I miss my childhood.
Not just the ample time, easy access to food, friends, and conversation, or the constant knowledge that I was (luckily) loved and cared for. No, these feelings don't even come close to that overwhelming, nostalgic, feeling evoked through play.
I was always a gamer, and our family would play early and often. Board games, you know, are a huge facet of my family's life, but for my brothers and I, the most powerful past time was playing video games together.
Gathered around the dull glow of our old monitor in a dark basement, our eyes transfixed by the image of an intergalactic bounty hunter absolutely wrecking a literal brain with teeth and legs, we watch in awe as our eldest brother, Eric, plays through the climax of Super Metroid. After months of saved games, each of us trying to push a little farther than the other, eager to show and share our techniques and discovered secrets, happily competing for the lead in story acquisition - we were here: Eric was on the final boss. And though we would play on our own, we enjoyed watching each other play, entranced by seeing them retread our steps or find new ways to progress. It was this friendly competition for story and progress that served as the most formative years of my life. It is why I akin playing a video game to reading a good book; you're living the story in front of you.
And in today's world, you can easily look up countless videos of the gameplay we experienced and re-live a modicum of our excitement, but at that time, in the 90s... That was ours. No Twitch stream; no YouTube commentary; no blog post afterward. Just the memory.
No Business Being That Good
I'm going to talk to you about Donkey Kong Country.
A game released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 by Rare Entertainment, "DKC" was a side-scrolling platform game that was one of the first home console games to feature pre-rendered graphics, achieved through the compression of 3D models into sprites. The game is a reboot to the classic Donkey Kong franchise, and expands upon a simple story with new characters, over 40 levels, a main villain, and a whole family of Kongs.
You play the game with Donkey Kong and his much faster nephew, Diddy Kong. You tend to run around each level with both characters, one not controlled by the player following behind like a shaded ghost. When you take damage (or when you voluntarily hit a button), you switch between characters, the former being them getting knocked off the screen and the latter of them switching positions. With the two characters, and two controllers, you could actually play cooperatively or race each other.
Now when I say that there was an expanded plot... King K. Rool stole all of Kong's bananas. You have to get them back. Go.
Not a lot of deep thinking here. That's still more complex than "DK stole a princess and must now be defeated by a stout Italian plumber."
Where DKC shines is where many games of its time shine; its mechanics, execution, and music.
To this day, DKC stands the test of time in its mechanical flow. Moves are millisecond responsive (and they have to be, the game can be downright hard), puzzles are ingenious, it's FUN to play, the environments are slick and interesting, and the game's lessons are intrinsic and consistent. I really miss that last one the most; a good game of this era TEACHES you how to play...through playing. No random text boxes here.
It has no business being this good. Before we go any further, give this a listen:
I can see it. Every button press, the background, the beautiful graphics, and every feeling woven into exploring this new landscape, finding secrets and short-cuts, and trying my best not be eaten by a shark. Though we were Nintendo Power kids, I wasn't one to use maps or guides in the first play through - I think I wanted to experience the game without bias.
Which is so hard to achieve nowadays. Reviews are abound, and games cost a lot, and there's a NAUTICAL TON of them that are poorly made, so we don't want to waste our money. I get it.
I miss the blind trust, in a way. The belief that the game was worth investing in, so I was willing to find value in the struggle. Too often I think people get angry before they even give something a chance. It was my young belief that there was always a diamond hidden somewhere; I just have to find it.
The Second Go Made Me Cry
The first video game soundtrack I ever purchased was Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. All puns aside, the game was great, but I had the soundtrack long before I even played the game. Heck, I never owned the game; I rented it three times, and not once beat it.
But playing it marked the only other time I paused the game to legit listen to the music. The first time I did this was while playing The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past to listen to the Dark World Theme, cuz I'm a monster and I needed to study to something.
THIS time around, though, it was different. And it was this track.
Maybe I was just feeling a lot that day, maybe I was just that locked in, who knows, but that level's music was ARRESTING. I paused the game and closed my eyes and listened to it four times through at least. When I opened my eyes, I felt better...and found myself crying. Quietly, simply, crying.
