I’ve been thinking about this piece a lot over the last couple days– there are a handful of game themes that pop up in my head frequently, and I’m always surprised at how often I find myself humming the theme from Fire Emblem. I’ve actually only beaten one of the games in the series (the first outing on GBA to be ported to the States), though I’ve played halfway through two or three others. Nevertheless, I’ve always loved this main theme, and was particularly pleased to hear the choral treatment it got for Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
Game music needs more marches. An upbeat track like this is an excellent way to steel yourself for a difficult day at work–or to get yourself psyched for some truly immersive escapism! In any case, it’s a track I thought deserved to be brought to more people’s attention, especially because it belongs to a series that was Japan-only for so long. Listen and enjoy!
A little while ago I cataloged the contents of the Sega Genesis mixtape I created at the tender age of twelve. I’ve been mulling over that artifact for the better part of a month, and as much as I (mostly) approve of the taste of my younger self, I have been considering how remarkably limited that little collection of Sega tunes was.
The Genesis’s audio chip is often maligned, and not without reason: Very often, what the designers meant to be “shredding guitars” or “wicked synths” came off as “ear-bleedingly torturous.” As examples, take this music from the options menu of Sonic Spinball or (again) the main title theme to Desert Strike. Really just God-awful.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Genesis was without some really superb soundtracks. Ninety percent of the music from the Sonic series is fabulous, and when the rough-around-the-edges Genesis FM synth chip was used with restraint, it could produce some awesome jams that legitimately sounded “tougher” than its competitor, the SNES.
The Genesis may never have had anything rivaling “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” but the SNES never had anything that quite sounded like these:
Ecco the Dolphin: The Tides of Time, “Tube of Medusa”
Both of the Ecco games had unique and interesting sounds to them, though many gamers have never heard them on account of the games’ brutal difficulty. The second game, Tides of Time, isn’t quite as harsh as the first, and has a much more intense flavor, as this faux-rock track indicates.
The first game sees Ecco traveling back to the prehistoric age using the time travel technology of the long-dead Atlanteans to reconstruct an ancient entity and save the planet from aliens trying to harvest all life. The second sees him traveling to a future where dolphins have evolved psychic powers and the ability to fly, and–you know what? I’m just gonna stop right there. I think it’s obvious to everyone by now that these games are way more absurdly awesome on paper than they are in execution.
Nevertheless, you can’t deny that soundtrack. If that music doesn’t get you pumped, well, I’m frankly a little surprised.
Phantasy Star IV, “The End of the Millennium”
Boom. The instant you turn your Genesis on, you know that you’re in for serious business. There’s no waiting for developer or publisher logos to flash up, no copyright screen to sit through–it’s all Sega, so when you hit the power button, there’s their logo and a desperate, pumping bass line.
Phantasy Star IV is one of the few stellar RPGs on the Genesis, but boy, is it a doozy–offering anime “cutscenes” well before they became a staple of the genre, a serious story that involves the death of at least one major character (spoilers!), and the best science fantasy this side of Star Ocean. The soundtrack in general is solid overall, but when they hit you with something like this right off the bat, you have to be invested.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3, “Lava Reef Zone, Act 1”
I don’t know what it is about Lava Reef Zone. Do I love it because it’s a burst of high-speed freedom after the long slog of Sandopolis? Is it the first tangible hint of the intensity of the endgame? Was there a time in my youth when I attempted to play the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in one sitting, and Lava Reef coincided with a transition from blind exhaustion to a second wind? I don’t know.
All I know is that of all the superb tracks in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, this one has a special place in my heart–there’s something urgent in its tone, but it’s far more upbeat and uptempo than the music in the zone that precedes it.
In its full, complete form, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one of the best side-scrollers I’ve ever played. If you were on the other side of the console wars of the ’90s, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I think you’ll find it a particularly rewarding experience.
Streets of Rage 2, “Under Logic”
Let’s be frank: the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 2 is pure, unadulterated sonic gold. Yuzo Koshiro is the man.
And the funny thing is, Koshiro worked on the SNES as well: He’s responsible for the soundtracks for ActRaiser and Super Adventure Island, both of which are relatively good… but they’re good. They’re not this. This is the kind of music that you don’t want to come on while you’re driving for fear you’ll get pulled over for speeding. You don’t want this to come on while you’re at a party–you might get so pumped that you roundhouse kick someone in the jaw.
This music is dangerous, is what I’m saying. And while there are plenty of superb tracks on the SNES, I can’t think of a single game on the system that sounds like Streets of Rage.
