Let’s get something straight: my taste in music wouldn’t be considered “mainstream.” If we’re working off the assumption that a person’s taste in music is based upon early life exposure, my musical influences would be Konji Kondo, Masato Nakamura, Yoko Shimomura, Nobuo Uematsu and the 90’s hip hop hit-makers House of Pain. To this day, I can more clearly hum the notes from Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s Bonus Stage than recall lyrics of a David Bowie track (RIP our human alien). What amazes me isn’t that I turned out like this (I gave up trying to figure that out too long ago), but that scores of others experience the very same love for Video Game Music and all that comes with it. The fact that I can hear a chip tune plugin in the backing track of a Jay-Z song is good enough proof to show my parents that all that crap coming out of the TV wasn’t “just noise.” But, for all the great stuff out there, it could be argued that no other genre has imprinted itself upon gamers my age like the soundtracks of JRPG’s. Japanese Role Playing Games have a distinct way of creating an emotional attachment, and emotional attachment is one of the main narrative and structural conceits of the surprise mega-hit, Undertale.
Undertale is an anomalous experience. Despite all of its rough edges and over-hyping, I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Full disclosure: I’m a huge JRPG fan and have enough of a passing interest in EarthBound to one day return to the game and maybe even finish it. I promise. Also, let’s throw this out there, I love me a good bullet hell game, so that didn’t hurt either. Despite all of this, where Undertale really scores for me is the structure of its soundtrack. It is emotional, it is sweet and it is rough in places. It feels as if the creator, Toby Fox, was possessed by a drive to feverishly slam tracks to a timeline and get them out the door so he could move on to the next tune. Mixing is bizarre, samples and sounds are sourced from seemingly disparate places and loops can be excruciatingly noticeable. And for all of this, I find myself listening to it repeatedly and even grooving to the funkier tracks of the bunch.
EarthBound has a lot going for it. It’s charming, it’s bizarre, and it’s a Japanese advertiser’s satirical take on American culture. Needless to say, it’s off beat, off key and off tempo. Undertale is in many ways its direct offspring, but at other times is totally contrary to its spiritual progenitor. More importantly, it delivers a new point of view, that of a child dropped into a world completely lacking satire or cynicism (note, I played full pacifist because I’m a softy and couldn’t bring myself to harm a single pair of married dogs). Thus the stage is set for comedy, friendship and mystery—all of which comes through in the soundtrack. Some of the music even acts as a foreshadowing device for certain key events throughout the game.
A perfect example of this (and one that I love) is the track first heard during the introduction to the ‘practice dummy’ in the early game. It’s a funky little ditty that sounds like it was pulled straight from a battle scene in EarthBound. I boogied a bit, feeling good about my ability to chat up (and not beat up) this inanimate object. A little later, I met a ghost who just wanted to kick it solo. Again, the same music played. Again I boogied and continued on my way, feeling proud of my ability to pacify potential threats while treating everyone equally, even if they are ‘living challenged’ like the dummy or the ghost. It was only when I faced a very, very ornery stuffed dummy in a wet junk yard that the purpose of the music finally dawned on me. It wasn’t just some boogie down production meant to make me tap my foot, it was the theme for all ghosts! The first dummy was just as possessed as the (much more aggressive) one I was currently being attacked by! What a great method of foreshadowing, Mr. Fox! Is that your real name? Or a nickname for your pervasive cleverness?! *Side Glance*
The musical influences of this game are clear to anyone who has more Japanese names than western ones in his iPhone playlists. I see clear links between Final Fantasy’s opening tune and the dreamy, beginning-of-a-grand-adventure opening track for Undertale. Notice the dulcet bell sounds. Notice the single melody. Notice the longing for a place that is not here and now! Such escape. Such otherness!
Or how about the boss music you hear when fighting a very intense, female badass in Undertale. Does that not sound like we’re heading towards the destruction of a major baddie in an FF game? I mean, listen to Undyne and tell me you don’t see a few similarities in vibe and structure to both Final Fantasy 3 and 6’s boss music!
Undyne from Undertale:
Final Fantasy 3:
Final Fantasy 6:
How about when you meet a new scientist friend named Alphys? She is an offbeat character (could this be a pattern?) who studies science. She’s obsessed with a culture other than her own. She has discovered anime tapes and comics and thinks that maybe, just maybe, she can find herself in this medium. Oh Alphys, how you resemble 11th grade Peter… Either way, her theme feels distinctly like the one that plays when you meet a new character in EarthBound. The songs feel thematically similar. Both have equal parts goof and sincerity, leaving us to believe that the characters, although silly in their demeanor, have hearts made of solid gold.
Alphys Theme from Undertale:
Apple Kid’s Theme from EarthBound:
There are a few things to get straight here: I am not condemning Toby Fox for having inspirations. Neither am I saying that these songs are the same. I’m merely bringing up that there are similarities present. And why not take a look? There seems to be a secret sauce present across all the best games in the genre. There’s a reason why so many damn people, in this day and age, continue visiting these worlds despite them not always being easy on the eyes, or humming tunes that aren’t exactly mixed to perfection or sung through autotune.
With Undertale, Toby Fox has created a bizarre cultural Ouroboros; he took EarthBound, a game that is essentially an outsider’s view of American culture, and turned it back on itself. Undertale is an American view of a JRPG that is a Japanese view of America. I mean… even I feel confused by my argument. Who is writing this?
Either way, we have a few clever and seemingly original tricks put forth by someone who clearly cared about his project. Undertale is a neat, fun game. I understand to a certain degree it’s been spoken about a bit much, but it still deserves our attention as the surprise indie hero of 2015. It is a game that evokes charm and emotion, and with so many games evoking brutish action, it’s nice for something different to take the cake. The music in games is central. Like films, it tells us what we should be feeling at any given moment. It hints to us that what we should be feeling is the hidden poltergeist in that stuffed dummy over there. And Undertale nails that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go listen to that shop music again… that tune always hits me square in the gut.