Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Midweek Music Box: Metroid (NES) Title Music

Haunting, beautiful, and unsettling. What's not to love about the Title theme of the first entry into the Metroid franchise? It's not time for Friday Night Rentals, but I have to say I think half the reason I rented the original Metroid back in the day was just to hear the music from the opening screen. No matter how creeped out by the game I would get, no matter how lost and frustrated--all the negative feeling was swept away in a tidal wave of wonder when I heard the title music. Imagine transitioning from the simple intros of Pac-Man and Pitfall, or the more cheerful chip tunes of Super Mario--to this masterwork of mystery and fear. In case it's been a while or you've never heard the title theme to Metroid, let's get you caught up:

"Metroid: Title Theme"

If you didn't know already, I just can't get enough of Metroid music. Not too long ago I talked at length about Super Metroid's fantastic music from the beginning areas of the game. The original title music for Metroid, to this day, has an almost visceral effect on me. The title music remains embedded within both my mind and heart as music that will forever send chills up my spine every time I hear it. 

The slow, bassy thrumming, those unsettling chords that plink out at just the right moment all build up to a theme which has creepy sci-fi overtones that manage to remain slightly hopeful sounding. It's hard not to picture the "mission" text on screen when you hear the music take a slightly more upbeat, yet wistful, turn. One of the great turns in this music comes just when you think the music has reached a pleasant and possibly cheerful tone--that's when the thrumming returns to chill your heart and remind you about the darker nature of the mission that lies ahead. The thrumming returns, and you don't really feel like you've returned to the beginning of a looped track. You know that it's time to stop waiting. It's time to explore, to search, and to find and destroy the metroid menace. Whenever I hear it I go back to the place and time when I was a kid; where a seemingly simple tune was more than just another game tune, it was the soundtrack to a potential night of dreams filled with both terror and wonder--much like the Metroid game itself.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Night Rentals: F-Zero

Not every game that we consider an awesome classic was a winner for me back in the day.  Fresh from having thoroughly enjoyed Mario Kart. I decided I needed to give that sci-fi racing game I had seen at the store a try.  When I got home and found myself getting run off the "road" and into space or exploding on the track more often finishing the race--let alone placing--I had begun to wonder why I had bothered renting a racing game in the first place. Even one as cool looking as F-Zero.

Graphics and Style:

Mode 7 makes an appearance again here the same way it does in Super Mario Kart and still helps to give the game a nice sense of depth even to this day. Back when I was a kid the backgrounds to the game bored me to a bit and I thought as an adult it might have been because I was somehow more enthralled as a kid by the brighter colors offered by Super Mario. Well, as an adult I guess not much has changed because I still feel like there should be more going on.  There are some nice touches in F-Zero's background like futuristic cities and such, but that's about it. And, while I appreciate that underneath the tracks there's an ever-scrolling ground--this neat trick of the graphics just didn't ad much for me personally. Besides, with the fast pace of the game, who has time to look at that graphic when zooming along? In fact, why would I want to drop into the awaiting abyss just to see the pretty graphics? I see right through you F-Zero! As if the being run off the road wasn't bad enough.

Music and Sound:

Here's the obligatory shout out to the Mute City Theme:

"Mute City Theme"

Yeah, I can see why this theme gets remixed and updated over the years, even to this day it really helps get you in the mood to zoom along at break-neck speeds through narrow corridors. You need that feeling throughout a game like this and with tunes like the Mute City theme and Sand Ocean:

"Sand Ocean"

--you really get in the state of mind you need. I don't think many of the tunes would make my iPod, but there's enough 16-bit goodness there to get you pumped up.

Gameplay and Control:

You can select from knight, queen, or king leauges; and you have your pick of one of four vehicles to race with.  Every racer has their own unique advantages from strength to speed to acceleration and more. I think having only four racers was a mistake on Nintendo's part, but as this was one of the early games it might have just been due to lack of space on the cart, I'm not really sure. What it lacks in racers it more than makes up for in tracks.  Each track has a recharge station somewhere in it and your going to want to pit your ship as much as possible on the higher levels because destroying other racers is one of the core mechanics of the game.

You see, F-Zero isn't just about beating other racers to the finish, it's about survival. Make no mistake, most tracks, even the easier ones, will likely trash your car to point of it nearly exploding. If the dangers of the sharp turns and tricky jumps don't kill you, you can always count on one of the other racers to murder-ram you until you're nothing more than a smoking cinder.  Even the fairly tight and easy to use controls won't help you because your opponents can seem more bent on killing you than finishing the race. One thing I will say though for this is that it's kind of neat to see the number of racers allowed to continue decrease with each passing lap and knowing that you can up your chances of falling into that qualifying number if you simply bump off the other racers.

