The wind is howling outside my windows. It’s nearing midnight.
I can think of few locales in any video game that haunted me so much as the Dead Sea in Chrono Cross. It was altogether foreign and alien–a futuristic world, frozen in time, captured at the very moment of cataclysm.
There are a number of revelations that occur when you visit the Dead Sea, but I’ll not discuss them, for the dual reasons that they’re not particularly compelling out of context and that I don’t want to ruin them for those who haven’t played the game. (You should. You really should.)
Yasunori Mitsuda’s gloomy piano does wonders here in terms of conveying a sense of ruin and mystery. Indeed, listen to the track and imagine exploring any derelict structure, in reality or in fiction. I think you’ll find it an excellent fit.
Are you caught in a nightmarish existence, tormented by shapeless horrors of guilt and doubt, trying desperately to seek solace or aid from people who never quite seem to be seeing the same world you are? Are you constantly beset by the nagging, itching sense that on some fundamental level, all of this is your fault?
Yeah, well, you and everybody else, huh?
Akira Yamaoka’s theme from Silent Hill 2 doesn’t really need an introduction. It’s one of the most iconic pieces of video game music of all time. It does an astonishing job of conveying the grim tone of the game, fits in nicely with the grungy visual aesthetic of the series, and even manages to sound mournful–an appropriate presentiment of the game’s ultimate thesis. It lets you know that in the town of Silent Hill, things ain’t all right.
As if you couldn’t have guessed.
Eternal Darkness is not the most frightening game I’ve ever played. It is, however, the best attempt I’ve ever seen to have a gameplay mechanic mess with the player’s perception of what’s going on in the game world.
Here’s an anecdote which I frequently relate when attempting to explain the game’s “sanity effects” to people: One night in college, after a long night out on campus carousing, I decided that rather than try and sleep, I’d pop in Eternal Darkness and play one of the game’s chapters. I was still energized by the night’s partying, and it was October, so horror games were definitely on the docket.
My good friend Bob, who had been out carousing with me, plunked himself down on the bed across from the television and watched. Bob, it is to be admitted, may have been carousing a little harder than I had, and so his normally keen senses were a trifle dulled. As I maneuvered my unlucky protagonist through the decrepit hallways of an ancient and blasphemous temple in the heart of the unexplored jungles of southeast Asia, the tension grew as I was assaulted by monsters and booby-traps. It seemed as though from around each corner might spring the nameless terror which would slaughter and devour my unfortunate avatar.
Soon, though my health and sanity were dwindling and I was reaching the climax of the chapter, Bob had to rouse himself from the bed and use the restroom–the alcohol in his system had gotten the better of him. Quietly, so as not to disturb my concentration, Bob slipped off the bed and stepped toward the door, just as I entered a room which contained not one but two enormous abominations, which roared at me in throaty rage.
The sound on the television cut out. In neon green block letters, at the top right of the screen, the word “MUTE” appeared.
“Oh, God, I’m so sorry,” Bob blurted, looking frantically about the floor below him in the dim glow of the television. “Did I step on the remote?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “My character’s just going insane, that’s all.” I’d encountered this particular sanity effect before. On the television, the abominations lurched toward me silently.
I don’t remember whether I survived that particular encounter. What I do remember is the expression on poor Bob’s face: stricken, terrified, as though the game was somehow deliberately making him question the nature of his reality. Bob and I were both a little tipsy from our evening’s adventures, of course, but the game’s intended effect was spot on. I could see writ large on Bob’s features the same cry that any one of the game’s protagonists is wont to shout when faced with such madness: “This… isn’t… really… happening!“
A little more Halloween goodness.
At a party this past weekend, some friends and I played a round of the excellent Betrayal at House on the Hill, a board game which takes its cues from classic horror and slasher films–and which contains the excellent mechanic of morphing into one of fifty different endgame scenarios once a certain threshold has been passed and the “traitor” is revealed. In this particular game, the heroes met their untimely end at the hands of a gang of hellspawn (thanks for siding with the Demon Lord, Hayley).
I like to play my board games with a little bit of mood music, and so I searched for some appropriate tunes on YouTube once the game got going. I immediately settled on the soundtrack to The 7th Guest, among the first CD-ROM adventure games to be widely available (it precedes Myst!).
