Tuesday, May 11, 2010

What Could Be Worse Than Eight-Bit Video Game Music?

I was easy to shop for in my younger days. I existed in such a perpetually video game-addled state that literally anything that had a Nintendo character slapped on it became the new best thing ever — at least next to actual video games. A Legend of Zelda binder? Awesome! A Super Mario board game that no one will ever want to play with me? Sounds great! Metroid pencils? All the better to write a list of additional video game-related merchandise that I want! I didn’t become picky — and therefore much more problematic around Christmas and my birthday — until later in my life, and I though have to shake my head at how dutifully I bought these shoddy products, I have to admit: There is something noble in being easy to shop for.

Not all these game-related knickknacks were necessarily terrible, however, and I recently discovered one in the back of the bookshelf at my parents’ home that brought back a few good memories.

This is it:


Yes, it’s one of those books of simplified sheet music with the keyboard-like instrument built right in. I say keyboard-like instrument because it’s not an actual keyboard, which would be able to make music, but instead something a lot like a keyboard — in the way that a Super Soaker is a lot like an assault rifle. Oh, and the noise this thing makes: horribly tinny, wavering notes. You could compare the sound to those greeting cards that play awful versions of popular songs when you open them, but those at least come preprogrammed with a melody. With the keyboard-like instrument, the responsibility of arranging the notes into a discernible melody falls on you.

Don’t fret, though, because you have a little help in picking out that ditty. As I mentioned, the book has sheet music with each note color-coded and numbered so that if you are not blind you could theoretically find the right notes in the right order. Theoretically. And did I mention that the whole book is Nintendo-themed?

Hit the jump for a strange intersection of old school Nintendo, music and kid culture.


Take this offering: “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” by way of Zelda II. Not the first association I’d make, but it’s not too far off really. Sure, the lyrics are dreadfully lame in a way that could even rankle a little kid, and it doesn’t surprise me that whoever wrote them is credited only as T. Ellis and not a full name that could come back to haunt someone with aspirations of an actual music career. But I can give that a pass — and I likely did, back in the day. What strikes me most about this page is the illustration. It and the rest that follow are surprisingly not too awful and not too off-model, despite the fact that presumably no one affiliated with Nintendo had much to do with them. I mean, yes, it’s the result of a hand-drawn amalgamation of two images from the Zelda II instruction booklet — specifically this one and this one — but they’re fused together pretty well, or at least better than eight-bit Nintendo games are with folk music. Maybe that Nintendo Seal of Quality on the cover belongs there after all.


Similar deal with this one: “Jingle Bells” by way of Super Mario Bros. 2. Because why not? I mean, Toad’s little mushroom hat looks wonky, but I like the result a lot more than lyrics such as “Little Toad takes a load, never slows him down” and “Princess has special skills, she is glad to share / If we need to jump real far or hover in mid-air.” But hey — at least someone read the instruction manual to the point that they have a basic understanding about how the game plays.


Again, this Donkey Kong art isn’t half bad. Perhaps most surprisingly, it’s the only Nintendo-sanctioned art I’ve ever seen in which Pauline looks like her original in-game sprite — you know, like a dowdy pioneer woman. And given that association, the paring of Donkey Kong with “Clementine” actually makes sense.


And then there’s this: A Metroid-flavored version of “The Hearse Song,” which I think I’ve only ever been aware of in relation to that one volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. You know, “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out / The worms play pinochle in your snout”? And if I really must critique this book — and apparently I am making myself — then I have to question the artist’s decision to draw space monster Ridley — the one on the left — in a grinning, fetal form. Very weird, but no more so than appropriating a song that cautions children not to laugh at passing Hearses.


And now we come to “La Bamba,” unchanged from its original Spanish version and matched with the Super Mario Bros. 2 B-stringers in a desert setting, for no real reason. I suspect T. Ellis got lazy on this one, and in doing so brought down the quality of the book. I can remember trying to play this one and failing. I mean, look at the colored note numbers. Look at how many there are. This shit would be hard for any child to play, much less on the provided keyboard-like instrument, which, as I’ve said before, sounded terrible. If nothing else, this one provided a valuable service in that it would prompt nearby parents and older siblings to check the batteries in the smoke detectors, because SURELY that persistent ringing noise can’t be that music-toy-thing. Right? And again, I can’t help but to look at the art and wonder how this particular image came to be. The snake coming out of the jar is actually well-drawn, if curiously gendered, but as you move into the background things go downhill. What happened that that Pokey in the back needed to be created? Artist says, “Damn, I’m running out of the sand-colored marker and I need something else to go back there. Guess I’ll draw another one of those cactus things. But I’ll make it look all dopey and sad — you know, for kicks.”


I’m keeping my criticisms to myself for this one. The art looks pretty damn good. And the idea of substituting Death Mountain for Old Smokey? Genius.


The next page offers more Super Mario Bros. 2, which I suppose should I remind us that in 1989 we thought Mario 2 was the next big thing. Little did the people compiling this book realize that that people would come to think of it as the black sheep of the series and that Nintendo itself would prevent most of its key elements from becoming mainstays of later Mario games. The art isn’t bad. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to read Peach’s expression. I’d imagine she is supposed to look worried about the fact that Birdo was firing eggs at her crotch, but her face says to me something more like “Shit, I think I left the iron on.” Doo dah, doo dah. And those last two lines of the first verse are simply too amazing for words: “Look out for Princess Toadstool now / She’s radical and cool.” She really is.


“Frere Jacques”? No. I do not sing “Frere Jacques” without the compulsory “ding dang dong” at the end of the first verse. That’s classic songwriting you don’t screw with. And the accompanying art is a total abomination too. Remember when I said that the artist was running out of the sand-colored marker? I totally was telling the truth, because he or she clearly did not have enough to finish this piece. Nor was there enough ocean-color either, apparently. While we’re at it, why the hell are they all at the beach? There is no beach stage in the original Super Mario Bros. Did the artist also run out of grass color? Thank god all the blood color was used up before the artist could marker in the grisly aftermath of that Hammer Brother’s assault on the back of Peach’s head.


And as happy as I am to see Donkey Kong Jr. get some love, I have to condemn this one as well. When the hell did “Apples and Bananas” become a traditional? Shame on you, T. Ellis. You got lazy again! Learning how to pronounce your vowel sounds has no place in the Donkey Kong games. And neither does a weird version of Donkey Kong Senior who has fists spouting directly out of his shoulders.

That’s all of them. I suppose some of you game-brained readers might get a kick out of this. And if you do, please ponder this: If the people who made this book had the license to use Nintendo characters, then why didn’t they also get the license for the Nintendo music? Really, if you’re talking about early Nintendo games and music, the Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda themes did as much to draw players in as the graphics. And wouldn’t it have been more rewarding to poke out the melody to these tunes than goddamn “Camptown Races?”

I can’t actually remember if I liked this book or not, though I do remember using it and attempting to learn the songs. Except for “La Bamba,” they weren’t too tough, even with the limited sonic capabilities of the keyboard-like instrument. Regardless of whether this ever actually entertained me, I should say that I at least was not the only one who ever made music with it. When I scanned the book to get these images, the keyboard-like instrument was occasionally pressed against the glass. As the scanning mechanism moved back and forth, capturing the image of whatever page was being scanned, it did so with enough pressure to play the keys. Being a machine designed to take pictures and not to celebrate the wonder that is music, it played without heed to melody or rhythm. As I was sitting there, waiting for the scan to finish, I wondered if I sounded any better when I last attempted to make music with this thing.

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