Archive for May, 2010

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8-Bit Mondays: Super Mario Bros. 3 – “Underground Theme” (Koji Kondo)

May 24, 2010

To help celebrate the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 (which if you haven’t played it, give it a shot – just don’t be scared away by the big purple star who acts as copilot), I’m going to do a week of Mario music. First up is “Underground BGM” from Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990). “Underground Theme” aka “Underworld BGM” is one of the most widely recognized Mario tunes, which is unsurprising since it has appeared in practically every game since the original. However, I like the Super Mario Bros. 3 rendition because it contains that extra sound channel for the drum samples, which makes ALL the difference. Better understanding of the 2A03 sound chip simply allowed the developers to create a soundtrack with much more color and depth than the original. The soundtrack was included in both the Super Mario World soundtrack (1991, a nice collection) as well as the Famicom 20th Anniversary Original Sound Tracks Vol. 1 (2004), among other releases. This version is from the Super Mario World soundtrack.

Super Mario Bros. 3 – “Underground Theme” (Koji Kondo)

“Underground Theme” is an excellent example of Koji Kondo’s work in composing game music that mimics the feel of the game world. The high and low notes mimic the structure of the caverns – ‘stalactites’ and ‘stalagmites’ of bricks, rock, and pipe create obstacles that prevent easy traversal of space as well and communicate this through the rapid upward and downward movement of the notes. Further, the short loop creates tension, making the player want to exit this space as quickly as possible. It is notable that in the original game, there was a short above-ground sequence in which Mario boldly walked into a pipe leading to the underground – a brief moment of blue sky followed by the darkness of the cave.

The “Underground Theme” has appeared in different forms in many different Mario games, including Read the rest of this entry ?

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Illusion of Gaia – Main Theme (Yasuhiro Kawasaki)

May 23, 2010

If you were growing up with an SNES back in the day, you might have come across an RPG called Illusion of Gaia (1993). An action/RPG that was part of a trilogy (the other two being Soul Blazer and never-released-in-the-US Terranigma, Illusion of Gaia chronicles the adventures of a young boy, Will, who’s father had travelled the world trying to unlock ancient secrets held in the temples and ruins. Loosely based on famous mysterious locations in the real world (such as the Incan empire, the Nazca ruins, and Angkor Wat), Will explores these with the help of warrior avatars he can transform into. The game is fairly similar to Zelda, but with an experience system. Sadly, the game’s narrative (its most important part) is a bit unwieldy and too hokey and melodramatic in places. Sorry, but I just can’t understand how we got from a happy Incan village to a ghost ship that somehow magically has all of Will’s friends aboard, and I’m not moved by the spirit of a pet pig who sacrifices himself to save starving villagers. It’s more that the characters aren’t fully developed and so not that likable (especially Will’s girlfriend, a whiny princess and owner of said pig). Still, it has some fun and memorable points. Progressive Boink has a nice article on the game.

Illusion of Gaia – Main Theme (Yasuhiro Kawasaki)

Illusion of Gaia‘s main theme, “Illusion of Gaia”, is the very first thing you hear when you turn on the game (well that and the company logo jingle). It has a bright trumpet blaring the opening notes of adventure that defines the game, and these proud, bold notes are immediately recognizable after only one second. This alone makes it a strong composition as the notes are memorable and properly establish the game’s mood and themes immediately. The main theme builds on these notes, adding a variation in strings before moving into a more subdued interlude dominated by drums, low trumpets, and plucked strings. This section is accompanied by narrative text and images of ruins and skeletons of dead adventurers. In the third section, the theme slowly builds intensity for heading into adventure before calling the notes of the main theme again for a final time. I have arranged the theme here so that it fades out at the end rather than looping to the beginning. A fine composition.

The main theme has a second variation, “Beautiful World“, which plays on the map screen. Here, the theme is played with whistling and guitar, instruments that are rather high quality samples. It is a slower-paced version of the main theme, serving as a nice, casual interlude for traversing the vast open spaces between centers of action. The Main Theme has also found at least one remix on OCR (“Will’s Journey”), but there is also a nice piano and guitar mix of some of the game’s other music from Dwelling of Duels.

Aside from the main theme and town themes, most of the music in Gaia is heavily dominated by trumpets and intense drumbeats that signal long, twisted monster-filled passages that extend out into the darkness. They’re often trudges through dark, forbidding ruins full of monsters that must be hacked and slashed away – this type of exploration is more like Zelda than Indiana Jones, and the music here again captures it quite well. One of the best examples of these is “Descent into Darkness“, the main dungeon theme (each area has its own theme based on its geographical location, but this one is used in more than one place). The strings build a tight web of danger and tension in the introduction, which opens into the main section through a nice trumpet blare. The combination of trumpets and bubbling strings is actually quite reminiscent of Marble Mandess. The track also has creepy whistling (I believe here played on a tin flute), another element of the song that makes it instantly recognizable.

