(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.
A round-up of nervous back-pedals, apologies and shout-outs. I placed my hyphens ironically, but no one will understand.
I realize now that in my post on the music of Super Mario Galaxy I may have given composer Mahito Yokota short shrift. This was absolutely not my intention! Yokota’s amazing work on the score and orchestration of SMG is in part the main reason why I wanted to write the piece in the first place. What I was attempting to do with my article was bring to mind the idea that Koji Kondo has instilled a certain “value” into the Mario series, that value being mainly a “living” soundtrack that coalesces with the gameplay in a masterful manner that is seldom explored in other games. Kondo’s philosophy carries over to the Mario games being developed today, and Yokota has proven himself a talented composer in his own right, keeping the legacy of great Mario soundtracks alive. Hope that clears things up!
It’s funny; I’m still trying to figure out exactly HOW to get my voice out there in the blogosphere and incite discussion and feedback, but I’m so self-conscious of it that I usually end up e-stammering like I’m the new 7th grade student at a very cliquey middle school. There’s an unabashed casualness amongst video game writers and journalists that’s both threatening and inviting at the same time. I haven’t wrapped my head around the decorum yet. Twitter has only made things worse; it’s an extremely selective social system that parades under the guise of a slow motion open chat room. Sure, you can @reply anyone and everyone you want, but I wonder, who is going to actually take you seriously if they don’t know you in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to devalue the merits of Twitter; it’s actually been an extremely useful networking tool and has allowed me to meet and chat with some great folks who I don’t think I would have otherwise. I think what I’m trying to do, rather, is apologize for some of the inane outbursts and filler tweets I’ve done lately as an attempt to “fit in” with a crowd that I don’t have the right to roll with. Clearly, I just need to calm down and focus on what matters: the content. Always the content.
As a way to absolve myself from the embarrassing @replies and forum posts, please allow me to recommend some websites:
Nobuooo pitches itself as “User-submitted Videogame Music News,” and for a videogame music junkie like myself, it’s deliciously niche. An impressive source of VGM related articles, interviews, and fan remixes make up the majority of Nobuooo’s content, but the site also has a self-produced video series that is positively bursting with fascinating info (the latest episode features an interview with Tenchu series composer Noriyuki Asakura). The work that the prolific Jeriaska has put into the site is truly commendable.
The internet has a lot to say about former 1up Community Manager Jenn Frank, but the truth of the matter is that she has the enthusiasm and intelligence of a hardcore gamer without the pretension, and I find that really refreshing. The gal’s got spunk. She’s also got an excellent website that consistently points me in the direction of retro-themed goodness. For example, she recently ran a story on the Retro Arcade Museum in Beacon, New York, a place that I will soon be visiting with a hammer and a hollowed out wheelchair.
Living Epic: Video Games in the Ancient World Roger Travis’s blog marrying video games with the discipline of classics always makes for an interesting read, and something that I’ve always appreciated about Living Epic is that Travis takes the time to patiently and thoughtfully respond to comments, creating an honest-to-goodness dialogue with his readers. He’s also been posting much more frequently (a New Year’s resolution, he claims), so it definitely deserves bookmarking.
Finally, I want to thank you, Dear Reader, for taking the time to visit and read Blit. I may not be connected to the industry (in fact, I’m as far on the outskirts as you can get), but I do have a deep respect and passion for electronic games and enjoy sharing my thoughts about them. As always, I welcome feedback…in fact, I CRAVE it. Let me know what’s on your mind, what you think of the site, what you’d like to see in the future, etc. If you’re too shy to comment (and hey, I understand), then feel free to drop me a note at:
kurt AT bliterations DOT com
You can always follow me on Twitter as well. And I promise not to Tweet so haphazardly anymore.
The greatness of game composer Koji Kondo has been expounded upon in countless articles, books, and blogs, so–as I’ve reiterated a few times already–I don’t want to use this precious space (or your time) to simply retread ground and talk about how great the man is. But seriously: this man is GREAT. His sound work really has proven to be monumental for video games, and not just because he crafts instantly recognizable and catchy melodies, but also because of the way in which these themes interact with the player within the context of the gameplay happening at any given time.
A concept that Kondo has mentioned in numerous interviews, and which appears to be more and more prominent in the work that he both composes and oversees, is that of “interactive” sound that morphs and changes depending on what action is taking place on-screen and where; in other words, dynamic composition.
We can trace this technique in Kondo’s work all the way back to Super Mario World (1991), in which an energetic percussion beat would accompany Mario as he rode Yoshi, and stop whenever he dismounted. I suppose if we thought about dynamic composition in this way, we can trace the concept even further back, all the way to Super Mario Bros. (1985), in which the music would speed up to a frenetic pace as the in-game timer winded down, adding a sense of urgency to a level that was, up to that point, a usually cheerful and exploratory game experience. It’s a small temporal detail that has a huge impact on the gameplay, something that Kondo would expand upon in his later musical scores.
