Video Games and the Jazz Experiment — From Sonic Adventure 2 to Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Experimental compositions in video game soundtracks help bring a human tint to otherworldly characters.
When I think of Christmas music, I hear jingle bells, choral arrangements and the unmistakable belt of Mariah Carey. So, when I saw Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s “Moanin’” as one of the Christmas dinner record choices in Spider-Man: Miles Morales I was taken aback.
This isn’t holiday music! It’s a hard bop classic, a song whose call-and-response structure inched towards funk and soul. Bobby Timmons’, Benny Golson’s and Lee Morgan’s solos are neatly packaged by Jymie Merritt’s basslines, but they don’t belong under a tree.
The Jazz Messengers’ inclusion in Miles Morales, however, is fitting. Beyond the Christmas setting, it’s a game squarely focused on Harlem, one of jazz’s historic stomping grounds. The song slides neatly into a soundtrack that sees the typically grandiose superhero themes remixed to include window-rattling bass as Miles swings between buildings in Manhattan.
The importance of music to building Miles’ game world doesn’t change the fact that jazz is typically an outlier in video game soundtracks. Jazz is the music of the people, and more often than not, video game characters aren’t just people. Outside of the context of crime simulators like Grand Theft Auto, the fourth installment of which also features “Moanin’,” game protagonists might be witches, anthropomorphized mammals or portly plumbers. In those contexts, jazz shouldn’t fit.
Jazz, now in 3D!
When gaming entered the third dimension, soundtracks took on new importance. As camera angles panned around these robust environments, players needed to hear sweeping, cinematic arrangements to accompany the newfound boost to technology.
Still, that third dimension, and its increased opportunity for world building, opened the door for composers to try their hands at scoring games to different genres.
In the case of Bayonetta, the 2009 Platinum Games hack-n-slash, composer Hiroshi Yamaguchi wanted to capture the titular character’s ethereal nature while playing up her as, “an uninhibited, modern conception of a woman.” Thus he composed a blend of jazz, choral and j-pop tunes that signal femininity without undercutting the game’s gothic tone.
The outcome is a soundtrack that somehow merges the gates of Hell with an atmospheric saxophone melody to perfect effect. As Bayonetta works to uncover her memories and quell a conflict between light and dark, songs like “Mysterious Destiny” focus squarely on her femininity (“Bayonetta this is your time/ You’re gonna sparkle/ You’re gonna shine”) while she eviscerates angels to save her own hide.
Mario has had similar bouts with jazzier tracks, with Super Mario 3D World’s main theme giving the trumpet center stage. Nothing about this game warrants a horn-based theme. Unlike the music of Super Mario Odyssey’s grandiose New Donk City, which featured a big band arrangement for its playable metropolis, 3D World is more modest.
But Sound Director Mahito Yokota noted that since the game’s setting was “terra firma,” and not the magical planetoids of the Super Mario Galaxy series, the music of 3D world had to be rooted in replicating realistic, live instrumentation.
It would seem that the common thread around jazz compositions in video games then, is the familiarity. Everyone has heard a jazz track at some point in their life. Even if they can’t pinpoint the title or artist, jazz is recognizable enough to be approachable without being overbearing. The genre’s fluidity helps it serve as a backdrop for a litany of stories, whether that’s the daily life of a high schooler in Persona 5 or a respite from toppling the government in Final Fantasy XIII.
Sonic the Hedgehog’s Jazz Message
As a lifelong Sonic the Hedgehog fan, I’m quick to laud the hedgehog for his sensible taste in music. His 1991 debut merged a symphony of sounds across levels themed around lush forests, Romanesque ruins, space age cities and more.
When Sonic arrived in 3D on the Sega Dreamcast (I’m not counting Sonic 3D Blast and its isometric 3D landscape) he blurred the lines of what was possible for the soundtrack of a cartoony videogame character. Sound director, lead composer and Crush 40 front man Jun Senoue composed “It Doesn’t Matter,” a high octane romp that distilled everything rad about Sonic into a three-minute song.
In a 2019 interview with Billboard, Senoue said that his love of rock infiltrated the first game’s soundtrack. “With Sonic Adventure, I was able to establish a foundation for how future 3D Sonic games would sound, as it was quite different from the classic Sonic titles,” he said.
From there, the soundtrack grew into a variety of themes. Amy Rose got bubblegum pop. Tails hummed along to inspirational pop punk. Knuckles rapped and Big the Cat fished for Froggy to a lazy, country adjacent melody.
Though these themes were limited to character songs, Sonic Adventure 2 took the musical variety and cranked it to max volume. The stage themes took on the personalities of each of the game’s playable characters. Tails got more inspirational. Knuckles rapped more. And newly playable characters like Eggman and Shadow strutted to industrial rock and hair metal respectively.
I’m quick to say that Knuckles’ rap songs, performed by the now-infamous Hunnid P, have elevated from guilty pleasure to completely enjoyable music. The lyrics are comical at times but the production is nothing short of intriguing. Knuckles’ instrumentals play closest to boom bap hip hop, right up to the record scratches and punchy percussion.
But beyond Knuckles’ rap songs sitting catty corner to jazz, Sonic Adventure 2 further explores jazz and its Caribbean offshoots through another character: Rouge the Bat.
Across five songs composed for Rouge, Kunckles’ direct antagonist, Sonic Adventure 2 takes a crack at fusing big band and samba instrumentals with the color splashed world of Sonic the Hedgehog. In Dry Lagoon (no, that level name doesn’t make sense) Rouge scales sphinxes to a saxophone, flute and vibraphone tune carried by singer Tabitha Fair.
Later, in Security Hall, Fair’s vocals are accompanied by a spastic electric organ and the twinkle of vibraphone to play into Rouge’s thief motif. Her songs harken back to the inseparability of jazz and espionage — Fair scats along the tracks like her voice is an eternal lockpick.
Rouge’s music works in her favor because it’s timeless. Senoue and his colleagues’ (Fumie Kumatani composed Rouge’s themes) experimentation laid the groundwork for future Sonic music, which arguably, is the most consistently successful part of the hedgehog’s games. While past Sonic soundtracks were iconic because of the conflation of game levels and their music, the music of Sonic Adventure 2 can stand on its own merit.
To say that all of Sonic’s musical success is owed to jazz is unfair. Future games take on a variety of genres, from the orchestral string sections of Sonic Unleashed to the synth pop of Sonic Colors to the chip-tuned whistles of Sonic Mania. But Sonic Adventure 2’s initial experimentation undoubtedly helped the hedgehog spin dash towards a new era of video game music.