Punch Out

Cover Story (1 of 2)

Ah, the music of our youth. Does anything stoke the fires of nostalgia quite like the melodies that charmed and blessed our younger, carefree days? You know, like the theme from Super Mario Bros. and stuff.

If you’re like me, and if you’re reading this you probably are, the music of your youth was as much Zelda as Madonna, as much Star Fox as Starship, as much Earthbound as Nirvana (think about it.) So now, with access to unlimited music thanks to my brand-spanking new Spotify account, I’ve continued on with one of my longest-running musical obsessions: finding dope-ass cover tunes of my favorite Nintendo theme songs.

I’ve recently put together a new Spotify playlist, which is perhaps the single most boring thing anyone could ever tell another human being. I don’t care, though. It’s my blog and I’m going to write about it.

… it’s a playlist of essential Nintendo franchise themes arranged chronologically in the order of each individual series’ debut, each represented by as representative a cover track as I could find in Spotify’s archives.

So boring.

1.) Tina Guo, “Super Mario Bros.”, Game On –

Tina Guo is a Chinese-American cellist. Classically trained, internationally known, and currently signed to the SONY Classical label, she is one of the more traditional recording artists represented on this list… and she’s going to come back a couple of times, as the arrangements on her tracks, by composer and frequent Hans Zimmer arranger Steve Mazzaro, are second-to-none, to say nothing of Ms. Guo’s exquisite artistry with a bow in her hands. Koji Kondo’s legendary tracks for Super Mario Bros. are notoriously difficult to cover: they don’t really lend themselves to rock interpretation, nor to full orchestral accompaniment. While I’ve always felt the SMB music is best covered by jazz quartet, Ms. Guo’s medley finds a happy marriage between classical and rock, not surprising given her proficiency with the electric cello. The medley covers the original game’s “Ground Theme”, “Underground Theme”, and “Game Over” theme, with “Bob-Omb Battlefield” from Mario 64 thrown in for good measure. Many Super Mario medleys leave much to be desired. This one is easily one of the best ones out there.

2.) Tina Guo, “The Legend of Zelda”, Game On

It may seem sacrilege to include a Zelda representative track that ISN’T from Symphony of the Goddesses, but in looking for a single radio-length track that really encompasses the core of the franchise, Ms. Guo’s Zelda medley is, again, my preferred choice. Perfectly blending the classical and rock aesthetic, this track covers the Legend of Zelda “Main Theme”, the first game’s “Underworld Theme”, “Fairy Fountain”, and “Gerudo Desert”. Truthfully, I may have personally chosen “Dragon Roost Island” or “Ballad of the Goddess” instead of “Gerudo Desert” in orchestration, but “Gerudo” is a fantastic track and it’s tough to criticize its inclusion here.

3.) VomitroN, “Metroid: (1 of 2)”, NESessary Evil

This is where we start to tread into more familiar video game cover music territory: hard metal covers. VomitroN is, to quote, “an experimental heavy metal band hailing from Nebulon V, specializing in kicking faces and melting asses.” So, you know… they’re a metal band. Amongst their offerings are two CDs-worth of long-form video game cover tracks, orchestrations that capture each featured game’s entire sonic footprint in one or two fully-realized suites. My choice of “Metroid: (1 of 2)” as my Metroid representative on this playlist is controversial inasmuch as it includes covers of music ONLY from the original Metroid, and NOT anything from the acclaimed Super Metroid or Metroid Prime scores. That original game’s soundtrack, though, with its one action cue of “Brinstar” surrounded by discordant musical desolation, is what best captures the aural essence of the franchise’s identity, IMHO, and the best and most polished medley of tracks from Metroid are present in this first half of VomitroN’s Metroid suite.

4.) Nestalgica, “Punch Out!!: Match Theme”, Feed. Play. Sleep. Repeat.

