SQ Chips is the fourth album in the "SQ" collection of Square arranged albums, spanning such popular series as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Secret of Mana, Xenogears and SaGa. This latest venture is dedicated to chiptune synth, similar in many ways to classic NES music of yore but in this case with a great deal of powering up. Normally I'm not the biggest fan of the genre, but SQ Chips not only surpasses my cautious expectations, it does just about everything I could have even hoped for in a chiptune arranged album of Square music.
Though the sound of the album is very much true to its chiptune theme, this is not your father's (or your twenty years younger self's) NES 8-bit. For one thing the producers wisely seem to have given themselves any number of sound channels to work with, which allows for all sorts of crazy things going on in the synth. What a surprise it is to go from the orchestral version of "The Wind Calls to Shevat in the Blue Sky" in the Xenogears orchestral album Myth to the chiptune version in SQ Chips and not feel like it's lost any complexity in sound in the process. "Near the Water" wasn't originally one my favorites from Final Fantasy XII, but the synth aquatic effects alone make this version well worth the listen. And when combined with personal favorite themes the creative synth is just icing on the cake, like with the moody, mysterious bits in the always excellent "Ronfaure".
For another thing the producers haven't limited themselves exclusively to 8-bit. The drums and especially the bass sound fuller in many tracks than I remember NES sound being - closer to Genesis quality perhaps - which really helps bring out the dancey quality in many of the arrangements. And a few tracks have samples scattered about to supplement to 8-bit synth. Final Fantasy VI's "Terra's Theme" features some fantastically moody sampled strings for the dark beginning to the game's opening, Final Fantasy III's "Sailing Enterprise ~ The Invincible" has vocal samples of a Japanese MC yelling "Here we go!" and "Are you ready?" (silly, superfluous additions in an otherwise fantastic remix of two enormously enjoyable themes), and a brief but perfectly placed new age "oooo" in "SaGa2 Medley" makes a good track better.
The arrangements are, in short, massive fun. The nostalgia in familiar tracks remains intact but there's always something extra, and in most cases that includes crazy-high energy. A good half I'd say you could as easily label dance music as chiptune music, and if Square ever take it upon themselves to release a "Dance SQ" they're going to have a hard time topping the arrangements here. Rest assured though that the melodies are always at the forefront - everything moves at a brisk pace and the themes remain exactly as you love them but with a bright, sparkling coat of 8-bit paint.
In a chiptune album with such a surprising variety of sounds, "Aerith's Theme" combines perhaps the greatest number of disparate elements into a somehow delectable whole. The once sorrowful theme gets a happier, playful quality with quirky, glitchy synth at first then bouncy house music later, accompanied by cutesy, synthy "la la la" samples and one of the most delightful moments of the album in a quiet, solitary fade. It's been many years since I found myself humming Aerith's theme but after ending my morning commute with the SQ Chips version that's exactly what happened.
The grand finale comes in an insanely energetic arrangement of Seiken Densetsu's "Final Battle ~ Mana Temple" and in two spectacular ending suites. The first half of the six-minute "Chrono Trigger Character Medley" is dance beat-infused synth gold, moving perfectly from the ending theme "To Far Away Times" to Lucca's theme to Robo's theme to a giddiness-inducing synth rendition of Frog's theme, complete with a touch of modulation that perfectly mimics the original's piccolo flute.
The ten-minute concluding "Final Fantasy IV-V-VI Ending Medley" combines some of the highlights from each game's classic ending theme in just about the most perfect chiptune arrangement imaginable. Following a somber synth rendition of the beginning to Final Fantasy IV's ending, a groovy dance bassline and high-energy synth kick in for its "Red Wings" and "Main Theme" and never let loose on through Final Fantasy V's "The Dragon Spreads Its Wings" and "Ahead on Our Way", then on to Final Fantasy VI's tremendously uplifting conclusion based on the theme for Setzer. As much as I love my soundtracks there aren't a whole lot of times I can use the word "euphoric" in description. This track would be one of them.
Even as someone not often inclined towards chiptune music, I couldn't be happier with SQ Chips. I won't go so far as to say it's genre-defyingly good, but chiptunes are such a distinct and specific niche that such a thing probably isn't even possible. However for anyone with even a bit of 8-bit in their blood and especially those also with some fondness for the Square tunes on hand, it's a can't miss.