The video game cover genre that has erupted in the last few years is a really strange phenomenon. It very quickly changed from a novelty mostly enjoyed by nerds (like myself) and hipster douchebags that just go to yell “YEAHHH! I IRONICALLY REMEMBER SUPER ZELDA BROTHERS!” (hipsters can be killed only by fire and destruction of the head, should you ever want to kill one; believe me, you will) into a legitimate genre of arranged music, performed by incredibly talented musicians and respected even by those outside of the gaming community. There are three things that I think contributed to this: nostalgia, artistry, and musicianship. Nostalgia, of course, is going to be core to attracting new listeners to a band performing songs from the past, just like with, say, an 80s cover band, but it’s really the artistry and musicianship involved that have really pushed the genre over the top. There are so many phenomenally talented musicians, spanning many, many different instruments, and many of them are also very skilled at arrangement. They take the genre far beyond the simple novelty that it could be and bring it into the realm of serious music. Unfortunately, some bands don’t understand this, and because of this, we’re left with some groups that are jokes at best, and pretentious horseshit at worst. Here’s some reviews of some of my best loved – and most hated – groups.
The Black Mages
Although they’re renowned for many reasons, the Black Mages are probably best known for actually having Final Fantasy series composer Nobuo Uematsu in the band. He rocks the hell out of pianos, organs, and keyboards along with Kenichiro Fukui (an awesome composer in his own right, having worked on Sunset Riders, Lethal Enforcers, and the tragically underrated Einhänder, as well as arranging the soundtrack for the DS version of Final Fantasy IV with Junya Nakano), backed by Tsuyoshi Sekito (who did the soundtracks for Brave Fencer Musashi and The Last Remnant) and Michio Okamiya (Square publicity) on guitar, Keiji Kawamori (who arranged Final Fantasy III DS with Tsuyoshi Sekito) on bass, and Arata Hanyuda (also from Square Publicity) on drums. They sound like if Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer had an instrumental love child, which I suppose is appropriate since Uematsu has mentioned both bands as a huge influence. Actually, now that I think about it, pretty much every video game composer has mentioned ELP as an influence at some point. They’re one of those bands like Dream Theater who you can rock out to like crazy but still feel smart because of the classical influences. You can thoughtfully headbang, possibly while wearing a monocle and smoking a pipe.
Matoya’s Cave (The Black Mages II: The Skies Above)
I was so happy that someone did a cover of my favorite song from the original Final Fantasy that I wouldn’t have cared what it sounded like, but the fact that it’s arguably the most beautifully arranged track the band has ever done really puts it over the top. I admit I’m a sucker for classical guitar arrangements of video game songs, but this one is probably the best I’ve ever heard. Plus the extended rock out section in the middle is really fun to watch live (on their DVD anyway, I’m not cool enough to have seen them in person).
Opening ~ Bombing Mission (The Black Mages III: Darkness and Starlight)
Ok, this probably should have went to the epic and amazing version of the ENTIRE OPERA (!) from Final Fantasy III/VI, but as good as that track is, I really enjoy listening to this one more. This is probably because of nostalgia, but regardless of the reason, I love this song. It evokes really powerful memories of the Christmas I got FF7, and even though I didn’t have a memory card yet, I sat and played the shit out of it. I remember it’s the first time I ever saw swearing in a game, mostly because my parents saw it. Fortunately, my parents didn’t really mind, because they knew I was mature enough to handle it, and I credit my appreciation for intellectual pursuits (like this dick joke-filled website) to that lax parenting. Hell, my dad took me to see Starship Troopers when I was 9, which I think led to my lifelong appreciation of popcorn sci-fi and also tits. Anyway, yeah, if you’ve heard the original track (which you have if you’ve played the game, since it’s the first track you hear), there’s really not a whole lot to say about this cover, other than that it’s completely awesome. I don’t know what else you could want.
