Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sonic 2 8-bit ending

My most recent post drew a bit of traffic to this blog, and a couple of people responded really positively to my old writings about the intro movie for Sonic CD. My friend and contemporary Chris Cox posted a sweet little redesign which he said was partially inspired by it.

On its own it actually sort of reminds me of Sonic Pocket Adventure, a little-known but surprisingly competent game for the Neo Geo Pocket Color.

However, he also made a dusk version of the same image, with a different colour palette...

...which reminded me of something else entirely: the ending sequences for the 8-bit version of Sonic 2.

Although the 8-bit Sonics are definitely less developed than their mainstream 16-bit counterparts, I had a Game Gear long before I had a Mega Drive, so these games hold a very special place in my heart. The ending sequence to this game is very simple: it's just Sonic running from left to right across a scrolling background (joined by Tails if you got all the Chaos Emeralds for the good ending), with credits displaying at the bottom of the screen. However, they do something really nice, by changing the colour palette through 9 different iterations to convey a transition from midday, through afternoon, to dusk, and finally to night.

Aren't these colour palettes wonderful! I love Chris's redesign and colours, but his dusk version still feels a little bit like there's just a magenta filter over the image. Each of these, though, feels almost like an independant, new colour idea in its own right! There are such bold, shameless changes in saturation, hue, and tone. The almost pure grey sky in the second image. The bright, cold blue trees against the rich, almost cherry red sky in the sixth. The way the default neutral grey of the checkerboard pattern completely takes on the ambient colour.

Even the whole balance of contrast is played with to suggest the changing light conditions. Take a look at just the 5 colours used in the trees and grass.

At the start a strong, overhead, midday light is suggested with a high contrast between the lightest and darkest tones, and a gradual gradient formed by the 3 colours in the middle. However, as the sun goes down, this balance changes. The first colour actually becomes darker than the second, to suggest a strongly tinted light catching on the edges of leaves. In the 5th and 6th palettes, the second and third colours are almost, if not completely, identical, and quite bright, while the shadow tones remain very dark, to suggest the sharp, long shadows and the light getting right in your eyes that happen at sunset. And as night falls, the contrast within the trees becomes muted, so that,where before they were mostly darker than the sky, they are now entirely lighter. And all this is done without actually changing any of the pixels in the artwork, just shuffling the palette.

It's really brilliant. I want all lighting changes in cartoons to be done this way!

The music on the Sonic 2 endings is really lovely, too. I kind of prefer the bad ending theme. The soft attack and slow decay of the lead instrument give it a wistful quality, and the melodies, while still upbeat, are a little melancholy too, so it really does the job of marking the fact that you've beaten the game but something sad still happened (that is, Tails died because you're a failure).

They also both have this bouncy triplet rythm to them which really matches the pacing of Sonic's running animation!

I think 8-bit Sonic 2 actually has a really good soundtrack in general. These games are from a time when credits lists for games weren't really exhaustice and often used pseudonyms, so the composers for this game are listed as "Tomozou", "Simachan", and "Ray". The only one I can get any more details on is the first, Tomozou Endo. I may have mentioned this before, but a long time ago I was kind of into making covers of stuff in a PC version of the music maker from Mario Paint called Mario Paint Composer. I started a project to cover everything from the game but lost interest before I finished. I think some of what I did still kind of holds up though!

Linking to my old Youtube account is kind of embarassing but hopefully the stuff that's on there isn't too weird.

This is kind of a tangent, but all that colour stuff made me think of  the cartoon My Life as a Teenage Robot. It did some really really nice stuff with colour in general, and would just entirely replace the main character's normal white and aqua colour scheme to suit the mood and lighting.

It's actually a pretty good cartoon overall, from what I can remember. I had a quick thumb through some episodes to grab those screenshots and it made me want to rewatch it. I think it went a bit under the radar at the time but it had a respectable run of three 20+ episode seasons and a couple of specials.

I've got alot on my plate in terms of cartoon watching right now, though. I only just got round to properly starting to watch Adventure Time a little while ago and oh my god I love it so much. All the characters are so perfect and the writing is consistently great. I think about writing about it sometimes but chances are the fandom's already said everything there is to say there. Anyway after that I need to get up to speed on Steven Universe as people seem to be responding really positively to that, too. So it's kinda hard to justify the time I'd spend rewatching something right now.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Richard D. James Album and How Jonno Got Into The Music Jonno Likes

It took me a while to really get "into" music. I remember during the period of my life where Kazaa was a thing (I never bothered with Napster), and my most prominent social group was an online Sonic the Hedgehog community, I had a few things I liked that people I knew got me into as well as alot of videogame music remixes. However, I only started to develop my own taste in music after I started going to uni.

