Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Soundtrack September: Super Mario Bros. 3

Game: Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)
Platform: NES/Famicom
Composers: Kondo Koji

Previously honored in Soundtrack September for his later work on A Link to the Past, Kondo Koji was also the composer behind the game widely regarded as the greatest Super Mario title of all. Here, Kondo used the tried-and-true 8-bit trick of using PCM drum samples to add power and character -- not only for kicks and snares, but also rim shots, wood blocks, timbales and timpani. His soundtrack gives each of the game's eight map screens a unique theme, in a variety of styles including reggae, disco and bossa nova. The soundtrack during gameplay is memorable as well, now cemented in most NES-era gamers' minds as a classic. (The first time I heard this game's funky take on the old Underworld music from Super Mario Bros., I was pretty impressed.)

I'm not sure why, but most of the music in this game is in the same key (C major). Kondo wasn't a trained musician, so it's possible he wrote predominantly in this key due to it being his "comfort zone" on the piano.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Soundtrack September: Super Metroid

Game: Super Metroid (1994)
Platform: SNES
Composers: Yamamoto Kenji, Hamano Minako

Regarded by many as the pinnacle of storytelling in the Metroid series, Super Metroid does a better job than its NES and Gameboy predecessors of using music to depict the extraterrestrial loneliness associated with being the only human on the entire planet. While "Hip" Tanaka's heroic theme for Samus and Satie-esque Norfair waltz were iconic on their own, Super Metroid used the sound processing power of the SNES to deliver healthy a dose of atmosphere to every area in the game.

Playing through this game, while (in my memory) not as daunting a task as navigating the original, was a memorable experience, thanks in large part to the soundtrack. From the creepy opening sequence, to the horrific death throes of Crocomire, to the cathartic final battle in which the all-growed-up "baby" Metroid joins forces with you against the Mother Brain, this game saw the series taken to new cinematic levels, riding on a flying carpet of sound.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Soundtrack September: Double Dragon Neon

Game: Double Dragon Neon (2012)
Platform: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Composers: Jake Kaufman

If Guilty Gear is a fighting game-shaped love letter to 80s glam metal, Double Dragon Neon is a fist-shaped valentine to the decade in its entirety. The self-aware reboot of the 1987 beat-em-up (which is often called the "grandfather of beat-em-ups," despite having been preceded by Renegade) is on a mission to grab the hearts of all 80s kids. Air guitar, high fives and the aforementioned neon contribute to the overpowering aura of trickle-down radicality that permeates Neon's every stage.

The music does more than its fair share. Kaufman has succeeded in not only doing justice to a few tunes from the original, but also in rejuvenating the franchise with music so 80s sounding, it sounds like Gorbachev's aerobics tape. It sounds like Jesse "The Body" Ventura took music lessons from Oliver North. It sounds like...Manuel Noriega...doing something? I don't know. I'll stop.

Highlights include "Neon Jungle" (third video below), which has more than enough cowbell, and "Pick Yourself Up and Dance" (fourth video below), whose hyperactive keyboards bring to mind Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Soundtrack September: Katamari Damacy

Game: Katamari Damacy (2004)
Platform: PlayStation 2
Composers: Miyake Yuu et al

Every aspect of this game seems designed to make players scratch their heads. The goofy concept, the low-poly, rudimentarily animated human characters, the strange sound effects and voices.

Following suit, the soundtrack is a celebration of weirdness. Heavy on pop, jazz, Latin and Shibuya-kei influence and performed by an eclectic list of popular musicians, this is as appropriate a soundtrack as one could hope for in a game where the objective is to roll a ball around a room, picking up little objects until the ball is big enough to pick up a cat (or a car, or a space shuttle, or Canada).

During gameplay it can become difficult to hear the music over the din of the sound effects. Picking up a object or a character always makes a sound, ranging from a simple cartoon "pop" to a man's voice singing, "den-de-de-de-den-den-dennnnnn!" When the ball gets big enough to pick up the larger features of a city, the game is full of the screams of houses' terrified inhabitants, the ringing of office telephones, the roar of engines, etc. All the while, the soundtrack putters along at its own happy pace.

My favorite track is called "The Moon and the Prince." It features enka star Niinuma Kenji in an unlikely capacity: Instead of crooning, he's rapping surrealist lyrics, complete with hip hop interjections like "yo" and "get up."

Friday, September 26, 2014

Soundtrack September: Axelay

Game: Axelay (1992)
Platform: SNES
Composer: Kudo Taro

Axelay was a relatively under-the-radar space shooter from Konami. It used the SNES's so-called "Mode 7" background scaling and rotation system extensively and ambitiously (if not always effectively) to depict the space fighter Axelay's mission to....I don't know, do what ever. (I was never that interested in the story elements behind games where all you do is shoot everything that appears in front of you.)

Kudo's soundtrack features ostinato synth motifs, energetic drums and bass lines that sound like the composer really cared about the bass. The opening stage's music, in true Konami fashion, sets the mood with prog rock organ chords that could have come straight out of an Emerson, Lake & Palmer recording. My favorite is "Silence," the steadily percolating backdrop for Stage 4, a gloomy cavern populated with mostly organic enemies.