Monday, July 4, 2011

Chiptunes and Classic Videogame Music - Oh, Say Can You Hear?

Here in the United States, July 4th is a patriotic holiday, and besides fireworks and parades, the music of the holiday is distinctive and instantly summons some memories. Aside from Christmas and a few cultural festivals, there are few other holidays that do that. I don't usually hear a particular song and think “Halloween” or “Easter”, and if there is an Arbor Day song, I don't know it. Thinking about a particular Independence Day/July 4th memory and the music associated with it brings me to today's topic. One of the most easily recognizable songs for American Patriotism is, of course, our National Anthem, and being a geek, my clearest memory of the Star Spangled Banner isn't of some sporting event I attended or competed in, and it isn't some formal event where a band or orchestra played a stirring rendition. It is (for good or ill) … this.

One of the greatest and worst moments in early videogaming history. Konami's “interesting” interpretation aside, there have been some really incredible compositions to come out of video games in the last 30 or so years, and chiptune music has been dissected, analyzed, remixed and remastered by literally thousands of aspiring musicians. For those who know a little bit about the geeky, crazy little niche subset of music that includes 8 and 16-bit compositions, there are standouts, and I'd like to talk about a few of the best.

Castlevania (NES) – Composer: Kinuyo Yamashita

The original Castlevania had one of the most remixed, analyzed and familiar songs in video gaming history. If you've ever played the game, I'm sure you recognize it, but you may not know that the song's official name is Vampire Killer, or that it was composed by a woman, which was highly unusual in the videogame industry of the 1980s. So unusual, in fact, that Kinuyo Yamashita was credited under the pseudonym James Banana. I'll also always have fond memories of her soundtrack for the trippy game “Stinger,” which was my first NES game after Super Mario Bros, which shipped with the system.

Legend of Zelda/Super Mario Brothers (NES) – Composer: Koji Kondo

Kondo is well known as a composer for the creation of the two most iconic themes of the 8-bit era of video gaming. In addition to being a composer, he literally wrote the book on overcoming the inherent challenges with sound design on Nintendo's FamiCom system (released abroad as the Nintendo Entertainment System.) In addition to composing the scores for Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda, he returned in some capacity to work on other games in both of those franchises and did a lot of the music and sound for the Star Fox series.

Streets of Rage (Sega Genesis) – Composer: Yuzo Koshiro

Not all of the early great music in videogames first showed up on the NES. Whenever someone says “great music from a video game” I usually first think of Streets of Rage. I discovered these songs before I knew they were from a game, having missed out on the fighting franchise when it first appeared on Sega Genesis. The high energy tunes were inspired by club music the composer heard at the time, and the success of the game has been attributed in no small part due to how memorable the music from each stage is.

Final Fantasy Series (Many Systems) – Composer: Nobuo Uematsu

The “Prelude” composition from the original Final Fantasy game has appeared in most of the games in the most popular JRPG series in videogaming history. It was based on a simple arpeggio found in one of Johann Sebasian Bach's stort pieces, and has evolved over the years from a simple two-voice melody to a fully orchestrated theme that is recognized by millions worldwide. The success of Final Fantasy and its music led to Nobuo Uemastu scoring over 30 other titles, and he, along with several other employees of Squaresoft, formed a band. They named it “The Black Mages.”

I didn't include some of my favorite remixes or any of the post-chiptune music found in games on purpose. I got into Jonathan Coulton based on “Still Alive” from Portal and after hearing Poets of the Fall in Alan Wake, I made sure to listen to all of their stuff. I'll revisit the topic of music from or by artists made famous by video games at a future date, but to hear the themes I've referred to in this article remastered or reimagined, I recommend the amazing music archive OC Remix. The OverClocked Remix site has a hard rock/metal inspired version of Vampire Killers called “CastleMania” that isn't to be missed, and jazz versions of Legend of Zelda and Mario themes as well a thousands of other tracks for download.
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Alpha said...

One of the few history lessons I've enjoyed, to date.

Zombie Ad said...

That is geeky - I LOVE it! :)

Electric Addict said...

oh i so LOVE chiptunes :) I go on chiptune binges at times haha

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