I was looking through my collection the other day and found some interesting stuff in the CD booklet of the Mega Man ZX soundtrack, ZX Tunes. I first started thinking about translating this kind of stuff a very long time ago, but it was far beyond reasonable effort to read, given my skill level at the time. Well, here we are almost a decade later, and I guess now is the time.
The booklet of ZX Tunes contains an introductory essay by Hidekuni Shida, a professional writer. As far as I can tell, he was not directly involved in the making of the game or its music; the essay reads like an opinion piece / ceremonial address, more than anything. That said, I thought there were some interesting ideas there.
Translation note: The author utilizes a motif based around the fact that the Japanese word 技術 (gijutsu) can mean both “technique” and “technology”; he actually uses those specific English words to highlight the distinction at times, so I’ve chosen to bold them for emphasis.
I’ve rendered the names of people in western style but kept some game titles in romaji rather than official translations, for Reasons. Just in case, the Family Computer (abbr. Famicom) was basically the earlier Japanese version of the NES, and Rockman is Mega Man’s original Japanese name. (Sorry, the translation overall might read a little bit roughly, but I hope you can bear with me.)
The booklet also contains comments by game staff members regarding the individual tracks and the visual design, which I’ll be covering in later posts. Hopefully, materials from ZXA Tunes and Gigamix will follow.
by Hidekuni Shida
Game music is a time machine. When a melody you’ve heard before gets played, the memories naturally overflow. When a famous piece of game music rings out, at that moment, you remember that game. In what areas, with which characters, did we perform which actions… Together with the pleasant rhythms, our experiences of games of the past are recreated vividly within our brains.
I’m quite sure that if you’re fans of game music, all of you have this experience. For example, Gradius, Castlevania, Ninja Warriors, Xevious – even Super Mario Brothers has this. As those electronic sounds ring out, they recreate the game inside our brains. The excitement you felt while playing the game, the thrills you felt at the time – they come back to life along with the music. Why are our emotions so affected by this, I wonder? Could it be that there’s magic in game music!?
Now then, if you want to know the riddles of game music, it’s a good idea to look back on the history of its method. You see, in the first place, game music is a thing that has been created and shaped by a history of technical aspects (technology) battling technical aspects (technique).
For example, the famous Family Computer could only play four sounds at a time (four voices). On top of that, we weren’t allowed to include a great amount of music; because there was a limit to the amount of memory (storage) usable for music, all we could do was repeat a single, short phrase over and over again.
Within these strict constraints, games’ sound staff members reproduced majestic orchestrations, cool rock tunes, and lively Latin music. If possible, I’d like for you to try putting famous pieces from Family Computer games into sheet music. The sound that should have been the bass turns into the lead harmony before you know it, and the notes that should have been the rhythm start singing out the melody. Three notes and one line of noise go around and around changing roles, to play out one piece of music. I’m constantly amazed at the masterful techniques of the sound staff. In addition, those melodies loop endlessly, folding back onto themselves. In this way, those famous songs naturally get printed into your brain.
The music of the Rockman series at the time was also born from those techniques. Rockman 2 in particular, which has so many classics, filled its memory with music up to the limit and had to slim down songs with compression after compression – and the Wily stage theme is a masterpiece worthy of going down in the history of music. Remembering it right now is already making me excited! Truly a miracle born from limits.
These constraints on game music, accompanying the rise of game consoles’ capabilities, have been lifted. Entering the era of the PlayStation 2, game consoles have stronger sound playback abilities. Now, those orchestrations and rock tunes and Latin pieces are played within the game with quality quite close to actual instruments. You could say that’s a good state for music to be in. But then, now that the mechanics – technology and technique – are no longer at war with each other, we may have lost an environment that has given birth to great music.
That said, the place where that music was born hasn’t been lost completely. Portable consoles – the Game Boy Advance, and the Nintendo DS. Those are the final places that still remain for the birth of classics.
Nowadays, they say that the portable game consoles have gotten more powerful, but from a technical standpoint, there are still limits, and so they remain fertile ground. For example, the Game Boy Advance supports 12 channels of simultaneous sounds, and the Nintendo DS supports 16 channels. From those 16, you have to subtract the ones you use for sound effects, and then once you start the rhythm tracks and chords and play the melody, they’re all filled in. In the end, the question is, in what way will you simplify the music?
That’s where the battlefield between technology and technique is found. Here too in the soundtrack of Rockman ZX, this game developed for the Nintendo DS, are masterworks born amidst that battle.
“Green Grass Gradation”, beginning with the excitement of the fanfare. Casually accelerating, “Cinq Ville -c’est notre espoir-“, with its aggressive keyboard. “Misty Rain,” crossing intense guitar with quiet piano. And finally, “Dream Weaver”, with its vibrant, fusion-esque melody. It’s a real collection with emphasis on beautiful melodies, an eclectic sound that transcends genres.
The real interesting thing is the way the Rockman ZX soundtrack was made. First, Masaki Suzuki and Ryo Kawakami compose original songs as a unit, given directions aligned to each scene of the game. At this point in time, the musicians can come up with melodies just the way they want, without being constrained by the limitations of the game console. Once the originals are ready with all kinds of colors of sound, the sound director, Ippo Yamada, puts them into the game. He must downsize the richness of the originals to fit the 16-channel limit of the Nintendo DS (even smaller than that when taking sound effects into account).
Of course, if one were to just downsize offhandedly, you would lose sound, organization, effects, and such. However, using the experience and techniques that he has cultivated over the course of his career, Mr. Yamada aims to reproduce the music on the Nintendo DS while harnessing the essence of the originals, in a way that fits the game scenes.
This is where the collaboration between technology and technique is born. This is the moment that contains the magic of the good old game music. Perhaps the sound of Rockman ZX could even be called the true musical successor to the Famicom-era Rockman 2.
I’d like for you to turn on your DS and listen to the soundtrack of Rockman ZX one more time. When you do, I’m sure – those key scenes, the action of those battles, they’ll all come back to life. You’ll be able to taste the excitement you felt when you played the game one more time.
This album, ZX Tunes, contains not recordings of the game’s soundtrack as-is, but rearranged and remastered tracks. The arrangement is by Luna Umegaki, and the mixing / mastering were done by Tsutomu Kurihara.
By bringing the music closer to the original renditions, it becomes easier to listen to, while the magic it carries in its nature as game music remains – you could call this album a real two-in-one experience. Listening to it really helps you learn what it takes to transform one song into “game music.”
As guest arrangers, we have some artists who have carved their names into history. Koji Hayama (Cho Aniki), Akari Kaida (Breath of Fire), Manabu Namiki (Battle Galegga), Satoru Kosaki (Kotoba no Puzzle: Mojipittan). This is a true meeting of musical masters! As a pairing with the game, I do hope you enjoy it.