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Anatomy of VGM #10: Super Castlevania IV (1991)

super-castlevania-iv-snes-front-cover.jpg

Konami’s composers were no strangers to writing ambitious music for the Castlevania series by 1991. This is the company that made their own custom NES expansion chip (the VRC6, my one true chiplove) and used it to enhance this game’s immediate predecessor (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse). A good decision; that’s for certain. The Super Nintendo, though, brings an entirely different approach to creating music, though – instead of programming sound generators, you’re using sampled sounds. Super Castlevania IV came out early in the system’s life, but to my understanding, it wasn’t even Konami’s first effort for the system – their port of Gradius III came out months before in Japan… which may be a moot point, since I don’t know if the games shared composers. The important bit, though, is that Super Castlevania IV is an aural high point in a series well regarded for its musical achievements. The game’s pretty good too, although I’ve heard complaints about the reduced difficulty…

SC4‘s main achievement as a soundtrack is its unprecedented emphasis on atmosphere and ambience compared to previous Castlevania OSTs. Previous titles weren’t complete strangers to this, and Dracula’s Curse in particular has its share of creepy tunes, but this game uses its expanded aesthetic variety to explore an even greater variety of moods and concepts. This commitment begins at the very title screen – where Dracula’s Curse began with an alternatively triumphant and mysterious prelude, Super Castlevania IV introduces itself with brooding dissonance that eventually gives way to darker, more ominous repetition. Future Castlevania soundtracks take advantage of the extra mindspace this one opened, but they rarely get this dark – even the SNES port of Rondo of Blood (Dracula X) focuses more on rocking anthems. Here, the tracks are generally more sombre than scary, but it still fits the ambience. Besides, the fear of losing Simon to one of this game’s tougher challenges should be all the fear you need.

This isn’t to say that Super Castlevania IV is free of the more driving tunes its predecessors popularized – you need only clear the first few screens to hear the famous “Theme of Simon Belmont”, which is written to the same specifications that introduced the earlier NES Castlevanias, even if it trades in their square waves for keyboards and woodwinds. Despite the newfound expansion of sound, I’d say there’s about a 50/50 split between these two styles. It’s actually not long before the two start mixing – stage 3-3 places Simon in submerged ruins, and introduces a hint of off-kilter jazz, making for an strange but welcome stylistic fusion. There aren’t any other genre bends in this game that quite match up to this – from the vantage point of 2017, it’s more of a preview of the sort of experimentation video game musicians would engage in as their technical barriers were lifted. Still, it’s neat – I wouldn’t have expected jazz music to fit in a game like Castlevania, but with the right setting and a skilled hand on the conductor’s baton, it works wonders.

As previously stated, Super Castlevania IV‘s lessons were well applied on the future games’ OSTs, but few of them got as moody as this one, at least in the series’ prime. I won’t judge the tracks here for their overall mood, but if you want an especially dark and haunting soundtrack, this one is an excellent bet.

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Anatomy of VGM #9 – Diablo II (2000)

diablo 2 boxart.jpgNote: This review will also cover the music of Diablo II’s expansion pack, Lord of Destruction.

The greatest tragedy of Matt Uelmen’s professional life is almost certainly that he was not present to ensure that Diablo III’s soundtrack would live up to the daunting standards of its predecessors. The less said about that one, the better. The music in Diablo II, on the other hand, expands on the techniques of its predecessor much like the game underlying it – there’s more of it in more styles with more variety of instruments, but the overall approach hasn’t changed. Predictable, yes, but I don’t think you can reasonably complain about sequels taking this approach.

In short, Matt Uelmen’s work on the Diablo series mixes Western symphonic traditions with dark ambience, and a tinge of rock and electronica for flavor’s sake. The balance varies throughout the environments that the player traverses in their quest to bring down the Prime Evils – from the Middle Eastern inspired deserts of Aranoch, to the entirely orchestral and even heroic accompaniment to your traversal of Mount Arreat (although to be fair, Lord of Destruction came out a year later, and its music is arguably a separate work). Each track isn’t especially long, but they’re densely packed, evolving gradually and sometimes ending in completely unexpected territory, but consistent instrumentation and recurring themes help to keep these soundscapes coherent.

