HERO Week Continues (and ends, really) with music!

Now, if you’ll recall the last post’s heroic exploits and explanations, you’ll remember that we talked about how video game heroes, with a few notable exceptions, are just a little more hero-y than the protagonists of most other storytelling genres (I realize “heroic” is actually a REAL word, but “hero-y” just sounded better in my head. Critics, I swear). We have lots of strong, silent types. People who get the job done. People who, let’s face it, just DON’T die, no matter how much they really ought to. The world of video gaming is a bright and magical place, full of wonder and people with ridiculous amounts of survivability and tenacity. That’s the first time I’ve ever used “tenacity” or any of its conjugations in a way that didn’t refer to Jack Black. And, coincidentally, that makes the perfect transition into the suitably epic topic for today’s post: the music of heroes.

Some background: if you were one of the many people who bought the new Zelda game, then you probably got this handy-dandy 25th anniversary CD. You might have hung it up in a hippie-style mobile, or used it to chip ice off of your windshield. Or maybe, you actually listened to it and your mind was blown utterly and completely by its righteously epic musical awesomeness. I’m not sure how much more superlative I can get, this thing just flippin’ ROCKS. It’s 8 tracks of symphonic arrangements of Zelda tunes and medleys from different games. And as I played it at an unreasonably loud volume while driving through the ghetto, it struck me: the music of video games is cool, but the music of video game HEROES is where it’s at.

Now, telling you what I mean by that is tougher than it sounds. Technically, if your game is focused around a hero, and you’re playing as him or her for the entire game, couldn’t ALL music be considered that hero’s music? Well, no. There is music for battles, music for certain areas or moods, music for events or items… There’s a lot of music that our hero encounters simply because of his or her presence in the area where it’s occurring (if you’ll suspend your disbelief momentarily). So, then, what’s “hero” music? This:

Click the link or be forever sad you didn’t.

So, that first part you heard, if you’ve never played Zelda, is LINK’S theme. You can’t really call it anything else, except perhaps “the main theme,” and that’s lame. Whenever Link does something unbearably heroic, this is what’s playing behind him. It’s not quite major, it’s not quite minor. It’s got a definite sense of purpose, and is rhythmically driving. There’s a feeling of determination to succeed, and that eventually success will be won. THAT’S hero music. That’s what defines these heroic video game characters. Those elements are what create good hero music, and every composer (thank the gods that be for Koji Kondo.) must find the right balance between them. For instance, if we look at the soundtrack for Mass Effect (or the preview, more specifically), we see that the music is absolutely heroic, but puts more weight into the STRUGGLE, and less in its inevitable success.

Now, certainly, one or two examples don’t give me much credibility. How about these? A couple more of my favorite heroes.

The lovable, wily Zidane, from Final Fantasy 9

Megaman X, from… Megaman X. He’s a robot.

The femme fatale, Samus Aran, from the Metroid Series.

So, if you managed to listen to all three, you’ll notice quite a few things. First, in Zidane’s theme: lighthearted, driving rhythm. Essentially a happy guy. If you played the game, he’s absolutely a happy-go-lucky, take things as they come kind of character, living in the moment and enjoying life. Nobuo Uematsu manages to put some of those awesome heroic elements into this optimistic music. Good stuff, and you really feel like you’re on an ADVENTURE, not some sort of suicide quest to take the ring to Mount Doom, or something.

For the Samus theme (perhaps my favorite of the three), it’s incredibly heroic-sounding. Now, of course, in the old 8-bit soundtrack, you didn’t have a digitally mastered full orchestra playing out of your Gameboy. But it didn’t matter. The first theme you hear is Samus’ heroic theme, and you spend almost the entire game without hearing it. I remember vividly the first time I encountered it, playing Super Metroid (many, many years ago). You were fighting the last boss, Mother Brain… and she starts kicking the crap out of you. Just as you’re about to die, your metroid friend, which you had saved from extinction, sacrifices itself to sap Mother Brain’s power and give it to you. And as you get up from the ground, fully rejuvenated, superpowered and pissed off, that music starts playing. For a video game, it was a pretty powerful experience, and you realize that once that music starts playing, you’re going to WIN. That’s what it does! (See? I told you so!)