In Super Mario 64 (1996), one can really get a clear picture of what Kondo was driving at concerning fluidity in game music, especially during the “Jolly Roger Bay” level, the first in a Mario game to feature swimming in a 3-D environment (discounting the castle moat in the hub-world, of course, which serves more as a sand-box for experimentation and practice than an actual stage). At the start of Jolly Roger Bay, a lone electric piano plays the soothing main theme, unaccompanied by any other instruments. It is only upon entering the water–in essence, beginning the level proper–that a string section enters the arrangement, and as you venture further, eventually reaching an underground cave and sunken pirate ship, the rhythm section fades up and the different layers and complexities of Kondo’s piece are fully revealed. While a player could simply marvel at the expanse of the lake and the beauty of the rendered environment from the shore (well, beautiful at the time, at least), that’s not the main objective that the designers wanted to convey. The true excitement, the “meat” of the stage, was beneath the surface of the water, and having the full score swell in if and only if you actually “dive in” is the perfect way to encourage the player to do so. One of the challenges of creating a good 3-D environment is to compel the player to explore and investigate areas that they can already see in front of them (pop-in and fog, consistent visual blemishes in Nintendo 64 games, are precisely the wrong way to go about doing this, as you’re constantly breaking from the reality of the space, and who wants to explore somewhere or something that’s always undermining its own construct anyway?); achieving this goal with an appropriate and, more importantly, CONTEXTUAL music cue is a stroke of genius on Kondo’s and Shigeru Miyamoto’s part.
While Super Mario Sunshine (2002) also exhibits these kinds of traits–Yoshi, once again, has an accompanying bongo drum beat whenever Mario rides him, for example–Super Mario Galaxy (2007) takes Kondo’s concepts of dynamic sound in videogames to another level entirely. In Galaxy, specific sound effects harmonize themselves with whatever music is playing in the background. So, not only does the music shift and change elastically according to what action is taking place and its location, but the sound of grabbing a coin, for example, actually has a different pitch depending on what chord the music is on the moment Mario grabs it. A tense moment in a level, say, the Ghost Ship, results in an appropriately tense sounding score, which itself results a coin grabbing sound effect that doesn’t feel inherently positive, like a major chord, but is instead a tad dark and mysterious, like those Halloween-y sounding diminished 7th chords in music. This seems like a fairly innocuous mechanism, but it really helps to bond the player and environment together (see Flower (2009) for a recent application of this).
We can also hear this same type of aural effect at the main menu screen, where the twinkling sound of selecting your file can vary depending on the temporal position of the musical interlude occurring at that same moment. Again, this is a small and seemingly inconsequential detail at first, but it results in a videogame that has an almost anthropomorphic nature, constantly resonating with itself in an immediate and organic way so that every nuance of sound is in perfect harmony with each other…AND the player. The result that Kondo and his team is trying to achieve, I think, is one of total immersion, with every aspect of the game fitting together like a giant interlocking puzzle or sculpture. This isn’t a case of different departments coming together and simply combining their parts, but instead, much like a symphony, is a collective voice made up of many smaller components that are all performing in the same key and with the same timbre.
And this is all without even taking into consideration the actual music of Super Mario Galaxy itself, which is amazing stuff! Having lush symphonic orchestrations accompany the player from level to level gives the game a much deeper sense of space and scope, creating sonic expanses that appropriately echo the notion that Mario has moved beyond pipe mazes and Cheese Bridges and has become a full-fledged astronaut, soaring between planetary masses with dignified resolve (credit must be given to composer/arranger Mahito Yokota, who helped create most of Galaxy’s score under Kondo’s supervision). What’s more, there are wonderful judgements regarding when to use these epic arrangements. My favorite example is the Comet Observatory, which serves as a hub-world in the way that Peach’s Castle did in SM64. As the player progresses through the game, unlocking new areas by collecting stars and restoring power to the gigantic floating structure, the music shifts from a thin, mostly synthetic arrangement–save for a few recorded instruments, such as flute and harp–to a majestic, swelling live orchestra. These kinds of thoughtful touches result in a score that’s not only the best for the Mario series, but one of the best game soundtracks in the last ten years.
Throughout the Mario series, we can see (or rather, hear) Kondo’s philosophy of dynamic composition shining through, reinforcing the solid standards of gameplay that Nintendo has made their bread and butter, and actually making it more fluid, more interactive and, ultimately, more fun. While Koji Kondo is certainly not an unsung hero in game design, the work that he and his group put into SuperMario Galaxy is more than just a part of what makes the game so good, but may very well be the cornerstone for the entire Mario series and a crucial element in that mysterious formula that keeps gamers enthralled by the squat Italian-American plumber again and again and again. It seems to me that the “essence of Mario” that Kondo has spoken of is also the essence of the composer himself, and both just happen to be perfectly in tune.