Kenley Kristofferson

Composer.

Tag: video game music

VGM Wednesdays – “Mushroom Kingdom” from Super Mario RPG

“Mushroom Kingdom” from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, composed by Yoko Shimamura and released in 1996

Why isn’t there more bassoon in VGM? Seriously, its bouncy woodsiness sells me immediate in “Mushroom Kingdom.”

I love what Yoko Shimamura (or Parasite Eve and Kingdom Hearts fame) does here.  Instead of adapting a theme from Mario for the iconic Mushroom Kingdom, she puts pencil to paper and creates something new.

Because, let’s face it, we’ve been in the Mushroom Kingdom through most Mario games, but when have we ever been inside the Mushroom Kingdom? Maybe we have, but when we actually get to walk around and explore it feels like a new experience and I think it should have new music.  Thankfully, so does Shimamura 🙂

But it’s not only the bassoon in the beginning that make it shine, there is also tambourine and triangle which sits juuuuuuuust beneath the bassoon colour and adds some sparkle to the colour.  There’s also a click in there somewhere, maybe a cross stick, temple block or wood block.  I’m not sure what it is, but I like it.

Then we have English Horn on a small melody in the A section – a double reed duet.  YES!

Some low reed and low brass colours take over the melody in the B section (0:13) and catapult the listener back into A section, which now has a flute on top.

Until about 0:48, the piece is carried by the winds.  Now, why is that important? It’s really because we depend on strings for just-about-everything and the winds and percussion usually colour that sound.  This time, in the absence of strings, we have only colour and it’s beautiful 🙂

Thoughts? Write them below, send me a tweet or comment on the facebook post!

Thanks,
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – “Staff Roll” From “LoZ: Wind Waker”

“Staff Roll” from The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, composed by Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi, Koji Kondo and released in 2003

It feels strange to use a game that I’ve never played for VGM Wednesdays, but I once did a St. Patrick’s Day interview with Radio Free Gamer and this game came up.  I’ve never forgotten its since.

It’s the second Koji Kondo game in two weeks, I know, but these two pieces are so different.  The staff roll plays at the end of the game and just feels so expansive and broad, like sailing on the open sea (which is a prominent feature of the game).  There’s this sense that all that matters is freedom and your own experience.

Live your own life and live it the way you want.

Even though obstacles get in the way, you’re surpassing of them only makes the victory that much sweeter.

The score to Wind Waker has a much less epic feel than other Zelda titles and I think that it has to do with its Irish influence.  Irish music is more local, but also more distant.  Orchestral music is mighty, royal and heard in castles.  As the audience, we get that connection, but Irish/Celtic music gives us a different image of the world and that’s the one that Wind Waker explores.

Primarily, the composers show us the Irish flavour with instrumentation: The bodhran and hammer dulcimer (or bad synth steel guitar) at the beginning, then the Irish whistle at 0:11, then Uileann pipes at 0:24 and the fiddle at 0:35.  But it can’t just be generic melody or harmony on these instruments because, as with most cultural music, the instrument and the performance practice are so interconnected.

For example, the Irish whistle doesn’t just play a smooth melody, it has cuts (slamming the left pointer finger over top of the open hole, creating a grace note).  An Irish whistle playing without that idiomatic cultural style would sound out of place to our ear because we’ve heard an Irish whistle before and that’s not what it does.  It’s that “Irish” sound.  The instrument and the performance practice are linked.

I have a soft spot in another element in the music: the ascending bass line over a static melody.  You can hear it at  1:20 as the strings move homophonically underneath the Irish whistle.  It just… it just makes me so happy 🙂

Stay tuned for more over the weekend!

Thanks for reading,
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – All of the Cutscenes from Ninja Gaiden

Cutscene Music from Ninja Gaiden, composed by Keiji Yamagishi and released in 1992

Things I love about this game:

1) The Music (goes without saying, right?)
2) Cutscenes in an NES game! And by the same company that made Tecmo Bowl!
3) ScrewAttack rated this game as the 7th hardest NES game of all-time… I agree.
4) … (and I suppose a nostalgic connection).