Jurassic Park, “Visitor’s Center”
This might be pushing the boundaries of what’s tasteful with the Genesis’s synth “guitars”, but I don’t know anyone who actually managed to slog through the Genesis version of Jurassic Park, get to the final level, and not be excited by this music.
The vast majority of the game’s soundtrack was ambient, low-key, and generally inobtrusive–it was there to build tension, as the game was relatively terrifying: if a velociraptor appeared out of a nowhere, it was even odds you were about to be disemboweled. The Tyrannosaurus popped through the wall in at least four different levels to say “hi” and devour you whole.
It didn’t help, of course, that the game’s controls were only vaguely connected to what was going onscreen. God help you if the developers wanted you to jump and grab a ledge. Hope you had your Game Genie ready.
But if you made it to the final level somehow, you were treated to this music, along with a plethora of weapons and a level that had blissfully few jumping sections. “All right,” the game seemed to say. “You got through the platforming gauntlet. Have a rocket launcher and some shredding guitars. Let’s go to town.”
Vectorman 2, “Turn Up the Heat (Lava Boss)”
The Vectorman games were both relatively tight platformers with some pretty graphics and good tunes. They came toward the end of the Genesis’s life cycle, when many gamers’ attention was already on the consoles to come, and so they’re sometimes overlooked.
This track is a good example of the attitude the games put forward: They were all about the faux-techno beats and in-your-face rhythms, and they did it pretty well. I think that Sega maybe wanted Vectorman to take off as a character? It didn’t happen. The games are pretty good, though. You should give them a look-see.
Castlevania: Bloodlines, “Calling from Heaven”
Bloodlines is the only Castlevania on Genesis, and it’s of a much different flavor than its SNES cousins Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X. I’m pretty sure it’s an accepted truth that Dracula X had the best Castlevania music of the 16-bit generation (I mean, come on, listen to this stuff), but I don’t think any single track in the series fires me up quite the same way as the music from the final stage of Bloodlines. I could listen to those first ten seconds over and over.
It’s superb final stage music–conveying clearly that you’re on the pathway to the final conflict. It’s dripping with tension, hope, and importance. Considering how many of Castlevania’s classic melodies are reiterated throughout the series, I’m immensely surprised to find that “Calling from Heaven” hasn’t made its way into another game (despite the fact that other tracks from Bloodlines have– “Iron Blue Intention” shows up in Portrait of Ruin, for instance, and “The Sinking Old Sanctuary” made its way into Circle of the Moon, for whatever reason).
So, there you have it–would that I could send myself back in time to share these superb Genesis tracks with my twelve-year-old self, or at least convince him that they would be worthy additions to his mix-tape. Alas, all I can do now is to put them up here and exhort you to listen, listen, listen, my friends.
Speak not ill of the Genesis, for even the bearer of grotesquely shredding synths hath treasures to lay at thy feet.
I’ve read very often, in descriptions of a game’s premise, a phrase which I’ve begun to consider: In a given game, “players take the role of…” A Google search of this phrase naturally turns up almost exclusively hits relating to video games, but it wasn’t until recently that I sat down and really considered the terminology here.
The only other possible medium besides gaming to which this might apply is theater, and yet I don’t see a lot of criticism in games journalism drawing parallels between game players and stage players. It strikes me that picking up a controller and picking up a script are, in many respects, quite similar.
Most folks who’ve done some theater are familiar with “the actor’s nightmare”: You are in the middle of a performance for which you have forgotten all of your lines and most of your cues, and you are constantly being urged by your castmates to continue despite the fact that you have no script, you have no costume, and indeed you have no pants.
I think that playing a video game, or at least any game with a narrative, is a bit like the actor’s nightmare with all of the bite removed: you have assumed a role, you set foot onto a grand stage knowing none of the lines, and yet miraculously, every time you reach the next bit of the story, the words come tumbling from your mouth unbidden. When we say that the player “takes the role of” John Marston, or Commander Shepard, or even Sly Cooper, the implication is that we’re not just using these characters as agents by which to accomplish gameplay objectives–we are actively taking on a role, as an actor takes a role in bringing a play to life.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has probably the most direct implementation of this of any game that I can think of. Your health bar effectively measures how in character you are when you’re playing. Because of the narrative conceit that you are Desmond Miles taking on the personae of his ancestors, the game will cause you to fail if you act “out of sync” with these historical assassins. Kill a civilian? Nope, Altair didn’t do that! Don’t do it again or you’ll be “desynchronized!” Essentially, you get a game over if you are out of character. This is an excellent excuse for giving you a game over if you’re detected on certain missions (“Oops! Ezio wouldn’t have gotten caught there!”) as well as constructing the limits of the game world (“Altair never swam a foot in his life!”).
