Clash on the Big Bridge” is a favorite piece of video game music. Check it out. It’s such a great piece:

An acquaintance mentioned earlier today that Final Fantasy XV has a remix of this song. Even though I haven’t played Final Fantasy XV (and the reason why is a good topic for a future post), I rushed home to listen to the remake on youtube…

… and I was excited to hear the hook of the original tune. However, I was bored by the 2 minute mark and soon stopped listening to the recent “remastered” version of the classic SNES tune. The results of this experience have really bothered me. Many moons ago, I was a starving journalist who wrote music reviews, pop culture think pieces, and fake letters to the editor for a (now-defunct) freebie “music and culture” newspaper in Nashville, TN. That job forced me to listen to some of the finest musicians and lyricists in the world, yet I feel unequipped to explain why the Final Fantasy XV version bored me. A symphonic masterwork couldn’t hold my attention even though it was measurably better (by budget, sound quality, and production design) than a piece that suffers from the mono-chordal limitations of hardware from 1992. I don’t want to brush this off as a matter of taste. Why do I prefer the simpler version of the same song?

There is a simplistic purity of the old chip-tune songs that forced composers to write whole scores using a sequence of single notes. Yoshinori Kitase, the director of Final Fantasy 6, once said, “It’s maybe strange to say [this], but I miss the limitations of making games in those days… the challenges were that much greater. But nowadays you can do almost anything in a game… There is a certain freedom to be found in working within strict boundaries, one clearly evident in Final Fantasy VI.” This concept is applicable to the musical limitations of that era as well.

The limitations of the older generations of hardware forced musicians to focus almost exclusively on the melody of the songs, and the melody is the part of the song that gets stuck in your head. For a particularly good piece, a melody may stick around for decades or a lifetime. There was a moment in the mid-2000’s where I thought that I had lost my sense of hearing completely. A nearby explosion shredded my ear drums. I was bruised and beat up, but, luckily, I was relatively unharmed except for an unyielding ringing in both ears. For whatever reason, in these terrifying hours of deafness, I decided to hum a song until I could hear myself again. That song happened to be the theme to Doctor Mario.

Why was that? The theme to Dr. Mario is a memory that I am certain that I will take to my grave no matter how old or senile I may ever become. It’s not a particularly difficult song. What makes this song or the Final Fantasy V score stick with players, while the measurably superior scores from Final Fantasy XV, God of War, or Dark Souls fade almost instantly?

It may be the fact that, unless you are a Mongolian throat singer, a human voice can only produce one tone at a time. This makes it natural to distill a song down into single tones. I can hum the original Final Fantasy V “Clash on the Big Bridge” while listening to a podcast and doing squats, but I’d really have to dig deep to reproduce the Final Fantasy XV version. This is why that awesome theme from Mega Man II can stick with you through thick and thin. The limitations of the technology actually humanized the art into something truly memorable.