Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today we’re checkin’ in on one of the great sleeper hits of the early NES library, a little ditty called Blaster Master.
Quiz for any capitalists who might’ve stumbled in here: It’s 1988. How do you market a game about a kid named Jason rescuing his mutated pet frog, Fred, by means of gallivanting around a vast underworld inside a high-tech tank he just happened to stumble upon which is named “SOPHIA THE THIRD”? I don’t think there’s any one right answer, but that’s the challenge Sunsoft of America faced when it took the Famicom game Chō Wakusei Senki Metafight, renamed it Blaster Master (YouTube / longplay / VGMdb), and swapped out its typical sci-fi story for the inanity you just read.
(Taking notes? One tactic Sunsoft tried was to festoon the cover with the completely meaningless words “Authentic Arcade Edition!”)
The game’s great, of course. Blaster Master designer Yoshiaki Iwata is on record saying, “basically we were trying to make the best action game to date, with all that entails,” and, well, they did good. I guess word got around, because in America Blaster Master broke through in a big way, becoming a sneaky hit widely discussed in schoolyards across the nation and a mainstay in Nintendo Power’s reader-voted Top 30.
Bring up Blaster Master to one of its young-at-heart acolytes and you’re sure to hear about its music because yeah, it was spectacular. Around this time Sunsoft started to became known for outstanding audio in its 8-bit games, and this particular joint was a two-man effort. Naoki Kodaka composed the catchy melodies while assembly wizard Naohisa Morota — I call anyone who knows assembly a wizard — handled programming, as well as development on the company’s distinctive sound driver.
Apparently Kodaka, who’s a music professor these days, didn’t really get his hands dirty wrestling with the NES’ APU. In a 2011 interview translated by Shmupulations.com, Kodaka explained:
As a composer at Sunsoft, I always worked together with a team. I’d write my songs on sheet music at home and hand them over to the sound team at work, and depending on the circumstances I might attach a demo tape too. Once the technology got to a point where we could do a little more with the music, I’d also listen to the sounds they had selected, and give feedback: “this should feel looser” or “this part needs to sing out more,” steadily working each song into a finished state.
Another example of this teamwork was my relationship with the sound programmers–it was often as if I was teaching them music lessons or something. So I didn’t refer to the sound programmers as engineers, but rather “performers” whose musical instrument was the computer.
Friends, I find that almost unspeakably delightful. We must protect this sweet soul at all costs.
So yeah, Blaster Master’s soundtrack is great. The game presents you with a strange world — stranger than ever in the American version — ruled by its own internal logic, and somehow the music never fails to strike just the right note to augment the on-screen action with oodles of atmosphere. Strangely energetic, boppy atmosphere, as was often the way on the NES.
That’s a wrap for today’s Morning Music as we sit at the start of a new, hopefully less frantic week. (As far as I know that’s it for new console launches this year.) What’s on your agenda, as the holidays loom? Say hi down below, and we’ll see ya tomorrow!