January 5, 2011 11:00 PM | jeriaska
Game soundtrack albums offer us an opportunity to examine in depth the added emotional nuance that music scores lend to our games. In 2010 high profile releases included albums for Bit.Trip Core/Runner/Void/Fate, Flower, The Path, Penumbra, and Zeno Clash. For those adventurous enough to make a purchase based on brief samples or personal experience with the game, each item is worth investigating.
A trend more visible in recent months has been the use of online services for distributing music without cost to the developer. Bandcamp proved to be a particularly game-friendly platform, with both Plants vs Zombies and Super Meat Boy albums claiming top spots on online sales charts, together with Disasterpeace's chiptune vision quest Rise of the Obsidian Interstellar. The convenience of SoundCloud made it a popular option in 2010 for sharing videogame tracks, Pause Music offered intriguing low-fi scores alongside their chip music EPs, and OverClocked ReMix threw their hat into the soundtrack album ring.
Below are the albums of 2010 that resonated most with me, listed alphabetically. Appended are suggestions for further listening, all of which is either downloadable or streaming online for free in its entirety.
Alpha Squad. Written by Stemage (guitarist Grant Henry), the soundtrack to Alpha Squad was available in limited distribution in late December courtesy of the creator of Metroid Metal. Nerdcore aficionados will know the game cover band from performances at PAX concerts on both coasts. There's something familiar going on here, in that the artist's debut game score displays the same razor sharp attention to detail invested in his live adaptations of Hip Tanaka's NES compositions. There's also quite a lot that's unfamiliar to gaming, particularly in the pristine engineering quality of the electric guitar recordings. While emulating the adrenaline surges of its satirical alpha male protagonists, the shredding never loses its intentness of focus. 16 jams carve out lucid dreamscapes in service of the forthcoming interactive narrative. Name your price for the album through Bandcamp once the game is released on Xbox Live Indie Games.
Hell Fire and Brimstone. High Frequency Bandwidth's entrance into the PixelJunk series continues Q-Games' impressive track record for introducing to their games the experimental forms discovered at local dance clubs and art shows. With their background in sound sampling, UK hip hop duo Alex Paterson and Dom Beken (previously of The Orb and Transit Kings) synthesized stems capable of morphing in reaction to in-game circumstances. PixelJunk Shooter's soundtrack even earned the game a BAFTA Award nomination. HFB's debut album elaborates upon the Playstation Network title's background music, introducing new performances by Dynamax and other artists. It's not the same as what you've heard in game, but give it a try, as the entire album is streaming for free on SoundCloud.
Hydorah. A three-year concerted effort by a coder and musician in Andalucia, Spain, Hydorah captured imaginations far and wide upon the sudden appearance of the freeware shooter. Gryzor 87, the author of an in-depth manual for Pixel's pxtone music software, features an array of classic Korgs and Casios... even a 17th century-sounding muselaar makes an appearance. Scintillating concepts like the Spanish vocal track "Path of Scylla" appear out of nowhere, matching shot-for-shot the surprises of Locomalito's explosive gameplay. Mp3 files for the fifty-track score come packed with the game, while an arrange album featuring renditions by indie game composers SoulEye, Mattias Häggström Gerdt and Pocket Groovy is due out later this month via Bandcamp.
Kaleidoscope. Game arrangement community OverClocked ReMix posted the soundtrack release for Morsel's 2D hop-and-bop Kaleidoscope. The Xbox Live Indie Game was a finalist for Microsoft's Dream-Build-Play competition, centering on a coloring book theme that bridged sight, sound and play. Synthetic instruments crop up in layers as the player collects red, yellow and blue power-ups. Composer Mattias Häggström Gerdt has previously expressed his fascination with the history of videogame music through his numerous remixes, while with Kaleidoscope he navigates the pioneer territory of dynamic interactive score. Those who download the soundtrack care of OCR, be on the look out for Cobalt by the same artist, nominated for an Excellence in Audio award in the 2011 Independent Games Festival.
Knifetank: The Albumhole. Of Boing Boing Arcade's nine off-the-wall browser games, few embody the irreverent, brainy spirit of the intertubes culture blog quite as vividly as Knifetank by Doctor Popular and company. Game Boy compositions by 8bitsf chip musician Crashfaster (also of EFF 8-bit victory fame) assist in punking out the retro visuals and gameplay aesthetic. The "Albumhole" further elaborates on the score by featuring remixes by Doc Pop, 8bit bEtty and Minusbaby. The team promises to plunge deeper into the Knifetank universe with the Hauntening soundtrack to their point-and-click adventure follow-up, created in 24 hours at Noisebridge. Keep an ear to the ground, as said albumholage will be rolling out soon on Bandcamp.
