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What? Game Music is Evolving!


This is a column by Jesse Gregory all about his primary obsession, video game music. He feels that despite how core to the experience soundtracks often are, they aren't as large a part of gaming discussion as they should be. Let the discussion begin!

While just another game to some, last year's Sonic Generations was a review course of Sonic's varied musical history. With a wealth of classic and modern remixes and an even larger vault of unlockable originals, the game laid out in plain sight just how much the music of a single series can change over the course of two decades.

While hardware limitations can breed highly focused creativity, the lack thereof allows for unrestrained experimentation. From the Genesis to the Dreamcast, we witnessed Masato Nakamura's unforgettable themes replaced by a wide variety of tracks featuring live performances in a vast array of genres.

It sounds pretty good on paper. Sure, we got some enjoyable instrumental rock and jazz, but songs that sing about following rainbows and rap about chaos emeralds can make these games embarrassing to revisit. Still, I have to admire the many directions Sega was willing to explore with the series' music. Sonic Rush in particular really shook things up thanks to Hideki Naganuma. His unique brand of sample slicing threw many disparate genres into a blender to make something really special.

The Sonic series is, of course, far from an isolated case when it comes to the musical evolution of a series. Take Street Fighter for example. If you were alive in the '90s, you no doubt have Yoko Shimomura's iconic Street Fighter II soundtrack forever carved into your memory. But with the exception of the Volcanic Rim stage, Street Fighter IV just doesn't have the same level of melodic pull. Instead, it lays focus on heavy electronica with production values that far exceed its predecessor in ways that only streamed audio could allow. It may not be as memorable, but it's nonetheless a mighty fine modernization of an old franchise.

Sometimes stylistic change becomes so severe that it borders on the unbelievable. If my younger self were able to hear the final boss theme of Super Mario Galaxy 2, he would never believe that the full orchestra and choir piece belonged to one of the portly plumber's adventures. And yet, a large enough portion of the score is devoted to the bouncier feel of Mario's past that it became a beautiful marriage of old and new loved by all sane people.

Those same people don't always take so kindly to change. Many feathers were ruffled when Castlevania: Lords of Shadow arrived from Spanish studio Mercurysteam. Óscar Araujo's film-like score had more in common with Danny Elfman's work on the 1989 Batman movie than what we've come to expect from Castlevania. In spite of the soundtrack's overall quality, the deck was stacked against it as many longtime fans hungered for Michiru Yamane's signature sound.

Chasing the past might seem like a good idea, but sometimes it just doesn't work out. Sega tried to give fans what they wanted with Sonic the Hedgehog 4, and we all know how that turned out. The pseudo-Genesis soundtrack was in desperate need of a better arranger as evidenced by a fan-made rendition of the game's first stage that Sega featured on its own blog (despite the video's unflattering description).

That isn't to say it can't be done. Mega Man 9 and 10 were both very successful in capturing the spirit of the NES. In fact, I'd argue that Mega Man 9 even surpasses a few of the soundtracks it imitates, and Mega Man 10 was no slouch either. Chill Man's stage has a level of complexity that almost feels like the composer is showing off.

Primarily, though, a soundtrack should always support the game to which it's attached. Retro throwbacks only work on games that emulate or at least take inspiration from the games of our youth. As the industry matures, it's only natural that the accompanying music will change to better suit what you're seeing on screen. And as technology increases, so do the number of ways in which music can dynamically adjust to each situation.

They don't make game music like they use to. It's evolving, and that has its own advantages.

Jesse Gregory is a freelance writer and electronica musician living in the Seattle area. Aside from co-founding and contributing to The Mega Man Network, he's been published on Kotaku and SideQuesting and hosts the game music podcast, Sound in Action . When he's not listening to game music, he's remixing it . Follow him on Twitter: @mainfinger

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