Fighting Game Interactive Music Study

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This article is a translation of my blog’s article originally published in French.

Two minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less, is roughly the time it takes for two fighting game players to decide between. During this two minutes it may take a lot of things: action, suspense or unexpected twists. Whether for the player or spectator, this time is a concentrate of emotions of a rare intensity, and probably what makes this type of game so exciting. The gameplay undoubtedly had a lot to do with it, however this is not really what we are interested today. So let’s talk about music and even more: let’s talk about interactive music systems in fighting genre. In this type of games it’s easy to say that sound and music are secondary and they only take part in the atmosphere of the game – the art direction. Yet the interactivity in music exists (for real) in fighting games and it’s interesting to see how it can serve both gameplay and art direction by contributing rightly to the emotional evolution within a match.

Here, I will focus mainly on the study of some Capcom games. Simply because they are the most known and I didn’t hear interactive music from other fighting games developers.If you know about non-Capcom games with an interactive soundtrack please feel free to share with me. I finally specify that I am not a very good fighting game player. I am playing as an amateur and I am far from an expert of the various combats systems. However, the development of interactive systems for audio is one of my specialties and this is great because it is the subject of this article.

Summary

Street Fighter II

Street Fighter II Screenshot

Street Fighter II is one of the most popular fighting game in the world. It have a simple concept: two players compete face to face and the first to win two rounds, wins the match. In the case where each player wins a round, they would play a third to resolve the tie. But Street Fighter II is also the first fighting game to integrate an ersatz of interactive music in its game system. The idea is similar to Space Invaders, where the more the aliens will approach the bottom of the screen, the more the music tempo will increase. We also note that there are differences between the arcade version and the console versions, due to the technological gap between the different systems, which can be felt at both graphic and sound. I will take as a reference the best known console version: the Super Nintendo version to compare it to the original, released on arcade.

In Street Fighter II on Super Nintendo, from the moment when a player is near to KO (about 50% of his stamina) the tempo of the music increases progressively in sync with life bar. The tonality of track remains unaltered but the rhythm is faster unlike a simple pitch-up would have also changed the tone. This effect, simple as it is, is an excellent feedback to know how much life we have left, while staying focused on the opponent. But even more so it greatly increases the strain of the battle because at this stage, the players must not make a mistake if they wants to win the round. The rhythm of the combat is more and more sustained and should be finished as soon as possible, like Space Invader where aliens’ growth accelerate in parallel with the music. This is the same emotional render: stress and help the player to complete the level/round quickly before defeat.

The arcade version shares the same basis, except that in addition to increasing the tempo of the music, it plays a variation when the stamina bar is bellow 30%. This variant is composed to understand that both players are under tension with chromatic transpositions above the original tone of the song. Although the transition between the two states is a little rougher, so it gives more impact to the event and felt even more efficient at the level of the game rhythm.

Street Fighter II has clearly laid the foundations of interactive music in the fighting game genre and how it influences the course of the fight. We will now see how Capcom has improved its system to make it even more impacting.

Super Street Fighter II

Super Street Fighter II HD Screenshot

“Super” Street Fighter II contains roughly the same principle as its predecessor. However instead of achieving change to the music in the first round, this time it waits the end of the second round. This has resulted in a focus to the end of the match rather than on a single round.

Indeed, loosing the first round is not eliminatory, so increase the pressure at this point of the game isn’t necessarily justified. So changing the music at the end of the second round has, in this case, a lot more impact than if it was done in all round as previously.

This evolution was affected to all versions of the game, arcade and consoles, but they are still retain their specificity to that was in the first game, this means that the console version has no musical variation.

Finally, this is the last iteration performed by Capcom for Street Fighter II games. The following games properly stamped Street Fighter II, either Super Street Fighter II Turbo, Hyper Street Fighter II or even the brand new remake Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD REMIX follow the same principle of interactive music.

Street Fighter III: Third Strike

Street Fighter III Third Strike Screenshot

Street Fighter III marks the revival of the series, with new characters and parry system, that block all attacks by pressing forward (against a blow up), or down (against a low blow) at the right time. Regarding to the music, Street Fighter III and Street Fighter III 2nd Impact does not offer interactive system. So we must wait Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike, which is in fact a redesign of the artistic direction from the previous versions. They maintained the fighting system, but they remade all stage and all the music was remixed with sound quality’s improvement (SFX, voices and sound banks used for music). They also changed the entire graphical interface. Anyway we move completely away from the mood of previous episodes, where SFIII and 2nd Impact had (imo) “the ass between two chairs” (french expression).

