Bean's Quest Original Soundtrack :: Review by Simon Elchlepp
What better protagonist for your indie platformer than a Mexican Jumping Bean? Australian development team Kumobius came up with this genius idea for their new game Bean's Quest. Going with a jumping bean as the game's protagonist didn't only give Bean's Quest an original main character, but also worked perfect with the game's mechanics. To simplify the controls of their upcoming mobile game, Kumobius had decided to implement an auto-jump function so the gamer wouldn't have to worry about hitting the jump button and what better pretext for a character who constantly jumps than that character being a Mexican Jumping Bean?
This choice of protagonist naturally influenced the game's aesthetics, which received some Latin overtones. Of course, this would also impact the game's soundtrack, written by indie composer flashygoodness. The artist had first made waves in 2010 with the excellent score for Flash game Tower of Heaven. For Bean's Quest, his task was to write music that would match both the game's Latin-inspired setting and the game's 16-bit retro aesthetics. flashygoodness wrote about 30 minutes of music for the game, which was released on his Bandcamp site in February 2012.
To blend the required Mexican influences with the chiptunes elements of Bean's Quest, flashygoodness chooses a simple, but efficient method: write the music squarely with the game's Latin locations in mind, then orchestrate the cues both with electronic and acoustic elements. In practice, this means that most tracks dance along to snappy Salsa rhythms, performed either by acoustic guitar, staccato Mariachi trumpets, or chiptune sounds, which either imitate the trumpets or particularly on later tracks add some poppy, cheery beats. Melody-wise, it's a similar picture. The acoustic guitar provides laid-back, warm lines, a solo trumpet or flute plays languid but catchy melodies that quickly evoke the game's Latin setting, while the chiptune synths either double and imitate the acoustic instruments, or provide retro-flavored, optimistic melodies of their own. This seamless mix of elements is introduced right away on opening cue "Introduction" and is the soundtrack's greatest strength, as it sets Bean's Quest apart from the many other retro indie scores that populate Bandcamp these days. Sure, the game deals in well-known Mexican musical stereotypes, but mixing these with chiptune sounds gives them some degree of freshness.
While the musical mix on Bean's Quest is a tasty one, its implementation is somewhat hit-and-miss. The game's levels are on the short side and flashygoodness matches this by writing a series of relatively brief ditties that usually only make it past the two-minute mark and that's including one loop. As a consequence, Bean's Quest's pieces are a lot simpler and more straightforward than on another 2012 indie score that mixed ethnic influences and electronics, Catacomb Snatch. Of course, that's not necessarily a problem, but on several occasions, the music doesn't have enough substance to sustain even some tracks' short running times. "Jump! (Grasslands 1)" and "Adventure! (Grasslands 2)" are two such pieces. While their relaxed melodies, soft bass beats and rhythmic hand clapping are an appealing way to start off the album, the tracks effectively loop three times (their B sections are almost identical to their A sections) and their cute, short chiptune leads becomes tiring even before the cues hit the one-minute mark. Later on "Party! (Crystal Peaks 1)", guitar, trumpet and driving chiptune beats start off a enthusiastic celebration on the local Mexican village square, but the cue's rhythms are again pretty repetitive.
This problem even sneaks into the soundtrack's climactic cues, although these tracks tend to make up for this with an extra dose of punch. "Conquer! (Wizard's Lair)" is the lesser of these two cues, but its agitated melodies and frantic rhythmic undergrowth heavier-than-usual synth beats and scuttling, percussive piano chords keep the piece going, particularly when the music balances its focus on the ensemble's lower frequencies with high, optimistic synth melodies. "Final Showdown" appropriately enough ramps up the intensity further and mixes dramatic trumpets with busy synth arpeggios, before a hyper-charged electronic staccato motif sends the cue into overdrive. By the end of "Final Showdown", you will have heard each of its elements often enough, but there's so much bristling energy running through the music that you likely won't care much. Not only that, but it's also impressive to see how flashygoodness manages to turn down the music's constant onslaught and include a brief flute solo that hovers over the remaining synth beats, without slowing the music's momentum.
In fact, it's the album's second half which contains Bean's Quest's better developed cues, and it's on these pieces that flashygoodness shows how much different material the composer can pack into little more than two minutes. "Mystify! (Sky Ruins 2)" passes its Mariachi trumpet-style melody from instrument to instrument, before the music breaks down for a quick flute solo and then the original melody is taken up again by the chiptune lead and builds in time for the track to loop. Bouncy, bright synth rhythms remind you of the level's floating location high above the ground and move away from the earthier percussion sounds of earlier tracks. "Explore! (Sky Ruins 1)" is as cheery as "Mystify! (Sky Ruins 2)" and develops equally well with a soaring chiptune melody over propulsive beats and a nice mellow breakdown just before the loop. Another highlight is "Dance! (Crystal Peaks 2)", which takes "Party! (Crystal Peaks 1)"'s dance beats and combines them with a winding, catchy synth melody that cheerfully works its way up the scale towards a gleeful finish. And let's not forget about "Traverse! (Dusty Desert 1)" and "Roam! (Dusty Desert 2)". They are less intricate than the Sky Ruins tracks, but still benefit from implementing the album's winning brew of sounds in a less monotonous way then the Grasslands cues, and with livelier rhythms.
Bean's Quest features a yummy mix of Mexican solo instruments, fleet Salsa rhythms and charming chiptune beats and melodies, and composer flashygoodness manages to combine them all these ingredients seamlessly. This is straightforward music that doesn't revel in its complexities, but instead banks on its colourful, bright sounds and catchy melodies. There's enough variety on the album as a whole, from the arid strains of the Dusty Desert tracks to the party beats on the Crystal Peaks cues, and the slightly spacey acoustics on "Explore! (Sky Ruins 1)" and "Mystify! (Sky Ruins 2)". What holds this album back from being a thoroughly tasty snack is the fact that several cues aren't just simple, but simplistic, labouring their elements beyond breaking point, for example the Grasslands pieces. Bean's Quest won't change your world and doesn't rank with flashygoodness' best work, but if you're curious enough to try out a different spin on retro game soundtracks, give this one a listen.
Overall Score: 6/10