Memories and New Thoughts:

I have to admit that F-Zero is one my more recent pick ups, despite it having been one of those games I rented off and on as a kid. You'd think that meant I loved it, but in fact I just was so frustrated with that I kept trying to do better just to know that I could actually complete a league. Well, that never happened, and if my recent replaying of it is anything to go by, I probably never will. Oh, I'll grant that the music for some of the levels in F-Zero were among Nintendo's best. I'm pretty sure a huge chunk of my favorite tunes from video games come from the Super Nintendo selection regardless of how well I liked the game. However, aside from the mode 7 tricks with the "floor", I can't help but think how it just doesn't compare to all the variation in Super Mario Kart. (Which is probably why I bought that one and only rented F-Zero.) I'm glad to have the game in my collection, even if it does serve as a reminder of why I never really got into racing games.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Midweek Music Box: Mega Man X Music

Everything seemed so metal in the 90s, or at least a good chunk of the music for Super Nintendo games seemed so. I mean, the soundtracks for the Mega Man always had a rockin' vibe to then, but when Mega Man made the leap to the Super Nintendo with Mega Man X those already jammin' tunes had an added layer of base and depth that the Nintendo couldn't handle.  It morphed from merely sounding like something trying to pretend like it was an electric guitar, into something much more electric guitar than anything else. I'm going to highlight just a few, but really the whole soundtrack is just ear candy you should treat yourself too.

First, the Opening Stage Music:

"Opening Stage Music"

I pretty sure a live version of this song would have to end in a guitar smash. Not only do the riffs get you pumped and ready for action, but it's a taste of things to come--and you aren't even playing the actual game yet, just going through a tutorial of sorts. The Opening Stage music lets you know Mega Man has made the leap to 16-bit power with an emphasis on the "power".

Spark Mandrill Stage Theme:

"Spark Mandrill Stage"

Wailing guitar, fast drum work make up this soundtrack. Hearing it, I wish I could run as fast as Mega Man--or rather "X" as he's called in this version of the franchise. It conveys a real sense of energy, excitement, and urgency. As if there's nothing more important in the whole world than beating the stage. I love tracks like this because not only do they make the stage more exciting, but I'm left wishing I could replay the stage just to hear the music. I'd download this or a remix in a heartbeat to use while jogging or taking morning run--if I did that sort of thing. Only problem would be I'd likely drop dead of a massive heart attack while trying to keep pace with the rhythm.

Sigma Fortress 1 

"Sigma Fortress 1"

Sometimes it can feel like musical tone shifts are almost as important to a good game as how well it controls. In a game like Super Mario Bros. it helps us to adjust to the underground levels when instead of hearing the bright and cheerful tune we all know and love--we hear something with a deep groove and a bit of mystery to it. With an action platformer of Mega Man X's style, you can't just drop the guitars and drums because you've reached the main boss' level. You have to keep the mood set up with the other stages while also adding a richer layer. A layer of sound that let's you know it's time to stop screwing around beating underlings, stuffs about to get real--so to speak--and you gotta get your game face on for...uh, the game!  The tone on the synthesized guitar goes down an octave, and a synthesizer keyboard finds itself in the mix, but in a way it really works both for the level and for the game. Mega Man X was set in an indistinguishable future and the game came out in a time when synthesizer music wasn't just popular, it was meant to represent the future. Well, it does a pretty darn good job here in selling me on the severity of the challenge ahead, even with the use of synth music.

Closing Thoughts:

I'd be remiss if I didn't share a link to the whole soundtrack, so here it is:

"Full Mega Man X OST"

I just wanted to highlight a few of my favorites from the soundtrack, but really the whole thing is just so awesome, you really need to listen to the whole thing, or better yet, play the game and hear them in their original setting! Seriously though, the music stands up after all this time and it's great to listen to it even separate from the game. I want to list out all the composers that were credited with creating the music for the game:

Setsuo Yamamoto
Makoto Tomozawa
Yuki Iwai
Yuko Takehara
Toshihiko Horiyama

Thanks to these fine people, every chord rocks, every beat leaves you not just wanting to play the game, but to do something really active as well. At first, I just chalked this feeling up to me being on a diet and trying to exercise more, but even listening to it late at night the other day I felt like I should be doing something more physically straining than just writing. It made me feel like I was ready for a run and ready to take on the whole world--hopefully without having to fight robot masters though.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Midweek Music Box: Graduis III Music

I've said it once, and I'll say it again: I just wasn't a fan of Shoot'em Ups when I was a kid. Oh sure, I liked the original Gradius well enough and rented it a few times when I was a kid, but between the time of the NES and SNES I was finding that I just wasn't enjoying the genre of shooters. They were fun enough in the arcade and all, but when I was renting a game, I wanted to rent games that I was reasonably certain I could beat come Sunday evening and time to return the rental. And the fact of the matter was I was pretty bad at most shoot'em ups, bullet-hell or otherwise. 

