VGM Entry 42: SNES
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Are we really there? I had naively intended to start this whole project off with a simple one to two post summary of video game music prior to 1990, then jump right away into the Super Nintendo. I suppose it didn’t quite work out that way.
I don’t know much about technological specifications. I have no idea what made the SNES tick the way it did. But there had to be something inspirational to musicians in its design. The Super Famicom was launched in Japan on November 21, 1990. By the end of the year it had nine titles, and as far as I’m concerned only two of them lacked noteworthy soundtracks. That’s better than the Genesis/Mega Drive managed in its first two years. And of the two that fail to impress me, Final Fight (Capcom) was a port arrangement of the arcade original and Super Ultra Baseball (Culture Brain, Super Baseball Simulator 1.000 in the U.S.) was precisely what it sounds like–the sort of game only a Tim Follin would put serious energy into.
F-Zero (Nintendo)’s soundtrack, composed by Yumiko Kanki (Naoto Ishida also wrote two tracks for it), is not one of the best on the SNES. Top 50? Eh, probably. But it sounds unbelievably better than nearly anything before it. The system brought nearly arcade-quality music to the mass consumer market, but also to musicians accustomed to having to compensate for lack of quality with highly creative song-writing.
So you got both. And you would continue to get both for the better part of a decade. Bombuzal (Image Works) was originally released for the Commodore 64, Amiga, and Atari ST in 1988. Its original version, composed by Ross Goodley as best I can tell, was pretty catchy in its own right. But the clarity of each tone on the Super Nintendo version (later released in North America as Kablooey), arranged, I believe, by Hiroyuki Masuno, gives the song a degree of fullness it could have never possessed before, even on the Amiga. And much like the Commodore 64/Amiga musicians of old, Hiroyuki Masuno was not afraid to improvise, incorporating his own melodies into the song and altering the rhythm and general vibe to suit his own whims. Hiroyuki Masuno’s revised Bombuzal theme is downright addicting.
SD The Great Battle (Banpresto) is a fun soundtrack to point out, both because you’ve almost certainly never heard it and because I think it really shows off how much better fairly generic scores could sound now. I mean, there is absolutely nothing special about what Norihiko Togashi did here. When the melodies are not a bit too overly repetative for their catchiness to be a virtue, they’re not particularly memorable at all. The only thing really to distinguish it from a standard to slightly above average NES soundtrack is the sound quality. But Norihiko Togashi makes excellent use of this. The accompaniment often pans and fades. The slap bass effectively fills in the percussion while still sounding like a real bass, and these never tastelessly overpower the melody as they’re so inclined to do on the Genesis/Mega Drive. It’s a completely forgettable little work which nevertheless surpasses a lot of the competition of its day.
Super Mario World by Koji Kondo obviously deserves mention, though I am not as fond of it as I perhaps ought to be. As a kid, I honestly found it kind of annoying, and I can understand why. Koji Kondo’s weird mix of Caribbean, Latin American, and African rhythms and instrumentation sound more like the sort of “world music” sampler cd you find at Starbucks than authentic ethnic music. (I find it funny that the PHD-waving ethnomusicologists I met in college placed the highest value in that sort of crap.) But this is Mario, not bad scholarship, so what he was borrowing for his compositions is really quite irrelevant. The end result is what matters, and the end result of most of these songs is pretty cheesy, whether you like it or not. It’s not until the ending credits (8:14) that Koji Kondo returns to the classic sound that so delights me in Super Mario Bros. 2. (That being said, Super Mario World‘s credits is one of my favorite Kondo songs ever.) This might have been the first game I ever personally owned–no more pretending the neighbor kid was my friend!–but it doesn’t hold much nostalgic value for me, and I think the music is somewhat to blame.
But enough with the negative criticism. Let’s not overlook the shear quantity of unique tracks in this game (well over 30 if we include some of the variations and shorter jingles). The “world music” gig is only a dominant fraction of a much larger collection. Such noteworthy tracks as “Forest of Illusion” (6:12), “Sub Castle”, “Koopa Junior”, “The Evil King Koopa”, and “Athletic” possess none of these nusences (as long as you stay away from Yoshi, which I never did, hence perhaps my youthful distaste). And had there ever been a game even remotely approaching Super Mario World‘s extent of gameplay relativity? Kondo’s own work on Super Mario Bros. 3 might come the closest, and it’s a long ways off. Super Mario World offered a ridiculous degree of diversity, with each zone and situation possessing a distinct and entirely appropriate sound. This might come to be the future norm for RPGs and adventure games, but we’re dealing with a simple side-scroller here.
Super Mario World was a grand showcase of the endless new possibilities made available by the Super Nintendo. It may lack some of the timeless classics of Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 2, but only in proportion to its length. Its place in the history books of video game music is well deserved.