Game Music, Reviews

Renaissance Woman Winifred Phillips’ Latest Work: Spore Hero Original Videogame Score (Review)

October 21, 2009 | | 7 Comments Share thison Facebook Renaissance Woman Winifred Phillips’ Latest Work: Spore Hero Original Videogame Score (Review)on Twitter

Before you begin reading this review, I implore you: if you don’t know the name Winifred Phillips, just check her credentials on Wikipedia right now.

Though she has had recent involvement in the game music scene, perhaps the most impressive work of hers is the music she composed and produced for NPR‘s Generation Radio Theater Presents (later retitled Radio Tales). She was a radio actress for this program alongside all the music written here. As a long-time NPR fan, I have to point this out to contextualize Phillips’ past work.

Since familiarizing herself in the world of game music, Phillips worked on God of War earlier this decade, and SimAnimals earlier this year (see our coverage here). Now, she’s moved on to Spore Hero, the Wii-exclusive side game to the innovative “create-your-own-species Sim” Spore, which received mixed reaction last year despite much early hype. Spore Hero for Wii was released very recently (first week of October 2009 in North America and Europe), and Phillips’ score went on sale, digitally, through EA’s record label EARS in the same timeframe.

For our review of the Spore Hero Original Videogame Score, follow the jump. And don’t let the cover art fool you: this is really, really good stuff.

What’s this? A tracklist?! Why yes, yes it is.

01 Spore Hero Main Theme
02 Home World
03 Haven
04 Sporable
05 Sporaging
06 SporeZone
07 Monster Mayhem
08 Sporexlpore
09 Beast Brawl
10 Wanderment
11 Sporeward
12 Creepy Things
13 Evolvable
14 Sporabilities
15 Nemesis
16 Critters
17 Spore War
18 Hero Theme

Disregarding the abundant use of “Spore” puns, that’s quite a nice tracklist. Only two tracks of the full set fall under two minutes, and many go to four minutes and beyond. All told, the album is well beyond the “full-length” 40 minute marker. So if you’re worried about quantity, rest assured, we’re covered on that front.

Now, as for quality. Regarding what this album aims to achieve, it passes with flying colors. But there’s no question that only a certain segment of music lovers will appreciate this score. It is masterful indeed, but it is also whimsical. Much of it might be described as “children’s music,” like Yasunori Mitsuda’s Hako no Niwa. But, if that is the case, it is some of the best children’s music I’ve ever heard. Keep in mind that the great composers of centuries past (Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Bach, Bartok) would write music that was targeted for young listeners, and those works are often exquisite as well. They’re also quite playful, and that can turn off some adult listeners.

The first three tracks are a powerhouse of memorable themes. The “Spore Hero Main Theme” is a very catchy, rhythmic romp of a track. The percussion instruments, both primary and auxiliary, do a great job of making me shake and squirm, whether sitting or standing. The melodic patterns exist within a predominantly major key, with some delving into modal scales (via changes in chord progression and tonics over the same scale as the major). I love compositions like these, and Phillips really knocks it out of the park with this one!

“Home World” and “Haven” make full use of a symphony orchestra: brass, woodwind, string ensembles, percussion (including orchestra bells), even piano and harp. And they don’t just make nominal use of them; each section seems to exist as a tool, like different sized and shaped paintbrushes, to mark out different ideas on a musical canvas. It’s all very pretty, and very cute, and extremely impressive. Again, I detect a lot of modal scales, particular Lydian mode (for you pianists, that’s all white keys from F to F; for music theory kids, that’s a sharp four in the scale). It’s a great scale to use when you’re feeling extra lively. Hitoshi Sakimoto uses it a lot in his happier compositions, particularly in Final Fantasy Tactics and Final Fantasy XII. In the context of Spore Hero, while it may be less memorable for someone like myself who only has a passing interest in the actual game, the musical prowess is just through the roof. It’s not often a game gets a score quite this good.

If this is all a little too sugar-sweet-happy for you, note track titles “Monster Mayhem,” “Beast Brawl,” and “Nemesis” (among others). These are the battle themes. And while they still have their moments of whimsy, they demonstrate a level of intensity that one might not expect based on hearing the first few tracks of the album. I love Phillips’ use of trumpet, flute, and especially xylophone on “Beast Brawl.” Phillips also strays from traditional orchestral territory by including instruments like uillean pipes (bagpipes with much less bag, a Celtic favorite) and tinwhistles throughout her score.

And what soundtrack described as “whimsical” can avoid inevitable comparisons to Danny Elfman? If you want that Elfman sound (found in Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and others), you’ll find it here, on occasion, in tracks like “Creepy Things.”

All in all, this is one fine soundtrack. Let me be honest: I wasn’t expecting a lot out of Spore Hero‘s soundtrack. But that’s because I was judging the book by its cover, and not by its author. Had I known Ms. Phillips was in charge, and had I known her full background in music ahead of time, I would’ve been excited far sooner. It’s been quite a journey of discovery for me, and this particular soundtrack helped illuminate the path.

Audiophiles, get in line! The full soundtrack is sold digitally for under $10 via Amazon. More game soundtracks need to hold to this high quality standard. Winifred Phillips, I applaud you on yet another job well done!

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