Dancing Mad (The Black Mages)
Dancing Mad, the theme song for the greatest video game villain of all time, is one of the most epic songs I’ve ever heard a band do. Any band, not just a video game band. It’s such a tremendous, powerful song, and it ranges from desperate to furious to soaring in such a way that evokes all the images of that final boss fight better than the original track did. The best part of the song, and the reason the arrangement is so much better than the original, is because the end of the track features the greatest solo of all time. Period. Listen to the whole track, and when get to that solo at the end, just try not to scream “FUUUUUUUUUCK YEEEEEESSSSSSSS” along with the guitar. I don’t want to have to be the one to say so, but if you don’t, the fact is you are a giraffe rapist.
The OneUps are pretty much the opposite of the Black Mages in every way except talent. They’re a little harder to define, because they don’t really stick to one genre, but are generally a little softer and more laid-back and groovy. A lot of their work hovers around light jazz, but never stays pinned down for too long. It’s really refreshing, since so many bands stay around the “here are some Nintendo songs exactly as they sounded originally, but we play them with really crunchy guitars, and we laugh about it too so you can’t laugh at us” mold that the Minibosses created (and perfected, and became the only band capable of doing without being obnoxious or insulting to gamers). They’re really closer to a collective than anything else (although I hate using that term since every untalented, pretentious-ass indie fuck likes to use that term for their shitty bands just because they occasionally have guest musicians), and their lineup changes pretty often. However, one of the constant members who has been with the band since the beginning is famous OCRemix member Mustin. He’s probably my favorite individual arranger in the video game fan community, and he has a huge catalog of work outside of the OneUps (if you can hunt it out, get The Mustin Collection; it’s fantastic). Another constant member is Dale North, who you may know as the news editor of Destructoid. His work is pretty good as well, especially his version of Pollyanna from Bound Together, the other other best song on the album, after the OneUps track and Ailsean’s version of the drugstore theme (as detailed below).
Summers (Bound Together)
Bound Together is probably my favorite video game tribute album of all time. I admit that part of the reason for that is because Earthbound is probably my favorite video game of all time, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Bound Together was the first album that showed me there’s a lot more to the fan-made game music tribute scene than bland, generic techno and abrasive, shitty hardcore (the only kind of hardcore). Bound Together spans all kinds of different genres, from jazz to rock to techno to ambient to new age. It’s a perfect tribute; it’s eclectic, strange, humorous, mindful, and touching, just like the game it was inspired by. The OneUps version of the town theme of Summers is maybe my favorite track (although Ailsean’s excellently jazzy guitar rendition of the drugstore theme, The Drugstore Sells Sparks!, is a strong contender). The instrumentation is great, and it really showcases the excellent sax work that makes so many OneUps tunes so awesome. It sounds exactly like what the original track was supposed to sound like; groovy, laid-back, relaxing-in-the-sun beach music.
Green Hill Zone (The OneUps Volume 2)
This track, the first world theme from Sonic the Hedgehog, is probably my favorite track on any Sega system, and the OneUps tear it up. As I said before, the sax work is a big part of what makes their music so good, and this song really shows it off. The guitar work is particularly great, too. It also features a great little electric piano solo. The electric piano is probably my favorite instrument (except possibly the fretless bass), so this is a big plus for me. It’s almost evocative of the 70s work of Bob James, most famous for Angela, the theme song from Taxi, and that may be why I like it so much.
Aquatic Ambiance (The OneUps Volume 1)
This is pretty much the epitome of what a video game cover should be. It pays tribute to the original track while expanding on it creatively, using magnificent instrumentation and arrangement to not only capture the essence of the original track and the atmosphere of the game but to have an atmosphere all its own, making a track that may be better than the original.
Unfortunately, there are bands that aren’t quite this good. There are also bands that completely fucking suck. Here’s are examples of both:
EDITED: This generated a ton of controversy, partly because of a few factual errors in the original article. I’ve fixed this up, and tried to make my arguments a little clearer. I’m not used to having to be fair, mostly since I’m used to being the only one really reading my articles. And yes, that was a joke.
