Gentle reader, what do you want from videogame music? Because, confession time, I have a… storied past with videogame music versus many of my nerd peers…
This sad fact is by no means universal, but… how do I put this? Ah, here is a good example: If it is retro videogame trivia night (an actual thing that happens, I swear), and I am on deck for “name that tune”, I am probably going to lose. Did I play Mega Man 2 approximately ten million times as a child? Yes. However, can my brain immediately identify Wood Man’s theme as a classic beat meant to invoke the dodging of robotic ostriches? Nope. I know the Wood Man theme, I enjoy the Wood Man theme, but, when divorced from playing the game or seeing a track list, my brain never makes that immediate connection that I am listening to Wood Man’s theme. Why? Because my secret shame is that I played Mega Man 2 over and over again, but I didn’t listen to the music.
Sorry, pointdexters, I’ve been listening to real music this whole time! Ha ha! Eat noogies!
Though, to be honest, this was more of an issue of my environment than anything else. As was the style at the time, I often played videogames at the family “entertainment center”. And, as this beast was predominantly a result of the eighties (even if it was used well into… well… right now… buy some new equipment, Dad!), there was a heavy emphasis on its onboard tape/CD player. So, if I was playing a videogame, I had a choice: I could crank up the (tiny, tinny) TV to listen to DuckTales’ amazing jams, or I could just hit play on whatever album was currently in the player and crank it through the gigantic speakers that adorned the room. And guess which choice my parents heavily encouraged over an afternoon of listening to a Nintendo’s beeps and boops…
Ultimately, I suppose it has always been a matter of how “music” is to my parents in the same way that “videogames” are to my attention starved mind. I need a new videogame every seventeen seconds to survive, and my parents were often compulsively purchasing albums at about the same rate when I was a wee Goggle Bob. They have slowed down in recent years (primarily due to the generational issue of “music stopped being good when I was thirty”), but it seemed like there was a new record on the player literally every week when I was a kid. And, what’s more, if an album turned out to be particularly loved, it would wind up in heavy rotation in that 5-CD advanced sound system (which, incidentally, I believe is the most “luxury” item my father has ever purchased to this very day). As one might expect, I eventually wound up following in my parents’ footsteps as I grew older, so my playtime eventually included my own tunes. This means that, right off the top of my head…
· Breath of Fire 2 was released right about the same time as my dad got the Queen’s Greatest Hits 2-disc set, so I want to say that entire game is fueled exclusively by Freddy Mercury in my mind.
· My mother purchased Blondie’s Greatest Hits when I was finally allowed to have a Virtual Boy (there was some debate on whether it would permanently scar my eyes). This is why One Way or Another always makes me think of Wario.
· And, lest you think this list is only based on my parents’ musical tastes, the legendary Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a Christmas present alongside a Best Buy gift card that got me Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut album. I am more likely to recall Jackson Cannery than Zelda’s Lullaby.
And, to be clear, there were some standouts in my childhood/teenage videogame library. Final Fantasy 3 (or 6) got a pass for “real” chiptunes thanks to Nintendo Power gushing about the music (Nintendo Power gushed about everything, but somehow that penetrated my brain before a playthrough), and Chrono Trigger snuck in there for much the same reason. But beyond that? Beyond games I knew I was playing “for the music”? Sorry, bud, but you can’t compete with this Van Halen CD I certainly didn’t pick up just to impress a girl I liked for ten minutes (yet my enjoyment of Van Halen lives on). My father said that “Sonic Boom! Sonic Boom!” coming from the TV was annoying, so I’m going to keep the Billy Joel cranked up, just as God and/or Dad intended.
But that is not to say if I am playing a videogame, even from the 16-bit era, I don’t want to hear videogame music.
Today’s game is Rock n’ Roll Racing. It is one of those racing titles from before Nintendo and Gran Turismo apparently codified the genre. Like Mario Kart, there are weapons, powerups, and the occasional opportunity to expertly steer into a shortcut or straight off the course. However, unlike the “Mode-7” inspired racers that dominate the genre today, this one looks almost like a classic Zelda adventure with its isometric perspective. This had been seen in many racing games (I will never not have a quarter for Ivan “Ironman” Stewart’s Super Off Road), and had recently been seen in Silicon & Synapse’s own SNES title, Radical Psycho Machine Racing. In fact, give or take the futuristic setting, Rock n’ Roll Racing is RPM Racing 2 in all but name. So why the brand jump? Why forsake the previous game that must have dazzled upwards of thirteen supporters and latch onto a completely different title, potentially offending the rabid RPM Racing fanbase? Simple. When you’ve got rock n’ roll licensing, you make your game about rock n’ roll. Rock ‘n Roll Racing got Bad to the Bone, Highway Star, Paranoid, Born to be Wild, Radar Love, and (most importantly) Peter Gunn. When you’ve got songs like that, you forsake everything RPM Racing ever stood for, and promote the rock n’ roll, baby!
