Videogame soundtracks continue to rise in quality and prominence, with many now available digitally or physically to appreciate as stand-alone works. *Press A* is an article series on A Closer Listen celebrating the finest the medium has to offer, past to present.
[This is part 2 of “The Music of the Sonic and Mario Rivalry”. You can find part 1 over here.]
Receding Experimentalism: CD-Quality Sound
In 1996 came the first forays into “3D” by both franchises, with Sonic 3D Blast on Sega’s side and Super Mario 64 on Nintendo’s. Sega was quite ambitious with Sonic 3D, releasing it on both its new console, the Saturn, as well as on its predecessor, the Genesis. This meant a certain technological divide, meaning not one but two soundtracks were created (an interesting rarity in the videogame world). Part of the Japanese team of Sonic 3 was brought back for the Genesis version of Sonic 3D, while the Saturn one was entrusted to British composer Richard Jacques. This entails yet another comparative layer for our purposes, so I will try to be brief. The Genesis OST is groovy and thick with basslines, a bit like in Sonic 3, although the beat complexity is higher (even when the technology was the same as in 3). Overall, however, it is much slower, much less experimental and eclectic, opting to pull back from Sonic 3’s wackier elements. Its adventurousness is reduced to a few fun bits like the techno in “Gene Gadget Zone” and “Panic Puppet Zone”. Instead, the Genesis Sonic 3D relies much more on rock. This emphasis on riffs and rock rhythms anticipates the music that would come to predominate in the forthcoming Sonic games for at least a full decade. Jun Senoue – the only member of the OST team to carry over from Sonic 3 and 3D all the way to Sonic Adventure (1999) – had his day with full instrumentation with the latter (just as Kondo did in Mario 64). In Adventure, Senoue utilized electronic beats and wailing dad-rock guitar riffs to fully develop the rock line that had begun with Sonic 2. All those leftfield experiments with grooves, hip hop and Latin rhythms gave way to a much more straightforward electro-rock combination, appealing even more emphatically to the pop-rejecting kids and teenagers of the late 90s and early 2000s.
To me, it was Richard Jacques’ OST that pushed the potential of Sonic 3’s acid jazz mixture to its fullest extent. In comparison to Jacques’ work, the Genesis OST sounds lukewarm, almost slow. If we allow for some revisionist historical foreshadowing, the direction taken in Sonic Adventure retrospectively reveals the prominence of the rock spirit behind the Genesis Sonic 3D. The Saturn emulated brass groups effectively and allowed for many different types of electronic sounds than what was possible on the Genesis. In other words, while the Japanese team could do only so much with Genesis Sonic 3D (more complex beats, a few new sounds), Jacques was even able to throw a piano into his mix. Of course, just because the Saturn’s tech was conceivably “better”, the music doesn’t automatically follow suit. But the Genesis Sonic 3D made very few strides towards something new, while the Saturn version took advantage of newer tech to push one of the main aspects of past Sonic music even further.
Jacques’ “Green Grove Zone Act 1”, the game’s very first level, is an upbeat, fast, kitschy overload (and I don’t mean that pejoratively) of catchy pop melodies, rescuing Nakamura’s style and in many ways fulfilling the eclectic potential of Sonic 3 by layering the pop over a samba rhythm and jazz-like piano “improv” segments. In contrast to the somewhat deflating Genesis Sonic 3D, there’s but a hint of rock in these tracks, which like in Sonic 3 adds a certain amount of tension. “Green Grove Zone Act 2” plays even more thickly with the brass and the disco tones, translating the pop melody of Act 1 into a joyous jazzy fanfare of the kind that makes serious music lovers blush. Personally, I love it.