One of the most prolific artists of the “video game cover tunes” genre, Nestalgica is legit just, like, one dude from Sweden… but he’s been actively covering Nintendo tracks since 2006. He’s a granddaddy of the art form and a must-listen Nintendo rock guitarist (in a world just chock full of Nintendo rock guitarists; was that sarcasm? Not even I can tell.) The Punch Out!! music, sparse though it is, is fantastic, and surprisingly not covered as often as one might think. Nestalgica’s arrangement touches all the essentials required in a cover of the Punch-Out!! fight music: the pre-match fanfare, the match music itself, the knock-down danger music, and the victory flourish. No training music, but hey… nothing’s perfect. (Of course he covered the training music in a separate track. Are you kidding? The man’s a legend.)

5.) Tina Guo, “Tetris”, Game On

Look: Nintendo at least PUBLISHED Tetris. Going through Nintendo’s musical history, I’d feel something was amiss if I omitted the game synonymous with the Game Boy… or at least, the game that WAS synonymous with the Game Boy until another soon-to-be-mentioned franchise began. This is a reimagining of the track referred to as “A-Type” in the game, which itself is actually an adaptation of the 19th century Russian folk song “Korobeiniki“, which tells the story of the love affair between a young peddler and a peasant girl. Ms. Guo’s reinterpretation of “Korobeinki” gives the tune, in its brief four minutes plus of running time, the narrative heft of the original story upon which it was based, turning the soundtrack to the greatest selling video game of all time into a symphonic movement that would feel at home as a cut from the landmark Russian symphony, Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter & the Wolf.

6.) Kirby’s Dream Band, “Fever (From Dr. Mario)”, Singles

Hailing from San Diego, CA, Kirby’s Dream Band’s “About” section on all of their social media pages simply reads, “Pink Rock”. Unsurprisingly, they cover a lot of Kirby tracks. Surprisingly, they cover a lot of other games, too. “Fever” is a neat little bop with a dope bassline and electronic accents, and the Kirby’s Dream Band spin on it carries all that through while throwing a driving percussion and rock guitars into the mix. It is irrepressibly hummable.

7.) Mariachi Gallos de Mexico, “Fire Emblem”, Mi Lindo Son je Jalisco

I was all set to use a version of “Together We Ride” for the Fire Emblem entry, until I stumbled upon this. The Mariachi Serenaders of Mexico (my best translation attempt) have, for some reason, included on their eighth studio album of traditional Mexican mariachi music… this amazing cover of the main Fire Emblem theme, mariachi style, right down to the throaty brass and the delicate plucking of guitar strings. It is bizarre and random; not in that the fine people of Mexico can’t enjoy Fire Emblem as much as anyone else, but inasmuch as this is the ONLY video game track the Mariachi Gallos have covered over 50+ recorded songs, and the ONLY track listing in English on any of their 8 albums. Why is it here? Did someone lose a bet? Who cares? Mariachi music is magnificent, and so is this cover.

(You thought I was kidding?)

8.) Nestalgica, “Mute City”, … and Nostalgia For All

There are a lot of “Mute City” tracks floating around out there on the Internet, so for F-Zero‘s entry we turn to the tried-and-true guitar licks of Netsalgica. There’s nothing fancy going on here; “Mute City” as it appears on the Super Nintendo is a rock track done via midi file, anyway, so Nestalgica’s cover of it has only to bring this wooden boy to life. Mission accomplished.

9.) Rare Candy, “Kirby’s Dreamland – Sand Canyon 2, Green Greens”, Bomber Blue/Gallant Green

What I like best about this Kirby cover from Chicago-based rockers Rare Candy is the combination of whimsy and adrenaline. Whimsy is in no short supply in the Kirby franchise, and what Rare Candy has done here is laid down a no-nonsense rock bedrock for the “Green Greens” melody line, itself hammered out on baby piano, to bounce along to. The resulting concoction is frenetically sweet and as cute as a tornado, as good a musical metaphor for Kirby himself as you’ll ever find.

10.) The OneUps, “Title Screen” (Mario Paint)”, Volume 2

The Beatles of the video game cover genre, the OneUps have been at this for a long time; since 2002, to be precise. Their discography goes 7 studio albums deep, and perusing the group’s musical evolution is well worth the time and effort for any gaming music aficionado. I know that Mario Paint isn’t really a FRANCHISE, per se, but the sparse little ditty from the game’s title screen is one that has stuck with me for years, and it’s no surprise that the one cover of it worth listening to comes from the OneUps, a band with an eclectic repertoire that includes a cover of the Mii Channel music, a sax-centric swing on “Koopa Beach” from Mario Kart, and a Super Mario Bros. 2 gangsta rap. If you’re interested in taking a sharp left turn and veering away from traditional gaming covers, the OneUps are your band.

