Fancy graphics are fine, but all gamers know in their hearts that nothing will ever top the drama of Final Fantasy VII or the pure physicality of Super Mario Bros. 3. Playboy’s Retro Gaming articles look at why we love the classics and give you your nostalgia fix.
Pretend for a moment that you’re told to compose a soundtrack for a video game. If you write a part for a drum, you can actually get a drummer to play the part. If you want a choir to hum over that beat, you can bring in an elite group of singers to do so. But the earliest game composers, by contrast, had to find synthesized sounds that resembled violins, trumpets or snares, and then mix them all together to fashion complete songs.
It’s true what they say: art is engineered through adversity. And the best of these early video game songs were so identifiable and had such catchy hooks that the average gamer could immediately identify them from the first few bars, even though the arrangements were so rudimentary. What person, after all, doesn’t know the classic “Mario Overworld” theme, even if he or she has never picked up a controller?
Today these songs, with their nostalgic ‘beep-boop’ instrumentation, beg to be remixed. When fans are lucky we get official remixes—the latest games in an established franchise will revamp the old songs, usually with a full band or orchestra. These sound incredible, of course. But the best, most creative remixes are done not by official composers, but by fans. Fans are more likely to try something offbeat; by risking failure, they create art that matches, and sometimes exceeds, the original works. Here are 10 of my favorite examples.
10. ’THE MOON THEME’
Original composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
There was a time when TV show and movie tie-in video games were not heartless cash-ins; during early 90’s, pre-Kingdom Hearts Disney games—The Little Mermaid, Chip ‘n’ Dale, Darkwing Duck—were genuinely excellent. And the piece de resistance was Ducktales, based off the “Disney Afternoon” cartoon. As Uncle Scrooge, your goal was to find the five rarest treasures in the world, and the final most difficult treasure to retrieve was on the Moon. The “Moon” stage music was simply beautiful. It’s generally considered to be one of the greatest video game songs ever written.
Remixer: Pascal Michael Stiefel
Countless fans have covered or remixed “The Moon Theme.” But this particular version, which actually predates the official Ducktales: Remastered version, is the only one that manages to exceed the original. Pascal Michael Stiefel remixed, arranged, and orchestrated this particular rendition, and he keeps the original melody while adding his own self-composed piano interludes.
9. ’DR. WILY STAGE’
Game: ‘Mega Man 2’
Original composer: Takashi Tateishi
Mega Man may have come first, but Mega Man 2 was the true breakout success, topping its predecessor in every aspect. Today the game is remembered for its colorful characters and overpowered special weapons (the Metal Blade could cut through anything and be thrown in 8 different directions). But the soundtrack deserves specific mention, and the “Dr. Wily” stage song, more than any of the other songs, went hard. The rapid fire percussion made us excited for what was to come—this was an anthem for laying siege, storming castles and conquering regimes. Carpe diem!
Remixer: Levar Allen
Guitar remixes of game music are pretty common and almost clichéd by this point, but Levar Allen’s speed metal rendition is notable for its multiple guitar parts, which Allen played and overlayed with professional flair. There’s something appealing about watching a musician jam without jumping around and posturing. Just a man with his music, doing his thing.
8. ’BLOODY TEARS’
Game: ‘Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest’
Original composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata
The Castlevania franchise on the original Nintendo had great controls and great weapons and created a dark, morbid atmosphere out of nothing but pixels and sprites. The second part of the trilogy, Simon’s Quest added new wrinkles to the formula—it had villages and shops that you could explore, and a night/day mechanic that affected the enemies who attacked you. And even though it’s usually considered the weakest of the three games, Simon’s Quest had some fantastic music. The clear standout is “Bloody Tears,” with its haunting minor chord instrumentation.
Remixer: Daveyard Shift
The best remix of “Bloody Tears” on the Internet has to be this mariachi rendition, arranged and recorded by Mexican mariachi band Daveyard Shift. It’s peppy and upbeat, while retaining just the right amount of creepiness. Plus, check out that music video—the Dia de los Muertos makeup and iconography are a particularly nice touch.
7. ’GUILE THEME’
Game: ‘Street Fighter II’
Original composers: Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, Yoko Shimomura, Tetsuya Nishimura
The music for Street Fighter II needs no introduction. It was flawless, across the board, with each stage’s music taking on the characteristics of its respective country. Blanka’s Brazil, for example, had pan flutes, and Guile’s U.S.A., as befitting Guile’s military status, had a proud brass band. It’s not just an internet meme—Guile’s music truly does go with everything.
Remixer: Rayza (Hayden Petrie)
Video game remixing has become so popular online that entire artist communities have sprung up online. One of the most lively ones is OverClocked ReMix, which runs contests and promotes remix albums from its artists. In fact, when Capcom released Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, they enlisted the help of Overclocked Remix to remix all of its music. It was the first time that fan-generated content was used in such a high profile game release. I could fill an entire list with OC ReMix content, but check out this small taste: Rayza’s (Hayden Petrie’s) dance remix of the “Guile Theme.”
6. ’AQUATIC AMBIENCE’
Game: ‘Donkey Kong Country’
Original composers: David Wise, Eveline Fischer, Robin Beanland
It’s difficult to appreciate now what a visual leap Donkey Kong Country made back in 1994. But wow, this game was pretty to look at. The sprites had a lifelike quality to them, thanks to the pre-rendered, 3D graphics (Donkey Kong Country was one of the first games to take advantage of this new technology). And the visuals were not all lush forest terrain either! There was a true diversity to the environments; you hopped, swung, and cartwheeled your way through a musty mine, then a snow-covered landscape, then a glittering ice canyon, then an industrial wasteland. And throughout the game, you occasionally got a swimming level, and a song called “Aquatic Ambience” came on. This song ditched the jungle theatrics and played it straight, and the result was pure, calm, chill music. And boy, did you need it—Croctopuses and sharks are no laughing matter.