Megaman is probably the weakest example, because he doesn’t really have a “theme” that keeps coming back. There’s a lot of heroic, driving music that is associated with him, but most of the composers for the megaman games have taken a decidedly techno/electronic route to writing the music for these games. However, each game has its own heroic themes and melodies, like the one above. If you listen to a lot of the music, though, you’ll notice that there really isn’t a sense of optimism or ensured victory in them. If you play a lot of the games, you’ll notice the same thing, so… score one for the video game music industry! Megaman DIES a lot. The bosses are hard, the levels are hard. There are spikes. They tend to kill you. How poor Megaman made it through 8 games and a bunch of spinoffs, I will never know. Also, the plot of the series isn’t exactly peachy, either. It’s a huge struggle for survival, and there are a lot of casualties. So, while the music is “heroic,” per se, it’s not the stereotypical kind. Good composers can work within the heroic category and still produce the effect they’re looking for.

Now, that’s all well and good. But… what if, say, we took a whole TON of heroes, from every possible game ever, and put them on a team? And, let’s say, they were all Nintendo characters, and they were fighting against some evil dude with enormous butterfly wings? Welcome to Super Smash Bros: Brawl, a game where a ridiculous amount of old Nintendo superheroes face off against the evil, metrosexual Tabuu. Now, of course, if there’s THIS many heroes crammed into one (kind of dubious) plotline, the music must be so completely uber-heroic, it might just blow your mind, right?

Yep.

This thing has more outdated heroes than “The Expendables.”

Good lord, I love that music. And, even more fitting, the text the choir is singing in Latin has something to do with heroes. Or something. You have to beat the game to get the translation, and as dedicated as I am to my blog, it is a REALLY long campaign to do by yourself. It’s also probably online… but what the heck, if you’re really that interested, it’s only a Google search away.

Last and certainly not least, we have the comparison between movie and operatic heroes (really, the only other heroes that come with their own soundtrack), and it holds up, just like it did with the heroes themselves. If we look at heroic themes from movies like Star Wars and Gladiator, we see a big difference between the overall feeling, if they’re a lot a like in composition. The excerpt from Star Wars comes at the end of Episode IV, when they’re celebrating and getting awards and stuff. It’s not particularly happy, and there’s a definite sense of “hey, some people have died winning this thing” when you listen to it. Gladiator’s soundtrack is very heavily based on the STRUGGLE the protagonist goes through, and there’s no hint that he will succeed in his endeavors. Big change, there! I won’t tell you if he dies, just in case you haven’t seen it. (SPOILER ALERT: He dies.)

And, of course, who can forget perhaps the greatest operatic hero of all time: Siegfried, from Wagner’s Ring Cycle (let’s not quibble about who’s the “greatest.” Siegfried is flippin’ badass, that’s all that counts.) Some of the most emotionally gut-wrenching music that Wagner ever wrote is present in Siegfried’s funeral march. (By the way, he dies too. Whoops. Spoiler alert.) Absolutely heroic, powerful music… but obviously very sad and infused with the ultimate hero’s death and failure. Not exactly a theme that you see a lot in video games: “Hey, main character! You just died… no, I don’t mean game over, you literally just died, and the story’s going on without you (*cough*Aeris*cough*). And that thing you’ve been trying to accomplish for the entire game? Yeah… I dunno how to tell you this, but it’s not gonna happen. Sorry!” Listen to the outcome of his untimely demise:

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this fun-filled, video game-themed week! It’s like Shark Week, except instead of getting hundreds of shows all about sharks, you get… well, two blog posts about video games. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel! You, my unbelievably awesome readers, have PROBABLY played video games at some point during this week. And those video games likely had heroes in them. So you’ve been celebrating HERO week all week long! Kudos to you for keeping the dream alive!

~Another Gamer

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About Isaac Smith

I write about music, technology, video games, and probably many other subjects that don't bear mentioning here. Either way, most of it's worth reading, and you may even enjoy yourself!

Posted on May 25, 2012, in Classic Games, Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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