Originally published on Pixelitis.net on February 12, 2013.
(Editor’s note: From Drakkhen to Paperboy, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame music.)
Don’t worry. I haven’t gone off my rocker and decided to dedicate a feature to fishing game soundtracks. Rather, I’d like to delve into a phenomenon known as the SNES bass.
Much like how Konami’s sound team had its own signature “orchestral hit” in its early 90s videogame music, several composers utilized a slap bass sound that’s become synonymous with the sounds of early 90s SNES titles.
The slap bass sample in question is taken from a Korg M1, the same keyboard used for the theme to Seinfeld composed by Jonathan Wolff. Oftentimes, detractors (read: 90s Sega kids) will use these instances of bass guitar as a source of derision for the SNES’ sound chip. Indeed, the bass sample is an acquired taste. Some may dismiss it as laughably cheesy, and it very well may be in some cases, but that’s not to say that the sample can’t be found in some fantastic videogame tunes.
So bear with me. I’m going to make a case for the SNES bass.
First thing’s first: let’s get Chessmaster out of the way.
“Title Theme” from Chessmaster
The infamous title screen music from SNES game Chessmaster has lived on as a laughing stock for many videogame music aficionados. Barkley Gaiden creator Eric “CBoyardee” Schumaker sarcastically called it “the song that legitimized chess” in a Youtube comment. Laser Time co-host Chris Antista likened it to the “soundtrack to a vaudevillian retarded character in a cartoon walking slowly down to the bus stop.”
To call the tune’s pacing awkward is a vast understatement. A slap bass riff and horn section that plods along and doesn’t seem to know where it’s going and high-pitched keys that don’t fit in the slightest; you have to wonder if it was a bigger struggle for its composer to program the sounds than actually composing the damn thing. And yet, I can’t stop listening to it on repeat. It’s mesmerizing.
Paperboy 2 (SNES), composed by Nick Eastridge
Based on the original NES tunes, Paperboy 2 SNES only features two different tracks. The main level music is admittedly an acquired taste, and I’m more than willing to admit wearing a set of nostalgia earplugs for this one. Nevertheless, it’s got an urban jazz feel to it. I particularly love the synthesized jazz flute that kicks in after 25 seconds or so.
The random noisy horns that quickly blare in the track might be off-putting, but maybe not as much as when they’re used in the beginning of the bonus stage music. At the very least, the bass riffs here have a nice groove to them.
“Character Creation” from Drakkhen, composed by Hiroyuki Masuno
Drakkhen is a very peculiar RPG. Most of its soundtrack is very atmospheric and filled with strange sounds, yet the track played after starting a new game while creating your four heroes is surprisingly upbeat.
To put it simply, the bass riffing here kicks. Supplied with that are a pleasing keyboard melody and drums with some incredibly technical and interesting odd-time signatures (that I may or may not have mangled in a Youtube video).
Die-hard fans of film composer Vangelis will discover that the melody here is taken nearly note-for-note from the “12 O’Clock” movement of his progressive/classical piece “Heaven and Hell.”
“Tenth Street” from Shadowrun composed by Marshall Parker
The Beam Software-developed Shadowrun title prominently featured bass guitar in a bunch of its tracks, though it might be a stretch to compare its sound to the Seinfeld-y Korg M1 sample. The bass here has a heavier sound to it that fits with the darker cyberpunk atmosphere.
“Boss 2″ from Mega Man X composed by Alph Lyla
You rarely hear any nay-saying when it comes to Mega Man X’s music.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the original X game had plenty of Korg M1 bass in its multi-layered tracks, and it was all-the-groovier for it. In “Boss 2″ it’s used as the perfect adrenaline-packed backup to the lead synth line. Can a human being even replicate those fast-paced slaps?
The Korg M1 sample also takes the forefront in tracks like “Get a Weapon,” and the nifty intro to “Launch Octopus.” The X series took Mega Man and gave it a more serious and edgy tone that was par for the course in the 90s, so giving it that rock-infused vibe (with a touch of funk) seemed fitting.
“Lostside Marsh” from Soul Blazer composed by Yukihide Takekawa
One of the first instances of catchy SNES bass riffs being permanently embedded in my brain can be attributed to Yukihide Takekawa’s Soul Blazer (Soul Blader in Japan) soundtrack. The game’s constant repetition of sealing monster portals by thwacking the same monsters over and over with a sword was made all the more tolerable with some basswork from the game’s numerous dungeon themes. From the thumping in “The Mine,” to the ballad-laden “Seabed of St. Elles” and the adventurous peril of “Solitary Island,” it was difficult not to bop your head to these tunes.
The slap bass craze that enveloped a number of SNES composers may never be fully explained. Perhaps some were avid watchers of Seinfeld and very much enjoyed the theme songs heavy use of it (the show’s viewership averaged more than 12-million in the early 90s). For Japanese composers like Yukihide Takekawa, there’s the likelihood that the prominence of bass can be attributed to 70s and 80s electronic groups like Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Nevertheless, What matters is that as cheese-inducing as it can be, the bass sounds are a staple of early 90s SNES titles and don’t necessarily detract from the system’s musical charm.
Most of the examples of slap bass found in SNES games that I’ve shown are from games I’ve grown up with. With that said, I’m interested in any tunes I may have missed out on. For that, I invite you to “slappa the bass” with me in the comments.
For more boppin’ Soul Blazer tracks, divert your ears to the following two tracks: