(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:
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.
(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.
(Part of a continuing series spotlighting an individual piece of music from a video game.)
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.
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).
(The first in a weekly series spotlighting an individual piece of music from a video game. VGM stands for Video Game Music, just in case you were wondering.)
Game: Mega Man 5 (1992)
Composer: Mari Yamaguchi
To say that Mega Man 5 is a disappointing game is quite an understatement. No, actually, maybe it isn’t—any gaming cynic boosted by hindsight should be able to piece together how the 4th sequel to an NES title released 5 years prior would be disappointing. By this point, Capcom was just telefaxing it in, assembling its game from elements of previous installments like a cartoon Construx set without doing any QA to assure that the pieces were fitting together properly. Mega Man’s power-ups were unbalanced, the enemies and bosses scant and uninspired, and the stages—while technically impressive—exercised frustration while lacking the thrill of accomplishment, a delicate mixture that makes the MM series’ notorious difficulty so addicting in the first place.
Alllllllllllllll of that aside, however, Mega Man 5‘s soundtrack is surprisingly good, and one track in particular is outstanding:
Admittedly, I don’t know much about composer Mari Yamaguchi, but her credits include Breath of Fire, the SNES port of U.N. Squadron and Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts, as well as a contribution to the soundtrack of recently released Mega Man 10. That’s quite a chiptune pedigree! Also, let this be a solid argument against the naysayers who think all NES music “sounds the same” or is hindered by technical limitations. The good programmers knew how to make good music, period. My opinion: all truly great music has structure at its core, and since structure and arrangement are the life-force of the digital, the great composers recognize and embrace it, crafting tunes with solid underlying foundations instead of trying to emulate “performances” that are more comfortable in the realm of the analog. Mari Yamaguchi’s Wave Man is one of the best. It’s catchy, contains some interesting changes, and puts every channel to melodic use, rather than being simply textural. There’s nothing wrong with programming tricks like echoing, of course, but it’s nice to hear musicality being brought to the front of a composition like this.
(Now, if you put this music on while playing through MM9′s Splash Woman stage, you’d have the ideal Wave Man experience!)
Now that bump mapping and real-time shadow rendering are common vernacular, 3-D modeling is a career path to aspire to, and the consciousness of the gamer/consumer has been invaded by industry buzzwords and comparison charts, we often forget that the visual representation of the video game centers around a single element: the pixel, the simplest graphical unit by which all manners of computational drawing were first based. These literal building blocks (although “shapes” is a more accurate term, because you don’t dare call them squares) represent all that is good and right with modern media: a fixed system of creation that produces an endless variety of forms.
Severe technical limitations ensured that the first video games would have bare and almost laconic presentations, but, as Mark J.P. Wolf notes in “Abstraction in the Video Game” from The Video Game Theory Reader (edited by Wolf and Bernard Perron), the blocky and abstract visuals of the early games, while primitive by today’s standards, served as an educational tool as well: it was a way to wean people onto the different skills of manipulation that had to be mastered in order to succeed at the machines they were trying to play. With less ornamental distraction, one could better concentrate on the task at hand, namely, objective and input: What do I have
to do, and how do I do it? Without gamers even being aware of it, the pixel quietly and seamlessly taught them how to properly partake in video games, sharing in the interactive experience without becoming confused and disillusioned.
After the arcade machines of gaming’s infancy—and the graphics they introduced—laid the foundation for this new, interactive method of media reception, the first console systems began to appear in homes, signaling and embracing the convergence of abstraction, engagement, and technology. In a way, these pieces of hardware were the apex of post World War II consciousness, with counterculture, escapism, commercialism and raw information desperately trying to be contained into something compact and palpable, something that the average person could obtain—for the right price, of course. And what better way to distill modern thinking than through an equally modern and purchasable device that can also be switched off when things get too overwhelming or difficult?
It would be very easy to see these video games—and personal computers, which were tracing their own congruous path—as the first embodiment of this cultural merger, seeming to arrive suddenly and fully formed…but that’s not to say that other forms of art and media weren’t conceptualizing the forthcoming digital age. A few years ago I discovered the wonderful films of artist Norman McLaren, and I find such a close compatibility in his work to the notional quandaries that game scholars would later pose that I dare call McLaren the spiritual predecessor to electronic gaming, “pixelating” our world before anyone knew what the digital revolution would actually come to represent.
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.
I decided a short time ago to “dust off” some video games I remember sniffling through as a kid, partly to satiate my desire to weave some kind of internal magnum opus about my personal gaming history, but also because I’ll use any excuse that I can to revisit an old title and scrutinize whether they hold steadfast today or knock my rose-tinted glasses clean off my face. Unfortunately, most of the time they are the latter, but sometimes you get a nice a surprise. Case in point: Gumshoe (1986) for the NES.
