Monday, March 21, 2011

World Ten: Soundtracks, pt. 3

Finally, the conclusion to my analysis of some of my favourite and most memorable video game soundtracks. Enjoy!


The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

A lot of people slam this game down compared to the other entries in the Legend of Zelda series, mostly based on one of two things. One of these is the cel-shaded artistic style that the game adopts, which makes it look very cartoony and some people (re: idiots) view it as a child's game as a result. The other is the oh-so-dreaded sailing aspect of moving from one island to the next, since the world in Wind Waker is flooded and the only way between land masses is by a sailboat. Although I can see why some may dislike these qualities of the game, they are not enough to destroy it as a whole, and it's unfortunate that most people don't give this game a second playthrough or at least the amount of thought that it deserves.

Wind Waker does a lot of things perfectly, even though a lot of people get butthurt over some of its features. Despite having a cartoon-inspired look to it, the actual atmosphere of the game is amazing, and likely only heightened by Nintendo's graphical choice. Emotions on characters' faces are much more evident, environmental changes such as weather alterations are much more effective due to the distinct change in colour palette that they cause, and the enemies and monsters are animated incredibly well and each have distinct personalities from one another. When it comes down to it, even though the world isn't as realistic-looking as that found in entries such as Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time, it draws you in just as much (if not more) because of the undeniable charm that seems to seep out of the game's theoretical pores.

Fortunately for this blog entry, the charm carries into the soundtrack as well. Wind Waker's visual style and emphasis is accompanied by a spectacular score that always, ALWAYS fits the situation. You'll be hard pressed to find a particular track in this game that just doesn't seem right, because they don't exist. Some classic Zelda throwback tunes are remixed and incorporated into new arrangements, which makes a great number of the game's callback moments just that much more effective. At the same time, the brand new tunes are absolutely perfect, even if they seem a little unorthodox at some points in the game.


A good example is the overworld theme that plays as you sail around the Great Sea from island to island. As soon as you start sailing your boat and traveling, a grand, sweeping piece accompanies you on your journey. With a very dramatic sound to it and long, strong notes that sustain for a good amount of time, the actual musical composition that you're listening to actually sounds as vast and all-encompassing as the ocean itself. However, this will change as you approach certain occurrences. For example, thunderstorms and whirlpools that you encounter will cause shift in the music to a darker tone...the same can be said for enemy encounters on the sea. Also, as you get close to islands or other landmarks, the music will often fade into the music for that particular area. It's a subtle touch, but it makes the soundtrack become just as cohesive and as dynamic as Wind Waker itself. It's handled spectacularly well, and really makes the overworld and its islands feel like a single, gigantic world, rather than being subdivided.

The overworld music isn't the only well-constructed piece, however. Numerous dungeons and other areas have supremely-fitting music which makes it feel as if they were constructed alongside their respective soundtracks, rather than separately. The Forbidden Woods, which functions as the game's second dungeon (third, I suppose, if you count your first visit to the Forsaken Fortress), is a gloomy and very nature-themed area, with plants composing 90% of the level's obstacles. Throughout this area, you're subjected to a slow, somewhat-creepy tune that has distinct wooden instrumental sounds: pan flutes, wooden drums, and other instruments all come together to make a simple and eerie tune that almost seems to move along with the swaying plants that you see in the level. The bosses each have their own respective themes as well, rather than an overarching boss track, and each one fits the creature that you're slaying. For example, the Earth temple's boss Jalhalla is a giant, fatass Poe (spirit that carries a lantern), which is basically just formed from a bunch of smaller Poes amalgamating. The theme as you fight this boss sounds like something you'd hear directly out of some form of Haunted House amusement park ride, accompanying the supernatural enemy you're battling very, very well. When you find his weakness, he busts into a bunch of smaller Poes which you need to defeat individually. As 15 or so of these enemies are all running around the screen, the music dynamically changes and audibly resembles all of them running around and trying to avoid your blade. Once Jalhalla reforms again, the music switches back to the previous Haunted House tune.

