110 | zach: sneaking upstairs to play video games past your bedtime
On December 25, 1997, I unwrapped the marquee gift of my 6th ever Christmas and my life changed in an instant. I’m not sure of my exact words as I tore away the holly-jolly wrapping paper concealing the sublime treasure, but it probably wasn’t terribly different from the sentiments of the young man in this famous video. Much to the chagrin of my poor parents (who were only trying to make their son happy on his 6th ever Christmas), I soon found myself enamored and possibly addicted to the Nintendo 64, a wonder machine that solved problems and answered prayers I didn’t even know I had.
Childhood was still a stupefying blur at that age, but I remember so many vivid details of the games I managed to get my hands on during those first few blissful months, either via parental purchase or a clutch Blockbuster rental: the joyous playgrounds of Super Mario 64, the infuriating time trials of Diddy Kong Racing, the dopey way Ken Griffey Jr. said “Hi, I’m Ken Griffey Jr. Let’s play Major League Baseball” during the opening of Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball. I also remember the main menu theme for StarFox 64.
StarFox 64’s main menu theme, composed by the legendary Koji Kondo (he did the Super Mario Bros. theme…yes, That One) is a simple piece of music. A series of rumbling bass tones echo beneath a plaintive melody that begins humbly but soon stretches higher and higher, straining for the stars and the heavens beyond, nearly finding its way to a deliverance from all the weight and tension it carries…until the bass swells with renewed strength, swallowing the melody whole. The loop resets and we begin from the launch pad once again. I remember hearing this song in a dark room in 1997 long after I was supposed to be in bed, my surroundings illuminated only by the CRT television displaying StarFox 64’s main menu, asking me what I wanted to do. To quote a famous Pitchfork review, I had never even seen a shooting star before. But I had heard Koji Kondo’s StarFox 64 main menu theme in a dark room in 1997.
This mix is comprised exclusively of music found in video game soundtracks between 1992 and 2010. Although I didn’t exactly plan it this way, these specific years are significant to me: I was born in 1992 and I graduated high school in 2010, so this is something of a childhood snapshot told through video game music (as long as we skip over the fact that no, I wasn’t actually playing Mario Paint fresh out of the womb in ’92). In the latter part of those 18 years, game development budgets ballooned with the rise of “triple-A games” that sought to recreate the blockbuster action and drama of Hollywood films. As a result, many contemporary video game soundtracks (indie games aside) have the polish and pedigree of a John Williams score. Some of these soundtracks are utter masterpieces, but they wouldn’t fit here alongside the charming downtempo jank of Glover or the sleazy Casio funk of Pilotwings 64.
Perhaps the best illustration of this divide between old and new comes early in the mix, when the aforementioned StarFox 64 main menu theme leads into the galaxy map theme from Mass Effect 2, a triple-A space opera from 2010 with a fully orchestrated score. The map theme plays on a loop (as many of these pieces do) whenever your character steps onto the bridge of the spaceship under their command and sets a course for distant planets. It is somehow both urgent and tranquil at the same time, brimming with excitement about a future full of intrigue, danger, and possibility. In 2010, it fired the exact same neurons in my brain as StarFox 64 did back in 1997. Today I hear both of these pieces and can only look backwards; I find that notion terrifying and comforting in equal measure.
Here is a mix is dedicated to all my fellow gamers. If you don’t play games, today is a great day to start. This one is best enjoyed in the dark while playing something relaxing before bed.
( video games, chiptune, ambient, lo-fi )