For those of you who caught the New Jersey show in December, you and I had the great honor of meeting one of the original composers of the Castlevania series, Kinuyo Yamashita! Not only is she extremely talented but she is also an absolute sweetheart, it was such a pleasure to meet her. It inspired me to do a couple of more early Castlevania arrangements and talk about its iconic theme, Vampire Killer. This blog entry is a little broader than just Castlevania, but Vampire Killer is a great example of how powerful and nostalgic game music can become.
I'm a big fan of the Zero Punctuation game reviews on The Escapist. If you like hilariously brutal honesty, this is the reviewer for you. One of the many things he tears apart are the tendencies of platforms to reuse the same game franchises over and over—i.e. Mario, Zelda—instead of creating entirely new games. I do agree with him, to a point. There are so many unique stories, characters, places, etc. that we can create through video games, and sometimes ONLY through video games. (check out Zero Punctuation's review of Silent Hill 2).
But the flipside to that argument is the amazing feeling of nostalgia that comes with every new game in a franchise. If I had to draw a parallel, a game franchise is like a series of books; you've got to have some newness and some oldness to make it work. Take The Chronicles of Narnia, for example: same world, same setting, but different characters, plot and time period. Or the Song of Ice and Fire series, which is basically a story arc: same world, same time period, same characters, one continuous story from start to finish. Or an anime series like Death Note, where the entire story is entirely told in short chapters.
Same opportunities with game franchises. There are way too many to list, but just think of all of the franchises that exist that have more than one game; Halo, Super Mario, Legend of Zelda, Sonic, Kingdom Hearts, Mortal Kombat, I'm just rattling these off of the top of my head. And while a book can only use the characters, plot and setting to tie a series together, a game can use a very special element, often one of the most important of all: the music.
Don't get me wrong; plenty of franchises, including some of the ones I listed, use brand new music from game to game. But I think a special brand of awesomeness accompanies games that at least reference the music of preceding games; the music is a big part of what gives a game character and atmosphere. So if a composer writes a piece of music for a game that captures it perfectly, it makes sense to use it again in the second game. It's like the music is a separate character in and of itself; without it, the game just doesn't make sense. Or if it doesn't utilize the same melodies from earlier games, the game can have a similar sound and style. Let's face it, Banjo-Tooie would NOT have worked if it didn't have that same kooky cheerfulness as Banjo-Kazooie.
But often, the oldest, most popular game franchises do tend to reuse certain musical themes, and they seem to become even more awesome and lovable over time, i.e. the Vampire Killer theme from Castlevania. How is it that we can listen to the theme from game to game, over and over again for over 20 years? Answer: the art of theme and variation. Just like in a classical t&v, if you can create a catchy, memorable melody and then mess with it over and over again for twenty minutes, you're golden. That combination of old and new in a t&v is pretty much a perfect way to get a lot of mileage out of one melody.
We didn't play much Castlevania in my house when I was a kid, but I've listened to the music quite a bit and I really enjoy the dark, gothic style, perfect for a game about vampires. And almost every game contains a theme that was written for the very first game: Vampire Killer. I've transcribed two versions of this,Vampire Killer from the original Castlevania (sheets, audio) and from Castlevania 3 (sheets, audio). What's the same? The melody. What's different? A few things: the bass in Deja Vu has a much lower range. The texture in general is more active, there's more percussion going on. Basically, although the changes are rather subtle, I'd call Deja Vu a “more exciting” version of Vampire Killer.
Now prepare to be pulled through a time warp of undead awesomeness, because the franchise reuses the Vampire Killer theme about fifty bazillion times throughout the series, and it's so different every time they do it! I stumbled upon this great video on Youtube: it's literally a musical timeline of the Vampire Killer theme. Take a listen to it, listen for the changes between each version, and see if you can describe it in words! Think melody, key, texture, style, instrumentation, tempo, etc. As we move along the timeline, the composers tend to take more liberties with the arrangement, but still have most of the original melody. It's the perfect example of what I've been talking about for this entire post: all the Castlevania games have new, different stories, characters and music, but they all have an appearance of this one, memorable, iconic theme, which helps to tie the whole series together and remind you of how far the franchise has come and how much the story of Castlevania has grown!
