NOTE: this is an opinion article, and comes from personal interpretation.
If the original Super Smash Bros. was experimental and radical, its 2001 sequel Melee was far more confident, even authoritative. Thanks to both the powerful Nintendo GameCube and Nintendo throwing more of its resources at the game, almost everything in Smash 64 got bigger, sharper, and more strictly defined. Stages changed and moved in ways that two years prior would have been impossible, the cast more than doubled in size from twelve to twenty-six, and an intriguing system of collectible trophies gave the game a unique focus. The move from the fighters as adorable dolls to plasticine figurines was not merely a coincidence; many of the rules and conceits that would define Smash were codified here in a brilliant, plasticine sheen.
Naturally, It’s music was a central element in this evolution, and the greater budget and size allowed the three main composers – a returning Hirokazu Ando, Tadashi Ikegami, and Shogo Sakai – to play with the musical history of Nintendo. Future Super Smash Bros. Brawl composer Kentaro Ishizaka was also involved as the “arrangement supervisor” for the game’s bombastic opening theme, but due to the game’s unclear credits – it was only in future Smash games that the Melee tracks would be credited to an individual composer. Since the opening theme has never been reused, it’s hard to specify what exactly his involvement was beyond that.
Instead of focusing on the soundtrack as a whole, I think it best to look at some particularly noteworthy tracks, to better explain how Melee’s score evolved from Smash 64. But in general, some notable themes for the series start here. The use of alternate second songs for stages shows an interest in increasing the diversity and size of the game’s score, giving players more choices and allowing less likely tracks to be remixed. The greater number of composers, and the score itself (which led to the creation of the group Orchestra Melee just for this game) is far more elaborate than what was in Smash 64.
Unlike many of Ando’s solo compositions for that game, which emphasized a unique ambience, the scorehere is bombastic and dramatic, more typically “adventurous” for what a viewer might expect from most Nintendo titles. This quality even extends to the official soundtrack; instead of the game’s actual songs, it features orchestral medleys and remixes from a live, sixty-one minute performance by the New Japanese Philharmonic in 2001, called Smashing…Live! The music was a clear sign of the heightened production values and expectations Nintendo and HAL Laboratories had.
Note: the vast majority of Melee’s songs are titled by the stages they’re played on, not the original music or games on which they are based.
One of the clearest differences between Smash 64 and Melee comes from the latter’s increasing focus on more contemporary releases, not just Nintendo’s longstanding classics. As important as games like Super Mario Bros. and the original Legend of Zelda, are, they can’t be the exclusive focus for representation. While Smash does not exist for advertising, it should be able to represent some of Nintendo’s more contemporary output – especially since that can provide unique and exciting inspiration for the crossover. While Peach’s Castle was visually inspired by Super Mario 64, the Rainbow Cruise stage took this to a new level. Based on the Rainbow Ride level at that game’s end (and using its Japanese name in the NSTC version for unknown reasons), it completely shattered most fighting game conventions as the prototypical “moving stage.” Far from staying on a single space, players fight while moving through an auto-scrolling platforming section over airships and donut blocks. This has two benefits: it can provide a bit more of the platforming style other fighting games couldn’t, and it allows the developers to introduce more elements from the original game.
A level this exciting needed a dynamic song to go with it, and Shogo Sakai’s “Rainbow Cruise” fits the bill. It’s a remix of Mario 64’s “Slide” athletic theme, likely the most iconic and recurring piece of music that game debuted, and Super Mario Bros.’ melodic Underwater theme. The former starts off with a fun intensity that helps throw players into the unique stage, while the latter provides a calming shake-up and sense of aerial wonder. Together, the two halves are able to oscillate contradictory tones into something that expertly provides both.
