Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Wii's Biggest, Weirdest Legacy Is Its Music

I’m going to ask you to do something you’ve probably not been asked to do before. Close your eyes and think of the Nintendo Wii. What’s the first thing you remember? I’m guessing lots of you are picturing motion controllers — Nintendo’s flailing first attempt to drag sticks full of gyroscopes, accelerometers, and wriststraps we really should have been wearing into the mainstream. Maybe it’s the face of a Mii, those hauntingly cheery digital facsimiles that filled practically every game worth caring about on the console. For others, it’ll just be Wii Sports, and probably the moment you finally got your old nan to try gaming for the first time, before she accidentally put a Wiimote through your TV (again, wear those wriststraps, kids). Other groups might be thinking of possible best-game-ever Super Mario Galaxy, or balance boards, or when Virtual Console was actually good.

But I bet for a great many of you, it’ll be something completely non-visual. Perhaps it's the Mii Channel music. Or the Wii Shop jingle. Maybe it's the Wii Sports theme song.

There’s just something about music written for the Wii, isn’t there? It sounds… wrong. Not written badly, but just like it doesn’t belong on a regular old games console. PlayStation’s always opted for a detached, ambient cool — waves of strings and THX synth blares. Microsoft has broadly avoided music altogether, swapping the original Xbox’s bizarre industrial soundscapes for near-total silence in its later consoles. Nintendo, to my lasting displeasure, has copied the Xbox approach for its most recent machines.

But Wii had the temerity to feel somehow… approachable? And that music meant your console wasn’t some cold bit of hardware; it was a little portal to somewhere warmer, friendlier, and way more interested in jazz than you’d go in expecting. It’s a design choice that I’d argue doesn’t just stick in the memory — at this point, I’d say the Wii’s music is the console’s longest-lasting legacy.

Motion controls, Miis, and balance boards have all been removed or diminished as Nintendo moved on, but take a quick look across YouTube, TikTok, or Twitter, and I guarantee it won’t take all that long to hear a Wii track. Covers and memes featuring music from the Wii are everywhere. Music written for the Wii has taken on a new life as a cultural touchstone, and inspired people far beyond the confines of the little white wedge it was composed for.

Which leads us to a fundamental question: “why?” What is it about this collection of bizarrely optimistic tracks that’s helped them live so far beyond the Wii itself? To help answer that question, I spoke to musicians and comedians that have been unexpectedly inspired by music written for the Wii, and even gone on to make their own iconic work out of it.

Chapter 1: Kazumi Totaka

Music written for the Wii has a singular quality. Tracks might differ in style and instrumentation, but there’s a general feeling about it that makes it all feel whole. From the console’s individual menu channels, to the many, many songs written for pack-in game Wii Sports, you get that odd sense that you could identify a Wii track if you heard it. That’s probably largely down to the fact that one man is responsible for almost all of it.

Even if you’d somehow avoided all of the music written for Wii, you’ve likely heard the work of Kazumi Totaka. Link’s Awakening, Luigi’s Mansion, and the entire Animal Crossing series were all soundtracked by this single composer. (Also, weirdly, he’s the voice of Yoshi.)

After coming up under the tutelage of Koji “I composed the Super Mario Bros. theme tune” Kondo, Totaka established himself as one of Nintendo’s leading in-house composers, someone who can be trusted to add that little bit of unexpected magic to everything he touches. (Plus a bit of expected magic in the form of Totaka’s song, a 19-note melody he hides inside every game he’s involved with). It’s not a huge surprise, then, that it was Totaka who was tasked with giving the Wii its musical identity.

Totaka doesn’t give an awful lot of interviews, so there’s not really a record of how he felt about being asked to compose for a console, rather than a game, but it must have been an odd experience. Where soundtracking games is more a case of accentuating or illustrating an existing vibe, Totaka’s work on the Wii was a little different — suddenly, he was creating music out of nothing to build avatars to, to shop with, or just to look at the weather. But rather than feeling anonymous or diffuse, the musical identity Totaka stamped onto the console was so distinct that it leaked into its games.

Wii Sports is the most obvious example — a game that feels completely part of the Wii package, and lives up to that idea in how its soundtrack sits alongside the console’s menu music in our collective memory. It’s an identity that would eventually lead Totaka to be given the position of game director on Wii Music.

Totaka’s work in making all of these tracks feel so indelible went further than cementing an identity — much of what he wrote has lived far, far longer than the actual Wii channels and games ever did.

Chapter 2: Charles Cornell

YouTuber, jazz pianist, and well-bearded pop musicologist Charles Cornell has previously explained the excellence of the Wii’s many musical themes — and seemed the perfect person to talk about why these tracks seem to endure so much. Chiefly, it seems, it’s all about repetition.

