This is Part 1 of my 2 part series on the music of Dr. Mario.
In 1990, Nintendo released Dr. Mario for both the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Nintendo Game Boy. As we know, the both of these systems use different audio instructions (Ricoh 2a03 for NES/Fami and the custom Sharp LR35902 for the Game Boy). So what challenges did Tanaka face when moving his soundtrack across these two platforms? Let’s take a look.
Quick aside: The NES version is assisted by the MMC1 ASIC mapper (not sure which specific version). While this does not provide any extra sounds, it does allow for split-screen head-to-head action and is most likely crucial in making sure the “action” part of the game runs smoothly.
Also, I’m assuming that Tanaka personally inputted the music protocol for both the NES and Game Boy versions of the game. I’m not sure if he had a sound development team (which I’m almost certain he probably did not) so if anyone knows who should be given credit for the port from NES to Game Boy (or vice versa?), please let me know.
Dr. Mario: Chill
Here, we see the NES version of the Dr. Mario theme “Chill”. Right away, you can hear the DPCM samples (higher than 1bit, it sounds like? Or just really clean?) powering the bongos and drums in the background. The triangle wave is present in the bassline and very strong. Our white noise acts as the high hat/cymbals.
@1.14 you’ll see a good example of using the two pulse waves to create echo. The pulse waves are placed just a little off of each other but nearly in unison. It creates kind of what I call a “shiny” feel to the melody which fits in perfect for this breakdown. So what happens on Game Boy?
The first thing noticeable is how “light” it feels compared to the NES version. The sounds are definitely set up to be more staccato. It’s also a hair faster. The lack of DPCM results having to use some tricks to get the drums to work. The white noise channel on Game Boy, in my opinion, has always been a lot more percussive. I’m not sure if there’s something supporting it via DPCM but it always feels like a “slap” of white noise as opposed to NES’s “buzz” of white noise. I guess there’s no real technical way to explain it other than if you just compare these two tracks together.
There’s a couple things missing or added throughout the track which aren’t that important but still noticeable. For example, there’s a gliss on one of the pulse waves on the 2a03 version that is missing @0:26 in the Game Boy version, the PCM allows some voices to change that did not change on the NES, and obviously this a square driven melody as opposed the 2a03’s pulse. Square waves have a sharper sound.
The breakdown @1:10 is interesting. Tanaka tries to make the same echo effect as he does with the 2a03. The echo effect here is done in such a way that creates a high pitched, slow “whine” almost behind the melody. I feel like it was poorly executed- either by Tanaka or the LR35902. I get why Tanaka did it but I find it really distracting.
Dr. Mario: Fever
A lively track, clearly. We again hear our DPCM-based drums supporting our pulse wave driven melody. The triangle wave provides the bassline. Triangle wave is really interesting when utilized in high registers. A lot of the Mega Man composers, such as Bun Bun, really like to use high triangle, sometimes too much, I think. (A Bun Bun example– I really should write a blog post about him too. This track is awesome haha). I feel like Tanaka drops it back down when he needs to. As a bass player, I can’t imagine playing up in the high frets the whole time.
The chorus @0.29 is great. The meandering pulse wave gives the melody pulse a good feel. The triangle gets kind of buried under the DPCM but I feel like it’s the right volume.
Well, there’s a lot of white noise used for this track, especially during the melody. I feel like this was done to add to the staccato nature of the Game Boy’s playback. PCM is employed here to vary up some the textures. It’s also a hair faster.
The chorus part (0:29) feels a lot more musical on the Game Boy. The square waves have more depth and that “crunch” or “tear” to it that you don’t hear from pulse. The bass is not has hidden behind melody mainly because it’s not a triangle wave. I love square chords. So clean.
Interesting note: @1:04, there’s a small 4-5 second transition that is not present in the NES version. I think it really adds something to the feeling of the track starting over. The NES version just… stops and starts over. It seems abrupt.
Dr. Mario: Menu
This is the last track we’ll talk about today. It’s quite short. Again, we hear the same DPCM drums. What’s interesting about this track is how much the 3 melodic lines vary. You have extreme high range triangle, extra low range pulse, all varying within a couple seconds. How does the Game Boy version stack up?
I mean, outside the lack of DPCM, this track sounds identical the NES track. I feel like it’s SLIGHTLY faster. Just barely. But overall, it’s a clean port between the two systems.
More to come next week!