I know that my horrible dime-store Hammett post title indicates that the game isn’t very accessible, and trust me, I certainly don’t like it by any means. Gumshoe is a “zapper” light-gun controlled game that also happens to be a platformer, and that is every bit as oblique and frustrating as it sounds. You actually have to shoot the main character—hard-nosed and scraggly bearded FBI agent turned detective Mr. Stevenson—to make him jump as he automatically moves from left to right through four stages of various locales. Enemies like dive-bombing crows, moths and, uh, liquor bottles impede your path; cars try to furtively sneak up behind you and run you over (too bad their horns seem to be stuck); and there are glowing instant-death boxes EVERYWHERE, complete with skull and crossbones plastered on the outside of them. Considering that you only have a limited supply of ammo (although there is a constant stream of red balloons that replenish bullets and shooting your character does not deplete their number, fortunately) and that the poor sleuth cannot keep his perpetual motion in check, this game can be brutally difficult. There’s just no way to stop Stevenson, unless you run him into a ledge or wall at juuuust the right angle. Even then, that’s a fruitless technique, as all it does is briefly change his direction; as soon as Stevenson hits the ground, he promptly continues his suicide march. Not even the attract mode can save him, since without any light gun input from the player, the first obstacle encountered on-screen will end the demo.
Let’s go back to those death boxes for a minute. When I say they are everywhere, they literally are, peppering the sky and forcing Stevenson to clumsily pick his way through this mine-field, often in mid-air. Imagine my surprise when, in the second level, I accessed a secret area in which there were skyscrapers made up entirely of these boxes…and you could walk on them without taking any damage! Was this some sort of practical joke on Nintendo’s part? Were they trying to frighten you into thinking that you now couldn’t touch ANYTHING for the rest of the game, only to pull the rug out from under you and force you to question what actually qualified as a “death brick” and what wasn’t? Playing through this area in Gumshoe is one of the more surreal moments in a videogame that I’ve ever experienced, as it was a sort of self-referential jab at the very confines of game semiotics: “Death boxes don’t necessarily mean death…but you sure thought they did, didn’t you? Also, this next box will kill you. Think about that.”
So yes, Gumshoe is a maddening game, relentless with its auto-scrolling construct and failing miserably to marry a 2D platformer with twitch shooting, especially since you have to be keeping track of both genre mechanics SIMULTANEOUSLY. That wasn’t the pleasant surprise that I discovered.
The soundtrack, though, is a different story.
What a glorious score this game has! For a 1986 NES title, the music has an amazing amount of depth and verisimilitude. In fact, the game’s dirty jazz tunes (which, admittedly, only make up a fraction of the score) are the only ligature holding the game’s gritty detective narrative together. Without it, it’s just a fever dream hodgepodge of raining boulders, giant armadillos, jumping swordfish, and other mid-80′s videogame idioms designed to kill you as quickly as possible instead of fleshing out the environment. Take, for example, the music at the beginning of the game, when you receive a ransom note detailing how to save Jennifer, Stevenson’s kidnapped daughter. Or the moments when you receive hints via anonymous phone calls at booths placed throughout the game. Even the music that accompanies the death animation has a Henry Mancini big band feel to it, with slippery horns that punctuate Stevenson’s horrific open-mouthed death yawn. Believe it or not, but Gumshoe, at times, successfully draws me into the seedy world of the private eye, and it’s all thanks to the thoroughly engaging chip-tunes. You listen to these sloppy traps and try to tell me otherwise:
But, while these gnarly vamps are brilliant in their own way, the rest of the score also rises above standard NES fare. Complex in their harmonies but rhythmically inviting, these pieces make Gumshoe almost worth playing through. Almost. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find much information on who may have composed it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka had a hand in its creation, as there are definitely some “Tanakisms” present, like the persistent lack of an overarching melody or main theme, the stark minimalism, the incorporation of strange sound effects, even the use of bongos (or “bongo-like” sounds at least), which eventually found its way into the beboppin’ battle music of Earthbound (1995), which Tanaka collaborated on with Keiichi Suzuki.
It’s pretty clear that whomever composed the music for Gumshoe appreciated the nuances of jazz and knew how to create simple yet precise compositions with the NES sound chip, which is why I’ve got my money on Tanaka, but if anyone out there has the knowledge and is willing to share, please do so. In any event, it’s a fantastic score for a wholly unique but flawed 8-bit game, and it deserves your ears’ attention.
*Hard to get into but sounds great. I apologize retroactively.