With most classic Nintendo songs being fairly short due to technical limitations, many of them would not be satisfying for matches that typically last around three minutes. The two solutions for this were to either dramatically alter the original piece in the remix to better fit that that sweet spot (a solution that can potentially lead to inaccurate or poorly cut versions), or to simply combine two or more songs into a single track. “Rainbow Cruise” is one of the more well known examples of the latter, partially since both of the very well known original songs have gotten into future games, but also because this simply works so well on its own. It’s equal parts flighty and calm, incredibly fitting for a picturesque aerial world that keeps pushing players into danger. And by stressing this sense of adventure and play, it helps posit Smash as an alternative to the rock-heavy songs of other fighting games.
Vocals and Different Genres:
This interest in drawing from recent games, not just classic standbys, also led to Melee’s most infamous song. I have an image in my head of players, excited to try the new version of “Kongo Jungle,” and selecting it – only to be shocked at hearing the vocals of James W. Norwood Jr.:
“DK! Donkey Kong!
“DK! Donkey Kong is Here!”
As a stage, Melee’s Kongo Jungle has largely fallen into obscurity. It’s never returned, and while not noticeably unpopular it’s far from the game’s most iconic elements. But that song…well, the DK Rap is certainly something. Poor, arguably clueless outsider views of rap have long been a pop culture staple, but they’ve remained an oddly enduring thing. This isn’t quite that – Rare musical legend Grant Kirkhope’s openly admitted to treating the original song from Donkey Kong 64 as a parody – but it is a noticeably archaic version of a genre that’s been both ubiquitous and musically diverse for quite awhile, even at the time. And when considering the number of memorable Donkey Kong songs, Hirokazu Ando’s remix is about as far from what the series’ fans wanted as possible.
And yet…it’s still surprisingly enjoyable, even compelling. The beat is far faster than Kirkhope’s version, especially once Tiny Kong’s section starts up (that Ando’s version lacks the sedate, polygonal DK Crew dancing in the background while Cranky “take[s] it to the fridge” doesn’t hurt). Each Kong member has a totally unique rhythm, which is really exciting. The dialogue is absurd, but in a way that’s fun; the idea of, say, Chunky Kong bragging about his ability to “pick up a boulder with relative ease” is funny without feeling too over the top. Critically, this also introduced the notion of Smash having songs with lyrics. These would increase dramatically in number for later games and allow the series’ composers to more easily bring in less popular genres in game music, from big band to rockabilly to super sentai theme songs.
For unknown reasons (possibly due to space issues; the song’s over three minutes long), the DK Rap was cut down for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, with Lanky and Chunky’s sections removed and leaving an awkward gap in their place. It’s disappointing, not just because those were so memetic but because it feels disquieting, even perverse without them. This song is absurd and goofy and fun with barely a hint of self-awareness; Melee would be very much worse off without it.
Diving into History:
While it’s hard to pinpoint a single track in Melee as the most iconic, there are few choices better than Shogo Sakai’s “Temple.” The Hyrule Temple stage was one of the clearest signs of the game’s grander scope, a massive series of disconnected platforms hiding a less stable cavern. Similarly, its theme works with the environment, creating a sense of mystery, excitement, and adventure that’s equally satisfying to hear above or below the building’s grounds. The track uses several overlaid instruments that play out of synch with each other, putting players just slightly on edge. This is aided with the inclusion of wind effects that build a feeling of height and instability. It almost dares players to take their chances in either the comparably dangerous higher and lower levels.
Possibly the most interesting thing about it, though, is its origin. The theme – and Temple for that matter – both hail from Zelda II: the Adventure of Link. A direct sequel to the Legend of Zelda, it meshed the original game’s overworld exploration with side-scrolling sword combat. It was and remains a divisive game, and outside some references it’s one of the less central titles in the canon. It’s not a game most players would use as a focal point for Smash, and outside Brawl’s “Great Temple/Temple” alternate remix for the stage (and Link and Toon Link’s Down Aerials) it’s been largely absent from the franchise. The original song is fairly dynamic and elaborate for the time it was made; the accurate Melee remix only lasts around ten seconds longer before each loop.
