Grand Theft Audio: The Art of Game Music Rip-Offs

Posted on by Jesse Ogden (jogden)
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Video game music has com a long ways from the days of the boops and beeps of the Atari 2600 and its venerable microprocessing brethren. A few clever programmers were able to wring the most they could with melodies out of the machines, but plenty of games relegated their audio to just mere sound effects. In those days, dinosaurs still roamed the earth and many a pasty, pimple-faced caveman would listen to the crickets in two-part harmony with the sounds of centipedes being blasted away.

But as time passed we craved better music to go along with our better graphics. It wasn't long before every game required to have their own soundtrack for their games. Most games went with rudimentary music that sounded "video game-y" enough. Others proved to be more clever. A famous anecdote relates how the composer of the Super Mario Bros. theme, Koji Kondo, composed the classic Super Mario Bros. theme to reflect the sunny backgrounds of the world and to be in harmony with the sound effects. Another example, Konami's shooter, Parodius, used wacky remixes of classical music because its composer, Hidenori Maezawa, only had one month to compose the soundtrack and classical music was in the public domain.

I love the smell of power-ups in the morning.

Other composers, on the other hand, plumbed the depths of the pop music they loved to help them out. Some of that music ended up in the game as a loving homage--a fancy French word that means totally and completely ripped-off. Certain songs have become so classic that many people don't even realize the suspicious sources of beloved chords and melodies. Take a song from one of the granddaddies of rhythm games for example.

1. Parappa the Rapper "Can" Rap with Style

Without Parappa the Rapper, would there have been a Guitar Hero or Rock Band? Probably, but it's hard to imagine the music game genre without this seminal title and early Playstation hit. Released in Japan in '96 and in the USA in '97, the game starred a paper-thin dog rapping his way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs and into the pyramidion of self-confidence. It was a music game where you gotta improve yourself and you gotta believe.

Prior to Parappa, your choices of music games were quite limited. Some people had to go as far as to start their own bands, learn musical instruments, and have copious amounts of sex with groupies to even emulate the experience that Guitar Hero provided.

The game proved to be quite creative and ingenious. The music was very original and fun, with plenty of hooks that could stay in your head for days. It makes sense. Masaya Matsuura, the creator of the game, is a musician in his own right. He's also apparently a fan of the German experimental band Can.

The video on the left is stage two, Mooselini's Driving School. The one on the right is the 1971 B-side of Can's single "Halleluwah," entitled "Turtles Have Short Legs":

They're virtually the same song. The similarity of the two songs seems almost impossible to be a coincidence, especially considering Matsuura's musical background. Whatever the case is, how appropriate is it that a game about a rapping dog would feature a pretty clear case of sampling in one of its tracks?

Speaking of sampling though...

2. Earthbound Gets By With a Little Help From Its Friends

Before every Japanese RPG was required to have long-haired androgynous heroes who angst and save the world from evil empires at the same time, there was Earthbound. Released for the SNES in Japan in '94 and in America in '95, the game is a little bit difficult to explain. To sum it up in one sentence: Four plucky children set on a quest across a wacky Japanized "America"(?) to defeat a Lovecraftian cosmic horror using psychic powers and baseball bats.

It's kind of like that

The game was actually called Mother 2, as it was a sequel to the NES game Mother. Its creator, Shigesato Itoi, is a rather famous writer and cultural critic (and occasional Iron Chef judge) in Japan, and the game series he created reflects a lot of the pensive loneliness of the nuclear age with a generous mixture of drugged-out insanity and general Japanese wackiness.

One of the most consistently praised aspects of the game is the soundtrack. Both the soundtrack and the title of the original game drew inspiration from John Lennon (the title itself was a reference to his first solo album song, "Mother"). The development team for the music had a lot of freedom in creating the soundtrack for the game, and they used that freedom to their advantage as they drew on so many different influences for the music. And it shows. Riffs and similarities show up all over the game, and any observant music fan can find constant references to classic pop music buried in the game. Especially in regards to the Beatles.

Dedicated Earthbound fans have documented this incredible amount of sampling better than I ever can (as well as the legal issues this created). This video alone shows the Beatles motifs present in the game, as well as other musical sources that were drawn upon.

3. Sonic the Hedgehog Moonwalks with the 80's

Other games prefer to draw their influences elsewhere. Sonic the Hedgehog is a long-running series that has spanned a couple of decades now. There's little point in rehashing how the series went south or its long-standing--and often disturbing--popularity within the furry community.

Much like many of the hits in the late 80's and early 90's, the games were often remembered for some of their memorable tracks and music, a lot of which seemed to draw on the pop music of the 1980's. Two of the games appear to have drawn some influence from the British electronic group 808 State. The boss theme of the Game Gear's Sonic 2 sounds very much like an uptempo version from 808 State's "Cubik":

It wasn't the only song they inspired, however. From the Japanese version of Sonic CD (long considered probably the best game in the entire Sonic series), we have this:

Once again, it sounds remarkably similar. The influence from "Pacific 707" can easily be heard on the game. In fact, one might even say they sound nearly identical. Both of these songs were composed by Naofumi Hataya, who would appear to be Japan's biggest 808 State fan.

