A paper about Wario Land 4's sound design I wrote for school

tahutoa

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The game Wario Land 4 is a game whose sounds I as a musician have become very well adept at utilizing, though I still have a long ways to go before I'm as good at it as the original sound technician, the composer Ryoji Yoshitomi. The game has a very unique sound to it, not the least of which because I've only ever heard maybe two of its samples anywhere outside of it in all the time I've spent with it. How the game uses these sounds to their greatest ability I will now take a look at.
The game's UI sound effects fit in well with the game's overall vibe of "strange, yet not absurd"-- a sort of "orderly chaos", if you will. If you click the back button, you hear a quick rattling of a woodblock mixed with a low, 8-bit tumble. If you press A on, say, a level, minigame, or any other "scene-changing" action, you hear a quick square wave arpeggio. In maneuvering left and right, you hear a pleasant, 'clicky' sort of square plinking as you navigate. This is probably the least unique aspect of WL4's sound reportoire, but the UI for this game still stands out in my mind among the likes of Kingdom Hearts in terms of recognizability. The SFX as a whole is where the game really shines, though, because the sound designer managed to find a way to use and reuse the same maybe 100 or so 1-2 second long samples in a number of different ways.
For example, there's a sample of a girl laughing that I can think of being used in three separate locations, where you wouldn't recognize it unless you already were well familiar with the sound itself. In one location it's used for its intended purpose, joining its sister sample, the gasp that bridges laughter, in Doodle Woods. In another stage, Crescent Moon Village, the gasp is used in a sort of abstract way that makes it spooky, while the giggling is placed at such a pitch as to sound almost like a record wikkywaw.
Another example of these sounds' versatility and the mastery of the one using them is how in one of the boss fights, this rattling sound can be heard panning from left to right. I now recognize this sound as being composed of two samples of comical snoring. The way they're used in this instance is slightly unnerving, definitely weird, and because of the samples' short timespan before looping, have exceeding amounts of potential.
In addition to clever repurposing of pre-existing clips, though, are a repertoire of short little soundscapes that accompany pretty much anything. As you can see in my demonstration video, there are multiple crystals that Wario can collect, some blue and others red. The red crystals, when collected, play a slightly more involved version of the little 8-bit notes that are heard when collecting a blue crystal. Then there are the other 8-bit sounds outside of the basic collectibles.

Wario's footsteps, the sounds of blocks breaking, rocks being picked up, the charging of a throw, and so on-- all of these are 8-bit. It's a clever way of working around the rather small limit of 10 DirectSound voices the GBA allows at once. This allows the DirectSounds to devote themselves to the music or the little fanfares accompanying specific items, like the CDs, diamonds, and jewel pieces, or the brief, wild soundscape heard for the transformations Wario can use to solve puzzles or make progress.
In some cases, these 8-bit sounds do a better job than a DirectSound would in its place. My favorite example is the sound Wario makes when he turns-- basically an abstraction of a brake skidding, with a timbre wholly unique to itself. I noticed while making the video that it even plays on the map screen, and that gave me an added appreciation for the sound, as maintaining continuity here strengthens immersion on a subconscious level in much the same way as in a film. This preference for 8-bit when it comes to the mundane and the selective usage of DirectSounds also has the bonus effect of subconsciously attaching importance to the times when you hear them, as again they are used sparingly outside of the music.

Some of these uses of DirectSounds for 'particular relevance' specifically would include the Ghost in Crescent Moon Village, how its ghostly "oOh?" reminds you that this area will have it present, or how its laugh (itself composed of the Oboe sample under some heavy pitch-bend) lets you know that it picked up a stray coin; the bosses, who each have their own little repertoire of highly automated samples; the sounds unique to each of Wario's transformations (the bo-wuh-ouy-oing of Fat Wario landing after a jump, for example); boss doors, padlocks, and other gateway related things; even the sound of Wario running through puddles or falling into a deep pool will use DirectSounds as opposed to 8-bit.
On top of that, some of the earlier sounds discussed, like the diamonds, jewels and other sfx, have underwater variants. This is because it is essential that the player gets that subconscious signal that a significant variable has been introduced. The better your sound design is, the more 'invisible' it gets, meaning the less likely you are to think about it actively, and as a byproduct of that, it hastens the process of immersion and strengthens game feel, in particular because the game's DirectSounds are all so distinct but at the same time mesh well with 8-bit sounds. There is another way that this phenomenon is accomplished during gameplay, though.

The music in Wario Land 4 in terms of dynamics doesn't change much through the game, usually being limited to slight volume changes. So, with the exception of Mystic Lake and Palm Tree Paradise, with their separate indoor and outdoor themes, there won't be very many instrumental or notation based changes to the music. However, the music is far from static. The music can and will change in tempo, pitch, modulation, and so on from a plethora of stimuli.
If Wario is crawling, the music will play a few BPM slower than normal. If Wario's rolling, the music plays at nearly 1.75 times normal speed. If he does a ground pound or gets hit, some of the instruments will wobble-- the former of these two things is especially interesting because of the context. Each of these stages is a world inside of a painting. As such, it falls short of being truly "real". Inside of said paintings, Wario is a veritable force of nature, and it would only make sense that his shockwave-inducing ground pounds would shake the foundations of the self-contained world he's in. At the end of each stage, when the Frog Switch is pressed and the rift opens for Wario to leave the painted world, the "Hurry Up!!" theme plays.
Like every other track on the soundtrack, it does its job of conveying its theme perfectly. Its tone is slightly scary, but at the same time it's very dynamic, featuring a number of techno synths and a combination Square Wave lead. As I demonstrate in the video, Wario's ground pounds will not cause the music to "shake" anymore, like they did when the world was stable enough. This helps to get across on a subconscious level that the world has reached an event horizon. It couldn't possibly become any less stable; the literal sky is waving like a mirage. Not even the weighted landings of Fat Wario will shake things up. Not during the return trip, anyway.

