NOTE: this is an opinion article, and comes from personal interpretation. Thanks to Spazzy_D for additional edits.
While nowhere near as showy and iconic as its beloved mascots, the Super Smash Bros. series has become well known for its extensive use of music. The scores of each game have steadily gone from a small selection of tracks in the original game to some of the most massive and impressive scores to be found in the medium. With just under five hundred tracks in its latest sequel and drawing from hundreds of individual games, the specific choices of music and original games over the now sixteen years of the series are intriguing. They highlight some of the design choices made by the developers and the games’ creative head, Masahiro Sakurai; in a sense, they help define what the series is.
I thought it might be good, then, especially after SourceGaming Choice 4, to do something atypical for this site and take a more serious look at how Smash has used its music. This is “Music to Smash To,” a new series meant to study and critique the music of the Smash games, as well as its use and interests overall. It’s fairly far from the site’s normal output, but I do think this kind of critical discussion fits within its purview.
Because of the sheer amount of material – particularly due to the “My Music” functionality, which has allowed the series’ song number to dramatically expand – a single article would be inadequate for discussing Smash’s use of music. Therefore, this new series is planned to be broken up into multiple articles; it will start by going through each iteration of the series, then it will look at a few of Smash’s most prominent franchises individually.
Super Smash Bros. 64
Brawl’s “My Music” functionality would allow the development teams to be exponentially more liberal about their music choices and draw from a far wider range of inspiration.[/caption]
Of the main stages, Dream Land is the only one that avoids either emphasis; instead of any of the various “main level” or title screen themes from the Kirby series, it uses the music from the first level of the “Gourmet Race” minigame from Kirby’s Super Star. While the piece was one of the more iconic songs in the series – it was one of the few remixed for Kirby 64 – it’s unique among the tracks chosen for stage music. Perhaps this was an internal decision, and Ando or Sakurai preferred this over something more analogous to the other franchises’ music choices (likely Green Greens from Kirby’s Dream Land)? Or perhaps; it was for its catchy, immediate sound and quick beginning as among longtime fans of Super Smash Bros., this seems to be one of the most memorable songs from the first game.
All together, these remixes are very tonally consistent, with a strong use of horns and an emphasis on slower, more punctuated compositions. The more elaborate or dramatically different remixes of later iterations are entirely absent, as is the approximate length of two minutes for most of Brawl and 3DS/Wii U’s songs; the length of most don’t even last far past a minute. To say that it was less imaginative is really unfair, but the remixes, for the most part, aren’t quite as “crazed” as what Smash would be known for. One side effect of this is that it may make these traks somewhat inaccurate to the work upon which they are based; much of Nintendo’s classic music was very specifically designed to elicit specific responses and subconsciously work with the player, as well as provide a sonic space that represented what the game was doing. By virtue of referencing the end result of that music, it’s much harder for Ando to adequately capture how it worked, and his work unfortunately feels more workmanlike than it deserves.
This is perhaps fairly natural when considering the game as a whole, as Smash 64 was in an odd place. On one hand it was a fairly strict crossover with immediate references known across the world, but it was also unique in its nontraditional focus for both Nintendo and fighting games. It felt almost perverse at the time; the notion that it would end up a staple of the company was utterly absurd. In a way, it makes sense for its music to fit into that.
Of the main stages, the most distinct themes are those of Planet Zebes and Kongo Jungle, the two closest in expressive style to later Smash music. Regarding the former, while the stage itself was deliberately built to mimic the claustrophobic nature of Metroid, its music is more upbeat, almost to a point of incongruity. A running ambient beat alongside the Brinstar music’s dramatic remix creates a sense of ethereal space exploration, something rare for what was then the Metroid trilogy. Later Metroid content, both in Smash and on its own, would continue to straddle a line between adventure, exploration, and horror implicit in its premise.
As for Kongo Jungle, its theme is by far the longest of the “main” music tracks, representing the extensive audio work being done at Rareware by composers like David Wise. It’s a much more faithful remix than “Planet Zebes,” due to being a piece that came from outside of Nintendo, but being so makes it distinct amongst its counterparts. The “Jungle Level” theme seems to be in a (pun not intended) rarefied position in the series, as it’s easily among the most remixed and re-used songs in the history of Smash Bros., with at least seven variations throughout the five games (six of which are in Super Smash Bros. for Wii U). Much has been made of the recurrence of songs like this or the overworld theme from the Legend of Zelda, which have gotten “preferential treatment” over a wider array of music tracks. We’ll discuss this element more later, but I think, at least to an extent, Sakurai sees representing iconography and “importance” as more fundamental in the game’s score than having as many different individual pieces as possible. It’s very much the case in this iteration.
In a way, it’s interesting seeing how that iconography is used here in comparison to two of their biggest games on the console. In Super Mario 64, the ground theme was relegated to a short leitmotif played at the start of the level (as well as as one dramatically different remix for its title theme). Similarly, the classic Zelda overworld music is nowhere to be found in Ocarina of Time (one of the few times it’s entirely absent). Multiple Nintendo IPs at this time were avoiding emphasizing their more well known tracks in favor of original compositions, and in general seemed to struggle with retaining their most well known elements in the move to 3D. It makes sense that Smash avoided this – it’s a crossover, and it’s smartest to focus on the most identifiable elements of the games involved – but it’s worth noting that this was being done while its Nintendo 64 counterparts seemed less enthused with being as referential to past iterations.