Realistically, most players would not expect a piece like this getting into Smash, at least in a time before Melee’s release. It’s understandable that a crossover would want to emphasize the most iconic music of its individual series, not a less popular or influential game like Zelda II. This was an extreme case, but players can point to “Temple” as a good example of why including less popular elements of a franchise can pay off very well in dividends.
Intense, Dramatic Tracks:
Tadashi Ikegami’s contributions were less substantial than Sakai’s or Ando’s, and he’s only credited for two tracks for not just this game but the entire series: “Venom” and “Fountain of Dreams.” The former’s a perfectly fine, if unremarkable, Star Fox song. But it’s the latter that’s of particular note, because it again shows how much bigger Melee had gotten. Like “Dream Land” in the last game, it’s a remix of Kirby Super Star’s, “Gourmet Race,” but far more dramatic and exciting. This is where Orchestra Melee really shines, turning the earworm chase music into something grand, dark, and operatic. Compared to the other pieces here, it’s more tonally consistent, but it shows very nicely how effective (and valuable) remixes can be when they’re more corrupted from the original; this would not work nearly as well with the setting if it was trying to be an accurate interpretation of “Gourmet Race.” That’s especially the case when taking where it plays into account; the Fountain uses the game’s desaturated pastel color scheme and environment to homage to the dramatic climax of Kirby’s Adventure. The effect wouldn’t work without an appropriately bombastic song.
That sense of bombast is a particularly strong element of Melee. “Rainbow Cruise,” “Princess Peach’s Castle,” and “Green Greens” especially were far more embellished than many Nintendo fans were used to, and they helped cement their image of Smash Bros. But none of the pieces come close to “Fountain,” which was far away from what Kirby music was at the time. That wouldn’t be the case for long; Sakurai’s very next game, Kirby Air Ride, featured similar music (including a remix of this very song), and more “epic” songs have become relatively prominent for the series since. Perhaps at least from this song we can see an early example of how Smash itself has become a major influence on Nintendo today, not just a receptacle for history but a major driver within it.
Exploiting Unique Series:
Melee also gained fame for showing how Smash could connect fans across the world to entirely new games to them, not just through history but region as well. European players were unfamiliar with EarthBound or Ness, but content from titles exclusive to Japan became far more extensive from here on out. Along with trophies from Japan-only games like Famicom Tantei Club and Doshin the Giant, this happened most famously with two playable characters from the long running JRPG series Fire Emblem. Due to the series’ only prior international presence being a little-seen anime film, heroes Marth and Roy were for most fans exotic and shocking, from their untranslated Japanese dialogue to their novel fighting style. Characters this atypical demanded music that represented how exciting they were.
Enter “Fire Emblem,” Sakai’s arranged remix of two of the most iconic songs from the eponymous franchise: the partner recruit theme from the first game (now known as “Together We Ride!”) and the series’ recurring main theme. It played as an alternate track on the Temple stage due to a proposed Fire Emblem stage being cut during development; while there’s no substantial relation between Zelda and Fire Emblem, the two are Nintendo’s most established stabs at mixing Japanese and European styles of fantasy. It’s an incredibly fast, exciting track; the immediacy and pace – started with a quick series of beats to set the rhythm – give it an intensity that’s particularly unique. Even for players familiar with the franchise, it sounds completely (and appealingly) different from Nintendo’s most familiar music, more aggressive and less playful. Although the slower second half is less memorable, it’s rising tempo and heroic, romantic tone is a nice change, and allows a strong build back to the first.