In fact, Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike keep nothing from Street Fighter II and offers a brand new music system. This system is extremely simple and consists of varying music to each new round regardless of the winner of the previous round. Which means that each song is available in three (or two for arcade version) different variations (Because that there may be three rounds maximum). These variations have much more impact as the composer Hideki Okugawa has set a rhythmic breaks at the beginning of each round, allowing the music to resume in a very dynamic way. The style is very urban (hip-hop, techno house, electro and break beat), these introduction breaks are tremendously suitable and then give the feeling of a sequence performed by a DJ. As you can see: rather than increasing the strain of battle at the end of a round like in Street Fighter II, this system take the opposite view and strengthens this tension at the beginning of the round. This is also very interesting because Street Fighter III seems to be a much faster and aggressive fighting game than its predecessor. Thus by reviving the dynamics of the game at the start of a round, this system can help the player to be more efficient from the beginning of the fight.

Finally, regarding to SFIII Third Strike, it is interesting to consider the evolution of this system and especially the transition between two rounds through the various versions of the game like Street Fighter II. So in the Arcade version of the game (the first version released in 1999), the developers had synchronized the music to the tempo during the change of variation between each round. Therefore, this change does not always coincide with the start of the round because the game is waiting for the beginning of the next bar to start the new variation of the song. So, the dynamic effect that this system is supposed to bring, is sometimes broken because the round begin and the music changes only a few seconds later. In the Dreamcast version (and all those which will follow), the music switches off at the end of the round with a fade-out, which coincides perfectly with the fade to black in the screen. But it is immediately resumed, directly on the next variation. This transitional audio micro-cut, although less limpid than the previous iteration, is however much more impacting for the player because the dynamism of the introduction breaks can be felt immediately. In addition, variations for the same music are much more differentiated (especially intros) than the arcade version, so the change is much more audible and enjoyable.

Finally, whether through the picture or the music and its integration into the game, we can say that Third Strike has a very coherent artistic direction which fits perfectly into the musical system, making the immersion in the game all the more convincing.

Street Fighter IV

Street Fighter IV Screenshot

Street Fighter IV has, since its release, revived an interest in the fight game genre. Capcom has returned to a gameplay closer to SFII, the most popular game of the series. But visually SFIV displays a unique style with its 3D graphics (although the gameplay is 2D) and an very flashy art direction.

Let’s be clear immediately, Street Fighter IV has currently the most elaborate music system regarding to other fighting games (maybe Street Fighter x Tekken still raises the level). Anyway, if you read this article you have probably understood that the sound designers are guys who loves to play with gauges. That’s good because in Street Fighter IV there is 3 different gauges: the Life Bar, the Super Bar (for EX attacks and Super combos) and the Ultra Bar (for Ultra combos). Super bar has no influence on music. The life bar works like SSFII Arcade: the music changes when a player have less than10% of life. This effect is still effective on players. Another variation occurs when both players have the ability to trigger their Ultra combo: i.e. when Ultra Bars of both players are at least half full. Finally, this same variation occurs too when a player triggers an Ultra, and it lasts as long as the combo, before the music returns to its original state. When the music has reached this « Ultra » state then we have a feeling of power and enjoyment, in addition to the sudden vision that the opponent may use it, which only enhances the reward effect provided by a successful Ultra combo. Finally SFIV keeps the change of variation in tempo at each round like in Third Strike but without the introduction breaks.

So Street Fighter IV combines the best of the previous games while adding his own improvements via the Ultra gauge, thus adding a new dimension to the music. Obviously all the transitions are as discrete as possible, but this system contributes significantly to the feelings of the player during a match and without noticing it (the magic of sound).

Tatsunoko vs Capcom

Tatsunoko vs Capcom Screenshot

The interest of choosing Tatsunoko vs. Capcom for this study is that it also has an interactive music system (at least in the first Japanese version), but differs significantly from that which was made on the Street Fighter series. In fact, the gameplay of Tatsunoko vs. Capcom is different from Street Fighter where clashes were involving a character against one. The basic principle of the game is built around a battle between two teams of two characters. Each player can choose two characters that can be switch during the battle. Music in TvC interacts very simple but in perfect harmony with the gameplay: Almost at each character switches, the music begins to play the character’s Music Theme who has just arrived in the arena. As if he had his own musical business card (to quote Debussy). This is the principle of the famous « leitmotiv » dear to Wagner. To this, we add some rules to avoid ending up in a huge mess. And since there are potentially four music that may be played (Because there are two characters per player, four in total), Theme played at the beginning of the fight is always the first character of the second player (the one to the right of screen). For example, if the first two characters of the player is Ryu from Street Fighter, the music played at the begining of the match will be the theme of Ryu. It’s simple. Then, if a player’s character switches too quickly, i.e. less than 10-20 seconds after the beginning of the current theme, the music will not change: All this to avoid too abrupt and too frequent changes, players can often switches characters. So if Player 2 from above decide to switch her Ryu by hes Chun-Li after 30 seconds, the Ryu’s Theme will stop to give way to _Chun-Li_’s Theme (and in perfect sync with the arrival of new character in the game). By cons, if the player changes his own character 5 seconds after the appearance of Chun-Li it has no influence on music.

