Thursday, August 23, 2012

Analysis: Repetitive Game Music via Super Mario Bros

In a recent conversation with another classical musician, I brought up the topic of video game music.  He replied that video game music was extremely repetitive.  This is definitely one way that academics dismiss the music as being "repetitive."  (Plenty of good music is repetitive!)  I'd like to find some specifics about the electronic limitations, but I'm thinking that for our classic Nintendo/ SNES games, music was not given a huge allocation of data space, and music was probably difficult to code into the games. Therefore, musical themes had to be short, but not overtly looping and annoying. 

Recalling this conversation and my recent foray into Super Mario Bros music has me thinking about how many times you might hear any particular theme in a given playthrough.  Consider the musical experience of the shortest runthrough I know of Super Mario Bros.  Let's analyze what music is heard. 


1-1: Main theme, underground theme, main theme, flag victory.
1-2: Main theme (intro), underground theme (repeats once).
4-1: Main theme.  Flag victory.
4-2: Main theme (intro), underground theme, main theme.
8-1: Main theme (as far as theme).  Flag theme.
8-2: Main theme. Flag theme.
8-3: Main theme.  Flag theme.
8-4: Castle theme 3x.  Underwater theme.  Boss theme 1x
End game theme!

So the question for me here was: excluding the mute button, what is the minimum amount of music that's heard in a playthrough of Super Mario Bros?  As you can see, even though you don't hear the main theme all the way through, you hear it or its intro/fanfare 8 times.  The victory theme is heard 5 times.  As far as playing completely and repeating, the underground theme plays 3 times, repeating once, and the castle theme plays 4 times.  Finally, the underwater and end game theme make just one appearance, the underwater not playing completely and the end game repeating once in this video.

So if this is the shortest possible audio experience of Super Mario Bros, what might a more typical one be?  I was never great at Mario, so if I got stuck somewhere, it's possible I heard the music of that level (and the ones leading to it) MANY times. This is the same path that my friends and I followed to try to beat the game, which, if we were lucky, we could do in about 15 minutes-- but it we could also spend hours trying it, probably dying somewhere near the end.  Granted, these projections won't be completely accurate because expanding the timing/music this way supposes an equal increase in time spent everywhere, but this will give an idea of the repetitive nature of the music.

Musical Theme 5 min playthrough 15 min playthrough 60 min playthrough
Main 8 times 24 times 96 times
Victory 5 times 15 times 60 times
Underground 3 times 9 times 36 times
Castle 4 times 12 times 48 times
Underwater 1 times 3 times 12 times
End game 1 times 3 times 12 times

96 times to hear the main theme (or at least the intro to it) in an hour-- no wonder the Michigan Daily said every student on UM's campus knew it!