Monday, September 01, 2014

Soundtrack September: Mortal Kombat

Each day this month I will write about a game soundtrack that's close to my heart in some way. This is not a ranking or a top 30; the soundtracks I write about are presented in no particular order. Sometimes I'll write just a little, and other times I'll write a lot. It happens that we'll begin with a soundtrack about which I have a lot to say.

Game: Mortal Kombat (1992)
Platform: arcade
Composer: Dan Forden

Sadly, mentioning the words Mortal Kombat and music in the same sentence tends to remind people of that horrible techno song that was used to advertise console ports of the game. You know the song I'm talking about. It goes, "doot doot doot doot doot doot MORTAL KOMBAT." Despite not appearing in the game, that song took advantage of people's ignorance and became known as the "Mortal Kombat Theme Song."

I guess that's just as well, since the actual game lacked a central theme song (although it did make repeated use of a three-note motif that appeared notably at the title and versus screens). What the original arcade game did have, however, was a collection of music tracks that rarely get the recognition they deserve.

Composer Dan Forden, who worked on the game while moonlighting as bassist for Chicago-area experimental music act Cheer-Accident (and who had nothing to do with the aforementioned techno song), had already contributed to a number of Midway video and pinball titles but Mortal Kombat would mark his birth as a game music celebrity (a title which would be further cemented when his face and voice appeared in Mortal Kombat II). Like many arcade games of its day, Mortal Kombat used FM synth sounds ranging from powerful basses and drums to melodic patches that bordered on grating. Look past the low production values, however, and you'll find a dark, ethnic (read: vaguely Asian-sounding) score full of enough melodic and rhythmic complexity to satisfy prog rock nerds and kung-fu movie buffs alike.

Side note: When Mortal Kombat was ported to the SNES and Genesis, the music suffered differently in each case. The SNES version, while musically faithful to the original, couldn't replicate the power of the Yamaha FM chip and instead had to rely on digital samples which lacked presence. The Genesis version, on the other hand, used FM synth sounds but oversimplified most of the tracks, making them sound like "childrens' versions" of the originals, if not making them completely unrecognizable.

Forden's original work blends asymmetrical time signatures and slippery chromaticism to create a sound that perfectly suits the game's faux-Sino-Japanese cultural identity crisis. You can't quite put your finger on what country's music it sounds like...but damn if it doesn't sound exotic. Think Balinese gamelan plays Nine Inch Nails' "The Becoming" (two years before The Downward Spiral would even come out). From the impending doom of "The Courtyard" to the liquid, koto-like texture behind "The Bridge" (AKA "The Pit") and finally culminating in climactic themes for Goro and Shang Tsung, it's a brief but nicely-arced musical excursion.

It's also worth noting that Forden programmed the music to be dynamic, changing to suit the game state. When one kombatant's health bar runs empty and the "FINISH HIM" prompt appears on screen, the music vamps at a fever pitch in anticipation of the coup de grace.

The music of Mortal Kombat appeared in tandem with that of its sequel on Mortal Kombat II: Music from the Arcade Game Soundtrack, a CD which was advertised in the MK2 arcade machine's attract screens and sold via mail order only.



do you know what the time signature is for "Wasteland/Pit II " ?

Jesse Jace said...

It's plain old 4/4 at about 140 bpm (or you could think of it as 70 bpm).