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Filed under: Masahiro Sakurai, Super Smash Bros. Melee

Melee Music Developer Roundtable: Musical Arrangements

Musical Arrangements


This is a continuation of the Melee Music Roundtable discussion. In this one, Masahiro Sakurai, Hirokazu Ando, and Shogo Sakai talk about composing and arranging the music for the game, and how it wasn’t easy to get a tune just right! SFX (with Ikegami) will be considered in another post.

Musical Arrangements

Sakurai: I think it’s about time we talk about the music and sound effects.

Sakai: I’d like to talk about the Temple* music (laughs).

Temple*: The music for the “Hyrule Temple” stage. It’s originally from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Hyrule Temple, After Fix

(Sample. 480KB)

Sakurai: That one gave us some trouble! (laughs)

Sakai: When we first sent the Temple music to be checked by the staff at Nintendo, Sakurai told Koji Kondo, the composer responsible for the music in the Zelda and Mario series, that this song has remained close to his heart ever since he was in high school. When I heard that, I thought, wow, this music has really inspired Sakurai. And I guess that’s why the Temple theme alone took about a month to complete. After being rejected six times, we finally got the OK.

Before that, whenever I sent a piece to Sakurai, within fifteen minutes he’d write back saying that the fans aren’t going to accept this. Then I’d grab one of the staff members that was around and say, “He rejected it again…” and he’d be shocked at the refusal too. Then the two of us would be like, “I wonder if Mr. Sakurai will ever get married (laughs).”

[TN: Koji Kondo was not responsible for the music in Zelda II. The composer was actually Akito Nakatsuka.]

Sakurai: What does that mean? (laughs)

Sakai: Marriage isn’t easy, right? You tend to think the other is being unreasonable. As you work out and overcome those problems, you tend to mellow out, and start accepting things you can’t change.

Sakurai: Then I suppose it’s best for the director to not be married (laughs).

[TN: Sakurai wasn’t married at the time of this interview, but he is married now!]

But, in general, a lot of these songs that were written won’t mean much to people who haven’t played the games they were from. I’ve played a lot of games, so I think I have a good idea of kind of scene that comes to the minds of the fans when they think of certain tunes. But when fans have an emotional attachment to a certain piece, and the person doing the rearrangement didn’t, there will likely be some complaints. For example, if a soundtrack in a movie sequel was a remix of the first movie, if the new composer who rearranged it put in too much of their personal touch, those who have an attachment to the original are going to notice, and they may complain about the difference.

Although, of course, arranging music is very subjective, and the composer is going to follow his own instincts/desires. It’s OK if the composers feel something completely different. This was especially the case with music from the NES. We had to think of the structure of the music and work from there, and what we made was often quite different. But if I got complacent and just decided to use the originals, that would go against the entire point of Melee, I think. We want to elevate the characters and the music to a different level. Built off of the same core, pointed in the same direction, but we’ve elevated it, that’s what we’re going for. Of course we can’t go in the wrong direction.

Ando: That’s the hard part. To make an arrangement means we are changing the song, but when we make changes, there are people who say “I don’t want you to change anything.” So we have to think of what to change and what to leave the same. We have to think of why this song is so special to some, and keep that in mind as we work.

Sakurai: Ah, and come to think of it, we had a bit of a dispute about that Temple song, at the part where it goes “Duuun dun da, da da da da da da da duuun.”

Sakai: Yeah, that! Here, let me write my version and the original version so that I can explain it better. (Writes them on a whiteboard.) Most people wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference! Here’s that “Duuun dun da, da da da da da da da duuun” in my version.

Hyrule Temple, Before Fix

(Sample. 536KB)

Sakurai: See, that’s not quite right.

Sakai: Right, the real tune goes “Duun dun da, da daa da da da da duun.” Once Sakurai pointed out our error, I thought: “Whoah. This guy is unbelievable!” (laughs)

Sakurai: That’s what happens when you work in two faraway places like Tokyo and Yamanashi: during my commute, I had lots of time to think of how I could get Sakai to see the difference between the two tunes.

But first, I let Ando listen to it, so we could discuss exactly what we wanted to tell Sakai. However, he said that Sakai’s arrangement of the tune was fine! After continued conversation, Ando finally came around to realising what was wrong with it.

Ando: I won’t know what to do until I’m aware of the problem and where it is.

At first I focused on that specific part of the arrangement and wondered what Sakurai’s issue with it was. I thought it sounded fine! But, eventually, I figured it out.  

Everyone experiences music differently. So when you single out a small piece of a tune, no two people will hear it in exactly the same way.

Sakai: Sorry for putting the focus so much on me and Sakurai. I’d like to hear your version of the story, too.

Sakurai: Ando’s arrangement really changed for the better after he heard the orchestral renditions. By the time the game was finished, he was like a completely different person. Until he really “got into” it, I had to be pretty hard on him.

Sakai: I thought so too.

Ando: I figured that if I straightened up, I’d actually get some praise from you, Sakurai…

Sakurai: You did such an amazing job, I thought an apology was in order. You completely surpassed my expectations.

Sakai: Ando himself may not be aware of it, but something in him changed. I was shocked when I heard his music for the “Green Greens” and “Pokémon Floats” stages. They were that good!

Ando: That makes me think that the tunes that gave me lots of trouble are somehow worth less than the ones that were a breeze. For the “Green Greens,” “Pokémon Floats,” and some other stage music, I simply made my arrangement and was done.

