Music is a very interesting thing, and can be a tremendously powerful tool when used properly in various media. Although at its core, music is simply an arrangement of noises and sounds to produce a desired result, the correct combination of elements can produce much more than the sum of their parts. The main purpose of music is to convey and create emotion within the audience. As human beings, we all know much too well the vast array of emotions we undergo throughout our lives...joy, anxiousness, sadness, tension, and fear are some good but simple examples. When executed correctly, musical arrangements in media such as television, film, and even video games can bring these emotions out in the viewer or player. An epic scene can be accompanied by a dramatic symphony, while creepiness can be conveyed with emptiness and deliberate tones, with sounds arranged to make one feel uncomfortable. I'm sure that just about everyone has been affected by background music at some point in their lives, whether they realize it or not.
It is my opinion that video games could potentially be the most successful media when it comes to employing music and sound effectively. Video games are much different than film or television since the player is in direct control of what's happening, and as a result they place themselves in the shoes of the character they're controlling. Think about it...when you tell someone about what happens in a video game, you tell them about what YOU did, not what the character does. The exception to this is if a cutscene occurs that takes the player out of the immersion and atmosphere for a brief moment. For the most part though, and for all intents and purposes, that character on the screen is an image of yourself. You control their actions (limited as they may be) just as you control your own.
When it comes to music arrangements in video games, the right music in the right situation can spark an emotion in the player and cause them to behave differently while they're playing. For example, an all-out rock and roll track will likely cause a player to be a bit more aggressive, whereas a slow, melodic tune will be relaxing and calming. Tense violin elements can be stressful and frightening, making a player be more cautious and paranoid about what's around them. To this end, the music in a video game seems to be able to control you in some way, affecting your pacing and ability to judge what's next.
As a result, music is terribly important in certain games, and there are many instances where the music really "fits" what's going on in the game, or is able to affect the player and change the mood. I'm not just talking about individual tracks, however. In this case, I will examine and explain my opinions about entire video game soundtracks and why they're so damn good, effective, or both. It's not often that a game's entire score can be amazing, but when it happens, it becomes as much a part of the game as the graphics, mechanics, and controls. I'll provide some examples of some of my favourite tracks in each game when I can, but in some cases that may not be possible. I'm not gonna rank these either, because each soundtrack is different and they're all effective in their own respects, and as such I don't feel it would be fair to favour one over an other. I'll be splitting this post up into multiple parts, since I realized that after having completed writeups for only three of the games I picked, I have already reached the same size as a routine article on this site! :P
As I've likely explained before, I have a massive soft spot for Nintendo's Metroid series. It's a universe that I hold dear to my heart, and I have only the fondest memories of it, particularly Super Metroid. Super Metroid was the first Metroid game that I actually owned...I had rented Metroid a ton of times prior, and didn't get around to playing Metroid 2: Return of Samus when it came out because I lacked a GameBoy (GameBrick) to play it on. I remember going to the Toys R Us store in Barrie, Ontario to pick out a video game for my birthday one year. My grandmother took me, and I perused the game section for a long time and initially thought I was going to get The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. However, there was a Super Nintendo demo station set up in the aisle, along with Super Metroid plugged into it...so I had to give it a whirl. The 15 minutes of the game that I'd played changed my mind instantly to skip out on Zelda in favour of Super Metroid. I already appreciated the atmosphere that the game offered...having played the series before, I had a vague idea of what to expect, but I didn't realize just how good it was going to be. In that small demonstration, I received an epic recap of Samus' previous adventures, fought a boss battle with Ridley, narrowly escaped an exploding space station, explored a seemingly derelict part of planet Zebes (the setting for the original game), found areas FROM the original game...and I stopped playing after killing a monster that disguised itself as a power-up statue by blowing its guts out AND its head off.
The tone was set...this was what I wanted, but the sound was so muted in the store because of the noises around me while I played, and simply because the volume was terribly low on the screen. I had no idea what I was missing out on, but when I took the game home and started into it...it had changed. The entire experience was different and even more capturing than when I played the demo station...this was due to the background music. The sound effects were spectacular as well...but the music really altered the way I saw the world of Super Metroid.