You'll be hard pressed to find a track in this game that just doesn't fit. From the very beginning of the game, to the climactic and exhilarating finale, there's never a moment in which the tone of the game isn't complemented perfectly by the music. Even the story cutscenes have well-done musical arrangements...but I don't want to spoil anything, so unfortunately I can't get into it at the moment.


Ocean (Great Sea theme) - This is the theme for the expansive world of Wind Waker that I had mentioned earlier in the article. Long, epic-sounding notes made by horns and bass-filled strings really give the sense that what you're setting out to do in the game is a massive undertaking of which you're just barely scratching the surface.

Jalhalla - You can hear the distinct "haunted house" tune that I had previously mentioned here. In this case, I really don't think I need to explain myself...just listen to the music and you'll certainly know exactly what I mean!

Forbidden Woods - In this track, be sure to listen for the woody-sounding instruments. In certain instances, it almost sounds like wooden wind chimes were used as an example for the background noise in this dungeon, which completely suits the forest environment that it takes place in.

Dragon Roost Island - This track is played when you're exploring Dragon Roost Island (go figure). It's an island with a tall, mountainous peak, and a tribe of bird-people that travel by soaring over the ocean. The flute used in this song manages to capture that feeling, sounding like some form of tribal ritual song while using a distinct wind instrument that reminds one of the sky.


Bit.Trip Beat

Bit.Trip Beat, as well as the subsequent games in the Bit.Trip series, are very interesting and unique. All downloadable titles for the Wii, these are games that are focused on twitch gameplay based on fast reactions and, to an extent, memorization. Beat looks a lot like good old classic Pong, but with more of a colour palette than just black and white, and without an opposing paddle that you're attempting to defeat in a game of tennis. Rather than defeat opponents, the goal of the game is simply twist your Wii remote to move your paddle into the path of pixelated projectiles that approach you from the opposite side of the screen. This will deflect them away and increase your score and score multiplier. If you miss a target, you'll lose your multiplier and will have to start building it over again by hitting more consecutive targets. Sounds simple enough, right?

Well it's not as simple as you'd think. The patterns that your targets take as they approach you can quickly ramp up from being simple to horrendously complex. Not only this, but the bright colours of the background and your target pixels will often distract from one another and make you lose focus, causing you to miss a target and ruining your multiplier. Keeping your multiplier up is terribly you deflect pixels, a meter will fill at the top of your screen. Once it's full, your multiplier will increase and the visual effects of the game will ramp up and generally become more seizure-inducing than they already were. This effect can also move the opposite direction...if you miss targets, a bar at the bottom of the screen will also fill up, dropping you down a level once it's full. If you keep missing shots with your paddle, you'll eventually fail and have to try again. I'm likely making the gameplay sound a lot more complicated than it really is, but it's a solid, simple concept that is terribly addicting.

If you have no idea what's going on in this picture, that's okay! I still don't either, and I've bought this fuckin' game!

I haven't mentioned the music yet, though. The amazing thing about the Bit.Trip series is that the action on the screen matches up with the music as well! Those pixels that you need to deflect aren't simply showing up at random...they appear such that when you deflect them, the chiptune-ish noises that they make will match up with the background music. This can actually really help you to make heads or tails of the patterns that you're trying to follow, because this input of sound patterns into your brain can let you discern the exact timing of when you need to hit a shot with your paddle. The music will also simplify or complicate depending on how well you're doing...the better you do, the cooler the music sounds. If there's anything that's been proven as of late by music-based games, it's that audio input from your actions in a game can really satisfy the player and drive them to do better and keep going. Bit.Trip couples this idea with classic, hardcore gameplay, and it turns out to be a great harmonization.

In Bit.Trip Beat, there are three different stages that you can play separately from one another, or all together: Transition, Descent, and Growth. Each one has its own different chiptune-inspired background music and odd visual styles that go along with them. For example, the background images for Descent clearly show a planet that gradually becomes closer. As you advance in the stage and music, it progresses down into the planet and culminates in a boss fight at the core. The music is really made to suit the themes of the levels and overall the package comes together very, very nicely.