The composer, Yasuhiro “Yaz” Kawasaki, has worked on dozens of titles across his career as well as TV shows, film, and TV. His homepage lists a complete list of works. Illusion of Gaia was his second game project, following his first, Silent Service for the PC. Other notable works include Super Producers and the Zoids series.

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No More Heroes – “Gorgeous Blues” (Masafumi Takada)

May 22, 2010

No More Heroes (2008) was one of the quirky M-rated titles that came out for the Wii. It is about an otaku, Travis Touchdown, who buys a mysterious light sword off the internet, the beam katana. He uses the sword to kill the top ten assassins and so he can become the world’s most powerful hitman.

No More Heroes – “Gorgeous Blues” (Masafumi Takeda)

“Gorgeous Blues” is the game’s driving song. Travis Touchdown rolls through the city on a motorcycle the size of a Greyhound bus, named “Schpeltiger”, a rig that’s as much ‘cool’ as it is over-the-top. Hit the gas to fly ahead at mach 1 through the busy intersection, sending trees and signs flying. Anyway, the theme is perfect for cruising with the steady beat and driving guitar, recalling the rolling rock and leather jackets of the 50s. It’s got the happiness and freedom of the road but enough looping to match the city streets. One thing becomes clear: this man is looking for trouble (or just casually wrecking shit as he goes along).

Masafumi Takada (Killer 7, Neko Zamurai, The Silver Case) has been the main composer for Grasshopper Manufacture for many years Read the rest of this entry ?

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Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge – “Giga-Desp’s Last Stand” (Yuka Tsujiyoko, et al)

May 21, 2010

Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge (1993) is one of the more well-known titles for Nintendo’s ill-fated SNES Super Scope peripheral, a giant, unwieldy bazooka that sometimes looked a lot more fun in the commercials than it really was (people who said you would get tired hopping around like a fool playing Wii obviously never saw through the fiction of television commercials). Falcon’s Revenge is the sequel to Battle Clash, the first mech shooting game for the peripheral that was developed under the watchful eye of producer Gunpei Yokoi. Having listened to the soundtracks to both titles, most of the music is not terribly impressive. However, even in these two games, there are some real gems, particularly “Giga-Desp’s Last Stand” from Falcon’s Revenge.

Metal Combat: Falcon’s Revenge – “Giga-Desp’s Last Stand” (Yuka Tsujiyoko, et al)

“Giga-Desp’s Last Stand” is a nice space drama piece full of strings reminiscent of Super Castlevania IV. The intro section to the song also reminds me a little of “Wiley Fortress 2” from Mega Man 2 – they both have the same drama produced from high-tension strings. This drama really builds in the middle section of the song (beginning around 39), where a nice drum beat and a low cello holding the bass. The loop of 1:12 is pretty decent for this period. The song plays during the final battle.

Falcon’s Revenge was composed by Yuka Tsujiyoko (Fire Emblem series, Paper Mario series), Kenichi Nishimaki (WarioWare series, Paper Mario series), and Masaya Kuzume (Tetris Attack). Both Tsujiyoko and Nishimaki worked together on Battle Clash. Most of the rest of the soundtrack wasn’t that good, but “Happy Ending” has a nice spacey instrument set and is a fairly enjoyable listen.

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Katamari Damacy – “Katamari on the Rock” (Yu Miyake & Masayuki Tanaka)

May 20, 2010

Here’s an all-time classic vgm piece from a wonderfully quirky (and fun!) game, Katamari Damacy. You may be familiar with the game through the craze it spawned in 2004, but if you’re not, you need to pick it up and play it! (I’d recommend the original two, as Keita Takahashi did not design any of the later titles as he is averse to sequels). The object of the game is to roll a ball around and collect objects smaller than the ball; the more items the ball picks up, the larger it becomes and the larger the items you can pick up. Excellent music and wonderful cartoon graphics make this entertaining mechanic even better. The soundtrack to the original was published in Katamari Damacy Soundtrack “Katamari Fortissimo Damacy” (2004). “Katamari on the Rocks” is by far the most famous piece from the game, and is the “main theme” that plays in multiple places.

