I'm a musician. Not the "I play guitar in my mom's basement" kind of musician. I've got a university degree in this. It's how I put food on my table and support my wife and son. Rather than retread the old, tired debate for music's value in a gaming experience (there are enough articles about that), for this month's Monthly Musing, I remembered the first time that music actually blew me away.
I'm 30, which means I'm old enough to remember when chiptunes weren't this cool alternative way of looking at in-game music; it was the only way. Certainly, the NES was filled with great soundtracks like Metroid, Castlevania, the Mario series, etc. Thinking back, given the memory and sound generation limitations at the time - four voices at most, saw, wave, triangle and noise generators - it's damned impressive that we have the amazing repository of great 8-bit tunes that are still hummable to this day. There's something to be said about doing so much more with less.
But that's not what this is about.
Sure, my Genesis was a big leg up from the NES in terms of sound, but it still reeked of 80s Roland-style synthesizer sounds. CD-based systems were still just in the hype-filled EGMs and Nintendo Powers of the day, and other than spending $300 on an add-on for Red-Book audio (basically, the system would load a level into the RAM, then hit the play button on the CD to stream an audio track), having real, decent music in a game that had real symphonic qualities was a pipe dream.
In 1991, enter Sony.
But wait, you may be saying. Wasn't the SNES introduced in 1991? The PlayStation was still years away! True, but Nintendo forged a more important relationship with Sony prior to the SNES CD debacle: the development of the SPC700 audio chip. For the first time, it wasn't just tone generation; these were real samples. Wanted strings? You could actually have a string sound. Cymbals finally shimmered with a metallic crash that had never been possible before.
As a budding musician, this was huge. I didn't have to imagine what the piece might sound like with real(ish) instruments. For the first time, game composers could actually make a soundtrack that sounded like it was played by people. In fact, if you go back, they still hold up pretty darn well 20 years later. For example, go back and listen to the Axelay soundtrack. I'll bet half of you haven't heard it before, and the other half probably forgot, but it's a great 16-bit collection of tunes.
You've never heard this, and that's a shame.
But by the time Axelay
was out, a lot of folks already knew what they were doing with the SPC700. Nintendo sure didn't with Super Mario World
. Now don't get me wrong. It's a great memorable soundtrack, but most of the samples are weird pad-like sounds that sound two steps above what the Genesis was putting out. It took one game to transform what we thought was possible in game audio, my focus for this post: Actraiser
The most important orchestral cartridge-based tune of all time.
See that caption? I'm deadly serious when I say that "Bloodpool" is the single most important cartidge-based orchestral tune of all time. There is so much happening musically that had never happened before from a compositional standpoint. "Bloodpool" is our medium's seminal Beethoven moment.
First, we have symphonic texture. There are actually many instruments working together here. First, we have the obvious string melody (polyphonic, mind you, meaning it's actually harmonized constantly). You also probably noticed the military snare underneath. But did you hear the cleanliness of that crash cymbal? Never before had we heard that on a console.
But there's more. It's tougher to hear, but there's a great harmonic counterpoint occurring under the main melody in the form of French horns. They're very syncopated, and sit right in the middle of the pitch spectrum. They fill in the piece, making it feel much more broad and grand. Speaking of brass, there's also the secondary melody that the trumpets take over after the string repeats the opening motif an octave above. The fact that there's even a trumpet counterpoint to mention is huge. And they actually sound like trumpets! The tuba that supports the whole opening section is lush and Wagnerian.
It then morphs into a Danny Elfman-esque sequence of chromatically-descending dissonance. All of a sudden, we have a new set of instrumentation: plucked bass, drum kit and xylophone. The strings, once the main driving force of the melody, are now an off-beat rhythmic punch. Despite the fast stylistic shift, it all sounds organic and compositionally sound.
The strings are then abandoned for a short, dissonant brass section, where the tuba French horns and trumpets destroy any tonality that had been established before, using a series of French augmented sixth chords, chromatically rising until we reach the final section.
Finally, we move to a combination of the two different ideas. The xylophone begins to flurry about underneath, creating serious rhythmic momentum. The trumpets are clustered, creating that hard dissonance, along with the octave unison lines of the tuba and third trumpet rising on open 5ths. The line is then repeated a semitone higher, putting it on the dominant of the original key, setting ourselves up for a perfect cadence as the loop begins anew.
The entire piece is put through a reverb filter, allowing both the bass frequencies to be exaggerated (think why a subwoofer is so important for a home theater setup) and also giving the impression that the music is being performed in a concert hall.
All of this in a 37-second SNES tune.
Music technobabble aside, this kind of analysis is huge to be able to do. Think to the most memorable tune on the NES. You know what I'm talking about:
The only tune you think of for NES music. Actraiser
was a launch title for the SNES, much like the original Super Mario Bros. was for the NES. But listen to the difference! It's literally night and day. It may seem trite now, but think about what it would have been like 20 years ago, going from the blips and beeps of Mario to the orchestra of Master.
There also the fact that the soundtrack was dynamic enough to even be analyzed at that level. When you've only got three notes and one noise, it's tough to find enough content to be able to find layers.
The soundtrack also has the distinction of being the first one to be orchestrated and performed live onstage. It was that different, that amazing that people actually paid money to see it performed by a real orchestra. The scary thing was that it doesn't sound that different when you compared the two performances, one live, one digital creation.
I'd never heard anything like this before, ever. It was so amazing I actually used my Game Genie to give myself unlimited time on the level, and just sit and listen. I didn't care that the loop was so short (they all were back in the day), it was just so engrossing that I couldn't stop.
Yuzo Koshiro may not have the name recognition of a Hans Zimmer, or Nobuo Uematsu, but what he did for music in gaming was nothing short of Aaamaazing.