The Gamer’s Conscience 01.26.04

“Da, da, da, da-daaaa da-da, do-Do DO-DO(?) Do-DO!”

Hell- I was thinking of making that the teaser of the column, but after careful and lengthily thought (read: 2-3 seconds), I realized that the propensity for a visual transcription would have been futile. You know, futile! Like trying to take Rob Schneider seriously in a role outside of Judge Dredd!!!

However if there were a way to convey to you that same musical progression on a different medium, perhaps via some audio source, most if not all of you would recognize it in a cool minute. The soundtrack I’ve so masterfully dictated via the limitations of this keyboard is a quintessential piece of gaming history! Unless you’re not a gamer, or perhaps lead some kind of enigmatic life outside of the mainstream gamer, that very soundtrack has been successfully engrained in the mind of quite possibly every gamer who has picked up a controller in the course of their lives. And while I can’t use the local 411 servers to set up a page to embed the file for your listening, some progressive head who has access to servers East of Norway has it available for download on this very page, on the top row, second column from the left.

Go ahead. Click the link. And feel the bliss of a gaming memory whose resurrection always brings some light-hearted sense of joy. Think about the first time you popped that cartridge into that then-unfamiliar grey 3-tone box. You know, the one with the un-geometrically sound controller ports, and the mono RCA output. You hit the power button- perhaps seeing a flashing yellow and black screen, but that’s OK because you had some alcohol and a Q-Tip or a lung full of air to clean the cartridge connectors. Depending on the version, you either had two or three games to choose from on the starting menu (depending on when you got your system) or no menu at all before you saw the scrolling introduction to the first of many staple franchises of the gaming narrative. Oh yes; while other games would follow, this one was the first. Not only giving it’s company an immortal marketing face, it also set the standard on which gamers would measure every subsequent game released.

If you recognized the tune, you already know what I’m talking about. If not, I simply pity the fool that hasn’t been privy to the original Super Mario Bros.

But when I was typing all that flowery language above, a certain notion came into being. The notion being that, despite how universal the SMB theme may be- that is, known to many a gamer, I can’t help but wonder about the gaming contingent in which the prior nostalgic assessment doesn’t apply- especially on the audio level. I mean, with gaming culture still in it’s relative infancy, it’s amazing to think that the SMB theme has reached an audience as wide as it has across all of these years, whether it be due Nintendo’s obsession with re-releasing proven titles, or the subversive power of the used game market. A staggering feat, if nothing else.

However, and I feel a sense of blasphemy as I type this, I question the scope of it’s reach. That is, with a narrower focus, I wonder exactly how much of today’s gaming population really appreciates the Mario theme in the same light as I and other gamers like myself do. In that regard, I’m beginning to wonder what the younger gamers of today are going to consider classic soundtracks. That is, are they going to revere a score from something like Final Fantasy VII in the same degree that people 7 years their senior regard the Zelda theme? Will the score of Metal Gear Solid 2 hold high esteem with the younger generation on the same level that Mega Man 2 holds for older cats?

Before I move on, I’d like to point out hat this column might have a high degree of overlap with a prior column from this past December. But, and I hope I speak for more people than myself when I say this, but I believe that the question is still intriguing. Hell- dissect this segment from the larger construction, and you’ll find that the soundtrack of any given game is an essential component of a larger, overbearing narrative.

Anyways, back to the questions at hand: will some of today’s gamers connect as passionately to today’s gaming soundtracks as gamers connected to the games they grew up with? Furthermore, can we make an educated guess into what soundtracks might become immortal for today’s engendering communal conscience?

Personally, I think so. For the new stable of gamers, who are just beginning to get into the trenches of gaming, their perceptions are going to be influenced by the first crop of games that they try during the onset of their gaming schema. That is, when the first game that little Junior plays is the copy of Halo his uncle got him for Christmas, the first strikes of the synthetic cellos across the speakers will perhaps be forever engrained in his head, just as the MIDI blips of Super Mario Bros had done in the late 80s. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a debatable question in and of itself. However, there are some stark differences one could try to discern.

The soundtracks of yesteryear were largely governed by technological standards and space constrains associated with the format of the day; that is, developers had to work with simple MIDI synthesizers that took sizable chunks of memory, leaving intricacy out of the question. On top of that, what made it from the keyboard had to find it’s way onto the ROM chips competing for space that could be used for something else. Thus, game developers had to struggle to get a good soundtrack into the game. But when you think about it in that light, in comparison with the orchestral soundtracks that some games have today, it’s nothing short of amazing that the composers of the day were able to come up with such memorable music. With their proverbial balls to the developmental wall, composers made the most of the space they had, and exercised a raw talent in their crafting of gaming soundtracks. Think of the Mega Man games- think of the Ninja Gaiden series! think of Castlevania 3!!!

Fast-forward to today, and one could credibly say that with the advent of CD media in gaming, an era was lost. No longer were the minds of composers challenged to come up with the most original composition that they could within the space allotted. Now, because of the extra space, a developer could simply draft the sheet music and put together any piece they needed. Sure, now you’ve got great scores to games like Onimusha which feature a full ensemble orchestra to really bring home the “I’m off to save the princess” feel, but the novelty isn’t there. Also, a new era of music licensing in video games has been underway, exemplified by titles like True Crime: Streets of LA, Need for Speed: Underground, and the Tony Hawk series.

In this respect, the originality that the older generation had grown up with is all but lost. But the concerns of a few old folks wont’ even enter the mindset of the newer generation- because this is the stuff they’re internalizing now. The stuff they’re growing up with. Perhaps one day, they’ll sit at their computers writing quasi-bitter columns about how the age of static orchestration in games will give way to a new ‘adaptive’ system of orchestration, in which the game will write it’s own soundtrack on the fly. But as much as I love tangents, I digress!.

So the second part of the question is what soundtracks of today will have the highest degree of resonance with the New World Gamer? At this point, one can only speculate. As mentioned before, I think that the wide appeal of Halo may bear some weight. It’s a damned catchy introductory tune that sticks in the head long after it’s being played. And if there is indeed salvation for the MIDI-era for the young folk, it just might lie with the Pokemon games. For as many copies of the game that the franchise has sold, I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 years down the line a band like the minibosses played covers of the music for nostalgic purposes. I guess in this case, we’ve just gotta wait and see.

Or do we?

Let me ask right now: for those readers who are say, let’s say around 17 years of age or younger, what soundtracks to you consider memorable? Please let me know at the e-mail address below, and I’ll post the good responses during a future column. I’m really curious to see some responses- and I’m sure that other readers of the Conscience would too.

And with that, it’s time to just relax with some good punk rock. Bad Religion, to be exact. Why, you might ask? If nothing else, probably because the Sex Pistols and the Ramones were just a little before my time!

Playing the game, and not skipping a beat. That’s the Gamer’s Conscience.

That’ll do it for this edition of the Conscience. Stick around for the rest of the week here at 411 Games, as we bring you the conclusion of our kick-ass Dreamcast feature (with a few words on a certain ‘amphibious’ title from myself) as well as the great news and reviews you’ve come to expect. And while I can’t send you a penny for your thoughts, feedback is still appreciated.

So until the next time!