The album that best defines this period and my ongoing taste in music is Aphex Twin's Richard D. James album.

There's a little story attached to this.

I used to play rythm games alot. For a long time I was very into DDR, Pump It Up, In the Groove, even Beatmania IIDX. I guess after my first online community the rythm game scene was my next big thing for me. I spent alot of money and time in the Namco Funscape, Trocadero and other arcades during this time, before I lost interest in the people and moved away from the games.

These games mostly exist in arcades, with some console versions if you're willing to buy a junky and expensive plastic mat to stomp about on, but there are also unofficial simulators you can download for PC. The most widely used for DDR is called Stepmania. You can plug one of the actual mats into your PC to play it, but you can also just use the arrow keys on your keyboard. It's obviously not the same full-body experience, but it's still reasonably fun, and alot easier and more convenient.

As well as being able to play the actual Konami songs from the real DDR games in Stepmania, you can put any song you like into the game and make what is called a "simfile" for it, crafting your own sequence of steps to go with it. At some point people figured out that since most players are just using their keyboards, you can make simfiles that aren't constrained by the limits of what a person's legs can do, and instead make them specifically to be played on a keyboard. This leads to much harder simfiles.

I played alot of keyboard Stepmania for a period, and one song that had a particularly fun simfile made for it was Aphex Twin's Girl/Boy Song.

It was a weird kind of music I hadn't heard before, and the steps being meticulously synced up to the detailed polyrythms made me appreciate it more. At this point I was probably about 18 and I don't think I'd ever actually purchased an album in my life. Aphex Twin would end up being the first music I bought. Oddly, because I am a contrary sort of person, I didn't actually buy Richard D. James Album first, I got I Care Because You Do instead, which initially I didn't like too much. Then I wised up and got the former, and it's actually remained one of my favourite albums to this day.

I'm the kind of person who pretty much never puts my music library on shuffle, almost exclusively listening to albums as a single unit, in order. This does mean I end up getting a good sense of which tracks I want to skip (even if I don't actually do so). Richard D. James Album does not have a track I ever want to skip, and this is very rare indeed. It's not just that every one is high quality on its own. They all feel very cohesive, and nothing is out of place. There's alot of warmth in the synths and samples of 4, Fingerbib, To Cure a Weakling Child, Good Gumpas, Yellow Calx, and Girl/Boy Song, but even those tracks that fall on the harsher side, Cornish Acid, Peek 824545201, and Carn Marth, have this fuzzy, gritty intimacy in their sound so that they're clearly part of the same world. A world of close family, wooden floorboards, rusty gates, dust, home.

There are neat little tricks of pacing and linking the songs together. Cornish Acid, Peek, and Fingerbib employ this weird beeping audio artefact at their beginnings and/or ends, possibly a modem or telephone sound, maybe taken from some specific audio equipment malfunction. I think it's brilliant to juxtapose these three linked tracks in the first half of the album, right after the intro track of 4, as it estalishes the mood and tone early. Richard brings you into the place he wants you to be in at the start, so that you're sitting there comfortably for the rest of the album.

Goon Gumpas is almost an anomoly. It's the only song that doesn't employ any percussion at all, and is obviously more sedate than anything else on here. It's the one track that a person would probably be least likely to listen to on its own, out of context. However, I consider it an important part of the pacing of the album as a whole. I think a temporary shift in tone is appropriate just before entering the final act of anything, and this includes music. It's a signifier, to let you know that you're coming towards the end, and should prepare yourself. Additionally, the soft string instruments used are a mirror of what is to come two tracks later in Girl/Boy Song, so that when you hear the latter it feels like a reprise, like a motif, a theme that's been building up and is now being resolved. It's satisfying.

The final track, Logon Rock Witch, carries the sinister tone of some of the earlier tracks, but is also a little lighthearted, made out of silly sounds from children's toys. I feel this is a good way of relieving the gravitas that comes with a really outstanding and intense penultimate track, so that the end of the album comes more easily.

I've gone through phases of being into other stuff (most notably Japanese gabber/hardcore/speedcore, also introduced to me by Stepmania), and have had individual albums that I've been really obsessed with for a period, but this one has remained the most consistently listenable for me. And a large part of my taste in music can basically be traced back to it. Having bought it, Amazon started giving me recommendations, which lead me to artists like Boards of Canada, Plaid, and Kid 606. And plenty of similar music would get made into Stepmania simfiles, leading me to Venetian Snares, The Flashbulb, Hrvatski, and others. I quit DDR and Stepmania but this stuff has stayed with me.