GAME MUSIC HELL: 720° by Paul Weinstein, AKA Chipocrite

Welcome to another edition of GAME MUSIC HELL!  Today, bassist and chiptune master Paul Weinstein, AKA Chipocrite will discuss an Atari arcade port that falls short:  720° for NES.

A little about Chipocrite (from his website):

Paul Weinstein (former bassist of MJ Project, Philly’s favorite jamtronfusion monstergroup) started making music with Game Boys in early 2009. It was the sound he felt he was destined to create, a mix of old and new, a way to bridge the comforting video game tones he grew up with and the complex but catchy songs he was hearing in his head all those years later. It’s exciting, it’s pretty cool, and, above all, it’s some of the most fun he’s ever had making music.

What’s great about Paul is that he knows the inner workings of digital sound, especially when it comes to the old sound chips of our beloved consoles/handhelds:

So naturally, when he asked if he could write an article for GAME MUSIC HELL, I was more than happy to oblige.

You can find Chipocrite at www.chipocrite.com.  His next show will be on 11/10/12 at the Anime USA Convention in Washington, DC.  For details, check out animeusa.org.  Now, without further delay, here’s Chipocrite’s analysis of Atari’s 720° for NES!

It’s difficult to describe 720° for the NES as a good game. The premise is simple — basically, you skateboard around and attempt to win awards by showing off your sick shredding skills — but its execution is sloppier than a poorly timed ollie. Critics have praised the influential arcade machine on which it was based, in that it was one of the first extreme sports video games and apparently coined the phrase “Skate or Die,” which would later spawn a much better skateboarding series (with astronomically better music). I’d argue that the 720° NES port was personally influential, in that it made skateboarding seem so tedious, frightening, and downright impossible that I’ve never considered trying it in real life.

But I digress; I’m really here to talk about 720°’s train-wreck NES soundtrack. So please, take a listen:

(credit:  vgmoz)

If you somehow got through that, congratulations! You’ve now heard every note Neil Brennan programmed for the game. Yes, its ENTIRE SOUNDTRACK comprises four songs, clocking in at just about four minutes.

Right away, the music sounds pretty minimal, but hey, at least that bubbly scale thing at 0:06 is neat, I guess. Unfortunately, it’s a short-lived triumph; the rest of the song is just silly and odd. At 1:10, five seconds into the already laughable second track, we hear 720°’s most embarrassing moment — what is that, an attempted hemiola that awkwardly “transitions” into a stuttering, off-tempo metal riff? Perhaps Brennan was going for something badass and/or complex, but there’s a fine line between “proggy” and “not knowing what you’re doing.” I’d lean more towards the latter here.

The game’s main theme (2:10) is also quite sparse, and because it seems to start on an off beat, something about the song just never syncs up. Once again, this complexity feels accidental, and it doesn’t exactly complement the game, which is frustrating enough on its own.

But I could point out numerous fundamental problems that plague the whole soundtrack. For one, it sounds like Brennan only uses one of the NES’s two square wave channels throughout, and without any variations in pulse width or volume. Next, notice the loop points, which occur either after unnecessary extra measures (1:43) or at seemingly random times (0:30, 3:27). The percussion patterns and weak noise-channel “kick drums” are repetitive and thin. And what’s up with the inexpressive, out-of-tune triangle-channel melodies? Triangle leads can be very effective, but when a soundtrack is saturated with them, the sound becomes grating. These are basically things you would only do if you weren’t aware the system was capable of anything else.

Let’s go back to gameplay for a minute:

(credit:  methat)

Notice the disruptive sound effects? Pretty inexcusable, especially considering there’s a whole sound channel (two, if you count the DPCM channel) that’s not being used. Realistically though, THE ENTIRE GAME is disruptive — it’s loaded with quick cuts that force the music to constantly start and stop at extremely short intervals. The minimalist soundtrack almost doesn’t matter because only a few seconds of anything plays before abruptly changing anyway.

For some context, here’s 720°’s arcade soundtrack, programmed and composed three years earlier by Earl Vickers, Hal Cannon, and Brad Fuller:

 

(credit:  rsscheck)

Well, that was seriously awesome. At about 4:40, we hear a much badder-assed FM version of the hilarious second song from the NES video. I can see how that crunchy distortion and full arrangement might be difficult to recreate with a more limited sound palette, but considering Brennan’s only vaguely accurate notes and timings, it sounds like he knew it was hopeless and just kind of gave up.

For even more context, here’s what Tim Follin was doing with the NES in 1989, when 720° was released:

 

(credit:  EchhiGuy)

Can you hear how much more is happening there? Driving beats, rich percussion, diverse square instruments… Not to mention a complicated but still captivating song structure. It’s more than 1:30 before anything loops at all.

THAT ONE TRACK IS ALMOST HALF AS LONG AS THE ENTIRE 720° SOUNDTRACK.

So, what went wrong? I’d surmise that Brennan simply didn’t have much NES experience. He seems to have specialized in composing for the ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64. Considering the chips he was used to, it’s actually very possible he DIDN’T know any better regarding Nintendo’s 2A03. Maybe he was facing a deadline and didn’t have time to learn more. Who knows?

