Friday, August 23, 2013

Let's Listen: Theme and Variation

at 4:30 PM
When one song repurposes the melody from another, it can bring new meaning to familiar content. In Super Mario RPG, it extends the range of a character's influence; in Ninja Warriors, it relieves tension; and in Blaster Master, it sheds new light on your surroundings.

Super Mario RPG

Fight Against an Armed Boss

Dangerous Town

I tend to label video game synths as bassoons when it's not appropriate, but I think the first lead instrument here truly is supposed to be a bassoon. Its lower pitch fits the gravity of a boss fight, while its pompous, uh, character (???) strikes an absurd contrast to the slaptastic bass on show here. Super Mario RPG is an absurd game, and its boss fights are no exception. Bosses are constructed of weaponry; menacing in theory, but these guys take on super sentai personas, wear googly eyes, or something along those lines. In both music and character, boss battles are a mix of the serious and the silly.

In Super Mario RPG, when a boss holds an entire town in his grasp, the Dangerous Town theme plays. Between the woodblock and the twangy plucked thing, it's almost got the feeling of a lawless town in the old west. Best of all, though, an accordion and wind section join forces to play the Armed Boss theme with slower, more deliberate notes. The boss' essence can be felt throughout the town not just by the grim state of affairs--whether the townsfolk are harassed by Shysters or paralyzed by arrows--but also by the very melody in the air.

Ninja Warriors

Final Stage

Final Boss

I have a hunch that every pair of stage and boss songs in Ninja Warriors shares themes, but I've never been able to put my finger on it definitively. I can hear it most of all in the game's final stage and boss tunes.

In part, that's because the final stage theme revolves around a string synth that goes slower than most of the game's music. Ninja Warriors music is fast, hard and obnoxious in a fun way, making this final stage song notably serious (fitting for a final stage, I guess).

It opens with a foreboding sequence of strings and breaks into its real theme around 0:28. The bassline hits the same note over and over, occasionally building upward, but it's always cut before it can release its tension naturally; it snaps back to its starting pitch. This makes for tension, since the bassline never gets a chance to finish. That is, until the chorus comes in at 1:14.

The bassline's relief is accompanied by higher pitched, less depressing strings. The strings in particular approach a sappy, poppy cheerfulness a little after 1:37. It's a simple rising sequence that goes something like "da da da da"--a stark contrast to the anxiously long strings from the rest of the song.

As for the final boss tune, it spends the first 25 seconds getting the player ready for a fight. After that, you still have the stage theme's pensive strings with halted basslines, but the tempo is raised to fit a higher pace of combat. Couple that with quick, darting whistles where the stage tune had a fading guitar.

And don't forget Ninja Warriors' beloved orchestra hit--it's all over nearly every song from the game, but it's absent from the final stage tune. For the final boss theme, it's back at 0:47 and ready to rumble. However, proper relief doesn't come until 1:12, when the boss tune's version of the chorus enters. The stage's chorus politely concludes its melody soon after 1:50, but in the boss version, the chorus launches upward around 1:35, leaving orchestra hits to recover.

Blaster Master

Stage 1

Stage 2

The first stage in Blaster Master evokes a sense of wonder. You follow your frog into a deep, dark hole, only to find a jumping car and a huge underground world brimming with life, both plant and animal. The stage's theme fits that context well; it extends notes to match the awe and scope of an undiscovered underground ecosystem, while a sense of glee and excitement comes through the main melody with moderately high pitches. Meanwhile, a simple, quick beat keeps things peppy. I always imagine the rhythm section here times itself to Blaster Master's car bobbing up and down as it cruises along the ground.

The second stage takes a serious tone. You've just come off of your first boss fight and discovered your first hidden passage, and it's clear that you've fallen into a world constructed of mystery and danger. Stage 2's take on stage 1's theme comes at a lower, more sober pitch.

The bass spends most of the song hitting one note at a time, setting an appropriate mood by keeping things low. When the bridge kicks in with its long notes (starting at 0:19), though, the bassline rises a little to create tension. It also weaves up and down, bringing more tension when heard alongside the bridge melody's lengthy notes. The parallel moment in stage 1's theme comes at 0:40, where a higher bassline comes off as joyful rather than tense.

No comments:

Post a Comment