Gameplay Footage (skip to 5:30 in the second clip to see the hidden “death-skyscraper” section):
While I can begin by writing about who I am, why I’ve started this blog and what I hope to achieve through its existence (you can check out the About section for all of that relevant information), I think it would be better to raise the curtain on the small excursion we’re about to take by describing Bubble Man’s stage from Mega Man II (1988). I hope that you can get an idea of what Bliterations is or will attempt to be through my personal recounting of the level. And if not, then I hope that maybe you’ll give me a second chance down the line, as sincere introductions can be very difficult to convey in our culture of ever-increasing cynicism.
Screenshots courtesy of VGMuseum
First, some background: Mega Man II, Keiji Inafune’s pet project at Capcom that would go on to be hailed as the best game in the Mega Man series (if not one of the best 8-bit video games period) was the first Mega Man game that I played, and one of the first Nintendo Entertainment System games that I ever owned, as 1988 was the year that I received a Nintendo for my birthday (I had just turned six). Mega Man games, on the whole, can be brutally difficult, but serve as the perfect example of “treadmill” gameplay done successfully—try, fail, and fail again, but eventually, through sheer muscle memory grinding and good old fashioned practice, you reach a plateau of accomplishment and begin to relish each and every robot boss window that darkens on the level select screen with their defeat, one by one. The robust weapon upgrading system plays a huge part in alleviating the early frustrations and encouraging your progression, giving you more and more tools to experiment with as you get farther and farther into the game, culminating in the eventual multi-stage symphony of weapon switching that is Dr. Wiley’s fortress, a veritable kaleidoscope of costume changes and select screen manipulation that one executes with instinctual precision after so many hours of having to maneuver around its somewhat clunky interface from the second section onward.
The individual levels are more or less the same in their construction and objectives, but Bubble Man’s level seemed different for me as a kid than, say, Crash Man or Metal Man. Everything about the level design was a pleasure to play through—and I really do mean that. While most of the other stages seem to revel in their own cartoonish futurism, cold and mechanical (as is the case with Air Man, cluttering the sky with artificial clouds stuck in some kind of materialization and movement loop, proving that not even the skies are safe from technology), Bubble Man seems to retain a warm, organic aesthetic that’s lacking in the others—even Wood Man, where nature and flora make up practically the entire layout…I mean, you traverse through a tree, for goodness’ sake.
No, there’s something about Bubble Man that’s special, that feels more alive and exciting. For one, water is EVERYWHERE, shimmering with animation and even turning otherwise gray scrap metal into a mildly relaxing emerald obstacle course. The enemies also have a kind of life to them that imitates fauna: Robotic frogs birth smaller frogs that rest before their jumps (I remember positioning myself between their gaps and just watching them act like frogs), mechanized shrimp slowly sink between propulsions, and crabs clack their claws as they bounce towards you.
So from the moment you touch down in front of a waterfall, you’re instantly drawn into this location. Not a factory, or a plant, or scaffolding, but a PLACE that’s pleasing to look at. Aurally, the Bubble Man track is one of my favorites in all of game music. An instantly up-beat, exotic and inviting soundtrack seems to subliminally encourage you to keep going, as it has a driving rhythm and repetition that promote forward movement, in the way that any good tempo-driven music leaves you with the desire to do anything but sit still. The loop that connects end to beginning is virtually seamless, since the track ends with one of those hypnotic arpeggios that can keep going and going, until your expectations become so great that there is no other way the song can conclude except by starting all over again with the same kind of unmitigated resolve.
There’s a natural and forward driving design that underlies Bubble Man’s stage as well. Mega Man begins at a high elevation, on a platform by a waterfall, but eventually must travel downward, beneath the surface of the water and amongst the robot enemies that lurk there (always just out of sight before springing themselves on you in full force, as Mega Man games tend to do). You can’t help but feel that your ultimate goal is to get out of that blue vastness and back onto dry land. The physics in this section help promote this—by having a reduced sense of gravity, you’re able to jump twice as high, and you must handle those walls and ceilings of spiked orbs just a tad more carefully. And while Mega Man never technically reaches the same elevation that he began at, the moment you leap out of water and are on dry platforms amidst glistening waterfalls again, dodging falling clacky crabs, there’s a sense of relief, a feeling that, yes, you made it, water is still flowing and you must press on. No need to worry about rust.
It’s an incredibly optimistic section of Mega Man II, a break from the normal dystopian foundry firefights that make up the rest of the game. And I guess that through this overly romantic description of a level in a video game, I’m giving you, Dear Reader, an introduction to what these kinds of games can be: a form of entertainment that invites both artistry for the creator and meaningful reflection for the player. While our discussions on this site may become theoretical, overly analytical, even a tad elitist, that’s not due to any forced act of didactic snobbery on my part. It’s just that, when you love a creative expression so much, you can’t help but try to reciprocate that expression as eloquent and thoughtfully as you possibly can.