NOTE: this is an opinion article, and comes from personal interpretation. Thanks to Push DustIn and SmashChu for edits!
The seven years between the releases of Super Smash Bros. Melee (Melee) and its 2008 sequel, Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Brawl), were eventful for series creator Masahiro Sakurai. He quit HAL Laboratories in 2003 to form his personal studio Sora Ltd., citing a desire to step away from the organization and work with other studios. He worked as the main designer of Meteos, an “action puzzle game” and sleeper hit for the Nintendo DS. He continued to write his column in Famitsu which continues to this day. And alongside Melee/future MOTHER 3 composer Shogo Sakai, Final Fantasy composer Nobeu Uematsu, and Final Fantasy screenwriter Kazushige Nojima (all three of whom would later be involved in Brawl’s development), he was a major collaborator in Press Start – Symphony of Games, a series of orchestral concerts based around Japanese game music.
By the time Brawl’s first trailer was released at E3 2006, it was clear that the series had changed dramatically since 1999. No longer so bizarre that Sakurai and Satoru Iwata had to counter executives’ concerns about its commercial potential, it had become a flagship brand for Nintendo, despite routinely being outsold by series like Pokémon and Mario Kart. Between its ability to create instant cult heroes and the near-endless hype at guessing who will be the next “challenger approaching,” it had become just as much an event as a game. Presumably wanting to drive that idea through the score itself, Sakurai and his development team made the music and audio work a central element; it even scored extensive focus on the Smash Bros. Dojo!!, the game’s official website and primary marketing engine.
The score for Brawl was incredibly massive and ambitious. While Sakai, Hirokazu Ando, and Kentaro Ishizaka returned, they were among thirty-eight total composers brought together from across the Japanese games industry. This was a dream team of video game musicians, far beyond the norm. With a cast list that included Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger, Xenogears), Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Shenmue), Kazumi Totaka (Animal Crossing, Mario Paint) and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka (Dr. Mario, Metroid, Kid Icarus), it was a “who’s who” of game music. In one of the first three posts on the Super Smash Bros. Dojo, Sakurai boasted about Brawl’s “elite selection” of Nintendo pieces, and he used multiple posts to highlight different songs, no more than one from each of the game’s main series. Almost every song used in this article was represented in this fashion, each one apparently so valuable as to be a selling point on its own.
But the most important change for the game’s score was its sheer size. Realizing that fans have gotten into Nintendo through so many different games – and that the company’s musical history is far too large to be relegated to one or two songs per stage – Sakurai instituted the My Music option. Each stage got anywhere between two and twelve songs, drawing from arcade to Wii and everywhere in between. Players manually alter an individually song’s likelihood of being played, and the game draws from that during a random selection while each match is loaded. This meant that not only were players given potentially many options for music (new stages had four to twelve songs, though almost all returning stages had only two), but they could influence the game to better represent the games and even eras of Nintendo history they preferred. Additionally, many songs, like “Delfino Plaza” from Super Mario Sunshine, “Space Battleground” from Star Fox Assault, and almost all of the score for Super Smash Bros. Melee were taken directly from their original games. Brawl has 267 songs in total, 133 of which were arrangements and remixes from older games made for this game (that number does not include the large number of wholly original pieces used in the game’s many gameplay modes). The selection was massive, especially when considering how game music had by that point been shifting to being more compact and less tonally diverse.
Brawl boasted remixes of longtime musical favorites, including Donkey Kong Country’s beautiful and melancholic “Stickerbrush Symphony,” Super Metroid’s tense “Vs. Ridley,” and the twin themes that comprise the jazzy fun of “Meta Knight’s Revenge.” It played with tones, genres, instruments, and rhythm. And while it couldn’t plausibly commit to every fan’s favorite song, it managed to get standouts from almost every major Nintendo title.
As per the last entry, I’ll be going over a selection of choice songs, each of which represent a different aspect of Brawl’s music. Note that due to the score’s sheer size, I can only discuss a minuscule portion of the game’s music. Many of my favorite pieces couldn’t make the cut; many of yours likely did not (though please tell us which song was your favorite in the comments!). But these do, I think, help show the breadth and depth of the game as a whole. Now let’s start at the very beginning, and revisit that first trailer.
