Friday, 6 June 2008

Found SNESound - Legend of Zelda and Secret of Mana

I've always enjoyed videogame music, but I suppose I really got into it when I had my SNES collection going. Nintendo had the edge over Sega in the sound department in the early Nineties console war between the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) and the Sega Megadrive. The SNES had 16bit digital stereo sound, whereas the Megadrive operated with only 8 bit synthesized stereo. The SNES had 8 times the amount of dedicated memory for sound the Megadrive had. Also the signal to noise ratio was better for the SNES, allowing even clearer separation of the channels, and lower background noise than the buzzy Megadrive. But Nintendo wasn't just ahead in technical terms.

To exploit their advantage, Nintendo took a further leap ahead of their rivals by upping the quality of their compositions over their entire range of in house productions. A good example of this is The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The Zelda games were exclusive to Nintendo, and had a team of classically trained Japanese composers writing the scores for them. And alongside the composers from the Japanese Square team (who wrote scores for games such as Final Fantasy and Secret of Mana), they set the benchmark for computer game music up to the present day. This isn't to say that Megadrive games didn't have great sound, or good people working on their games. But the palette and tools given to their composers were limited in comparison, and accordingly, stand out examples of their work are fewer in number. Even great examples of Megadrive music (Shinobi, Golden Axe, Sonic, Streets of Rage) sound dated now.

The lead composer for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was Koji Kondo, who is arguably the best known Japanese game composer, being associated with the Marion and Zelda games. His Zelda score for the SNES, in turns pleasantly bucolic and grandly orchestral, gave the game a rich soundscape which complemented the gameplay well. The melodies (which cleverly implement the Golden Ratio) are inescapably brilliant, and I've lost count of the times I've found myself absent-mindedly whistling the theme music while thinking of Hyrule Castle.

Secret of Mana's team was headed by Hiroki Kikuta who isn't as well known, but who has a devoted fanbase in Japan and other parts of the world. On a personal level, I've always preferred the Secret of Mana over the Zelda and Final Fantasy soundtracks. It has haunting melodies, is strongly dramatic, and works perfectly with the game. It's an incredible piece of work that was issued a number of times in Japan, but is now sadly out of print. A devoted SoM fansite has uploaded the whole thing. Or for a taster, you could just download the magnificent opening theme 'Fear of the heavens' here. But it's really worth having the whole soundtrack. It's a masterwork.

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