January 13, 2009
In the last post I explained the premise of Mother 3’s rhythm battle system — you can score combos by hitting the attack button in time with the background music. Now we’re going to look at why that’s so interesting.
The hardest part of the battle system is that the timing window for a successful “hit” is unusually small. Rhythm game stalwarts may find themselves choking on quarter notes, and the software delay on certain GBA emulators is reportedly enough to ruin your chances. Certainly, a 16-hit combo is never a guarantee — which is as it should be; if you want your characters to be twice as powerful, you should have to earn it!
Additionally, the definition of “in time with the background music” changes from one song to the next. There are dozens of different battle themes, and the subtle variations are enough to keep even seasoned musicians on their toes.
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a simple battle song, “Tragic Reconstruction”:
To learn the rhythm for a combo you must use the Hypno-Pendulum, an item obtained early in the game that allows you put most enemies to sleep. Sleeping enemies emit a “heartbeat,” which manifests as an audio track layered on top of the background music that reveals the rhythm you need to tap.
Here is “Tragic Reconstruction” again, with its heartbeat track:
As you can hear, all that’s required for this song is slow, metronomic tapping. (Indeed, the majority of Mother 3’s heartbeat tracks are nothing more than steady quarter note pulses. I’ll skip most of those.)
Here’s another battle song, “Fate”:
Though it’s also a simple 4/4 tune, this theme requires attacking in time with the bass. Here’s “Fate” with its heartbeat track:
Not too tough yet, but we’re getting somewhere.
This battle theme, appropriately titled “Accelerando,” requires you to match a changing tempo:
Here’s “Accelerando” with its (fairly obvious) heartbeat track:
It’s a simple piece, but “Accelerando” is one of the more difficult songs in the game to combo because of the small timing window.
This is where things begin to get complicated. Many battle themes appear twice in the game: once in a “easy” version, and again later on with some minor rhythmic variation. The latter plays upon your expectations of the former for the explicit purpose of ruining your combos.
Listen to “Cumbersome Guys,” an easy battle theme with a steady quarter note heartbeat:
Now listen to “More Cumbersome Guys,” a variation:
Did you catch that? Every few bars there is a brief glitchy break that throws the rhythm out of whack. Here’s the new heartbeat track:
There’s a very similar hesitation added to the battle song “Troublesome Guys.” Here’s the original version, again featuring a quarter note heartbeat:
And here’s “More Troublesome Guys”:
Incidentally, fans of the series might recognize the “short, glitchy break that messes up the meter” motif from this EarthBound battle song:
Of course, there wasn’t a rhythm battle system in EarthBound so it wasn’t as problematic there!
Some battle songs have other ways of messing with your head. Here is a theme called “Astonishing March”:
And here’s “Toppling March,” its evil cousin:
“Toppling” is certainly the right word for this one. During the A section there are a bunch of extra beats, and in the B section there are some beats missing. Here’s the heartbeat track:
Here’s a bare-bones transcription featuring the melody and the heartbeat track. Note how the 2/4 measures don’t have any taps, and that the 7/4 measures still have eight taps. I suspect this version of the song was created by messing with the tempo track.
Two more. Here’s “Back Beat Battle”:
I found this to be a fairly tricky song on its own, actually — though its heartbeat track features straight quarter notes, the unusual accents in the melody made it somewhat difficult to internalize the rhythm. I did better once I ignored the melody altogether and focused on tapping in between the guitar strums. Here’s “Back Beat Battle” with its heartbeat track:
Got that? Here’s “Back Beat Battle – Hard”:
For my money, this is the most difficult song in the game to combo. Not only do you have to ignore the offbeat accents, but the rhythm changes at seemingly random times because some measures have an extra eighth note. Here’s “Back Beat Battle – Hard” with its heartbeat track:
And here’s a transcription:
If you’re at all like me, you’ll still have trouble following along even with the sheet music!
Finally, here’s “Strong One,” the pièce de résistance:
“Strong One” doesn’t appear until very late in the game. Even though it’s ostensibly the basic version of the song, it has an irregular meter (15/8) and a very strange heartbeat track. Have a listen:
I’ve transcribed that so you can get a better look at the rhythm:
It’s messy, but doable.
Of course, that was the easy version; here’s “Strong One (Masked Man)”:
Did you notice the difference? Every measure is missing half of a beat. Since 14.5/8 isn’t really an option, that leaves us with the decidedly spicy time signature of 29/16. Not only that, but there are also 3:5 tuplets — that is, there are three notes divided evenly into the last five beats of each measure.
Remember how I said that the timing window is very small? This is where that comes into play. In your average rhythm game, being late by a sixteenth note at this speed (8th = 253 bpm, if you’re curious) would be well within the acceptable range. Not so with Mother 3. If you try to play this track like the easier “Strong One,” your combo will get buried.
There’s no heartbeat track available for “Strong One (Masked Man)”, unfortunately, but I’ve transcribed the pattern and added a sixteenth-note hi-hat to make the rhythm more obvious:
As I’ve transcribed it, the meter is subdivided into six groups of four 16th notes followed by one group of five 16th notes. In other words, it would make Dave Brubeck cry.
And that, my friends, is why Mother 3’s rhythm battle system is worth playing.