So! Continuing in our series of “VGM Soundtracks you’ve definitely heard of but I’m too invested in that title to change it”, we have one of the most popular and beloved soundtracks in all of classic gaming: Mega Man 3 for the Gameboy!
We’re going to talk about Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo Entertainment System (your parents help you hook it up):
Release Date: September 28th, 1990
Composers: Bunbun (Yasuaki Fujita), ???
As beloved and popular as the game is to fans of the series, however, it’s definitely got a some porblems. It was rushed by Capcom in an effort to cash in on the gloriously successful Mega Man 2, and thus Inafune and co. really had to struggle to get a functioning game out, much less a good one, and as a result it’s the game that even Mega Man’s creator kind of hates. It was criticized for its arbitrary difficulty and “sameiness” compared to Mega Man 2 (oh what little did they know…), and heck even the Stage select screen features a permanent graphical glitch:
Despite all this, Mega Man 3 endures as a fan favorite and indeed was my personal favorite until I discovered Mega Man 5 (that’s a WHOLE different article), and I think a lot of that has to do with them getting some things extraordinarily right, such as the soundtrack!
Oh my that song is so good. I’m going to get all “old man” on you for a moment here and describe what hearing this song for the first time as a kid was like…
I had played the first two Mega Man titles and actually anticipated this one before it came out, and while I loved those first two games and their excellent tunes (again, Air Man from Mega Man 2 being one of my favorite songs ever), Mega Man 3 was something of a catharsis, or at least as close as an 8 year old can get to a catharsis).
The classic Mega Man had a title screen that was in total silence, and then it had this tune for your stage selection. Not bad, but that song’s only 4 seconds long and is rather forgettable until the 100th time you’ve heard it because the game is so freaking hard and yet you can’t put it down…
Then there was Mega Man 2, which made a musically brilliant move (in my opinon) in actually taking part of the ending credits theme from the first game and repeating it, to great effect. That didn’t really affect me as a kid, however, since it would be YEARS before I could beat the first Mega Man, come on. Even using a Game Genie ruined the game’s soundtrack thanks to incompatibility issues, so yeah double-edged sword there.
Then you turn on this third adventure, and the instant your NES powers on, that minor chord and melody comes in, and plays you *to* the title screen instead of the usual formula of silent logo leading into a musical title. It starts with that contemplative, jazz-infused beginning, and then does this super awesome rock scale into a chugging, galloping adventure theme that will get you pumped. As a bonus, the fast part of the song is where the loop is, not the slow part, so you only hear that slow part once and then the rest is just a repetition of the main theme. That’s seriously good, even for 1990 standards (when VGM soundtracks were really starting to get elaborate).
Not only that, but the game has no story intro or attract mode; the song is the intro. You can wait through as many loops of that beautiful tune as you want, you’ll never get that typical paragraph’s worth of text that tells you what’s happened so far. Now, I don’t know if that’s because of time crunch or if it was intentional, but using an instrumental music piece to get you excited about the game on an emotional level is something that I’ve honestly never seen duplicated in gaming. The song is that good.
Once you decide you’ve had enough of the song and move on to the “Game Start” option, you’re again assailed by a mighty tune that evokes a sense of urgency and purpose.
Plus, this song is actually 10 seconds long. Progress!
Anyway, as with any Mega Man game, the real meat of the soundtrack is in the actual stages, and while I enjoy almost every stage theme from every Mega Man, there’s something a little different about this title, and I think that is due to the game’s composer: BunBun (Yasuaki Fujita).
Whereas I always felt like the various soundtracks for Mega Man games are based in this kind of Japanese-flavored pop/rock (with some elements of Metal and hard rock), what BunBun brings to the table is a sense of Jazz with a little bit of Blues and even funk-fusion. The soundtrack almost seems “classier” as a result. Interestingly, if you listen to some of his later stuff like Darkwing Duck, you’ll notice he’s being very “restrained” with the jazz in this game.
Still, on top of having these great 7th chords and smooth jazz tricks that I’m not educated enough to call out by name, all of the melodies are just so singable:
Do you hear how the hi-hat and snare trade off in Snake Man’s theme, almost as if you’re hearing scatting? (not the gross kind, I mean mouth percussion they do in Jazz). If not, take this as the ultimate example:
The way those notes slide into each other in the main melody just has this undeniably “jazzy” feel about it. Really my boss brentalfloss put it best in video form, so I’ll stop talking about it here.
Of course, BunBun is a multifaceted composer (just check out his work on Breath of Fire), so he can roll out the epic ballads when he wants to. I always felt this tinge of melancholy pervading the otherwise jamming nature of Spark Man’s theme:
The way those chords move in the second part, man that song could have hit the radio any time in the 80′s if it was new wave rather than VGM.