There are 6 games total in the Bit.Trip series...Beat, Core, Fate, Flux, Runner, and Void. Each one plays differently from the rest, and they all have their own unique songs and music pieces for you to play around with. I have yet to check them all out, but it's definitely a very unique series. The integration of music into gameplay is not necessarily a unique concept, but Bit.Trip fastens them together and really makes them whole. The auditory feedback can affect how well the gamer plays, by giving them audio patterns and timing hints. At the same time, the skill of the gamer directly influences the sound patterns that are heard to begin with. This integration of the gameplay and the audio is a really fun experience overall, and makes Bit.Trip stand out amongst both reflex games AND audio-based ones. Seriously, check at least one of the games out when you get a chance!


Level 1 - Transition

Level 2 - Descent

Level 3 - Growth

Rather than offer descriptions of the songs, these links will lead you directly to gameplay videos of each of Bit.Trip Beat's levels/songs. These will really help you get a sense of what the game is all about, and also help to show just how intertwined the game mechanics and the soundtrack really are.


Chrono Trigger

Oh geez. I don't even know where to start with this game. Chrono Trigger is an amazing accomplishment by Square from their Super Nintendo creations, and until I played Mother 3, it was in direct combat with Final Fantasy 3/6 for my favourite RPG of all time. If you haven't experienced Chrono Trigger, I suggest you check it out as soon as you possibly can, by any means necessary.

Chrono Trigger is all about time travel. You play as a character named Crono (by can choose all of the names of the characters if you wish), and embark on a vast adventure through the eras in order to stop a planet-consuming parasite named Lavos from destroying the world in 2000 AD. Throughout the game, you travel to multiple time periods. Your starting time is 1000 AD. (bear in mind that the timeline in this game is certainly not the same as ours), and you later travel to 600 AD, 2300 AD, 65 million BC, 12,000 BC, and even the End of Time. It's all very intricately designed, and the setting of the game doesn't break down into multiple different worlds based on their eras because they're all linked; that is, events that you cause in a past time period can affect the other ones. It's a great mechanic and this was, in my opinion, the first game to really do a great job with time travel as one of its core themes.

As you travel through the game, you meet allies and fight in battles, not unlike the Final Fantasy series. Battles play out using Square's ATB (Active Time Battle) system, just like in FF4/2 and FF3/6, and you still stay at hotels, acquire better weapons and armor, and use potions and tents. It's a very familiar experience to those who played Square's other games, but with some better character animation and movement that seems to make the game more tangible and polished as a result. This makes sense, since it came out in 1995...near the end of the SNES production cycle. The overall result is a grandiose RPG that's loaded with features, and looks, plays, and sounds incredible at the same time. Not to mention, it also had 13 possible endings based on the actions you took throughout the game, giving the player a ton of potential replay value. A great package.

A picture of a Dragon Tank should be enough on it's own to make you play this game.

The music certainly doesn't slouch, either. Chrono Trigger's soundtrack has some of the most beautiful and intricate compositions that the Super Nintendo has to offer, and to this day I'll still find myself randomly humming some of the tunes from this gem. Many of the musical themes are designed to match their respective time periods, so when you walk around in the prehistoric era for example, you'll hear a tune resembling your surroundings. It's interesting because the result of the game's time traveling is a massive diversity in the areas and environments that you traverse...but Square managed to put together tracks that reflect them quite well.

One particular example I can recall is a point in the game where you've been stranded in the game's Dark Ages, 12,000 BC. The music is almost completely absent, save for some simple background noise reminds you that you're in a strange, isolated land...wind and snow are blowing all around you, and there's not much in the ways of civilization around. However, when you locate an odd structure called a Skyway and investigate it, it transports you elsewhere. Once you step out of the receiving teleport, you find yourself in a terribly strange and clearly magical land, composed of floating islands high in the sky, and palaces made of silver and gold. This is the Kingdom of Zeal, a community of people who have embraced magic and technology, and used them to their advantage. The music all of a sudden picks up, and becomes very incorporates odd instruments that give a sense of wonder and mystery all at once, and really makes you wonder what the hell exactly is going on. It's really a point in the game that stands out to me and the music always jumps into my head when I think about it.