Initially, I wanted to use the introductory sequence as the “VGM Wednesday,” but then I kept listening as I was writing this and was grooving hard to the cutscenes in my chair… so I had to put all of them in.  You could watch the whole video, it’s quite an engaging story.

It begins with the young ninja, Ryu Hayabusa, travelling to the US to find his father and falling into a web of espionage, seduction and a powerful embodiment of evil called “Jaquio.”  Every cutscene is a reward because the game is just so damn hard.  I miss those days, when an NES cartridge could barely hold any memory, so the developers needed to make it crazy hard to keep the player playing for a while.  It’s like the hover craft scene from Battletoads (and anyone who has played that game knows how crazy-hard that level, simply by the sheer amount of memorization and hand-eye coordination required).

The music pulls you in – no pretense, no flashiness, just the 2A03 sound chip and a team of individuals trying to tell a story about a ninja looking for his father.  The video takes an especially crazy-turn at about 13:20 and the ensuing battle is one wrought with inner conflict.  I remember being about 8 years old and thinking “but… I can’t…”

(don’t want to give it away)

Let me know what you think! Any good memories associated with the score? Let me know!
Thanks for reading!
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – “Close to Home” from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons

“Close to Home” from Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, by Yoko Kanno and released in 1994.

I covered this game in my podcast a few years ago and I penned as “one of the best scores you’ve never heard” because the game achieved so little success in North America and Europe.  In Asia, the Uncharted Waters franchise did okay – it wasn’s Mario or Dragon Quest, but it held its own.

The game takes place in 1522, the age of exploration, and the essence is really to build alliances and move six different episodes to their conclusion via the collection of precious goods (via trading or discovery) and the defeat of your enemies.  Unless you like games of accumulation or slow-building games, this game may not be for you.

The real gem of this game is that the score is composed by Yoko Kanno, of Cowboy Bebop and the Seatbelts acclaim.  Okay fine, she also scored the hugely popular Macross: Plus, Ghost in the Shell (Standalone Complex), Vision of Escaflowne and a whole slough of other enormous anime titles.

The tune that I selected from her is the ending of the game, when the ship finds its way back to the home port.  I feel so many emotions when I hear this: Peace, calm, regret, finality… There’s almost that sense like at the end of Lord of the Rings when the hobbits find their way back to the Shire, but they’re different.  Nothing has changed back home, yet everything has changed.

But there’s still a peace, though.  The journey is done.

But there are still elements of our hometown that haven’t changed as though the citizens hadn’t realized that there was even a problem.  They just went about their daily lives.

What do you think? Post your thoughts and let’s have a talk about it 🙂

Kenley

PS: Speaking of LOTR, Annie Lennox’s “Into the West” is one of the few songs that make me tear up every single time I hear it… and I love it for that.  The ships have come to carry you home… ah, music 🙂

VGM Wednesdays – “Fluffy Sweet” from Cloud

“Fluffy” from Cloud, by Vincent Diamante and released in 2005.

Have you ever put down a game after a few hours (or minutes) or play and thought, “man, that was just so beautiful?”  That’s Cloud.

I was exposed to this game at an IGDA meeting in Winnipeg about four years ago and it really stuck with me.  Noah Decter-Jackson of Complex Games was leading a small presentation about indie games and the industry around it and one of his examples of alternative gameplay was Cloud.  The wiki describes the game better than I ever could…

The game centers on a boy who dreams of flying while asleep in a hospital bed. The concept was partially based on lead designer Jenova Chen‘s childhood; he was often hospitalized for asthma and would daydream while alone in his room. Assuming the role of the boy, the player flies through a dream world and manipulates clouds to solve puzzles. The game was intended to spark emotions in the player that the video game industry usually ignored.

It’s about the experience and that’s what I love about indie games.  I’ve been replaying Bit Blot’Aquaria on the iPad and it’s been such a great time.  The colours are lush, the music in headphones is immersive… Indie games don’t shortchange you on the emotional part of the game and it never feels contrived or forced like in some big budget films or games.