“I think that musically, one of the indications that the job was done so well, is that you almost didn't even notice the music, at least at first,” Cornell told IGN. “It was one of those things where it just became familiar via playing the game. Just by nature of participating and constantly doing it over and over and over again, you realize, ‘Oh, I'm singing along every time I open this menu.’"

It’s no surprise, then, that some of the top results on YouTube for the Mii Channel theme are 10 hour loops, some with over 10 million views. Key to the Mii Channel, the Wii Shop tune, and other Wii big hitters are that they somehow never wear out their welcome. For Cornell, Totaka’s trick seems to be making something that can always sound the same, but feels like it was made differently to what you’d normally hear:

“I don't expect to see music written in the way that I encounter it in the jazz world regularly,” said Cornell. “I think that's one of the biggest things that stuck out to me, compositionally, was just seeing like, ‘Oh, this guy's writing this stuff how we approach a lot of tunes — either tunes that are already written that we play or writing your own tunes with a jazz style — it just has that vocabulary in the writing and the composition.’

“[The Wii music] is just a tune,” he added, likening it to “a chart that somebody might bring to a session and just be like, ‘Oh man, I've been working on this tune, you guys want to play it?’ But when you have a working knowledge, an ear training and an ability to hear musical form and understand where music is going harmonically, and you hear some of the stuff that's going on in the soundtrack... I was like, ‘Whoa, that's cool.’”

But the secret sophistication behind the Wii’s tracks doesn’t just make them good; it makes them, well, funny. And this might be the key to their enduring success – put some Wii music on top of something else, and it get funnier. It’s basically internet science at this point, and a legacy of sketches, video memes, and remixes has followed to prove that hypothesis. But what turns well-written jazz composition into the equivalent of comedy flavouring?

I think that the goofiness of something that's not real really comes across, and that's one of the things that makes it feel funny.

Cornell theorizes the comedy comes from three things: “Number one, it's nostalgia, because a lot of us who are now looking at the memes of this stuff played it when we were younger, right? Number two: the ridiculousness of the Mii Characters — when you create your character and how people have done so much, just stupid, crazy things.

“Then also, I don't think it's as much the composition as it is the instrumentation. So, the usage of specific synthesizers, the usage of these goofier sounds. They weren't trying to create something that sounded real, and I think that the goofiness of something that's not real really comes across, and that's one of the things that makes it feel funny.”

That potent combo of nostalgia and possibly purposeful strangeness has led to innumerable comedy creations featuring Wii music — to the point where I’m sure there are kids who could hum the Wii Shop music, but have never seen the original shop itself. That trend had to start somewhere, and I’m pretty sure I know where.

Chapter 3: Update Day

There’s no simple way of identifying who used the Wii’s music as a comedy tool first, but I think I know who succeeded with it first. Most Wii music memes and covers you’ll know came after the Wii was already in the rearview mirror for gaming as a whole, and many more arrived after it stopped production altogether. But ‘Update Day’ arrived in 2008, amid a tidal wave of Wii fever.

Matt Johnson and Jay McCarrol had started a web series, Nirvana the Band the Show, in 2006 and, inspired by the likes of Mega64, blended pop culture, lo-fi sketches, and deep-cut gaming knowledge to make for low-key, surreal, cut-up comedy. They were also extremely into the Wii, and it led directly to the sketch in which Jay surprises (then infuriates) Matt by improvising an entire song set to the Wii Shopping Channel music. Amazingly, it was almost as organic behind the scenes as the sketch makes it look.

It was hard to do because we were writing it as we went and the whole lyrics were a real spur of the moment sort of thing that was happening so quickly,” McCarrol told IGN. “We were scribbling them down on a paper and Matt was holding them up for me off-screen and he was trying to read them and sing them through — I was barely able to get them out because I was singing it seconds after we wrote it.”

Johnson added: “You were also so drunk, which I know you don't mind being reminded about.” McCarrol, incidentally, vehemently denies the accusation.

It’s no surprise that they honed in on the song’s weird appeal so early. The pair loved video game music, building it into their show from the very beginning, and something about this particular song worked for them immediately.

It's one of those pieces of music where you don't even get to be exposed to that level of jazzy, complicated chords moving around,” said McCarrol. “It's the same way that the only way people experience classical music now is mostly through movies, and so it's nice that video games still have one foot in the door to just give your ears a taste of something really complex.”

Johnson added that using the music as a premise for comedy “is just easy because it's like this music is meant to signify nothing, this music has meant to just be the thing you listened to when you get onto an elevator or when you're in a shopping mall, and so people have tried to ironically spin it into being like, ‘Oh, it could be really funny if I put this music against anything.’ That may also be what's going on.”

It's nice that video games still have one foot in the door to just give your ears a taste of something really complex.

The thing is, Update Day was never meant to stand out so much from the rest of the series. McCarrol and Johnson had always intended for it to feel like a complete show, and it surprised them most of all when that single sketch, and the song it was built around, became an internet phenomenon of its own.