I don’t think the Protomen are a good band. Despite being educated at one of the best schools in the country for music, their production sounds amateurish at times (and not in a good way), and I don’t really care for their music. but they have their moments of rock. It’s not really so much that the Protomen are a bad band, though, so much as it is that, despite their marketing, they aren’t a video game band in any way, shape, or form. “Now, wait a minute,” you say, “that’s not fair, just because they don’t play songs from video games doesn’t mean they aren’t a video game band! They play music based on video games!” (Jesus you talk a lot. This is my fucking article, and anyway, how is that even possible?) To this I say, in what way? Yeah, they used Dr. Wily, Mega Man, Proto Man, Proto Man’s hat, and the concept of robots. That’s like saying Lost is based on John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government because it has a character named John Locke in it. Most of the acclaim for the Protomen revolves around their narrative, and don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad story. It’s just that it’s not fucking Mega Man’s story, which means they aren’t a fucking Mega Man band. “Well, at least they’re doing something original,” you bray. Well, that’s true, except for the fact that it isn’t. You see, there’s a band called The Megas which has been around since 2004. They’re more talented musicians, and producers, and they play songs that are actually from Mega Man. They are a video game band. Moreover, their lyrics follow a storyline. A storyline about Dr. Wily. A storyline about Dr. Wily using his robots to take over the world. A storyline that is a whole fucking lot like the Protomen’s, only related to Mega Man. Now, I’m not saying that the Protomen ripped them off, obviously they didn’t. I’m just saying that this isn’t something that has never been done. Furthermore, how original is the idea of a robot dystopia? Are you saying you’ve never heard of a story about a robot dystopia? “Ok, maybe it’s not original, but they have a great stage show!” Yeah, maybe when they give a shit, they do. Unfortunately, when I saw them in concert, they really didn’t seem to give a shit. They apparently got to the show late, and then took a fucking hour and a half to set their equipment up. They had a few keyboards, a guitar, a bass, a drum kit, and a couple of amps. Most of the sound was already run, because the venue had a sound system. This should have taken 20 fucking minutes, or even less, to set up, judging by the equipment they used (which, yes, I am familiar with). The worst part is that after all this work, they played one song which didn’t work right. Then, after about 10 more minutes of messing with their equipment, when the supposedly “legendary” stage show started, they hit a piece of metal with a hammer. I didn’t know the in-depth story or anything, but I’m a sucker for theatrics. After that, though, it was about 30 minutes of playing normally, albeit in hats and makeup, at a volume sufficient to make the poorly mixed sound irrelevant. Then, they played an admittedly awesome version of Total Eclipse of the Heart, and packed up and left town. That was it. Honestly, at first I only went to see them because my friend’s band Midnight Radio was there (they rocked the house), but by the day of the show, I had started to get excited about seeing the Protomen. But they really came off like a bunch of cocky assholes that think they’re bigger than they are, and like they could really give a shit less about people who are willing to support them unless they can personally benefit from them. I felt really let down. This is really my biggest problem with the band: their attitude. I’ll admit that from a songwriting standpoint, yeah, they generally know what they’re doing, better than some bands, anyway. They have a couple of tightly written songs. I’ve listened to both their albums about 10 times through, if only because I was trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. But I don’t care how talented a group is if they treat a show like it doesn’t matter just because there aren’t enough people there, and I become actively pissed when they try to act like “video game band” is a pejorative. Most of their fanbase is made of video game fans, they play a lot of video game conventions, and they’re supposedly “inspired” by video games. So why would they be embarrassed of being called a video game band? Like I’ve said before, there’s nothing wrong with playing video game music or being associated with the culture, and it’s insulting to act like you’re better than your fans. So, to reiterate, they’ve made some decent albums. I just can’t say anything positive about them outside of that, except that maybe that the research for this article led me to discover and fall in love with The Megas. <3 you guys.
