Step Back and Take a Listen – Music in Games #3

Happy Monday. Today we return to Metroid, this time with a look at Prime 2 and its duality of Sanctuary Fortress and Ing Hive, as well as their relation of the area boss, Quadraxis.

Starting off, I think we need to take a look at what came prior to really understand whats going on here. In 1986, Metroid was release, scored by Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka. He revolutionized the music of gaming overnight with his atmospheric tracks and lack of melodic structure. This score wasn’t just a game score, it was a modern work of art. Or more accurately, post-modern. In the latter half of the 20th century, “classical” composition techniques moved from post-modern to minimalism and ambiance (among other things that don’t pertain to today’s discussion, like punctualism and the entirety of post-tonal theory).Works like those of Brian Eno, with their walls of sonorous tones and lack of melodies, propelled the ambiance movement forward. These audio paintings don’t tell stories, they show feelings; feelings the mind then uses to make its own landscapes, and populated with stray thoughts inspired by equally stray tones. This is the direction Mr. Tanaka chose to take with the soundtrack, and it was an astounding success as the series continues to produce at least one track per game that is purely ambient.

Now, with that understanding, we can delve into the penultimate locale of Echoes. The majority of the Sanctuary Fortress Main Theme is ambient in nature, though it does swell to include a pair of passable melodic lines. The high, airy flute line reminisces of a line played throughout the game, and could be called The Luminoth Motif, as a permutation of it exists in some form or another in most of the light world main themes. The low choral Ahh’s on the other hand are distinctly of Sanctuary’s theme, however, especially after the original Prime, choral Ahh’s are associated with the Chozo and could be attributed to their guidance of the young Luminoth race. Both of these motifs play a vital role in the piece as they cement the lore that Sanctuary was both the Luminoth’s greatest temple, as well as their final bastion against the Ing horde. Aside from these two lines, the instrumentation is purely synthetic, ambient, and chaotic. This paints the picture of Sanctuary just as well as the concept art, with the falling lines of data and hard-light creatures that inhabit its neon blue lit halls.

As with the other areas of the game, Sanctuary has a Dark Aetherian equivalent in the Ing Hive. Using the same Dark Aetherian haunting ambiance, staccato hits and metallic sweeps, Ing hive creates a terrifying atmosphere accented by the blood red lighting and infested husks of the machines that live in Sanctuary. The cool thing that the Ing Hive does with its music that isn’t captured as well anywhere else in the game is the direct relation to its light world equivalent. Ing Hive takes the arpeggio line from Sanctuary, slows it down considerably, then warps the notes and fades it in and out as if the line itself were affected by the fluctuations of the planet.

As the progression of the zone draws to a close, you enter combat with the titanic Quadraxis. This fight is epic, in every non-ironic sense of the term, lasting three long phases and requiring almost every single trick at your disposal. With this fight comes the natural progression of the music as well, and it is just as epic. Immediately, the theme starts with Sanctuary’s bass rhythm played on a massive and distant bass drum, with choral Ahh chords, harsh synths and metallic scrapes. I wouldn’t describe it as a “wall of sound” like Bohemian Rhapsody’s literal skyscraper of harmonies, however, the term works despite the lack of instruments. It is a vast expanse of rhythm and somewhat dissonant harmonies where the quiet can be called its own instrument. The use of anvil hits to accent the minimalistic rhythm are another good touch, reminding us audibly of the hulking metal foe before us. The piece doesn’t go so far as to inspire fear or panic with all of this, but the stress of the gameplay is more than apparent in the music, and it is quite effective at producing that stress without the context of the game on its own.

While Metroid Prime 2: Echoes doesn’t have quite the powerhouse of a soundtrack as the original Prime, there are a couple tracks that go above and beyond to do things right. I fell in love with Sanctuary Fortress the moment I stepped out onto the bridge for the first time, almost as fast as my first steps into Phendrana, and it likely had a hand in sending my down the path of musical study i chose. There are a lot of truly amazing pieces of music in gaming, but rarely are there those that transcend simple background music and become works of art such as this.

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