There are even moments of super-pumped rock that have nothing to do with jazz or melancholy. Quite possibly my favorite theme in the game, even if it was applied to the dumbest robot master:
Ha ha Top Man, what even is that? Anyway, the driving beat, interlocking arpeggios for melody, and straight bass-line make this song a rocker through and through (it almost sounds like a Deep Purple song if you ask me, but you didn’t so yeah). Sure it’s played in a stage where you inexplicably have to fight gigantic cats in a world made of glass-encased plants (making me think someone might have mis-read his name as “Pot Man”, my little joke), but hey it’s all good.
Some of the songs are quite peppy, even, such as Magnet Man’s stage, with which we are back to Jazz:
Actually, one of the jazzier and more complex songs in the soundtrack belongs to Needle Man, yet BunBun actually didn’t write this one, according to sources I have conveniently lost…
Still a great song though. I want to say Minae Fuji might have written it? She wrote a lot of Mega Man 4 so it stands to reason. Oh well, have a listen:
Actually, the same goes for another of my personal favorites, the spooky, theremin-styled Gemini Man theme:
I think the best part about this particular stage theme is how you have two chordal melodies that intertwine with each other, which given that the robot boss in this stage is actually two twin bosses, that’s almost too good of a move to be intentional. Either way, this song just goes to show that some of the best songs in VGM occur in space (another article for another day).
Anyway, the last element I want to discuss is the game’s introduction of a new “supporting” character/villain: Protoman. One of the most popular characters in the original series despite his limited in-game appearances, he’s among the first video game characters I can think of that actually has his own musical theme that is inextricable from his character. This is something I feel is essential to the Mega Man universe, since most of the characters, at least in the original Japanese versions of the games, are named after bits of music. In fact, Protoman is called “Blues” in the Rockman games.
Anyway, since the game contains no intro monologue to tell us what’s going on (though the instruction book is more than happy to fill us in), the story is that Mega Man is being followed through the game by a shady character who is first called “Break Man” (apparently the robot master of standing outside and smoking a cigarette at work), who winds up being an ambiguous good-guy who helps him out at the end, and then… THE TWIST… the game reveals, in a really subtle way, that he’s the “prototype” robot who is basically Mega Man’s older brother bot.
Anyway, the game doesn’t have to tell you this with words, it unfolds right there in the gameplay and is hit home during the ending (where you finally get some text), which is this perfect expansion/embellishment of that simple bluesy whistling tune:
That song is so good, and is one of the truly moving, emotional pieces in early VGM. Before Final Fantasy 6‘s opera scene brought a tear to our eye, Mega Man 3‘s ending provided a satisfying lump to the throat that made us yearn for a continuing of the story of Mega Man and Proto Man, which, of course, we never got, at least back in the day, because the series moved in all kinds of directions. Even in Mega Man 5, where he really had a chance to shine, there’s no clear explanation as to what is going on.
Either way, it’s these kinds of concerns and revelations that made Mega Man 3 a classic. Flawed, of course, but still a classic. The soundtrack was thoroughly amazing, and as I mentioned before, immensely popular, especially among the VGM band scene, as it has been covered many times. Here are some of my favorite covers:
- Armcannon did a really great cover of the title theme on their first album, Leg Vacuum.
- The irrepressibly metal Year 200x guys open up their album with a cover of the title theme.
- VGM old-schoolers NESkimos (who have recently reunited, yay!) did a cool rock cover of Spark Man’s theme, which I can’t find for sale so just listen to it here.
- brentalfloss, according to legend, actually started his career in writing funny lyrics for video game music with his version of the title theme. Great stuff! He also did a hilarious take on the Game Over theme, which is super peppy in an almost mocking sort of way. They’re both available on his albums too, so go buy those duh.
- The Megas, a rock band that actually does serious songwriting over Mega Man tunes, just released an entire album of Mega Man 3 music, so get it while it’s hot!
- Temp Sound Solutions did this great thing where they mixed Gemini Man’s stage with the song “Demon Seed” from Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse, and though the exact configuration of the band that did it is no longer around, there IS audio evidence of it on the internet!
- My own band did a medley of tunes from the game, featuring that funky volcano-based ninja, Shadow Man.
- Speaking of… The One Ups, who are masters of jazz, jazz-fusion bluesy VGM, did an incredible send-up to Shadow Man on their Volume 2 album. So cool!
Whew, man! Didn’t mean for half of the article to be band-plugging, but all these covers are that good, so do check them out. Until then, I’m going to play through this game again, or at least until those awful “Dark Master” stages.
See you next!