Videogame OST Analysis #2 | Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)
I was only five years old, but I remember most of this stuff...I think.
Title: Sonic The Hedgehog
Composers: Masato Nakamura
Platform: Sega Genesis
Type: Platformer Pop/Jingles
Track #1 – “Title” – 0:08
Most Prominent Appearance – Entire eight seconds
The tune that signaled the ‘finger wave’ was cemented into Sonic’s debut as an easily identifiable theme. More importantly, it was the auditorial fireworks show that followed the universally known "Sega!" logo crawl that preceded most of the Genesis games. The game’s visual appeal and rich audio have certainly aged, but eighteen years ago it was a blast (no pun intended to the processor jokers) in the face to many gamers, both young and old.
Track #2 – “Green Hill Zone” – 2:16
Most Prominent Appearance – First two seconds, for the seamless translation the game makes from the title screen to this zone’s music. Those two seconds connect a quite a bit without even trying to sometimes.
Though the GHZ’s theme music has become a bit over-saturated over the years (various remakes and the like), it definitely deserved the majority of its praise. This is because it’s a symbol for the entire game’s musical wardrobe. Things like the overlay in its melody weren’t really all that common back then, so it had that as an automatic advantage. The thing about firsts or pioneers in any category is that they tend to be spoiled with praise more and more as time goes on. Nostalgia is a powerful force and the Green Hill Zone is a prime example of that. Dynamic in flow, the rhythm is both simplistic and travels in an ironically ascending and descending fashion. By pure happenstance, it’s actually more probable that the player will be traversing this level in tandem with the music’s own beat, which is almost like a set of hills itself.
Track #3 – “Invincibility” – 0:36
Most Prominent Appearance – Majority of the track, specifically the looping theme of the title screen’s music; not so much the transition phase.
Part of the reason why the game’s title music is so ingraining is because the invincibility powerup uses it in a slightly more upbeat fashion for 36 seconds while the player can survive anything but a direct fall into an off-screen pit. The powerups are of course, scattered across most of the levels, but when the player attains one, it becomes and event --- they are essentially in god mode for the better part of a minute. Being that this is early nineties gaming, that kind of thing stuck with players. Through the many platformers of that period, the you-can-touch-me-powerup usually always had music to match it and Sonic was no exception. Something also to note here is the overload of stars that surrounded Sonic in this specific game. They downgraded to a few large twinkles in the sequels, leaving this title as the only one where Sonic had dozens of the damn things flying around him. Those ‘cognitive connects’ are definite aids to the game's visual marriage with its own music.
Track #4 – “End of Act” – 0:06
Most Prominent Appearance – Entire track
Sonic levels are fast-paced and typically very tense. Creating a track to lure the player down from that consistent high is something I’d imagine to be difficult, but this track definitely does it. It was the first batch of beats to follow the slams into those poles. In tune with Sonic’s whole musical motif, it has a signifying sense of conclusion as well. If offers a second of reprieve without trying to relax the player too much before the next level.
Track #5 – “Special Stage” – 1:17
Most Prominent Appearance – The xylophone type tunes in the background
This one is the oddest of the bunch and I'd hold it to the equivalent of being high as a kite when I was only five years old. It's a song that the player must submit to entirely or they'll end up hating it. This submission is pretty damn cool since that's how the levels are built as well; that of partial submission. The tumbling block maze which leads to a Chaos Emerald is setup specifically so that the player only has a certain amount of control. This track is one of partial submission, filled with a very hazy and slow-paced air of having no solid foundation.
Track #6 – “Get Chaos Emerald” – 0:03
Most Prominent Appearance – Entire track
This is a track that pretty much appeared in most of the Genesis games and there was no real reason to touch it. Why? Well, it's as close to a sound effect as it is a melody. Tracks like this provide continuity between games and its debut showcased a very nice instance of having accomplished something significant. Considering how intense some of the special stages could get, this always provided a cathartic release of aquirement.
Track #7 – “Get Continue” – 0:04
Most Prominent Appearance – The entire track. It never gets old
This track is the equivalent to a stranger walking up to you on the street and handing you a twenty dollar bill for no reason whatsoever. Even if the player knows they’re going to get an extra continue at the end of the level, the tune is ridiculously appealing to hear each time. This track is effectively Sonic’s ‘reverse lullaby’.
Track #8 – “1-Up” – 0:04
Most Prominent Appearance – The artificial drum sound
Fleshing out the random batch of music effects is this, which is a stylized and overly compensating sense of “I-just-got-something-awesome”. The edges of the tones almost sound like trumpets and coupled with the drum sound, it helped establish Sonic’s visual thematic in conjunction with its visual appeal.
Track #9 – “Dr. Robotnik” – 1:16
Most Prominent Appearance – First eight beats
This is most likely the most nostalgic track in the game for me, and it’s related to the 1-Up beat in that it’s overly compensating for what’s going on in front of the player’s eyes. It plays during the encounters with Dr. Robotnik and is a very haughty set of high pitched tension tones set against a drum effect. It’s not my favorite Robotnik theme, but it certainly simulated the whole cursory ‘arrogant evil’ thing Robotnik is meant to be seen as, and it does it quite effectively.
Track #10 – “Game Over” – 0:13
Most Prominent Appearance –Last three seconds
This is an almost satirical toned theme in that it was a long drawn out slap of failure that almost lured the layer to listen to the entire thing. Due to that, it could almost effectively (and single-handedly) take the player out of the mood to keep playing, depending on how much they had done so far.
