The melancholy of Koshiro Yuzo
I've been replaying Etrian Odyssey Untold lately. This has come to pass for a few reasons. For starters, I'm impatient to hear a localization announcement for Etrian Odyssey V from Atlus, who tragically appears to have stopped announcing U.S. releases until Persona 5 is out. Sorry, but Persona's not the fifth-in-a-series Atlus game I'm personally excited about, so I'll have to settle for taking what I can get in the meantime. Secondly, I lost the save data to all my Etrian Odyssey digital releases when I made the jump from 3DS to New 3DS (along with a whole lot of other save data) and have slowly been working to reclaim progress in beloved games.
But most of all, the recent Micro episode on FM synthesis got me in the mood to hear some great faux chiptunes. On top of that, I was supposed to be interviewing Yuzo Koshiro during last week's trip to Tokyo, which I had to scrub at the literal last minute as I unexpectedly rushed my wife to the emergency room a few hours before my flight. She's fine, thankfully, but I didn't get to talk to Koshiro, which a letdown... so immersing myself in Etrian Odyssey's Koshiro-crafted score, which simulates the FM synthesis sound of the PC9801 computer, seemed like an acceptable alternative.
By default, Etrian Odyssey Untold presents "orchestrated" renditions of its soundtrack, which is all well and good and aesthetically matches the enhanced 3D visuals of the game. But you can set the soundtrack to the alternate retro mode, which may result in a bit of an anachronism — the synth-style soundtrack worked with the original DS games because they seemed like such throwbacks — but I kind of don't care. FM synthesis may not offer the same kinds of sonic texture and subtlety as live instruments, but it still can set a powerful mood, and for my money everything I love about Etrian Odyssey is summed up in the original chiptune version of its first labyrinth's background tune.
It feels at once hopeful and adventurous, yet simultaneously somber. You're striking out into the unknown with green recruits Fight and Heal along with a bunch of other level-one nobodies, just beginning to map out a labyrinth filled with impossible monsters and dire traps. You'll be able to take it all on eventually, but at the outset, you're just meat to be chewed up and spit out by the dungeon. All of that comes across marvelously in this composition, which should neatly dispel that myth about FM synthesis music only ever sounding like farting robots.
Koshiro composes most of his music in a tracker application to he's tuned to replicate (more or less) the sound hardware of the old PC9801 computer, but Etrian Odyssey was one of the few instances where the final game used those vintage-style arrangements rather than being reworked to sound more contemporary. The DS game had to compress the sound to fit onto those tiny cartridges, and the official soundtrack releases for the first three games contained two sets of the tunes: The compressed in-game renditions, and the original FM-style source files. The 3DS remakes, which use more capacious storage media, skip the compressed DS tunes and simply give you pure, unadulterated FM joy for the retro arrangements. Because Atlus loves you. Even if they are holding out on Etrian Odyssey V. Why you gotta hurt me, baby?
You know, it just occurred to me... SEGA owns Atlus, DataDiscs has been churning out vinyl collections of classic SEGA soundtracks, including some by Koshiro. We need to start bugging them to release, like, a 12-disc Etrian Odyssey series FM synth collection. Anyway, in 2017 I hope to put together Retronauts episodes on both Etrian Odyssey (yes, it becomes eligible for our 10-year "retro" designation in a few months) and Yuzo Koshiro, so please put the music embed above on "loop" for the next few months in order to hone your anticipation.