Years into my insatiable appreciation of hyper and intensely melodic chipmusic, I return to my origins and wonder why Concrete Man's stage from Mega Man 9 was so special to me - and what it meant for gameplay. (Originally posted here)
Mega Man 9's soundtrack was my first true introduction to chiptune purely as a form of recreational listening (as revealed by my Last.fm account on Apr 16th, 2009). The most advanced and newest gaming hardware I had owned by then was a Nintendo DS, so the existence of Mega Man 9 was far beyond my reach. I knew however that the Mega Man 2 soundtrack was something special to behold and I listened to it and the Sonic 2 soundtrack on occasion alongside scads of older brother-influenced grindcore, sludge, and metal.
Listen to the track here!
The track is unstoppable. It's hyper and upbeat and speaks of an adventure full of action and risk and triumph. How inappropriate then that the level Concrete Jungle is background music for (Concrete Man's stage) is nearly incongruous. Just like I feel my late introduction to chipmusic instrumentation did not fit my musical mindset or gamer status in 2009, the flow and structure of Concrete Man's level in Mega Man 9 simply does not keep up with the flow and tempo of its music. Sure there are plenty of enemies and obstacles in the first segment, but the colors are muted, the risks flat and empty, and the design eventually devolves into a rehash of traditional Mega Man tropes, making the action predictable and a little silly. Somehow dodging the careening ball of a third, identical robo-circus elephant does not match the exhilaration I feel when the arcing crescendos of Concrete Jungle are hitting their peaks.
So this is game music with what I perceive is an intended narrative, but why is my perception skewed in that direction at all? What about the tempo and melody remind me of the thrill of action, whether virtual or real? I'll leave the nature of exhilaration in tunes like this to music theorists, but as someone who loves video games I want to proclaim that there is a reason why a track like this invigorates me so. Perhaps it is an unseen, instinctual part of my brain that connects the speed of the melodies to a meaning that speaks of danger, excitement, and thrill. It is in this fashion that Mega Man 9 advertises action that maybe it can't deliver all too well with such a limited range of designs and features utilizing faux NES hardware, but I say that's okay. The narrative is charming because it displaces power it otherwise cannot provide through other formats which leaves it is up to the player to conceive of the excitement that may not be truly felt without placing full investment into the events onscreen. This is the powerful result of creation within limited fields.
I did not like Mega Man 9's soundtrack when I downloaded it in full before I bought the game. No other tracks spoke to me as much as Concrete Jungle did, and I passed it off until I got my first next gen console in Sept 2010. Mega Man 9 and 10 were the first couple games I bought through XBLA and it was then that I learned my lesson. Without a guide of visuals, story, and especially promised thrill, the music of any action game is going to sound dull and lifeless. Thus upon purchasing Mega Man 9 and receiving the full and intended effect of its tunes as coupled with the action, I was thoroughly entranced and endlessly enthralled. But Concrete Man's stage only gave me a rush when I let it - speeding through enemy patterns after endless practice made me feel like a hero and the feeling finally approached the high water mark Concrete Jungle had set with its insistent and hyper melodies because I allowed myself to fill in the blanks that this particular stage left in my imagination. Blanks that are pining to reach the influence Concrete Jungle sets but can only do so with your complete allegiance.
Thanks to Mega Man 9 and Concrete Jungle, I am now forever hoping to experience that intense narrative and feeling of giving myself over to creative power in every new chiptune mp3 I download.