This is, in any case, the essence of Jacques’ Sonic 3D: all the potential of acid jazz’s own eclecticism poured not towards ‘good’ and ‘proficient’ music, but gloriously onwards to kitsch. “Rusty Ruin Zone Act 1” perilously borders on New Age, which makes it equally alluring and ridiculous, especially when the voice chorus samples kick in alongside the feel-good melody. “Act 2” nevertheless introduces a rock rhythm and sparse jazz piano interventions, highlighting something that Kondo does with all his OSTs but that the Sonic games had so far avoided: a thematic guide. The “Title Screen” theme, of which the main melody in “Green Grove Zone” is a variation, appears in every track, giving the OST a sense of unity dependent not on the grand eclecticism of its style (Sonic 3) or the pop opposition to Mario’s straightness (Sonic 1 and 2), but on the recurrence and reaffirmation of the hero’s place in the world (pretty much all Marios). The theme finds its way through the most incoherent, yet incredibly fun, tracks of the Saturn Sonic 3D, like in “Gene Gadget Zone”, which will be a throwback to the house music of the 90s for anyone who cares to listen. The main theme becomes a sweet piano melody on top of the (so, so 90s) electro beats, in a style not unlike that of acid jazz greats, mixing stuff like house and jazz into a relatively generic – yet powerful – combination.
Thus, Jacques’ Sonic 3D grabs onto a different angle of 90s youth music, which is to say both EDM and the perhaps more subterranean acid jazz developing at the time; where EDM is pure youth culture, acid jazz is like a weird middle point between old and new. As the cherry on top, Jacques introduced an element new to all these soundtracks: a song. Sonic Adventure would begin, three years later, with a rock song, but Sonic 3D ended the game with a jazz theme of the sort you’d get in a “Nirvana Jazz Covers” compilation sold by baby-boomer record stores all over – a slap in the face to all teenagers whose identities relied on rock.
Super Mario 64 was Kondo’s last mainline Mario OST of the 1990s. Like Jacques’ Sonic 3D, it used new technologies to refine and redefine all those familiar sounds from past Mario soundtracks. But unlike Sonic’s variety of artists pulling in various directions at once, Kondo’s singular vision gives Mario 64 an easy sense of coherence that relies on the stability of the past as much as on reimagining it. Mario 64 starts with the All Stars version of the main theme (which it bears to remember was once the music meant for levels, not characters). Its friendly marimbas have replaced the crunch of electronics, updating it fully into a polyphony in which a complementary bassline and fast electro beat drive the melody forward (its pauses highlighting the new percussion at work). It is a poppier, jazzier, more modern version of the theme – a new ‘edge’ that reflects all over the rest of the soundtrack, as if responding to all that disruptive modernity brought about by Sonic.
The new tech, however, would be pulled towards both sides – the modern and the classic – at once, with its emulation of strings being a strong vehicle for the renovation of many classical themes – primarily those taking place in the game’s castle, which is to say the locus of the franchise’s Romance. The other pull, towards the modern, draws Mario 64 into a complex eclecticism that no longer emphasizes the melody as much, reveling in the capacity to mix even more styles and folk musics, like in the raga-like sound and structure of “Lethal Lava Land”. Like Sonic 3D, this OST represents a culmination of the exploration undertaken in past games. “Snow Mountain” is basically an accordion polka, an example of bringing all those 8-bit folk endeavors into a new, fully instrumented environment. All of this is not to say that there are no longer any interesting features to an OST such as this; on the contrary: “Haunted House”, perhaps the most interesting track in the whole set, pushes Kondo’s past B-movie-style “Castle” compositions (Bros. and World) to a most modernist type of sound. Its oppressive ambience/drone – equally indebted to horror movies – as well as its sparse percussion, give way to none other than a gamelan sequence, using this kind of folk to reinforce a sense of eeriness. This track is well ahead of the rest of the OST in terms of experimentation. The themes, regardless, keep in line with the discursive construct already configured by past games: “Koopa’s Theme” is a sinister rock piece, while the powered-up theme of Mario is “Starman” at its best and most beautiful, its samba energy toned down by being played on soothing, not energizing, piano and strings.
Conclusion: One More Choice Between Classical and Modern
The Sonic vs. Mario theme is obviously constructed by market competition, being about consumer loyalty rather than opposing principles. While it is spurious on a political/philosophical level, the fact is that Sega did try to target its consoles towards teens instead of children beginning with the Mortal Kombat controversy of 1992-1993, whereby the Genesis version showed all the gore and blood that Super Nintendo’s did not.
