i’ve been meaning to post a review of the soundtrack to the great metroid prime for a long while now. as i mentioned before, listening to the same video game music in and out of the game makes for two very different experiences. in this case, in the game the music is quite fantastic, but outside, though still enjoyable, i found it to be much less so.
i realized pretty quickly that in general some of this difference comes from focusing all one’s attention on what is composed to be supplementary, and so of course elements necessary to video game music, including unobtrusiveness and repetition, detract from enjoying it as a standalone artifact. in addition i found the MIDI sound of the music, sophisticated as it is, stood out on close listening; many times i found myself wanting to hear real strings and real drums, which of course is highly impractical. in the case of metroid prime, i also felt that one of the biggest elements contributing to the difference is the absence of sound effects. the score of the game is often so sparse and gentle that explosive, violent sounds such as beam and bomb blasts form a perfectly contrasting counterpoint; their absence strips the score of more than half of its effectiveness. i was glad to hear this sentiment echoed by famed nintendo composer koji kondo in his keynote at GDC 2007, as paraphrased by the good folk at gonintendo.com:
[Koji Kondo paraphrased:] The balance between sound effects and music. Left and right positioning balance. Sound effects in the level dictate the notes used in a song. Important sound effects should be the most clear, other sound effects should blend more.
despite these drawbacks the score of metroid prime is generally quite enjoyable. i found it interesting that this metroid fan specifically complains about the score:
“Is a cheery whistle-infused tune the right music for exploring an ancient crumbling temple? Does upbeat electronica set the right mood for exploring ice caverns? Taste is one thing, but the game deserved an epic score.”
in a follow-up post he further elaborates:
“Many Metroid fans are attracted to the franchise because of the dark, tense, and mysterious otherworldly atmosphere that the games exude and the music in Metroid 1-3 worked hard to help create this sort of ambiance. … The music in Prime was often too light, cheery, and upbeat to truly convey the same sense of atmosphere that its predecessors did.”
although it’s been a while since i’ve played the original NES game, i think i know what this writer is talking about. the very sections he disliked are the ones i enjoyed the most, and i found them to be wholly appropriate. the original game was all within lava-filled caverns, etc. and the graphics and music were dark and foreboding to give a closed, close feeling. however, in metroid prime many of the environments are on the surface of the planet beneath an open sky saturated with light. the “upbeat” music seems quite appropriate accompaniment for light rain falling on forest greenery, soft snowfall over icy ridges, or dimly lit areas deep underwater. one may argue that the game should’ve made the alien planet itself more threatening, but i think the harshness of the environment and its denizens were perfectly accounted for by the earthy sound effects. definitely a much less alien environment than it could have been, but quite beautiful.
anyway, one more quick link: a guy called stemage has been doing metal covers of metroid songs. on his website www.metroidmetal.com there are 3 metroid prime covers. all three are very well done and well worth checking out, and even if like me you usu. don’t listen to heavy metal you may well find yourself putting these tracks on repeat. he also has a myspace page. lastly, if you’re looking for a copy of the original soundtrack, you can buy an import copy from here.