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What Makes it Memorable? – Street Fighter II – “Theme of Chun-Li” (Yoko Shimomura, eta al)

November 20, 2010

When I hear about catchy game music, one game that often pops up is Street Fighter II. This game has the advantage of being played by millions of people around the world and so the music is deeply familiar to many people, but at the same time, the music has its qualities that make it easily recognizable. Here, “Theme of Chun-Li” is a good example to use.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior – “China (Chun-Li)” (Yoko Shimomura, et al)

All the themes of Street Fighter are designed to illustrate the personality, national identity, and fighting style of the character. Chun-Li, of course, is headstrong confident, and kicks like a deadly dancer, so that and her Chinese background are illustrated in the song. Her theme is recognizable from the four-second opening, with 14 notes played on what seems to be a dulcimer, which plays as the background melody for the first half of the song as something the melody can fall back on. The sequence is also punctuated by jangling bells from percussion (perhaps a street reference?). The combination of easily-recognizable theme using repetition and call-and-response even in this short, four-bar sequence, the unique instrument, and the Chinese pentatonic scale immediately make the tune recognizable while the fast pace aids in its catchiness because there almost isn’t enough time to register the melody.

Next, we have the main portion of the theme, which has long, high, bold notes played on a synth flute, with quick bursts of shorter notes. Yet there is a dominant note that is sustained and repeated throughout this segment, playing for over half its 20 seconds or so. This repetition, as well as the high tone, is key to making this piece memorable – the brain can’t help but encode its pattern. After this is another 20 second sequence where the dulcimer takes over the melody, and here the repetition of a single note is replaced by the repetition of short mountains of the scale, rapidly peaking, then dropping – adding variety to the melody. Overall, the layering and variation of melody, repetition of single notes and short sequences of notes, makes the track especially memorable.

That being said, not all themes of Chun-Li are created equal. Sometimes, performance or arrangement can provide greater energy and impact, something composers can draw on for nostalgia as well as giving the audience something new (compare, for instance, “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania with the one from Dracula X: The Rondo of Blood). Here, I particularly point to “China Stage Chun Li” from Namco X Capcom.

The composition is identical to the original – no new variations to the melody have been added (except for a small choral line at the end of the loop). The only changes are a higher-quality selection of instruments, and also much greater volume and intensity – it is a no-holds-barred celebration of Chun-Li and her music. This volume and intensity, particularly on the synth line, creates a greater feeling of energy and movement than in the original – the emotions of the composer and of the character have been superbly blended here. As a result, this rendition – while melodically identical – is far more memorable because the excitement of the music is contagious to the audience – especially if they are already feeling tinges of nostalgia from meeting Chun-Li. Thus, one thing that makes a piece especially memorable is performance, particularly its intensity and the emotions of the musicians being transferred to the music (or in this case, the composer).

Of course, there are some other good arranges out there. I particularly enjoy the Super Street Fighter IV arrange, which feels particularly fitting in an arcade and I felt was one of the stronger arranges in the game (the flute does a good job of that). There’s also a nice mix from Blood on the Asphalt by Malcos and Red Tailed Fox called “I Don’t Fight Boys“, which develops the song nicely. Incidentally, it looks like the music was so popular in the early 90s and the melodies so lyrical that Pony Canyon published a Street Fighter II vocal album – but considering how most lyrical adaptations of game music turn out, I’ll leave you to track that one down yourself!

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