A few months back, Project Sora and Nintendo released their high-profile franchise revival effort Kid Icarus: Uprising. In my review of the game, I gave a brief mention of the soundtrack as one of the game’s many high points. Naturally, I couldn’t really fully examine Uprising’s score within the scope of an overall review – certainly not with the sort of depth that the game’s music deserves. So for today’s Music Monday, I’d like to take a look back at what made Pit’s long-awaited return such a bountiful feast for the ears.
Taking a look at the list of composers for Kid Icarus: Uprising is enough to make any video game music geek salivate. Much like Project Sora’s last work, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Uprising features a stellar stable of musical talent, which includes Yuzo Koshiro (ActRaiser, Etrian Odyssey), Masafumi Takada (killer7, No More Heroes), Noriyuki Iwadare (Lunar, Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations), Motoi Sakuraba (Tales series, Golden Sun), and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger/Cross, Xenogears). Not only does this all-star cast result in a high-quality score, but it lends to the overall variety of the soundtrack as well, leading to tracks that run the gamut from sweepingly orchestral moments to energy-fueled guitar solos.
One of the major things that Kid Icarus’s soundtrack does so well is the way it compliments gameplay design. Each of Uprising’s 25 chapters is typically divided into two segments: an on-rails flying stage similar to Star Fox and a foot-based third-person shooter portion. Wisely, this design consideration was taken into account when scoring these first sections. Since the player will always be at the same point at the same time during the flying segments, it allows the composers to take this into account, creating tracks that change and react to the action on-screen and immerse the player far more deeply into the gameplay.
Take Kid Icarus’s first chapter as an example. Listening to the track on it’s own, you can hear where the music is broken up and shifts as the stage progresses:
Putting that same track within the context of some of the gameplay footage, you can start to see how this musical decision benefits the game overall. The action immediately starts the only way it could – with a grand, orchestral treatment of the original Kid Icarus’s opening level music. As Medusa makes her appearance, it shifts into a few ominous bars as the characters trade words before transitioning into a descending harp as Pit races down towards the surface world.
This becomes the general theme of how these on-rails segments progress. Virtually each and every gameplay transition on-screen is accompanied by an appropriate musical shift, creating a soundtrack that is less about providing background music and more about integrating itself directly with the gameplay. The end result makes the experience feel something akin to a theme-park ride – everything synchs together so well that you can’t help but be drawn in to the game world.
Another great example of this style comes from this track from one of the game’s earlier chapters. Once again, the composers have turned to the original Kid Icarus for musical inspiration:
In this chapter, Pit is assaulting a fortress full of reapers, the sickle-wielding phantoms that call in reinforcements if they spot an intruder. In the original Kid Icarus, this was accompanied by a distinctive screeching tune that would make the player immediately aware that they had been spotted. This grating and repetitious piece of NES “music” serves as the inspiration for this chapter’s theme, turning an annoying and nerve-wracking ditty into a driving piece to accompany Pit’s approach on the fortress. Much like the track for the first chapter, you can hear the progress of the stage as the song continues, making a distinctive shift in tone as the level reaches its climactic and chaotic final moments.
One of the most memorable tracks from the original Kid Icarus came during the game’s “fortress” levels. Each world was capped off by a Zelda-style dungeon for which composer Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka, known for his incredibly atmospheric creations for games like Metroid, crafted a gloomy score to properly set the level’s tone. That sinister, threatening atmosphere is replicated masterfully in Uprising’s take on the track, used during an on-foot segment as Pit explores the undersea palace of Thanatos, god of death:
Much like Tanaka’s original creation, the piece is moody and foreboding, remaining relatively simple in its construction. The addition of quick surges at the beginning of key measures makes this new creation all the more creepy, giving Thanatos’s keep an appropriately sinister vibe. Compared to many of the action segments previous to this level, which generally featured high-energy music, this particular arrangement of an NES original really helps this mission to stand out as something special.
Of course, it’s important to remember that Kid Icarus: Uprising truly is an original creation. Despite being built off of a quarter-century old franchise, the title hugely expands upon the world of Kid Icarus, introducing a host of new characters and scenarios that combine to form something entirely unique. To this end, while Uprising pays its proper respects to its predecessor’s soundtrack, a majority of the tunes are wholly original pieces that assist in crafting something entirely new.
