Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Few Words About Game Music

This is a long one, so be warned (twhs).

Music of video games from the late-80's and mid-90's were far under-appreciated, and should have been revered as accomplishments of works of art within a medium that had not yet grown into itself.

Before this post begins, I am purposely omiting the "Jailhouse Rock"'s of the genre. We all know Mario, Zelda and Final Fantasy are iconic. This is about the unsung heroes. The gems, the wild daisies that never had the soft touch of a farm girls cheek or the gaze of a Lomography photog.

Case The First -

Dragon Warrior

Your basic swords, dragons, potions and 10-hour quests RPG that may or may not have had any relevance to the actual story of the damn game.

This game was released 1986 in the US and the music for both Asian and US markets was composed by Koichi Sugiyama, whom would later become a council member of JASRAC (Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers, and Publishers), board member of Japan Institute for National Fundamentals, and honorary chairman of the Japanese Backgammon Society.

All to say, even though this may sound simple, the seeds of this lead to great distinction. This is NOT to say, however, that this melody is not exactly what the medium of a fantasy RPG deserved. Technically and emotionally it is perfect (20 seconds are all you need...this is the freakin' NES, after all).

Let us move on to some obscurity with...

Burning Force

In 1990, this was almost an afterthought to the Genesis lineup, and with music composed by Yoshinori Kawamoto, it should have had a bigger splash.

Listen, if you will, to the loose synths looping over the TIGHT AS A FUCKING DRUM bass and percussion at the first 16 seconds...and at 17 seconds, when the main melody kicks in, you'll hear what I mean. At 50 seconds, it's all over and the music essentially repeats itself. Which again is the genius of writing music for video games of any genre in any era; just enough to keep the energy up, not too much to distract from the game itself and composed so that it would give the entire experience a lasting memory to be locked in time.

Also, it's hard not to feel at least a hint of Seapunkery happening with the visuals and overall emotion of the music.

Case the third:

The Adventures of Batman & Robin

Once again, on that little console that could, the Genesis. Everyone knows that the Genesis was always the underdog when it came to graphics and sound and play control and pretty much every facet of what made a system usable. That being said, the games that were able to push it's tiny guts to the very limits earn so many marks not only for ingenuity but also for determination and pure faith. This game had some great visual designs that took advantage of what the system could produce, while giving the game it's own vibe of progression and accomplishment. The music was composed by Jesper Kyd and should be part of any digital music course taught in Universities.

This track, Moving Trucks, was composed for a level consisting of exactly that; as Batman or Robin, the player jumps from truck to truck, as they are in motion, to defeat enemies and reach the front cab. In true form, the music is driving and intense and complicated. The distortion of virtually every instrument lends a sort of unsureness, yet the rolling, deep bassline anchors it all down to a stable platform (pun definitely intended).

The entire buildup takes around a minute and a half and at 1:46 begins a plateau that maintains the intensity until it completely breaks apart and, through a bridge, begins a rebuild. It's so incredibly well composed I can't even stand it.

CASE THE FOURTH, and STILL on the Genesis kick (seriously the SNES had way too much attention anyway and I was always a Genesis guy at heart so fuck the cool), let us dive in to quite honestly is probably the greatest accomplishment ever produced for the system:

Gunstar Heroes

At the time of it's release, this game pretty much went ignored except for the few lucky enough to have a buddy to tell them about it. It is technically a platform, run-n-gun situation however the sheer frenetic pace of the game, the tight-as-a-nuns-asshole play controls and again the intense music and sound fx made it an experience that almost made the user lose their breath. It now has a very strong cult following, and for that I am at least glad it has become appreciated.

The music in this game is important because of the cinematic quality it provides throughout what is otherwise a ridiculous universe where people are named colors and helicopters do not follow the laws of physics. At the initial start-up screen, the tone is very serious and full of ominous undertones of danger, adventure and triumph:

Which then brings us to the stage-select screen, where the user is now committed and the stakes have been set. It's time to get into the game and prepare for insanity.

Stage one, all in.

Note how the progression has been developed; we began with a sober tone of low notes and slow synths, easing into the slightly high-energy hits of beginning the game and then into a fully-realized composition that takes it's time over the course of a few minutes to complete all of it's phrases, giving the level a backdrop to play against with just as many twists-and-turns as the gameplay itself has.

And once the level is complete, the triumph is punctuated with a simple melody that encapsulates all of everything and provides a release of the tension of completing a level in a very difficult game.

Before I get into Tommy Tallarico, probably the best known composer of video game music of this and every generation, let's take a quick aside to... 

Sonic CD

We are well into the mid-90's and CD-ROMS are all the rage. Now, not only can games have FULL MOTION FUCKING VIDEO, but they could also contain real, honest-to-spin-doctors-goodness music, as if you had purchased a cardboard box from The Wherehouse and somehow linked it to the game you were about to play.

So, this being the heady future of everything, Sega took full advantage and gave us the work of Spencer Nilsen, David J. Young, and Sterling Crew on what is otherwise your basic Sonic side-scroller. The music ranged from cheesy to outright amazing. I'm just going to leave these here:

This track, the main theme of the entire game, was composed by Pastiche (Sandy Cressman, Jenny Meltzer and Becky West), and sounds every bit of the 90's as they surely hoped it would:

This to say, although the trend was forward-thinking, the people behind it were from a past era, thrust into something they didn't quite understand.

Of course...the industry as a whole was kind of cluless at the time.

We've geen through a lot, and I know this has been a long post, so here is a palate cleanser:

Okay back to business.

Tommy Tallarico is a legend. He's been around forever and has made more music than should be humanly possible. Although he's probably better known for his work on Out of This World and the Earthworm Jim series, my personal favorites that prove his songwriting prowess begins with the "Drench" level from...

Wild 9

PSX style. Once again, taking into account the overall vibe of the game, coupled with the intention of the stage itself, brought us a beautiful ambient track that could just as easily come from the soundtrack of a sci-fi film directed by Ridley Scott just as much as video game.

As the cousin of Steven Tyler, there's no surprise that his sensibilities are both timely and competent. Sometimes genes do matter, and the music he developed for ...

Terminator CD is, yes, kind of hair-metalish, yet again fit the game perfectly. Modern, of the era if originated from (1984) and timeless in melody and composition.

None of this to say that Mr. Tallarico has never been diverse, as this track from the SAME game proves. The level, Cybertek, takes place in a club. It's not techno, it's not dance, it's not really anything other than a fantasy rave. And he pulls it off perfectly.

The last example of game music deserving of attention is the theme from Burg, in...

Lunar, the Silver Star (once again on the mighty Sega CD).

Wanna talk about fantasy? This music, much like Dragon Warrior at the very beginning of this saga, brings us full-fucking-circle. The techonlogy of the current with the intentions of the past all come together to create magic.

Lunar is an RPG, with all of the swords and dragons and potions and bullshit you'd expect from a nerdfest. So you'd expect something along the lines of The Celts , and to do so would have been correct.

I have no idea who composed that, but it's beautiful and could easily fit a movie as much as a game.

These few examples only begin to scratch the surface of some of the amazing music that has been written and produced for games. Current games such as Modern Warfare could rival any Michael Bay movie and are on an entirely different level of budget. The games from the mid-90's did not benefit from such extravagance, yet prevailed in the constraints to create amazing pieces of work that transcend their technological limitations.

As in any medium, the idea is what triumphs, and no matter what the tool is, that is what comes through. There may not have been Garage Band or Logic, but there were controllers to create sounds. Not so much different from a piece of wood with some strings.

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