Future Tone: Creative use of sound/sound hardware in older games

Twitter voting decided that this blog post must be something to do with game music, and seeing as I’ve already had a little go at covering actual music games as well as game music itself I thought I’d go for something a bit different, which means this time around I’m going to look at a few games that have used audio or audio technology in unexpected or creative ways.

Let’s start with an obvious one – Bangai-O Spirits. Treasure’s DS sequel may feel like something of a step down from the original’s madcap SPACE FRUIT collecting and a plot that has what could be charitably described as a tenuous grip on reality, but it’s incredible ‘Sound Load’ data transfer option can’t be faulted. These days sharing a file digitally is so easy and commonplace it’s hard to imagine a time when we managed without it, but back in the dark ages of 2008 setting up some sort of consumer-accessible upload/download hub for a single handheld game was such a bonkers idea that not even Treasure dared to try it; so rather than aiming for this expensive and unattainable high they decided to take a daring lo-fi approach instead, allowing users to transfer their self-made levels between each other using nothing more than their PC to ‘suck up’ the auto-generated sound file and an earbud whispering data-turned-sound into their DS’ microphone to transfer them back. It’s simple. It works. It enhances the game (who wants to spend time making levels nobody else can play?) and makes the DS do something that, at the time, it really wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Perfect!

You can find the old Japanese Bangai-O Spirits website (archived) here - https://web.archive.org/web/20080215030230/http://www.esp-web.co.jp/products/bangai-o/

If you’ve still got a copy of the game lurking around somewhere you can find some downloadable special stages under Special>Stage Download too!

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Going back even further to an era when a bundled 33kbps modem was justification enough for an extravagant TV advertising campaign and we reach Phantasy Star Online, a game that could be considered the physical manifestation of Sega’s desperate exceed-or-die-trying philosophy of the time. The soundtrack itself is always a treat for the ears but what makes it rise above similar games of the time is the way it effortlessly shifts between peaceful and battle remixes of the same track in direct response to the player’s current situation. From a brief poke around Blue Burst’s files the game appears to do this by having all the music split into sequential eight second chunks, allowing the game to quickly drop into the relevant mood without cutting out in unexpected ways. This was of course a continuation of the way ‘A-Life’ within Sonic Team’s NiGHTS influences the music played during a stage, but there it was more of an interesting footnote to the action rather than an integral part of the player’s experience.

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Next up is a game I once described as ‘The finest cel-shaded AIBO-supporting steampunk-detective game on PS2’ – or DekaVoice, if you prefer plain old titles. This earns its spot on my little list for being the holy grail of voice-controlled games; one where the voice commands actually work and the game’s fun to play too! You’d have thought by now getting the two to work together in harmony wouldn’t be so difficult, but in all honesty the list of games that really do mesh these two aspects together well consists of DekaVoice and, well… DekaVoice. It’s fair to say that the likes of Hey! You! Pikachu! and Sega’s Seaman helped pave the way for Acquire’s 2003 steampunk detective game, but unlike those two if you strip away DekaVoice’s microphone chatter you’ll still have a perfectly good game underneath – something that uses the voice chat to engage and enrich the player’s experience instead of being tacked on for the sake of selling a new peripheral.

You can read a full blog post about the game (and its AIBO support!) here - http://shinjuforest.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/the-finest-cel-shaded-aibo-supporting.html

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Entire games that successfully blur the lines between scenario and sound design are all very well and good, but there’s still something to be said for one-off creative flourishes like Ristar too! Sega’s oft-overlooked 1994 platformer is filled with inventive ideas in its superficially typical snow/water/lava themed levels, and the musical stage 4-1 is no exception. The objective of this level is to solve a linear series of simple puzzles so Ristar can reunite four metronomes with their original owners, cheering the birds up and making them fly off so he can progress through the level. The clever twist comes as you realise each happy bird fills in a particular section of the music, taking the track from a bit of quiet ambiance to Du-Di-Dah! as they sing (using scratchy samples!) you towards your goal. So without anyone saying a word you’ve got a complete short story told in song, all on hardware that’s now twenty eight years old.

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What to finish with..? Let’s go for Enemy Zero’s ‘VEXX Positioning System’ earpiece-radar, shall we? In a game filled with invisible bloodthirsty aliens this clever little device allowed WARP’s lead actress Laura to determine the position of her attackers by the tone and frequency of the beeps she could hear – slow and high meant the enemy was in the distance ahead, while fast and low meant the alien was close behind. A generic mid-tone meant something was off to the side, but the player wouldn’t know which until they’d spun around and noted how the pitch had altered. It’s a simple little thing that greatly increases the tension when you’re travelling through a maze of endless nigh-identical corridors and helps the player’s mind fill in the blanks where the slavering unknown beasts would normally be. The only slight problem is if you’re deaf or unable to play without the volume turned up then you’re completely defenceless through no fault of your own – a small detail that’s an especially sore point when you remember the time WARP made a game specifically for the blind.

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