Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sonic Unleashed, or, The Hidden Treasure in a Hairy Situation

I had to think long and hard about what to talk about in my first real post. There are thousands upon thousands of games out there, and there are so many soundtracks to talk about. However, the soundtrack for this particular game has been buzzing about my mind (and my iTunes library) for a while now. Why this one, though? It's certainly not a classic; it's not even a great game.

After the release of Sonic and Knuckles for the Sega Genesis in 1994, Sonic the Hedgehog practically disappeared from the mainstream platforming market for a period of nearly five years. Eventually, in 1998, Sega released Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast: it was Sonic's first "true" 3D experience (I say "true" because I don't count Sonic 3D Blast, which came out in '96 and played more like a 2.5D platformer), and many things about the series had changed. Technological advancement allowed for more elaborate, rock-centric music that catered to Sonic's "hardcore" persona.

Since then, Sonic's games (along with their soundtracks) have ranged from "Hey, this is kind of cool," to "Eh, I could take it or leave it," to "For the love of all that is holy why are my ears bleeding." In any case, Sonic's forays in the third dimension have been hit-and-miss at best; their soundtracks are usually an interesting stew of legitimately good rock, jazz, or even Latin music mixed with whiny, repetitive rock ditties that are simply difficult to sit through.

When Sonic Unleashed came out, I didn't give it too much thought. The reviews that it garnered weren't terrible, but they certainly weren't fantastic. SEGA's nasty habit of shoehorning inane gimmicks onto Sonic games had finally gone a bit too far for my tastes, and I let it go by the wayside. A few months ago, however, as I was perusing Youtube, I found the following link, decided, "Well, why not," and clicked on it.

"Spagonia Hub - Day"

"Wow," I thought, "this is actually... pretty good. What's this doing in Sonic Unleashed?" I found a few more random songs from the game and realized that this wasn't the only good song in the soundtrack. In fact, every song that I listened to was expertly composed and performed, and each one had a different feel from the rest. For example, here's a song from the same area, but during one of the infamous "Werehog" levels:

"Spagonia - Night"

The melody in both songs is based in accordion, but while the first has a light and breezy feel to it, the second is heavily influenced by funk, eliciting a darker and somewhat eerier tone when combined with the accordion. In an interview with Original Sound Version, lead composer Tomoya Ohtani explained how important it was that the differentiation between night and day should be shown in the soundtrack: day levels, in which Sonic is racing across entire land masses, are often frantically uptempo and in a major key, while night levels, which are pretty enemy and combat heavy, often have slower beats and are in a minor key.  In addition, soundtrack for each area was based around a different instrument in order to illustrate the idea that Sonic is traveling across the world. Spagonia is based on musical stylings of Eastern Europe-- hence the accordion-- while the following song is based on music of Africa and is centered on drums and the bamboo flute.

"Mazuri Hub - Day"

The thing that initially drew me to this soundtrack was its excellent performance. Live music, when appropriate, is always appreciated, and Ohtani admits that "almost 100 musicians," including the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra and Jarret Reddick (of Bowling for Soup fame), worked on making this soundtrack a reality. However, there is something else about this soundtrack that charmed me to the point of writing this article.

This music is smart.

Firstly, it truly spans genres: from jazz to funk to rock to classical to techno to traditional erhu folk, this game runs the gamut. It's not just that, though. The music almost feels like a guide, giving you some insight into your current situation and never leaving you behind. The thing that impresses me about this game is just how closely the music follows you: it not only signifies 'when' and 'where' you are, but also how well you're doing.

This is not a unique trait to Sonic Unleashed by any means, but the way in which it's executed is surprisingly innovative. At the end of each level, you get a ranking based on how many points you've earned and how quickly you completed it. The ranks you receive are labeled from S (being the highest) to E (being the lowest). If you receive an S rank through a D rank, you're treated to a heroic victory theme (another cool song, if I do say so myself).


If you get an E rank, however... the situation changes a bit.

"Result: E"

When I first heard it, I laughed out loud. The melody is the same in both instances, but the blaring cacophony in the second theme is simply brilliant. I try to think of what the recording process might have been like. Did someone make a specific arrangement for this off-key, off-beat mess of a song? Or did Ohtani saunter up to the orchestra and say, "Play about 75% worse for this next take, and make sure the melody is only vaguely recognizable"? Whatever happened, the entire composing staff and the orchestra took the time to make sure that, when you perform a mission poorly, the game overwhelms you not just visually but audibly.

It's this kind of intelligence and attention to detail that makes the soundtrack to Sonic Unleashed truly wonderful. In Japan, they released a 3-disc set of the complete soundtrack to be bought by fans of the game (or at least its music). While we in the states are not so lucky, you can still check out these themes and more at I'd suggest checking them out. I would have posted more here, but this article was already getting pretty lengthy (and video heavy).

That ends my first real post! I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any suggestions, comments, questions, or concerns, just write it in the comment boxes below. Thanks for reading!

EDIT: I forgot to put this earlier in my post, but the score was a joint collaboration by six different composers: Ohtani, Kenichi Tokoi, Fumie Kumatani, Hideaki Kobayashi, Takahito Eguchi, and Marika Nanba. With a soundtrack like this, it's no wonder they had so many talented people on the job.

1 comment:

  1. I remember how that music made me feel like such a failure. I was actually painful to listen to