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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Make Great Leitmotifs

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - You can reuse them. It sounds nice. It's less work. Whatever you do, just don't forget about music.

Something we want to let you in on: If you invest in great music in the first iteration of your franchise series, you can use it again in your next game. And in the game after that. You should probably remix it in some way, but it absolves you of a lot of the creative work. If you bang it out of the park your first time and don't reuse it, people will beg and may actually complain if you don't reuse the music. In terms of workload, your fans will whine if you don't do the lazy option.

It also makes for music that's practically guaranteed to please since it's already been pre-approved. It's much less risky. If you do your soundtrack right, you can reuse it forever. Too bad a lot of developers put music as an afterthought.

Our main example is the Kirby franchise, but it's a thing in every franchise, really. Consistent jingles or themes across games. But let's talk about Kirby.

I mean, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse won Best OST of 2015 at KoopaTV. I'm assuming we're the only site that gave that award to that game (I'm not gonna fact-check that) but still. Kirby games use the same musical themes over and over. If a game doesn't have the Gourmet Race theme, people literally freak out. Here's an incomplete sampling of the theme across various games. Curiously, the actual Gourmet Race sub-game in Kirby Super Star has two themes, and the one that hasn't been remixed a million times is totally ignored.

Kirby fans favorite song Gourmet Race YouTube comment
In this case, Gourmet Race actually is in the game. But if you CTRL + F “Gournet”, you won't find anything anywhere.
I'm not saying you can only use the same set of music over and over throughout the whole series. Each Kirby game introduces new music along with remixes of older music. Sometimes, that new music becomes an instant classic and joins the set of music that gets remixed. Other times, the music just disappears.

What the hell happened to Dense Fog Today from Kirby Air Ride?

Awesome, surreal theme. Kirby games have all sorts of weird things going on in them that could use a surreal theme like this. Other main course themes in Kirby Air Ride got remixes in Kirby Mass Attack, and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse had an awesome Top Ride medley.

Part of the reason you can get away with having the same themes over and over, if they're leitmotifs, is that you have a reoccurring cast of characters. In the Kirby series, Kirby, Meta Knight, and King Dedede appear in almost every game. Dedede in particular is infamous for having a leitmotif, to the degree that “King Dedede's Theme” gets TWO remixes in Super Smash Bros. For Wii U.

Yeah. Dyna Blade gets her theme too anytime she's in a game. Now that Galacta Knight is regularly showing up in Kirby games since his Kirby Super Star Ultra debut, his guitar-spam theme shows up every game as well. These themes become part of the iconic image of the character, and go a long way towards establishing characterisation. That can be a thing with the character/theme only appearing once, of course. But, without any evidence backing this up, I venture it's stronger the more it reoccurs.

By the way. There is a possibility that the remix you make of a theme becomes extremely popular as well. At that point, you begin remixing the original theme AND remixing the remix. You end up with something like this:

It's a remix of Super Smash Bros. Melee's remix of the Gourmet Race theme (Fountain of Dreams).

Is it laziness or is it brilliance?

Bonus question: What about themes that aren't repeated within the same game series, but are repeated across multiple game series because it's the leitmotif of the composer? For example, Totaka's Song. Another example: Toby Fox's Megalovania, which was last seen in Undertale.

Small warning: It's possible to deviate so much from the source material when remixing an earlier theme that the fans actually hate it and there's backlash. My advice is to try to be more incremental to avoid this. That said, if you get that kind of response, then that's definitely proof that you have an enormously passionate fanbase. That's great!

There's no doubt that you'll be able to share examples of franchises reusing themes across games. The more interesting question is if you think a better example could be used than the Kirby series, and what you think of the practice in general. Ludwig is fine with it.

There's a certain song that should be everywhere it can, but the developers aren't taking advantage of it.
It's possible that the Ace Attorney series may be the best use of leitmotifs for characterisation ever.


  1. as many say... if it "aint broke, dont fix it" another example would be the super mario bros world 1-1 theme, and the underground theme, you will always hear these songs in SOME form in almost every mario game

    also sega should take notes, they changed sonic so much we dont know who the hell he is anymore .-.

    1. Interestingly enough, I actually... don't like the 1-1 theme. That's not necessarily because it's oversatured, but I don't like it to begin with.

      I once told someone I listen to videogame music in my free time, and they gave me this super-weird look and said, “So, like, the Super Mario Bros. theme?”

      To be fair, Green Hill Zone's theme shows up repeatedly throughout the series and is widely beloved. Sonic just constantly changes his music style.

    2. well of course might not like said themes, like im not really a fan of green hill zone theme :P also when I said sonic I meant the games, not the music

      and I know that weird look, considering out my 100+ music tracks only like 6 are actual songs lol

    3. I thought you meant the music on the basis that this is an article about music. :o

      You don't like Green Hill Zone? Woah.

      I refuse to characterise those as "actual songs" though.

    4. what I meant are like most of my music is from video games, but I do have a few which have lyrics, aka songs...

      and its not that I hate it, I mean it did grow on me after playing on the sonic stage on ssb43ds countless times... but it wouldn't be something id listen alone

    5. What about in-game music with lyrics? ...Like a lot of Sonic games.

    6. Yeah I have those too lol, but in general there arent that many... like I have tomorrow is mine and moon river (bayonetta) lost in thoughts all alone (eng and Japanese)... but thats it :P

    7. No More Heroes (2) has amazing songs that sometimes have lyrics.

      The lyrics aren't even in English sometimes but still great listening.

  2. A favorite thing of mine is when the main theme of a show, movie or game is remixed into something triumphic as as when the big bad is defeated.

    Also I like how in Punch Out for the Wii, the music in the ring gets remixed to match whatever region the contender is from.

    1. I love what Punch-Out!! did on the Wii.
      Though I will question if having only one song remixed 15 times in the game to comprise the vast majority of the game's soundtrack still falls into this. They didn't really make anything new besides, what, the credits theme?

  3. Final Fantasy has two good examples: the victory fanfare (same basic structure, but different in each game it appears in) and the Chocobo music.

    I also loved how music from Luigi's Mansion was remixed for E. Gadd's appearances in the Mario & Luigi series.

    1. The Final Fantasy victory fanfare specifically came to my mind while writing this article. :)


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