Monday, January 26, 2009

Swing Your Arms From Side to Side

Ugh - the idea behind this video game music thing was that it would give me an easy topic to write about during a busy week. Blogging's much easier when you don't have to think of a topic. Even so, it feels like today just wouldn't stop. So little blogging energy. What is the standard unit of blogging energy? The blogocalorie? Whatever. I'm sticking to the schedule, but it's going to be a little light today. Probably doesn't make a difference to any of you, but it's tough for me to have to leave so much out when talking about something like Koji Kondo's music.

And that's exactly where we left off. I have a few theories about why video game music resonates so strongly with video game fans, and Kondo's tunes give plenty of supporting evidence for one of these. Repetition.

First, in the sense that video games tend to last many hours, and music generally plays the whole time. The two biggest memory hogs in video games are graphics and sounds. In the early days of home video games, cartridges could hold less than a megabyte of memory. I hear people complain from time to time about how little they can fit on their MP3 players. Depending on quality, the average size of an MP3 is about one megabyte per minute. Super Mario Bros. contained six different tracks tracks and was considered impressive for the huge variety of its music.

Mario is made up of eight worlds of four levels each. 32 levels, six music tracks, and that includes the Invincibility music that plays if you get a Starman, and I believe one is only at the end. I'm not sure; I don't think I've ever heard it in the game.

That's right, shocking admission: I've never beaten Super Mario Bros. I've tried. Oh, Lordy, how I have tried. I've been trying for 20 years and I just can't do it. Not even with Game Genie. Go ahead and mock me.

My point is, I've played hours of this game that contains minutes of looping music, maybe less, and I've never gotten tired of it.

The complete Mario Bros. soundtrack (NES)

So that's one kind of repetition. Koji Kondo knew what he was up against while composing the score, and he wrote with the purpose of creating something that would be pleasing even when looped for hours on end.

Zelda probably has even less music than Mario and is meant to be a longer adventure (NES)

The other sort of repetition probably wasn't pre-planned in quite the same way. It's the repetition that comes from sequels.

Super Mario Sunshine pays homage to its roots (GameCube)

Video games change rapidly as technology advances. Upgrades in sound, graphics, physics, memory, and computing power mean the possibilities of what gamemakers can create are always expanding. This, combined with insatiable video game fans and marketing people who are too nervous to take chances on original characters and gameplay ideas, means the video games industry is lousy with sequels. While new music is typically written for sequels, a few classic pieces are usually left in in some form. They provide a strong connection throughout a series, provide a dose of nostalgia to fans, and save composers from having to start from scratch on every game.

Well, it's five minutes until midnight, so I better wrap this up before I waste my Mulligan. Here are a few of Kondo's best tunes.

Tomorrow: Sounds of the arcade

Super Mario Bros. 2 / Doki Doki Panic (NES/Famicom)

Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

Super Mario World Super Nintendo

Super Mario 64
had a far larger soundtrack than the previous games. This is widely considered the main theme, but there are so many other fantastic tunes in there. I'm instantly eight years old every time I here this one. The water theme is absolutely moving. There's something so charmingly mid-nineties about this unabashedly electronic tune, and you gotta love that twangy accent. (Nintendo 64)

More Super Mario Sunshine. The technical limitations had more or less been lifted by this point. (GameCube)

Super Mario Galaxy
was, if I'm not mistaken, the first time Kondo used an orchestra to record music for a game (Wii)

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Elegant. Understated. Incredible. Ocarina of Time is frequently called the best game of all time, and while I reserve that title for Donkey Kong, I have to agree that the game is pretty close to perfect, and this is the perfect way to open the game. Even picking a few highlights from the soundtrack is a difficult process. Every second of music is memorable and fitting, and the variety is stunning. You go from this carefree incidental piece to this haunting minimalism to this anxious madness in the games opening level, but would you expect any less from a game named after a musical instrument. Early in the game you're given an ocarina. Different button presses create different notes, and you have to learn to play simple melodies to cause various effects, like the Song of Storms and the Song of Time. I'm leaving too many good songs out. (Nintendo 64)

Note: So, I published the post at midnight, but wasn't quite done, so I thought, "Eh, five more minutes." It's now an hour after midnight. I think I'm ginna stop now. I know no one's going to listen to all the music posted above, but even spending two days on one man's career, I'm having a tough time even picking the essential games, let alone songs.

One more. You wouldn't want the title of today's post to be left a mystery, would you?


Anonymous said...

and I thought blogs with recipes were boring!

Jake said...

They are. There can be more than one boring thing. Seriously, though, this week has been brutal so far. Dull as this stuff probably is - forget probably; I know it's dull - it's better than you'd be getting if I hadn't given myself a topic.