I'm using the NES version as reference, although that's irrelevant.
Castlevania is one of my favorite series, and the very first game is from back in a time where Konami could do no wrong, unlike today when Konami can do nothing else except Metal Gear Solid
and Pro Evolution Soccer
. The music was composed by Kinuyo Yamashita (a woman!) primarily, and unlike a lot of video game composers of the time, she is actually a musician. So let's take a look at some of this music:Vampire Killer
One of the most well-known tracks in the entire series and in video games in general is also the theme of the first level. Right away we're introduced to the signature Castlevania sound which I like to describe as rock music at a Halloween party performed by Dracula and the Wolfman. Most VGM of the time focused more on getting the player pumped instead of setting an atmosphere, but Castlevania games always managed to both (until later games, Lords of Shadow
The construction of Vampire Killer
is pretty simple. We're in 4/4 time and mostly in the key of D Minor, perfectly fitting for battling the evil hordes of zombies and dogs and zombie dogs that await you in Dracula's castle. The key of D Minor is actually ambiguous here. The first chord is technically a D5
, omitting the 3rd entirely, meaning that to the ear we don't know if we're in a major or minor key. The melody, however, does push towards being in D Major
since it goes down to a B natural rather than a B flat. This is held over and reinforced in the next chord which is G. The next chord is Bbmaj7(omit5)
, though, which, interestingly, even though it's a major chord it makes the ear think we've moved to a minor key, partially due to the lack of the 5th to fill out the chord and the addition of a major 7th for some dissonance. The melody plays A-D-A during this chord which, with the Bb in the bass and harmony, points us towards D minor. The progression the ends with a C5
chord. So, here we are with the first chord being ambiguous, 2 major chords, and then another chord being ambiguous though leaning more towards C major because we have not encountered an Eb thus far. Going on it becomes more obvious the key is D Minor, but so far it could go either way. At any rate, this gives us a i5
-VII progression in the beginning.
After we go through that progression twice we encounter a little bridge section. There's no overt chords here - even less so than the ones before - but we do get firmly planted into D minor. Specifically Yamashita is using a harmonic minor scale meaning that instead of the D E F G A Bb C D scale of Aeolian minor we raise the 7th entry, making it D E F G A Bb C# D. This adds to the super spookiness of the mood and given the chromaticism of this section it fits quite well. The dissonance from the melody to the bass in the first measure and then between everything in the next also gives the music a jazz tinge.
After that, chords become much more apparent, with the bass holding out notes to give us a point of reference and the melody and harmony lines arpeggiating somewhat. Bbm+
- Dm - Bbm+
- Dm - Bbm+
- Dm - C#o7
progression, or vi+
progression, building into the "chorus". Notice how the end of the second measure is an open loop: it leads us back down to the first chord, telling our ear that we aren't done yet, we need to do it again. But the end of the fourth measure goes up, which tells us the loop is complete, we're ready to move on.
The chorus returns to Aeolian and while it isn't really necessary, if you wanted to you could cite the chord progression here as I5
-VI-VII. This, aside from the intro, is the most famous part of the song and most of what makes it work is the use of perfect 4ths between the melody and harmony. After two sections of semi-chromaticism and a little modulation, the chorus is made more powerful by the openness of the chords and the intervals between these two voices. Perfect 4ths (and perfect 5ths since they are of the same interval class) have always been associated with power and fanfare, especially when going from one pitch up to another by a 4th or 5th (although that technique isn't present here). There is a leap of an octave in the beginning of the phrase in the two melodic lines (both of which separated by a 4th) which helps greatly to make the music feel strong and make the player feel strong. "Yeah I can jump octaves and I can jump over you too, you stupid zombie dog, so suck it".
Now let's take a brief look at the rhythm. Most obvious when analyzing the rhythm of a piece is the percussion, of course, and to be fair, the drum track isn't all that special. The 16th upbeats on the hi-hats lends a dance feel to the music, which helps a lot in its catchiness. Otherwise the drums are pretty standard, not that that's a bad thing. The most unusual beat for the drums comes in the section leading up to the chorus, with the sustained bass notes where the snare hits on the upbeats of 2 and 4 rather than the downbeats while the bass drum stays solidly on 1 and 3, thus giving a bit of a weeble-wobble feeling.