The use of the unedited NES Super Mario Bros. ground theme for Mushroom Kingdom I find to be perhaps the most important of the pre-existing music choices in this installment. It’s used on the only unlockable stage of the game, which at the time was more of a dramatic surprise than later games’ unlockable content. Compared to the rest of the stages, it’s notable for its direct use of sprites from the original game as well as its darker visual tone. Melee would continue the trend not only with a totally revamped version of this stage (with the same original music), but also with stages based on Super Mario Bros. 2 and the Game & Watch title Helmet. Since then, there have been multiple stages that acted as “copies” of retro games, sticking fighters inside of arcade, NES, and Game Boy games in progress. As Smash moved from goofy experiment to interactive archive on Nintendo’s history, it became more concerned with the kinds of music used, often including direct ports of music tracks and an emphasis on accurate remixes. By Melee, it hadn’t yet gotten to that point, but from a current perspective Mushroom Kingdom feels much less like an outlier than it initially did. That it is accurate enough to add the “hurry up” version – albeit for the final thirty seconds, instead of 100 – is just icing on the cake, and it’s a detail the series has tried only fitfully since.
In comparison to the stage themes, the victory music draws from a wider number of fanfare “types.” Mario and Luigi get the Super Mario Bros. flourish from hitting the end of level flagpole, Donkey Kong Country provides the bonus room completion track, Samus’ wins are scored to the power-up fanfare from Metroid, and Kirby gets his part of the “Kirby Dance.” Once again, Star Fox and Yoshi’s Island drew from their Nintendo 64 games. Ness and Captain Falcon’s themes are of note, as the use of “Eight Melodies” and the F-Zero X course completion themes are the only tracks from their respective series. The Legend of Zelda and Pokémon use remixes of their series’ main themes as opposed to pre-existing victory themes. Zelda would end up getting a new victory theme in Brawl based on its first game, while Pokémon’s has simply stayed with this composition. It may speak to a recurring theme of this franchise, where Pokémon has been, at least to an extent, more defined by its iconography and mascots than specific narrative or thematic content.
Of course, as this was also an original IP, Smash needed compositions of its own for its more neutral spaces. These pieces are Ando’s score at its most defined and specific; unlike the orchestral bombast of the later games, the music here is goofy, off-kilter, and frankly, just weird. The menu theme is about as far from dynamic as possible; it is just a selection of dark, ambient beats. The character selection screen theme, by contrast, is about the closest Smash got to a traditional fighting game, just a fifteen second track that’s both catchy and irritating, almost pressing you into making your selection more quickly. The pieces for the bonus segments, Fighting Polygon Team, Metal Mario, and Master Hand are almost bizarre. They’re far more embellished and elaborate than the remixes due to the jazz-like use of syncopation and multiple levels in the songs. Master Hand’s is of particular note: a funky, dark, track far from the dramatic refrains we’ve come to expect from Final Destination. While Sakurai would later typify the arena as the one “closest to a real world setting,” here its color gradations and odd music give it a much more dreamlike feel. Considering the aesthetic of this game, with dolls instead of trophies and a lack of grandeur, it’s a fitting choice.
What may be the oddest musical decision in Smash 64 is a lack of a real “main” theme. Melee, Brawl, and 3DS/Wii U each have a dramatic, exciting overture with numerous remixes, one that defined each iteration as distinctly its own. That doesn’t exist here; the intro, menu, and credits music are all drastically different. The latter has mostly become this game’s main theme by default, with separate (and drastically different) remixes in Brawl and Wii U. It makes sense for something that was more experimental, as Smash 64 was, to be less concerned with thematic resonance. By the time Melee rolled around, the series had effectively become a Nintendo staple; it, and especially Brawl and 3DS/Wii U, put more emphasis on a single identifiable and resonant song that was remixed for various scenarios and in a fashion “held” the score together.
On the whole, the score for Super Smash Bros. is so dramatically different from its sequels that it’s difficult to compare them. When later Smash entries have remixed its original tracks or ported its own remixes, they’ve sounded noticeably distinct from the other original pieces. This is a game much more comfortable with its own style than in the games it’s trying to represent. It’s also less interested in being the kind of homage to Nintendo’s past that has become the series’ stock in trade. While the games have tried to steer closer to an approximate two minute limit for music tracks, some of the songs here are less than a minute long; the notion of what a typical Smash match was, even in terms of time limit, hadn’t yet been crystallized among both Sakurai and fans.
There are, however, elements here that would become more consistent within the Smash series later. The emphasis on “first level” and main themes of games would become a point of focus in Brawl, often prioritizing the more iconic elements of various series while still finding room for more “secondary” content. Although its music has gotten substantially more varied, that singular interpretation of Nintendo iconography has remained a staple of the series; to an extent, what we have gotten is less a staple of Nintendo’s greats and more Sakurai’s interpretation of the same, which has given Smash a specificity and direction many other crossovers lack. While it’s less immediately noticeable, the music choices are still very much a part of that, and something worth considering when evaluating the series’ evolution.
Its score was very much tied to what the original Super Smash Bros. was doing on a wider scale, an odd representation of Nintendo’s most identifiable series at the time and a fighting game that largely eschewed the genre’s rules and traditions. The idiosyncratic music added an audio element to the unique style and attitude Smash, a game in which Nintendo’s stalwart heroes jovily engaged in four player chaos, had. That was a genuinely radical idea, one that its music supplanted very nicely. But it was also a style that would inevitably end up unsustainable, or popular, in a changing environment of game design and culture.
Next Time: Smash upgrades to one new console, three new composers, and one [heck] of a guy.