But here’s a fun epilogue: 720° seems to have been Brennan’s final soundtrack, as composer Gavan Anderson took over at Beam Software shortly after its release. Unfortunately, Anderson’s work isn’t much of a step up:

(credit:  Otouto72)

Apparently, the “street brawler” wasn’t the only bad part of the game.

Anyway, in summary, 720° for the NES was basically a weak port with an even weaker soundtrack. With such glaringly obvious flaws, the final product ends up sounding like a bunch of sketches that somehow made it into the game by accident.  ~Paul Weinstein, aka Chipocrite

Thanks for reading, guys!  As always, feedback is welcome.  And don’t forget to check out www.chipocrite.com to see what Paul’s up to!

About Classical Gaming

Steve Lakawicz holds an MM in Music Performance from Temple University as well as a BM in Tuba Performance from Rutgers University . His teachers include Paul Scott, Scott Mendoker, and Jay Krush. His love of video game music has lead him to form a blog, Classical Gaming, to promote discussion both casual and academic about the music of video games. He is the co-founder of the video game/nerd music chamber ensemble, Beta Test Music and regularly composes/performs chiptune music as Ap0c. He currently resides in Philadelphia where he teaches college statistics at Temple University. View all posts by Classical Gaming

3 responses to “GAME MUSIC HELL: 720° by Paul Weinstein, AKA Chipocrite

  • Elizabeth Blitz-McGinsky

    Retrogamer magazine frequently interviews composers from the NES-era, and it does seem that the transition from “home computer” systems to the NES was difficult/frustrating for many of the composers (along with it being difficult for game programmers…)

    So …your assumption about him not actually knowing how to compose for the NES very well may be correct. Was 720 one of those bootleg unlicensed Tengen games?

  • Muuurgh

    To be honest, after I listened to the first video I was a bit sympathetic, thinking, ‘Oh man, this is a little silly but video game hell? Aren’t you being a little harsh?’ It sounded like a weak minimalist NES game to me, and that’s about it–something goofy and forgettable (though, I found your “fundamental problems” spot-on; those are unforgivable).

    The real sin for me lies in the second video, where you can hear the soundtrack during gameplay. What was that guy thinking? As you pointed out, the interruption by the SFX and short shelf life of music is ridiculously obnoxious. If a game is to have quick scene shifts like that with different themes popping up on the different screens, the screens need to be longer and the music has to say a lot more in a short amount of time. It’s so bad.

    I’m interested in listening to the arcade music in context. Did it act the same way? If so, the only thing that redeems it is that more is happening in a shorter period of time (though “redeems” is a strong word). Not to mention, listening to that and then hearing Brennan’s attempt to recreate the music on the NES makes the music sound even more pitiful. If I were a fan of the arcade game and then had to suffer through that after having anticipated playing it at home? Ugh.

    “Street Brawler” was a good choice to throw to the flames, too. Sounds like Anderson just learned how to outline a 12-bar blues in Jazz 101.

    Final verdict? LET THEM BURN.

  • Chipocrite

    Hey, thanks for the replies already🙂

    720° was just a regular old NES game:

    I did find a decent video of some of the arcade action though:

    It’s MUCH less disruptive than the NES version, both in terms of the sound effects (gotta love that sampled speech) and the game’s pacing, which makes a lot more sense in the arcade version (not just in terms of the music — it also looks like it’s actually fun).

    I couldn’t get away from Brennan/Anderson this afternoon, and I stumbled upon a few more pieces of interesting info that I felt I should tack on here. For one, this bio of Anderson (http://www.vgmpf.com/Wiki/index.php?title=Gavan_Anderson#History) has a very interesting quote, apparently directly from Anderson himself, basically calling out Brennan for “not being able to read or write music.” Ouch, hahah.

    Also, while poking around on that site a little further, I also discovered that apparently Brennan actually composed that theme song for Bad Street Brawler, although Anderson and Tania Smith arranged/programmed it. I’m not sure I’d consider a basic, forgettable blues jam a “composition,” so I would still argue that everyone involved is equally at fault, hahaha.

    One other thing, and I probably should have done this sooner.. I imported the Nintendo Sound Format (NSF) file for 720° into a newer version of Famitracker that lets you see whats going on on each sound channel, and while most of my observations just from listening were accurate, I should mention that some of what I previously thought were “noise-channel kicks” were actually short, soft thuds happening on that second square wave channel I thought wasn’t in use. This is still pretty inexcusable, in my opinion — what it demonstrates to me is even more inefficient usage of the sound chip’s potential. It’s like he figured that a few barely audible noises every once in a while were probably good enough for that channel. Or maybe he thought those minimal sounds completely ruled out the possibility of doing anything else with that channel in the empty spaces between them. Either way, it’s essentially just as good as not using the channel at all.

    Thanks again, and keep the comments coming. Oh, and if Neil Brennan, Gavan Anderson or anyone else involved ever read this blog, please note that I’m sorry if any of this offended you guys! I hope I explained my criticism in a way that wasn’t simply negative but at least kind of made sense and was educational. I wrote this because it genuinely, seriously interested me, and I learned a lot just from researching it! Without original NES composers, I’d be nowhere, and I don’t take that for granted. I just wanted to get a few things off my chest about this soundtrack🙂

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