Game music has the power to earworm its way into your heart long after you put the controller down. Each week in Game That Tune, we highlight a great tune from a great game (or a great tune from a just-okay game).
Battletoads, crass an experience it may be, was a shimmering example of brilliance in art direction for the NES, which was already showing its age by 1991 as shinier 16-bit consoles with flashier graphics and sound came into the mix. The Battletoads world felt fully realized and intricate, with a variety of terrain that would make J.R.R. Tolkien envious. Plus there were enormous enemies, lush animated character art, and blistering speeds that made Sonic The Hedgehog feel more like a domesticated kitten stretching after a nap. It’s as though the studio, Rare, either didn’t care about the restrictions of the NES cartridge or were mad geniuses about squeezing out every last precious byte of data that they could.
The true beauty of this soundtrack is its restraint. Surely the temptation was there to go with over-the-top freakout madness in the music for a game about anthropomorphized amphibians who launch warthogs into the stratosphere, but composer David Wise may have suspected that too much activity would only distract from the outlandishness—rather than enhancing it. Or perhaps there simply wasn’t enough room left on the cartridge for more than a few voices in the music. Whatever the case, we were left with brilliant compositions of sci-fi minimalist punk that sound like Gang Of Four meets HAL 9000.
The Volkmire Inferno stage, one of the famously challenging vehicle sequences, is all about fire, brimstone, and lightning-fast death traps. There’s too much going on, and the music acts accordingly. There are only three voices: the barely-brushed percussion, the persistent and unwavering bass, and the panicked staccato pulse lead. The rhythm section is upbeat jazz while the lead is syncopated spazz. Syncopation, the technique of playing on the off-beats, can sometimes simulate relaxation and ease, as is often the case in jazz. This is not the case in Volkmire Inferno, where the separation between the lead and the bass only emphasizes the urgency and distress. You’re already dodging fireballs, missiles, and nearly imperceptible laser beams. Couldn’t the musicians at least play at the same damn time? It’s freaking me out, man!
And then, of course, there’s the pause music:
Three sounds. Sixteen beats in 4/4 time (really just eight beats with one sound changed on the second loop). It’s one of the most unashamedly simplistic loops ever transcribed in eight bits. This is what accomplishment sounds like, and of course we’re only allowed to enjoy it when we need to take a breather from hacking at mutant ravens and robot rats. Ah, sweet release…