Chrono Trigger is another one of those magical games where it seems like the developers have just really nailed having the right sounds for the right moments. It establishes a distinct atmosphere, and each peace helps to distinguish each time period from the next. When you're exploring 600 AD, it SOUNDS like you're exploring 600 AD...and that in itself says something about the music direction in this game. When a composer is able to capture the feeling of the environment and surroundings of an entire era in one part of a soundtrack, then they've clearly done their job correctly.


Undersea Palace - This is one of my personal favourite themes in the game. At a point in the story, you discover that a major antagonist is trying to raise a massive palace out of the ocean that is directly connected to Lavos' power. The music here creates some really mad tension as you teleport down to the palace under the waves and try to stop them before they're able to tap into the parasite and wake it at the same time. The technological and synthesized noises really reflect the palace as you run through it, and the pace of the song keeps you moving to your destination, rather than making you want to slow down an explore. What makes the situation seem even more dire is that the tune doesn't switch up when you enter a just continues to play, audibly reminding you of some form of grim countdown. It's a very effective piece.

Corridor of Time - The Kingdon of Zeal is complemented by this arrangement, as I have previously mentioned. You'll quickly hear instruments and notes that sound magical in themselves, driving home the fact that you're on a giant floating island in the sky, suspended by unknown forces. It instills a sense of mystery in the player, but also a sense of amazement which emphasizes the bizarre scenery.

Battle With Magus - Magus is a main antagonist for a majority of the game. It is believed that he was the one that called forth Lavos to consume the world, and so one of your central objectives is to stop him. When you and your allies finally confront him at the top of his keep, this extremely epic tune plays and gives you a sense of finality. This track is nothing short of exhilarating in more than one aspect: not only are you finally confronting one of your main enemies directly, but it's also a tough and hectic battle that constantly keeps you guessing, never really giving the player a break.

Rhythm of the Wind, Sky, and Earth - This is simply the overworld theme for 65 million BC. I probably didn't even have to explain that, as after reading the rest of the article you could likely piece it together from the sound of it alone.

Robo's theme - The only reason I really included this track was to point out its similarity to Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up. Little did I know that, even as a kid and long before the meme started, I was being Rick Roll'd by Square for YEARS! FUCKERS! :(


Megaman 7

This was the toughest one to choose...I knew that a Megaman game had to make this list, as it's well known throughout the gaming community that the soundtracks for many of the Megaman games out there are nothing short of awesome. Due to this fact, choosing a single game's soundtrack out of the entire library is much like trying to pick your favourite of your own feel like you're condemning the rest of them or something along those lines. I mean, what should I do in this occasion? Chose a Megaman soundtrack that has just a simple, straightforward, rocking soundtrack that persists through the entire game, constantly making you want to bust up Dr. Wily's stupid face (1, 2, or 9)? Or should I go for one of the games with a more complex soundtrack with tunes that reflect their stages a little bit more than usual (3, 4, 8, or 10)? Should I choose an 8-bit or a 16-bit entry? Classic series or X series? In this case, it's very hard to choose just one...thus my reasoning for leaving it until the last of my World Ten: Soundtracks entry.

Finally, I've come to a damn decision. I believe that the Megaman game with the best soundtrack to be Megaman 7. This may come as a weird decision to Megaman fans, if only due to the fact that both Megaman 7 and 8 are widely considered to be inferior to other games in the series. I agree with that fact about 8, but not 7. The X series is good, but I've personally always had a softer spot for the classic series. The classics made their way into the 16-bit era with Megaman 7 on the Super NES, and although it was a bit different, it was still the same awesome formula at heart. Graphics were obviously significantly more detailed, the English translation was worse (better?) than ever, and the soundtrack was awesome.

