Have you ever wondered why every once in a while, somebody will review a level and make a big deal out of its musical selection?
Believe it or not, background music is one of the most critical elements to a successful Jazz Jackrabbit level, and here’s why.
In short, it’s all about the ambiance. Music conveys mood, and what you’re listening to will greatly influence the way you perceive a stage. A creepy song makes a dark level seem even more ominous. A digital, technological song will convince players that they’re playing inside of a giant supercomputer (or a bunch of small computers, depending on the level). An organic, naturesque piece will evince sensations of the outdoors, open air, wide open spaces, et cetera.
To prove this point, let’s look at a couple of levels from Jazz 1 and Jazz2.
Ever played Medivo? I’m talking about the JJ1 version, not the JJ2 one. For the longest time, JJ1 Medivo was my FAVORITE planet, simply because it had such a great background track. Medivo’s visual appeal was starkly limited, its passageways were tight and cramped, and the rain was noticeably unrealistic.
And yet, when that music came on, all the disparate elements somehow came together for me. Medivo’s song is expansive and airy, with a relatively laid-back tempo and dark minor chords. As the male choir began to sing and the strings echoed in and out, I could almost feel myself traipsing around through an ancient castle in the middle of a pouring rainstorm, navigating musty old ruins and searching for lost treasure.
And fellows, when a song can do that for you, it can make a lot of wrong things seem all right.
Marinated Rabbit, the second Beach level in JJ2’s “Jazz Back in Time” episode is another one of my favorite musical environments. Four fifths of the level is underwater, and a lot of the gameplay is rather tedious.
However, once again the song saves an otherwise lower-end level.
This time, the music is sort of dreamy, filled with haunting sharps and flats that seem to slow everything down to just the right amount. The fact that there’s no percussive instruments of any kind makes Marinated Rabbit that much more enchanting. It truly enhances the sensation of being underwater to a degree that no amount of eyecandy could ever reach.
Some of my other favorite Jazz 1 and Jazz 2 environments include Stonar, Scraparap, Battleships and Turtemple from the first game, and Inferno, Haunted House, Colonius and Labrat from the second game. All of these levels are made so much better because their moods are perfectly conveyed, due in large part to the power of a simple song.
Examples of levels where the song actually makes things worse? Jazz 1’s Marbelara and Jazz 2’s Medivo.
In Marbelara, there are giant turtles (the earliest incarnations of the Schwartzenguard, in fact) lumbering around, shooting lasers at you. There’s lava pits throwing fireballs at you, and trees spitting mini fireballs at you. The JJ1 readme describes Marbelara as a virtual “planetary target range for Devan’s goons”, but you would never know it from the happy, upbeat and somewhat repetitive music playing in the background. In my mind, I’ve always pictured Marbelara as being more tense and accented, like Jazz was tiptoeing through a laser tag gallery.
In the same way, Jazz 2’s remake of Medivo was too fast-paced for me. Just as I loved the first game’s planet for its arcane atmosphere and elegant mysticism, I was equivalently disappointed that the second game’s version threw the ghostly serenade out the window, providing instead an action-oriented rendition that kept the pulse of the level racing faster and faster. I couldn’t slow down and enjoy Medivo because I felt compelled to rush my way through it.
In the end then, it seems that finding a good soundtrack is a lot more important than it appears. Just because a particular song is cool doesn’t mean it fits any given level. Good atmospheres are frequently and irrevocably marred by the presence of a piece of music that evokes a polar opposite feeling. Likewise, an emotionless level can gain a whole new dimension if the song chosen properly expresses what the levelmaker wishes to communicate.
The very best level builders will spend a great deal of time testing many different songs on one specific level, searching for that special song to complete the picture in their minds. Some levelmakers will even write their OWN songs for their levels, tailoring the music as best they can to the stage.
And that’s why folks make such a fuss about the musical ramifications of an upload. Because it really does matter. Music says a lot about a level, and the better the selection, the better the story it will tell.
Ideally, a balanced upload review will take the level’s song into account along with all the other gameplay factors, because music is (or should be) worth a little less than half of an upload’s value, or lack thereof.
Choose your songs wisely. Levels are only as good as the musical notes describing them.
Eat your lima beans, Johnny.