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The music of DuckTales

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Who’s excited for the impending DuckTales remaster? Hands in the air.

Everyone’s hand should be in the air right now. What’s wrong with you people?

I had the opportunity to fool around with WayForward’s remake at PAX East, and I’m fairly confident that Scrooge is in good hands–it feels pretty much identical to the original, and the new visual flair that they’ve laid overtop the old mechanics doesn’t distract much from the exceptionally solid platforming that was the hallmark of the NES classic. I don’t think we’ve got another “Turtles in Time: Reshelled” situation on our hands, is what I’m saying.

One of the things that I’m most curious about with the remake is how WayForward is going to treat the original’s exceptional music. The Penny Arcade Report mentioned in its announcement that Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s music was not going to be “replaced,” but rather “updated.” As someone who has a deep and abiding love for chiptunes, I would be quite content to have the game’s soundtrack be completely unaltered, but as someone who also has a healthy dedication to the archives over at OCRemix, I’m open to the idea of new takes on old favorites.

The music to DuckTales isn’t just nostalgia-inducing, it’s legitimately great. I’ve argued before that the Moon Theme is the pinnacle of all human musical achievement, and it’s an argument I stand by. Here, have a listen.

What will the updated version of the Moon Theme sound like? Could it possibly be altered and still retain its supremacy over all other musical endeavor?
Maybe, maybe not. If WayForward walks the path of the remixer, it might end up sounding like this OCRemix from the ever-talented Star Salzman:

Listening to this, one almost wishes that WayForward would solicit OCRemixers to redo the entire soundtrack, much like Capcom did for the HD remake of Street Fighter II. But there are other ways to update classics, too, and the Moon Theme isn’t the only brilliant piece in the original DuckTales. Here, for instance, is the music from the African Mines:

Fairly funky, no? Might WayForward, then, choose to update in a similar manner to The One-Ups, who busted out some superb sax in their rendition of the tune?

Listen to that sax! The One-Ups sure know what they’re doing, don’t they? I’ve got my fingers crossed that whatever happens to the music in DuckTales, it captures the spirit of the original pieces in much the same manner as the arrangements I’ve highlighted.

But y’know, as excited as I am to team up with Scrooge McDuck again, I can’t help but be a little forlorn. See, this is my shameful secret: as much as I love DuckTales, as much as I continue to believe that the Moon Theme is a perfect expression of musical brilliance, as much as I have dreams of one day swimming in a money bin full of coins myself, there yet remains a classic Capcom platformer that I think is tragically overlooked, that deserves more love, that is even more chock full of chiptune goodness. It’s a game that I think deserves to be remade even more than DuckTales.

What is it, you ask? What is this pinnacle of perfection, this paragon of playability?

DuckTales 2, of course.

Yes! Scrooge had a second outing on the NES, and it was every bit as fine-tuned and brilliantly balanced as the first. Maybe even more so. It gets overlooked, often, because it came out in ’93, at the twilight of the NES’s life cycle. Admittedly, it didn’t improve on the formula much, but when your source material is as brilliant as DuckTales, you don’t really need to.

And the most important thing, of course, is that DuckTales 2, like its predecessor, had some totally rockin’ chiptune music. Without the Moon Theme it’ll never have as much cultural cache as the original, but just listen to some of these tracks and try to tell me I’m wrong:

Final Boss:

Glomgold’s pirate ship:

And, perhaps my favorite, the music from the final screen (this version is from the Game Boy port):

It may be a madman’s hope, but all I want is for the sales of the DuckTales Remaster to be so overwhelming that Capcom remembers the lonely, forgotten sequel to its masterpiece and finds it in its heart to gussy it up and trot it out just like they’re doing for its big brother.

I’m not going to hold my breath, of course, but then– what does the song say? “Everyday, they’re out there making DuckTales.”

A guy can dream.

The Secret of Monkey Island – Main Titles

I have an unabashed love for the Monkey Island games. Like many other series, my experience with them is somewhat incomplete: I didn’t even know the games existed until someone gifted me with a copy of The Curse of Monkey Island, and I wasn’t able to devote the time to working on the earlier entries until the special editions were released a couple of years ago (and I still haven’t played Escape from Monkey Island, or Telltale’s latest episodic entries into the series).

But man, oh, man. The Monkey Island aesthetic is just brilliant. The number of video game narratives set in the Age of Sail is criminally small, and the number of successful video game comedies is pretty paltry, too. To have a game that combines the two, and does so with aplomb, is truly a gift.

It doesn’t hurt that Monkey Island has one of the catchiest and most memorable main themes in all of gaming. When I first booted up Curse and was treated to this:

I knew that somebody at LucasArts was working some magic.

The absolute best part, though, is that this theme has a strong enough melody that it’ll succeed on just about any hardware. The first game, playing its theme using your PC’s system noises, sounded like this:

You can call that horrific, electronic bleeps and bloops if you want, but to my ears that is solid musical gold.

