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VG O.D.: The Drowning Music in Sonic the Hedgehog

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 29, 2008

I don’t write much about non-music synchronization video games on this blog, and for good reason–I don’t know shit about ’em. My parents wouldn’t let me own a VG system until my Bar Mitzvah (going so far as to strip me of a Nintendo I bought with my own money when I was 9, the parental decision I recently cited to them as the least defensible they ever made), and by then it was too late–permanently a step or two behind my nerd friends, I never quite had the energy to catch up, and though I always enjoyed video games, I’ve been missing that pure sort of Gamer gene my entire life. Consequently, my VG knowledge mostly extends to classics on GameBoy (the compromise system my parents allowed me in my pre-teens), the multi-player N-64 games I played with my friends through middle school and high school, the Guitar Hero/Rock Band family, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic belonged to that special group of early-90s video games in my Dark Ages that I frequently had access to outside of the house–I could play NBA Jam when I went to the local kids’ nice clothing store, I could play Mortal Kombat when I was at my older neighbor Alan’s place (who also showed me my first porn, though it was mostly of fecalphilia, which probably put me off porn for at least a few years) and I could play Sonic when I was at my family friends’ meetups in New York for a weekend or so. If I’d had my way, that’s all I would’ve done when I was there–while the rest of the kids were off playing with fake instruments or putting on Disney re-enactments, I would sneak back upstairs and try to get through the third stage of the Spring Yard Zone, until my mom invariably came upstairs and made me feel bad for being so anti-social.

It made me the outcast of these family get-togethers for years, but I regret nothing. Sonic was a game that blew my mind in ways no game had before or really has since. Everything about it was poetry in motion to me, from the way Sonic bounced around the heavens in the bonus levels, to the way the fire would creep up at Sonic in the Marble Zone, to the vwwong sound it made when Sonic broke a Shield box.  And I loved the way every level had its own feel, its own rhythm, even its own sense of video game logic–every time you advanced to the next level, it felt like you were opening up a brand new game. The whole thing was stunningly imaginative, and breathtakingly immaculate. I’ve gotten more mileage out of a couple other games since, but if you put Sonic #1 on the list of the greatest video games of all-time, you’d get no argument from me.

My favorite part of the game, and definitely the part that most stayed with me, was probably the music. It ranged from the invigorating (Green Hill Zone) to the tense (Scrap Brain), to the fire and brimstone (Dr. Robotnik’s Theme) to the impossibly funky (Spring Yard Zone) and the blissfully serene (Special Stage), and it was all as addictive as 8-bit instrumental J-Pop could possibly be. Hearing the opening notes to any of the level themes puts a smile on my face like no band outside of The Raspberries or LFO can, and instantly takes me back to being eight years old in my family friends’ attic again. I mean yeah, the Tetris music was great and all, but how was I supposed to go back to my Game Boy after hearing all this?

Maybe the best piece of music in the whole thing, though, wasn’t any sort of theme, but rather, the super-panicked music that played whenever Sonic was in danger of drowning. For a game that starts with such childlike wonder in the green fields and sparkling colors of the Green Hill Zone, Sonic gets kinda scary as it goes along. This really first becomes evident in the Labyrinth Zone, the game’s fourth level, where Sonic is forced to spend much of the level underwater. He gets occasional breath refills by sucking on piles of organically growing air bubbles (which I guess is how I thought SCUBA diving worked for most of my young life), but go too long without downing one, and the “Gasping for Air” music starts to play. And from there, you know shit is about to go down.

The Labyrinth Zone music is generally pretty genial–maybe a little less of an enthusiastic rush than some of the early musics, with a slightly dark undertone in its heavily syncopated rhythms, but mostly harmless. But when the music is interrupted by the sounds of “Gasping for Air,” you are snapped immediately to attention. That brutal, piercing DUN-DA, DUN-DA, DUN-DA, DUN-DA just comes out of nowhere, and instantly your heart begins racing and you panic over how to get out of this predicament. But unless you find quick relief, the music just gets faster, more intense (DUNDADUNDA-DUNDADUNDA), until you can’t remember which button does what on the SEGA controller (even though there are only three, and I think they all do pretty much the same thing). I was almost always too struck with fear to properly get myself either out of the water or to a bubble repository, and had to resort to a lot of cheap continues as a result.

If you’d given me a couple years with the Sonic series for my VG fandom to properly blossom, I might be writing about Centipede and Dig Dug instead of Journey and Squeeze these days. As it is, I’m doomed to a lifetime of smiling and nodding while my nerd friends discuss the latest Final Fantasy. And Mom and Dad, you guys still owe me $10 for that Nintendo.

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