Just because the Assassin’s Creed games are some of the only ones to take this concept and construct their world around it doesn’t mean the principle isn’t at work in other games. How many of us felt an uncomfortable dissonance playing Cole Phelps in L.A. Noire? Cole’s kind of a jerk!
It’s not easy being a jerk onstage. Cole Phelps, however, isn’t the player–he’s an agent rather than an avatar, meaning that he doesn’t directly represent the player’s persona. We’re not jerks, we’re just playing one in the game. Nevertheless, this sort of thing isn’t as black and white as it can be in other media: the player has some agency over how Cole behaves in conversations, but not a lot (certainly not as much as they do in the conversations of Commander Shepard–and yet even there, there’s some dissonance!). Sometimes, in the midst of an interrogation, I would back off in alarm. “Whoa, Detective! They told me the X button meant ‘doubt,’ not ‘tear the witness a new one!'”
Nevertheless, I played an awful lot of L.A. Noire “in character.” I was careful with my driving unless we were in the middle of a chase scene, I walked when I could have dashed, I didn’t run people down in the street. Many players like to push the boundaries of the world and test the limits of the play space they’re given. There are plenty of others who don’t–players who don’t like to break the game because it breaks the illusion.
I’ve read a lot of arguments considering the matter of cutscenes and their place in gaming, but I think that this one, by Alois Wittwer over at Nightmare Mode, might be among the few I’ve read in defense of them. In discussing player agency, Wittwer uses the excellent example of Final Fantasy IV’s opening to show us how a scene over which we have no control can be used to invest us in a world: we’re taking on the role of Cecil Harvey, who does something pretty reprehensible in which we’re immediately complicit, and so his redemption over the course of the story is in some way shared by the player.
Cecil is a member of a military organization which ransacks a tiny, helpless village to obtain a precious resource (one of the ubiquitous Crystals in the Final Fantasy franchise). The player has very little agency here: a long story sequence, including a handful of battles, plays out before we’re given control of our hero. The argument against cutscenes, the argument for greater player agency, suggests that we can’t feel guilt over Cecil’s actions because we had no choice in them. Like Cole Phelps, Cecil is an agent, not an avatar: he’s not representative of the player–he’s just a role we’re taking on.
Cecil’s plight, however, is that he’s not in control of his situation any more than the player is–he’s in service to a king he no longer trusts, committing acts for which he feels remorse. A sympathetic player naturally wants to enable his escape from such a situation (and will feel satisfaction for him when we finally help him to do so).
Anyone who has played a part in a theater production at any level will tell you that there is great joy in putting on a play. Taking on the role of character and working with comrades to bring a story to life for an audience is an enormously satisfying endeavor. What a good narrative in a game allows us to do is to participate in this experience on our own, without the aid of others. We take on one role, just as we would onstage, and trust to the game’s designers to carry the rest.
Much has been said in games criticism about how the player is simultaneously creator and audience, something which is true in no other medium–but I would add that if any other medium comes close, it’s the theater. Onstage, one can participate in a story which unfolds in real time and which has no “post-production.” The only line drawn between the creators of a stage production and the audience is one which is invisible, hypothetical, mutually agreed upon, and respected by all parties involved (or not!).
Playing a game is like having that fourth wall removed, being invited up from the audience to participate, and immediately knowing all of the lines. What a wonder! Is it so surprising, then, that some of us gamers are perfectly willing to abandon our agency if it’s in service of the production as a whole?
I think that those of us who consider games critically ought to be more cognizant of the parallel between games and the stage: it strikes me as a more apt comparison than games and cinema. It might behoove game designers, as well, to consider this comparison when thinking about matters of player agency in their design. If we think about the roles that we’re taking on as gamers, we might be inclined to play differently–and the experience might even be improved!
I have had a passing familiarity with some of the games I’ve written about here in these articles: I had picked up a controller and fiddled with Metroid before I sat down to play it in earnest; I had actually made it a fair way into Ocarina of Time before I went back and decided I needed to finish it to understand it better.
ActRaiser is different. This one I went into blind.
Well, maybe blind is a bit of an exaggeration. I knew that the game was divided into platforming sections and “simulation” sections, and a friend had once (aptly) described it as “Wizards and Warriors meets Populous,” but no one had told me how delightfully and expertly the two different modes of play were intertwined. It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s compelling.
So here’s the deal, in case you’re as in the dark about ActRaiser as I was: You play the role of a god who, with the help of a tiny cherub secretary (who I’m going to pretend is Pit from Kid Icarus), frees the land from monsters (by slicing them in half with your sword) and then helps primitive civilizations to spread and settle a given region (by giving them marching orders while fending off monsters).
