Videogame soundtracks and classical music seem to be inseparable these days with sold-out live orchestra performances or countless CD compilations on the market, almost outmatching the popularity of movies. The String Arcade tries a different approach of interpreting classic and contemporary tunes with its experimental piece of string quartet music.
The way of the listening comparison
The selection on offer couldn’t be any more varied, ranging from the early videogame days (Galaga) to present-day social and mobile gaming (Pettington Park). With 15 tracks plus two bonus titles, there’s quite a lot to take in. So in order to see if the individual tunes can capture the nostalgic or (post)modern magic, I first listened to the originals when they were available and then find out if the transition went well, also keeping in mind that there are a few tracks which are a mix of various parts in a game.
A good start, but a slow musical walk on
Plants vs. Zombies – Grasswalk is a nice first track for the album, as it remains pretty close to the original, which might also be due to the fact that it was a piece of piano music to begin with, making it very suitable to be transformed into lighthearted classical music. This sense of suitability is completely lost in Sonic The Hedgehog 2: Sonic 2 Scherzo which was is memorable because of its fast-paced chiptunes but is devoid of its attractiveness due to the rather slow play of string instruments. The same can be said about the Altered Beast: Title Theme whose lo-fi moody chiptune quality is replaced by the clean sound of strings. Outlaws: Title Theme is another missed opportunity, as it doesn’t have any of the Western feeling to it, due to the lack of the chorus and melancholic guitar music. What is especially disappointing is how The Legend of Zelda: Title Theme is performed. Although being just about two minutes long, it takes a rather boring prelude for half of its runtime which makes one wonder if it has anything to do with the Zelda series at all. Monkey Island 2: Scabb Cemetery International House of Mojo is another sad travesty of the original, because it takes way too long to be recognizable and, even worse, becomes so distorted that it’s more an annoying than an enjoying listening experience.
Alterations with mild success
But not all is lost in translation, as some tracks offer interesting and WORKING variations of classic videogame music. Even if the chiptune quality is again sorely absent, Galaga: Dance of the Space Bugs is a successful mix of varied and in the final parts rather uplifting tunes, making this easier on the ears. Tron Arcade Medley is also a delight to dive into (after getting over a fairly boring three minutes) when the pace takes up and it feels very close to the movie or game respectively. Scurvy Scallywags Theme is also entertaining enough when the pacing is right, which makes one wonder why the well-known Monkey Island Main Title theme wasn’t included and given the same treatment. Portal 2: Turret Suite is an adequate interpretation of the last song in the final sequence of the game, and it even includes some robot voices (as the Plants vs. Zombies one does as well to humorous effect), turning it into a more fun experience, although unfortunately the pop music charme is nowhere to be found. Minecraft Theme 1 is actually a better version of the original because of its higher quality production, although it suffers from repetiveness and a runtime which outstays its welcome.
No comparison, a stand-alone with mixed results
For lack of reference, Echo The Dolphin: Echos of Ecco, Ravenshire Castle: Medicated Cow Walks The Cobbled Streets With Disgruntled Goat, Pettington Park: Ferdinand Wanders Out For A Late Night Haircut, Optimism For Improvement in The John Situation and graBLOX: Tango Down have to be discussed in a more general way, i.e. by their own merits as pieces of classical music. The Sega game certainly has some nice melodies and suits the choice of instruments, while it offers enough elevating moments to stand on its own. The same can’t be said about the indie games The John Situation and graBLOX, as they don’t offer much in the way of memorable melodies. Unfortunately, Ravenshire Castle and Pettington Park borrow heavily from very similar parts in the Plants vs. Zombies , making it feel as if one is listening to the same track again and again.
A string album with minor pulling of the heart
Something which every musician has to ask him or herself is: How close should I be to the source material? This is also a question one should ask oneself when listening to the CD: How much do I want it to sound as I remember it? For me, personally, I’m open for different kinds of variations, having recently listened to chiptune albums with metal rock versions of Zelda and the likes. Unfortunately, the String Arcade album often fails to stay true to the original and loses itself in so many preludes and interludes that the tunes become barely recognizable. Without having the background knowledge, the repetitiveness of the tunes is another concern.
After having listened countless times to this album in different circumstances and environments (on the bus, train for some nice distraction and some quiet time at home to let it sink in), it’s hard for me to recommend The String Arcade as a gamer. Maybe die-hard classical music fans will appreciate this more than me, but I found it a rather dull overlong experience and extremely disappointing in the few cases when I was eagerly anticipating to finally recognize a tune I have so fond memories of, like Monkey Island, Outlaws or Zelda. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some interesting tracks, but these are few IMHO. The production values are certainly high, and even without being a connoisseur of string quartet music, it’s easy to see or hear that all participants do a fine job of playing in harmony. But for me, it didn’t click and lacked the kind of emotional impact other orchestral versions with an obviously bigger budget and more people involved have, or even the creativity of chiptune (rock) variations by indies.
Still if you’re curious about the way the album sounds, there’s a good way to go over to the Bandcamp site and give it a listen. This is also where you can buy the CD version if you want to have a physical copy.
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