Of course, having the license to a song or six does not mean you can actually play the song. Rock n’ Roll Racing was always intended for the Super Nintendo, and, unfortunately, Nintendo technology of the time could barely support the Clayfighter theme, left alone Steppenwolf belting out a little ditty about being wild. As a result, Rock n’ Roll Racing had to “reduce” all of its greatest hits to chiptunes. And it works! Vocals may be gone, but these are unmistakably the driving anthems that will propel your racer from planet to planet via a rockin’ rocket ship or two. The rock n’ roll of Rock n’ Roll Racing may have been midi-ised for the Super Nintendo (and eventually the Sega Genesis), but it was still recognizable, and thus unlike anything else available at the time. Those dumb baby games with Mario could never support even the slightest slice of Black Sabbath.
But time marched on, and, despite all odds, Rock n’ Roll Racing got a remaster on modern consoles. Silicon & Synapse became Blizzard, had a hit or two with some kind of Diabcraft-watch thing, and someone with an affectionate heart greenlit Blizzard Arcade Collection, a title that featured zero games made by a company named Blizzard, or ever appeared in an arcade. It is a collection, though! And it’s not just a collection of retro titles, either, as every one of the included games (The Lost Vikings and Blackthorne snuck in here, too) included a “best remix” version that modernized aspect ratios, merged levels from different versions, and upgraded the graphics all around (as best as one can do such a thing with 30 year old games, of course). And, in the case of Rock n’ Roll racing, the “real” Rock n’ Roll was finally included, and now the full vocal tracks of these classic hits are available for your racing pleasure.
And I hate it.
I understand that this makes zero sense. When given the choice, if I am playing an 8/16/sometimes 32-bit title, I will listen to “real music”, because that is the way I was raised. But when a game tells me I will listen to “real music”, I’m out. Despite years of conditioning, I immediately find the situation… offensive. You not only want me to listen to Peter Gunn, a song I love, but you want me to listen to the full instrumental track of it? The same song I have chosen to listen to over and over again? You monsters. This modern take on Rock n’ Roll Racing should be the version that grabs my attention immediately. It is a great game! It has got great music! Yet here I sit, switching back to the SNES version, because I don’t want to hear Ian Gillan smashing out his hits. I’m playing a videogame, so I better hear videogame music, dammit.
What do I want out of videogame music? Apparently I want chiptunes. I might enjoy listening to other jams while playing my games, but I absolutely do not want a game to tell me what songs I should be listening to. You hear that, other franchises? I don’t care how funny you think your fake DJs are, I can jockey my own discs, thank you.
So… uh… guess my answer is kind of complicated. I want either my own music, or what my dad will still call “that beepy music”. And there can be no middle ground. What do you want from videogame music, dedicated reader who suffered through this meandering article? Is your answer more… sane?
FGC #577 Rock n’ Roll Racing
- System: Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis, and now part of Blizzard Arcade Collection on modern consoles like Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Super Nintendo WiiU… I mean Switch. There was also a Gameboy Advance version in there, too, but never a 3DO edition.
- Number of players: 2-player split screen, or maybe 4 if you can use modern technology. What’s important is that multiplayer is definitely involved.
- It’s a Personal Problem: This might not be the best racing game of all time or something, but it does have personality in spades. The “lore” for the various planets, racers, and even advertisers is fun all around, and, had this game been even more of a hit, we’d probably be looking at a few Loudmouth Larry Geocities fan pages. Let the carnage begin!
- Favorite Racer: Katarina Lyons is my favorite pick, because she successfully foretold the coming of Avatar (the cats, not the cartoon). She also handles really well. Olaf gets a bonus mention though for being the best cameo/crossover in the Blizzard library.
- Favorite Rival Racer: Ragewortt is some manner of malevolent frog king, and I am here for that.
- Level Up: I appreciate the concept of purchasing new/customizable cars, but, in practice, it seems like you either have to be an expect racer, or “level up” according to the planet difficulty tiers. And I hate leveling up in skill based games! You hear me, beat ‘em ups!? I don’t want to wonder if my proficiencies are subpar, or I just haven’t grinded enough! I don’t need more stress in my life right now! Though I guess it does give prize money a reason to exist, so it can’t be all bad…
- Did you know? I swear the only reason the announcer uses the “(Character) looks lost out there!” expression repeatedly is so that we can get a decent “Olaf looks lost out there!” whenever that particular viking is lagging behind.
- Would I play again: Rock n’ Roll Racing was always on the FGC docket, so it is kind of a wonder it got a modern rerelease just in time to satisfy the random robot. And now I can play its prequel, too! RnRR is the kind of title I always get a hankering to play every five years or so, and I can (hopefully) say my Switch digital library isn’t going anywhere, so we’re definitely looking at some additional rocking and rolling in the future.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Capcom Fighting Evolution for the Playstation 2! Is this evolution, or devolution? We’ll find out! Please look forward to it!