Now this isn't some groundbreaking piece of superior storytelling. I'm not emotionally connected to the characters on the screen, I'm not synergizing with their personal plight of retrieving bananas from a crocodile in a pirate hat, and I'm not just so invested in their personal quest that I was OVERWHELMED with feeling. The game is silly - that's not the point here.
So why THIS, why then, would I feel something so powerful?
A Connection To My Brothers
Especially to my eldest brother, Eric, who shares many of my side interests.
I think back on a specific memory; a turning point in my life.
As a family, we had a tradition. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas, we would go to the movies, as often there was some big film we all wanted to see. One year it was Batman, another year The Lion King (still one of my favorites). This year it was Apollo 13 (gifted music by the late James Horner). It was an excellent film, I remember, but then the credits rolled.
When credits roll, often that's when the audience evacuates. The story's over, why stay? I began gathering my things, following my parents and siblings out the door to fight for the restroom and be on our way. Then I looked around for Eric and didn't see him. I overheard my mother say something to the effect of, "he wants to stay and watch the credits." Intrigued, and still hero-worshipping my older brother, I ducked back inside to sit next to him and watch the credits too! And when I did, I heard this:
If you want to experience wonder, awe, beauty, and love in a piece of music, there it was. I urge you to listen to this piece in a dark room, quietly. Let it wash over you. Become open to the experience, and let the rest of the world melt away for a moment.
I miss this reverence. I miss composers that had the balls to write something only for those of us that are going to stick around.
There's no mid-credit sequence. No post-credit stinger. Just names scrolling and this masterpiece playing. I felt it in my soul, and it changed me forever.
After that time, I would consume the instrumental scores and soundtracks of every film that graced my eyes. I would listen intently to the instrumentation, electronic and symphonic, and study well the intentions of the composer to convey emotion, tension, characterization; the subtle moments between major and minor iterations, unresolved cadences, and the hidden layers of a film found in its music.
Sitting in that dark, empty room, in complete silence next to my brother...just listening...was the catalyst for the trajectory of my life. It awakened something in me. And moving forward, that extra layer of listening, has impacted how I enjoy stories and how I tell them.
It is why I write music for my campaigns. Why I spend countless hours mixing down a 25-minute medley of battle music. Why I put on sounds as people enter the "room" to invoke a certain mood or emotion.
To many, I'm sure it's just some background sounds, and to me, it matters.
Bringing It Back Around Slowly
Music moves me. It always has.
And, to be perfectly honest, in recent years and recent games and recent films, it has failed to do so. Soundtracks aren't what they used to be; they're lazier, boring, and chock-full of idiot pop music that doesn't fit. And now I sound like a crotchety old fart (get off my I-V-VI-IV lawn!).
But tell me you haven't noticed.
Everyone and their grandma can sing you the Avengers theme, but no other music is memorable enough to mention. I only took notice of Thor because of Ragnarok (and the awesome tones of Mark Mothersbaugh), and I can barely think on Captain America's theme, Captain Marvel's forgettable, Black Panther's boss (WAKANDA FOREVER), and the rest feel...distant. Yet I can sing for you note for note the entire score of 2009's Star Trek (a subject for next time).
It is strange to finally reach a point in my life where I can non-ironically say that they don't make them like they used to, and yet there's more to this than I can put into words at the moment. For now, the easy observation is that I miss the wonder that music played in my films and my games. As it is my lens, there might have been a plethora more that I missed, and many more today that can be argued...but for all this I cannot shake the striking disappointment I have in entertainment.
Disney is a money-grubbing conglomerate that will butcher its own musical backbone for a quick buck.
Composers take less and less risks each year.
The time of the fanfare, opening titles, and end credits as tracks is a rarity, rather than a staple.
And yet, the 8-bit and 80s synth wave markets are booming in certain niches. Because the rest of us still clinging to that child fishing for a diamond are eager for something special.
Never stop digging. More to say next time (maybe it'll have a point).
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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