Enjoy the new arrangements for Castlevania's Out of Time, Castelvania 2's Bloody Tears, Castlevania 3's Deja Vu and (random) Mega Man 4's Dive Man! More on the way!
So I don't know about you guys, but when I was little I was ADDICTED to Super Mario Kart. My family didn't have Super Nintendo, but one of my aunts did; it was a real treat for my siblings and I when we'd go to visit her and get to play the SNES. While my parents and the rest of my adult relatives played card games like Phase 10, my younger cousins and sibligns and I would race over to the TV to pop in Super Mario Kart. And I swear to you, half the fun for me was just listening to the ridiculously cheerful music that accompanied every level. The music had an undeniable grooviness that I thrived on when I was younger. Looking back on the music now, I realize that the music from that game is a combination of rock/pop drumbeats, original tracks from Super Mario World and—get this—Latin dances. I have several Super Mario Kart arrangements posted on the Arrangements page already, and I'm adding some new ones this week. Let's dive into these Latin styles that will forever remind me of the sadistic joy when Lightning Bolting somebody straight into the ocean on Koopa Beach 2.
Here's a confession: I am a terrible dancer. Second confession: I am also a HUGE “So You Think You Can Dance” freak. I LOVE dancing shows, I live SO vicariously through watching other people dance, it just looks so utterly joyous and carefree and fun! And if you've ever watched any dancing show at all, you've probably heard the terms samba, mambo, salsa, cha-cha, rumba etc. In the ballroom world, these are referred to as Latin dances. I am by no means an expert on Latin dance, but from what I understand, these types of dances originate in Latin America, Cuba or Puerto Rico, and several of these dances actually correspond with a musical form. We heard this word before when I spoke about Super Mario World and the theme & variations, which originated in European music. The word form can refer to a grand, overarching architecture of a piece (theme and variations), or it can refer to very small, compact ideas and styles that give a form its character (dance form).I just want to make that clear before I go on, because different cultural styles use the word “form” in different contexts. So, the dance forms we look at are not necessarily these big, broad outlines for an entire piece of music, but instead a collection of small compact ideas and elements that a composer would use to create the piece.
The music for Super Mario Kart was not composed by Koji Kondo; it was composed by relatively unknown composers Soyo Oka and Taro Bando, who worked on a number of early Super Nintendo games. (Kondo and Oka did however work together on the original Pilotwings!) The music from Super Mario Kart has a very unique and definitive sound to it; as I said before, it's mixture of 80's rock, original tracks from Super Mario World, and Latin-style dance music. Latin dance is a very recognizable style of music, one of those “you know it when you hear it” things. Why is that? “It's dancelike!” you say. But why? What makes it dancelike? What is it about any song that makes you want to get up and dance a party? The answer is: rhythm. And Latin dance has very strong, definable rhythmic elements that are instantly recognizable. In relevance to Super Mario Kart, we'll be looking at the samba and the mambo in particular.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea the samba and mambo were two distinct musical forms; I thought that when people referred to the samba or mambo, they were referring just to the dance steps. But in fact, the musical forms are very different. I found this great video on Youtube when I was doing research on Latin rhythms, musician Kristin Parker basically outlines the basic differences between a samba and mambo. For one, while they both have African roots, they originated in different places; mambo is a Cuban dance, while the samba is Brazilian. Another difference is the time signature; a samba tends to be in moderate 2/4, while a mambo is in a fast 4/4. Lastly, Each style has strong syncopation elements, but a samba's style tends to be a more laidback, mellow dance, while the mambo is intense and “party-like.”
In both types of dance, there is a LOT of percussion going on and it often subdivides the beat (i.e. four sixteenth notes to every quarter note beat). Typical Latin percussion includes the shaker, clave, bongos, conga drum, etc. Those have very particular timbres (sound quality) that we identify as being Latin in nature. At this point, I encourage you to watch Kristin's video and listen to her examples of each dance, they'll give you a better idea of what we're talking about. Much easier to just listen to the music, rather than describing it in words, I find ;-)
So now that we have a very basic background of what these pieces sound like, let's look at the music of Super Mario Kart! I think we can find some good examples of each dance style here. I think we can safely say that a few tracks are decidedly not Latin; Rainbow Road sounds more like rock to me, and Bowser's Castle and Ghost Valley are both taken from Super Mario World. Mario Circuit is hard to place because it's got the bongo sound, and the piano creating the Latin-like syncopations; but the presence and rhythm of the punchy bass and snare drums makes me think of a rock or pop sound, so let's call Mario Circuit a crossover piece (It's also completely AWESOME when it appears as a remix in Super Smash Brothers Brawl.)