Anyway, back to Cloud.  Episode 14 of Into the Score (my podcast on the in-depth study of video game music) tackled this game and features a great interview with the composer, Vincent Diamante.  What a great guy and very generous with this time.  Definitely check it out.  He’s scored thatgamecompany‘s fl0w, Flower and Journey.

What I love about the game’s score is that the melodic theme is heard first in “Title” often present, but with strange harmonies below it that pull the listener in a different direction.  The title really sets up the brightness and happy feel of theme, which leaves room for the composer to mess with it as the game progresses.  In the second track from the game’s OST, called “Just About Ready,” the theme comes in at about 0:32 and it sounds nice, but is then followed by (what I think is) the VI chord with an appoggiatura, betraying the happy expectation that you thought was coming.  This is what the whole game does 🙂

When we listen to “Fluffy Sweet,” we hear the theme of the game being elaborated and decorated through the harp and piano.  Then what he does (and this is lovely), he turns the theme into the rhythmic ostinato upon which these lush, colourful and vibrant chords sustain overtop, creating this juxtaposing texture of rhythmic-but-consonant and harmonic-but-dissonant.

So much love for this score.  The game is free, you can download it here.

See you soon!
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – “Times Scar” from Chrono Cross

“Time’s Scar” from Square’s “Chrono Cross,”  released in 2000.

This game has been on my mind for a while now.  Lately, it re-emerged with its release on the PSN Store about a month ago and I really considered buying it again.  Next, a blog called “Score” wrote a 3-PART analysis on the tune and did a fantastic job.

If you like music theory and VGM, you want to follow this blog 🙂

Anyway, back to the retelling! I picked this game when I was in second year university (3 years after its release, I always seem to play games way later) and, after a passionate affair with Chrono Trigger  for much of my youth, there was such relief in playing this.

It often gets criticized as being a game that doesn’t make sense or is far too convoluted (and I’m not entirely disagreeing), but the soundtrack in this game is pure Mitsuda.  “Time’s Scar” is the opening piece of the game, luring us in with its mysterious add9 chords and big leaps in the shakuhachi.* Big leaps give a lot of emotional power and I am all about that open fifth that starts the melody.

Even just the opening instrumentation of classical guitar, shakuhachi and the wash of synth behind it really demonstrates the cross-cultural score that permeates this game – not just instrumentally, but stylistically too.  The Celtic rollicking of “Another Termina,” the island feel of “Plains of Time – Home World” (also recounting the theme of Chrono Trigger), the sweeping European Classical string feel of “People Imprisoned by Destiny“… it’s as though the listener experiences both the world of the El Nido Archipelago AND the geography of our Earth too.

While I love the game, the soundtrack is really the gem of the experience.   I usually want to find pieces that are less well known, but some scores really have a lot of personal significance to me and are really part of my musical experience and development.  So, even though this is a very common score and really a big member in the canon of VGM, sometimes things are popular because they’re good – this is one of those examples 🙂

Thanks for reading,
Kenley

* I wrote “Irish Whistle” first, but that wasn’t correct.

VGM Wednesdays – “Colour of the Summer Sky”

“Colour of the Summer Sky” from Square’s Secret of Mana, released in 1993.

We first hear it in Potos Village, but it never leaves us through the rest of the game.  Hiroki Kikuta‘s score to Squaresoft’s 1993 RPG, Secret of Mana is one of those scores that transcends other musical works of its generation and that really isn’t a superlative generalization – it’s just one of those scores.

When I was thinking about doing a post on Secret of Mana, I couldn’t decide which to do at first: The iconic “Angel’s Fear” (or “Fear of the Heavens,” depending on your translation) from the game’s opening? The epic “Star of Darkness ~ Grand Palace Theme?” The victorious “Calm Before the Storm?” The unifying (and super groovy) “Eternal Recurrance ~ Undine’s Cave?”

So we see how difficult this is? How does one choose? Current notion: I’ll choose one now and others later 🙂

The plot of the game is one of those complex-yet-incredibly-simple-but-still-incredibly-complex games, where on the story’s surface, a three young boys disobey the village elder and visit a waterfall where they find the Mana Sword of ages past.  Upon finding the sword, a military higher up (Jema, I think) says that the sword is legendary and tells our hero to go visit the eight Mana Temples and energize it.