SwigglesRP fiddled with the chord structure and put his own progressive rock twist on the song. The result is a cross between Pink Floyd and Dream Theater, like David Gilmour decided to do an exclusive residency at Nintendo headquarters. Everything from the ambient noise to the bent-string guitar solo makes for a layered, well-structured remix—one that is clearly a product of sharp musicianship.
5. ’THE LAST OF US MAIN THEME’
Game: ‘The Last of Us’
Original composer: Gustavo Santaolalla
The Last Of Us is arguably one of the greatest video games in history. Aside from the graphics (which were amazing) and the gameplay (which was first-rate), The Last of Us also had a heart-wrenching, emotional story that paired a grizzled, heartbroken father with a smartassed but unusually sympathetic teenage girl. And the backdrop for all of this was a minimalist musical score. Gustavo Santaolalla composed the main theme, and that sparse, lonely guitar is simply dripping with pathos.
Remixer: PI511 (Rob Platt)
This particular remix from the folks at OC Remix was arranged by Rob Platt, better known to his contemporaries as PI511. The key to the original song’s success was its simplicity, and Platt does nothing to disturb that, using a piano to create a prettier but no less sad rendition of a classic song.
4. ’HALO MAIN THEME’
Original composer: Marty O’Donnell
It’s a common dilemma: which console do I buy? Wii U or PS4? PS4 or Xbox One? Ultimately the answer often comes down to exclusives—which console has the most games that you want to play? For close to 15 years, the Xbox has sold and remained competitive on the strength of its Halo franchise. And the original “Main Theme” captures, more poetically than words, what people love so much about these games. It’s driven and aggressive, with just the right amount of sci-fi wonderment.
Remixer: PI511 (Rob Platt)
This is another orchestral remix from Rob Platt that changes the key signature and offers an original take on the core theme. There’s a little less “shoot to kill” and a lot more wide-eyed despair in this particular version.
3. ‘BRINSTAR THEME’
Original composer: Hirokazu Tanaka
The Metroid franchise may not be the most commercially successful of Nintendo’s properties, but it’s certainly one of the most critically acclaimed. Over 20 years after its release, Super Metroid is still heralded as a masterpiece; whenever a game critic creates a “Best Video Games of All Time” list, this game is invariably in the Top 10. But Super Metroid’s did not emerge from the ether fully formed; the developers were polishing and perfecting the “explore, loot and shoot” formula that the original Metroid pioneered on the NES. Metroid’s “Brinstar Theme” had a measured, steady pace—sort of like Samus Aran herself—and emphasized, via music, how one is supposed to approach and tackle this game. Bravely, yet carefully, and never shying from a fight.
Remixer: Zachary Hale Comstock
“Zachary Hale Comstock” (someone’s a Bioshock fan) put together this remix of the “Brinstar Theme” when he was 17 years old. He added a basic drum beat and spare instrumentation. It’s a simple and straightforward take, but that’s what makes it so good—any further elaboration would have been superfluous. Plus, the drumming focuses the song’s melody, and renders the entire song more upbeat. Killing Metroids isn’t a walk in the park, but it shouldn’t have to be such a downer either.
2. ‘HYRULE CASTLE THEME’
Game: ‘The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past’
Original composer: Koji Kondo
Similarly to Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link challenged our comfort with what a Zelda game ought to be. It mixed up the camera perspective and alternated between the classic bird’s eye view and side-scrolling, where the character moves in profile from left to right. Fans had a mixed response, and it’s no wonder that the proceeding game, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, reverted back to the original formula. And now, rather than having two main themes as in the first game (one for the Overworld and one for the Underworld/Dungeons), A Link to the Past had a greater diversity of music. One of the most recognizable and heroic songs was the “Hyrule Castle Theme.” A Link to the Past upended traditional storytelling—you saved the Princes at the beginning of the game—and the “Hyrule Castle Theme” established an appropriately foreboding atmosphere.
Remixer: Malcolm Robinson
When Malcolm Robinson remixed the song he took it to its logical conclusion and created a full orchestra rendition. “Official” remixes do this sort of thing all the time, but it’s rare to find a fan with such loving, specific attention to detail.
1. ‘CORRIDORS OF TIME’
Game: ‘Chrono Trigger’
Original composers: Yasunori Mitsuda, Nobuo Uematsu
The most underrated aspect of the Super Nintendo, at least in the States, was its library of role playing games, or RPGs. They were to video games what Dungeons and Dragons is to board games—niche experiences with dedicated cult followings. The 16-Bit era was a Golden Age for RPGs. The Sega Genesis had Shining Force and Phantasy Star, but the Super Nintendo had The Big Four: Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound, and, of course, Chrono Trigger, the greatest of them all. A time traveling tale, Chrono Trigger had a scope that was unprecedented—seven different eras to explore, from the Stone Age to the dystopian future, and 13 different endings, depending on the butterfly effects your choices created.
Remixer: mv (Xavier Dang)
Xavier Dang, better known as ‘mv,’ created this fantastic remix of “Corridors of Time.” The sitar creates a dreamy mood, and Dang expanded on this train of thought. He arranged swirling, ambient music around the core melody, and the result is a jazzy piece that plays gentle tribute to its source material.
Wing-Man has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.
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