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!
Heya folks! Gonna dive right in today: I talked briefly in in one of my other posts about the division of themes in this happy relic of my childhood; Koji Kondo associates certain melodies with certain types of levels of the game (i.e. the dark scary theme for castles and ghost houses, and the happier theme for pretty much everything else). But even though the melodic material is clearly the same between levels—we instantly recognize it when we hear it—there are many changes in the music that supports the melody. Accompaniment, key, meter, texture...there is, in fact, a name for this compositional technique, and it's a very cool one that has been in use for hundreds of years. It's called theme and variations.
Theme and variations is one of many musical forms, that dates back to the Classical period and is still in use today. First things first--what's a form? Well, form as you know is short for “formula;” musical forms are essentially different formulas for how material is organized in a composition to make it a cohesive piece. In layman's terms: form is what makes a piece make sense.
There are several basic forms that became popular during the Classical period (1700's and 1800's, Mozart and Beethoven's time), some of which are still in use today. There are entire libraries written about the Classical period, but one of the main things you should know is that, during that time period, music was supposed to appeal to the average listener; most of the people in concert halls did not have any sort of musical training at all, so the music was supposed to be easy for the audience to “understand,” i.e. easily recognizable melodies, phrases, harmonies, and of course, forms. There are tons of textbooks that talk about the forms of that period: sonata, rondo, scherzo, minuet and trio, etc...and of course, theme and variation (which I will know refer to as t&v).
Let's take a look at an example t&v; this example is aptly named “Variations on a Theme by Haydn,” by Romantic period composer Johannes Brahms. You certainly do not. need to listen to this entire thing to get the idea, but I encourage you to because it's AWESOME. When you listened to it, you probably said, “Hey, this piece is just the same basic melody, or harmony, or rhythm over and over again. Brahms just messes with it in different, crazy ways.” This is all part of the form called theme and variations (t&v). In t&v, you can literally vary ANYTHING: texture, instrumentation, rhythm, meter, key, register, harmony, etc. The possibilities are never-ending...which Brahms proved by writing twenty minutes worth of variations. He chose a theme by Classical composer Haydn, introduced it to you, and then varied different aspects of it throughout the course of the piece, while retaining some kind of recognizable elements of it.
“Cool...hey, wait! Isn't that what Koji Kondo did for the levels in Super Mario World?”
YES. YES IT IS.
I can't think of a more perfect example of theme and variation in the context of a video game. All the elements are there! Kondo created his main melody, and for the rest of the game, he messes with it. BAM. In a classical t&v, the theme is introduced first, and then the variations follow. Since the very first level we play contains the Overworld, then we call the Overworld the theme, and the rest of the levels following it the variations. Let's take a looksy (and you should listen to the tracks too, links on the Arrangement page!):
1) Overworld. Straightforward. Tuba hammers out the bassline, the jumpy banjo fills out the chords, and steel drum beats the melody in your face. Only in Super Mario World would all of those instruments work so perfectly together. Genius.
2) Underwater. The theme is now in a different meter; the original theme was in common time (4/4), while this variation is in a dreamy waltz (3/4).
3) Underground. In that low, percussive marimba, there's our friend, the ostinato! This is a perfect example of one of the most common uses of ostinato: as a variation technique. The composer can go completely nuts on the melody, harmony and rhythm of the theme, while the ostinato binds everything together.
4) Athletic. (No sheet music yet, sorry!) Now we've taken the theme and put it into a new musical style: a rag (short for “ragtime”). This is also a common way to vary a theme; for example, many composers have at least one movement that puts the theme into a “jig” format, which is a dance in 6/8. Lastly, it's in a different key.
5) Bonus Level. Almost forgot about this one! The changes in this one are not as drastic as in the other variations; it's been pushed to a more rapid tempo, with a new accompanimental pattern in the bass and steel drums. And of course, nonstop bongos. FTW.
Now, just to clarify: for game music to be considered t&v, it's not enough to just bring back the theme over and over again in a video game soundtrack. There's a difference between using a leitmotif (recurring theme) and actually constructing a classical theme and variation, where the variations are very distinct and clearly divided. But we'll talk about that more next time!
Enjoy this week's arrangements for Underground Theme, Bonus Level, and the map themes for Bowser's Valley and Special Zone! 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!