
Prelude of Legend
Into Hostile Ship
Try to Star
Return to The Star