VGM Entry 66: Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country

VGM Entry 66: Super Metroid and Donkey Kong Country
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The release of Star Fox in 1993 was a sign of quite a few great games beyond the RPG/adventure genre to come. The following year would see another visually revolutionary blockbuster, this one completely blowing Star Fox off the map. Rare, a famous name on the Nintendo, held back developing much for the SNES until they were good and ready to take the system by storm.

Donkey Kong Country (Nintendo, 1994) essentially marked the peak of graphics on the Super Nintendo. It never got appreciably better than this, though plenty of other developers would rise to equal it by the end. Considering just how bad the graphics of say, Final Fantasy VII or Super Mario 64 look today, its amazing how well the best of the SNES have stood the test of time. Musically the game did not have quite as big of an impact, but it definitely maintained the cutting edge standard.

Composed by Dave Wise (Wizards & Warriors), Eveline Fischer, and Robin Beanland, the game’s sometimes hoaky jungle themes might be misleading; somewhat silly tunes out of context, they were ideally suited for the gameplay, and they completely defied the limitations of the SNES. I mean, plenty of great musicians were able to craft soundtracks that didn’t sound contrived. They weren’t obligated, as in the 8-bit days, to treat their audio chip as an instrument for any hope of success. But when Nobuo Uematsu added a pseudo-vocal track to Aria Di Mezzo Carattere he wasn’t fooling anybody; the extent to which SNES music could sound performed rather than programmed came in degrees and was not directly relevant to quality. (Final Fantasy VI, Uematsu’s opera included, was one of the best scores of all time despite sounding nowhere near as authentically orchestrated as Yuzo Koshiro’s ActRaiser 2.) But I feel like Donkey Kong Country was remarkably successful in its ability to distance itself from any sense of these limitations.

I mean, it’s electronic music in spirit (or more appropriately ‘new age’, though that is a dangerous term to throw about in so far as the musicians who have defined it share little in common with the finest musicians to have been branded with it) and it should not be compared to attempts at orchestration, but the subtle panning and fading, the outstanding percussion, the appropriate and convincing use of ambient jungle noises in the background… it all adds up to a sound that goes beyond the system, as if they had the nearly limitless possibilities of composers from the Playstation era and beyond.

While Donkey Kong was enjoying his first incarnation as a well-defined, major franchise character, Samus was returning for her third venture, and her first on the SNES. Super Metroid (Nintendo, 1994) was one of the best games on the SNES, presenting a massive, open world for exploration that surpassed its series predecessors and remained unmatched until Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997). And much like Castlevania, the Metroid series was synonymous with good music. Super Metroid was composed by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamano (Link’s Awakening), and as best I can tell this was very much a joint effort. The ost on vgmdb credits both artists with 11 out of the 24 tracks. (Hirokazu Tanaka is credited for the last two.)

The two had their work cut out for them. While Tanaka’s original was, I think, far more novel in concept than as an actual finished product, his vision of the Metroid sound as carried on by Ryoji Yoshitomi in Metroid II: Return of Samus was nothing short of perfection.

Super Metroid took a slightly different approach from the get-go. The first two games featured eerie yet beautiful intro songs which really captured the conflicting nature of the metroids as morally innocent yet dangerous predators (one of Metroid’s unique features in early gaming is that some of the monsters aren’t evil or lifeless ‘bad guys’, but rather a natural species taken advantage of by, well, evil bad guys). Super Metroid, on the other hand, starts off on a human space station, and the opening conflict is between Samus and the Zebesian Ridley, not a metroid, so a different sort of musical theme was in order. Yamamoto and Hamano effectively captured that with dark and suspenseful music that offered none of the warmth of the first two games.

Furthermore, the majority of the game takes place on Zebes, the home world of the space pirates who are manipulating the metroid species for conquest. The original Metroid took place here as well, but a lot had changed plot-wise since then. The metroid species had been all but exterminated, and Samus at any rate had had a much more intimate encounter with them in Metroid II than would be possible on Zebes. Their presence here was no longer such a significant factor (in setting the mood, though they remained central to the plot), and the Zebesians presented a less mysterious and more sinister threat.

Yamamoto and Hamano wrote some pretty creepy music for Super Metroid, and it served its purpose well, but the bulk of the tunes were earthy in ambiance and more action-oriented, precisely in keeping with the mood of the game.

The SNES had some less famous gems in 1994 too. Demon’s Crest was the third installment in Capcom’s largely forgotten Gargoyle’s Quest series, which was in turn derived from the Ghosts’n Goblins series. It couldn’t have been much of a commercial success in North America; at the height of my teenage game obsession I managed to never even hear of it. It had a unique classical soundtrack which rarely stands out in any single instance but deserves a great deal of praise for its consistency. The composer never gives in to temptation by picking up the pace, keeping an even keel that succeeds in maintaining a sort of Halloween spook to the whole game from beginning to end.

Who composed it? I was about to say Yuki Iwai, because she’s almost universally credited for it, but this is yet another one of those gross misconceptions derived from failure of in-game attribution. Apparently Demon’s Crest has no credits (I never played it), and some time long ago someone decided Yuki Iwai must have composed it because she composed the previous series installment, Gargoyle’s Quest II (Capcom, 1992). Thankfully someone on Wikipedia caught on to this and did some research; a compilation cd of music from the series explicitly credits the score to Toshihiko Horiyama.

And then there’s Live a Live (Square, 1994), composed by the rising star Yoko Shimomura (Gargoyle’s Quest, Street Fighter II, some minor involvement in Breath of Fire). Shimomura left Capcom in 1993 and joined Square, with whom she would maintain a long and productive partnership up through the present day. Chances are you never heard of and almost certainly never played the RPG Live a Live. Even in the present day of classic game redistribution it has never received an official English language port. It’s a shame, because with a lively mix of adventurous western themes and oriental melodies, Live a Live presented one of the most spirited soundtracks on the SNES.

It was also one of Yoko Shimomura’s first independent scores. Though she receives solo credit for a few earlier games–F-1 Dream (Capcom, 1989) for the PC Engine and The King of Dragons (Capcom, 1991) for the arcade for instance–the bulk of her earlier games list joint credits, and these can be pretty misleading. (She only contributed one song to Breath of Fire from what I gather.) Live a Live then might be seen as one of her first really extensive works, and it was definitely a sign of good things to come. With a legendary repertoire to include Super Mario RPG and Kingdom Hearts, Shimomura would be making herself heard in video games for a long time to come.