Track #11 – “Continue” – 0:10
Most Prominent Appearance – First four tones
Other than the first four tones, this track is a complete turn off for me. Not because of the quality unique to it, but because of its ties to the concept of trying again. It comes off as the opposite of the Game Over theme when it shouldn’t. It’s actually a very spoiled complaint on my part, but this track doesn’t inspire me to try again. Rather than a successful transitional theme, it just drags out the Game Over theme in an extremely dysfunctional way while the player hovers around the decision on whether or not to keep playing.
Track #12 – “Marble Zone” – 2:15
Most Prominent Appearance – The solitary tones that kick in about every thirty seconds
I never liked the Marble Zone; it always kind of depressed me. Both visually, and through the music, I always got the distinct impression that I was being wacked over the head with something. The culmination of the music, the level layout, and the overall color palette just made this level dreary to me. That being said, the second level’s theme song does have a very subterranean nature and it usually happens every thirty seconds when the rest of the music dies away and the song kind of rests on a solo of sorts as the main theme sets itself up to loop again.
Track #13 – “Spring Yard Zone” – 2:15
Most Prominent Appearance – Anytime the xylophone type tones sounds kick in
I used to love this music when I was a child, but it steadily lost its appeal to me over the years. I didn’t know why until I listened to it as an adult, but the song’s structure repetitively keeps rebooting itself. On the surface level, most of this game’s music does that in general, but SYZ has very precise instances between its transitions. The xylophone-esque sounds consistently save the song, but it always bounces back down. I’d love to say that fits the thematic of a spring, but it almost works in reverse here. The fifteen seconds that keep bouncing the song back just don’t lead up. In fact, they almost lead down --- in sort of a sink fashion. As a closing note however, I’d like to say when I slightly sped the tempo up in this song manually, the song sounded infinitely better; go figure.
Track #14 – “Labyrinth Zone” – 2:15
Most Prominent Appearance – The peak that kicks in every thirty seconds
Although I hate the Labyrinth Zone, its music definitely works for me. The constant twang that the track lets loose meshes with the water-based structure the player has to navigate. There's an instance in one of the Zones where the player is forced to unlock a new path, lest they keep falling down a looping water fall. The first time I became stuck there, it was the music that kept me from chucking something into the TV (I was a very impatient five year old). It's a blanket over a level I otherwise detest and that's something I consider pretty neat. The only thing that disrupts a rather soothing Sonic track is the transition it inevitably has to make once facing off against Robotnik. The fact that the fight is very different however, works in its favor (I also recall a glitch here that shuts off Robotnik's theme and makes the level's main tune starts playing again, but I could be mistaken).
Track #15 – “Star Light Zone” – 2:15
Most Prominent Appearance – The climax that kicks in at the thirty second mark
I remain neutral on the Star Light Zone. While it's very relaxing, the beat always dictates a fairly active pace, which is odd when contrasted with Sonic's own rate of progress. The level does a fairly competent thing here however, and that's being open against a fairly spacious looking background. As far as nailing freedom goes, the song carries off that task well. Being related to the Spring Yard Zone in some regards, it's a lot more easy going, without many constant threats of death. The music is there to catch the player on the chance they do run into something though and that's praise I'll keep granting this track.
Track #16 – “Scrap Brain Zone” – 2:15
Most Prominent Appearance – No passage in particular, just the dynamism of the song.
Scrap Brain is very odd, but in a good way. The melody moves very sporadically, but it always stays consistent with a long 'fluteish' drawl being pressed behind everything else. That of course matches up with the level, which is filled with a very hindering structure of industrial hazards and newly placed obstacles that would be revisted multiple times in the game's plethora of sequels (e.g. the ball-tossers). What really proves this song's worth is how the third level changes everything up. By swapping the Labyrinth Zone's color palette for a dreary pink/purple haze, the song had to visit slightly new ground and it still managed to keep up with the level (which is technically the final formal stage). The only thing that remotely disrupts the level shift in act three are the drum effects, but at the same time they're kind of encompassing and keep the song from becoming too hollow against the newly placed water level; which is a good thing.
Track #17 – “Final Zone” – 2:16
Most Prominent Appearance – Any ascending tone in the track
I'm a sucker for the overdone dramatic tracks and this is Sonic's, making it my favorite piece in the game. Starting off with five very intense beats, it introduces the final boss of the game. Though he's not very hard, the music turns it into an epic confrontation. The height of the track's tones match ideally with the sounds emanating from the electric charges Robotnik sends down to the player. Since those charges happen about every five or so seconds, it forcibly connects the song to the player's actions. The rest of the song is serving as lovely epic fluff to Robotnik's overdone piston-trap-machine-thingermajig. The lower undercurrent of the song's beats also match with the grind that the pistons make when they start. That in turn acts parallel to the high tones I just mentioned, happening every five or so seconds as they smash down...or up. It's songs like this that gave Sonic a narrative climax when he had 'no story' to begin with. The amount of pleasure one can take from the conflict's final moments (Robotnik's ship repeatedly exploding as it crashes downwards) is something I love about this song, as it's nearly an interactive cutscene; finally being able to engage him as he runs away.
Track #18 – “Ending” – 0:19
Most Prominent Appearance – last ten seconds
This is just a remixed version of the title screen's music with a high-pitched ten second addition at the end to signal success and a conclusion. The songs all affect the player in some fashion and this one sufficiently conveys a conclusion.
Track #19 – “Credits” – 2:03
Most Prominent Appearance – Any transition the song makes between level themes
The credit songs in all the Sonic games are always remixed mashups of every main zone's tracks. The transitions being the most relevant portion here, I'd note that the switch between The Labyrinth Zone and the Marble Zone are my favorites (ironic in that they're my two most hated levels). My least favorite is the transition the song makes between the Scrap Brain and Spring Yard Zone (two of my favorites).
1991 was a weird year...