VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
While I have noted that composers remained within regional spheres, games certainly did not. Ports reigned supreme, and it was not uncommon for a game to appear around the world in a half dozen different formats. Each of these required a group of programmers familiar with the given system, and it was certainly not always the case that the original arcade version remained the best at the end of the day.
Take Commando (Capcom, 1985) for instance. The original main theme was composed by Tamayo Kawamoto, an obscure name which will persistently resurface throughout this series of articles. It’s certainly a commanding little march (utilizing the YM2203, if my previous article has peaked anyone’s interest in this regard), and I’d have fed in my quarter in the hopes of hearing more. But quite a number of Kawamoto’s soundtracks are better known for what other artists made of them in the port process than in their original form, and Commando is no exception.
Put it in the hands of Rob Hubbard and, well, did you expect anything less? This wild ride might be his most famous 1985 work after Monty on the Run, and it’s all the more enhanced when you realize how distinct it was from the original. Again Hubbard shines best when he is expanding and improvising upon the music of others. The potentially performable original work is completely lost here, transformed into a uniquely SID sound and style, and with all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, its certainly not worse off in consequence. The problem, which would go on to haunt countless composers down the line, is that most fans of Commando have no idea Kawamoto had any part in writing it.
The composition was actually a single day project, and the entire port was pushed through by Elite Systems in a mere two months. Hubbard briefly discussed it in an interview by Jason ‘Kenz’ Mackenzie’s Commodore Zone magazine. (Issue 10 as best I can tell, probably released in 1997): “There is an interesting story behind Commando. I went down to their office and started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the c64 version. I think they wanted some resemblance to the arcade version, but I just did what I wanted to do. By the time everyone arrived at 8.00am in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00 am…“
Yie Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985) is an especially odd game to consider, because its ports varied so drastically. I couldn’t find a stand-alone sound sample of the original arcade version, but you can hear it well enough beneath the sound effects of this gameplay video. The upbeat, distinctly Asian sound is a refreshing change of pace from the usual video game song styles, and in consideration of what Rob Hubbard did with Commando, you can imagine the potential for new arrangements this presents. Arguably the most famous version of the game’s music, however, is a completely bizarre departure.
The only rational explanation I can think of for Martin Galway having replaced the traditional Asian music theme with a completely irrelevant cover of “Magnetic Fields” by Jean Michel Jarre is that the title screen music is, in fact, completely irrelevant. I think perhaps Galway, either by request or on his own initiative, submitted the song as an all-purpose Commodore 64 option for Imagine Software, who produced the European computer ports of the game, and that it found its way into Yie Ar Kung-Fu simply because it happened to be available at the time. It is not one of Galway’s finer works, but I suppose you can do what you want to the loader screen. It was the combat music that really defined the game.
Even so, the actual gameplay music to the Commodore 64 port of Yie Ar Kung-Fu is as unexpectedly similar to the arcade as the title screen is unexpectedly divergent. The arrangement makes no effort whatsoever to expand upon or even properly convert the original arcade gameplay music to suit the SID sound. Instead we’re met by an unimaginative attempt to emulate the original as closely as possible, marred by SID distortion which could have so easily emphasized the music’s finest features but instead just drowned them out. I mean, this is far more appropriate than Galway’s load screen, but so much for a middle ground between total disregard for the original and a carbon copy.
And then you have the Famicom/NES version, released in April 1985. (That’s five months before Super Mario Bros., to put things in context.) Without altering the style of the arcade version in the slightest, it offers an almost entirely original song. It’s really the best version of Yie Ar Kung-Fu out there–you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise–and its existence is a bit puzzling. Who composed it?
The notes I’ve found on Yie Ar Kung-Fu credit Miki Higashino, but they fail to distinguish between the arcade and NES versions, as if these weren’t completely different songs. Now, I am inclined to think Higashino wrote both, which is quite remarkable considering she was only 17 years old at the time. (The only other really famous game musician I can think of to get this early of a career start is Tim Follin.) The other titles credited to Higashino in the mid-80s don’t exhibit this kind of quality, but in consideration of the fact that ten years later she would compose one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time (Suikoden), I know she had it in her. The Suikoden soundtrack is predominantly folk and traditional music (like Yie Ar), and the consistency of style between the arcade and Famicom songs favors a single composer.
The other thing Higashino-authorship has going for it is that she worked for Konami, who made both the arcade and Famicom versions. She would have been involved in the sound team of both, so it’s reasonable to believe she would have had the liberty to create an entirely new song when it came time to program the port. Her hands would have been tied for the European versions, which were produced by Imagine Software. On a final interesting note, the MSX version ports the Famicom soundtrack, not the original arcade music.
It’s all just speculation though. Anyone at Konami could have potentially been responsible for the changes. I’ll leave you with one final version that was most certainly not arranged by Miki Higashino. … Ok, I’m really going to try to avoid video game covers where they aren’t historically relevant, but you have to admit this Markdoom Shehand cover is one of the most awesome things ever.