High Scores: Storm Eagle

I grew up around American airpower. My childhood was spent mainly in Colorado Springs, home of the Air Force Academy, a great tract of federal land in the foothills of the Rockies. Part military base, part institution of higher learning, it’s where I had my childhood haircuts, my junior prom, and my high-school graduation. If you were far enough north in the city, you could pick out the Academy’s college football stadium with its AIR FORCE spelled in white seats facing east. At the Falcons’ home games, the marching band blared Gary Glitter while cadets counted their team’s score in pushups after every touchdown. Trained falcons did loop-de-loops over the bleachers. Even more impressive were the sharp white spires of the Cadet Chapel poking from the mountains like a holy cheval de frise. The vibe at the Academy was patriotic and oddly medieval, a mix of grandeur and threat.

I hear this vibe distinctly in the song “Storm Eagle” from Capcom’s 1993 hit run-and-gun platformer Mega Man X. The track, “[Desert] Storm [Bald] Eagle,” sounds almost comically American to me, as if the Japanese composer, Makoto Tomozawa, were parodying the music at an early ’90s American airshow. It sounds like Guns ’n’ Roses sounded in 1993, after grunge and hip-hop had absorbed heavy metal’s countercultural cachet. It reminds me of the NFL on FOX theme, which debuted just a year later, with its brassy, galloping triplets and wailing electric guitar. It certainly reminds me of “Guile’s Theme” from Street Fighter II, another Capcom creation bound up with the iconography of the American air force. Despite being a dirty gay hippie, I absolutely love “Storm Eagle”—and have since I first played Mega Man X as an eight-year-old. There’s just enough irony in and around the song to make me hear “Storm Eagle” as something of a snipe at American jingoism.

For one thing, Storm Eagle himself (itself? “he” is a bird-shaped robot that spits eggs out of its mouth) turns out to be kind of a wimp. X starts the stage on the ground, level with some far-off sand dunes that would not be out of place in Colorado Springs. There’s a sharp vertical climb leading to an airborne flotilla marshalled by Storm Eagle, who hovers above a very snazzy mothership at the stage’s right terminus. He alights before X with comically loud wing-flaps. His health bar fills up. And then he blows a lot of hot air. Two of his four attacks do no damage. His best defense is to nosedive through the air a randomly generated number of times, making him (sort of) hard to shoot. A few charged buster shots, and Storm Eagle goes down, exploding into an aquiline silhouette. He’s a good Maverick to kill second, after Chill Penguin.

And yet the prize for killing Storm Eagle is possibly the best weapon in the game: Storm Tornado, the pretty pink wind tunnel Eagle deployed in order to blow you off his aircraft, except when you use it, it actually does damage, continuously, across several consecutive frames. It’s a one-shot for most non-boss enemies. It’s dope.

All in all, Storm Eagle is a generous little chapter in the game’s story. His level is the only stage in the game with all the major upgrades: a heart container, an energy tank, and an armor upgrade (albeit the essentially useless Helmet buff). Its platforming is difficult but not infuriatingly precise, striking the elegant balance that is typical of Mega Man X. It’s often referred to as a “perfect video game,” which, like a “perfect movie,” requires excellence and cooperation among several different departments, not the least of which is music.

I’m not the first to call the Mega Man X soundtrack perfect. It’s a generally acknowledged fact. Newsweek has weighed in. It took the main-line Mega Man series till Mega Man 2 to reach its musical apotheosis, but the X series did it in one take. None of the seven games that succeeded Mega Man X has been an improvement, at least musically. How did they do it?

The answer, I think, lies in the name of Capcom’s in-house band in the Nineties: Alph Lyla, a play on the katakana spelling of “One Thousand and One Nights.” The band positioned themselves beside Scheherazade; they recognized the storytelling power of their music. And they recognized the immensity of their output—they had to write a lot of songs! A typical Super Nintendo soundtrack might have around thirty-five tracks; a PlayStation game might have twice that. Multiply this by three or four games a year for more than a decade, and you reach 1,001 territory real fast. Even if the “stories” these songs tell are flat as a pancake (the story of a sumo wrestler in Street Fighter II’s “E. Honda Theme,” for instance), the band’s self-conception as storytellers indicates a certain set of artistic values and a certain pride in their work.

The Mega Man X soundtrack also speaks to a general blossoming of musical expression that came with the fourth console generation. The technological gains may sound modest, evolving from five sound channels on the NES to eight on the SNES; but the addition of a few channels belies the exponential gains in artistic freedom these advances allowed. With varied instrumentation and increased sampling capability, composers could develop their own musical styles, their own distinctive sound types—or soundfonts.

Researching this essay has familiarized me with the phenomenon of the soundfont: a synthesis of MIDI-file audio, usually culled from one source “text,” e.g., a video game from the Nineties, when MIDI was king. I was first introduced to soundfonts through a YouTube link my brother sent me, of Nirvana’s Nevermind set to the Super Mario 64 soundfont. A doubling-down on Nineties nostalgia, the video reminded me of those T-shirts that misidentify the cast of Seinfeld as Nirvana. The SoundFont (properly a brand name) has been around since the early Nineties, and I’m sure it has many applications, but I can’t imagine a better use of this technology than making “Lithium” sound like “Dire, Dire Docks.” The Super Mario 64 soundfont is among the most popular, along with ones from Earthbound (to which Toby Fox owes a great debt) and Mega Man X. As someone who thinks of video games, and especially their music, as texts, I find the concept of a “soundfont” fascinating. It affirms my beliefs about the fundamental importance of music in video games.

Like all imitation, a soundfont is a kind of flattery. There’s something so dopey and sweet about hearing Green Day’s “American Idiot” in the Mega Man X soundfont, as if Billy Joe Armstrong were one of Sigma’s underlings. This pairing feels apt: Storm Eagle is an American idiot, even if the stars-and-stripes don’t decorate his ships. Hear him screech.