Game Music Saturdays – Zeta Force

zabutom - zeta force

 

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The long awaited debut release of swedish chipmusic legend zabutom is a 7-track epic consisting of 16-bit era space shooting sounds executed in a furious series of hyperdimensional energy blasts that intend to capture a sense of videogame elation and final confrontation. Originally conceived over 10 years ago, it has since been on a vast journey through the outer reaches of the universe before finally landing back on planet earth, it’s story told by blistering saw waves of chip destruction ultimately articulated in the distinguished musical style of zabutom. Get ready for take-off!

I can’t imagine myself disagreeing with that description.

If I was to like this short little album to anything, it’d be a bizarre and catchy combination of fast-paced high octane shmup music with a smidgen of Mega Man for good measure. zabutom apparently takes his cues from a variety of musical sources, sound chips, and great song-writing skills, but it all comes down to nailing that particularly video game vibe that chiptune artists sometimes fail to capture.

“The Legend of Zeta Force” starts with a low key introduction that bursts into a jungle style beat. It echoes the triumphant sounds of the beginning of a long journey through space, fighting evil wherever it dwell with your tiny spaceships. As with most shmups, the first level remains a fairly tepid and relaxing affair, simply trying to allow the player time for familiarity with the controls. At points, it sounds like the opening title cutscene or introduction. Anyone who’s played an arcade game will know what I’m talking about here, but those openers were designed to attract you to the game in question with flashy graphics and exciting action – this first track does much the same in piquing your interest. “Techno Boss”, though a rather short track, sounds just like the ship selection theme from any number of shmups – although it’s been elevated to gargantuan proportions, it’s still very much the same vibe.

We finally proceed to the first level, “Blast Off Into Outerspace”, and it sounds like the catchiest boss fight music I’ve heard in a long time. The constant appreggios really capture your imagination, as well as the variety of synth on display. Zabutom uses a variety of different chips, for sure, along with a little electric guitar work. It continually amps up the intensity to the point where it sounds like the best Mega Man X level ever. I love this one; it’s exactly like video game music should sound, both catchy, memorable, and delightfully synthetic. The only problems, and a common problem with all video game music of this type, is length – it clocks in a none-too-pleasing two minutes. But it’s a heck of a two minutes, I assure you.

“Zeta Force (Gameboy Version)” does exactly as the title suggests, using the Game Boy sound chip (last heard in the Super Hexagon soundtrack or Danimal Cannon’s Roots, at least on this particular blog) to recreate the same driving force and nostalgic undercurrents of “Blast Off Into Outerspace.” For whatever reason, I’ve grown fond of the Game Boy’s unique sounds; it seems to meld incredibly well with video game tunes and time signatures, and is used approrpiately here. From my own speculation, it would seem the song was written using real instruments and then fitted into this format. This and the previous song are two sides of the same equally awesome coin – it’s hard to go wrong.

“Level X” takes us back to a more low key style, mixing an intimate sound that reminds me of the Sega Master System. Unlike the Genesis, that system had a decidedly less harsh musical palate, and this comes through here. If I were to liken it to an actual game soundtrack, think BONUS STAGE. We’re still going somewhere, but it feels as if the music complements the hectic action of dodging particle effects and enemy collisions that you’d see on any particular shmup screen.

“Level 2″ sounds just like a level from Gradius. Seriously. It has a similar fugue effect, with multiple musical lines supporting each other throughout. It sounds especially triumphant. Just a cursory comparison should show you that zabutom captures the essence of the arcade classic. Shmups really do have a particular musical style that’s hard to pin down, as Gradius II demonstrates:

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It’s not a 1:1 comparison, surely, but it’s pretty darn close! “Level 2” might be a little on the soft side, but that’s a result more of the synthesizer used more than the actually music underneath it. Also, love those ambiguous track names – they capture the spirit of these unnamed beauties perfectly.

Finally, we have the finale, “Final Blast”. This one’s an interesting departure from the sound established earlier, with sounds all over the place. There’s an abundance of weird bass parts, stops, starts, NES sounds and some constant variety for your 3 minute and eighteen second pleasure. I especially like the seeming ‘solo” that starts in and around the two minute mark – that’s pretty awesome stuff by any standard. If anything, it’s a triumphant end to a predominantly happy, celebratory album to a time gone by.

If any of these descriptions seem particularly lackluster…I’m not particularly good at describing it well! Much of the appeal of the soundtrack will come down to your ability to recognize and appreciate a nostalgic time of arcade gaming. That was a day and age when we weren’t so keen on implanting messages and deep meanings into our games. We were just content merely to play – not that the music didn’t help! It’s amazing stuff that deserves a listen. Who knows how they cram so many musical ideas into such a short span, or even begin to think “this would be appropriate for this stage”. Then again, I’m a wordsmith more than an artist, so what would I know?

All I can tell you is that this, to me, is incredibly satisfying music. It doesn’t need specific lyrics or themes to represent a time of joy and happiness, of lighthearted fun and a grateful heart just to having fun. Whatever the form and whatever the context, even video game playing can be its own form of praise and worship. Psalm 150 says this:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty expanse.
Praise Him for His mighty deeds;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness.

Praise Him with trumpet sound;
Praise Him with harp and lyre.
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

Every resource available can be used as its own form of worship – a praise habit, if you will. Video games may exist for entertainment, but they also become a reflection of God’s glory from the perspective of a Christian (even the violent and horrible ones). These are thoughts to ponder as you think about the stuff you do in your daily life. That’s why I try my best at everything I do: God made me with the skills and tools I have, and I intend to use them the best I can to bring Him glory.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.