Of course, this simple system focuses on characters switches which is quite smart because it reinforces the fact that we should to reaccustom in a jiffy to a new character and thus adapt his style of play. This system also avoids weariness induced by a single music. Here is a new musical themes at each new battle. Obviously, if you like a music in particular, it will be much harder to enjoy it. But on reflection it can become a game in the game, where we do not change character for strategic reasons (i.e. to win) but just to listen the music we secretly love hoping that the opponent hate it (!! Warning, it gets to the point where the article spins out of control !!). Moreover, I dream of a fighting game where you can choose your own music and where both opponents would join together to create a kind of musical mash-up/battle by changing characters and fighting at the same time. This would be called DJ Fighters and it will be a hit in club. In short, a new form of interactive DJing / VJing (if anyone wants to bite me the idea, he knows where to contact me).

Okay, back to our subject, just to say it was a little interesting to study this system because we will find in the next and last game of this study.

Marvel vs Capcom 3

Marvel vs Capcom 3 Screenshot

As Tatsunoko vs. Capcom, Marvel vs. Capcom is also a crossover game where the Capcom series heroes confront to the heroes of Marvel comics in an extremely dynamic game. It is also a game where the player fights with several character that he can switch during the game. Only here, instead of two as in TvC, there is three characters that the player will control successively.

If you have a look in the game settings you can see that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 has two music systems: the Dynamic Music System and the Classic Music System. The Classic Music System is very similar to the system implemented in Tatsunoko: Namely, when the game starts, the game plays the theme of the first character selected by the Player 2 (see above game for example). But how Capcom has integrated music is different here: it is only when a character dies that the current theme song switches for a new, to replace one of the character from his KO teammate. Example Time: Player 1 takes Ryu / Deadpool / Wesker and the Player 2 takes Spiderman / Chun-Li / Dante. The game begins with the Theme of Spiderman (maincharacter of Player 2). Even if players change their characters, the theme stay the same. At one point Deadpool (who was on the stage at this time) is knocked out by Spiderman. _Spiderman_’s Theme gradually fades-out. Ryu replaces Deadpool. Ryu’s Theme starts to play, and so until there are only two characters still standing.

We can understand that this system was preferred to the _Tatsu_’s system to minimize changes in the music during the game, because there are many ways in MVC3 to change character, so it can happen often. This system is less chaotic than TvC, it can boost the action and bring back the focus of the player who has lost or eliminate a character.

The Dynamic Music System is based on the same variable as the Classic Music System: the death of a character. Except that they are not the Themes of characters which are played but the Theme of stage where takes place the clash. Each music stage has three musical variations that will be more and more intense. At the beginning of a game we play the first variation. The first player to lose one of its characters will change the music to the second variation. Then the first player to lose his second character will change the music to its third variation: the more intense, which means that a player have only one character, and he better not makes a mistake if he wants to win the game. A small example, just to be sure you have understood. If we take our setup earlier, i.e. Player 1: Ryu / Deadpool / Wesker and Player 2: Spiderman / Chun-Li / Dante. Beginning of the match: music stage variation 1. Ryu beats Spiderman: changing the actual music stage to variation 2. Chun-Li enters the scene. Ryu switches with Deadpool: nothing happens on music, it is normal we are in Dynamic Mode. Chun-Li defeated Deadpool: nothing happens either because it is the first character to die for Player 1 and the music has already changed in this case. Wesker comes into play. Chun-Li (well shape today) put Wesker KO: music change to variation 3 because Player 1 is the first to lose its second character. Music will remain in this state until the end of the match, even if Ryu, who has just came back, defeated Chun-Li. Obviously this scenario is pure fiction and does not take any account of the superiority of certain characters over others.

So you’ll understand that Dynamic Music System can raise the tension of the game gradually. Lost one of his characters from the start is often frustrating and can reduce the moral of the player. The fact that the music becomes more and more intense reinforces this feeling but it also means that the player must be vigilant and no longer make a mistake. For a game whose characters management is essential, this music system is very effective.

Ultimately, which of the Classic or Dynamic Music System is the most effective? It depends heavily on the player (and music you prefer: music stage or character?). Especially these two systems differently affect the perceptions of the player. The Dynamic will focus on the defeat of a character and resulting consequences, while the Classic will rather focus on the revival: « Well Ok, I just lost one of my characters, but it is replaced by a new one and his theme song has just begun: it will kick some ass ». In terms of feelings that can be compare to this scene in Apocalypse Now where helicopters arrived as reinforcements with the Ride of the Valkyries by Richard Wagner (again) as background music. Short in one way or the other, two systems affect both players, so it was a good idea from developers that leave the choice of music system for players.

Conclusion

Over the year Capcom did great work on its Fighting Games. It’s not about make Interactive music to make interactive music. But it’s all about how interactive music can support gameplay and even more how it can support emotions, stress or tension during a match. Most players will never hear any one changes in the music, but I’m sure it affects them implicitly (At least I hope). And that is what is super interesting, because Fighting Game is a separate genre, it requires a huge concentration and music plays with this to force the player to surpass himself regardless of the technology. Perhaps this is only assumption but these games stay great examples of Game Music Design.

Screenshots and pictures : © Capcom Co., Ltd