A few years ago, when I was a freshman in college, one of my friends was compiling a stack of CDs I’d never seen before. I’d heard all of the music, because I’d played Final Fantasy III (or Final Fantasy VI, if you want to fight about it), and I could recall the polyrithmic tones that soundtracked my discovery of an airship or my hustle away from the Floating Continent. But I didn’t know you could buy the original soundtrack, or listen to symphonic arrangements of the games’ themes. We didn’t just enjoy this music as kitsch. It might actually have been the only stuff we enjoyed without irony. Like I said, it was college.
So the rise of The Advantage, which might confuse some music snobs, makes perfect sense to me. The four-man guitar-bass-drum group is one of the leading video game background music (BGM) cover bands. Notice that they’re not alone. The Minibosses, who also exclusively cover themes from the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System, were profiled in Wired magazine in 2004. The Black Mages, a Japanese band, have recorded two albums of themes from my beloved Final Fantasy, and themes from the series were played by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra two summers ago. There is a real market for video game theme cover bands and video game music. But since not everyone is a hipster college student, the question is: Why?
One reason is that more people played Nintendo than we think. Through the 1980s, the basic NES sold 60 million copies around the world. Its best selling game, Super Mario Bros. 3, sold 17.8 million copies. And in the United States alone, around 35 million NES games were sold up to 1988. For comparison, the best-selling album of the 1980s, Michael Jackson’s Thriller has sold 27 million copies. Tens of millions of people played Nintendo, and if they got heavily into one game or another, they heard the themes from that game more often than they heard that year’s #1 single, as they fell off cliffs, replayed for high scores, and invited friends over for 2-player action.
Another reason why this music is popular — besides obvious nostalgia — speaks to the way it was written. It’s been more than a decade since the launch of the first Playstation, and more than 100 million of those have been sold. But themes from the higher-tech Playstation games, with their multi-channel audio and real human voices, haven’t caught on like Nintendo themes. Nintendo BGM composers had to write their music with limited technology and five channels — two pulse waves, a triangle wave, a noise channel, and a D-PCM sample channel. Composers, working with such limited tools, wrote lots of simple melodies punctuated by distinctive, Depeche Mode-like drum sounds. And as any member of Depeche Mode could tell you, simple electronic melodies are often the catchiest ones.
On Elf Titled, their second album, The Advantage recreate some absurdly catchy themes from 18 games. While 2004’s self-titled debut tackled most of BGM’s standards like The Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers, this disc is a mix of the famous (Contra) and the forgotten (Solar Jetman). Many of the songs are highlights of the band’s live shows, which — not to put the record down — are ridiculously fun. The treatments we get here are perfectly faithful, with Robby Moncrieff and Ben Milner’s light-speed guitar fingering doing the work of the old programmers and hammering out their melodies.
The highlights are many, and they include the most famous theme and the forgotten ones. The “Kraid’s Lair” theme from Metroid is as close as a classic as you get in this — can we call it a genre? — this genre. Carson McWhirter’s eerie bassline perfectly recreates the original pitch and tone of the game, which, played with a live instrument, sounds a little like Joy Division. The famously spooky Castlevania intro is recreated with some screaming feedback, and Spencer Seim’s drums match up with the “oh God is that a bat I’d better run” pace of the game. Seim’s drumming, oh-so-subtly distorted to match the original NES sound, is superb throughout the record. All the factors come together brilliantly in “Corridor 1” from Guardian Legend. The game is more or less forgotten, but the theme sounds like a lost Yeah Yeah Yeahs single.
The “8” that I’ve awarded this record may look high. For all of my talk, it is still a compilation of video game themes played by a talented, nerdy rock quartet. But occasionally we need music that makes no grand statements and demands only to be played loud at a party. Whether or not one of those 35 million NES fans shows up, Elf-Titled qualifies.