High Scores: Wicked Child

In 1985, Super Mario Bros. introduced us to its “Castle Theme”; in 1986, Castlevania gave us “Wicked Child.” The latter feels light years ahead of the former, even though only a year separates them. (Compare the scores: “Wicked Child” and “Castle Theme” [p. 5, 3:34-3:49]). The whole Castlevania soundtrack is so melodically rich and artistically assertive that it’s easy to forget how early it falls in the timeline of videogame music.

The two songs’ titles suggest different compositional philosophies. While “Castle Theme” merely states where the song occurs in its game, “Wicked Child” is independent of the song’s in-game sequencing or “function.” The richness of the song stems from this conceptual independence. The composer, Kinuyo Yamashita, wants the listener to appreciate the song on its own terms, outside the dozen or so screens of Stage 3. That the “Child” in “Wicked Child” has no clear referent in the world of Castlevania argues even further for its out-of-context significance. It also gives the already challenging game an extra puzzle to solve: who is the Wicked Child? In what follows, I propose a few answers.

1. Kinuyo Yamashita, the composer

It is a crime that Yamashita is not as celebrated as Koji Kondo or even David Wise. I love both men’s music, but Yamashita’s is arguably better. She wrote classics like “Wicked Child” and “Heart of Fire” when models of excellent videogame music were scarce. What’s more, she went on to compose the music for Mega Man X3 in 1994, which is regarded as one of the best soundtracks on the Super Nintendo. (Listen to “Gravity Beetle” for a taste.) Yamashita has written songs that I’ve loved since childhood—songs that influenced the composition of decades of videogame music—and I just learned her name while researching for this essay.

This anonymity is partly due to the common convention in the 1980s and ’90s of videogame staff being credited under pseudonyms. At the end of Castlevania, Yamashita is credited as “James Banana,” a play on the composer James Bernard, who scored the 1958 Peter Cushing film, Dracula. The credits are full of such dad-joke puns on the big names of old Hollywood horror. (My fave: “Boris Karloffice.”) Presumably, Konami required such pseudonyms in order to prevent other companies from poaching their talent. Regardless, the pseudonym conceals Yamashita’s gender, as well as her name. The “Banana” may be a Freudian slip.

In this excellent Wired article, Dia Lacina correctly points out that anonymity for videogame composers has been and is still the rule “unless they achieve some kind of hero status” as Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu have. It also correctly asserts that the lack of women among such heroized composers is not merely a consequence of “poor record-keeping and the ravages of time.” In order for the public to view a composer as a hero, the developers must view them as such. Kondo and Uematsu were bigshots at Nintendo and Square, respectively, from early on. Unfortunately, other companies have viewed their musical talent as marginal at best and exploitable at worst. Who knows how much this exploitation is compounded when the composer’s gender is also marginalized?

Yamashita reveals in this interview (bottom of page) that strict confidentiality agreements with Konami have prevented her from talking more openly about her experience composing the Castlevania soundtrack. She also mentions that she worked at Konami for only two years. Her replies are terse and scanty. She does, however, enthusiastically state that “Wicked Child” is her favorite composition for the game. It makes sense: the wicked child is a threat to paternal order. This wicked child is best shown the door.

2. My brother

I could easily have said “the player” here, but particularizing the player in the person of my brother is useful. My brother plays Castlevania fast. His personal best run is 12 minutes and 19 seconds, a minute and change short of the current 11:05 world record. On a good day, I might be able to beat the game in an hour. It has only six stages, but each stage is brutally difficult. Learning a stage is like learning complicated sheet music; it’s nearly impossible to make it all the way through on the first try. The best players, like my brother and other speedrunners, know the score like the back of their hand. They manage their play down to the subpixel. They master every skip, every damage-boost, every quick-kill. They never lose a life.

They also listen to the game’s music—over and over again. Perhaps no other listeners of videogame music are better judges of a song’s replay value. My brother and I don’t agree on everything, but we do agree that “Wicked Child” is the crème de la crème. It’s funky, spooky, silly, groovy, the kind of song that makes your thumbs dance. Its opening drum riff of sixteenth notes is the perfect contrast to Stage 2’s chill “Stalker.” Stage 3’s environment is also a contrast, taking place entirely in the open air. The dark blue sky against the crumbling terra cotta tiles and moldering marble statuary gives the stage a sort of Mediterranean gothic ambience, which the song’s flamenco-like rhythm suits to a tee.

My brother was a wicked child: a class-ditching, prank-pulling, kegger-throwing hellion. At 38, he’s calmed down, but Castlevania gives an outlet to the wicked child in all of us, with its blood, bones, mummies, torture chambers, haunted clocktowers, and Death himself. It’s impossible not to feel a little wicked crossing the drawbridge into the game’s unholy stronghold.

3. The flea man

Stage 3 introduces one of the game’s most irritating characters: the pesty flea man (a.k.a. Igor, a.k.a. Hunchback), whose tiny hit box and quick, random movements make him as infamous as he is lethal. The flea man is the first enemy you encounter in Stage 3, creating a strong association between the frenetic rhythms of “Wicked Child” and the little fellow’s erratic movement.

The flea man is inspired by the Ygor/Fritz characters from the original Frankenstein films. “Igor” has since become a composite trope molded over dozens of adaptations of these film adaptations of a play adaptation of Mary Shelley’s original novel, which has no Igor. The metamorphosis is somewhat akin to the zombie’s mutation from voodoo-controlled puppet to undead flesh-eater. Igor mirrors cultural anxieties about servitude and disability. He is an embodied contradiction, both subordinate and menacing, human and monstrous.

The Castlevania flea man is similarly paradoxical. He appears shriveled yet extremely agile, able to leap four times his height. His sprite is used for both standard-issue enemies and the Stage 4 boss. The flea man might be infantilized for his one-tile-tall form, and his wicked ways are maligned by the outside world of frustrated players over decades. But at least in the world of Castlevania, he is hardly alone.

4. Honorable Mentions

Dracula, the final boss
Alucard, his anagrammatically named son (not featured until Castlevania III)
Simon Belmont, the whip-cracking hero
Hitoshi Akamatsu, Castlevania’s director and, presumably, Yamashita’s boss

But perhaps the truest answer to the question is the song itself. In another interview, Yamashita opens up about her time at Konami: “I worked very hard … and I eventually became really sick. I was also not satisfied with certain things, for example that the company did not recognise distinguished works of its employees.” Yamashita poured her heart into these songs without credit only to be removed from further Castlevania projects and denied the foundation to become a Kondo or an Uematsu. That little extra something we hear in “Wicked Child” is anger, and that anger makes the song, Yamashita’s child, wicked.