To this day, almost 15 years later, a Twitter account called Wii Shop Wednesday still reposts the sketch on a weekly basis, to almost 40,000 followers. Even after Nirvana The Band The Show became a fully fledged TV series, this potentially obscure section of McCarrol and Johnson’s past is still probably their best-known work.

Update Day didn’t necessarily create the future of how the Wii’s music would be used by the internet, but it definitely predicted it — an early marker of how these strange, quietly brilliant compositions would be copied, warped, and re-used for years to come by an audience that finds them deeply funny, and even touchingly nostalgic. The number of ways they’ve been utilised since then is staggering, but it seems to have taken a step beyond even that in the last few years.

Chapter 4: Gundacker

After more than a decade of comedy created using music written for the Wii, it’s no surprise that, at some point, the trend would eat itself. Comedian Gabriel Gundacker didn’t just use old Wii music — he wrote an entire album of his own new compositions, designed to sound like originals. The only thing is, he never actually meant to.

“I had written a song that I really loved,” Gundacker told IGN. “And then the next day I went back and listened to it and I was like, ‘Okay, this sounds like a Wii song. This sounds like a Wii Sports song.’ And so I just changed a few things about it and I decided to make it into a bit, and then it wasn't until after that one, that I was like, ‘Okay, this is kind of fun. Maybe I should try and make Wii songs.’"

You remember how I spoke about that odd feeling that you’d probably know a song written for the Wii if you heard it? Gundacker — an accomplished musician himself — realised that he could play off of that idea, and began to build an entire series of unofficial Wii Sports tracks, each one providing the soundtrack to a Wii Sport that never existed: snorkeling, curling, or chess in the park. He just needed to learn how Totaka did that in the first place:

There are definitely rules," said Gundacker. "There are absolutely rules, or there are sounds that you have to use. You have to use accordion, you have to use this beautiful, fake, digital acoustic guitar. Basically what I did is I went and listened to each track. They're very consistent themselves — the sounds they use in Animal Crossing and in Nintendogs and Wii Sports, and then just some of the Wii music in general all come from the same sort of sound bank or whatever that they've decided are feel-good. This isn't Zelda, you're not wielding a sword, we're just having fun. So it's just using those sounds, and the accordion is the main one."

There are absolutely rules, or there are sounds that you have to use. You have to use accordion, you have to use this beautiful, fake, digital acoustic guitar.

Just like the real thing, Gundacker’s songs ripple with an odd combination of goofiness and gentle loveliness. But, just as Charles Cornell told us earlier, he’s also aiming for some of Kazumi Totaka’s secret sophistication, too:

Well, I wonder how he approaches that music, because it usually starts and ends with a pretty distinct melody," Gundacker said. "The beginning, everybody can hum it. And then the last thing, you can hum it. And then in the middle, it goes all over the place. I feel like he writes that melody first and then he just starts trying to find the chords that follow it.”

The response to Gundacker’s songs prove that he hit on the right feeling. With each successive new release he was getting the same kinds of responses — people loving the accuracy as much as the silliness of the project. Once he’d written eight tracks, they were released as a full album, which kind of feels like the ultimate end point for the Wii soundtrack’s legacy. It’s now so much its own idea, separate from the console itself, that it’s spawning its own creations. Gundacker sees that happening elsewhere too, with the Hotline Bling-Wii Shop Channel mashup and within the Ariana Grande album Sweetener, for example. "There's a few tracks on that album that Pharrell, whether or not he knows it, he's absolutely pulling from Wii sounds," he said.

If we’re seeing Totaka’s songwriting now influencing not just self-referential internet culture, but wider musical creativity, this is proof of its legacy, right? Where the Wii’s other biggest innovations feel forgotten or improved upon by others, its music is, somehow, stronger and more meaningful than ever.

The Lasting Legacy of Wii’s Music

It might seem absurd to spend this long thinking about music written for the Wii — probably because it is absurd — but just like the music itself, there’s a hidden depth here. The fact that Totaka’s music stands so alone in the industry, especially this long after it was created, speaks not just to the Wii, but to Nintendo itself.

The Wii’s music is pulling in two directions — it might be used for very different reasons by its fans, but it’s absolutely representative of Nintendo’s own stubbornness in standing out from the crowd. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto has famously repeatedly said he’s not really influenced by other people’s games, because it would affect his own creations. It feels like the same philosophy applied by Totaka, and it makes for a soundtrack that could only sound like it came from a Nintendo console.

Even if you’ve never actually played the thing, even if you’ve only seen it used on videos of children falling over, or covers played almost entirely on bottles, or turned into that last bit from the Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg song, you kind of know who’s behind it.

In a way, it’s not really that the music has outlived the Wii — it’s that this extraordinarily weird, nostalgic music is keeping the memory of this extraordinarily weird, nostalgic little console alive. And that’s a legacy.

Joe Skrebels is IGN's Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter.


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