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Is it VGM? – Earthworm Jim 2 – “Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement)” (Beethoven)

January 13, 2010

Continuing on the theme of “Is it VGM”, I present the famous “Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement)” as appears in Earthworm Jim 2 for the Sega Saturn (1996). This piece plays in the stage “The Villi People”, aka “Jim’s Now a Blind Cave Salamander” in which Jim has to disguise himself as a salamander to sneak inside the enemy base. Jim is vulnerable outside of his super suit and in this sequence has to navigate a treacherous bio-cave where the undulating walls of villi are dangerous to the touch, enemies bob erratically through narrow passages, and pinball bumpers threaten to fling the hapless worm to the walls. To make matters worse, in the latter half of the stage, visibility is limited to only a tiny sphere of light. All these elements work together with the meditative nature of “Moonlight Sonata” to build tension incredibly while also giving a sense of humorous sophistication due to the ridiculousness of the situation, not unlike Loony Tunes’ “Rabbit of Seville”. Below is a clip of the song in context as well as a copy of the MP3 off the game CD. I am going to go on a whim and say this was performed by Tommy Tallarico, though it’s composed by the master Ludwig von Beethoven.

Earthworm Jim 2 – “Moonlight Sonata (1st Movement)” (Ludwig von Beethoven)

Moonlight Sonata” is a brilliant and meditative musical tongue-twister. The sequence of notes variating on the theme is often unexpected, leaping about the keyboard with surprising rapidity, at times feeling yet held together by that very same theme.The interplay of left and right hand added to the mix is a big reason why “Moonlight Sonata” is one of the most difficult piano pieces to play. Additionally, the slow meter of the song and the emphasis on particular notes puts the listener into a trance, completely absorbed by the full aural glory of the piano, submerging in the dark waters beneath the moon’s reflection.

Public domain music has been used in game soundtracks since the beginning. Gyruss (Arcade, 1983), Master Builder (Atari 2600, 1983), Parodius (MSX, 1988), Kid Icarus (NES, 1986), and recently Eternal Sonata (XBox 360, 2006) use whole or partial songs from popular and public domain music. Sometimes, as with Gyruss (and Earthworm Jim 2), the music is used due to the great emotional impact it has on the game’s setting. In other cases, public domain music was used because the composers of these soundtracks were programmers – engineers rather than musicians – and as such had to pick music that would fit (as was the case of many Atari games, such as Master Builder). In other cases, such as Parodius, the soundtracks were picked due to time constraints (the series now glorifies its use of public domain music to great effect). In the case of Kid Icarus, however, the use of a few Irish bars from “The Girl I Left Behind Me” seems a bit oddly fitting in the Greek mythological world of the game, and seem as if they may be more a quirk of Hirokazu Tanaka’s composition style than anything else (he does something similar in Dr. Mario). Lastly, the recent production of Eternal Sonata, which uses many compositions of Chopin – and even has Chopin as a main playable character – is as much an exploration of the great composer’s view of life and light in humanity as it is about his music. Note that this selection isn’t even counting the number of soundtracks to licensed games that use the main themes of popular films and TV shows, but also popular music, such as the use of “Sukiyaki” in the credits to Ninja Gaiden (Arcade, 1988).

The question though of whether “Moonlight Sonata” is or is not vgm has two responses. The first is that no, “Moonlight Sonata” is not vgm because it was composed over a century before videogames existed. It remains defined as a piece of Classical music. The second is that yes, “Moonlight Sonata” is vgm – or at least this instance of it is. This is because the song is used as the soundtrack to a game – composed and arranged. To say that “Moonlight Sonata” cannot be a piece of vgm even though it perfectly fits the setting, simply because it was not originally composed for a game would be to also deprive 2001: A Space Odyssey of the masterful use of “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” and “Blue Danube”, two songs that have come to define the science fiction genre and our interpretations of human abilities and space travel. We would not dream of saying “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” is film score, even though it had been composed before the age of celluloid: the Earthrise sequence from the introduction of the film has become too iconic.

Simply put, there cannot be a better song selection for 2001 not only because the music fits the film so perfectly but because it is relying on the reputation of the pieces and the well of musical history from which they have been delved in order to make a point about human culture beyond the glory of the music within the setting. “Moonlight Sonata” has this same effectiveness, and while the game is not commenting on the human condition, the song is admirably used to build considerable tension that oozes from those dark caves as well as the ridiculousness of the situation as befitting the tradition of Warner Bros. animation. Game soundtracks are thus not limited to music originally composed for games and we should embrace the possibility of soundtracks incorporating and arranging external music for artistic effect.

2 comments

  1. A few things:

    1.) Moonlight’s 1st Movement is usually used to portray very somber emotion, evoking sadness, meditation like you mentioned, or other self-reflective states of being. It is clearly used in an ironic tone in the “The Villi People” stage.

    2.) Everyone always ignores the 2nd Movement due to it being not that memorable.

    3.) I always wanted to learn the 3rd Movement but it was way too advanced for me. The sheet music is 11 pages long! It’s an extremely intense piece, and quite the opposite in terms of emotion/color compared to Mvmt 1.

    4.) Moonlight Sonata was also used in the Jack the Ripper stage of Shadowman (one of my favorite game moments): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ib6jJifOQqw and also, the backwards version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vX7ayFxD9RM


    • I wasn’t aware it was used in other places. Point 1 is spot-on, could have been emphasized a little more in the post. It’s following the tradition of American animation through Warner Bros. specifically the illustrative animation style of the game as well as the use of music. The 3rd Movement also plays in EWJ2. I will say I’m a little disappointed with the soundtrack though b/c most of the music is not original (though it does have “Subterranean”, a good candidate for the best EWJ tune out there.



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