Origin: Super Mario 64 (Nintendo 64, 1996)
Composer: Koji Kondo
Plays in: The entirety of Hazy Maze Cave and Wet-Dry World, Shifting Sand Land's Pyramid, Snowman Land's igloo, the Metal Cap Cavern, and the interior of Tiny-Huge Island.
For all the love that Super Mario Bros.'s main theme is showered with, everyone seems to have just as much fun loudly humming the counterpart Underground Theme, which originated in the same game. While not at the same level of popularity, it's certainly regarded with the same level of fondness by Nintendo, as the song makes numerous appearances in many of Mario's adventures. Personally, it never got stuck in my head like the main theme did, but it's not like I'm complaining.
Presented above is the rendition that is my personal favorite, although not in a very hummable appearance at all. The Cave Dungeon song, which plays in the Hazy Maze Cave/Wet-Dry World levels along with several sub-sections, arrived in a time when Nintendo's musicians (that is, Koji Kondo himself) realized that the game music should take on a more dynamic nature so as to complement the more active 3D gameplay of the Nintendo 64; in other words, certain songs would appropriately transit into versions that would better fit for whatever happening's onscreen (tension or calmness, for example). If you listen to the full song above, you'll notice how the song moves from a "cryptic headscratcher" tone to a choir-esque piece that reeks of forgotten mystery. Awesome, right?
Naturally, this is a perfect fit for Hazy Maze Cave, as the level's many twists and turns lead to various scenarios, more dangerous or mysterious than the last. The first half plays when the level starts out, as Mario slides on poles, guides floating platforms with navigable buttons, smoothly hangs on red metallic bars, and dodges boulders Indiana Jones-style. Things take a different turn when, after a long downwards elevator ride, Mario finds himself in an underwater cavern that is solely populated by a lone sea monster, whose un-cartoonish, yet gentle appearance instills a mystifying feeling into the player.
I used to come up with all these weird game theories when I was a kid, and I feel it's appropriate that I share mine for Super Mario 64. See, there's a reason why Peach's Castle, the main hub of the game, has no bedrooms, kitchens, or furniture: it's because the game takes place in an separate dimension. While the game did happen in the canon series of Mario events, the truth is that the Power Stars he collects are the source of the magic of the Mushroom Kingdom, and due to this nature are locked away in a secluded, magical realm that has a secret entrance (via warp pipe) locked deeply within Princess Peach's castle. It is this very power that Bowser covets, and after he kidnaps Peach, invades this dimensions, steals all the stars, and seals the victims within the castle's walls (the last two of which are the only actual canonical events).
Numerous plot-holes and unexplained elements aside, think about what this means for a moment. In this scenario, Mario is completely alone. Yes, he interacts with the Toad guards and the odd friendly character here and there, but they have been eternally bound to this realm and are thus unfamiliar with the famous plumber. This unease would no doubt eat away at Mario's sanity, and while I cringed at the thought of my childhood hero combating the fears and hallucinations of loneliness, this dark twist added so much more to my perception of the game. Much like the "Spring Breeze" fiasco I detailed in my last post, it's another childhood fact I have trouble distancing from (then again, it was my favorite theory, so I don't mind very much).
Now, why is this all relevant? You guessed it, it's all thanks to that awesome second half of Cave Dungeon. You know how a suspenseful movie reveals some huge secret around the climax and you can feel your blood run cold? That's is what this part represents to me. I always feel like I've stumbled across some kind of forbidden secret, locked away from modern knowledge and forgotten to the sands of time. I'm always alone when I do so. It's scary, but it's so mysteriously thrilling that you can't turn your eyes away from it. What's the deal with the sea monster? What happened to the lonely, toy-like town in Wet-Dry World? I was no longer a player; I was a universal explorer who seeped through dimensions in-between and discovered the unknown.
That a song could inspire and even enrich the perception/enjoyment of a video game is wonderful. It's one aspect of video game music I'm always grateful for.
Final Thoughts: Man, I swear the beginning of the song sounds different than it does on the official soundtrack (which the embedded song above is ripped from). Like, really! Anyone else notice this? Used to bother to hell out of me as a kid.
Also, I always thought it would be awesome if an even creepier version was composed. Shame it never happened.