hot  /  reviews  /  videos  /  cblogs  /  qposts

Aaamaazing: There's a symphony in there!

7:00 PM on 04.08.2011 // bassbeast

[For his Monthly Musing, bassbeast shows how game music can be just as memorable and amazing as the gameplay itself. Want to see your own work on the front page? Go ahead and write a blog on this month's topic and it might get promoted! -- JRo]

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.

 Follow Blog + disclosure

This blog submitted to our editor via our Community Blogs, and then it made it to the home page! You can follow community members and vote up their blogs - support each other so we can promote a more diverse and deep content mix on our home page.

 Setup email comments

Unsavory comments? Please report harassment, spam, and hate speech to our community fisters, and flag the user (we will ban users dishing bad karma). Can't see comments? Apps like Avast or browser extensions can cause it. You can fix it by adding * to your whitelists.

Status updates from C-bloggers

GoofierBrute avatarGoofierBrute
I recently beat Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow again, but this time I played on Hard mode from scratch. Outside of dying a few times due to me being an idiot, and enemies hitting harder, it was actually easy. Like really easy.
Gamemaniac3434 avatarGamemaniac3434
Today I replated bacteria that I made take up a plamid hopefully stitched onto the genes generatlight. Taken from other dead bacteria and put into a non glowing species, to make it glow. Fucking microbiology is the best.
Pixie The Fairy avatarPixie The Fairy
It seems fairy farts are a fragrance, a soap, incense, a vaping liquid and a kind of nail polish. I'm clearly in the wrong line of work and need to eat more chili.
Cannibal Steven avatarCannibal Steven
"You gave the Lost Soul a big smile, like you remember she likes to do... For some reason she sort of wants to smile back..." I'm not crying. Not one bit.
ChrisHannard avatarChrisHannard
Just tried 'The Last Of Us' on PSNow Trial, only to be told... 'Something went wrong. Try again.' Game-appropriate error message or quickie plot-summary?
TheAngriestCarp avatarTheAngriestCarp
I hate when people say crap like "I admit that [thing] in games is problematic, but I still enjoy it" because it's an underhanded way of contradicting your own views while convincing yourself that you aren't a hypocrite.
ChillyBilly avatarChillyBilly
Well shit. I knew I was more than likely going to enjoy Star Wars Battlefront (cause you know, giant Star Wars nerd and all) but holy cow, the beta is fucking great! I need the full game like, now.
SpielerDad avatarSpielerDad
Anyone here going to NYC Comic Con? Always wanted to go and lived so close, but alas, it wasn't meant to be.
Mark Plechaty avatarMark Plechaty
Well I haven't seen any levels like this on mario maker so maybe it's unique the I'd is 55BD000000961CBA GIVE IT A GO and let me know what you think
Jiraya avatarJiraya
Hey Stranger ... wadda you buying ? Want some crack ? Here ya go... [youtube][/youtube]
Sr Churros avatarSr Churros
My brother caught me this Pokémon in our room yesterday. How should I name it? [img][/img]
Pixie The Fairy avatarPixie The Fairy
Yay, I got off of work early and may have Friday off! I have a sinking feeling I'm going to work 10 hours on Saturday as a result, though :/ We ran out of stuff to make stuff with so they must ship us stuff so we can ship stuff.
SeymourDuncan17 avatarSeymourDuncan17
Yo yo I'm Marie and I got dat gangsta flow. High scores ain't no trip, cuz I whip that shit like Sonic quick. I-I mean no! I didn't say anything! Stupidrecordbreakingcombodolt. [img][/img]
Mike Martin avatarMike Martin
I'm watching you.
FlanxLycanth avatarFlanxLycanth
SkarKrow avatarSkarKrow
Work noooooooooooooooooo D:
The Dyslexic Laywer avatarThe Dyslexic Laywer
I had such a awkward time playing Catherine because it shared the same name as my mother....
JayDGee avatarJayDGee
Broforce is coming out of early access on the 15th. I had no Idea it was an early access game.
James Internet Ego avatarJames Internet Ego
I have now played all 3 Witcher games. My verdict: Witcher 1 - alright, aged badly, lots of sex. Witcher 2 - good, very short, not much sex at all. Witcher 3 - Excellent in every way.
ikiryou avatarikiryou
I really wish MGO had been implemented with free-roam gameplay PMC (clan) setup instead of the standard matchmaking. Imagine roaming bands of PMC's opposing each other on the battlefield. How sexy would that be?
more quickposts



Invert site colors

  Dark Theme
  Light Theme

Destructoid means family.
Living the dream, since 2006

Pssst. konami code + enter

modernmethod logo

Back to Top

We follow moms on   Facebook  and   Twitter
  Light Theme      Dark Theme
Pssst. Konami Code + Enter!
You may remix stuff our site under creative commons w/@
- Destructoid means family. Living the dream, since 2006 -