The Sonic series has provided some of the most iconic game music of all time, and anyone who’s spent any amount of time with the first two titles will no doubt be able sing most of the levels’ tunes right back at you.
My favourite Sonic track (and current ringtone!) is Chemical Plant Zone, level 2 music from Sonic The Hedgehog 2. It’s a high octane stomper of a tune that reflects the levels futuristic factory settings. Composer Masato Nakamura's music is usually bass driven and this is no exception with a hard hitting bass line chugging underneath suitably groovy organs and synths. This level finds Sonic moving faster than on the opening stage, so it makes sense that the tempo also ramps up.
Nakamura was brought in off the back of his work with J-Pop band Dreams Come True (still going strong today, check him out on bass!) and was tasked with aiding the team charged with toppling Mario’s hold over the market with a new Sega Megadrive/Genesis mascot. It was perfect timing for him as he was exploring the possibilities that come with mixing computers and music.
Nakamura’s skill allowed him to maximise the melodies crammed within the limitations of the system. Only four sounds at a time means you really have to make every note count. Masato’s genius allowed him to stick with his concept and followed through with it. In an interview with the now defunct Sonic City he said the following:
“I wanted Sonic to come across as cinematic.
I wanted melodies that the player would hum along with as they were playing, dramatic music for when the scenes were intense, climactic music for when bosses would show up, and then tie it all together with an uplifting theme for the end credits. That was what I knew I wanted it all to be like.
Nowadays, RPGs use this sort of musical technique a lot, but at the time, action games like Sonic didn't.
And so, from watching movies [for inspiration], I composed melodies that kept the game tempo in mind without sounding unnatural. I also wanted to make sure that the music didn't lose its groove. After all, one of Sonic's key elements lies in speed.”
It’s an incredible achievement to pack in so much on such a simple system. With four sounds at a time, you’re usually only going to be working with two notes for a chord, then a melody and a bassline. For my work I use this practice all the time, even if it ends up being a much more complex piece. If it doesn’t hold up using a minimal arrangement, will adding further tracks really change much? I actually think that in some instances it actually detracts from the overall effect.
There’s no doubt that Sonic is hugely influential in my development as a composer, and I will continue to look at Nakamura's work for inspiration in the future.
What's you favourite Sonic song? Let me know!