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Review of Tomb Raider PSX Redbook Audio

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It’s something that doesn't need to be said. It’s something that is nowhere near surprising. It’s something that everyone knows is there, and exists in every facet of life. The concept of debate is alive and well in this world and in its people, from subjects ranging from politics to religion to gaming. Like politicians, most gamers can usually hold their own in conversation, unloading salvo upon salvo of ammo when it comes to explaining or defending a point of view. Sometimes, getting some of them to stop is harder than providing a constructive counterpoint to the point they’re trying to make. As intense as such conversation can become, would anyone want it any other way? But really, what sparks these battles of pros and cons? From the vague, off-the-wall reference to a full-blown decree of love or hate for a game itself it often doesn't take much, yet does anything draw a line in the sand quicker than uttering a phrase like “the golden age of gaming?”

Such distinctions are relative for obvious reasons, but in writing this, I can’t help but feel a soft spot in my heart for the original PlayStation and how it introduced so many players to the third dimension. However, in my case, this wasn't the real draw behind the console. An emerging teen at the time of its launch, the gritty worlds presented in games like Final Fantasy VII, Resident Evil and Tomb Raider seemed more appealing than the bright and colorful ones presented in games like Super Mario 64. Such a statement is not an attempt to downplay the impact Mario 64 had on the industry and its players, but for someone looking for an edgier and more adult oriented experiences, it wasn't the answer. Tomb Raider and its protagonist Lara Croft were. As cut and dry as it would seem for the game to become a personal favorite, there was a lot more to the equation than the above would imply. There was also the music of Nathan McCree.

Redbook Audio to the Rescue!

As most game music followers know, “redbook audio” is a term that refers to music from CD-ROM based games that can be read and accessed through normal, traditional means like an everyday CD player. Because of this, most of the music from Tomb Raider is right there for listeners to enjoy outside the game as long as they have a copy of the game itself. However, it should be noted there is a painful exception for PC players here. Due to performance issues related to the slower speed CD-ROM drives in use around the game’s launch in 1996, the music was omitted from this version of the game outside a few ambient themes and the opening number. Bummer! On the other hand, in a somewhat decent tradeoff, PC players would have the ability to save their games on the fly unlike their console counterparts who would have to make do with strategically placed, one-shot save crystals.

While the CD-ROM format may have limited this particular iteration of the game, it would only open it up further on the aforementioned consoles. The limited application of music in Lara’s world, coupled with the expansive amount of space granted by compact discs, would allow the game’s developers to bypass the use of sequenced music. Famous, early examples showing the limits of such programmed music on the PlayStation would include games like Final Fantasy VII and Wild Arms, games with so much music that redbook audio would not be a plausible solution. With such freedom in hand with Tomb Raider, Nathan McCree and his Roland JV-90 synthesizer (outfitted with an SR-JV80 orchestra expansion board) would more or less be uninhibited in their quest in bringing key parts of the game’s quest alive beyond their visual representation. But in the real world where progress is a necessary evil, how well do these musical moodscapes fair today? You may be surprised.

Heeding the Call of the Tombs

First, let’s heed the advice of Alucard (from Symphony of the Night) and skip right past track number one which is roughly thirty minutes of “computer data” that is of no value without the console itself. Starting with track number two, we find the first piece of actual music, a tune that has become known as “Lara’s Theme.” Warm and pleasing in nature, its job of inviting the player into Lara’s world on the game setup screen is more than familiar to most. A beckoning call from the brass section kicks things off, with the gentile stings of a harp and a haunting - yet relaxing - choir joining the proceedings in quick order. There's a certain aquatic feel to it which is most likely born out of its serene quality and that the edited, game play version of the track (track 4) usually crops up around bodies of water. This in-game edit ingeniously dumps the section where the chants come together in their effort to form a mid-piece climax, allowing it to dissipate cleanly when the game goes back to its cryptic, moody self with “Ambient Noises” (track 5) lurking in the background.

When things require for the silence to be shattered by the threat of danger, McCree offers up a two pronged attack. The methodical advancement heard throughout “Battle in the Ancient Courtyard” (track 8) and its shortened counterpart (track 16) bring an impressive amount of power and drama to the fold while avoiding the problems that come with presenting intensity in an orchestral style. Generally, these are reserved for more organic threats like creature attacks where something is actively tracking you down, although there are a handful of exceptions where this doesn't hold true. The same can be said for compositions like “Escaping Danger” (track 6) and its edit “More Danger” (track 20) in that they are not regulated to environmental hazards and traps, but are geared towards such a purpose with their uneasy nature. A similar sensation runs through “The Trapped Hallway” (track 9) as well, though it is more forthright with its plan to lead the player into a false sense of security – something that can be quite deadly.

Other numbers devote themselves more to depicting the splendor and scale of given locations rather than the various pratfalls within them. The tag team punch thrown by the reflective sadness in “Ruins of a Lost Civilization” (track 10) and the inquisitive grip of “Architecture of the Past” (track 7) is hard - if not downright impossible - to ignore, and leaves less, all encompassing numbers like “Another Deserted Place” (track 17) and “An Abandoned Chamber” (track 3) behind when removed from their in-game context. A similar fate awaits the darkness found within the event driven “Derelict Mechanism” (track 18) as well, its elements ultimately put to better use elsewhere even though its male dominated choir brings plenty of interesting aspects to the table.

Another area that falters outside the scope of the game is the small collection of musical cues or jingles. “Secret” (track 13) is the least susceptible to such a “fish out of water” syndrome in that it’s a classic in and of itself. The remaining pieces “Danger” (track 11), “An Ancient Door Opens” (track 12) and “Age Old Artifact” (track 15) all serve their purpose when certain keys, objects and doors are found and activated but make for dry and jumpy listening experience otherwise.

A Few Spare Cogs and Fuses:

Last but not least are a few remaining outtakes and voiceovers. Track 19 presents an alternate, unused version of “Lara’s Theme” that has been fitted with a musical prefix born from either “An Abandoned Chamber” or “Another Deserted Place.” Also included and abandoned is an additional, shorter take on “Architecture of the Past” (track 21) with some subtle instrument changes and a fainter conclusion. The nuttiest outtake has to be the slower, deeper rendition of “Secret” found on track 14 which quickly makes one appreciate the inflection of the final version. Beyond the music itself, one can also find the voiceover tracks for four of the games in-game cut scenes (tracks 22~25), Lara’s vocal instructions from the mansion training level (tracks 26~50) and some rather amusing quips from the game’s human antagonists in the remaining six. As expected, much like the original Resident Evil, the voice acting in Tomb Raider leaves a lot to be desired (especially in this day and age) but there is something that just feels right even when listening to such crude dialogue. Rest assured, it “ain’t nothing personal” against good voice acting.

A Decade Later: Tomb Raider Revisited

As most know, along with a few other classic games from the 32 bit era (e.g. Wild Arms) the original Tomb Raider was re-imaged for the next generation of consoles a little less than ten years after its original release. However, with the panning of Angel of Darkness by players resulting in Eidos switching development teams, one couldn’t help but wonder what Tomb Raider Anniversary would offer even though a heavy dose of fan service was expected. This would apply to the music as well, but unlike the game itself - whose best moments where those taken and adapted from the original – the orchestral bombast that Troels B. Folmann presented throughout the soundtrack added nothing to McCree’s pieces when they made an appearance. Folmann’s work in Anniversary pretty much hits the nail on the head when it comes to my distaste for western composers and their over reliance on orchestration. Of course, there is the obvious hypocritical aspect of such an opinion given the original score was orchestrated as well but at least McCree knew how to keep it tasteful and balanced. In the end, not only did McCree craft something that avoids embracing the stereotypes that come with the style, he created something that will easily outlive that which shamelessly does.

A Game and Score Not To Be Forgotten

Despite the ebb and flow of time, Nathan McCree’s original musical portrait of the adventures of Lara Croft stands as tall today as it did over twelve years ago, and was an integral part in what brought the game to life. Its short length and limited in-game application may appear to be strike against it but nothing could be further from the truth, as these musical asides only emphasizing the importance of the silence in Lara's world. In other words, what the game’s music doesn't do is just as important as what it does and there are few soundtracks where such a statement seems appropriate. Video game music fans that were never enticed by Lara’s third person adventures (“enticed” perhaps not being the best choice of words here) should still check it out as copies of the game are relatively inexpensive.

Editor’s Note: The track titles used above are unofficial and are not endorsed by either the composer or Core Design Ltd. To date, there has never been any official declaration of the name these compositions should go by, the titles above used mainly for clarification purposes.
Added by Ashley Winchester
5 years ago on 4 July 2012 17:33

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