I’ll confess that I haven’t played through either The 7th Guest or its sequel, The 11th Hour, but I thoroughly appreciate the horror aesthetic, and I have a fondness for the cheesiness of FMV-based adventure games. I prefer to get my puzzles from either an English gentleman in a top hat or a wannabe mighty pirate, but The 7th Guest has always been on my list of classics to try. I fell in love with the soundtrack through a couple of OC Remixes by the excellent Mazedude. Check out one of them below:
This one’s kind of special: Super Mario Land 2 was the first game that I ever owned (save for Tetris, which came bundled with my Game Boy, and I received them simultaneously anyway). Even at the tender age of six, I had enough cultural knowledge to understand that the Game Boy Mario titles were “weird,” of a distinctly different flavor than the classic NES Mario trilogy or the SNES games that were to follow. That weirdness wasn’t always good, but there were certain elements of it that were positively great–and most of Super Mario Land 2 is an absolute delight.
The music, in particular, is kind of awesome. There are only a few primary leitmotifs in the game’s score, but they’re traded on in different ways that make them unique and different each time they recur (kind of impressive, given the Game Boy’s limited sound technology!).
The game is also notable for the introduction of Wario. I admit that, when I was six, I did not imagine that he would go on to become a staple character in the Mario canon. Also, I’m just realizing that Wario is more than twenty years old. Yikes.
I literally woke from a dream this morning with this music in my head. I don’t know what that says about me.
Sunset Riders shares the same lifeblood as Turtles in Time: both Konami arcade games from the same era, both co-op titles with entirely respectable SNES ports, both with the same flavor of music. Sunset Riders can’t match the satisfying feel of whacking foot soldiers with your weapons and then grabbing them to hurl them at the screen, but there’s a special kind of pleasure that one gets by dodge-rolling away from a hail of bullets.
Years before firing two guns whilst jumping through the air was cool, I was leaping away from slow-moving projectiles and returning fire with dual-wielded sawed-off shotguns. Sunset Riders may not be quite as polished as a John Woo movie, but it kinda sounds like one when you put it down on paper.
Except, I don’t know– is John Woo noted for his cartoonish, appalling racism?
The game’s primary antagonist, Richard Rose, is a caricature of a British aristocrat, and he’s not really racist (he’s a stereotype, but from what I understand it’s all right to stereotype against the British–Americans, too–anybody post-global-empire, really).
But check out those other blokes. “Chief Wigwam?” “Paco Loco?” It’s a little embarrassing to play this game. If you have, you may remember that Chief Wigwam suggests you “Get ready for pow-wow” before he begins to leap about maniacally in a parody of a war dance while showering you with throwing knives (I know, I know–they couldn’t have sprung for tomahawks? Really sold the whole deal?). Boy, at least he wasn’t called “Chief Scalpem” or something, huh?
Anyway. Racism aside, Sunset Riders is a pretty fabulous time, and though it’s not widely available at the moment, I’ve run across it a couple of times when browsing SNES games at flea markets and garage sales. This is another title that I’d pour quarters into unrelentingly if it made its way to my local barcade.
Here’s another track or two that illustrate the game’s awesome boss tunes:
This one is the music that accompanies the fight with “El Greco,” who takes on your group of gunslingers with nothing more than a metal shield and a bullwhip. Aboard a moving train. Why has no one made this into a film yet?
And this music is from the game’s attract mode, which introduces the four playable characters and maybe gives a false impression of how mellow and Western the game’s music is going to be. I remember this piece quite clearly from my time in the arcades as a youth.
And finally, here’s an OC Remix by arranger “Dr. Manhattan” that takes the absurdity of the game to heart:
I’m trying to get into the Halloween spirit, here, and Zombies Ate My Neighbors seems like as good a place as any to start.
Wow, is this game ever all over the place, musically speaking. Some of it can get quite annoying, but it all really nails the “haunted house” vibe, if by “haunted house” we’re talking about the kind of attraction that is terrifying to children and disturbing on an entirely different level to their adult relatives. It’s chirpy, cutesy, and grotesque in a way that isn’t violent or bloody, but rather, just… weird.
Take a look at this advertisement from when the game was released in 1993:
Can you even tell what’s going on there? It’s a little hard.
Zombies Ate My Neighbors is one of those nineties games with ‘tude. On a scale of ‘tude, in fact, it’s probably somewhere below Battletoads and ToeJam and Earl, but definitely higher than, say, Tomba! Tomba wasn’t exactly known for his ‘tude, I guess.
