Go read this for a while.

P.S. If you happen to be in New York between now and September 11, go see this.

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on July 11th, 2011 :: Posts :: Tags : ,

Collision Detection

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on November 16th, 2010 :: Images :: Tags : , , ,
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The Short, Happy Lives of Reika Kirishima

I wrote a short piece on Time Gal (1985)—and, specifically, death—for MUBI. You can read it here.

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on September 22nd, 2010 :: Posts :: Tags : , , , ,

Collision Detection


Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on August 13th, 2010 :: Images :: Tags : , , , ,

Stars Down Deep

Just a quick note: I wrote about Super Mario Galaxy 2 for The House Next Door. SPOILER ALERT: It’s a very good video game.

I’m disappointed that the editors didn’t use my original title (although I also completely understand), so I’m shamelessly using it for this post!

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on July 7th, 2010 :: Posts :: Tags : , , ,
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Vieo Gams!

Sorry about the current lack of updates—I have been writing about vieo gams, honestly, but lately it has been for another site, The House Next Door (Slant Magazine’s blog). I reviewed a few recently released titles for them, the links to which are below:

Splinter Cell: Conviction

3D Dot Game Heroes

Trauma Team

I should also have a piece on Super Mario Galaxy 2 up there soon. Yeah! To quote Chris Remo, “VIDEO GAMES [.]”

VGM of the Week will return, as well as the podcast, although the ETA right now is uncertain…I have some ideas, but they are stupidly ambitious and will require a multitude of special guests, so I don’t know how/if that’s going to work out. To quote myself, “wish me luck, i guess.”

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on June 14th, 2010 :: Posts

VGM of the Week

(Part of a continuing series spotlighting an individual piece of music from a video game.)

Villi People/Jim’s Now a Blind Cave Salamander! (Moonlight Sonata, 1st Movement)

Game: Earthworm Jim 2 (1995–96)
Composer: Ludwig van Beethoven (arranged by Tommy Tallarico)

For all of the wacky and irreverent humor that the Earthworm Jim series is known for—and indeed, its manic, schizophrenic style is one of its most enduring qualities—Shiny Entertainment’s platformer/shooter/cow launcher games exhibited true craftsmanship and artistry at the time, sometimes at the expense of gameplay (attack distances and collision parameters can be hard to judge because the animations are so fluid, for example). While the first Earthworm Jim is more of a standard jump and gun platforming title—albeit with a refreshing taste of self-depreciating humor—Earthworm Jim 2 actively sought to erase players’ expectations by making each level a complete guessing game as to what the objective would be and how your character would control. By the time the game’s fourth level is reached (really the third, but the first of three “catch the falling kittens” mini-levels has also taken place), the notion that “all bets are off” has already been well established.

Which is what makes the level itself so strange and poetic. Main character Jim disguises himself as a cave salamander and must slowly drift and swim through a gastrointestinal tract, avoiding its walls (as they are lined with pulsating villi) and dodging pinball bumpers and cellular organisms. Think of the underwater bomb diffusing in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES, but slightly less frustrating. In a series known for its brisk hi-jinx, having the pace slow significantly and requiring the player to carefully navigate through a tranquil but very dangerous minefield creates a surreal meta-mindscape, allowing room to breathe and reflect, even while in the midst of heavy concentration (some of the collectibles scattered about the level are extremely difficult to get to, especially considering the sprite spatial issues mentioned earlier.)

A large part of this section’s weird beauty and uniqueness is due to Tommy Tallarico’s arrangement of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, eerily represented with synthesizers to invoke a melancholy mood as a backdrop to the level’s cold and sterile biology:

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And before you start coming at me with pitchforks and accusing me of being too Nintendo-centric, here’s the Genesis/Mega Drive rendition:

I’m going to give the edge to the SNES version, however. While there’s nothing wrong with the more plucky harpsichord-sounding instrumentation of the Genesis arrangement—and it does inherently have a more “Classical” feel—the more sustained E. Piano sound of the SNES rendition, with notes that are held longer and decay more realistically thanks to the system’s sound chip, achieves a more emotional and haunting effect (something that is actually more faithful to Beethoven’s original instruction to pianists performing this work to keep the sustain pedal held down throughout).

Before I’m taken to task, yes, there was a version released for the Saturn and PlayStation with a proper acoustic piano sound, but it sounds a tad thin to me and lacks the “warmth” of the other-worldly electric piano that seems appropriate for traveling through a hot and stifling intestinal maze. You be the judge:

Moonlight Sonata returns for the last level of Earthworm Jim 2, with the kinetic final movement of Beethoven’s work serving as a Looney Tunes-like accompaniment to the race against Psy-Crow, the main antagonist of the series. That’s more of a traditional application, however, which makes the moody journey of the blind salamander all the more bizarre and wondrous.

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on April 24th, 2010 :: Posts :: Tags : , , , , , , ,

VGM of the Week

(Part of a continuing series spotlighting an individual piece of music from a video game.)

