Without music's bravery-summoning powers, Super Mario might not rescue Princess Toadstool, and Contra's commandos would struggle to foil the Red Falcon Organization's nefarious world-domination plot. Local composer Shannon Mason knows this cardinal truth. That's why she lives, breathes and sleeps videogame music. It inspires acts of heroism.
Mason, 28, says she's been enamored of videogame soundtracks since she was a kid and eagerly fought pixel-faced enemies to discover what musical treasures lay on the victory screen. "When I first beat the Super Nintendo game Star Fox, there was this epic orchestral piece playing on top of the end credits. I remember being struck with admiration for the composer and a longing to someday write that sort of music myself," she recalls.
A few years later, at 14, Mason received her first MIDI sequencing program, which let her create melodies that sounded like videogame themes. Soon, she graduated to Sonar software and vast libraries of instrument sounds.
These days, she crafts songs for Flash-based titles like Sapphire Skies, a role-playing game filled with flying machines, and Bloom Defender, a tower-defense game in which players protect colorful cartoon trees from grouchy spirits. Released on Monday, Bloom Defender teems with upbeat tempos and the sprightly sounds of xylophones, which conjure feelings of frolicking in an enchanted forest.
Though Bloom Defender's music sounds much like that of a real live orchestra, Mason also dabbles in old-school sounds inspired by 1980s Nintendo games. Her musical heroes include Nobuo Uematsu, composer of Final Fantasy's moving soundtrack, and Koji Kondo, who penned the iconic Legend of Zelda and Super Mario themes.
The technical limitations of these early games forced composers to flex their creative muscles, Mason says. Applying similar restrictions to her own work helps her stretch her imagination and cultivate new musical ideas.
"The graphics were simple, so the music had to be very descriptive to help illustrate the scene," she says. "When I write, say, a forest theme, I want listeners to think, 'This sounds like a forest,' even without any visual context. It's like painting a picture with music."
Composers who wrote songs for 1980s Nintendo games could only use three melodic sounds and one to two percussive noises. "These [sounds] didn't sound anything like real instruments. They were square waves and triangle waves, the classic 'bleep-bloop,'" Mason explains. "Composers had to rely on really strong melodies and chord progressions in order to make the songs enjoyable. The songs tend to get straight to the point and have a lot of interesting variety in a short period of time."
By contributing to sites such as OverClocked ReMix and working for far-flung clients, Mason has made friends all over the world. Indeed, she met her husband, a fellow composer, in an online community dedicated to videogame music. After a few years of long-distance dating, she moved to Madison from her hometown of Vancouver, and the rest, like Link and Zelda's joyful reunion, is history.