But, the menu theme… That was a tough one! (laughs)

Sakurai: Right, we’ve got to talk about the menu screen music. It’s a great reflection of the game, featuring epic-style music on a techno background.

Case in point: we had to be careful about the way we handled the characters who appear in the game, because we would change their image if we gave them moves or abilities that don’t fit them. So we had to make sure they they remained in-character.

The music was like that too. I wanted the music on the menu to impress and have an epic feel to it, yet still sound analog. So I told the composers to do something along those lines.

Menu Theme

(Sample. 920KB)

Ando: But that is so much easier said than done.*

So much easier said than done.*
The music wasn’t the only hard part. The graphics for the menu screen were just as difficult!

Sakurai: But what would people think the first time they see, and hear, the menu screen?

Ando: Hmm, a normal person, you mean? I don’t really know.

Sakurai: Oh, if they were a normal person, they’d be psyched at seeing and hearing that menu.

Sakai: Yeah, I think they’d really love it.

Ando: Up until now, a menu screen is something that brings up the image of a menu screen and nothing else. For this game, we wanted something VERY different.

Sakurai: We wanted the theme to be something so catchy, people would hum it to themselves. Oh, and the the trophy theme, that was based on a rejected version of the menu theme. We ought to talk about that for a moment.

Sakai: But that tune was perfect for that point.

Sakurai: Yeah, it goes well with the trophy display. But, when I first heard it, I wondered how it would work as the menu theme, and decided against it. Later I thought that the readers of the site might find it interesting.

So now, why don’t we go on to the hidden menu theme*?

Hidden menu theme*
Once you’ve unlocked all stages and characters, there’s a 25% chance that the menu screen theme will change. For those who have met the requirements and would like to hear it, try accessing the menu screen over and over until you get it.

Menu 2 Theme

(Sample. 720KB)

Sakai: Of course, he simply expressed how he wanted the theme to feel. What Sakurai wanted was a tune that would give the hearer the feeling of, as he put it, “standing atop a hill on a windy day.” It was to supposed to feel kind of…refreshing, I guess.

Sakurai: Once I’d decided to have the “Menu 2” theme made, I issued my requirements. First, the normal menu theme was to be like the stage themes, a good tune to listen to right before going into battle.

The “Menu 2” theme, however, would be played only after players had met certain requirements. So I wanted it to feel refreshing, like something already familiar to them, like they were watching the game’s’ stages from afar.

Sakai: And that “refreshing” feel is exactly where I began to go wrong. Did that mean a cheery spring-like tune? I had no idea what I should do. (laughs) This is the problem with words.

Sakurai: Well, words were the only way I could get it across, right?

Ando: But every time I received an order, I would wonder just what kind of music was going around in that head of yours, Sakurai.

I knew that you knew what you wanted, but me? Trying to get that point across via words is pretty hard.

Sakurai: Well, sometimes I would give you some kind of example, and say I wanted it like this…

Ando: But I still didn’t know exactly what elements of the tune you liked.

Sakurai: That’s true. There are different ways of capturing it.

Ando: When you’d show me a tune, I could usually figure out why it was good, but I still couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was you wanted me to get from it.

Sakurai: I kept myself thinking about what the fans want, and that would usually get things to click for me. But that’s hard, as we must have respect for the original works the characters and music were derived from.

Ando: For me, I’m pretty familiar with Earthbound and Pokémon, so those tunes meant something. But I don’t know much about Mario.

Sakai: I’ve played Super Mario 64, but I haven’t played many other Mario games.

Sakurai: And since I’m familiar with all the games, I’d tell them about the setting of each theme. But even then, it wasn’t easy to get the point across.

Sakai: The person doing the arrangement really has to “get into” the game, huh?

Sakurai: Well, no. As long as you have properly respect for Smash itself, I think you’ll be fine.

Sakai: Then I suppose being really into the games would make our arrangements better?

Sakurai: I don’t really know.

Though if you try to mimic the original musical composition, then maybe.

Of course, there has never been another game like Melee*, and there may never be another, so you could try it on some other project.

There has never been another game like Melee*
Melee is the first to bring together so many different games, ranging from very old to brand-new.

Sakai: I’ve played Earthbound.

When I heard Ando’s arrangement of the “Fourside” theme, I thought of how I would have done it differently. I would done it with a salsa theme. A “Cuban in New York” theme, I guess.

Ando: Ah, to make it closer to the original.

Sakai: Right. Instead, the “Fourside” theme for Melee has a real sci-fi feel to it.

Ando: It’s nighttime on the stage. That’s why I did it that way.

Sakai: However, were I one of the fans, I’d probably have some complaints!

Ando: Had it been a daytime stage, I may have made it more like what you had in mind.

Sakai: Ah, I see.

Another example: I’ve never played Metroid. But, if I had to arrange a tune for it, I would have become fascinated with it by the time I played the tune for fans of the series. But I still wouldn’t know why it fascinated me so much.

Sakurai: Allow me to say, just in case: we wouldn’t let anyone arrange a tune if they couldn’t develop a sort of attachment to it.

I would assign the type of music, and a lot of my direction was simply that it feels a little off, and I’d like to hear it done this way.  It’s possible that my direction may not be what was best for the harmony of the melody.  At other times, my recommendations might just be the tiniest, minute details. But each of those changes had something to do with the thoughts and feelings of those who have played and loved the game, so every change was important.

Sakai: Under Sakurai’s direction, we were all serious about our work!

To be continued…