Kale in Dinoland Soundtrack, Luming Hao, 2012
How to stand out from the deluge of retro-inspired indie games that have flooded mobile devices and other platforms? Game developer The Rotting Cartridge went with an intriguing, if cheeky idea. Just pretend that your new game is a port of a forgotten Game Boy title released in 1992. Of course, Kale in Dinoland was no lost classic from the olden days of gaming. Instead, it was simply a new 2D platformer, clad in those monochrome graphics that millions of gamers will fondly remember.
Part of that nostalgia-inducing design was of course an appropriately vintage-sounding score, created by Luming Hao. A friend of the game’s developers, Hao wrote the score on popular tracker software LSDj. At the time of writing the Kale in Dinoland soundtrack, Hao studied Computer Science and Music Composition at Lehigh University. That combination of technical and artistic skills would seem to make him a great candidate to pen a chiptune score.
And indeed, there are significant connections between Hao’s classical student compositions and the Kale in Dinoland soundtrack. Writing for the NES and Game Boy’s four channels has often been compared to writing for a string quartet. And so, it’s intriguing to see what a composer who has actually written a string quartet can accomplish with the Game Boy’s sound hardware. Maybe not surprisingly, the busyness of Hao’s String Quartet No. 1 links it to Kale in Dinoland’s intricate nature. Hao piles up layer upon layer of melodies and countermelodies, rhythms and counter rhythms in spectacular fashion, and manages to bring them all together in compositions that organically grow and develop.
A typical piece on Kale in Dinoland will start out with a single rhythmic figure and build from there. Chirpy melody lines and riffs will join, with often two melodies playing in counterpoint to each other. Hao’s classical education clearly manifests itself in the Kale in Dinoland soundtrack’s expert voice leading and unusual amount of polyphony. Meanwhile, a constantly evolving backdrop of polyrhythmic or syncopated beats backs Hao’s carefully paced exploration of the melodic material.
The way these tracks flow highlights how Kale in Dinoland differs from classic Game Boy soundtracks. Hao takes his time establishing his melodies before he then repeats, reworks and revisits them. The result are non-looping four-minute pieces with adventurous, almost cinematic intent. Interestingly enough, Hao manages to combine his classical education with pronounced pop instincts. His melodies are always catchy enough to energise and focus the sprawling, multi-layered compositions. As a result, Kale in Dinoland feels less like a tech demo than equally dazzling Game Boy scores like Ottifanten: Kommando Störtebeker.
Another piece of the puzzle is the engaging, varied album arc that Hao crafts. First, chiptune symphonies “Test” and “Grasslands” establish the album’s high-flying ambitions. “Boss” adds some surprisingly harsh, buzzing drones that give the track an industrial touch. The cue’s two melodies agitatedly dance around each other, trying to escape the destructive pull of the fragmented rhythms. Another signpost of Hao’s classical background makes itself heard for the first time: a readiness to use dissonances at length (hardly uncommon in contemporary classical music, but more so in a non-horror game score). As a result, the Game Boy’s noise channel gets an extended work out this album. “Jungle” shows the Kale in Dinoland soundtrack at its most vivacious. Layered arpeggios turn the music into a swirling, joyous whirlwind.
After the album’s ebullient first half, the mood gets more serious, if no less entertaining. “Arctic” is remarkable for how emotionally powerful its sparse, near-ambient chiptune musings turn out to be. Its melody is a wistful, lonely synth line on top of droning, sometimes abrasive chords. The cue’s development takes place in immensely satisfying, subtle fashion. The rigid background chords slowly evolve into an optimistic melody line and the music gradually shakes off its inertia, striding towards the game’s finale. “Volcano” and “Pterodactyl” bring back the conflict and claustrophobia of “Boss”. The industrial percussion strikes on “Volcano” sound like explosions on a mining site, both accompanying and trying to bury the melody lines.
All this intensity leads into “Mansion”, and this is where the Kale in Dinoland soundtrack will divide listeners. Adding live instruments, “Mansion” feels more like Cinemascope Post-Rock rather than Game Boy music – this is what Mogwai might produce if they discovered chiptune (with some avant-garde classical music added). Initially, it’s a frenzy of clashing and beeping sounds that often emulate grating guitar feedback. But it’s no headless sound and fury. Shining, hopeful chiptune chords emerge and begin to take over the music, leading the album towards its crescendoing, towering conclusion, hand in hand with uplifting piano and glockenspiel notes, while they weather an assault of crashing guitar noise.
“The Mansion” might feel jarring, but ultimately, it fulfills the soundtrack’s ambition to not just pay homage to vintage Game Boy scores, but to also expand – and even break – their format (in more violent fashion than say Tower of Heaven). Through the way it merges classical music’s density of melodies and textures with chiptune music, it’s arguably more ambitious than the game it accompanies – and one of the most remarkable, self-consciously retro chiptune scores produced.
- 01 - Test Hao, Luming 4:28
- 02 - Grasslands Hao, Luming 2:55
- 03 - Boss Hao, Luming 2:14
- 04 - Jungle Hao, Luming 3:59
- 05 - Resort Hao, Luming 3:41
- 06 - Arctic Hao, Luming 3:28
- 07 - Volcano Hao, Luming 3:29
- 08 - Pterodactyl Hao, Luming 3:09
- 09 - Mansion Hao, Luming 5:20