To a certain extent, the E3 movie was central in defining how people went into Brawl. It showed off surprising new characters and an update of Melee’s semi-realistic art style (which would be curtailed to an degree in Smash for 3DS/ Wii U), and along with them it introduced the game’s overture. Composed by Final Fantasy’s legendary Nobeu Uematsu and arranged by Shogo Sakai, the “Super Smash Bros. Brawl Main Theme” was far more bombastic and dramatic than any piece from the series prior. With lyrics in Latin (sung by Oriko Takahashi and Ken Nishikiori), it boldly flaunted the game’s size and scale, as well as a recognition of the series’ and Nintendo’s global appeal. And its shifts in tone and speed as it goes from dramatic to upbeat is incredibly exciting, fitting for a game that juggles so many different ideas.
The lyrics themselves – written by Sakurai – are noteworthy. They’re an ode to an unknown warrior, mighty in power and fame but now a friend and rival to the narrator. The two are less indicative of any two individual characters so much as representing them all collectively; some of the fighters in Smash are close friends or bitter rivals, and many are totally unknown, but here they’re all equal participants. The notion that as these fighters “face each other in battle, locked in combat, [they] shine ever brighter” has clear import for a series in which the most beloved icons of a medium join together in raucous combat, building each other up as they fight. It defines Smash as not just fun, but with an artistic purpose of its own.
When the trailer was first released, the full scale of the musical content was not known. Uematsu was simply an intriguing “get,” a sign of the series being simply bigger and more exciting. But as exciting as his inclusion is, it’s important to not forget his collaborator on this piece: Shogo Sakai. By this point he’s likely the closest thing Smash has to a “main” musical figure; despite only contributing to Melee and Brawl, with thirty-one songs he’s the most prolific composer outside Hirokazu Ando (whose original Smash Bros. score was the furthest from the series’ general tone). With songs like “Temple,” “Fire Emblem,” “Route 209,” “The Legendary Air Ride Machine,” and “Underworld,” his focus on inventive soundtracks that play with genre and sound has been the cornerstone of Smash Bros. music. It’s an ethos that recurs in “Main Theme” itself, where the beat and tone of the song shift in its two minute length. He reused the orchestra and singers for “Fire Emblem Theme” (with lyrics also written by Sakurai), another song in Latin that showed off the game’s production values.
Since Brawl’s release, this song has gotten criticism for possessing an intense melodrama that’s debatebly not fitting for a series as silly as Smash, or representing the game’s bloat. Personally, though, I love it; it’s multiple sections beautifully represent how varied the games can be tonally. The orchestra gives it an intensity that’s fitting for a touchstone, and the ending, as the notes get higher against a constant percussion beat, creates the impression of the characters taking to the air for a dynamic battle. To an extent, it’s the series in microcosm.
While it didn’t start that way, by the time of Brawl’s release Smash was clearly a game about history. It’s in the game’s bones, from how characters like Olimar and the Pokémon Trainer were created to more accurately represent their original games to stages like 75m and Delfino Plaza, to even the Subspace Emissary’s depiction of R.O.B. and Mr. Game & Watch as almost primordial ancestors to Nintendo’s current releases. The music is a big part of that history, and playing with it allows the series a new avenue to express its ideas. In particular, it can include songs that themselves were integral to the story and world of their games.
While the Legend of Zelda has featured diegetic, playable music since the original’s recorder, the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (along with Link’s Awakening, whose “Ballad of the Wind Fish” appears to have been sadly cut from Brawl for unknown reasons) popularized the notion of the series having a foundational emphasis on in-game music. In that game, the eponymous woodwind instrument is Link’s primary tool, allowing him to find secrets, change the weather, and in the sequel Majora’s Mask even travel through time. The notion of a hero saving the day by playing music is one steeped in both classic myth and Nintendo’s play-focused ideology, and it’s become a staple of the franchise, especially in titles like the Wind Waker and Spirit Tracks. So a medley of several of the Nintendo 64 classic’s most famous songs – in a live arrangement featuring the iconic flute – is both exciting and smart.
The “Ocarina of Time Medley” was arranged by Michiko Naruke, known primarily for her work as the sole composer of the Wild Arms series. It features a whole slate of some of the game’s greatest hits, among them “Zelda’s Lullaby,” “Epona’s Song,” “Song of Storms,” and “Saria’s Song” (to keep the rhythm going, several are dramatically sped up). They’re tied together in a gorgeous rhythm, in which the ocarina steadily gives way to a full orchestra as the pace increases. This allows it to reflect many of the different tones present throughout the game, from the slight melancholy of Link’s trip to adulthood to the sense of high adventure in Hyrule Field. And despite all of this, the rhythm and beat stay so strong that it never feels forced, or random. It’s almost as though this could have been the destiny of those songs: small sections of a grand whole – and in their original game, they sort of were in a sense. It’s helped by the use of live music, which also adds a performative element to the work.
