Video Game Music w/ the James Episode 8 : Super Mario Land

Yeah, I haven’t done one of these in a while… spending a good portion of my day trying to write even a couple of bars of decent music and studying techniques/history via textbooks and audiobooks doesn’t exactly have me wanting to tackle even more music at the end of the day.  I’ll be honest, I haven’t had much motivation.

I’ve also had my hands full with Darksiders which should be finished for review in a couple of days, actually, the only reason I’m not playing right now is because the game froze on me in the middle of a dungeon that I’m not particularly fond of.  Being too lazy to hook up my SNES, Super Gameboy and digging through a bunch of shit for the cartridge, I just settled for my modified wii, classic controller and a digital copy of the game.

Note : The Wired Fish does not support piracy.  Own your games before emulating them.

I am going to have to come out clean and say I fucking suck at Super Mario Land.  Mario’s momentum seems to break too easily and the controls always feel just a little stiff.  I remember never being able to make it past world 3 as a kid and when I tried it out last week, I met the same fate.  Tonight I am proud to say that not only have I finished world 3, but I also managed to beat Super Mario Land, and on one credit!  Admittedly it was a little too close for comfort when I dropped from 18 to 2 lives at one point, but a few lucky bonus games was all I needed.  But we’re not here to celebrate my victory, we’re here to enjoy some music.

While a lot of the later tracks invoke a more exotic feel, this leaves me with no such sentiment.  It’s clear that it wasn’t even the intention which would explain why it plays in the very first level : while it lacks that feel of a faraway land, it’s damn catchy, and the song is one that you’ll be hard pressed to forget once you sing along with a couple of loops.

I tried scrambling to play the melody (with loads of mistakes) on the piano, and when I finally got the notes down, I went through the whole loop again, and again (still with mistakes) and a little slower and a little faster and trying to add chords which failed miserably.  I went on to butcher the song for about twenty minutes before getting my fill and coming back to type this.  Also because I went to the piano to examine the melody, it’s….

MINI-ANALYSIS TIME!

The song itself is a looping A-A-B format leaning toward C major for the first two phrases, assuming my ear isn’t transposing everything to C major again,  and leaning toward its relative minor (A) in the B section.  Each phrase is interrupted by a bell-like repetition of G’s; the first time repeating on the same note and the second time going downward by octave from the higher G.  The overall structure is pretty simple, with a couple of chromatic notes in the B section to make it more complex and darker in tone in contrast with the A sections.

Note : Mini-Analysis time is just my own window to discuss things in slightly more detail for my own enjoyment.  You probably won’t understand my babble and if that’s the case, I encourage you to move on to the next track.

Unlike the last song, this one invokes imagery of the levels in which they are played : A dark, mysterious pyramid or cave.  Being evocative of its intended environment is quite an interesting feat for one of the first games on one of the first major handheld systems, don’t you think?

As we’ll see in the next track, the music fluctuates from music just meant to sound catchy to enjoyable music that also adds to the scenery.  Another way to describe it would be as a fluctuation between program music (music meant to evoke images of its scenery) and absolute music (pure music not meant to be evocative of anything, but rather to sound as pleasant as possible).  Yeah, these terms are more applicable to the big musical schism in the 1800’s, but they can be borrowed for the sake of my argument.

Back to the absolute, we have an upbeat theme that accompanies an over-water adventure quite well.  Another simple but pleasant melody… in retrospect, the very first level arguably has the most complexity to its music so far.  Still, to be granted one of the shortest tracks in the game, it (ideally) has to be crafted in such a way that it sounds catchy enough to endure for long periods.

That said, it does its job.

For the game’s vehicular levels, the music becomes even more upbeat, complex in rhythm and jacks up the tempo.  It’s not surprising that these are also some of the most intense levels in the game switching from a platformer you can take at your own pace to auto-scrolling shooter levels that play a little like Gradius.

Although I might have heard this song via some other means, today was my first time in world 4 if I recall, which would make this my first serious encounter with the track.  I know it’s supposed to have an Asian flavor to it, but I get more of a Native American vibe…   in my defense, they both use pentatonic melodies.

Regardless,  this is the most developed song out of them all, and in my opinion the most effective.  The idea behind the setting of Super Mario Land is that it takes place among different ancient civilizations with a load of fictional elements thrown in.  Because of this, music with cultural overtones would be the most relevant, and for me this seems to be the most culturally charged piece; It doesn’t matter where the music is evocative of, the fact of the matter is that pentatonic scales are as old as they come and can be used to accurately portray some of the oldest civilizations.

This is the song where I said, no, I am not in some fictional faraway land like the Mushroom Kingdom.  I’m in fucking Native America…. or China…. or feudal Japan (the most accurate answer)…  whatever!  The point is, it’s Mario in a world modeled after our own cultural developments and legends.

Just think, the next time we see a Mario game in our own world is when he goes missing!

Annnd with that, I’ll see you around at the next Video Game Music w/ the James!  But before I go…

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