Last Ranker x OST and Power-Up Music

Last Ranker is available on the Playstation Portable, but only in Japan.

Given the last couple of posts on this blog, I  clearly don’t have any reservations about nerding out over games that I don’t play extensively – or even at all. I find that opens the door to another huge space in the gaming market between Asia-only releases, genres with significant skill curves, and even just different consoles.

Last Ranker lives in that space, a double-whammy because it’s a Japan-only PSP game, whereas I’ve never lived in Japan or owned a PSP.

It still looks solid enough in motion – CAPCOM’s take on RPG mechanics in the vein of Final Fantasy‘s famed ATB system (from what I can gather). The storywriter was responsible for what I’d pin as some of Square’s hammier and more melodramatic games, but the concept of warriors competing for in-fiction leaderboard dominance and the dramatized animation during combat point in that direction, anyway.

Most of all, its soundtrack by Yoko Shimomura of Kingdom Hearts noteriety just gets me going every time I hear it.

It’s not an especially long album for this sort of game, but 42 tracks is still plenty, especially for a handheld game. The most notable thing about the bunch is that nearly half of them share a melody for at least some substantial portion of their runtime – and many that don’t will borrow little note progressions to hint back at it.

The album’s main theme is a powerful, energetic piece, but not a quickly-paced one. Instead, it’s much more measured and restrained in its way – even during the bridges and breaks between refrains, the instrumentation feels as though it could break free and run wild at any moment. It’s akin to the boxer who’s holding out round after round, keeping pace while waiting for his opening.

It’s got all the elements that a proud warrior’s theme needs; a set of triumphant horns, an unrelenting percussion, a sturdy baseline, and even a little taste of the strings on top giving it an edge. In different places on the album, it’s even got a forward-sounding vocalist belting short-form English lyrics about struggle and victory.

The centerpiece of Last Ranker’s soundtrack is nothing if not a real, red-blooded battle anthem.

One that gets wrung out over 12 variations within the game’s soundtrack.

That does seem a bit like a lot, especially considering how its nature means that it only makes sense and gets used in the context of pulsing battle themes. But unlike leitmotifs used to represent a character or concept and re-contextualize other pieces of music, the main theme (Be the Last Ranker) serves more to tie together and unify a set of pieces all with the same drive and purpose.

And that’s kind of how I like my “power-up” music.

You may have created some similar music playlist yourself – the one you put on during workouts or some other high-intensity activity to fire up your brain and keep your body pushing through the task before you. But – as with other working music – the best sort doesn’t necessarily want your attention, but instead plants itself firmly in the background (something that most video game soundtracks are built around in the first place).

Educator and video producer CGP Grey has pointed to the long, continuous mash-up albums of pop music he works to, where the self-similar pop songs throughout meld into one another and become indistinct. It creates a sort of non-distracting trance for him. Putting the variations on Be the Last Ranker end-to-end does the same thing, but a bit more explicitly.

The slight changes how the melody is used across different tracks keeps it slightly and continuously varied over time so as not to be as grating as a three-minute track on loop. Instead, by adhering to the same progressions, general sense of instrumentation, and especially tempo as a through-line, but letting the different songs color in the gaps in their own ways, the quarter of Last Ranker‘s soundtrack reinforcing the main melody feel like a ceaseless, prolonged advance toward whatever your goal is in that moment.

Of course, this is by far the only game (let alone movie, television series, or so on) to make use of a recurring sequence of music throughout its score – in fact, it’s a bit of a common practice in character-focused works or RPGs with long soundtracks. For a great example, check out Game Score Fanfare‘s excellent video on the also-excellent Bravely Default – naturally, having audio at his disposal means he can do so much more to illustrate the same point that I’m getting at here.

Unfortunately, this is another one of those soundtracks that you’ll have to seek out on your own, as it can’t be found in an official capacity on international Spotify, iTunes, or YouTube channels (presumably due to a lack of licensing outside its native Japan).

Kind of a shame, but in fairness, I’m sure that there are plenty of excellent Swedish hip-hop groups that don’t have international releases for their potential fans in Canada. It’s difficult to have everything everywhere.

Still, as it comes, Last Ranker has a delightful mix of atmospheric pieces, stronger offerings to underscore confrontations, and some more thoughtful and enigmatic entries to its score – all of the quality that people associate with Shimomura as a composer. But with some pruning down to the dozen tracks carrying the game’s main theme, Last Ranker‘s music becomes a succession of variations on the same knock-down, drag-out sound to push you through a run or some heavy lifting or even that danged boring paperwork that you need to hammer your way through.

Fun Fact: Yoko Shimomura’s other work includes Street Fighter II, most of the Mario RPG series (chiefly those whose titles do not include ‘Paper’) , and even a beat-’em-up based on Marvel’s Punisher.

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