Matt Uelmen has the rare and subtle talent to required to balance both ambience and narrative songwriting in these tracks, meaning that melodies and leitmotifs not only exist alongside the sounds of dark dungeons and demonic combat, but they also compliment them. One of the high points of playing this game properly (instead of just killing Mephisto until Tyreal snaps and begs you to stop for your own sanity) are the moments when you’ve just emerged from a difficult fight; a soundscape of blood, broken bones, elemental chaos, and the screams of the damned gives way to ominous, creeping terror. In short, you may have prevailed for the moment, but you’re still deep in the territory of a nightmarish enemy that could kill you in an instant… …at least on higher difficulties. For all the strengths of Diablo II‘s music, this is still a case where the actual game enhances the effectiveness of the soundtrack, which is surprisingly harder than the common opposite.

While many an action RPG has surpassed Diablo II‘s mechanics (Grim Dawn comes to mind; maybe I’ll write about that at some point if I feel the need), few have come close to its aural mastery. For all we know, Blizzard might make it freeware in a few years, just like what they did with Starcraft

Neal Stephenson – Seveneves (2015)

sevenevesYears spent in the Neal Stephenson fandom have taught me that the guy has two distinct modes as an author of fiction. His most famous voice is his philosophical one, dedicated more towards ideas than plot and notable in such works as Cryptnomicon, the Baroque Cycle, Anathem, etc. Stephenson does, however, have some action/suspense oriented writing to his name; Snow Crash and Reamde come to mind and don’t exactly read like philosophical fiction. Seveneves fits the latter, being slightly terse and markedly darker than average, and therefore presumably being a couple of notches downwick of the Hylaean theoric world.

A quick disclaimer: Seveneves is not canonically related to Anathem or its concepts beyond it sharing an author.

Anyways, Seveneves leads off with the shattering of Earth’s moon, which over the first half of the book or so disintegrates into a cloud of rocks that rain down on Earth and kill almost the entire population, with the exception of a few desperate survival schemes. Most of the book focuses on the development of the “Cloud Ark” – a huge collection of small space habitats centered around the International Space Station – and the people that come to inhabit it. Things go especially wrong for it considering that this is a Stephenson book – construction accidents and internecine political conflicts lead to all sorts of Ark-threatening events and make some of the terrible things Stephenson has put his characters through in previous works (Daniel Waterhouse’s kidney stones, Zula Forthrast’s kidnapping, etc.) seem light in comparison. That humanity pulls through such a crisis is part of the book’s marketing, but I spent much of the tense middle wondering how they would do so and/or shocked at how they were killed off.

The last third of the book is separated from this suffering and tribulation by 5,000 years, and depicts a society very different from ours; their culture derived from video recordings of the Cloud Ark, and their genetic material deliberately altered in the name of surviving the difficult conditions of space habitats. The species’ population has by then recovered enough for political fragmentation to alter how they deal with the revival of the Earth, which makes for refreshing reading after the doom and gloom of the first part. I personally would’ve liked to see more of the book set in this future; what I read about these people was fascinating, but in many ways only scratched the surface of what this sort of world was like. After all, this sort of world-building is one of my favorite aspects of science fiction literature.

If you’re already used to Neal Stephenson’s idiosyncrasies, there’s a good chance you’ve already read this book, and you probably should if you haven’t, since it hits most of the same notes while working in more action and drama than usual. For the rest of our species – this book is indeed fairly representative of his style, although the characterization seems more developed, perhaps due to some of the subjects this book deals with. It also stars Neil DeGrasse Tyson in all but name; if that doesn’t sway you, your mental defenses are stronger than perhaps desired by the corporate elites of society.