Part of what made “My Music” so revelatory was how it enabled some of the most iconic music in video game history – which would go far past the two song limit Melee imposed – to be added in droves. It meant that Super Mario Bros. could get remixes of its “Underground” and “Underwater” themes as unique pieces without pushing out the music of Super Mario World, 64, or Sunshine. And it also allowed the various composers to work with a number of songs that, while important and exciting, would otherwise be nowhere near the list of the most “must-have” works to include. The “Ocarina of Time” medley shows both; it includes a major part of Zelda history that would have likely otherwise been ignored. It’s superlative as both song and historical recreation.
Vocals and live instruments also came together in the purely fun “Ashley’s Song,” which played with genre, the introduction of new series, and the complex nature of localization in Smash. Debuting only two years after Melee came out, WarioWare, Inc. reimagined Mario’s already zany rival as a deranged to an even further extreme. One of the ways it presented its unique depiction of the world was through a similarly crazed and wonderful use of audio, where peppy, five-second leitmotifs contrast with long, vocalized ballads. The most memorable of the latter – outside of “Mona Pizza,” of which a remix was made for Brawl – was “Ashley’s Song,” which introduced the resident child witch of Diamond City.
While the original was a comically slow dirge, the Brawl version draws from big band and (seemingly) classic American cartoons. Unlike the original, where the darkness is mostly a façade for Ashley’s loneliness, the darker tone is excited and playful – it posits Wario’s gang as a delightfully demented alternative to the toyetic fun of the Mushroom Kingdom. If my personal theory that Wario is a metatextual counterpart to the Mario franchise is correct, it can be seen incredibly clearly through this song. The beats in the percussion and brass sections add up to a song that’s energetic and twisted, far from the affably calm pieces of the Mario games.
It’s also technically two songs – one with English lyrics, the other in Japanese – and Sakurai cheerfully advertised the grand international focus while introducing the English arrangement. The Japanese version features a much younger, seemingly innocent Ashley, and as such still carries that hint of childlike innocence implicit in the character. The English one, meanwhile, has an older voice more typical of western cartoons, which only adds to the feeling of it as a gleefully subversive product from the Golden Age of American Animation.
While I was very positive towards Melee’s “DK Rap,” this song alone is clear in showing how much bigger the budget and ambition had gotten. With two different versions – with a different set of fantastic vocal work for each – NiGHTS composer Tomoko Sasaki is able to highlight regional differences in a way that couldn’t be done otherwise. And the music is glorious, an anthem to the same kind of frenetic lunacy upon which WarioWare had staked a claim. Big Band is a genre almost never heard in the medium, let alone Smash, and it fits the game like a glove.
Incidentally, this song helps show how, even with a more global focus, Smash is still very much beholden to localization. Aside from the two versions of this song, a new remix (more similar to the original’s marching band style) is included, but only in the Japanese version of the game. I’m unsure why that’s the case; it there was a space constraint, why not simply have it replace the Japanese version, which plays on Gamer anyway? It’s an odd choice, especially considering how much Smash has brought players all over the world together.
The large score also meant that Brawl was able to expand Melee’s use of iconic songs from series that otherwise would not have characters or stages, like Balloon Fight and Panel de Pon. However, to highlight this diversity of inspiration, Sakurai advertised not a world-famous classic, but “Tunnel Scence (X),” music from a 1990 Game Boy title exclusive to Japan. X was – and remains – a minor footnote, the first game composed by Kazumi Totaka (and, not coincidentally, the first appearance of the infamous “Totaka’s Song”), and one of the earliest examples of a 3D portable game. Outside of its 2010 DSi sequel’s reprise of the theme, it has no other content in Smash Bros. It lacks iconic characters or environments, but its original tunnel music…it’s genuinely incredible.
The Game Boy song is propulsive and adventurous, expertly using what most games would use as stock audio effects as instruments to create the sense of space travel. It’s very propulsive, especially for a platform that struggled with its audio limitations. It’s easy to say this in retrospect, but it’s clear from even this early piece that Totaka would be a major figure in Nintendo music.
Brawl’s faithful arrangement carries all of this with aplomb. While Yusuke Takahama (Digital Pinball) had far greater audio technology at his disposal, he still emphasizes sound effects (albeit of a far higher fidelity than was possible on the Game Boy). The song’s longer runtime allows it to steadily build up a rhythm, almost comparable to a space shuttle launch, and the high-pitched sound effects give the impression of both futuristic technology and stellar bodies. It seems to have a desire for movement and exploration at its center.