HORSE the Band
HORSE the Band is possibly the worst band, of any kind, that I’ve ever heard. They are a fucking joke. That’s all I can say about them.
My wife, though, has this to say: “More like HORSESHIT!”
Well, ok, any of you who know me know I can’t shut up about things I hate until I’ve exhausted every possible negative point. Listen to this musical abortion. Like most hardcore, it’s the musical equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, a lot of distracting musical explosions with no real talent or direction behind it. Playing it in the midst of a battle would constitute a war crime. Furthermore, they refer to their sound as “Nintendo-core,” a name as obnoxious as it is laughably inaccurate. Owning a synthesizer does not make you a fucking video game band. I guess if that’s the only way you can promote your band, though, more power to you! Unless your band causes Ear AIDS, like HORSE the Band. REAL TALK.
I listen to a LOT of video game music. I have a huge collection of soundtracks, many of which I’ve had to convert to MP3 myself, and probably about 2/3, maybe even 3/4, of my iPod is filled with video game music. There are a lot of different reasons for this. I’ve mentioned before that nostalgia is a huge part of my personality, and as a result, listening to the music from games I always used to play brings me back to a happier time in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty happy right now, it’s just that my childhood fucking ruled. I always paid very close attention to the music in games. As I got older, I translated my love of this music into a fascination with understanding how to convey what I like about music as a whole to others. Despite this, I still can’t quite explain exactly what elements of the types of music I like make me like them. I can point to examples that demonstrate everything I like about game music, and music in general for that matter, but I can’t quite describe them. Partially as an attempt to explain that, and partially as an attempt to fill my article quota for today (I know, I’m cynical), I’m going to try to analyze my three favorite composers (in no particular order), who all happen to be video game composers: Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi. This probably won’t be particularly funny, because I’m very bad at making jokes about my idols, but I hope at the very least it will be interesting. With that, let’s start with the most logical beginning:
Everybody knows Koji Kondo. Everybody. Even if they don’t know him by name. As the composer for the Super Mario Bros. series, Koji Kondo has composed some of the greatest and most memorable music of all time. Nobody who has ever heard the Super Mario Bros. theme forgets it. Hell, Nobuo Uematsu once said that it deserves to be the Japanese national anthem. Composing that one song is basis enough to be called a legendary composer. And yet, the Mario series is only a small part of his legacy. He’s composed many, many other songs for which he would deserve the title of legend.
For example, the main theme from The Legend of Zelda. This is perhaps the most epic song ever made. In just a few notes, you know how big the adventure is. You just know, no matter which version you’re playing, no matter how complex or simple the game. When you hear that music, your imagination takes over, and you’re no longer manipulating a small, blocky set of pixels poking a red bug with a triangle. You’re traversing the Hyrulian landscape, deftly avoiding the projectiles of an Octorok before plunging your sword into its back. I can’t name a single piece of music I’ve ever heard that can create such powerful, imaginative images. When Zelda games started looking better, I loved it, but I never got the feeling that I was seeing something I had never seen before, because that one, short, simple piece of music set the stage for my imagination to see everything Shigeru Miyamoto wanted me to see. The enhanced graphics had nothing new to offer me; I had seen the world they wanted to show me. This is the exact purpose a composer should fill, and in my opinion, very, very few people have filled it as well as Koji Kondo.
This is probably the only name on this list that a lot of my readers won’t immediately recognize. It’s a shame, too, because every gamer knows his music. Yoshihiro Sakaguchi is the composer of the first two and last two Mega Man games, as well as Street Fighter I and II. He also composed the soundtrack for Capcom’s NES game Ducktales, which, while not quite as glamorous as Street Fighter or Mega Man, has one of the greatest soundtracks of all time.
The music for the Moon level of Ducktales absolutely floors me. Any gamer of a certain age, whether they played this game or not, will instantly be transported back to the NES era when they hear this song. That’s because, more than any other video game composer I’ve ever heard, Sakaguchi really knew how program music for the NES. The other two composers on this list did great work in spite of their limitations; he succeeded because of them. The limited sound technology the NES had is usually considered a primitive hindrance, but to Sakaguchi it was a boon. He especially took full advantage of how great the swells and bends the synthesizers could make sounded. This is clearly demonstrated in most of his music from Mega Man, but is at its best in the track from Ducktales. This song also presents an example of the problem I mentioned in the intro. I can explain how much I love this song, but I can’t quite explain what it is about it I love so much. It’s at once heroic, spacey, and nostalgic (and not just because I grew up with it, because I actually only owned the sequel growing up). The main part of the song has the sound of the ending song of an NES game, that kind of triumphant but backward-looking sound. This is tied for my favorite track for the NES with another Sakaguchi composition, the Elec Man theme from the first Mega Man (more on that tomorrow).
When I first started playing games in 1990, my favorite games music-wise were the first Mega Man, the Mario and Zelda games (obviously), and Blaster Master (I know that sounds weird, but the music from that game was incredible). Later on, I got into other, more complex stuff, especially Square’s RPG music. Square’s name is virtually synonymous with video game music, and for good reason. This brings us to my first favorite composer: Nobuo Uematsu. Uematsu is, speaking objectively, probably the finest digital composer of all time, and has gotten praise from all over the damn place, including an article in Time Magazine (who, despite obviously respecting his music, still treat him with the “DERP DERP DERP COMPUTAR GAAAAAMES! KIDS LOVE THEM! BOY GAMES HAVE COME A LONG WAY SINCE PAC-MAN SPACE INVADER! ALSO REMEMBER PONG?” novelty attitude they always treat anything related to games with) praising him as one of the top 100 innovators in music. It’s easy to see why. Nobuo is proficient in pretty much every conceivable kind of music, from opera to pop to metal to techno to choral to classical to fucking ragtime. He’s written a song in just about every style I can think of, in many cases several, and I can hum just about anyone of them from memory. He’s one of just a handful of composers who have written pieces that are not only good music but that can stand up to being looped infinitely. His music is incredibly mood-setting and never gets repetitive. Much of his music also exudes a strong element of mono no aware, a sense of awareness to the impermanence of all things and a feeling of bittersweet sadness at their passing, something like the feeling of coming to terms with losing a loved one. While Aeris’s Theme from Final Fantasy VII is the most often cited example, there are several tracks from Final Fantasy VI that capture the same feeling, perhaps even better.
To set the stage: one of the (many) brilliant things about Final Fantasy VI is the way the entire game is presented much in the way of an opera. I’ve never heard anyone else mention this, and I’m not sure why. There are several similarities between the presentation of an operatic story and the presentation of this game. There’s a large of archetypal characters (the brave protector, the tragic hero, the troubled loner, the brave knight) that show up in several operas, and the overall story and arcs are very similar as well. But in particular, the way the music is used is very similar to opera. Important characters and places have their own themes, Wagnerian leitmotifs that make it easy to tell what character is important in a scene or setting. These themes are often spun into different variations. These are the tracks I was speaking of before, which demonstrate such a palpable feeling of bittersweet sadness. Songs like Forever Rachel (a variation on Locke’s theme), Epitaph (Setzer’s theme) and Coin Song (Figaro/Edgar and Sabin’s theme) do a remarkable job of conveying the particular emotions expressed by those characters in the respective scenes they’re used in. That’s what is so striking about his work; it can be at times grandiose, funny, touching, and exciting, but no matter what, it always perfectly captures the mood of the scene.
Many people still consider video game music to be a novelty, and not just the people you would think. I know plenty of people that clearly enjoy the music but don’t listen to it because it’s “not real music,” something to be avoided because it doesn’t sound the same as what they usually listen to. For a while I thought the same thing, but once I really started listening to the music, the differentiation between game music and “real” music disappeared. I could no longer tell the difference. There was just music. Now, I pick my music to listen to by how much I enjoy it, and one only needs to look at my last.fm profile to see what kind of music really speaks to me.