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Pilotwings' Mellow Jazz Showed SNES Had A Sound All Its Own

Image: Nintendo / Kotaku
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Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today our ears will take flight with one of the very first soundtracks composed for the Super Nintendo. It was not a banger.

Pilotwings (longplay) was one of the very first games for the Super Nintendo, having begun life as the “Dragonfly” tech demo Nintendo showed to press as early as November ‘88. The final game, released one month after the system’s 11/21/90 Japanese launch, utilized the system’s graphics mode 7 scaling and rotation—supported by a DSP-1 enhancement chip—to provide a dazzling demonstration of the new console’s power.

The light, jazzy soundtrack by Nintendo’s Soyo Oka was just as remarkable as the visuals, flexing the SNES’ sample-based audio hardware with realistic-sounding piano, bass, flute, and err, wah-wah sounds. In recent years this music’s become a favorite of mine, as has Oka herself, who also composed classics Ice Hockey, SimCity (including the unreleased NES version), and Super Mario Kart.

Let’s listen:

Nintendo / retrovgm (YouTube)

Pilotwings has a sound all its own, and almost every track is a relaxing, jazzy little number. The four main vehicle songs (spanning 1:22 to 7:51) are equally great, but if you just want the wah-wah, head straight for “Rocketbelt” (4:36). Imagine booting Pilotwings up in 1990, 1991 and hearing this coming out of your TV... a real sea change for console-game music, both in style and audio quality.

It’s fascinating to think of all the new possibilities that opened for composers like Oka upon graduating from 8-bit platforms like the Famicom. I’m curious how they felt while exploring the new hardware’s capabilities. How hard was it to get to grips with an entirely new soundchip, tools, and even sound-generation method (playing back tiny samples) before even getting to the process of creation?

Speaking of tools. Last week I wondered aloud if there was any audio-related middleware for SNES devs, and it turns out there was, an in-house Nintendo joint called Kankichi-kun. Sounds like it was very helpful. It’s possible there were other solutions from third parties, too.

The excellent Shmupulations translated a 2001 interview with Super Mario Bros. composer Koji Kondo in which he describes using GUI-enhanced tools on SNES, perhaps meaning/including Kankichi-kun:

Up until then, we had had to write the music in actual programming code—basically straight programming. However, with the advent of the SFC, new tools were created where we could simply specify the pitch and length of the notes. We still used a computer and monitor, but now we sequenced everything with more musical parameters like pitch and note length. The writing environment looked similar to a musical staff, or a piano roll.

Cool! In light of this, I wonder why (Rare’s) David Wise stuck to manual hexadecimal input up to the end of SNES? Maybe someone here will have some insight. For now, let’s bring Pilotwings in for a landing.

Bonus round? Bonus round. Pilotwings has enjoyed a few great remixes over the years. For starters, “Light Plane” got covers in both Smash 3DS / Wii U (jazzy, vocals!) and Smash Ultimate (dancy, horns, sax).

Going further back, the 1992 album Nintendo Super Famicom Game Music (playlist / VGMdb) featured a gorgeous arrangement of “Sky Diving” from Takami Asano. And the 1993 Nintendo Super Famicom Game Music ~ Fun Together With Beyer (YT / VGMdb) has six very gentle, laid-back piano renditions of the game’s key tracks, starting here with “Light Plane.” Pleasant.

But I save the place of honor for my favorite thing to ever come out of OverClocked ReMix, which is the 2012 Pilotwings-series album Take Flight (Bandcamp / VGMdb). Arranged by halc and Insert Rupee, Take Flight is a delightful mélange of tastefully deployed synths, glitches, and beeps:

Nintendo / OverClocked ReMix: Video Game Music Community (YouTube)

It’s in semi-permanent rotation here. I wonder if Oka would dig it?

That’s it for today’s Morning Music! I encourage you to come in for a landing in the comments. (For maximum points try to aim for the small, flashing, rapidly moving island.) Long weekend ahead, so see y’all Tuesday!