Katamari Damacy – “Katamari on the Rock” (Yu Miyake & Masayuki Tanaka)

“Katamari on the Rock” is an excellent fast-paced, uplifting song with great taiko drums and trumpets. The rising and falling full notes match the upward and downward movement of the ball as it is pushed by the Prince through uneven terrain while the quick, rolling beat fits the pattering of his feet. The track is also very inspiring (Don’t worry, do your best!) which both reassures and invigorates – especially with the enthusiastic yelling of vocalist Masayuki Tanaka. The ‘chu-chu-chu’ that makes up the female vocal support is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound made when kissing, too. Yu Miyake composed a clear winner when he did “Katamari on the Rock” – each note is so full of joy that you can’t help but smile.

The lyrics have also been translated here, so you can follow them along as you go. They reflect a love for the beauty of the world and the significant other – joy of life and living, which is exactly Keita Takahashi’s philosophy. I believe the title refers to the Earth. Of course, the song also mixes English with Japanese (which seems to be fairly common), but there is enough here that a translation is required! A shortened instrumental version of the theme plays in the intro, which is one of the best and funniest (and most ridiculous) in game history:

The album still sells quite well, and you can buy the whole thing from places like CD Japan (just watch out for the crazy import fees on top of the overpriced costs of the albums themselves! Read the rest of this entry ?

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Namco x Capcom – “Brave New World” (Yuzo Koshiro)

May 19, 2010

Namco x Capcom (read Namco cross Capcom, 2005) was a nostalgic crossover game mixing characters from the long history of Namco and Capcom. They cooperate to save the world from an evil outside of time. The game was only released in Japan, probably due largely to the fact that many of the source games were released in Japan only. However, there is now a patch for this game that lets you play it in English. The soundtrack combines themes from both companies’ long histories, and many of the arrangements are excellent. Still, the main theme, “Brave New World” is what really stands out from the rest – the song, composed by Yuzo Koshiro, is incredibly catchy, and matches many of the game’s underlying themes.

Namco x Capcom – “Brave New World (Long Version)” (Yuzo Koshiro)

“Brave New World” works best as a trance/dance, referring not only to contemporary anime main themes, but also drawing from the dance like nature of many traditional game tunes. The recording of flair performing the music is high quality, with a little distortion of the voice over the microphone, another feature found in many Japanese pop songs. I’m not quite sure of the history behind this style, but it seems to suggest an ideal form of the singer, a voice disembodied from the physical.

The vocals and melody communicate a quest of seeking an ideal through hope, struggle, and friendship. I find this ideal reveals a tinge of sadness as well, something that is also present in the nostalgia factor – a desire to relive a lost time. The repetition and call/response of the two main elements of the theme reinforces these themes. In all, it is a fully mature work of Yuzo Koshiro. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Super Smash Bros. Brawl – “Underground Theme ~Easton Kingdom~ – Super Mario Land” (Koji Hayama)

May 18, 2010

More coverage of Super Mario Land means more insanity. With giant firebreathing sphinxes, flying Moai statues, airplanes, and more, Super Mario Land was quite a departure from the original games (though perhaps not so much so if we consider Super Mario Bros. 2). Super Smash Bros. Brawl (2008) saw the reappearance of several classic Nintendo tunes, including music from this somewhat forgotten Game Boy game. Koji Hayama of Cho Aniki infamy put his skills to the test with “Underground Theme ~Easton Kingdom~”.

Super Smash Bros Brawl – “Underground Theme ~Easton Kingdom~ – Super Mario Land” (arr. Koji Hayama)

“Underground Theme ~Easton Kingdom~” is the Egyptian temple theme, in Brawl, used for the underground ruins. Hayama’s heavy guitar riffs strongly affect the mood of the piece with an exotic intensity. The track starts out quite strong, with drums that explode on to the stage, an organ supported by a synth bass line, and bells to add detail. Instant atmosphere. A relatively quiet intro, this section lasts only about 24 seconds before blasting into the guitars. From this, the theme loops with three more variations.

While the synth line makes for a very atmospheric piece, Hayama also throws in some Aniki-ized sampled voices for good measure (“HEY!”). These cheesy samples – along with the echoing guitar riffs – are trademark to his style and appear in nearly every kind of song he’s made – though the half-naked, grinning body builders are, of course, absent. For a type of music that can sometimes take itself a bit too seriously, I do enjoy Koji Hayama’s work – he always has excellent layering and the cheesy samples provide a healthy dosage of humor.

Hip Tanaka’s original is quite impressive as well, though it feels like it wandered out of Kid Icarus Read the rest of this entry ?