February 8, 2009
The increased audio fidelity of 16-bit consoles brought several significant changes to video games, but perhaps the most important was that instruments could be readily identified. Instead of the melody being assigned to a triangle wave, for example, it could be assigned to a trumpet.
This change, I would argue, brought about a shift in musical thinking. Before the 16-bit era, game composers thought like programmers (“How can I arrange this so that the countermelody will sound all right?”); with the ability to mimic real instruments, they thought more like composers (“Which instrument do I want for this part?”). The upshot was that virtual instrument parts began to more closely resemble real ones; when the audio actually sounds like a trumpet, it feels natural to compose a trumpet-like part.
The bass parts in 16-bit Sonic games helped lead the way here, featuring smooth melodic lines and memorable hooks. They’re some of the earliest video game bass parts that sound like they could be from real pop songs.
I’m leading off with an unusually prominent part here; if you asked ten Sonic 2 fans to sing this song, I’d bet that eight of them would pick the bass. There’s simply not much else of interest here, except for the “Thunder and Blazes”-like section that shows up at 0:20.
This bassline picks up on a simple rhythmic motive from one part of the melody and repeats it — even as the rhythm it’s imitating changes. While this part doesn’t overpower the piece in the same way as Mystic Cave’s, it’s still easily noticed thanks to the riffs played in the higher octave.
As with Mystic Cave, the bass hook is far and away the most memorable part here. In fact, the large gaps in the melody give the impression that the piece was written around the bass part, so as to highlight it further.
This piece similarly emphasizes the bass by featuring it during breaks in the melody. Also, did you notice the muted attack in the first measure? It’s small, but performance quirks are another way that virtual parts are made to sound more like real ones.
This is a strange piece any way you look at it, but I think the bass is particularly interesting. It provides a rhythmic anchor but goes out of its way to avoid resolving the melodic and harmonic ambiguity. Its erratic motion keeps the listener off guard until the more consonant B section at 0:21.