Clever use of reverb helped compensate for an underpowered piece of Nintendo tech. To view this story as a video: YouTube
When I think back to my watermelon green Nintendo 64, a few memories roll to the front of the patch. Built in, four-player gaming, without the need for a cumbersome multi-tap adapter is unforgettable. So is the time spent not skipping the intro sequence to Donkey Kong Country 64, which might feature the most child-friendly rap song next to the Pokérap.
But the one thing I can’t get out of my head is this song right here:
In hindsight, my N64 collection was small but solid. Staples like Smash Bros. and Super Mario 64 earned a huge chunk of my attention, as did DK64, Kirby 64 and the Crystal Shards, and Pokémon Stadium. Years later I’d realize that the monaural F-Zero X soundtrack might have subtly influenced my love of the band Paramore, but the character select screen music from the original Super Smash Bros. would end up being the song I just couldn’t let go.
The track itself, composed by Hirokazu Ando, doesn’t seem all too interesting on its face. It’s a four-part composition that features brass, bass, some hand drums, and a subtle piano glissando. The song loops for all of 14 seconds, with the horns and bass shifting higher or lower as the only tell of any musical progression.
Ando’s bass line here, however, steals the show, and is what I can recall as being the first time I was ever impressed with the musical fidelity in a video game.
Let me clarify – I was plenty impressed with video game soundtracks before that point. The Sonic series, especially Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and its bonus tracks in multiplayer mode, had implanted in me plenty of early life earworms. But those tracks were all synthesized. In other words, they felt like video game music.
The Character Select Screen for smash was different. In addition to being an uncharacteristic piece of lounge jazz that preceded a few rounds of me beating my friends senseless with Fox McCloud in space, the song’s bass recreation felt real.
I felt a similar sensation listening to Eric B. And Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique.” Like the Smash Bros. character select song, the bass line is a simple, one measure loop that runs the length of the track. Despite how short it is, it gives Rakim’s bars an extra punch.
What’s similarly astounding is that the music of Super Smash Bros. was working with limited resources. Unlike the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo’s only true competitor in the fifth generation console wars – you know the Sega Saturn lost before the battle even began – the N64 was cartridge based. Eschewing CDs for Lego-sized grey bricks did give the N64 a leg up in load times, durability, and end user costs, and promoted an easier shift for players who migrated from cartridge systems of yesteryear.
Nintendo made a concession, however, by not including a dedicated sound chip in its system. Looking back at it, the absence of a sound chip feels like a Nintendo move. In 2021, Nintendo is as synonymous with series like Mario and Zelda as it is with painful exclusions from its console hardware and infrastructure. Why doesn’t the Switch ship with an Ethernet port built into the dock? Where’s the Bluetooth connectivity without an adapter?
In the case of the N64, the missing sound chip is another compromise that made the console look a bit underpowered compared to its competitors. Sound output competed with other CPU processes, meaning songs had to be compressed in order to make frugal use of limited bandwidth. While there are plenty of people who are nostalgic for the music of Paper Mario or F-Zero X, I’d argue you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would admit that the system’s sound quality is anything to be mourned.
I have to admit, the missing sound chip did bequeath at least one advantage to gaming – the software Musyx. Factor 5 was a German game developer that made a name for itself on the Commodore Amiga. After earning contracts to develop games for the N64, the Factor 5 team ran into the system’s shortcomings.
In developing for the N64 and its limited run Disk Drive, then president of Factor 5 Julian Eggbrecht explained that his team made an entirely new set of sound drivers to circumvent the memory, and thereby quality limitations of the console.
The limitations were so cumbersome that Factor 5 and Nintendo entered a partnership to develop Musyx for use on the N64 and Nintendo’s subsequent systems, which served to bridge the gap between low quality music and soundtracks that interacted with players as they traversed game worlds. In games like Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, the Musyx drivers, then known as MoSys Fx Surround, allowed playback of higher fidelity music that closer resembled the sound of the films.
Unfortunately, the Super Smash Bros. 64 OST didn’t take advantage of Musyx. Instead, the soundtrack played according to the limitations of Nintendo’s base console. But that doesn’t quite explain why the Character Select Screen track sounds so good. That answer lays in the tricks Nintendo used to cover up the inherently poor quality of compressed sound. In other words: reverb.
In June 2011, Nintendo rereleased The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 3DS. A historic game with an equally show-stealing soundtrack, Ocarina of Time actually made great use of the game’s limited resources. While plenty of games had to limit sound effects and music when the action on screen got busy, Ocarina of Time’s soundtrack featured articulating music that reacted to the world around Link.
In Hyrule Field, for example, the background music would seamlessly shift between tracks depending on whether it was day or night.
However, it wasn’t like Nintendo had come up with some magic way to skirt the N64’s limitations. And in recreating the Ocarina of Time 3D’s soundtrack, Koji Kondo found that reverb was the missing ingredient.
In an Ask Iwata interview, Ocarina of Time 3D composer Mahito Yokota explained that when he ran his remixes by veteran producer Koji Kondo, something was missing.
“When I made the title background music, he wanted me to make some adjustments. It’s a real mellow song featuring an ocarina melody and piano accompaniment. Kondo-san said the volume of the ocarina was too high. I thought I had followed the original, so I thought, ‘Huh? How’s it any different?’ I had him listen to it over and over, and he said, ‘Ah, there’s no reverb.’”Nintendo –Ask Iwata
That reverb effect was commonplace in N64 games at the time. By using sound samples with a reverb effect, composers could effectively mask the lower quality audio while producing songs that would sound rich coming from your built in television speakers.
In listening to the Smash 64 Character Select Screen, I’d argue that reverb is what gave the song so much of its, well, character.
As evidenced by the renewed prevalence of samples arranged on drum machines like the Roland 808, faithful recreation of bass is wildly different from synthesized bass. Whereas hip-hop often employs heavy-handed, almost oppressive low end frequencies, the sound that emanates from an upright bass is more authentic.
Ando’s deft use of reverb in Smash 64 helped instill that sense of reality where there may not have been any. His handiwork helps to fill out a track that otherwise isn’t noteworthy, making 14 seconds of bass and brass feel like an eternity of bliss.