Like a sudden, powerful strike unleashed by a character from your favorite RPG, the formation of videogame music cover band Critical Hit came much to the surprise of many.
For those just tuning in, Critical Hit is a newly formed game music cover band fronted by World of Warcraft composer Jason Hayes and managed by Michael “Piano Squall” Gluck. Hayes is accompanied by several high-brow musicians that perform a plethora of popular game tunes that span games like Super Mario World, Final Fantasy X and yes, even Angry Birds.
I’m of the opinion that videogame music cover bands will never get old. In fact, the more there are, the merrier. So join me as I go through Critical Hit’s recently-released Volume One track-by-track, analyzing all the musical memories and deducing just how big of a nostalgia multiplier the group has applied to my pulsating heart.
1. “Tetris Main Theme” (Tetris)
The album kicks off with an interesting take on the Game Boy Tetris track of Russian folk origin that everyone knows: “Korobeiniki.” As the band gets into the opening melody, the familiar tune is given a tango-infused spin. The guitar and violin harmonies found shortly thereafter are particularly ear-catching.
From the get-go I started to realize what makes Critical Hit stand out — the group features a marvelous culmination of instruments. Guitars, bass, piano, violins, drums, flute and even cello: this band comes well-equipped. Combine that with tight-sounding musicianship, and you’ve got something that feels especially unique.
The recording quality here is professionally ace, and something that this here game music cover artist is admittedly jealous of.
2. “Angry Birds Main Theme” (Angry Birds)
I’d probably be the last person to think of Angry Birds soundtrack as music I’d have any intention of listening to, but with The OneUps’ jazzy rendition and now Critical Hit’s fantastic string-heavy take on it permeating my ears, I’ve become a convert.
This is a fun track to listen to, and this particular arrangement enhances it immensely with all of its varied transitions and layers of sprightly strings.
3. “Legends of Azeroth” (World of Warcraft)
Having not played World of Warcraft in well over eight years, the music has admittedly not permeated my brain as much as it has in the millions who still play it. Even so, this is a great track in which we start to hear a more rock-oriented sound come out of the band.
My favorite part undoubtedly shows up as the track charges towards the last minute or so, where there’s a great dramatic build-up that suddenly pauses, only to sizzle into a booming outro.
4. “Zelda’s Lullaby” (The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past)
After the previous track’s rockfest, this sweetly slow rendition of “Zelda’s Lullaby” serves as a nice cooldown. Everything here is faithfully recreated and just as soothing as the original. I particularly love the instrument trade-off that occurs with the lead melody. It changes hands a bevy of times, from the violin, to flute and even an acoustic guitar.
5. “Halo 2 Main Theme” (Halo 2)
Ever wonder what jazz flute would sound like in a rendition of Halo’s epic theme? Well, upon listening to this rendition you’ll finally know that it’s pretty stylish and unconventional. The way it cuts in with the robotic synth is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.
This one changes things up with a bit of electric guitar noodling before springing back into that climactic “jump” that made the original so exciting.
6. “Pokémon Main Theme” (Pokémon)
If you thought this would be the Pokémon theme from the actual Game Boy version, you’d be mistaken. This is in fact a rendition of the iconic theme from the original anime TV series.
Although I would’ve loved to hear a performance of the original Game Boy classic, this is still an enjoyable tune that’s bound to perk up the ears of everyone who’s had fond memories of Ash Ketchum and crew. The keyboard synths here are oddly reminiscent of The Who.
While this version lacks vocals, the instruments carry the vocal line well. This also opens up the likely possibility of the listener jumping into impromptu karaoke (which I wholeheartedly did).
7. “Bowser’s Castle” (Super Mario World)
This is undoubtedly my favorite track on the album. Koji Kondo’s original “Sub Castle BGM” is a haunting track that chilled the bones with its Chopin-like arpeggios.
Critical Hit’s rendition captures the dread of the original while giving it a heavier edge with the electric guitar. While I do feel that there was a missed opportunity in not including the church organ-like transition from the original, this is immediately forgiven when that memorable Chopin part kicks in. The wailing guitar and the piano go great together.
8. “To Zanarkand” (Final Fantasy X)
Consider this my second favorite of the album. Nobuo Uematsu’s moving piece is easily the most heartfelt track you’ll find on Volume One.
The little jam session in the middle is a nice touch, but what really got me was its transition into an incredible flute performance that’s backed by the piano and violin. The whole thing just welled up all of these nostalgic memories of Final Fantasy X’s bittersweet opening and ending within me.
9. “Hikari” (Kingdom Hearts)
If you’re no stranger to our podcast then you’ll know that fellow Pixelitis writer Ken Smith fawns over this track a lot. “Hikari” is indeed a wonderful composition that’s given an extra dose of energy here by way of added percussion and several harmonies.
It starts off all slow and beautiful, but you’ll really be taken in by how energetic it gets at around the halfway mark. It makes me wish it could be included in some form in a future Kingdom Hearts title.
10. “Battle for New York” (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3)
Call of Duty is the last game I’d expect a game music cover band to perform, and despite not being very familiar with the series’ music, I will say that it’s a surprisingly impressive piece. It has a lot going on in it, featuring several sudden changes and lots of built-up tension.
11. “Streets of Whiterun” (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim)
My time with Skyrim has been much shorter than most people out there, but there’s no denying that Jeremy Soule’s brilliantly atmospheric scores are an integral part to the hours of traveling and exploration within its gigantic world.
This cover of “Streets of Whiterun” is the perfect way of encapsulating the calmer moments found within the game, where you could walk around town admiring the scenery and the liveliness of the townspeople.
12. “Sons of Liberty” (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)
The main theme of Metal Gear Solid 2, originally composed by Tappi Iwase and remixed by film composer Harry Gregson-Williams, is truly epic in the videogame music scene. It also makes for a great way of closing out this album.
Critical Hit’s version gives this iconic theme a faster tempo and an extra percussive kick. I only wish it had a longer running time; at 2:53 it’s one of the shortest tracks of Volume One.
Volume One serves as a great first outing for an exceptional group of musicians. I hope that the band expands on its varying styles even further in a subsequent album. Having been infatuated with underground game music cover acts for more than a decade, it’s initially a little surreal to listen to something game music-related that’s done so professionally and with such a high production value. Even so, Critical Hit is a welcome addition to the ever-growing scene. I’ll be looking forward to catching a performance of theirs someday (MAGfest, anyone?).
While the games that the band explores in Volume One indeed have wonderful music, I also hope that they begin to explore more under-appreciated game soundtracks that remain untouched by game music cover bands. Arranging several of a game’s tunes into a medley could be another way of covering more ground in a scene that’s gushing with an abundance of amazing compositions.
Additionally, you can watch two music videos the band has released, featuring their covers of Angry Birds and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.