There’s so much more, but that’s how we start.

From spritely woodwinds (like in “What the Forest Taught Me ~ Upper Land Forest Theme“, exotic percussion (especially the gamelan-style mallets and harmonic work in “Ceremony ~ South Ruins Theme“), there really is SO much that goes beyond both gameplay and nostalgia – there’s something really happening here.

But it’s not just the music, it’s the interplay between the music and the visuals, the gameplay and the story, for all are cohesive and none are isolated in video games.  Alec Holowka of Infinite Ammo talks about this, the synergy of elements in gaming and how the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  He and Derek Yu made “Aquaria” for the PC and Mac… that’s up next week.

Thanks for listening! If you ever want to check out more musings on VGM, come check out my podcast, Into the Score!

Until next time,
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – “Title Screen” from Kid Icarus

“Title Screen” from Nintendo’s Kid Icarus, released in 1986

Written by Hip Tanaka in 1986, Kid Icarus is one of those pieces that stay with you and you may or may not have it in your head for the next several hours – sorry.  If you ever play the game, you’ll be hearing the music a lot, as the title is notoriously difficult even by today’s standards.

Essentially, Kid Icarus is the story of an angelic character named Pit who seeks to get three treasures and save the Goddess of Angel Land, Palutena.  You start at the Underworld and go up… and up… and up.

This is one of Hip Tanaka’s more straightforward scores – unlike Metroid and Earthbound (as a co-composer with Keiichi Suzuki), which were more in his off-the-beaten-path styles.  There’s a classical lightness that permeates this score, giving it the sense of always moving forward, just like the game.

For the rest of the score, check out the VGMPF’s post about it here:
http://www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/index.php?title=Kid_Icarus:_Angel_Land_Story_(NES)

For more of my video game rantings and learnings, check out my podcast (Into the Score) at http://www.intothescore.com!

Thanks for reading!
Kenley

VGM Wednesdays – VGMPF and Sim City (SNES)

Very few genres of music have affected me as much as music from video games.  They were a huge part of my youth (but I still remembered to play outside and be creative) and, coupled with high school music education, became a driving force of my musical development.

There is SO much great music that has been written over the past 3o years for this dynamic and exciting medium and I really want to highlight some of its repertoire – canonical or not – on my website.  Great music is meant to be shared and I want to spread some of my favourites to you.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re “good,” whatever that even means, but simply that they resonate with me and are beautiful in their own way and I am certainly not the only one who thinks that way…

The Video Game Music Preservation Foundation is an archive of the canon and repertoire of VGM.  Some music purists may find it strange to talk about the “canon” or “repertoire” of VGM, but it’s really there and it’s important to so many people.  There is a canon of all genres: Of blues, of jazz, of ’50s, of Baroque Music (or all Classical music, for that matter), pop and yes, video game music.  The archive can be found at…

http://www.vgmpf.com/

… and I have immeasurable respect for these folks.  Granted, it’s not complete, but they’re building and I support that entirely.

Now, onto this week’s selection: “Title” from Sim City for the SNES.


Sim City (by MAXIS) was first released for PC in 1989 as a simulation where one builds their own city, manages its citizens and repels/recovers from natural disasters.  It was ported to SNES in 1991 as one of the first games to land on the system and it made quite the splash.

The menu title is one that really stuck with me, where I would just listen to the music for minutes on end, feeling no need to press start and begin.  When I was 8, I recorded it on an an old cassette player, putting the microphone to the TV speaker and just letting the loop run.

Two of the top comments on the YouTube link sum up my thoughts perfectly:

I love this music, reminds me of my childhood, where nothing mattered at all. Just chilling playing my SNES…ahh good times.  reniisgod

What you say is so true. Somehow nobody ever mentioned it, but you are right: nothing mattered at all.
dedwArzZ 

To listen to the whole score, you can find it at the VGMPF Sim City page.

To listen to more of my rantings on VGM, check out my podcast at http://www.intothescore.com!

Thanks,
Kenley