11.) Joshua Morse, “ROYGBIV”, Arcade Attack!

It’s the music from Rainbow Road (don’t ask me which one; they all blend together to my ear.) Of COURSE it’s done up in electronica! Mr. Morse’s Arcade Attack! is published through GameChops, a publisher of EDM-inspired video game cover albums that seems the natural evolution of genre granddaddy site OCRemix. A composer and coder by day, Mr. Morse takes Mario Kart‘s most iconic track and places it pacifier-and-glow-stick-deep into a rave, right where it belongs. If ever music sounded like a multi-colored strobe light w/laser side FX, it’s this track right here.

And that is part one of our list… divided into two parts because, otherwise, it might be TL;DR for ME, and I wrote it. Tune in next time, when we’ll go on to franchises such as Pokemon, Star Fox, and… SPLATOON!

Yeah, like I was going to do a Nintendo music list and leave off Splatoon. You’re lucky I’m not adding Codename S.T.E.A.M.

(I checked. Nobody’s covered it. Sad face.)

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Making the Grade: 9/13/17 Nintendo Direct Edition

It seems as though E3 just happened, but the next major Nintendo Direct in the Switch era was broadcast two days ago. Lots of the big surprises coming out of this Direct actually involved 3rd party games (I’m looking in your direction, Doom and Wolfenstein); a lot of the coverage dedicated to Nintendo IPs was expanding on information we already knew, and as a lot of this direct focused on 2017 games I think it’s best to wait and pass judgement on what franchises may and may not appear in 2018 and beyond. Still, a few pieces of information came out about Nintendo IPs that could move the needle on our power rankings in one direction or the other, so let’s take a glance.

As always, I’ve highlighted the franchises that have switched tiers, with a (+) for those that have been upgraded, and a (-) for the downgrades. As always, feel free to disagree.

Tier A: Fire EmblemThe Legend of Zelda, Mario Kart,  Metroid, Pokemon,  Splatoon, Super MarioSuper Smash Bros.

No moves here into or out of Tier A. I write this on the day a new Metroid game debuts, while Super Mario Odyssey featured heavily in this direct and looks poised to actually give Breath of the Wild a run for its Game of the Year money. Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon were featured in the Direct, as well as Fire Emblem Warriors and the upcoming Zelda amiibo. No mention of Mario Kart or Smash; the former wasn’t anticipated and the latter, now matter how badly people are disappointed whenever it’s left out of a Direct, isn’t about to fall out of Tier A anytime soon.

Tier B: Animal CrossingDonkey KongKirbyMario & Luigi(+) Mario spin-offsPaper Mario, XenobladeYoshi, Pikmin

Our first bump of the Direct comes here with the Mario spin-off games moving up to Tier B. Mario Party: The Top 100 for the 3DS was announced, and it sounds like the best idea for a Mario Party they’ve had for a very long time: the top 100 games from all 10 console Mario Party games in one collection. Xenoblade Chronicles 2, featured in the Direct, looks amazing, but it’s too deep of an RPG (and too limited in its overall appeal) to crack Tier A, I think. The Mario & Luigi series also got a mention in the form of the upcoming remake/enhancement, Superstar Saga + Bowser’s Minions, and Kirby, in true Kirby fashion, has two games coming: Kirby Star Allies on the Switch, and Kirby Battle Royale on 3DS. The rest of Tier B did not appear, yet remain comfortably where they are.

Tier C: ARMS, Mii games, Pokemon spin-offs.

