June 10, 2008
First things first: a mission statement.
So far my music posts have been straight-up theoretical analysis. While I think there’s a lot to be learned from studying music on its own terms, context is important also. And since this is purportedly a blog about video games, I’d like to move beyond the self-indulgent theory posts and provide something more topical. In other words, I’ll keep doing the hardcore analysis, but I’d also like to talk about why game music matters.
All right. With that said, let’s look at that most important category of video game music: the 1-up jingle.
Here’s a brief audio sample of a Super Mario Bros. play session. The player earns a 1-up at the seven-second mark.
Iconic as it is, the Mario 1-up jingle is pretty unremarkable. Its total length is only a second, and it’s not exactly attention-grabbing. Here, for example, it’s sandwiched between the “emerging power-up” noise (5.5 s) and the “Super Mario got hurt” noise (9.5 s), and none of the three sounds stands out as the most important one. Sonically speaking, earning a 1-up in Super Mario Bros. is a fairly pedestrian event.
Now listen to this sample of a Sonic the Hedgehog play session.
The attentive listener may have noticed the player earning a 1-up at the five-second mark.
Not only does this jingle silence the rest of the game’s audio, but features a dramatic horn and timpani fanfare that lasts for three and a half seconds. Sonic doesn’t want to just draw your attention to the 1-up; it wants to herald a momentous occasion.
The cool thing is that the prominence of the 1-up sound is tied to the games’ design.
In Super Mario Bros., extra lives are relatively easy to come by. Your coins automatically carry over from one level to the next, so collecting 100 of them is almost an inevitability; green 1-up mushrooms are hidden, but frequent. This is balanced, of course, by the fact that it’s also relatively easy to get Mario killed. Each individual life is not so important, and the subdued 1-up jingle reflects this.
In Sonic the Hedgehog, the dynamic is reversed. Since Sonic won’t die if he’s holding rings, a smart player will effectively have infinite hit points. On the other hand, 1-up item boxes are rare, and collecting 100 rings is difficult because it’s so easy to lose them. Extra lives are therefore more precious than in Super Mario Bros., so the jubilant fanfare that accompanies a 1-up is somewhat deserved.