I’m getting off topic. The point is that Zombies Ate My Neighbors is radical to the max, and if it’s a little rough around the edges, we forgive it, because we didn’t have Left 4 Dead when it was released, and it was just about the only place to go to for zombie-slayin’ co-op for about fifteen years. It still holds up pretty well, as a matter of fact, and if you’ve got a means of playing it with a pal, I’d highly recommend it. It advertises 55 levels, but I never saw anywhere close to that. I kept getting killed by that giant baby.
If the original track by Joe McDermott up above, “Chainsaw Hedgemaze Mayhem,” isn’t spooky enough for you, have a listen to the jam below: Protricity’s “Neighburgers” remix takes the original and puts a little polish on it, making it a suitable soundtrack for any Halloween party to which you’d like to bring some funk. Just keep some exploding sodas and holy water squirt guns on hand… just in case.
Put this on in the background and get some work done.
I’ve made a couple trips to Joystick Gamebar in the last couple of weeks, and I continue to be enormously pleased with the establishment. They’ve made a couple upgrades and additions to their catalog since they’ve opened: Space Invaders is a welcome addition, and their specialty seasonal cocktail is superb. As with any arcade, however, there are going to be games that continue to call out to you and games that you’re content to ignore after you’ve given them a try on your first couple of visits. I will never be able to resist a Galaga machine, and I’m quickly becoming a Ms. Pac-Man devotee. If they were to get a Donkey Kong machine, I’d really be hooked.
As far as their selection of beat-’em-ups goes, they’ve got the perennially popular X-Men Arcade, which I took the liberty of blowing through with some of my buddies the last time I was there. It’s a pretty good time! They’ve also got some B-sides, like “Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja,” which, though the intro screen asking if you’re a “bad enough dude” to rescue “President Ronnie” will never fail to elicit a chuckle, is not a very compelling game.
I think I’m done with X-Men, too. As much as I love beat-’em-ups as a genre, the Marvel classic never really grabbed me like some others.
If, by some miracle, my local barcade happened to get hold of an intact and functioning Turtles in Time machine, I would be in very serious trouble.
I own TMNT IV on SNES. I’ve played through it approximately one hojillion times. It doesn’t matter. The game is so well designed that I would pour quarters into it weekend after weekend before I got tired. My friends might have to talk me down from playing through the entire campaign each time we went to the bar. Between the perfectly-tuned feel of the combat (challenging enough that you’re likely to spend some money, fair enough that you’ll admit it’s your own fault and not the game’s when you die), the bright and engaging visuals, and the relentlessly upbeat music, I would keep coming back for more.
The track I’ve highlighted, from the final stage, encapsulates the giddy chip-rock which populates this game. From the orchestra hits and synths to the shredding guitars and the punchy vocal samples, what you’re listening to is nothing short of musical Prozac. Maybe chased with a shot of 5-Hour Energy. I want to meet composer Mutsuhiko Izumi and slap him on the back.
Indie game composer superstar Danny Baranowsky once described the boss themes from Final Fantasy as “kind of like Dream Theater as interpreted by a robot from the seventies,” and in that vein, a lot of the Konami soundtracks from the early nineties are kind of like if KISS had dropped a bunch of acid and tried to write a sci-fi epic concept album for kids.
As a bonus, here’s the SNES version, which is just as rocking in its own way.
Take note, Joystick.
One of the most indispensable tropes of the fantasy adventure story is the peaceful, pastoral hometown. Whether it’s Tolkien’s shire or Arni Village from Chrono Cross, the country village that’s far from immediate danger is a classic setup to contrast the purity and safety of a world with the darkness that is inevitably about to encroach.
In Squaresoft’s Legend of Mana, the town of Domina acts as your protagonist’s home base for the entirety of the adventure, and while Domina is far from the only city that you can visit, it’s unquestionably the most comfortable and inviting. Yoko Shimomura’s superb score welcomes you to a community that is happy to have you as their neighbor (even if it is inhabited by such bizarre characters as a person-sized bird, a creepy beetle-guy, and… this thing).
I often find myself humming or whistling this tune in my classroom at times when my students are happily at work on research or art. It makes me feel that I am at home, and while adventure may be just around the corner, it will be waiting for me when I wish to set upon the path to danger and excitement.