ARMS DLC got a brief mention in the Direct, but I’m overall not sure how I feel about this IP as a franchise moving forward. The conventional wisdom is, and I agree with this, that ARMS‘ early success (and it IS a very fun game) was undercut by Splatoon 2 coming out just weeks afterwards. I agree: I like ARMS, but I LOVE Splatoon, and I haven’t touched ARMS since Splatoon 2 and Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle came out. So ARMS remains in Tier C, for now. Let’s see if Spring Man ends up in Smash 5, or if another ARMS title hits 3DS or something. We’ll see.

Grade D: (-) BoxBoy!Kid Icarus,  Luigi’s Mansion(+) Punch-Out!!Wario brand games, Star Fox

Two movers here. After debuting on the last version of the list (because I forgot to add it earlier, #SheepishGrin) BoxBoy! immediately drops a tier. I take Hal Laboratories seriously when they say the BoxBoy! saga finished with the third game in the trilogy. Punch-Out!! gets a weird bump here; the original arcade version of Punch-Out!! made a cameo in the Direct, as an assumed part of the new Arcade Archives coming to Switch, and as perhaps the most intriguing title to be teased as included in that collection. Punch-Out!! is such a tricky brand to grade. An evergreen IP with only three home console games to its credit, the best of which was the original, released over 30 years ago and starring a real-life boxer as the game’s end boss in a license that no longer exists and an association Nintendo no longer wishes to make. (Mike Tyson, if you are unaware, has been in and out of jail on a rape/sexual assault conviction since he appeared in 8-bit form on the NES.) Punch-Out!!, though, is still a fairly beloved brand, and any mention of it in a Direct is sure to garner even a little bit of buzz.

Grade E: Advance Wars, F-ZeroMotherPushmo, Puzzle League, Rhythm HeavenRemix series, NintenDogs, Pilotwings 

Just as with Metroid at E3, if Mother or F-Zero or Advance Wars ever show up in a Direct, they’ll get an instant tier upgrade to C or B. This was not the Direct where that happened, though, so loyal fans of those franchises will keep waiting.

Grade F: Brain AgeCodename S.T.E.A.M.Chibi-RoboCustom RoboDillon’s Rolling WesternExciteGolden SunThe Legendary StarfySin & PunishmentStarTropicsWave Race.

Maybe next time, guys. But probably not.

High NEScores

Nostalgia is big business in music. It’s why the Rolling Stones can still sell out stadiums, why “Beatles Cover Band” is a profitable occupation, and it’s why Cheap Trick is still on tour.

Remember Cheap Trick?

Music sticks with us as we grow older, and a song from our youth is one of the few forces in the universe that can, ever so briefly, turn back the hands of time and make us feel young again.

Now: I didn’t really like pop music as a kid. It wasn’t a hipster thing; I just didn’t have much taste. On the other hand, I’ve seen The Symphony of the Goddesses at Madison Square Garden and scored a production I directed of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes hand-picked off of OC Remix. Why did I do those things?

Because old-skool 8-bit NES soundtracks were fresh as hell. Here’s the ten best.

10. Blaster Master (Composer: Naoki Kodaka) – If you played Blaster Master as a kid, and you drive, you’ve either hummed the opening warm-up riff that accompanied Sophia 3rd’s initial blast-off into Level 1 while turning your car’s ignition key, or you’re lying. Sunsoft games back in the day were known for having tricked out soundtracks, and Blaster Master had the best of them. The first half of the game had stronger music than the second half, it’s true… but since the game was freaking impossible (SHUT UP IT WAS) that’s all anyone ever heard, so it worked out.

9. Super Mario Bros. (Composer: Koji Kondo– Millions of thirty and forty-somethings around the world can hum every single piece of music from Super Mario Bros., and not just because Nintendo has re-released the game on pretty much every console they’ve made since. Crafted by legendary in-house composer Koji Kondo, the score to Super Mario Bros. might well be the perfect video game score: catchy and loopable without being annoying (except maybe the castle levels), and better in MIDI form than when played by a full orchestra (although a jazz trio can do wonders with it.) Why so low on this list, then? Maybe it’s repetition; I’ve heard it so often over the years it just doesn’t seem special anymore. Probably, though, because it’s so utilitarian: it’s more practical than it is beautiful. Still, why every 2D Mario game doesn’t use the original 1-1 music for its opening level is beyond me.

