Like any great film, a video game is often only as strong as the sum of its parts. Music can be just as important as gameplay or visuals to making or breaking a game. In his new column Audio Play, Deadshirt Video Games Editor Kyle Herr showcases some of his favorite composers from the past and present.
Lately I’ve been convincing some of my friends to play Persona 4, one of my all time favorite games. This is partially why I decided to feature Atlus Games composer Shoji Meguro in this first installment of Audio Play. Mostly though, I just really love his music. However, before I get into Meguro himself, let me give you a little backstory about Persona 4 and why his work shines through it so well.
Based in a fictional town in rural Japan, this RPG centers around a group of friends trying to solve a murder mystery as well as face their own dark sides. As the characters pursue the killer and stumble over twists and turns, they are forced to come face to face with their darkest secrets. Only after accepting their true natures can the heroes unlock the hidden powers within themselves necessary to defeat the onslaught of monsters that plague a mysterious world that the killer seemingly operates from.
Despite this dark plot, the setting is often very bright and nostalgic for youth, and as such, many of the most prominent songs in the game are exceptionally bright and cheerful, featuring the trappings of Japanese pop and rock music. Take, for instance, “Reach Out to the Truth,” the main battle theme that you’re sure to hear thousands of times over the course of the game.
It’s quite a fitting theme for a game that often treads the line between serious matters like identity issues, homicide, and the daily lives of a bunch of high school kids. While it initially just strikes as a “do your best to succeed” anime jingle, the more the game throws at you, the more this song really becomes the driving force in fights. I often found myself inputting commands to the beat. You would be surprised how even as my party fights for their lives, how much an upbeat rock tune looping in the background does to keep me focused on survival.
If anything, it’s a fun little song that will get stuck in your head for weeks after playing the game. It’s characteristic of Meguro’s more recent style that has been honed throughout his near two decades of composing. Oddly enough, despite some very heavy pop stylings in his Persona work, Meguro is not heavily influenced by that particular genre.
Growing up in Tokyo, Meguro was, surprisingly, not a fan of contemporary music; rather he preferred classical composers and eventually grew fond of jazz-fusion acts and brass ensembles. After graduating from a technical college with a degree in hydrodynamics, Meguro, who dabbled in music, sent a demo tape to Atlus. He was quickly hired and given his first job, composing part of the score for a game called Revelations: Persona, a spin-off of their flagship Shin Megami Tensei series. While working on this game, Meguro composed an iconic theme that’s still used in each subsequent Persona game, one heavily influenced by his love of classical music and opera. Let’s take a listen.
This is actually one of the few themes that Meguro has created over the years that heavily dabbles in his greatest influences. Most of the game itself features a synth-driven soundtrack with dark pulsing tones, a few bittersweet piano pieces, and some rock inspired battle themes. However, when the game was remade for the PSP, Meguro changed the soundtrack almost completely, bringing it closer to that of a later game in the series albeit with a darker tone and less poppy vocals. Some fans were upset by this change, but many thought it was an improvement.
As you may have guessed from the earlier song and that last paragraph, Meguro is actually most famously known for his rock-influenced scores. Of course, there are a few exceptions where he has been known to mix his signature style with his own tastes. One of the biggest examples is the soundtrack to the Horror/Comedy/Puzzle game Catherine that he collaborated with two other composers on and features many rearrangements of classical pieces performed in the vein of rock songs.
The idea with this score was to provide a grandiose sense of dread to the “nightmare” sequences that comprise the bulk of the gameplay. During these scenes, the protagonist, Vincent, is forced to climb an enormous shifting tower that threatens to crush, impale, or otherwise kill him every night in his dreams. Much of the design of the different sections of this tower are inspired by classical architecture and features. The building tempo and powerful orchestration of these songs adds to the frantic pace at which you need to climb to avoid falling from the rapidly collapsing structure. These tracks are great, but they really turn the game into pure chaos as it’s already very difficult before the music really starts to kick in.
As I mentioned earlier, Meguro is not only a longtime fan of classical music, but of jazz fusion and funk as well. Often, this completely overshadows his classical influences. To demonstrate, here’s another track from Persona 4 that, while very much a pop song, contains a bassline and progression that would sound much more at home in a funk-rock song from 1970s American radio. Listen past the hooks and try to feel the influences at work in the background.
While I do love hearing his greatest influences so heavily saturating his interpretations of popular music (how many games feature funk-influenced pop songs, after all?), Meguro is one of my favorite composers due to his versatility. Some perfect examples can be found throughout the Persona 3 soundtrack.
The overall mood of the game is rather dark and bleak. As such, it features a heavy reliance on moody, electronic and rock music. Incorporated into a game where the characters invoke their Persona powers by holding gun shaped devices to their heads and a secret hour every night where an immense tower bursts from the earth, this style only makes sense.
However, there are some brighter pop pieces as well that play as you navigate school and the city where the game takes place. Due to the urban environment (albeit in Japan), Meguro incorporated hip hop beats and rap verses into many of the exploration and battle themes to capture the rise of the style throughout large cities in Japan.
As for a final example of Meguro’s versatility, remember how I mentioned that he is known for his rock-based style? Here’s a very famous metal-influenced theme from Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, a game that quite literally tosses the protagonist into a war between Heaven and Hell when the apocalypse catches him in a convenient place.
Over the course of this game, you are constantly being pulled back and forth by warring factions, including God and Lucifer themselves, over how the new world should be shaped. This constant coercing and threatening of utter annihilation by both sides is present in this song, taking the form of heavily distorted, barked out lyrics.
This game features a rare example of a Meguro soundtrack that, instead of relying on hum-able melodies and hooks, focuses heavily on an experimental direction centering on distorted vocals, heavy guitar riffing, and dissonant noise.
Shoji Meguro’s soundtracks are so iconic in Japan that he has arranged and performed in at least four concerts celebrating his work, including special concerts held to showcase the Persona games. These often include guest appearances from the singers featured on the soundtracks, video footage, and recently costumed characters, specifically Persona 4 favorite, Teddie.
In recent years Meguro has been very busy with the ever-growing number of Persona-based projects that Atlus has been producing. An expanded remake of Persona 4, remasters of various older installments, and anime films based on the properties are just a few of the things that have been on his plate. This year alone he has been working on three Persona 4 spinoff games set for release later this fall, and the brand new Persona 5 to follow soon after.
While it goes without saying that I’m incredibly excited to hear his contributions on these new games, I hope this little taste of his discography inspires you to check out some of his back catalog, if not one or two of the new titles. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite of Meguro’s live performances, a concert rendition of the final boss theme from Persona 3.