Among these new characters is the human mercenary Magnus, a ludicrously strong swordfighter who holds no love for the gods but develops grudging respect for Pit’s combat prowess. He’s typically accompanied by his own theme:
It’s a grand, majestic theme that gives you an idea about Magnus as a character without even playing the game. Heroic and intense, his anthem feels more “down to earth” than some of the more airy themes that have played up until the point where you first encounter him. This helps to paint Magnus as special within the context of the Kid Icarus world, making him all the more memorable as a result.
Also among the new characters you’ll encounter in Uprising is the hyper-aggressive Dark Pit. While a “dark” doppelganger of the protagonist ranks up there as one of the most done-to-death Nintendo clichés, Dark Pit still manages to come off as endearing, thanks in no small part to his fantastic character theme:
The acoustic guitar gives Dark Pit’s theme a decidedly ethnic and unique flavor, which again stands out from much of the rest of the game’s soundtrack. As the stage progresses, the theme grows more and more intense, adding a driving percussion to the mix that accents the character’s aggressive nature – and, since it’s a Sakuraba track, there of course has to be some organ thrown in there for good measure. This is a tune that pops up again and again throughout Kid Icarus: Uprising whenever Dark Pit reappears, and it’s such an infectious theme that you’ll always look forward to each occurrence.
These character themes really show off the kind of variety that Kid Icarus: Uprising’s soundtrack offers. This diversity really cannot be understated – every single chapter offers its own unique music, and sometimes there can be an enormous variance from stage to stage as the tone of the game shifts. For instance, take the following track, played during a chapter where the world faces an invasion from an unknown army:
The song starts out mysterious and threatening before launching into a driving, string-and-horn heavy rhythm that wouldn’t be out of place in a 90’s sci-fi action movie. It perfectly sets the tone for the enormous conflict that’s about to be set in motion, again, properly building in intensity as the stage progresses. As the player is swept upwards into the morning sun and finally gets a good look at the extent of the enemy, the song even makes a clever reference to Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, which you may recall as the opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Contrast that with the theme that plays in the chapter directly preceding it, as Pit does battle with a lightning-empowered demigoddess:
This stage involves a high-speed chase through an intense series of thunderclouds, and the music for it starts off intense right off the bat. Foregoing any sense of orchestral arrangement, this track dives straight into rock territory and never looks back. Attentive listeners will notice tiny bits of classic Kid Icarus music sprinkled in for good measure, but the majority of the piece is wholly original and does a fantastic job of setting up the theme for the second half of the stage – a slower, more majestic take on the same basic song.
You can start to get a sense of the kind of range that Kid Icarus: Uprising brings to the table. Practically every stage in the game brings something different on the music front, which not only heightens the anticipation for each new level as you progress, but increases the sense of immersion into the game, having a unique song to attach to each memory of your time battling alongside Pit.
I’ve saved the best for last, of course. Each level of Kid Icarus: Uprising is capped off with a boss battle, so the combat music for these encounters is a track that you’ll hear quite often. It’s a good thing then that it’s so incredible:
Musical mastermind Yasunori Mitsuda crafts a boss theme for Uprising that hits all the right notes. Starting out right away with the guitar, the song gradually builds up as the horns are added, eventually climaxing in a sweeping melody that uses the strings that have become something of a trademark for Mitsuda. In a soundtrack already packed full of absolute gems, Uprising’s boss theme is a definite highlight, the sort of song that dares you not to get pumped up when you hear it.
Project Sora and Nintendo knew they had something special in the music for Kid Icarus: Uprising, and as a result, a CD copy of the official soundtrack full of high-quality versions of the game’s music was made available to Club Nintendo members in Japan. Unfortunately, that same offer hasn’t been extended to anyone else in the world, so I suppose all that we can do is cross our fingers and hope.
Kid Icarus: Uprising is a great example of how careful attention to a game’s soundtrack can create a memorable experience. Not only does it amplify the Uprising’s immersion during its on-rails moments, but the huge range of musical styles show off the game’s variety and compliment the uniqueness of each of Pit’s adventures. The next time you’re soaring through Skyworld or battling your way through the forces of the Underworld, make sure you’ve got a good pair of headphones on to do the game’s score proper justice.