If you really want proof of Monkey Island’s beautiful marriage of aesthetic, music, and comedy, however, you need look no farther than this scene from Curse, in which hero Guybrush and his newly-acquired crew of miscreants are boarded and robbed by a rival. If you’ve not seen it before, be sure to watch until the end. It’s… priceless.

Bioshock — Empty Houses

Buying the special edition of Bioshock Infinite, which comes with a digital copy of the game’s score, was a pretty fantastic decision.

I’ve been listening to Garry Schyman’s superb work for the better part of a week now, and it’s absolutely beautiful. Any fan of game music, or orchestral music, or music that’s able to evoke any kind of emotion at all, ought to look it up immediately.

But I thought this afternoon that I’d highlight a track from Schyman’s score for the original Bioshock, which is every bit as worthwhile as his newest endeavor. This track, “Empty Houses,” is not as immediately recognizable as “Welcome to Rapture” or “Cohen’s Masterpiece,” but it’s still my favorite piece in the whole score–it gets utilized early on in the game, just as you realize what a bleak and appalling mess you’ve stumbled into, just as your one ally is asking of you an impossible task. This piece, more than any other, captures just how sad the story of Rapture is.

Give it a listen–really let the strings sink in–and think about how frightening it was to contemplate the prospect of navigating through the whole of that decaying, anarchic metropolis beneath the waves.

Castlevania: Circle of the Moon — Awake

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Utl5udium0Q]

I’ve been listening to a lot of Castlevania music lately. Specifically, I’m catching up on back episodes of Brett Elston’s superb video game music podcase, VGMpire. He did a thing about six months ago where he took his listeners on a grand tour of the entire Castlevania musical oeuvre, and even as someone who is a die-hard fan of the franchise, I learned a thing or two (apparently Order of Ecclesia has some fabulous music! Who knew?).

Still, the thing that most struck me as I listened to track after track of awesome chiptune goodness was how much I really, really like the opening track from Circle of the Moon, titled “Awake.” I may or may not have stopped cleaning the house to do a little rocking out when one of the episodes opened with it.

The GBA doesn’t have great sound quality, and even the cleanest recordings sound like you’re hearing them broadcast from space through a battery-powered transmitter, but some of the compositions on the system were superb regardless (I point out here Advance Wars, in particular, along with the score to Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga), and Circle of the Moon, as a launch title, is particularly impressive.

Through the fog of memory, I can’t recall whether I purchased my GBA because I desperately needed to play Circle of the Moon or, as is more likely, that I had a good bit of pizza-delivery money burning a hole in my pocket and was anxious to be an early adopter of a system, but Circle of the Moon was unquestionably the only title available for the system at launch that was worth a damn. Even now, I have an inordinate fondness for the game, despite the fact that on the original GBA, the game was so dark that it was often impossible to see unless you were sitting directly underneath a bank of florescent lights. It was hard, sometimes brutally hard, and it was the first game after Symphony of the Night to ape the “Metroidvania” method of level design.

It’s tough to recommend Circle of the Moon to a new gamer (or new Castlevania fan) when there are much more accessible games available (like Symphony of the Night, and Aria/Dawn of Sorrow, and Portrait of Ruin)–but for those of us that played it back when it was originally released, Circle of the Moon was really something special.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 — Chemical Plant Zone

Maybe it’s all the coffee in my system this afternoon, but I’m pretty sure I could listen to this theme on repeat for the rest of the day.

The funny thing about music in the Sonic the Hedgehog games, especially in the early levels, is that they have to hit you hard and fast because–no joke–you’re probably going to blow through Chemical Plant Zone in less than the time that it takes you to watch this YouTube video. Like, including the boss.

Sonic Team sure as hell knew how to make the Genesis’s sound chip sound great, and the music for Chemical Plant Zone is a superb example. Click the video. Have a listen. Give it twenty seconds–if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably think: “Oh, this is no big deal, I know this music inside and out. I’ve played this game a million times. This is nothing special.”

Let it sink in. Stay with it beyond the familiar initial reaction. And now– now it’s got its hooks in you. Now you can’t stop.

Brave Fencer Musashi — The Musashi Legend

Anybody remember this game? Just me?

Brave Fencer Musashi was a weird one, the kind of game that probably wouldn’t make it stateside in this day and age. It was a cute (maybe a little too cute) action RPG that set its aims squarely on Ocarina of Time and didn’t quite hit the mark.

If you can’t beat The Legend of Zelda, that doesn’t exactly mean you’ve failed, and Musashi had a host of interesting ideas that were worth experiencing, including a system by which you could absorb your foes’ abilities and, if I remember correctly, a system wherein your stamina drained slowly throughout the day until you actually had to nap on the battlefield if you didn’t manage your time well. There might also have been a part in the story where you had to fight off werewolves until dawn while you were trapped in a church, but I might have made that part up.

