Dancing with the stars

Sunday, 18 November 2007 — 6:29pm | Game music, Music, Video games

With 120 stars in hand, I’ve seen most (but not all) of what Super Mario Galaxy has to offer—and my favourite thing about this wholly remarkable game has to be the Comet Observatory waltz. In the many hours I spent with the game, I expended no small measure of time hopping and bopping about in those plumber’s overalls and immersing myself in the rhythm of the piece, which exhibits the sweet, stately lilt of a Tchaikovsky ballet. Like the level selection music in Yoshi’s Island, the instrumentation changes as you progress through the game, building from a lighthearted melodic statement by the flute to a fleshed-out lullaby of Straussian violins befitting a midnight hour with a Disney princess.

Galaxy is the first Mario title to feature live orchestral music, as opposed to music generated by the game system’s MIDI instruments. While most video games have been moving towards scores on par with movies in sound quality and composition—two of the most promising film composers of the past decade, Harry Gregson-Williams and Michael Giacchino, come from a background in games—Nintendo has traditionally been reluctant to move away from programmed music, mostly because of its adherence to the philosophy that interface is always the highest priority (something we similarly observe in their attitude towards story). For instance, they insisted on programmed music in The Wind Waker so it could change dynamically in response to the actions of the player, such as consecutive hits with the sword, and to indicate changes in the environment like the presence of unseen enemies.

In the Mario series, the music serves an even subtler function: it determines the rhythm of the game. It’s there to push the player towards a natural tendency to activate sound effects associated with certain actions—jumping, hitting blocks, collecting power-ups—on the beat.

That’s what the composers claimed, anyhow—and that’s the kind of claim I just had to verify.

Prior to the game’s release, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata interviewed the sound and music team, and composers Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo had this to say:

Yokota: To record using an orchestra is not cheap, and we also had this fundamental concern as to whether using an orchestrated soundtrack would fit the rhythm of a Mario game. The sound of recent video game music is so high-quality and crystal clear, it’s almost as if you’re listening to a music CD you buy at a music shop. But I do question whether that kind of sound is always necessarily suited to the game.

Kondo: It almost seems like while you’re playing the game, the music is coming from a CD player, and not from the game console and it feels like you are obligated to play the game in time to the music. For that reason, Nintendo has only used a live orchestral soundtrack on a few occasions in the past.

And a few words from sound designer Masafumi Kawamura:

Kawamura: Before working on Super Mario Galaxy, I had already been experimenting with getting sound effects to play in sync with the background music automatically. For instance, in Wind Waker, a sound effect will ring in sync with the music when you hit an enemy, and in Jungle Beat, the sound is played in sync with the music every time you jump. For this game, we wanted to take that system a step further; we experimented to find a way to make that system work with streamed music. And when we got a hold of the raw orchestra data and put it into the game, we thought “This is going to work!”

Iwata: So you made the game read the data waveform of the streaming music so that it could trigger the sound effects at the correct time?

Kawamura: This gets a little technical; the game synchronises MIDI data with the streaming data, and this is used to process the sound effects at the right time. When Mario shoots off from the Sling Star, for example, harp music plays as a sound effect. If you listen carefully, this harp will sound in perfect timing with the background music. This kind of technique rarely gets noticed however.

So there I am whirling and twirling around the Comet Observatory, and lo and behold—I suddenly notice that Mario’s steps fill out the eighth notes in the waltz’s steady 3/4 metre. For someone like me, who is easily fascinated by the beat frequency of other vehicles’ turn signals as they fall in and out of sync with my own, this was magnificent to behold.

As far as the orchestral instrumentation goes, it has some palpable benefits (the vibrato of live strings defines the mood of a track like Ghostly Galaxy in a way that synthesis couldn’t hope to match), and I’m glad Nintendo’s finally managed to work it into its design philosophy. The implications for the Zelda series alone are pants-wetting.

Koji Kondo is video game music’s greatest legend, the John Williams to Miyamoto’s Spielberg, but Mahito Yokota was unknown to me aside from his work in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat. Judging by the consistent quality of the score—this really is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in any game—Yokota is somebody to watch.

Kondo composed four of the twenty-eight orchestrated tracks for Super Mario Galaxy, and I’m tempted to see if I can guess which ones. He has a definite style, but given the cohesiveness of the entire soundtrack and Kondo’s own versatility—he laid the groundwork for both Mario and Zelda, after all—it’s difficult to differentiate between the two composers. We know from the interview that Kondo composed the music for Good Egg Galaxy. As for the other three, I’m putting my money on the Comet Observatory, Gateway Galaxy, and Gusty Garden Galaxy.

Gusty Garden, by the way, is a spectacular track in its own right; for reference, here’s a video of the recording session. I watched the video before I ever got my hands on the game, but I can now confirm that it’s a great fit in context. Also, am I the only one who detects a similarity between its melodic arc and that of the underwater theme from the original Super Mario Bros.? It’s in 4/4 here, but pay attention to the descending line at the end of the first section (after the 1:00 mark in the video).

Japan is getting a two-CD soundtrack release as a Club Nintendo membership benefit, to which I say: a) no fair, and b) guess we’ll have to wait for the Internet to work its magic.

Recommended reading: another interview with the composers at Music 4 Games.

I haven’t said much about the game itself, but allow me to put it this way: Super Mario Galaxy is so good, it’s beyond imitation. While there are minor blemishes (the camera is back to being as inflexible as it was in Super Mario 64, presumably because it was flexible to the point of going haywire in Super Mario Sunshine; and the underwater levels, while a dramatic improvement, still don’t handle as well as everything else), I can’t imagine how Nintendo could possibly make significant, quantifiable improvements the next time they develop a Mario game, on the magnitude of the strides in design between Galaxy and its predecessors.

They just made a game that spans the universe and tests the extremities of three-dimensional cognition. What’s next—Super Mario Hilbertspace?

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One rejoinder to “Dancing with the stars”

  1. baseline007

    I agree with you. A lot of people doesnt notice the music much which so fascinating, not just the music itself, but the instruments that are being used and the people involved with it. *sigh sigh* It amazes me as much as it amazes you. I’ve seen your Comet Observatory rendition in YouTube, I gotta say… Your pretty damn good! I can play the piano too just not by ear.. I read notes and uses a lot of music sheets.. Damn.. So if you could, (Im asking now) send me a copy of your version, I would greatly appreciate it.. please please please.. (Now Im begging). Lol.. anyways, you can reach me by email basilbalbon@yahoo.com or send the sheet there.. hehehehe (Since you played it really good, I’m kinda getting desperate and man I’ve googled for ages already.. lol) Thats all! Hope to hear from you soon.. really hoping…and really soon.. hahahaha.. Good job! Great blog btw..

    Sunday, 17 February 2008 at 8:25am

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