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A Critical Ear #3: They wasted a perfectly good song

3:00 PM on 07.05.2010 // SWE3tMadness

[SwE3tMadness continues her blog series on music in video games! This time, she talks about great songs in games that are simply too short, or get overlooked because they weren't used properly. -- JRo]

Over the past few months I've talked a bit about how the use of music in games enhances the overall experience as a whole. A good soundtrack in a game creates a specific atmosphere that can change the way we view the events it accompanies. However, sometimes the action in a game overrides the music, and the player potentially misses a great track because it either plays for too short of a time, or is covered up the other concurrent sound effects.

This article is dedicated to those orphaned tracks, the songs that make you want to buy the official soundtrack in order to hear the full version. Here I've decided to give some love to five pieces (in no particular order) that I feel aren't given their proper respects within the respective game.

Hit the jump.

Super Mario Galaxy: Buoy Base Galaxy Theme

Super Mario Galaxy as a whole features a tremendous soundtrack, one of the best I've ever seen in any video game (let alone the Mario franchise), so it was very disappointing that one of the best songs out of an already-incredible set is only played in one level with only two stars to collect. This song's grand orchestration and overall determination make you feel like an old-time sci-fi pulp hero, blasting out into outer space and face whatever unknown dangers await with confidence. It's a magnificent track, and one that I wish was used more within the game besides one level that is actually completely optional for beating the main story line and reaching the final boss.

Thankfully, it did get a well-deserved reprise in the sequel, so I'll give Nintendo credit for that - except it's only used here for one star in the Space Storm Galaxy. Seriously, what do you guys have against this song?

Donkey Kong Country 2: Haunted Chase

Buoy Base was actually lucky, although it's used only for a single stage, at least you can sit in one spot and listen to it in its entirety. The Haunted Hall level doesn't provide that luxury, as you're on a roller coaster, constantly moving forward. This further covers up the downright badass background music with the constant sound of the train whistle, grating tracks, sparks from the rails, and barrel switches being hit.

Not to mention there's also three bonus areas within the level, which switches out the background music for the normal bonus stage theme, and the regular level theme starts again from the beginning once you exit. It's entirely possible to play through this stage and never hear the full loop of the song, which is a shame, as it's one of the best themes in (again) an overwhelmingly outstanding soundtrack.

Don't believe me? Check out this remix which emphasizes the constant motion on the verge of panic that this song should have contributed to the level in which it's featured. (Shamelessly ripping off Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" can't hurt either.) "Haunted Chase" was a perfect match for a race to escape from a malicious pirate ghost in a spooky house, but it's a shame that it never really manages to take its deserved spotlight within the game.

Killer7: Rave On

This song actually is played in more than one place in Killer7. It's the tune that you hear when walking down the corridor that leads to a boss fight. However, that corridor is so short that you'll probably only hear the first few bars before walking through the door and having it replaced by the next area's background.

It's very disappointing, because unlike the previous two examples, this game isn't really known for its soundtrack, and this is really the only memorable song out of the whole game. The full version of the track itself is over five minutes long, and only really gets good in the last minute. So why shove it away in a loading screen designed as a hallway?

Of course, this being Killer7, it's also entirely possible that putting the game's best track in such a limited area was entirely intentional. It could be a post-modernist message on how we should take our time in life and not constantly run blindly forwards, lest we miss something special. It's entirely possible that player could choose to sit on the stairs and listen to the entirety of the song, but the majority of gamers don't have the patience for that. Or maybe it's a statement on how we have to forgo present pleasures to address the challenge at hand and achieve future rewards. Or maybe I'm just pulling ideas out of my ass and it really doesn't have any significance. With Suda51, it's kind of hard to tell.

Paper Mario 2: The Thousand-Year Door: File Select Screen

The title screen/file select theme from this game is another one that should be heard many times over as you choose to continue your adventure, or start a new one. However, the way the intro cutscene music transitions into this one, combined with the two seconds it takes for the player to hit start, "A", then wait for the data to load, often mean that this track is often never even heard beyond the first few notes.

Normally, this isn't a huge loss. Developers assume that players won't spend a lot of time selecting their saved game, and so the music for these screens are usually short jingles just meant to take up empty space. But not this file select music. It's about two and a half minutes unlooped, and features multiple shifts in melody and structure, wonderful instrumention (gotta love that violin!), and bounciest, happiest, and most optimistic song of the entire franchise. It's the kind of song that you whistle to yourself strolling down the street when the sky is blue, the sun is warm and shining, and you haven't got a care in the world.

It's amazing that the composers put this much effort into the file select theme, and the rest of the soundtrack doesn't slack either, but the majority of players will probably never hear the full version of this song and realize just how wonderful it is. This track is probably my favorite from the entire game, and I always let it play for a bit before starting into the actual save file when I pick up and replay TTYD.

Pikmin: The Final Trial

Pikmin overall has a very underrated soundtrack and I could probably write an entire article just analyzing the quirky music from this equally-quirky series (hmmm, I might want to write down that idea!) . However, the song that plays for the final level of the game is tragically downplayed. Many of the other overworld themes from Pikmin are very recognizable to players, from the peaceful Forest of Hope (which even got a spot in the soundtrack for Super Smash Bros. Brawl), to the inquisitive and innocent Impact Site. This is because you spend a lot of time exploring and collecting items in these areas, all while listening to the various permutations of each theme as the day shifts from morning to evening, and as you find yourself locked in battle with alien enemies. The Final Trial however, directs you to kill the Emperor Bulblax, claim the final part to your ship and then leave, because that is literally all there is to do in the area, and it's all easily accomplished in one day.

You get to hear the actual level theme only for about a minute or two before it gets overridden by the boss theme itself, and like with all the songs I mention here, that's a damn shame because this is by far the most interesting song out of the game. It's jaunty and determined on the surface, with a waltzing triplet melody, but lurking in the background is an unceasing cascade of strictly-timed eighth notes in a completely different key from the major chords of the tune itself. It gives the song an uneasy feeling, like trying to put on a brave face for your loyal followers while knowing that many of them will lose their lives in the upcoming battle.

It gets more sinister as the song develops and the minor key creeps into piano accompaniment. The dissonance between the melody and harmony wonderfully reflects the cognitive dissonance of the game itself, as you lead your cute alien army into the jaws of an apex predator, arm them with explosives, and direct them to become the most adorable suicide bombers ever. The Final Trial features the only song that really gives the player this feeling, unlike the simpler tunes used for the rest of the areas.

Now, for all of these examples I've provided, I'm not trying to say that a game should be totally built around its music, and the pacing directed only to perfectly frame its soundtrack. No, instead music is meant to enhance the game experience as a whole. But it is confusing when so much work is put into a song, and then only thirty seconds of it is heard in the game itself -- if it's even heard at all. These examples are all great pieces of music, but seem to be meant for something else, not the constrained circumstance in which they're heard normally in their respective games.

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