As an adult I've grown a new found appreciation for the genre and still wonder what it would have been like had I rented Phalanx.  There was one shoot'em up for the SNES I did end up renting though, yup good ol' Gradius III.  I don't know why I did it in the first place, seeing as I passed up shooters like it left and right. Perhaps I remembered the fun I had with the original, perhaps I was left with the terrifying possibility of not having a game for the weekend. Well, whatever the reason was, I rented Gradius III.  

Just the once though, I sucked at these games, remember?

If nothing else stuck with me, the music sure did. Again, we were at a time when Konami took pride in it's work rather than pride in ticking off fans and treating one of their biggest game designers worse than a red-headed step-child orphan.  Anywho, the music throughout the game--or at least as far as I got with it just rocked.  From the adventurous and inspiriing prologue theme:

"Prologue Theme"

To the excitement conveyed by the brief, but awesome intro screen music:

"Intro Screen"

Heck, even the weapon select music had a great vibe to it:

"Weapon Select"

I was originally just going to cover one or two songs from the game, but having listened to the various game tracks--some from levels I never reached as a kid but look forward to attempting to get to now--I couldn't pick just one track. They were all so good.  I would heartily recommend finding a way to rip this to an mp3 or iPod whether you listen to it while working away at your job or heading down the freeway on pleasant trip somewhere. There's just a real sense of adventure conveyed by the tunes in the game.  I think part of why it's such a successful soundtrack is that Gradius III's music doesn't sound too overblown or even too sci-fi'ish. There aren't unnecessary warbles or annoying, high-pitched beeps and bloops meant to "sell" the space theme.  While the bass hits and synthesizer music say science fiction, it says "Star Trek" or "Battlestar Galactica" (newer version), not SyFy channel movie of the week if you catch my drift.

Maybe it sounds like I'm laying it on thick again. After all, with games like Super Metroid out there, how could any game--even a pre-insanity Konami--hope to match or live up to others?  Simply put, there are so many games for the SNES that really did a botch job when it came to putting a score to a game. Not just sports games or failed mascot games either, but games where you really hoped or expected the music to sound either top-notch or at the very least, reasonable. 

Last thing I want to say is this:  Part of the other reason I find the music from Gradius III so dang enjoyable comes from the fact that it reminds me of time not too long ago.  A time when Konami used to care, and used to be one of the greatest video game makers around--not a collection of nuts in a rubber room trying to convince orderlies that franchise themed pachinko machines were the way to go. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Friday Night Rentals: Lemmings

So help me, I love letting the little lemming guys die. Whether falling off a cliff and splatting, walking headlong into a chopping machine, or blowing them up myself when it was clear that I wasn't able to finish a level with the correct amount of lemmings--it's just too fun.  

Now, before you brand me as a heartless killer and call up the local ASPCA, let me explain. Lemmings for the Super Nintendo was what you might call an enabler. With charming music, clever puzzles, and interesting level design, it was hard to resist bouncing between trying to solve a level and just exploding all the guys on screen and watch the fireworks. I may have overlooked this gem of a game before, but I feel it's high time to spend a Friday night once more with the pint-sized puzzle pals of Lemmings.

Graphics and Design:

Ported from the PC, I think the graphics hold up pretty well. The character animation, for being a bunch of pixelated little guys, actually looks pretty smooth and their walk looks both cute and jaunty. I like that the world, and the lemmings themselves, are just there looking cute and cuddle. Not only does it make it harder (and somewhat oddly satisfying) to detonate them--but they aren't infused with gobs of "'tude" like so many other games of the 90's. It seemed like everyone from bats to cats to hedgehogs had a snarky smile and a quip they were just dying to share.  Whereas the lemmings are just straight up dying--if you don't save them that is.

Music and Sound Design:

What cheerful little marching music litters this game.  From the happy-go-lucky Main Theme:

"Main Theme"

To the whimsy of the stage 3 music:

"Stage 3 (Not as complicated as it sounds)"

To the goofy renditions of classic tunes like "She'll be Coming Round' the Mountain":

"She'll be Coming Round' the Mountain"

Much like the game itself, each tune or rendition captures the happy spirit of either saving or dooming the little lemming lads. I don't know if they are tunes which will fill my iPod anytime soon, but as I sit here typing it has helped pass the time in fairly pleasant way while simeltaneously making me want to drive a whole herd of the little buggers off a cliff.

As far as sound design goes, I just love it. Every lemming splat, to every "oh no" before the grab their heads and pop, to every squeaky squeal as drop to their doom just fills me with joy. Okay, maybe joy is a tad exaggerated, but it definitely makes me smile. I think that the designers put the noises in not only for cuteness factor but because they're a real stress relief should the levels ever get too frustrating or too difficult. It's hard to throw your controller across the room in anger when a simple double click will start the five second timer to detonate all remaining lemmings on screen; causing them to scream out "Oh no" in terror before blowing to bits.

