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!
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!