New Soundtracks for Classic Games

In Andrew Schartmann’s 33 1/3 series book Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, the game’s bleeps and bloops — totaling only about 90 seconds of chip-tune ear worm material — are used to illustrate the forward progress of video games as an art form, pointing to the game’s soundtrack as a key point in the shifting landscape: this is real music, written by a real artist, for a game that would become a real part of our upbringing and social consciousness.

I grew up with the NES, and then the Super NES, like many of us did: with the sounds and music filling the dark corners of my room as I struggled to solve games filled with weird robots and turtles and goblins with long scary pixelated pitchforks. This was my first soundtrack — the sounds of coins, the water waltz, the foomp of fire from a lava pit.

It wasn’t just those sounds, though. I had a second soundtrack, too.

Not so much of a soundtrack, really. More of a thing happening in the background; a brief distraction that turned into a burned-in memory: a bootleg copy of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be playing on my friend’s stereo.

The scene: two grade-school aged kids, sitting on the bed, struggling our way through world 8 of Super Mario Bros. Two points of discovery converging in one spot: this was our first time on the final level of the game, and it was hard, all while my friend’s brother’s cassette played in the background in a long stream of explicit sexual horribleness.

I don’t remember finding any kind of enlightenment or drive from the tape — mostly, we were scared we were going to get caught, and we were probably even more scared that we might mess up and have to start the game over. I don’t even remember if we ever beat Super Mario Bros. that day. But I remember that album, that level, that situation.

I remember thinking I’d get caught. And I know I never listened to it again — it wasn’t good, you know. But it’s still forever paired with that game. Buzzy Beetle’s and Luther Campbell, together 4 eva

The right video games — the good video games — allow us to focus in at a level that closes off the real world, and we are immersed as we control our avatar and navigate whatever it is we are programmed to navigate. The music becomes a part of that, and it’s always as much a time as a location. When I was in a public spot — the living room, my grandma’s house during the summers — it was the sound of the game itself. This is how I remember the stage music of Street Fighter II and Mega Man 2. This is why I feel affinity for the light world time in The Legend of Zelda: A Link To the Past.

But when I played video games in my room or my friends’ rooms, they were backed by a stereo, mashing up the official with the supplementary.

Rad Racer was backed by Prince’s soundtrack to Batman. Countless Super Mario Kart battles were scored to Metallica’s Master of Puppets. I worked at Best Buy when Final Fantasy VI was released stateside, so my soundtrack was a mix of albums purchased with my employee discount: U2’s Rattle and Hum on cassette, They Might Be Giants’ Lincoln and Flood, Pigface’s Gub, for when I thought going an extra level deeper in the Nine Inch Nails catalog was normal.

They weren’t timed and integrated with the games. But they were part of the experience nonetheless, my unknowing life hacks turning into long-term nostalgia. Most of the time, when I think of Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo, I can still feel the sun, I can still see the room set up in the same way, and I can still hear “Master of Puppets”. Whenever I replay Final Fantasy VI and I reach the Ghost Train, I am surprised that Bono doesn’t pop out for a too-serious treatise on how Charles Manson stole a Beatles song.

It’s not always 2 Live Crew, and I’m thankful for that. But it’s always something. The connections our brains make are weird, and that’s about as insightful as I can get when I talk about bleeps and bloops and the music we use to cover them up.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 31st, 2018