Kale in Dinoland
How to stand out from the deluge of retro-inspired indie games that have flooded mobile devices and other platforms? Game developer The Rotting Cartridge went with an intriguing, if cheeky idea: pretend that your new game is actually a port of an original Game Boy title released in 1992 by a company called SkySoft. Of course, it didn't take the Internet long to figure out that Kale in Dinoland was no lost classic from the olden days of gaming, but instead simply a new platformer, clad in those monochrome graphics that millions of gamers will fondly remember. Part of that nostalgia-inducing design was of course an appropriately vintage-sounding score created by Luming Hao, which The Rotting Cartridge made available for free on their Bandcamp site after the game had been released.
Soundtrack collectors whose memories go back some decades won't need to do any online research to realise that Kale in Dinoland's soundtrack couldn't be the port of an original Game Boy game. That's not because the sound libraries the title uses feel inauthentic this soundtrack certainly sounds a lot like a Game Boy score, but it doesn't simply reproduce the console's timbres. First of all, Kale in Dinoland's synths sound a lot fuller and voluminous than what the original Game Boy could have generated. As long as you're not a nostalgist of the staunchest kind, this upgrade is a definite plus, as it gives the game's head-spinning array of beats and bloops extra punch and bite. Secondly, Kale in Dinoland's compositions make use of several more voices than the Game Boy's four channels could have ever handled. In fact, this might be one of the densest, most sweeping chiptune scores in a while. The music might be written in the same style as a Game Boy jump'n'run soundtrack, but it elaborates on the classic Game Boy sound and stretches its boundaries. Where it truly excels is in how it effortlessly piles up layer upon layer of melodies and countermelodies, rhythms, and counterhythms in spectacular fashion, and manages to bring it all together in compositions that organically grow and develop.
A typical piece on Kale in Dinoland will start out with a single rhythmic figure and build from there, adding chirpy melody riffs and lines that will often intertwine, set against a constantly evolving rhythmic backdrop of polyrhythmic, syncopated beats. It's a minor miracle that Lao not only comes up with so many different melodic and rhythmic ideas, but that he also manages to shape them into coherent little chiptune epics that feel effortless and fun. While immensely carefully crafted, the soundtrack's multi-layered compositions make it all look easy. The melodic riffs on top of the elaborate rhythms are simple, but this is actually a bonus when you have six different, simultaneously-playing voices whizzing past you, more complex melodies would only get lost in the shuffle and clog up the music's textures. Kale in Dinoland's melodies are brief and memorable, always managing to soar above the bustling rhythms underneath.
While almost every track on Kale in Dinoland is like a busy beehive of musical activity, Hao ensures that this jam-packed soundtrack doesn't become impenetrable. Not only does he mould each composition to swell and ebb several times during its running time, he also introduces sufficient tonal and emotional variety throughout the album. After chiptune symphonies "Test" and "Grasslands" have established the album's high-flying ambitions, "Boss" adds some surprisingly harsh, buzzing drones that give the track an industrial touch, while the cue's two melodies agitatedly dance around each other, trying to escape the force of the fragmented, exciting rhythms. Following track "Jungle" introduces tribal rhythms, wrapped up in warm, catchy 8-bit sounds of course. It's also here that the already exuberant soundtrack shows itself at its most vivacious when percolating arpeggios turn the music into a swirling, joyous whirlwind, with a cute melody on top that rises into the highest register to finish the cue on an exhilarating note.
After the album's ebullient first half, the mood gets more serious, if no less entertaining. "Resort" is more subdued in its beginning, but still well-crafted enough to hold listeners' attention, before the music regains its sense of energetic fun towards the end of the track. "Artic" turns the calmer atmosphere even more ascetic, but if you thought composers can't create interesting semi-ambient tracks with the Game Boy's limited timbres, this track will force you to reconsider that position. Starting out only with droning chords and some creatively manipulated sound effects that double as offbeat rhythms, "Arctic" is led by a melody that is only a wistful, lonely synth line on top of static, sometimes abrasive chiptune chords. The cue's development takes place in immensely satisfying, subtle fashion, as the rigid background chords slowly evolve into an optimistic melody line and the music gradually shakes off its inertia, striding forward towards the game's finale. Hints of claustrophobia sneak into "Volcano" and "Pterodactyl" when their rhythms grow heavier and the percussion synths launch attacks on the remaining melodic elements, which continue unabated against the beefy percussion. The earlier cues' carefree mood is gone, but the music remains just as gripping now that it's turned more intense.
All this leads into "Mansion", and this is where Kale in Dinoland will divide listeners. Running at more than five minutes, "Mansion" feels more like Cinemascope Post-Rock rather than like Game Boy tunes this is what Mogwai might produce if they discovered chiptune music. Most of "Mansion" is a swirling vortex of retro sound effects, intersecting and interrupting each other, a frenzy of clashing and beeping sounds that often emulate grating guitar feedback. But it's no headless sound and fury, as the background discords, led by some forsaken piano chords, morph into a pulsating mass of jittery, bright noises. Slowly building momentum, the track collapses and starts to rebuild. Shining, hopeful chiptune chords emerge and begin to take over the music, leading the album towards its crescendoing, towering conclusion, hand in hand with uplifting piano and glockenspiel notes, while weathering an assault of crashing waves of guitar noise. It's an exhausting listen that shows Kale in Dinoland at its most experimental, but it is a jarring change of pace from what has come before. The discordance is at least somewhat smoothed over by the fact that the furious battle of elements on "Mansion" already reared its head on "Volcano" and "Pterodactyl" and is now being amplified on "Mansion". Opinions on this track will differ, but there's no denying that "Mansion" is a stunning conclusion to the album and as artfully executed as the rest of the soundtrack.
Game Boy chiptune music doesn't come much denser or more ambitious than Kale in Dinoland. Each track is packed with competing melodies and shifting rhythms, layered in ever new constellations, and there's hardly a moment when the music isn't busily pushing forward. That the music rarely ever loses its sense of fun and always flows naturally from one peak to the next amongst this onslaught of textures speaks volumes about Hao's skills. As sweeping as each compositions' layers and structures is the soundtrack's arc as a whole, going from the light-hearted "Test" to the semi-ambient "Arctic" to the daring melody vs. noise showdown of "Mansion". Kale in Dinoland is a wellspring of memorable melody hooks and enthralling polyrhythms, all packaged in the warmly welcoming vintage sounds of the Game Boy's sound libraries. At the price of zero dollars, you owe it to yourself to give Kale in Dinoland a listen.