The dirty secret to ActRaiser is that, taken separately, neither of these modes of play are particularly special. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fun to play–the platforming has tight controls and cutting enemies to shreds with your sword feels real good! You will have a good time doing it.
All I’m suggesting is that these platforming sections aren’t Castlevania. They’re not Mega Man. They’re not even Ghouls and Ghosts, really (and thank goodness for that). They’re good! They’re just not genre-defining.
Likewise, the “simulation” sections aren’t exactly SimCity. They’re not even Populous, actually–all you’re doing is telling your little worshipers where to build so they can go stamp out the monster nests and occasionally using your phenomenal cosmic powers to bring your little dudes some favorable weather.
You should probably use your cherubic side-kick to make sure they don’t get carried off by giant bats, but hey–they’re villagers. Give ’em a little time, and they’ll make more of themselves. ActRaiser is actually quite forgiving: if you fail a given level, it’s not game over. You’re just taken back to your menu screen, where Pit tells you “it’s okay, dude, that level was pretty hard. Why don’t you give it another go?”
So if both sections of the game aren’t unique or compelling on their own, what makes ActRaiser special? The answer, of course, is the way that these two sections play off each other.
Like many 8-bit and 16-bit games, ActRaiser gives you a score for your platforming sections. With every bad guy you kill, with every power up you collect, you get another couple hundred points. You’ll also get a bonus at the end of every level for how many lives you have left in your inventory. Here’s the difference between ActRaiser and just about every other game that has this same mechanic, however: in ActRaiser, your score actually matters. I know, right? Weird!
Think about it: When was the last time you actually cared about your score in Sonic the Hedgehog? Sure, you’ll get an extra guy every 50000 points, but you’re not about to go out of your way to try and bust some extra baddies just to work toward that incentive. And, of course, you shouldn’t–the primary draw of Sonic is speed. So why does Sonic give you a score at all?
In ActRaiser, your score directly influences the potential population of the region you’re about to cultivate. The higher your score, the higher the population can be. This is exceedingly important, because the total population of your world is the number that functions as “experience” for your sword-wielding avatar. In other words, how well you do at platforming directly affects how well you can do at the “simulation,” and vice versa. If you don’t take the time to expand your towns to cover every possible inch of the map, you’ll never level up, and the later levels of the game will be impossible to conquer.
ActRaiser is perhaps the only game that I can think of whose level cap is set by the player’s performance. If you max out your score in the platforming levels, I think you can reach a global population of 6000 and go into the final confrontation at level 20. That wasn’t my experience playing it–I had all my towns at their “max” population going into the final battle, but I was just shy of level 17.
This simple loop created by the game is absurdly compelling. I definitely took the time to linger in levels, slashing monsters until I got my score as high as I dared before going into the boss area–a real gamble, considering the game’s difficulty curve: if you do well in the beginning and level up throughout, the game starts out challenging and becomes slightly easier as you progress; if you’re reckless, it can turn brutally difficult on you. Nevertheless, the incentive to get a high score so that I could reach a high level made me excited–it creates tension in the player that’s a whole lot of fun!
The aesthetics and “story” aren’t particularly engaging, but the game makes it blissfully easy to turn the message display speed all the way up and breeze through the dialogue and menus. And perhaps one of the great things to recommend ActRaiser is its length: Longer than your usual platformer but shorter than a proper RPG, the game is manageable and doesn’t drag.
Should you go back and play ActRaiser? Yes, emphatically yes. It’s not very long, it’s a reasonable difficulty, and it’s really fun. It’s not the most complex game you’ll ever play, but there’s strength in its simplicity, and its character progression system is a hook that makes it very compelling. You can get it in the Wii’s Virtual Console real easily, though short of emulation or finding a real authentic SNES copy in the wild, that’s about the only place it’s available at the moment.
I think that a big part of my desire to be “well played” (that is, to have played many historically and culturally important games on many different systems) comes from the fact that my console allegiances shifted a number of times when I was young. I began gaming on a Nintendo Game Boy when I was six, but as I’ve previously mentioned, this was a gift from my extended family–I didn’t really choose it. So too with the Sega Genesis I received when I was nine.
At this point I didn’t have a preference between the two companies, Sega and Nintendo– I certainly was glad to have a Game Boy rather than a Game Gear, because I enjoyed being able to play my handheld for more than twenty or thirty minutes before it ran out of batteries–but I was quite content with my Sega Genesis, and didn’t feel like I was missing out by not owning an SNES (it turns out I was wrong): I might have the inferior TMNT game, but I had the better version of Aladdin, after all.