The bassline throughout is solid and the rhythm of it keeps propelling the music forward. The octave jumps are a nice touch, too, lending to the catchiness. The melody and harmony lines themselves are also quite rhythmic and very syncopated.
Perhaps most important is to discuss why this piece works in a game: how does it relate to gameplay (if at all), how does it relate to what may be happening on the screen, how does it relate to where in the game it's used, etc.
It's not the first music heard in the game, but it is the first gameplay-backing music. The first level of Castlevania, of course, is the easiest. It shows you what the game is going to be like by giving you enemies with very basic patterns (zombies) to whip away at to learn how to attack. It gives you zombie dogs (I think they're actually just wolves) which will probably damage you first time playing, but is Konami's way of getting you to jump (hopefully over them) and to get you to get used to how attacking works while you jump because jumping while attacking in Castlevania sucks. And because shortly there are pitfalls coming up that you'll need to jump over while battling mermen. But overall the stage is pretty easy and you're supposed to feel like a badass going through it.
This is why Vampire Killer
fits so well. The music gets you pumped up and, unlike the rest of the soundtrack, there aren't really any moments of tension or dread, just excitement. The easiest stage in the game gets the most accessible music in the game.
Unusually, Vampire Killer
ties into the next stage's theme...Stalker
The theme for stage 2 is basically a reworking of Vampire Killer
, this time in a much more ominous tone.
The time signature once again, like all tracks in the game, is 4/4. The key is a bit harder to pin down, although the intro is entirely in C Major. Beyond that I'm going to go ahead and say there is no tonal center. The whole thing is too short and modulates to another key in almost every measure to give any key by itself. However, when you pair it with Vampire Killer
the key seems most suitably D Minor, with some parts harmonic minor. In fact, our first chord after the intro is Dm, followed by a Bb7(omit5)
, which then becomes just a Bb chord. The remaining music is N.C.
So why is Stalker
so much creepier than Vampire Killer
if they both share so much of the same material? It doesn't take much, really. First there's the slightly slower tempo. Vampire Killer
is about 128bpm while Stalker
is about 112bpm. Then there's the variance to the music itself. It's the same notes (at least relatively) but this time, as shown below, we have those notes sustained.
In the first measure above there's also the chromatic descent in the harmony aiding the spooky "oh no something scary is going to grab me" feeling. Also notice that the 16ths in the harmony are different pitches than those in Vampire Killer
: the first 3 are higher and the last one lower. This makes two of the digits, the strong 1st and 3rd digits of the beat, tritones between the melody and harmony.
So while there is still a lot of syncopation like before, it's less outright noticeable because so much of the notes are sustained this time, and are slower. There's still a groove but it's like the creepy nightmare version of that groove. Even the drums don't give us much of a dance or rock feeling here. There's a stream of 16ths on the hi-hat occasionally but it's not constant. There's no accentuation of the downbeats by the bass drum and snare; in fact there's not even a bass drum used at all. It's entirely hi-hat and snare.
The last two measures before repeating also seem to be original as well. The melody and harmony play 4 short notes each time with the bass doing a similar 5 notes. The melody and bass lines both play a total of two pitches separated by an interval of a minor second, with the harmony doing the same but the interval is a major second. This is sort of a recurring theme in this track (if it's even long enough to have a recurring theme) in that many of the notes are spaced very closely together. Usually the figures are chromatic.Stalker
, as mentioned, is more tense than its predecessor. That's because stage 2 is filled with more tension. There are a lot of death pits to jump over and stupid Medusa heads and stairs and AUUGGGHH throughout this fairly short stage. That's probably why it's reminiscent of Vampire Killer
. You've left that stage feeling like a hardcore buttkicker only to come to the terrifying realization that you're about to die a lot. The music is like a reflection of this realization. That buttkicking aspect is still there in the form of the quotations from Vampire Killer
but they're more hesitant and transformed.