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Korobeiniki, aka Tetris Type A (Arr. Hirokazu Tanaka)

October 22, 2009

The “Type A” theme from the Game Boy version of Tetris (1989) is arguably the third most-popular videogame song of all time. The reasoning behind this is twofold. First, the Game Boy version was played by well over 35 million people (Super Mario Bros, in comparison, holds the record at over 50m copies sold). Second, the song, whose actual name is Korobeiniki, or The Peddlers, had been a popular Russian folk song since its composition in 1851 by the poet-writer Nikolay Nekrasov. (The Game Boy versionwas arranged by the legendary Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka of Metroid fame – more on this later.)

This video of Orchestra Ossipov playing Korobeiniki is fantastic. There is something simply mesmerizing about the shot at about 2:30 with all the balalaika players in direct sync (it’s a kind of russian guitar) – it’s mechanical, but at the same time it’s human. This song is fun, playful, and demonstrates the joy of music. It isn’t stuffy orchestra – it’s professional musicians who enjoy music and are playing a folk song and enjoying every minute of it, as they should (as is the audience). In comparison, here is the original Game Boy version:

Tetris – Type A (remix: Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka)

Notable remixes include the Super Smash Bros. Brawl remix by Yoko Shimomura (2008); “Tetris Type A” from Game Boy Music ~ G.S.M. Nintendo 2 (1990), which intersperses Game Boy SFX with an orchestral synth remix by Kei Takanishi; and a fantastic surf-rock remix by Ozma (2001) (the cool music video has some fantastic retro CG of Soviet spacecraft and nuclear explosions).

This in itself raises some interesting questions about the nature of videogame music. Literally, we can consider vgm to be music that plays in a videogame. But can we consider a song like “Type A” that was originally composed outside of a game to be videogame music? (Licensed music as well as the entire Guitar Hero and Rock Band series come to mind as well.) Or is it simply a song that has been composed or arranged on game hardware? Further, how is composition and arrangement defined in the sense of a game where audio is dynamic? These are questions that I will return to later on in the year.

The composer of the Game Boy version was Hip Tanaka. He was already a master composer, having cut his teeth on the arcade sound chip used in Donkey Kong (1981) and the 2A03, the 8-bit NES sound chip, in which he created entire sound libraries for use on the arcane system (back then, composing digital music was a far cry from Garage Band and was more akin to programming in Assembly language). Korobeiniki was a perfect choice for Hip Tanaka for the main Tetris theme. Tetris ports had used plenty of Russian classical and folk music, including Tchaikovsky, to reflect the game’s roots, but Korobeiniki fits perfectly well due to its increasing tempo and lyrical structure, which matches with the game’s rule to increase music speed as the wall of blocks rises ever higher and the looping nature of game music.

Additionally, the song turns out to be ironic, considering Tetris’s long and convoluted legal history (despite millions of copies sold, the game’s creator, Alexey Pajitnov, didn’t earn a dime from the game due to Soviet Russia’s lack of copyright laws allowing ownership of intellectual property). The lyrics to Korobeiniki tell of a peddlar who is enchanted by the beauty of a village maiden and proceeds to arrange a moonlit tryst with her in the rye fields (from which vodka is produced, another popular vice). The song does not tell what the outcome of the night was, aside from the exchange (or perhaps theft) of a turquoise ring by the maiden. In some ways this underscores similarities to the shrewd and somewhat underhanded business maneuvering that allowed Nintendo to wrest the rights to the console and portable console versions of Tetris from Tengen (Atari), deep in the halls of ELORG, the Soviet Ministry of Software and Hardware Export (Elektronorgtechnica). (There is a fantastic documentary on this.) Even more ironic is the fact that The Tetris Company owns the copyright to the song – composed over 150 years ago – for use in videogames.

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