This kind of audible treatment never lets up. I remember being freaked out like crazy when exploring the Wrecked Ship because of its uncomfortable background tune (which was barely music at all, but rather sounds tied together that suited the region much too well). Add in the fact that Coverns, the souls of the previous inhabitants of the ship, were constantly phasing in and out of existence to keep you on your toes, and you have a tense, creepy area. Before you encounter some bosses, there is a creepy melody that lets you know that SOMETHING is going to happen...but you don't know what until you're suddenly under fire from a humongous alien, at which point the music changes to something that would suitably accompany such a situation.
I'll provide some examples of the music...but in the case of Super Metroid, it really won't do it any justice. In this game, the soundtrack and the environment and experiences are one and the same, and it's when you experience them both as Samus Aran that you get the full effect of the work. It's one of those situations where you need to be playing the game and hearing the music in its proper context, rather than listening to audio clips on Youtube (which I am providing)...and as a result it makes the game feel more cohesive and whole. I really can't describe it all that well...but everyone should play this game, or at least watch someone play this game at some point to see what kind of experience it really is.
Crateria (Rainy surface) - This music is right when you touch down on Zebes, and there appears to be no life other than small insects you see in the soil. After having just narrowly escaped an exploding space colony, this area and its accompanying music turn out to be not only relieving, but also daunting as you explore the region and encounter only desolation and nothingness.
Lower Norfair - You encounter this music on the way to fight a boss in the lowest region of the game, which is rife with bubbling lava and crumbling ruins built in the image of previous inhabitants of the planet. One of my favourite tracks, as it gets you really ramped up for the conflict that's about to occur, and also keeps you tense as you try to avoid being burned alive by shifting lava flows and survive against some of the toughest enemies in the game. Commonly called the Norfair Death March, this track was later re-used in Metroid Prime's Magmoor Caverns area.
Lower Maridia - Maridia is the aquatic section of Super Metroid, and when you finally figure out exactly how to access a good portion of it, you're first treated with this track. Against a background of strange rusty crystal-shaped structures, seaweed, and strange but unique aquatic creatures, this peaceful melody is completely different from every other track in the game but still manages to fit right in.
Ridley's Theme - Obviously when you encounter Ridley you hear this theme, but it's also used for rushed sequences such as the previously mentioned escape from the Ceres space station. Accompany this with various explosions and pieces of the environment falling apart around you, and it becomes terribly effective at increasing your heart rate.
Bionic Commando/Bionic Commando Rearmed
I've already covered the original Bionic Commando here (link), but in 2008 it was revamped and upgraded for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3. This is one of the rare occasions where the remade game is just as amazing as the original, and I love playing through both of these games every so often when I get the chance. I remember being skeptical of Rearmed, but it quickly drew me in like the original game.
Bionic Commando is about a man named Rad Spencer (later renamed to Nathan Spencer, with Rad as a nickname) who is sent in behind enemy lines during a war in order to save a POW named Super Joe (Joe Gibson). Later, he finds that the opposing force is actually attempting to create a doomsday weapon called the Albatross, which presumably can only be operated by the man who designed its blueprints...Adolf Hitler. As a result, they revive him and shit hits the fan, much like it did with Hitler the first time. Rad has a bionic grappling hook for an arm that allows him to grasp objects to swing over chasms, rather than jump...this was a very odd mechanic at the time, but also very unique and as a result it became well-received (to the point where jumping was actually a negative effect on the series once it was added).
So flash forward twenty years to 2008...a remake is on the horizon, and footage of the game shows familiar level design, enemies, and swinging mechanics. At is core, Bionic Commando Rearmed seemed like the same game to me, but I was really interested in how they handled the music. Was it going to be as effective as it was in the original cartridge, or was it going to fall flat? I expected the latter...I figured it would be good music, but not as good as the tunes in the original. Man, was I ever wrong. Capcom did EXACTLY what they needed to do with the music...and that was simply to remix the familiar tunes into something brand new, but familiar to the fans. BC: Rearmed's soundtrack was loaded with bass and techno sounds, but not strange ones. This was a new and improved version of the original, with new technology behind it...but with the same gameplay. The music does justice to this idea by taking the old classic tunes and "upgrading" them to be more modern and to fit the new game a little better, as it has a much more technological style to it. The result is one of the best-ever conversions of an old video game soundtrack into a new one. Rearmed captures that same "charge ahead" feeling that you get from the original game, but with a more techno twist, and it does a damn good job. This is a case where the music isn't necessarily atmospheric...it's just terribly, terribly impressive and effective. You want to play the game over and over again, even if only to hear the amazing tunes...something that I always looked forward to in the original game as well.