Alternate tracks are only found on eleven of Melee’s twenty-nine stages. Although they were really bonuses instead of fundamental parts of the score, the possibilities they allowed were significant. Many of them were from entirely unrelated games or even series (“Balloon Fight” on Icicle Mountain, for instance, which established a Smash-’retro’ connection between Balloon Fight and Ice Climber that continued in Brawl), allowing series without characters to have their own iconic music included. Others allowed for songs that were important to the franchise, like “Polyanna (I Believe in You),” then known as “Mother 2” and an incredibly important song in EarthBound Beginnings that otherwise would have no place in the game. In this case, it also serves another valuable function: allowing franchises without their own stages to influence the game through their music. Brawl and Super Smash Bros. 3DS/Wii U would eventually take this idea further, allowing games that otherwise would struggle for adequate content a place in Smash. This was less serious in Melee, but no less welcome.
The Appeal of the Bizarre:
But out of all the game’s music, the oddest would undoubtedly have to be “Flat Zone,” the theme representing the “Game & Watch” handheld like. Like the music of the Game & Watch Gallery series that revived Gunpei Yokoi’s classic games, it’s an original piece, one that tries to invent a retro style. To that end it’s a medley of sound effects from a number of original games, set to an ambient beat. Debatebly the most unique and removed song in the score, it’s almost cheerfully ominous.
In the last Smash game, Hirokazu Ando struggled to include music that seemed to fit his sensibilities, with most of the more interesting songs being odd original compositions. While that isn’t the case in this version – his “Green Greens,” “Mach Rider,” “Polyanna,” and “Corneria” in particular are all fantastic, and very distinct – “Flat Zone” gets at the tone of that earlier music in a way that’s rarely done in Smash. It’s slightly creepy and atonal, fitting for a level that literally sticks fighters inside an LCD gaming machine. The relationship between song and environment also continues to its lack of any clear focus from the beginning to end of the loop; like a Game & Watch character, it keeps shifting from place to place.
On the Smash Bros. Brawl Dojo, Sakurai referred to this song’s effective sequel, “Flat Zone 2” (composed by Kenichi Okuma), as “dark,” inspiring in his mind a bizarre and humorous tale of mystery. The same can very much be said of this one, perhaps even more so. The steady rising pitch of the beeps and scores creates the illusion of Game & Watch games being played just outside the listener’s vision, punctuating an odd white noise that can be just barely heard in the background. As one of the last songs players would have heard – it’s only accessible after onerous conditions have been met – it’s a surprising and potentially anticlimactic choice. But that, I feel, makes it work all the better; it’s disquieting style creates yet another tone with which Smash can play.
The Super Smash Bros. series has become known for moving both forward and outward, constantly looking for inspiration while expanding on what came before. Ideas like the Final Smash and 8-Player Smash were planned long before eventually being used, and many additional elements that seemed like odd side experiments – Break the Targets, Trophies, and Stage Builder, for instance – have become enduring parts of the series’ mythology. One of the biggest of these, however, was the notion of the series as actively representing Nintendo’s long and storied history. Over the course of four installments, Smash Bros. has gone from Dragon King: the Fighting Game to games that seek out unique ideas and characters both for its own benefit and to better reference its parent company’s output. And its music is a fundamental part of that.
Because of that, the score for Super Smash Bros. Melee is very much in a unique position, nestled between the smaller, more consistent set of tracks used for most games and the elaborate libraries favored by its sequels. With only around eighty-one tracks of music – only forty of which are used in regular matches – it’s closer to the first game than the latter two. But it’s still very different, from not only a much greater variety of style and tone but original songs for inspiration as well. Many of the remixes featured in this game became so iconic that they surpassed the original songs in popularity and fame.
In retrospect, the Melee score was really a midway but necessary step, in the same way that characters like Mr. Game & Watch and the Ice Climbers redefined what Smash characters looked and played like to better reference their origins. The series was already well on its way to becoming the interactive compendium on Nintendo, and its music was subtly moving that way as well. But at the time, this went largely unknown; it was simply beautiful, exciting music that energized fans and helped the GameCube attain much of its dark horse appeal.
Next time: We are all “the Marth” as Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s thirty-eight composers put together a beautiful, ambitious, and gargantuan score.
Read the previous entries of “Music to Smash To!”
Part 1 – Super Smash Bros. (64)