Admittedly, writing a text about the background music of the Phendrana Drifts from Metroid Prime in a column about music and sounds from video games is not particularly original. So unoriginal, in fact, that the author of this text has deliberately refrained from doing so for at least over a year so far. But in the end, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s bad. And so now I do feel the need to say a few words. Those who know me know that I’m not particularly big on video game music. While I realize how important the right background music is to the gaming experience, and of course I sometimes secretly whistle the melody of level 1-1 of Super Mario Land to myself, I’ve never understood why people listen to video game music in their free time instead of what I consider real music.
But maybe that’s exactly the reason why I’ve always liked Metroid’s music. Like few games, Metroid places less emphasis on epic anthems and more on the game’s special atmosphere. How special this is and how quickly it can go wrong was demonstrated by Nintendo itself in its commercial for Metroid Prime, which was obviously meant to sell the game to American gamers as a brute action shooter with generic rock riffs:
Fortunately, composer Kenji Yamamoto had a better understanding of everything that already made up Metroid on NES and Super Nintendo and was so brilliantly transferred to the third dimension by Retro Studios. And so he created a soundtrack that used motifs from the old games, but sounded even more mysterious than ever.
The music in Phendrana Drifts can’t even be singled out within the score – because the entire soundtrack, which ranges between ambient and trip-hop beats, creates the sometimes hostile, but above all alien world that Samus Aran must explore in every second of the game. But it’s the moment when you first enter the Phendrana Drifts after a cave, pausing briefly in the snowfall before heading across an icy lake to a passage in a ruin, that simply sums up this perfect fusion of audio and graphic design.
And so it’s not the biggest midi earworm or the next Richard Wagner imitation, but a piece of music that only unfolds its full force in its place of play: If I were to make a ranking of the best video game music of all time, “Ice Valley”, the theme of Phendrana Drifts by Kenjy Yamamoto and Kouichi Kyuma, would therefore be my definite number 1.
Fans of the Metroid games have been waiting for a fourth installment of the Metroid Prime series for years. There are many reasons, but the fascinating soundtrack by Kenji Yamamoto is certainly one of them.
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