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Sports Games, Indie Rock, and the Fall of the 8-bit Soundtrack

Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer


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"Duh duh duh duh duh duh

duh duh duh duh duh duh

duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh

Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh”

Those of you astute or crazy enough to have guessed that the above is my textual impersonation of the original Super Mario Bros. underworld theme, go ahead and pat yourselves on the back.  You represent a generation of gamers that today’s 8 year old Halo 3 freaks cannot even fathom.  Yes, I’m talking about a generation of gamers who once owned both Street Fighter 2 and Street Fighter 2 Turbo (and maybe even Ultra); gamers who, when they hear any of the work of Koji Kondo (Mario, Zelda, etc.) weep openly; gamers who remember the good old days of going to bed after a marathon session unable to sleep because they see the boards and hear the incessant, repetitious theme song; gamers who, once they awake, continue hearing said theme song; gamers who bled for the next sword level or the last bit of heart life. 

Sure, I bet GTA4 is a badass game with some cool music and incredible graphics, but there’s something to be said for the old school, original soundtracks.  They were 8-bit, Japanese, and probably concocted in the same Nintendo basement that spawned our favorite Italian plumber. 

In fact, Nintendo music was so indelible that it spawned its own musical genre, performed by live musicians and known as Nintendocore.  But the problem with nostalgia, it seems, is that the days longed for are gone.  The simple, legendary NES will be unknown to my children.  Same with the Genesis, Sega CD, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and so on.  And it isn’t so much the gameplay or graphics or simple intensity that I will be unable to translate to future generations, but rather, the experience of being forever imprinted by the music itself. 

Play any snippet of music from the old NES or any of the later systems, and–assuming I played the game–chances are I’ll have a sudden flashback.  It doesn’t matter if it’s Double Dragon, Zelda, Mario, Mega Man, Kung Fu, or Contra.  Those were games in the truest sense of the word, fantasy realms inhabited by strange, Japanese-produced music that dug into your soul and refused to let go.

Of course, as gamers age, we no longer see the same thing twice.  Every new game must up the ante or establish a franchise, lest it be deemed a failure.  The market forces that shape our very gaming experience have also interrupted the stream of whacky soundtracks we grew up humming. 

It all began around Quake, or Way of the Warrior, depending on who you talk to.  The year was 1996, and Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame, was approached to score Quake, a game that went on to revolutionize the FPS alongside Doom and a host of others.  Coincidentally or not, with the success of Quake and the soundtrack that it featured came a lightbulb moment for gaming execs.  It took a few years, but they suddenly discovered with increased sophistication of platforms came a need for superior (read: more expensive) music.

I first noticed the change around 2002 when I was playing Transworld Surf and, instead of the standard soundtrack there was a mix of rock tunes.  Regardless, the same thing that happened back in the days of 8-bit recurred: I went to bed with the tunes in my head.  Only this time, instead of identifying the songs with a game, I identified the songs with the artists (as their MTV-style credits flashed on the screen every time the track switched).  I assume this would work well as a means to establish an artist in passing, but after a few hours of hearing the same 12 songs over and over, a gamer can grow to hate any song.  I don’t care if the set list includes “Comfortably Numb” and “Sympathy for the Devil”, I will come to hate any song if it plays enough times. 

Yet, despite the obviousness of the preceding paragraph, whoever compiled gaming soundtracks seemed to get lost in their own ego-trip, piling on mediocre alternative and modern rock tracks with virtually every Xtreeeeeme!!! sports game.  What bothered me about this, however, wasn’t the mere use of rock tunes, but the genres themselves.  For Transworld Surf, for instance, there were all these screamo tracks about hating one’s father and the like.  I remember thinking, “Dude, I’m trying to surf here, not apply black eye shadow.”  In essence, the soundtracks were erroneously applied, or sometimes even RACIST. 

Take most every basketball title released in the last few years and tell me how many tracks are not rap or r&b, as if to say that, well…you get the idea.  Mario might have been confusing, seeing as though he was an Italian jamming to Japanese keyboard riffs, but those games never tried to stuff anything down your throat the way sports games do today, or DID, anyway.

See, now there’s a new trend working its way through the sports gaming world, and it’s similar to an overall trend in music: indie rock is taking over.  This became truly apparent with the 2K Sports franchise, who took the use of indie rock acts to an extreme in recent years–including using “Breed” by Nirvana in a baseball title, in apparent disregard for something we indie fans like to call “selling out by proxy,” as in, we are unable to stop a dead artist’s estate from selling their ass out.  Their titles also featured songs by 311, The Stooges, Les Savy Fav, Interpol, Wolfmother, Sublime, and a plethora of other bands both retired, deceased, and/or beloved.  They also curated a whole tour for the upcoming act Tapes n Tapes. I guess this means, on the surface, that the days of nu-metal tinged surfing games might be fading, but I can’t help feeling totally suspicious.

I still find myself pining for the days where I opened a cartridge, blew out the dust, plugged it into my NES, and got bombarded with some Japanese basement musician’s idea of ambient video game tunes.  Let this be an open call to video game manufacturers: re-grow your balls, drop popular rock acts, and tell us what a game sounds like.  I guarantee you that when Koji Kondo wrote the Zelda tunes he wasn’t thinking to himself that the game would work just as well with Led Zeppelin tracks.

 

References:      

Pitch Fork Media 1

Pitch Fork Media 2

Pitch Fork Media 3

Pitch Fork Media 4  

News Ticker

News – File Front

Wikipedia – Video Game Soundtrack

Wikipedia – Nintendo Core  

Author: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer

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