High Scores: Ice Cap Zone

Ah, the curious case of “Ice Cap Zone.” Few videogame songs have a backstory as involved, unlikely, and contentious. Unraveling it, one cannot help but sound like an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow mixed with Kevin Costner’s character in JFK. Long before The Last of Us, it stands as an example of how mainstream culture has flowed into video games and vice versa since at least the fourth console generation. Here’s the gist:

Though rumored to have been written by Michael Jackson, the song is credited to Brad Buxer, the former keyboardist for the ’80s new wave ensemble The Jetzons, who broke up in 1983. At the time of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994), Buxer was Jackson’s musical director. Jackson, a Sonic fan and previous Sega collaborator, had indeed signed on to help compose the Sonic 3 soundtrack but was, according to Buxer, disappointed by the Sega Genesis’s sound capabilities and left the project having worked on only one track: the end credits’ theme, an adaptation of “Stranger in Moscow.” Buxer, however, stayed on for the rest of the project, including the composition of “Ice Cap,” which is, for all intents and purposes, an instrumental version of The Jetzons’ tune “Hard Times,” which the group had never released. The secret identity of “Ice Cap” would remain private until many years later, in 2008, when Fervor Records acquired the rights to The Jetzons’ back catalog and released it, including “Hard Times,” which Sonic fans quickly recognized as “Ice Cap.” The song’s coming-out story snowballed online throughout the 2010s and led The Jetzons to regroup and re-release “Hard Times” on vinyl in 2020. Now, in the Sonic Origins port of Sonic 3, the Ice Cap Zone stages have different (and inferior) music, much to the chagrin of Sonic purists. And the legal reasons for this are frustratingly unclear, bringing into question the true reason for Jackson’s departure (or if he even departed at all). Fortunately, the original “Ice Cap” is widely available online, as well as on the original cartridges and plenty of earlier ports. And, with its unlikely rise to fame, the song is more beloved, covered, and analyzed by fans than ever.

More than a curiosity, I find the case of “Ice Cap Zone” a sort of parable, a tortoise-and-hare story with “Hard Times” as the tortoise and “Ice Cap” as the hare. In this story, Sonic’s tagline “Gotta go fast” is ironized over the course of four decades and the turn of a millennium, and “Hard Times” comes out on top. I like “Ice Cap,” but I love “Hard Times.” It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have been a hit had the band released it in the ’80s. It’s up there with “Cities in Dust” and “Tainted Love” in its mix of mood and groove. It fits perfectly on any ’80s dance playlist. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but I always felt “Ice Cap” to be a bit simplistic, its first few bars lacking a certain something that I would later understand to be the lyrics of a verse. This is one case in which a videogame song is a dilution of “real” music.

While the tone of both songs is mournful, the story of their unlikely marriage strikes me as comedy, not tragedy. Something about the combination of the raspy masculine wound-licking in “Hard Times” and the bright cartoonish snowboarding in the Ice Cap Zone stages is deeply funny and strangely satisfying. It’s easy to envision a washed-up Sonic as the lead vocalist, singing to the player, or maybe Tails, “I can see you’ve got better things to do, / so just take your things and leave.”

The song also raises interesting questions of ownership in the world of videogame music—who owns a stage theme? Is it the often-uncredited composer? The company that produced the game? The fans who fall in love with the song and cover it online, amassing millions of views and keeping the melody alive? The butt-hurt reaction to “Ice Cap Zone” changing its tune in Sonic Origins would seem to speak to the diehards’ sense of entitlement. But I think what the fans are really reacting to here is not their being robbed of the song but rather the game being robbed of it. I felt a similar pang of injustice when the “Fire Temple” music in Ocarina of Time changed (and, again, worsened) from the original Nintendo 64 cartridge to the re-releases on the GameCube and beyond. It’s not that I loved the “Fire Temple” theme; I just knew that it belonged in the Fire Temple, emanating from whatever mystical space dispenses non-diegetic videogame music. Violating that space violates the game’s fiction. It’s not about my ownership. In fact, I don’t want to be reminded that the world I’m playing is a commodity. I want it to own itself.

The circumstances of the “Fire Temple” edit are much different from those of “Ice Cap” and Sonic 3. The “Fire Temple” theme deserves (and has gotten) its own critical appraisals. It’s a much easier story to untangle than “Ice Cap.” The true extent of Michael Jackson’s involvement in the Sonic 3 soundtrack is still very much up in the air. There are a number of very convincing comparisons on YouTube showing how “Carnival Night Zone” and a number of other tracks on the OST bear striking resemblances to early-nineties Jackson songs. The caginess of Sega’s top brass regarding the changes to the OST in Sonic Origins certainly point to the legal mess that is Jackson’s legacy. Part of what allows the story of “Ice Cap” to read as comedy is how it skates around Jackson and draws a relatively straight line between The Jetzons and Buxer. One can at least pretend Jackson had nothing to do with it.

The saddest part of the story to me might be how the text of “Ice Cap Zone” gets lost in all the discussion of context. It’s worth thinking about why Buxer and Sega chose a song as melancholic as “Hard Times” to evoke the environment of an ice cap. Discussions of the melting ice caps, sea-level rise, and the “hard times” that would follow were front-of-mind in the early ’90s, even to a grade-schooler like me. And Sonic games are full of environmental destruction. Sonic 3 starts with a forest fire; Sonic 2 places the player in a chemical plant and an oil-polluted sea. Maybe it’s easier to think about how “Ice Cap” was made than it is to think about what it communicates, namely that its titular ice is going as fast as the song itself.