8-Bit Mondays: Metroid – Title BGM (Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka)December 1, 2009
This song is probably one of the most important game tunes ever written. I’ve gone on and on about how vgm really first demonstrated its capacity as an art form in the mid-80s, and Metroid was one of the ones that truly demonstrated this. Hip Tanaka’s score was simply unmatched at the time, and the title theme is a perfect introduction to this new type of game soundtrack. The Famicom version of the soundtrack was available through the Game Sound Museum Volume 12 as well as the Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Soundtracks Vol. 1.
The “Title BGM” is progressive. Unlike most vgm, it doesn’t have looping sections, but merely moves from one section to the next, developing the few central notes of the theme. Its harsh intonations and use of a more minor scale rather than the major scale common to most games at the time was a dramatic break and firmly established Metroid‘s musical aesthetic of descending into darkness and amelody and finally revealing the light and song at the very end in a catharsis of melody. It really set the stage for soundtracks that were more atmospheric, dynamic, and expressive rather than simply pop songs used to fill the background.
The track begins with a very harsh triangle wave like a trumpet and the bell-like intonations of a square wave, giving the initial impression of space as vast, empty, and out to get you. The world 0f Metroid, like most videogame worlds, is not a safe place to be, with the major difference that there are NPCs to help Samus on her way. The music is also different because most vgm at the time began with a main melody in the major scale played on a square wave – few started with a gradual build-up like Metroid.
The next section, at 0:30, picks up with a strong square wave resembling a “flute” and a more positive tone on the “bells”. (actually, it’s just a square wave, but most chiptunes tried to emulate one instrument or another. The ‘drums’ for instance are played by the Famicom’s noise channel, which basically sends out short bursts of static that resemble snares and percussion, but can also be modulated to produce the sounds of wind and ocean waves). This more hopeful tone is accompanied by a switch of the title screen to a text box describing Samus’s mission orders to “Destroy the Metroid of the Planet Zebes and the Mother Brain, the mechanical life-vein.”
The next section is the main melody (0:46). The square wave here takes on a more clarinet sound, and coupled with the snare of the sound channel, produces a feel of determination and nobility. At 1:16, the track picks up again with a series of descending notes that give the impression of a spaceship descending into the planet’s atmosphere (or at least heading out on this mission). Finally, the section at 1:30 fades out with the drone we started with, returning the scene to empty space and darkness.
In the game, the track would also either loop at the end if the player remained at the title screen or continue droning for about a minute or so before finally becoming silent if the player went to the password screen (also a first).
This song is from the Famicom version of the game. The Famicom had a better sound system than the NES, especially since its games could be updated with superior sound chips. However, Metroid is one of those unique cases where the NES version actually has some superiority over the Famicom version: mainly, a lot of the tracks gained more instruments, and some sections, as in the Escape Theme, were even extended. You can compare the Famicom version with the NES version here. Note the rapid pulsing of the square wave as compared with the solid ‘pings’ of the Famicom chip.