For samples, I'll provide tracks from the original NES classic as well as their versions from Rearmed so you can really how different they are from each other while also being extremely similar. Amazing work.
Bionic Commando - Area 01 - Be sure to take note of that awesome drum roll in the background of this song and the overall military theme to the track. Back in the late 80s, this theme was nothing less than epic.
Bionic Commando Rearmed - Main Theme (Area 01) - Compare this to the original above, and you'll see what I mean. The beat is heavy and makes you want to forge onward, but it's certainly a far cry from the original's Area 01 theme. At the same time however, the actual melody and its tones are almost precisely accurate and pay homage to that track that was made 20 years prior.
Bionic Commando - Area 12 - This tune is played in the final area of the game. You've reached the last drop point on the map and so you know the game's final conflict is coming up, and this music certainly reflects that. Where the other tracks really sound and feel like you are progressing through enemy territory, this odd track punctuates your journey and you can tell the end is near.
Bionic Commando Rearmed - Rise of the Albatross (Area 12/A) - BC: Rearmed does some cool stuff with the final area of the game. When you reach Area 12, you find it nearly deserted and it is accompanied with the music found in this track up to 1:34, looped. As you play, it makes you wonder where the heck everyone is, as all that's left in the base are automated defenses and a small team of soldiers. Once the Albatross is activated, however, it becomes its own entire level...a stark difference from simply blowing it up in the original game. This is where things pick up and the music from 1:35 and onward takes over. As you ascend the ship, the mechanical parts of it seem to be moving in tandem with the pulsing of the music, and it's a really cool feeling. Even when you shut the power down in one section, the music stops completely and things just get...eerie. Another thing that you really need to experience to appreciate.
Let me start this discussion of Doom 64's music by saying one thing: I use the soundtrack of Doom 64 as freaky music to play and scare the children away from the house on Hallowe'en. This is a good thing, because this means that it's doing its damn job...being fuckin' creepy.
If you don't know what Doom is, you've either been living on one of Saturn's multiple moons or you've had your head up your ass for so long that you're likely suffering from severe scoliosis. iD Software's most popular and revolutionary title, Doom is a first-person shooter where you fight demons and hellspawn with a variety of weapons. Doom has had numerous iterations over the years, from ports of the original onto almost every video game system under the sun, to sequels and spinoffs such as Doom 3 or the Doom RPG for cellphones. It's a popular brand, and it's one that iD wouldn't let go of if all of their lives depended on it.
When Doom was first introduced, it was a scary game. FPS games were relatively new on the market, and had just previously began to gain ground as a result of another of iD's games, Wolfenstein 3D. Experiencing things from such a viewpoint was something to behold, and it really put the player in the game. I remember playing it originally, in fact, and almost being too scared in some cases to continue the game. I loved Doom, even though it freaked me out...and that was with the original low-quality MIDI music. The tunes in Doom would range from upbeat action-inspiring arrangements (such as the famous E1M1 music), to freaky and downright odd music such as that found in Phobos Anomaly. Each level had its own feel to it as a result.
Now, go forward in time a bit. Doom has become huge, and new levels and versions come out frequently, such as the Master Levels or the Plutonium Experiment, and for multiple systems. When the Nintendo 64 was first announced, Doom 64's existence was confirmed very shortly afterward. Screenshots showed things to be quite different-looking, but similar. The game had the same viewpoint, but everything from the weapons to the demons had a complete overhaul, and while they looked different, they were the same and you could still tell what was a Plasma Rifle and what was a Supercharge. I was really, really excited...I loved the Doom series and I still do, so when I saw any information about Doom 64, I gobbled it up. Finally I got my hands on a copy by asking for it for my birthday one year. My parents gave it to me without realizing it involved cutting up Cacodemons with a double-bladed UAC-brand chainsaw and frowned upon me...but I loved the game and loved playing it!
But good God...the music in the game is just downright unnerving, and when I was younger it used to freak me right out. With the new art style and higher-detail sprites, the game looked much more authentic than ever before and as a result, it really drew me in. This just made the soundtrack take even more of a toll on my mind as I played the game. As the progression of the game goes, you start off fighting through bases established by the UAC (Union Aerospace Corporation...basically an experimental scientific company) and eventually descend into Hell itself to try and cut off the demons at the source. What's interesting about all this is that the music reflects that exact path. For example, the first areas of the game are much more technological than the later ones, and the music reflects this quality with industrial background sounds, odd little bits of noise that sound like they'd be created by some type of futuristic machine, and punctuating drums and strings that sound like metal doors slamming shut, or the grinding of rusty gears or fans against grating. It's very fitting and sets the tone for the levels quite well. Later on though...