Melolune Soundtrack Part 1. Alongside the release of the Melolune downloadable demo, Plants vs Zombies composer Laura Shigihara shared the first part of the game's soundtrack. "Zombies on Your Lawn" has taken YouTube by storm and earned an award from the Game Audio Network Guild. In the musician's first self-produced game, there are observable links to SNES-era role-playing titles in the hummable melodies, while the incorporation of vocal tracks sung by the composer ambitiously expands upon the familiar terrain the JRPG genre. The introductory musical installment can be heard in full on Bandcamp.
PPPPPP. The chiptune soundtrack to old school platformer VVVVVV comes courtesy of Swedish musician Magnus "SoulEye" Pålsson. Inspired by the Amiga demoscene, the artist's upbeat compositions display a precision and efficiency of form that game designers of all disciplines can aspire toward. According to the musician, the title stands for an alliterative rundown of important character traits: persistence, power, positivity, passion, potential and purpose. Hear all the central tracks in their entirety on SoundCloud. A remix album by various artists is due out soon.
Prismatic Solid. Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso of SuperSweep have epitomized the word "prolific" in their output of electronic videogame music over multiple console generations. While contributing background tracks to the Ridge Racer and Street Fighter EX series, they've never been too busy to support doujin gatherings like Comic Market and M3 or appear for their regular DJ sets in the Tokyo area. When a programmer colleague at Namco Bandai approached Sampling Masters Aya and Mega to score an Xbox Live Indie shooter he was crafting in his spare time, the sound team supported his independent vision by financing the score themselves and publishing the soundtrack album through their privately owned label Sweep Record. The music is available through the Sweep Record shop on disc, can be sampled on the official cross-fade promo, or accessed in-game on XBLIG.
Super Meat Boy. Game composer Danny B.'s generous contributions to independent gaming in 2010 included the deeply memorable soundtracks to Canabalt and Gravity Hook HD. The audacious beats of the Super Meat Boy soundtrack, among other elements of the overall design, brought mainstream attention to the title months prior to its release. The full soundtrack proved as mesmerizing as the previewed forest track and main theme, with its orchestral flights and low-fi iterations. Hear the entire album on Bandcamp (including arrangements by Inverse Phase and other artists) while the composer readies the physical release on CD.
To Stop You Must Die. Containing tracks "Lovers," "Hidden," "Vagabond" and "Burn" from the iPhone game Kometen, (a collaboration with Erik Svedäng of Blueberry Garden,) few attempts have been made to advertise this Swedish Columbia release as a game soundtrack. Credited to the pseudonymous El Huervo, the familiar watercolor and ink style of the jacket cover is as close as it gets to an admission that Kometen art director and composer Niklas Åkerblad is behind it all. Suffused with the evocative moods that ambient games like Osmos and Machinarium excel at, the composer weaves subtle tapestries of synthetic sounds and live instruments, pirouetting momentarily into an homage to Michiko Naruke's Wild Arms on track "Too Late." The results are well suited to the experience of gobbling up candy-colored satellites in outer space, or just chilling out here on earth. Find it on Juno Download.
Also worth listening and available to hear for free are Break Limit, Cat Astro Phi, Hero Core, Journey Down: Over the Edge, Leap4Blue, Merry Gear Solid 2, Nimbus, The Oil Blue, Osmos, Radiangames' Inferno and other soundtracks, Return All Robots, Shank, Tower of Heaven, Tumblestump 2, Phlogiston's Super Crate Box and Warlock Bentspine, and certainly be sure to check out Pocket Groovy's You Have No Legs.
While we're at it, see also the following free-to-hear chiptune albums related to the independent gaming scene either directly or indirectly. The Best Music offers a sense of what can be done with Cave Story creator Daisuke Amaya's pxtone music software. Dyad composer 6955's EP layers chip music on ambient beds, taking the low-fi form to fascinating new places. Collapsed Desires by Nullsleep came out the same year as PongVaders and Return of the Quack. Listen to "Pleasure Construct" performed on different nights for insights into the improvisatory potential of chip music. 4mat's sublime Decades anticipates the forthcoming Depth, while Derecha by Minusbaby is contemporaneous with Bit.Trip Fate.
Outside the realm of chip, Expansion Pack by Metroid Metal precedes Alpha Squad. IWADON by Game Music 4 All features arrangements of Iwatsuki's classic Natsume soundtracks by the composers of Kaleidoscope, Alpha Squad, Hydorah and Knifetank. Plants vs Zombies... is it an indie when the studio is contemplating an IPO? Hear the composer of Melolune score the popular puzzle game by PopCap. Psychic Temple is a road trip of self-discovery, highly personal and outrageously collaborative, by the composer of the long-awaited NightSky. Alphabetically last, but not least, We Express Ourselves with T-Shirts is a fanciful, freeform compilation by 2011 IGF nominee Mattias Häggström Gerdt.