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The unifying melody of SimCity’s SNES soundtrack

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I like to think that people are pretty much the same, no matter where you go. 

Sure, you've got different cultures, contrasting customs, and strange traditions. I grew up with a few, shall we say, "unique" societal norms myself. (One word: Utah.)

But the things we really care about don't change. We all want the same stuff: a secure place to live, food to eat, and friends and family to share our lives with.

If that sounds trite, it is. But that doesn't make it less true. And one of the first ways I learned that fact was by playing the Super NES port of SimCity.

 

SimCity

The 16-bit version of Will Wright's classic city-management simulation is hardly the most robust. It definitely lacks the depth of the series' later entries, and it doesn't have the voyeuristic appeal of virtual-dollhouse title The Sims. But the SNES version does have a few features that earlier iterations lacked, including Nintendo-specific buildings (like a Mario statue) and a rampaging Bowser in place of Godzilla.

The biggest feature that stuck out to me, though, was Soyo Oka's SNES-specific soundtrack. Unlike most games, which present a unique tune for every section of gameplay (often using dramatically different styles and genres), Oka chose to create a single melodic leitmotif and subtly tie it into each stage of a city's development.

While other soundtracks of the era often sounded like mixtapes, SimCity's music consisted of variations on a theme — different movements in the same urban symphony. 

When you first start building your city, you have nothing but an empty landscape, a few thousand bucks, and this song. The six-note leitmotif, based around a prominent major fifth interval, is easily identifiable; it forms the backbone of a peaceful, pastoral composition, which fits the feel of your rural community.

As you see your population start to rise, you leave this particular tune behind. Each time your city reaches a certain milestone of growth, the music shifts. But every new tune integrates that recurring melody — sometimes in the background, sometimes as a counterpoint to a new harmony. But it's always there. 

It's as if the soul of the city never changes, even if the buildings do.

The Capital stage features an entirely new tune for the first 30 seconds, with rhythmic mallet percussion and piano showing the burgeoning maturity of your city. But then the old melody comes in, as if echoing from the past, and you can sense the strides your people have made. The land looks different, but it's still the same village you loved.

Here in the Metropolis stage, the motif changes slightly, flatting the seventh note in the scale and altering the tone. Gone are the bucolic flutes and harps of the earlier levels — now brassy horns carry the melody, accentuated by staccato orchestra hits. Your tiny village has grown up into a place of gritty industry, and the music reflects the difference. 

I never reached the Megalopolis stage without using an infinite-budget cheat code (and even then, it wasn't easy). When you finally get there, this tune greets you — a pulsing, vibrant song that seems to channel the urban energy of a Gershwin composition. You can't help but envision massive skyscrapers, streets packed with cars, and bustling foot traffic.

And yet, at about the 1:30 mark, we hear our old melodic friend, played at a slow tempo by a single trumpet, as if to remind us of where we came from and how far we've come. Then the song springs back into motion, like a stop light turning from red to green, and we're off and running again. 

For a game with no plot but the one you make for it, SimCity's soundtrack takes an unusually holistic and affecting approach to music, especially for its era. And it reminds me of the link that all civilizations share, no matter how big our cities are.


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