It doesn't really end there though. You also have the Final Zone of the original Sonic the Hedgehog taking a few musical cues from Duran Duran's Planet Earth. And then there's the Bridge Zone sounding more than a little like a slightly sped up melody of Janet Jackson's "Together Again" (actually, it predates the Janet Jackson single by years, but I needed this for the seque). So, speaking of the Jackson family in a completely and totally non-contrived way, let's talk about Sonic the Hedgehog 3.

Much has been made about the Jacksonian vibe that can be heard in the Sonic 3 soundtrack. In fact, Michael's song "Stranger in Moscow" seems to be drawing on the Ending Theme to Sonic 3. Now, the story goes that Michael Jackson was brought in to compose the music to Sonic 3 during the development stage. For whatever reason--some say that the whole story is a myth while others say that Jackson was unhappy with the result--Jackson was never credited with the music and the story entered the annals of myth while Sega attempted to salvage what they could from the songs.

You can judge for yourself just how much the the soundtrack sounds like Jackson:

4. Mega Man Enjoys Taking Others' Music Like He Takes Their Powers

When it comes to classic game music, it's hard to think of a better series than the Mega Man one. There's just a classic sound to these games that really makes you feel like you're a rocking robot in 20XX. And just like the blue bomber himself, the games have a tendency to appropriate music that didn't belong to them before.

Starting where it all began, we have the first Mega Man game, released in 1987. Here we have our robot buddy blasting enemies while crooning Journey's "Faithfully":

He wasn't content to taking a Journey hook and speeding it up though. He continued his musical rampage into Mega Man 2 (1988), taking whatever else sounded good. Take the music from the Flash Man stage. Keep in mind that one of the songs is by Metallica and one of the bosses in Mega Man 2 is Metal Man. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm sure my grand theory will all be tied together when Spencer Davisman (or Chicagoman) is introduced in Mega Man 11.

Of course, it may simply be a rather common chord progression and that it's just a mere coincidence. It could be. But then we would also need to account for this:

And frankly, I can't account for it.

5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Thieves

Not even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are immune from the constant cribbing that was going on in the early days of video games. I'll give you two guesses as to where you've heard the bass line of this song from the NES TMNT game (1989), but you're only going to need one.

If you guessed the Beatles' Come Together, well, so did everyone else. Listen to the song again. You can almost imagine the four Beatles taking on the roles of the four ninja-esque turtles. Wait, let me just take care of that image for you.

Everyone knew that Ringo was a party dude

I wish I could it end here with a very poorly photoshopped Beatles album a la the Residents, but it doesn't end there. In fact, it may have committed a sin somewhat more venial. It's one thing to steal from the Beatles. Everyone does it. Earthbound did it. This very same game didn't just steal from the Beatles, though. They stole from Queen. They stole from Queen.

Here's the turtles, looking a little crazy cool.

Here's Queen, being stone cold crazy cool.

One is more awesome than the other. But good effort turtles, good effort. You can't really blame them. If I were a ninja turtle, I would want to be Freddie Mercury too.

6. Cult Slasher Film is Stalked By Four Different Games (Maybe? Probably not.)

If you like good films, then the cult classic slasher film Sleepaway Camp probably isn't on the top of your list. But, if you like great films, then it most certainly is. I won't spoil it, you should just see it. It's very good. It's got an unforgettable twist ending and oh wait this article is about video games so I should talk about that.

So it's a little strange to imagine that an obscure song from this film could've inspired three different songs from three different games, though this may be a case of coincidence or other fames simply following the leader. Whatever the case, it is funny, if not a bit spooky.

Here's the original song from Sleepaway Camp, released in 1983. It's called "Angela's Theme," and it was written about the main character from the film. It's an ominous little ditty with plenty of delicious 80's vibes deliciously emanating off of it.

Now let's look at three video game tracks that seem to all be haunting this slasher film's dreams. The first is Blaster Master, 1988. The second is Chrono Trigger, 1995. The third is Breath of Fire III, 1997.

I'm willing to grant that it's simply a coincidence that these three songs share very similar progressions with "Angela's Theme." Just as I'm willing to grant that it's totally a coincidence that there are mysterious murders happening on the campgrounds that Jason Voorhees tragically drowned at. As far as music goes, this seems to be the most copied one among video games. The Japanese must really be a fan of Sleepaway Camp.

Or, it really is just a coincidence and all of the other games are simply copying this:

Video games simply just have an incredibly incestuous and hard to trace lineage when it comes to their music. Before video games became the crazy billion dollar industry that they are today, it was much easier for developers to get away with outright theft and copying of other people's music. No one would notice, no one would raise a fuss. It was just a video game. And sometimes they were just copying what all the other sound engineers were doing. Sometimes artists are even inspired by video games.

And sometimes, it really is just a weird series of circumstances that manages to create several tracks that just happen to sound alike.

7. Roboroll

And then there's just this:

Most memorable video game theme?

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