8. Punch-Out!! (Composers: Yukio Kaneoka, Akito NakatsukaKenji Yamamoto) – Recently on Nintendo Voice Chat, IGN’s excellent Nintendo podcast, in a discussion about (what else) Breath of the Wild, the show’s hosts mentioned a moment in the game’s wonderful score they particularly enjoyed: when the player defeats a Stone Talus, the mini-boss’ battle theme quickly shifts into a victory motif that incorporates the explosion of the enemy into the score itself. The crew on NVC rightly pointed out that this is no mean feat to accomplish. What they didn’t mention is that it’s a trick that appeared prominently in a Nintendo-published title thirty years earlier: Punch-Out!! Punch-Out!!‘s score is simple: a title theme, a fight theme, a jogging theme, and other bits of incidental music. They’re all great ditties in their own right, but when the game’s hero, Little Mac, gets knocked down by one of his towering opponents, the game’s soundtrack shifts seamlessly into a distress-inducing knockout theme, and by the way, it does the same with a much more hopeful piece of music when Mac knocks down one of said opponents. Punch-Out!!: beating Breath of the Wild to the punch by three decades.

7. Mother (Composers: Keiichi Suzuki, Hirokazu Tanaka) – Here are the genres of music you can find represented on the 8-bit soundtrack of the RPG classic Mother: Rockabilly, Jazz, Gothic, Gothic Funk, New Age, Metal, Industrial, Orchestral, Electronica, Bubblegum, Pop, Alt-Rock, Avant-garde, Japanese traditional, Blues, Medieval, Easy-listening contemporary, Ethereal, Ambient, Novelty, R&B, and Baroque. Here, just listen to all of them.

6. Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link (Composer: Akito Nakatsuka)The Legend of Zelda introduced the Zelda series main theme, composed by Koji Kondo, and it is one of the most iconic and enduring pieces of video game music ever written. That first game also included one or two other tunes that were mostly forgettable; its dungeon theme, though iconic in its own right, is one of the most grating pieces of video game music ever created. But Zelda 2, the much-reviled red headed stepchild of the Legend of Zelda franchise, has a score that begins with a warbling, ethereal title tune and transitions into an overworld track inspired by the franchise’s main theme. Along the course of your adventure you’ll be introduced to the excellent pieces of original music that accompany overworld combat, spelunking, town visits, and the game’s final dungeon. Best of all, in the game’s first six palaces, the player is treated to the track that eventually became everyone’s favorite Smash Bros song. Zelda 2 may not have been a better game than The Legend of Zelda… okay, it definitely wasn’t… but in terms of music, the sequel has it all over its older brother.

5. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest (Composers: Kenichi Matsubara, Satoe Terashima, Kouji Murata) – We could arguably put the whole Castlevania series on this list, but as great as “Vampire Killer” from Castlevania and “Beginning” from Castlevania 3 are, the all-around strongest score in the franchise’s early days is from the most all-around inscrutable game of the entire series, the you-can’t-beat-this-without-a-guide-but-go-ahead-and-keep-trying Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. One of the first major adventure games to introduce a day-to-night enemy cycle, Simon’s Quest had two distinct overworld themes based on time of day and enemy toughness: “Bloody Tears” and “Monster Dance”. The best track in the game, for my money, is “Dwelling of Doom“, the tune that plays in each of the game’s dungeons. So while you may not… okay, will not… be able to beat Simon’s Quest without a walkthrough, at least it’ll sound terrific underneath your screams of frustrated rage.

4. Mega Man 2 (Composer: Takashi Tateishi) – There’s 50 games under the Mega Man brand, so it’s kind of a shame that the best game in the entire franchise was the second one. What IS nice is that the series’ best game has one of the NES’ best scores. Mega Man 2 opens with a musical preamble and scroll up a building to a helmet-less Mega Man, followed by a transition into the game’s driving title theme, a bit of cinematic flair that is dirt simple by today’s video game industry standards but that in 1989 blew my twelve year-old mind. The eight robot master stages and the boss fight theme are all also standouts of MIDI, but the real bookend to the excellent opening track is “Dr. Wily’s Castle“, the first of two tracks that are used as the background music for, well, Dr. Wily’s castle. If you’re interested, at least twenty hard guitar covers of that one are on iTunes right this second. Enjoy!