While it’s less known for this, “Tunnel Scene” is also very unique for its odd, slightly ambient style. More of a science fiction exploration piece than more heroic songs Smash is known for, it’s reminiscent of both 1970s science fiction and Smash 64’s own “Planet Zebes.” Elsewhere in Brawl, this style could be seen elsewhere in Masafumi Takada’s ambient “Marionation Gear,” Yuzo Koshiro’s smooth “Norfair,” Hirokazu Tanaka’s eclectic “Donkey Kong,” and the randomly evolving music of the stage Hanenbow. These are all lovely themes, but their uniqueness from more exciting counterparts made them additionally fresh. But that’s part of what makes Smash so interesting; it gives players content they never realized they might want, whether that’s a unique, obscure fighter or an entire new gameplay mode.
But as much as Sakurai does love more obscure themes and melodies, he has always had an eye for iconography. As great as it is to find a lost gem of a work, it makes sense that a series priding itself on the most famous characters in the medium would put an emphasis on their most renowned elements. And there’s no song more well known in the entire video game industry than this one. But while every version of Smash includes at least one version of the Super Mario Bros. “ground” level music, “Ground Theme” was special: it was arranged specifically by Koji Kondo, the composer for the original level who has gone on to help define the entire field of video game sound. Getting the composer of the Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda series, who has effectively led the direction of Nintendo music, is a huge get, and Sakurai waited until just over a week before the game was first released in Japan to reveal it.
Kondo’s original “ground theme” is beloved for far more than simple nostalgia; it’s incredibly well produced and composed. Managing to play within the restrictions of a very limited audio palette, Kondo was able to create an iconic, satisfying, and surprisingly long Latin-inspired piece of music; it was the ideal outcome of artistic experimentation mixed with technological skill, and a strong musical example of Nintendo’s practical, development-directed approach.
The Brawl version of “Ground Theme” is similarly fantastic, taking equal advantage of superior audio tools for a wonderful piano arrangement. It eschews entirely the series’ emphasis on the boisterous and exciting in favor of a placid, calm piano piece. It falls in Kondo’s compositional direction for “interactivity, rhythm, and balance” – it fits perfectly within the cheery dystopia of the Mushroomy Kingdom, the entire piece manages to keep a consistent tone and rhythm, and it feels like a piece of its own, just simply a remix. Other arrangements – Mahito Yokota’s “Super Mario 2007,” for instance – are good, but this one feels like something genuinely new.
This would be far from the last time Smash had a composer take a new stab at a familiar work. Kondo returned in 3DS/Wii U for the “Super Mario Bros. Medley,” and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka composed “Chill Ver. 2” and “Balloon Trip” in the same game. And while Shogo Sakai’s many musical contributions to Smash are well known, to many of the fans who kept up with the DOJO!! he may be most identified with his remix of “Porky’s Theme.” It’s an appealing idea, seeing how composers interpret their own history, or play with more elaborate tools for musical creation. And at their best – which “Ground Theme” constitutes – it can lead to very satisfying results.
Finally, what may possibly be Brawl’s most enduring element to the series was the introduction of third party content, with Metal Gear and Sonic the Hedgehog opening floodgates to series as popular and iconic as Mega Man, Pac-Man, and most recently Final Fantasy. Along with characters and stages, getting music from other companies was an inevitability. But while songs like “Theme of Tara,” “Metal Gear Solid 4 Love Theme,” and “Angel Island Zone” were fantastic and represented the tremendous benefits of non-Nintendo content, what might be my absolute favorite examples were a pair of songs most fans may not even realize came from other companies – albeit in a somewhat roundabout way.
The unlockable Luigi’s Mansion stage includes two songs that fit in very nicely with its more darker Mario music: arrangements of two of the three themes from the Game Boy version of Tetris. “Tetris Type A” was composed by Yoko Shimamura, one of the most well known female composers in the video game industry; along with the music of Kingdom Hearts, and the Mario & Luigi series, she composed the incredibly iconic score of Street Fighter II (like Kondo, she has also composed Smash remixes of her previous work: “Gritzy Desert” and “Ryu Stage”). And “Type B” came from Masafumi Takada, who had previously composed eclectic and often bizarre scores to games directed by Shinji Mikami and SUDA51 like killer7, No More Heroes, and God Hand, often with longtime partner Jun Fukuda (who separately composed “Butter Building”). Rare is the environment in which a patron saint of classic game music and one of the medium’s more experimental audio artists could both be called up to arrange enjoyably madcap Russian folk songs.
Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris is one of the most iconic, influential, and purely representational games in the entire medium, and with its Game Boy version it’s an intractable part of Nintendo history as well. However, like X it lacks characters of any kind (fans’ love of the “L”-shaped tetromino aside), making it unable to really fit in a crossover game like Smash. Allowing “guest” content in different ways (later expanded in Smash For with the song “Culdcept,” and trophies from Rayman and Fatal Frame) gives series with a Nintendo history a chance to shine. And the Game Boy version of Tetris – the most successful version of one of the most successful games in history – had its iconic music done by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, one of Nintendo’s patron saints of audio.
In “Type A’s” case, it’s also possibly the most extreme case of a third-party content, as it’s not even from a video game; it’s inspired by the classic 19th century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki” (Type B, as far as I can tell, was merely an original piece meant to evoke Russian folk imagery). This was a common practice in Nintendo’s early history; the NES version of “Type A” used Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, and the title music for Mario Bros. was a direct arrangement of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” Over the past twenty-odd years, it seems as though Nintendo has tried to look more inwardly for inspiration, with less direct homages to real-world culture or art. It makes sense, but listening to these two remixes make it clear that at least something was lost in the move.
Fortunately, we do have these two, and they are delightful. Shimamura’s an expert at string instruments, and they work with that percussion to give “Type A” a propulsive and powerful energy. The changing sound and pitch levels creates the sense of a live performance, which evokes both the sense of traditional folk dance and the imagery of imposing Soviet demonstrations. Takada, meanwhile, doubles-down on the former aspect for “Type B,” with a spectacular guitar and indistinct singing making an exciting song. Like “Ashley’s Song,” these aren’t really genres or styles people associate much with games, and the size of the game’s score allows composers to experiment to a degree to which they might normally not be able.
On the sound test for Brawl and 3DS / Wii U, there’s an interesting note in the songs’ credits information. Both are copyrighted by Nintendo, but with an additional note as being “courtesy of the Tetris Company.” It seems as though the companies have agreed on a sort of mutual ownership of the song; “Theme A” was included in the official Smash for 3DS/ Wii U soundtrack CD – the only other third party music are the Pac-Man remixes, which would have been easier to secure considering that Bandai Namco co-developed the game. While this may have been done for commercial or political expedience, I like to think of it as a perfect example of how Nintendo can work with outside partners. Tetris is one of the most important, fundamental parts of video game history, and while this may be a small element of recognition it’s entirely deserved.
To an extent, Sakurai cuts a figure similar to grandiose iconoclasts like legendary German filmmaker Werner Herzog, who for his classic Fitzcarraldo had a 300 ton steamship hoisted over a mountain in an ode to self-destructive, insane ambition (the torturous making of the film was chronicled in the Les Blank documentary Burden of Dreams). Sakurai hasn’t done anything as dangerous, but his musings on video games – Smash in particular – show an intense vision for their potential. Much of his career has been spent railing against limits to push content, ideas, and his own abilities; the latter came to a head two years ago when his extensive testing for his own games caused him to develop intense tendonitis.
In some ways, Brawl suffers from this ambition; many of its new ideas weren’t as well-formed as they could have been (the Great Maze in the “Subspace Emissary,” or the limits of the Stage Builder, for instance), and perhaps had he dialed back he could have better polished what he had left. But frankly, it was also probably what Smash needed: a crazy, demented burst of creative energy in every direction. This series takes two genres – fighting games and crossovers – that struggle to find innovation or artistic drive, and yet this has managed it, by pushing itself and what it could be.
The score for Super Smash Bros. Brawl, then, represents the game’s greatest strengths: an ability to burst with content and ideas, touch multiple genres, and draw in inspiration from the most famous video games in the medium’s short history to failed cult titles most fans would not even give a second glance. It was something Sakurai would return to; the very next Smash games would have a similarly large number of musicians, and Kid Icarus: Uprising featured six composers (all of whom worked on Brawl) and a full orchestra for several songs. But despite their still incredible ambition, this score still goes further. As music, it’s an absolute joy; as a history of game music, it’s epochal.
Next time: after going so far, Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U are forced to pull back the reins just a bit.
However, we have to admit that this game’s score is simply too big to discuss in just one article. Tell us which of Brawl’s remixes, or even original songs, you especially like! And if you enjoyed this, you might like the previous entries of “Music to Smash To!”
Part 1 – Super Smash Bros. (64)
Part 2 – Super Smash Bros. Melee