When Wario experiences one of his gameplay-altering transformations, so too does the music, in ways that fit each form. For example, Fat Wario's version of the music is slower and oafish, whereas Zombie Wario's is dragging and wobbly (as I demonstrate in the video). Spring Wario is higher-pitched and faster, fraught with tension like the man himself. Balloon Wario is higher-pitched as well, but slower, and slightly wavy-- it gives a very lofty, lightheaded sort of feeling to the music. To signify when each of these transformations ends, there is a brief arpeggio (made up of the same 'bo-wuh-ouy-oing' as Fat Wario's impact sound, funnily enough) accompanied by one of Wario's voice clips. This last thing is relatively important, because one of Wario's voice clips will tend to accompany almost every single one of the "important event" soundscapes, not the least of which are when Wario gets hurt or accomplishes a task.

Now, the game doesn't have much in terms of in-game dialogue, with Wario's voice clips coming the closest. Even then, though, these are limited to simple phrases, most of which are broken up into single words or sounds, like "Haa", "Oh", "Boy", "Here", "I", "Go", and so on. By keeping it simple this way, however, the developers can save space on the game cartridge, since the phrases heard can be more or less grasped across multiple foreign markets. In addition, the clips being split into parts like this makes them immediately automatable in the same organic fashion that the other SFX are throughout the game's files. For example, even though they all use but one sample, there are a good three or four separate sequence files using the "Haa" clip for Wario laughing. Each of them uses pitch bending to the fullest, making each sound unique from each other.
They all feature a single echo that sounds off about two steps (give or take) after the initial sound, which really lends a certain something to them. It hearkens back to the SNES Reverb of yesteryear. They all sound "detached", but in much the same way that hearing a character's thoughts as spoken lines with reverb placed on them is-- it's the sort of thing that almost touches the level that UI is on. Once you look past that, it could also further strengthen the notion that Wario is in a world that rings hollow despite all that it appears to be. As an added bonus, this "Dverb" means that Wario's voice clips still flow well when he's underwater. That you can get all of these repercussions from one little decision just further deepens my respect for the sound designer's abilities.

I could go on, but this pretty much covers the gist of the game's audio. Through a cunning discipline involving recycling and repurposing a limited number of very short samples in clever ways-- sometimes even exploiting how short the samples' loops are for this exact purpose-- and using 8-bit pulses and noise for everything else, the sound design manages to create a more meaningful experience even with the limitations imposed upon it by the GBA's hardware. The sound effects do a really good idea of subtly putting the idea that certain things are particularly relevant by this same merit, with important objects, collectibles, and other things of interest getting their own DirectSounds dedicated to them, while the more mundane actions, etc. utilize the much less taxing 8-Bit portions of the hardware. Over the course of writing this paper and really analyzing the game's sound design, my respect for Yoshitomi has increased significantly. I love this game's overall sound, but now even more so. The sound design is quintessentially Wario, and would go on to influence or directly shape the sound of many of the Wario games that were to follow.
 

Just a Wario Fan

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That's 1,901 words and 10,965 characters. Congratulations on passing the 1,500 word mark that's used at my school for essays.
Y'know, when you're really passionate about the topic, the words slide straight from your mind onto the paper. (Or text manager.) I've had experienced this many a time, and it helped me a lot on reaching that at times somewhat dreadful looking 1,500 words goal.

As I demonstrate in the video, Wario's ground pounds will not cause the music to "shake" anymore, like they did when the world was stable enough. This helps to get across on a subconscious level that the world has reached an event horizon. It couldn't possibly become any less stable; the
literal sky is waving like a mirage. Not even the weighted landings of Fat Wario will shake things up. Not during the return trip, anyway.
Wow... after so many years, it's only now that I realise that.
Good wording btw.
 

tahutoa

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That's 1,901 words and 10,965 characters. damn, i had no idear Congratulations on passing the 1,500 word mark that's used at my school for essays.
Y'know, when you're really passionate about the topic, the words slide straight from your mind onto the paper too true. (Or text manager.) I've had experienced this many a time, and it helped me a lot on reaching that at times somewhat dreadful looking 1,500 words goal.

Wow... after so many years, it's only now that I realise that.
It was the same for me when I was recording the gameplay footage that went along with this paper.
Good wording btw.
and the last sentence provides a nice segue into talking about the transformations by themselves ;-0
 

CM30

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That's a pretty neat essay. You certainly know a lot about Wario Land 4's sound design and how it works, though I guess that shouldn't be surprising given your history of video game remixes using the game's sound font (plus work on Wario Land 4 2's music).

Either way, have you considered posting it over on Gaming Reinvented as well? We're always looking for contributions from more people, and this could be the kind of niche article that may bring some more interest over there.
 
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