Samba first! I think the best example of a samba in this game is Vanilla Lake (sheets, audio). The tempo is about quarter = 112, a pretty moderate tempo. I can distinctly hear the syncopated percussion, which is comprised of lighter instruments (bongos, shaker). There is also syncopation in the guitar. Lastly, the style of the piece, to my ear, is very laidback and easygoing. So considering the tempo, timbre, and flavor of this piece, I think we could consider this a samba.
What other pieces are sambas in Mario Kart? I'd say Koopa Beach (sheets, audio) as well; the tempo is slightly faster than Vanilla Lake, around quarter = 120, but the melody is pretty smooth and mellow. The bongo is providing that subdivided syncopation that we also heard in the shakers of Vanilla Lake. I'd call it a samba. I'm also tempted to call Choco Island (sheets, audio) a samba--it's roughly the same tempo as Koopa Beach--but something about that piece feels less laidback to me. It could be that it has faster harmonic rhythm (the chord changes happen faster) than Koopa Beach and Vanilla Lake; the percussion break in the middle is pretty active as well, I wouldn't describe it as being laidback. So Choco Island might be somewhat of a crossover between these two styles (or perhaps another Latin style entirely...)
Now for the mambos! Donut Plains (sheets, audio) is the first one that popped in my head. I was a little uncertain of it at first, because it's rather happy and lighthearted, and I think mambos generally have a darker, more intense sound. However, it's tempo is faster than most of the other tracks, around 138 bpm, and it has that 4/4 drive feeling that Kristin speaks about in her video. The choice of percussion for this track is a little heavier than the samba tracks, more drums and whistles and less shaker. I'd also put the Title Theme into this category; the tempo is the fastest out of the entire game around 140 bpm, it contains a lot of syncopation, it's heavy on the percussion and has a pretty active harmonic rhythm. The overall more intense sound and faster tempo makes me think it must be a mambo.
Now I've been speaking exclusively about the music for the racetracks, just to keep this post focused--I challenge you to go listen to the character themes and decide which ones are influenced by Latin dance! For example, try Luigi's Theme (sheets, audio). Samba, mambo, or something different? Test your listening skills! ;-)
The interesting thing is that even though Latin dance music works SO well for Super Mario Kart, the Latin style is not tremendously similar to Kondo's work on the preceding platformer Super Mario games; I find that those games have more of an element of ragtime to them. But it's around this point in time that Mario games do start to gain an occasional Latin feel, i.e. the Special Zone from Super Mario World; later on, the title theme to Mario Party has crazy Latin percussion going on, as well as samba-like the Mini-Game Stadium (both composed by Yasunori Mitsuda). And the Overworld Theme for the New Super Mario Bros. has an EXTREMELY distinct samba feel to it. I wonder if the Latin influences in Mario started with Kondo's Special Zone in SMW? Or maybe it didn't really start taking off until Oka and Bando's work in Super Mario Kart?...
So, to conclude, let me say again that I am no expert on Latin dances. If I've made any mistakes, feel free to call me out on them and correct me—that's how I learn! ;-) Again, I'm writing these blog posts from my own personal discoveries, and I'm sure I'll have a few misconceptions along the way. But let's remember that even though probably none of these tracks are perfect examples of sambas or mambos, the fact that the music has Latin influences at all is what makes the music so AWESOME. A real-life cultural style, Latin music, has been combined with a sound that is entirely Super Mario's; cheerful, carefree, cute, ridiculously happy. And together, these styles make amazing music that makes us tap our feet, snap our fingers, and recall with hatred how supremely infuriating it was to hit a banana peel just before the finish line and watch Donkey Kong Jr. steal first place.
Enjoy the new arrangements for Choco Island, Luigi's Theme and Princess Toadstool's Theme from Super Mario Kart! More on the way!
Video game music was what got me composing as a kid, and I learned the basics of composition from transcribing my favorite VGM pieces. These are my thoughts and discoveries about various game compositions as I transcribe and study them. Feel free to comment with your own thoughts/ideas as well!