Something happened when it came time to move on to the 32/64-bit generation, however, and it’s worth recounting here as an anecdote, because a chance of fate conspired to shift my allegiances once again.
It was the holiday season of 1996, and the new consoles had been out for somewhere between a few months and a year. I felt as though it was time to move on from my Genesis and embrace the world of the new. Knowing that my parents had a firm policy against buying me systems, I understood that it was going to take not just my savings, but the sacrifice of my trusty Sega console and all of its games, plus all of the birthday money my grandmother had given me, I wistfully gathered up my gaming collection and asked my father to take me round to the mall so that I could make my purchase.
I knew what I was after. The parents of my friends had no such misgivings about the purchase of consoles for their offspring, and some of them didn’t even have to wait until Christmas to acquire their prizes. I had been to my buddy Charles’s house and played Super Mario 64. I had seen the future, the three-dimensional future, and it was glorious. The way was laid before me by the mustachioed son of Miyamoto.
So when I rolled up with my father to the CD Game Exchange my little cardboard box containing the remnants of the hedgehog’s 16-bit kingdom, I had my sights firmly set on a January exploring the hallways of Peach’s castle. The plumber exhorted me to “let’s-a go,” and I was ready to obey.
I set my old games on the counter in front of a young man who I imagine was in his early 20s. I have no recollection of what he looked like, now, which is unfortunate, considering the effect that he was about to have on my life as a gamer.
The dude calculated how much trade in value I would get for my old gear, and as he reported the number to me I remember smiling to myself. It was just enough that with my additional savings, I would be able to purchase the system–and a game besides! I rubbed my hands together in naive anticipation.
“I want an N64, please,” I said, all full of hope.
The words fell like a headsman’s axe: “Can’t. We don’t have any.”
I stood looking at him in shock. What? Didn’t he understand how important it was that I have this system? When my brain finally processed the implications of his statement, I reached for the cardboard box and began to pull it back toward me across the glass display case. “Come on, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got to go to a different store.”
“It’s no good,” said the man behind the counter. “No one has them. You won’t be able to find one.”
I can’t say for sure, but it’s entirely likely that my lip trembled. Why was the universe intent on crushing my tiny gamer dreams?
And it was at this point that the man leaned over the counter and beckoned me closer with a crooked finger. Desperate for any glimmer of hope, I approached once more, hoping that he was about to tell me that there was just one system left, in the back, and he just wanted to make sure it went home with a boy who really wanted it.
He looked at me and the corner of his mouth bent upward in a smirk. He leaned in conspiratorially, as though he was about to impart to me some secret of the Adult Gamer World.
“You don’t want an N64,” he said. “You want a PlayStation.”
I blinked. I wanted a what? Why?
“You want a PlayStation,” he repeated. “Trust me on this one.”
And you know what? I did. Looking back on it, I’m certain that he was just trying to make a sale, that he was thinking of how nice it would be to make his numbers go up on that little board in the back room, but I bought it hook, line, and sinker. I couldn’t explain why, but I knew that I did want a PlayStation.
(An aside, here: Have you ever looked at the word “PlayStation?” How weird is it? We’ve had this as part of our gaming lexicon for some twenty years, and do we ever stop to examine how silly it is as a portmanteau?)
And so I handed over my Genesis and my Sonic 3D Blast and my Ristar and my Jurassic Park: Rampage Edition and a dozen other games, and I left the store with a brand new Sony PlayStation. I couldn’t deal with the notion of leaving that store without a new system in hand, and so I, I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
Actually, strictly speaking, the PlayStation ended up selling about three times as many units as the N64, so I really took the road more frequently traveled by. The games I bought immediately were actually kind of lame: I went home with Ridge Racer Revolution, which was a decent game but only had three tracks, and this business, which, seriously, what the hell. Somehow I wasn’t deterred or disillusioned by my purchase, despite– well, despite the fact that Aquanaut’s Holiday was really boring. The system came with a demo disc that had some excellent suggestions, and pretty soon I was jamming out with Jumping Flash 2 and Jet Moto, two games which have aged really well and which I would still recommend.
But it wasn’t until later that year that I truly realized how right that CD Game Exchange worker had been. I saw an ad in my gaming magazine (the now-defunct Next Generation), desperately begged my mom to take me to the mall after school, and came home to rush to the basement, pop in the disc, turn on the console, and see this.
When I finally managed to pick my jaw up off the floor, I said a little prayer of thanks to that guy at CD Game Exchange, because it became clear to me in that moment that he had not been just messing with me to make a sale. He’d been genuinely concerned with my well-being as a gamer.