Although Doom 64 is not a favourite among the Doom community, I personally love it. It's a little bit different, and it's missing a few things from previous entries such as the notable Arch-Vile, Chaingunner, Spider Mastermind and Revenant enemies, but it does a lot of things very, very well. The level design is top notch, and not only will the layout of each location keep you on your toes, but the horrible and unsettling sounds you hear in the soundtrack will amplify that experience. I've played through the game more times than I can remember, and to this day there are still levels that freak me out because of the strange elements used in the musical pieces that accompany them.
Also, kind of a neat little fact. Some of the audio tracks used in Doom 64 are remarkably long and don't loop for a very long time. I wouldn't be surprised if the reason some enemies were left out was because there was so much music.
The Terraformer (Map 02) - The second level of the game, The Terraformer involves the use of a crude-looking industrial ground pulverizer to progress through the base-themed area. The metallic and mechanical sounds found in this track really set the tone for the area, and while it's not the creepiest level in the game, the music can still be startling just on its own.
Altar of Pain (Map 12) - This is one of the first tracks in the game that really starts to convey the disturbing nature of the Doom 64's content in an audible format. Hellish and foreboding organ themes coupled with the sounds of crying and screaming people in the distance...it really doesn't get much more "Doom" than this.
Breakdown (Map 20) - The music from Breakdown was one of the most disturbing tracks in the game. Less music, more a collage of freaky sounds put together by a madman, this track involves sounds that resemble people vomiting, cults chanting, and spirits haunting desecrated ground. One of the most bone-chilling tracks you'll ever hear in a video game...and considering this came from an N64 cartridge, that's saying a lot. Be sure to listen up to at least the 3 minute mark to get a grasp of the freaky sound effects used in this piece.
Watch Your Step (Map 17) - This was one of my favourite maps in the game, and I'm pretty sure it's the first one where you encounter a Cyberdemon. It has a distinct and melodic organ track which is quite peaceful, but also unnerving at the same time, much like the level itself. The entire map was unpopulated by any monsters whatsoever, making you feel somewhat safe, but also on edge...until you triggered the appearance of the demons by stepping over certain floor panels, hence the map name. The random cybernetic sounds in the music also reflect the qualities of the demons themselves, several of which are an amalgamation of organic and technological parts, such as the Mancubus and Arachnotron.
That does it for now...next entry I'll have 3 more write-ups and music samples for you to all check out and (hopefully) appreciate! Now for the answers to that tricky heart quiz I posted last time!
Megaman X/X2/X3 (SNES) - Heart Tank
Popeye (Arcade) - Heart pickup
The Legend of Zelda (NES) - Heart Container
The Secret of Evermore (SNES) - Thraxx's heart
Yoshi's Island (SNES) - Sluggy the Unshaven's heart
Solitaire (PC) - Heart card
Castlevania (NES) - Large heart
Contra (NES/Arcade) - The heart of Red Falcon
Tetris Attack (SNES) - Heart block
Super Mario Land 2: The 6 Golden Coins (GameBoy) - 1up
Beyond Oasis (Sega Genesis) - Heart
Portal (Various systems) - Weighted Companion Cube
Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (NES) - Heart container
Crystalis (NES) - DYNA, the final boss
Earthbound (SNES) - Heart
Bubble Bobble (Arcade) - Invincibility powerup
Shadow Warrior (PC) - Ripper Heart
Link: The Faces of Evil (CD-i) - Life meter heart
No More Heroes (Wii) - Life meter
StarTropics (NES) - Life meter heart
Donkey Kong (Arcade) - Broken heart of Pauline
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii) - Heart Container
Deadly Towers (NES) - Heart pickup
Super Castlevania IV (SNES) - Big heart
Yoshi's Cookie (NES) - Heart cookie
Contra 3: The Alien Wars (SNES) - The heart of Red Falcon (again)
Kirby's Adventure 3 (SNES) - Heart ability
Super Mario Brothers 2 (NES) - Heart
If there are any you want explanations about, be sure to let me know!