Gameplay and Memories:

Getting an instruction manual with a game rental was a rarity. If you got a photo copied manual or a sticker with basic instructions you were lucky. Some games I rented back when I was a kid came with nothing which could occasionally lead to an hour or so of frustration while trying to figure out the basics of how to play a game. (Don't even get me started on Castlevania 2).  What made this such a great game to rent on a Friday Night, and part of what makes it so much fun to own even today, comes from the way the designers laid out each of the first 8-10 levels of the game. Before each level, a set of text outlining your goals appears on screen. It tells you the minimum percentage of lemmings you need to save, how fast they drop from a trapdoor into the level itself, and how long you have to solve the stage. On top of this, those first few levels give major hints/basically outline what you have to do.  Step into the first stage, and you are told "Just Dig," and that's all you need to do. You can assign 10 digging jobs (the exact number of lemmings that come out of the trapdoor), the lemmings drop at a medium rate, and you only need 1 lemming to make it to the exit in order to pass the level. Immediately you learn that A)Levels might only give you a limited amount of tasks you can assign your lemmings. B)You can sometimes make mistakes and still be okay C)Sometimes levels have pre-assigned drop rates which can affect overall difficulty.--And this is just a few things you can learn without ever really being in danger of losing the stage.  The following levels teach you more and more, and it's not until about the 10th stage that the game really starts to throw slightly more difficult puzzles your way that require a bit of thought.  Not only did this make it so I never needed an instruction manual, it gave me a real sense of accomplishment when I completed those first few levels. Sure, they were like escalating tutorials, but because they required me to learn more about the game, and advanced the level each time I passed--I felt rewarded for my efforts.

I admit thought, there are times I really wish this game also had a mouse pack-in like Mario Paint. Not that you couldn't do things fairly easily with the SNES pad. From selecting various jobs for the lemmings to do, to scrolling various parts of the map so as to better know when and where to assign tasks--it works really well not just for a port of the Amiga game, but really for any game.

I can't remember how high of a level I got to before I ended up calling it quits for the night--thank God for the password feature--but I remember spending hours just trying to solve some of the higher levels only to end up having to detonate the lemmings over and over again before turning in for bed late. Having played it again for the article I was nearly sucked in again to handing over hours of my life to the Lemmings game.  It's nice to own this game knowing that on any given night, I can while away the hours navigating lemmings past traps and pitfalls, advancing level after level--or send them to their doom just for fun.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Midweek Music Box: Bust-A-Move Main Theme

I know it's May the Fourth be with you day, and I could make this Mid Week Music box about music from a Star Wars game but....What can I say, I'm in a pleasant music kinda mood of late. I love the theme from Star Wars, but right now, I need a break. I've mentioned before that I've taken on loads of work of late, but I can't stress the stress--so to speak--that I feel right now. Long nights, early mornings, and back and forth from a retail job to a freelance writing contract. While I'm happy for the money this puts both in my savings and towards games--I just wish I could lose myself for a few hours in a relaxing puzzle game...or at least the music from one

Okay, so most any puzzle game you pop into a system will likely greet you with either jazzy tunes or music that while upbeat, gives you a sense of urgency as you play.  Tetris has a fantastic soundtrack, but I wouldn't exactly call it's theme song something I could sit back and relax to.  See, because in any puzzle game, you're likely playing a game without any defined end, so the music for these types of games typically loops after only a minute or two. When you think about it, we ask a lot out of those puzzle game tunes because those few notes have to carry you through your entire gaming experience. Usually there aren't any "worlds" or levels per-se within a puzzle game. Usually what you have are a few background change ups--if you're lucky.  So when a game like Bust-A-Move presents a simple-yet-satisfying soundtrack like it does, you just naturally want to keep listening to it:

"Main Theme"

Do you hear that? Charming and upbeat, satisfying and pleasant, and something I wouldn't mind having an extended loop of on my iPod. It bops along as you bust bubbles, and even if you were to pull away from the game and just listen to it for fun, you might find yourself bopping along as the tune goes on its merry way. See, sometimes music for a game doesn't need to rev up the action or make you have a constant sense of tension to keep you going. In fact, as this game is basically a port of an arcade game, I can see where having pleasant music would make me even more likely to plunk in another quarter. I mean, can't you imagine yourself in an arcade saying, "Yeah, Final Fight was fun and all, but I felt chill when playing that game. Let me pop in another buck or two to see how far I get. Maybe snag a high score."

Okay, you likely wouldn't sound quite that dorky about it, but given the appeal of the game compounded with a sound track that has an infectious pleasantness, why not pop in another quarter or start a fresh round if for no other reason than to hear a tune that will help you relax? After all, the night is young, and even though there's work to do, there's always time for just one more game. Right?