Sonic follows this pattern. What’s interesting is not the false opposition between these two characters, but the ways in which it was reflected in the franchises’ soundtracks along the 1990s. The first stone was, of course, thrown by Sega, and thus the Sonic OSTs had a higher stake at distinction than the Mario ones, as shown particularly by Nakamura’s apparent, subtle subversions of Kondo in Sonic 2. Still, new technologies and shifting markets also seemingly pushed Kondo to do things a bit differently for Mario 64, as like his beloved prog-rock bands, he attempted to bring about a conjunction of the classical and modern in the ultimate favor of the classical.
Sonic Adventure’s electro-rock was the final acceptance of Sonic as a (relatively angsty) teenage figure. Super Mario Sunshine (2002)’s mostly regressive OST (entirely a retread of past terrain, at a much slower pace, with a few Sonic-like deviations into speedy electronics) left Mario in the space he’s arguably always occupied: an uneasy one between childhood and adult life that was not teenage but something else – something even closer to limbo, even though he’s always been aimed at children.
Kondo’s music reinforces a traditional approach to the myth of the hero, even if the means are ultra-modern. The various Sonic OSTs do the opposite, growing from newer music and disruptions of folk and tradition instead of from classical versions of them. The whole opposition is summarized, musically, by a character for teenagers and a character for kids; a Mario with traditional fantasy problems (and traditional gender roles) and a Sonic with modern problems (no princesses in sight to rescue; rescuing animals from abuse). While Kondo’s music is much more sophisticated than all of the Sonic OSTs bar perhaps Sonic 3, it remains tied to a classical understanding of musical development. The Sonic OSTs wanted, instead, to be on the pulse of the new. Since they were made by different composers, the overall style is far from unitary even when a few basic elements can be drawn out, like the focus on pop and EDM as against Kondo’s appropriations of folk. In Kondo’s hands, a Latin rhythm reinforces the ‘folk’ of its basic elements, whereas the same rhythm in the hands of the Sonic OST composers is a vehicle for a modern sensibility. (David Murrieta)
SMB: “Overworld”, “Underworld”, “Starman”, “End Credits”.
SMB 2: “Overworld”, “Starman”, “Credits”
SMB 3: “World Map 1”, “World Map 3”, “Warp Whistle” (a riff on a Zelda tune), “Hammer Bros Battle”, “King”, “Koopa Kid Battle”, “Bowser Battle”
SMW: “Overworld”, “Donut Plains/Chocolate island”, “Star Road” (one of my favorites from this ST), “Bonus Level”, “Ending”
SM64: “Dire Dire Docks”, “Lethal Lava Land”, “Snow Mountain”, “Haunted House”, “Cave Dungeon”, “Piranha Plant’s Lullaby”, “Powerful Mario”, “Metallic Mario”, “Koopa’s Road”, “Ultimate Koopa”.
Sonic 1: “Green Hill Zone”, “Spring Yard Zone”, “Labyrinth Zone”, “Star Light Zone”, “Scrap Brain Zone”, “Special Stage”, “Boss”.
Sonic 2: “Chemical Plant Zone”, “Aquatic Ruin Zone”, “Hill Top Zone”, “Mystic Cave Zone”, “Metropolis Zone”, “Emerald Hill (2 player)”, “Casino Night (2 player)”, “Mystic Cave (2 player)”.
Sonic 3: “Angel Island” (both acts), “Hydrocity Act 1”, “Marble Garden Act 1”, “Carnival Night Act 2”, “Mushroom Hill Act 1”, “Lava Reef” (both acts), “Death Egg Act 1”, “Chrome Gadget”, “Endless Mine”
Genesis Sonic 3D: “Green Grove Zone Act 2”, “Rusty Ruin Zone Act 1”, “Gene Gadget Zone” (both acts), “Panic Puppet Zone Act 1”.
Saturn Sonic 3D: “Green Grove Zone” (both acts), “Spring Stadium Zone Act 1”, “Volcano Valley Zone Act 2”, “Diamond Dust Zone” (both acts), “Special Stage”.
*Many thanks to Chris Redfearn-Murray for his editorial work on this article, and without whom it would have probably been even more of a slog to read.