With respect to the differences in soundtrack styles I have mentioned (more straightforward vs. more atmospheric), Megaman 7 seems to draw the line perfectly right down the centre. Some tracks are just great and catchy, others have qualities that make them more ambient, but most incorporate BOTH of these styles at the same time, and I find that it works to great effect. There's even one particular track in this game that I feel defines the main antagonist, Dr. Wily, more than any other track in the series...and that really says something.

Veggiesaurus, Lex! It's a veggiesaurus!

At the beginning of the game, Wily has been busted out of prison by his robots and they've begun to attack the city. The first area, much like Megaman X, begins on a ruined highway in an area that has clearly been ravaged. As Megaman, you make your way through the decimated region to try and stop the robots from doing any more damage. One of the game's more straightforward tracks plays here, and manages to function as a musical piece that makes you just want to tear up some 'bots into scrap metal. It's a catchy track, and really makes you feel like you're a one-man army as you plow through the stage.

For a mixup of both catchy and atmospheric styles, there's Shade Man's stage. Clearly resembling a vampire of some sort (not the retarded sparkly variation), Shade Man's stage is accompanied by zombie-robots rising out of the ground, mechanical bats (a staple of the series), and even werewolves. The music for this stage begins with a strange, slower-than-usual pace, some haunting synthesizer notes, and an overlaying instrument that gets caught in your head quite easily. The mix of the background synth and the foreground instrument (I really don't know what to call it) provides a nice track for a monster-themed level in a hardcore action platformer, and overall this becomes one of the best tracks in the game.

Finally, for a more atmospheric track than usual, the mention definitely has to go to the first stage of Dr. Wily's Fortress. This is the piece that I had mentioned earlier that I really believe should be Wily's theme suits him perfectly. The beginning of the track as you enter the fortress is rather foreboding, making you realize that you're getting closer to the final confrontation and that getting there is not going to be easy. Then the slap bass kicks in, not unlike that found in the music for Earthworm Jim's Level 5, which for some reason always makes me think of technology and science...I'm really not sure why. A synth sound also fires up later in the song that really sounds menacing and evil with its harsh and piercing tone, suiting a mad scientist quite well. It's a really, really amazing track and definitely one of my favourites of the whole of the Megaman franchise. Don't worry, I'll link to it!

Overall, Megaman 7 has a very, very solid 16-bit soundtrack, and also a very well-rounded one when you compare it to the rest of the series. I find that the the amazing use of the Super Nintendo's sound capabilities coupled with really, really good ideas with respect to the actual direction of the audio tracks themselves makes this game's soundtrack stand out.

Also, the final boss music is etched into my skull. Any music that accompanies what could be one of the toughest boss fights of the 16-bit era is bound to do that if you hear it over and over again because of your numerous deaths. I'll have to talk about that boss another time though!


Shade Man - At the beginning of this track, you can hear that eerie synthesizer that I mentioned coupled with the faster, odd-sounding instrument overtop of it. When you first enter the stage, this plays while the clouds part in the background to reveal a full moon, illuminating the really adds to the overall effect of both the track and the stage.

Intro Stage - The hard rocking track that I mentioned in the write up. Very cool tune that just makes you want to blow everything up, and resembles most of Megaman 2's songs in that respect.

Freeze Man - This is another good example of the mix of catchy and ambiance-fitting aspects of music. The music itself is memorable while using instruments and sounds that almost sound Christmas-themed. This kind of treatment suits the level, which is winter-themed with ice, snow-covered pine trees, and even enemies that ride sleighs.

Wily Stage 1 - I believe I explained most of this one, so I won't write too much here. Just appreciate this awesome track for what it is, and listen for the aspect that I mentioned above. This is a wicked arrangement!


Well, that brings this lengthy feature of my blog to a close. Surely some of you have some remarks, or perhaps you'd like to share some of your favourite game soundtracks as well? I'd love to hear your opinions, so be sure to post them in the comments!

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