Have a listen! The game had a good soundtrack, but this piece–the main theme–is probably the best. Except for the final dungeon music…? Maybe I’ll look for that one next…

Professor Layton and the Last Specter — Main Theme

Every single one of the themes from the Professor Layton series is amazing. Strings, accordion, piano– the melodies are compelling, the arrangements are top-notch, and each piece sets the stage perfectly for the adventure that is to come: intrigue, mystery, adventure, and danger, but amidst each of these, a protagonist forever couched within an impervious shell of cool intellect and genteel poise.

These are games that do a phenomenal job of building both setting and character, and their music reflects that dedication. I could listen to this theme on repeat for hours.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 — Throwback Galaxy

All right, full disclosure, this is just Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64. This jazzy update of the original doesn’t deviate much from the original version, though it’s certainly a little easier on the ears, and it retains the aesthetic style of  Super Mario Galaxy’s score. It’s still a hoot to listen to, and immediately recognizable.

Where were you when you first played Super Mario 64? Do you remember? Do you recall the precise moment when you realized that things were different now?

I remember. I was in a friend’s basement, jealously ogling his new N64, and we sat down to play. I distinctly remember being in awe of the game’s polish, the depth and breadth of its world. It seems quaint by today’s standards, but Super Mario 64 had a feel to it that no other game had ever managed before, a coherence of vision that remains the hallmark of the series. Nintendo got 3D gaming right, in a way that was years ahead of anyone else.

Here’s the original, in case that better evokes the nostalgia. Do you remember how BIG Bob-omb Battlefield seemed, and how surprising it was that there was not one star to be acquired there, but six? Six different ways to approach the same level! What luxury! What decadence!

We’ve come a long way in the last 17 years, but–Wow, yikes. Seventeen years. Maybe I’ll just leave you with that one.

Final Fantasy IX — Feel My Blade

A fair portion of any JRPG soundtrack is made up of themes that are tied to places, characters, or events. In each Final Fantasy since FFIV, for example, each character has had an individual theme that is played during events in the plot that involve that character. Likewise, just about every town (and many of the dungeons) have individual themes, a trend that’s not unique to Final Fantasy but appears in most JRPGs.

At least a certain portion of each game’s score, however, is dedicated to unique plot events–specific battles, cinematic sequences, dramatic moments. Often, when a battle theme is unique, it denotes a particularly difficult or climactic boss–see Chrono Trigger’s “Battle with Magus,” Suikoden II’s “Gothic Neclord,” or Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete’s “Magical Weapon Nash” (a personal favorite–obscure!).

Final Fantasy IX has a unique battle theme accompanying a fight that isn’t particularly climactic or dramatic–at least, not in the traditional sense. “Feel My Blade” gets played exactly once in the game, within the first hour, and it accompanies the battle between Zidane’s acting troupe, Tantalus, and… their boss, Baku, who is playing the role of the evil king in the play that they’re performing. The battle has no actual dramatic tension–you can’t really lose it–and in fact, in place of the “Magic” command in your characters’ menus, you can select “SFX,” a command which allows you to use a number of unique “spells” that are entirely for spectacle and which deal exactly zero damage. You’re putting on a show for the audience in much the same way that the game is putting on a show for you.

This is a sequence which is easy pickings for the crowd who decries Final Fantasy as being mostly cutscenes with minimal gameplay, but if you’re among those gamers who appreciate games as spectacle and don’t mind narrative being sometimes divorced from game mechanics, the whole thing is hugely delightful. In fact, the whole game is pretty delightful.

I love this track–the swashbuckling, heroic melody, the length, melodramatic introduction–all of it. Tracks like this make me lament, in part, the advent of voice acting in RPGs. In the 32-bit era and before, the score of a game was entirely tasked with carrying the emotional tone of a scene, and could do so unimpeded. We’re still getting brilliant game music, of course, but “Feel My Blade” belongs to quite a different era, an era for which I feel a great deal of nostalgia.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow — The Ice Titan

I’m one of the masses of video game audiophiles who once decried the “cinematization” of game scores–having grown up with the prominent and catchy melodies of Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yuzo Koshiro, in the middle of the last decade I felt very strongly that the majority of game scores were trending toward ambient mood-setting when they were not busy being the background to lengthy cinematic sequences–and I was afraid that our special, peculiar kind of music was in danger as a result.

This opinion was, in retrospect, pretty short-sighted. What I (and many others) identified as a “trend” was really just the birth-pangs of a new type of game score, and while most AAA, $60 games often have soundtracks that mirror their Hollywood contemporaries, “gamey” chiptune music is still alive and well.

What’s more, in the last five years or so, cinematic game scores have come to be really, really good. Take the above example, from 2010’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game which is 60% God of War, 20% Shadow of the Colossus, and only about 20% Castlevania. Its departure from its source material notwithstanding, the game is an absolute delight, thanks in no small part to Oscar Araujo’s fabulous and compelling score.

If you’re a gamer and you haven’t played Lords of Shadow, well– you should give it a shot. It’s not absolutely a must play, but it’s most certainly worth your time, especially if you like whippin’ trolls.