Alter Ego Original Soundtrack
Alter Ego Original Soundtrack
December 11, 2011
Download at Ubitune
One of the many retro-themed puzzlers that have sprung up in recent years on emulators and mobile gaming platforms, Alter Ego is blessed with a simple idea that still allows for some intricate puzzle challenges. The player’s sprite and its movements are mirrored by a phantom twin, and switching between the two is necessary to collect all jumping pixels in one level. Pixels that can only be collected by either the player’s sprite or the twin and a limited number of switches complicate matters in latter levels.
The first incarnation of the game was programmed for the ZX Spectrum without music. For Alter Ego‘s later NES port, game designer Denis Grachev asked chiptune artist Kulor (aka Richard Armijo) to write a soundtrack that would fit into the less than 9 KB available. The game’s engine allowed Armijo to work with 31 instruments, while there was no possibility to change duty cycle outside of the very start of an instrument, no effects, and no volume column. When Grachev started to create another port of Alter Ego — this time for Windows Phone 7 — and asked Armijo if he could use the existing tracks, Armijo instead remastered the pieces and created enhanced versions of them. In December 2011, both the NES and Windows Phone 7 cues were released by prolific chiptune label Ubiktune, available for free on their website.
Let’s look at Alter Ego‘s ‘classic’ (NES) tunes first, all of them less then two minutes long. It all starts out in rather unassuming manner, with “Level 1 (Classic)” a nice little ditty backed by a relaxed, head-bopping beat. It’s nothing chiptune fans won’t have heard dozens of times before — and also better done — but it opens Alter Ego on a charming note. “Level 3 (Classic)” follows suit, with a more strident beat that is playful yet determined, and a delightful reminder of NES action games. “Level 2 Alternate (Classic)” is another pleasant, if not hugely original track, with its triple metre and an appropriately light melody that’s just a bit more ornamented and quick-silvery than expected.
However, the meat of the classic tunes lies elsewhere, and it’s here that Armijo displays his more creative side. “Level 2 Original (Classic)” starts out with a cheerful melody that’s unexpectedly countered to intriguing effect by some biting, syncopated robotic rhythms and sound effects. It’s a much denser composition than the preceding “Level 1 (Classic)” and invites repeat listens to dissect and enjoy its layered beats. The same goes for “Level 4 (Classic)”, where the cleverly syncopated rhythms work hand-in-hand with the fragmented, but still catchy melodic elements. The final level track “Level 5 (Classic)”, naturally the most frantic and energetic ‘classic’ cue, showcases Armijo’s compositional skills with a well-timed breakdown that sees the music segueing into a more melodic interlude, before the cue seamlessly accelerates again to return to the opening tempo.
While the original tunes are a slightly uneven, but all in all entertaining group of tracks, the ‘enhanced’ cues are a more mixed bunch. They are approximately twice as long as the ‘classic’ versions, but achieve that longer running time often by simply re-arranging or repeating existing material. And particularly on the ‘enhanced’ versions of those tracks that featured rather simple beats and melodies in the first place, things get repetitive and monotonous pretty quickly. There’s just no reason why “Level 1 (Enhanced)”, “Level 2 Original (Enhanced)” and “Level 3 Alternate (Enhanced)” should run for over three minutes when they’ve said everything they’ve got say after a bit more than a minute.
The second problem with the ‘enhanced’ tunes is that, while they obviously feature a more colourful instrument palette (not to mention stereo sound), mid frequencies sound fuzzy and muffled. In particular, this causes the aggressive robotic sounds on “Level 2 Original (Enhanced)” to lose some of their bite. Likewise, the simple but effective beats and melodies of “Level 1 (Enhanced)” sound better on the track’s ‘classic’ version, with its crisper and brighter sound. And although “Level 2 Alternate (Enhanced)” introduces some more audible changes to the original — doubling the melody lead with another solo instrument and mixing the rhythmic ‘da-da’ on the second and third beat into the foreground — these alterations distract rather than enhance.
Things get better though in the second half of the album, partly because the ‘enhanced’ tracks now have more substantial material to work with. “Level 3 (Enhanced)” is still a bit long, but its stomping beats are a lot more voluminous and driving than on the original cue. Another improvement is the fact that the catchy melody lead is now more clearly delineated from the beats underneath and can worm its way into the listener’s mind. “Level 4 (Enhanced)” benefits greatly from the ‘classic’ version’s more complex, jazzy rhythms and from its capacity to now spread these rhythms out onto a wider range of instruments. The first track to actually offer some truly new material, “Level 4 (Enhanced)” also skillfully mixes its cheeky, syncopated beats across the stereo field for ear-catching results. The ‘enhanced’ versions’ more humongous bass sound does its job again on “Level 5 (Enhanced)”, although occasionally it even becomes a bit overwhelming. While the track once more feels a bit longer than necessary, the more colourful instrumentation make the cue worthwhile, for example when Armijo transposes parts of the melody and accompanying staccato motif to a funky solo flute.
Sadly, the soundtrack ends on a mixed note with “Credits (Enhanced)”. The piece is reminiscent of the stately ending themes of NES RPGs. But the muffled mid-frequencies take away some of the sense of occasion, and the deep, buzzing bass chords after 0:50 are intrusive. The piece’s more elaborate structure — compared to the original version — is appreciated, but not particularly successfully implemented, as the new material doesn’t add a lot.
Richard Armijo’s album debut is mostly successfully, although it is a minor entry into Ubiktune’s catalogue. The NES versions of the tracks range from competent to quite engaging and intricate, some of them blessed with intriguingly layered beats and rhythms. And Armijo certainly knows how to write a catchy chiptune melody. The Windows Phone 7 compositions are more problematic, as half of them run for too long without adding much to the original versions. The muffled sound of these cues doesn’t help either. But the other half of the ‘enhanced’ cues are a lot stronger and elaborate on the ‘classic’ tunes with more colourful instrumentations and full-bodied beats to create some classy, foot-tapping retro tracks. It’s far from a must, but since it’s available for free from Ubiktune, chiptune fans will want to check out this charming, if uneven soundtrack.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Simon Elchlepp. Last modified on January 18, 2016.