3. Final Fantasy (Composer: Nobuo Uematsu) – If there’s a video game composer whose legend rivals that of Koji Kondo, it is doubtlessly Nobuo Uematsu, the man behind three decades of music for the granddaddy of all RPG series: Final Fantasy. Final Fantasy was the 8-bit swords and sorcery game of J.R.R. Tolkien’s or George R.R. Martin’s dreams, and the score includes multiple compositions and themes that would become evergreen editions to the Final Fantasy franchise. Fantastic mood-setting fantasy music accompanies overworld travel, combat, dungeon crawling, and town visits, but the game’s soundtrack truly makes its mark in the piece that would become synonymous with Final Fantasy itself. (Not the “Chocobo Theme”; those giant chickens didn’t show up until Final Fantasy II.) The greatest high fantasy game to grace the NES does not open with a fanfare and crash of thunder, but with the crystalline and meditative “Prelude“, an almost reverential piece of music that belies the grandeur and scope of the adventure it precedes.

2. Double Dragon (Composer: Kazunaka Yamane) – This might be cheating. Double Dragon was an arcade hit that was then ported over to seemingly every home video game console of the day, and then continued being ported to the video game consoles of every other day. Point being, the score to Double Dragon is arguably not a NES score. Like the game itself, the music for the arcade was re-orchestrated (so far as MIDI files can be re-orchestrated) to fit the technical specifications of the NES. But… Double Dragon‘s soundtrack is one knockout blow after another (heh heh), the perfect beat-’em-up, chopsocky, 1980’s B-grade Kung Fu movie soundtrack. Faux-“Oriental” motifs mix with wailing synthetic guitar riffs in what might be the single must crunchable video game soundtrack you can shred on with your hair metal tribute band. I don’t know if I’ve used any of those terms properly, but check this out if you want an example of just how righteous the Double Dragon soundtrack can be.

1. Metroid (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka) – If it were somehow possible to convert claustrophobia, depression, and loneliness into musical notes, the resulting composition would probably sound a lot like the Metroid soundtrack. While until this point in popular culture sci-fi adventure came packaged alongside pulsing electronica, Star Wars-style orchestral accompaniment, or the ominous humming of the 1950’s take on the genre, Metroid (partially due to technical limitations) took a different approach: using music to constantly remind players that they were lost deep within the caverns of an alien world and likely would not get out alive. The game greeted players with a discordant, droning title theme interspersed with high-pitched alien-sounding chimes, and opened up with the one up-tempo action cue it would offer. That track, “Brinstar”, was a fake-out, for the further the player guided heroine Samus Aran into the depths of Zebes, the grimmer and more hopeless the soundtrack became. Even the tune that greeted Samus in the chambers that hid weapons upgrade seemed to be singing, “You. Will. Soon. Die… This. Will. Not. Help. Much.” You know what? Here’s the entire Metroid soundtrack. You can have a listen, but be sure to have your therapist on speed dial.

0. Silver Surfer (Composer: Tim Follin, Geoff Follin) – I’mma credit my man Johnny Womack of the pop culture/video game/pro rasslin’ podcast Happy Hour with Johnny & the Duce for reminding me of this gem. The thing about Silver Surfer is that it’s not a particularly bad game. It’s just not a particular good one, either. It’s completely forgettable, not to mention balls-out impossible. But. BUT. Listen to this soundtrack. It’s well known among the small circles who know such things that the soundtrack to Silver Surfer for the NES is apeshit banana-pants. Although it is admittedly on the short side, music this good shouldn’t be doomed to live alongside a game this mediocre. I mean, could the NES even MAKE sounds like this? Was that a thing it could do? Maybe Silver Surfer was so “meh” because they used all of the game’s memory to record the unbelievable epicness that is its soundtrack for all of history to enjoy.

Or maybe Silver Surfer is a terrible character who doesn’t deserve a game better than this. Still, seriously: listen to this soundtrack, and prepare to have your face melted.

(Cover image original link.)