Games of Happiness

Game: Yoshi’s Story (1998)
Composer: Kazumi Totaka

The name Kazumi Totaka has a bit of notoriety attached to it, and it’s no wonder—the man hides secret melodies within games’ sound files, provides the odd cartoon grunts and gibberish of the Yoshi species, and has a guitar-playing vagabond dog modeled after his likeness. If there was ever a time to use the descriptor “zany,” now would be it. That said, I totally respect Totaka as a composer and sound designer, because his work is always original and refreshing, and not afraid to push an average listener out of their comfort zone. His scores are both catchy and anti-melodic, jaunty and arrhythmic, and usually all of these simultaneously. One gets a hint of his style in titles like Animal Crossing—the default town theme on the bulletin board contains a random note as part of its melody, for example—and even Mario Paint has a little irreverence to it, shamelessly dropping cat meows and baby “goo-goos” into a sophisticated (at the time) music editor. I don’t know the extent of Totaka’s input into the design of that music editor, of course, but it sure seems like a suggestion that he would make, doesn’t it? There’s always a little “kink” in his work, some aural element that you have to compute, always succeeding at keeping you in the game during any given moment, observing and processing.

I think Totaka’s score for Yoshi’s Story strikes a perfect balance between the weird and whimsical things we expect from him as a composer, while also proving to be one of the most charming collections of song variants ever in a video game. The game itself has some design issues that disappointed critics, especially after many thought they were getting a sequel to Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. It’s a tad too short and a bit too simple, perhaps even shallow in its gameplay. Regardless, the music is daring—each track is an arrangement of a principal melody, done in a different style depending on the theme of the level and its particular tasks (perhaps influenced by Koji Kondo and his work on Super Mario World ). Here’s the example I selected:

This piece exemplifies all of the personal flourishes of Totaka that make his music so great: A delightfully upbeat melodic line filled out by a vaudevillian-jazz inspired chord progression, fluctuating tempos, and slightly off-center instrumentation and sound effect embellishments that seem to actually be working against the composition (phones, teledata packets, Game Boys). The brilliant thing is that they aren’t, of course. Everything is meant to invoke a certain timbre, as varied and interesting as the visual textures that define the look of Yoshi’s Story. It’s coarse and tactile. I love it.

Yoshi’s Story is available on Virtual Console if you’re curious about the rest of the score and never played the game. It’s a great example of a Nintendo composer doing things his way, even if they may be categorized as a little eccentric.

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on April 16th, 2010 :: Posts :: Tags : , , , , , , , , , , ,
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Games/New York

Part of a continuing series of images. Click on photo to view full-size.

A malfunctioning news ticker sign reveals its abstract materiality with a lone visual unit.
Perhaps this is pixél vérité?

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on April 14th, 2010 :: Images :: Tags : , ,

VGM of the Week

(Part of a continuing series spotlighting an individual piece of music from a video game.)

Funky Goblin

Game: King Arthur’s World (Royal Conquest in Japan) (1992)
Composer(s): Martin Simpson, Justin Scharvona

King Arthur’s World is one of those lesser-known gems that I was extremely lucky to have played as a kid, when I had little knowledge of/access to qualitative information about video games other than what Nintendo Power commanded me to love. If I recall, I received this game as a birthday present because I was into knights and castles and Gothic architecture (David Macaulay’s Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction was a huge influence), and my Mom saw the box inside the big glass case at Target and thought it was a good fit. She was right! I discussed this side-scrolling Lemmings-type strategy game on Blitcast One (Mom certainly wasn’t aware that it was an SNES Mouse compatible game and lucked out there),  but one thing I didn’t elaborate on was the excellent soundtrack. It was one of the first SNES games to feature Dolby Surround, and while that can be passed off as merely a gimmick, an extra excuse to play with the Sound Test on the main menu, the fact that the music stands on its own in plain ol’ stereo is a testament to its quality.

Most of the score is what you would expect, with stately marches and bleating brass, but there are a few pleasant surprises—a rendition of Ride of the Valkyries, for example, with swirling digital strings that will pump up any strategy-game player preparing for battle guaranteed. The biggest surprise, however, is when King Arthur and his army travel to the Goblin Underworld and come face to face with, uh, funk.

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I remember putting this track on during the Sound Test and letting it play in the background while I grooved through my homework in our den, a precursor to Winamp. It’s a strange shift in a game with a mostly medieval score, but it undoubtedly works—hell does seem like it would have a little funk to it, heat and “bad”-ness.

An interesting side-note: King Arthur’s World was developed by Argonaut Software, the company that collaborated with Nintendo on the development of the Super FX chip and its flagship title, Star Fox (it was also the former stomping grounds of alumni Dylan Cuthbert, now at Q-Games, and Giles Goddard, who stayed on at Nintendo for a time and lent his programming prowess to titles such as the excellent 1080 Snowboarding).

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Related Posts:
Blitcast One: SNES Mouse
Collision Detection

Title screenshot from VGMuseum. Composer information courtesy of Goblin Underworld map from VGMaps.

Posted by Kurt Shulenberger on April 9th, 2010 :: Posts :: Tags : , , , , , , , ,
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