VGM Entry 15: A question of authorship (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Everyone has likely heard at least some passing reference to the “console wars” between Nintendo and Sega beginning with the release of the Sega Master System in 1985. I am curious to know whether this is a posthumous attribution. The Master System never had a leg to stand on outside of Europe, and the heat never really came on until Sega released the Genesis/Master System in 1988. (Their rapid transition from third to fourth generation console may have had a lot to do with this.) Nintendo and Sega became ruthless rivals in the 1990s, playing all sorts of mind games with their markets and seeking out every legal loop-hole in the book. It makes for quite an interesting story, and I was initially inclined to think that frequent efforts to root out its origins in the third generation era generated some misconceptions over just how directly these companies targeted each other in the mid-80s. But perhaps I am wrong. Was the Master System’s flop a direct result of Nintendo strong-arming the market?
A part of this origin story lies in Nintendo’s licensing policies. One can frequently find such statements as “Any developer who signed on to produce software for the NES was trapped into an exclusivity contract. They were not allowed to develop games for competing systems for two years following the beginning of the contract, and they were limited to releasing only five games a year.” (Lucas DeWoody, “Nintendo vs. Sega: The Console War: Part One”, October 24, 2007. The original online publication appears to have been deleted.)
This sounds like quite a pickle, but I would like to know its more precise ramifications and loop-holes. What constituted a competing system? If these merely meant the Sega Master System and the Atari 7800, not home computers, then that could explain a lot, but it seems odd to me that Nintendo would let so many other competitors squeak by.
The reason I bring this up in the first place is because, come 1986, it feels as though nearly every game not published by Nintendo was appearing in half a dozen different formats. This has quite a few consequences for video game music, because the variance in sound quality from one medium to the next was vast. It becomes very difficult to point out a stellar soundtrack when the particular arrangement of that soundtrack, more often than not created by someone other than the original songwriter, is such a pivotal factor.
I would like to spend some time on this topic. Let’s look again at “Vampire Killer” and “Wicked Child” from Castlevania.
Does anything sound a bit different? Well, the tracks I posted yesterday should have sounded more like this:
Konami released Vampire Killer for the MSX2 about a month after they released Castlevania for the NES. MSX was a home computer architecture employed by a large variety of manufacturers. You could have a Yamaha MSX, a Sony MSX, a Sharp MSX, etc. Did that, along with a name change, get Konami around Nintendo’s licensing clause? Well, Castlevania series enthusiasts may claim that Vampire Killer was its own distinct game, but it doesn’t look it to me. Nintendo had no trouble pulling Rainbow Arts’ The Great Giana Sisters off the shelves despite it copying Super Mario Bros. to a lesser extent than Vampire Killer copied Castlevania (I’ll be covering that later). Whether Konami were less legally bound or simply had a sort of gentleman’s agreement (Nintendo had a lot more to lose by pissing them off) will remain a mystery to me for the time being.
But anyway, this is only the first example of many, and I wish to emphasize the musical distinctions. “Vampire Killer” in Vampire Killer has a much more crisp sound, which I would say is more readily appealing. But you’ll notice that early into the first break away from the main chorus, precisely at 22 seconds in both videos, a lot of the subtler notes which give the Castlevania version its real charm are completely missing in Vampire Killer. It’s enough to make or break the song for me, and moreover it could be enough to make or break the composer.
Now skip ahead to 1:32 in Vampire Killer and 1:35 in Castlevania and let’s take a look at “Wicked Child”.(Garudoh really did an outstanding job of syncing these up.) Here the distinction is shamefully obvious. The entire dramatic introduction is missing in Vampire Killer, and worse yet, the alternating bass beat of the main chorus has been reduced down to a single repeated note. I can’t bare to go any farther; Vampire Killer‘s soundtrack is a travesty compared to the original.
Or does it simply make do with the MSX2′s limitations as best it can? How do I know whether this was a cheap, hasty reconstruction or a thoughtful, best possible scenario? I suppose I’ll never know unless I attempt to reconstruct it myself or else listen to a whole bunch of other soundtracks released for both systems. But if I have to contextualize all of this stuff within a given system, and a lot of the best soundtracks appear on multiple systems, and a lot of their authors had nothing to do with the port arrangements, well this is all getting to be quite messy.
I observed in my last post that Kinuyo Yamashita refrained from disclosing which Castlevania tracks she wrote, despite having written most of them. Perhaps this is because game composition was far more of a group project than meets the eye. Satoe Terashima appears to be credited for both games under “music and sound effects”, and I tend to associate sound effects more directly with sound programming, but even the credits here are by no means official in the form I found them, and I have found plenty of fan-based game credits which falsely attribute the original sound programmer to a port. This distinction is critical. We have reached a point in time here where ‘composer’ and ‘sound programmer’ begin to branch off into separate jobs. Writing a catchy tune is one thing, and arranging it for a given platform is quite another. In the computer world the two jobs may have remained synonymous, but this was not so on the Nintendo. Where multiple parties are involved in this process, the qualities which distinguish an outstanding video game musician become hopelessly obscured.
It’s nice to put names and faces to the songs I love, but it’s important to realize that at least at some level this can be a facade. Even if Konami had never produced a quick port to the MSX2 and the Nintendo version was all we had to roll with, there’d be no telling which of the soundtrack’s more subtle thrills derived from the main melody’s author.