Friday, January 30, 2009

Sonic Boom

Around the mid-nineties, everything changed.

Sonic CD - Sonic Boom (Sega CD)

Technology was improving and CD-ROMs were beginning to replace cartridges as the default computer and video game format. CD-ROMs provided an enormous amount of space, and video game consoles finally had the power to play CD-quality sound. Video games could finally be scored with recordings of real instruments and un-compressed human voices. Even on the Nintendo 64, which still used limited-capacity cartridges, games could feature the same sort of music you might hear on the radio.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater (Nintendo 64)

And so we enter the Modern Age, which is admittedly a poor way of putting it. It's not fair to lump the past fifteen or so years together. In fact, this period has be marked by far more variety than any era of video game music before it.

Space Channel 5 (Sega Dreamcast)
Can someone please tell me why this game doesn't have a sequel on Wii yet?

That's exactly my point, though. With new technology, video game music didn't have to be video game music anymore. Synthetic beeps of the past could be replaced with the sweeping orchestral scores of a Hollywood movie. Game developers could grab a few songs that were already popular with the target demographic, pay some licensing fees, and be done with the soundtrack. It would even be possible for record labels to pay to get a few new, flash-in-the-pan songs into a game in order to promote their artists.

All of the above do happen now, and with incredible frequency. Video game music is no longer exclusively composed of "chiptunes," and while I've spent the last week writing this love letter to video game music of the past, I love the present just as much. There were plenty of awful soundtracks on the NES. Generic, thrashy guitars may not be my thing, but I won't say it's any worse than generic, thrashy beeping.

No More Heroes (Wii)
The soundtrack, like the rest of the game, is a superb mix of the traditional and the hyper-original.

The first big advance in game music of the modern age was, of course, the predictable changes that came from game systems with more storage space and better playback capabilities. To the best of my knowledge, the next revolution came from Koji Kondo's Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time score.

Kondo's theory in creating music is that the music should match the game, and I can't imagine a valid arguement to the contrary. It's not enough to simply have some groovy tunes. The music should match the game's controls, the game's tone and feel. In Ocarina of Time, he took this a bit further with a dynamic, non-linear score, though I'll note that I can't say with any authority that Ocarina was the first to do it. Plenty of early games would have the music speed up, for instance, when the player was approaching the end of a time limit, but Ocarina took it a bit further. While roaming the games expansive fields, eight different music samples would play in random order - a small modification, but it cut down on repetition and predictablity. Even better, music would grow more intense as enemies approached.

Since I've already linked so much of the Zelda stuff, I tried to find an example from the GameCube version of snowboard racing game SSX3, but I can't find any good clips on YouTube. SSX3 has a fairly average soundtrack which feature around forty pop/rock songs. The game was developed for multiple systems, but because the discs on the GameCube were a bit smaller than the other systems' DVDs, the songs couldn't be fit into the game in their entirety. Instead, there are only pieces of these songs which are dynamically spliced together to match the game. This way, 45 seconds of audio can be stretched to fill a ten minute race. In other versions, the songs are played straight-ahead, and once one song is done, another starts. It may sound surprising, but I'v never heard of another person even noticing the difference between the versions. It may seem that this trick would make the GameCube the aurally inferior version, but, in fact, it makes for a significantly more engaging game. As you speed down the mountain, the fastest, most aggressive part of the music plays. A ramp launches you into the air, and suddenly the lyrics cut out as you soar through the sky. It picks up again as you hit the ground, and seamlessly transitions to a more relaxed section as you ride through a cave. Subtle, but hugely effective.

Well, I have fifteen minutes left until the day is over and my daily post is due, so I'd like to skip ahead and wrap this up, and finish with a few last videos. This isn't the strong conclusion I wanted in ending the week, but I suppose it doesn't matter. I've said several times that I know I'm not appealing to people who migh actually read this blog with all this nerdy video game talk, but it has been a fun trip for me. I'm glad I got a bit of this self-indulgance out, and it really has out of my blogging funk. After a long, long break, I think I'm ready to write again. If you read this week, thanks; if not, we now return you to your regularly scheduled JakeyPen. Enjoy.

TimeSplitters 2 - Wild West (GameCube)

Pikmin (GameCube)

Animal Crossing - 5 P.M. (GameCube)
Oh, how I love Animal Crossing music. Every hour, different music would play.

Luigi's Mansion

Metroid Prime (GameCube)

No comments: