VGM Entry 16: A question of authorship (part 2)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Castlevania was released on the Nintendo first, but only by a period of one month. Vampire Killer was in development alongside it, and the two games are certainly not identical. It’s rather disappointing then that the soundtrack turned out to be a hasty port from the NES. Preserving Kinuyo Yamashita’s melodies was not the mistake here, but Konami should not have attempted to replicate the NES arrangements as closely as possible. Differences in technology meant an exact replica was not possible, and the result comes off as a dumbed down version of the NES music rather than a new spin of equal merit. Failure to consider a system’s unique limitations produced a soundtrack that just wasn’t that great.
This is just as much of an issue in reverse, with artists taking too much comfort in superior sound quality. Arcade games seem to have had it best in the pre-Genesis 1980s (and perhaps afterwards too.) My primary example thus far, Hisayoshi Ogura’s Darius, is probably unfair, because it is a reasonable contender for the title of greatest video game soundtrack of the 1980s. But having heard the miraculous feats it accomplished, let’s take a look at another arcade soundtrack: Double Dragon, composed by Kazunaka Yamane for Technos Japan (not to be confused with Tecmo) and released in 1987.
Now here is a soundtrack that shamelessly exploits the sound capabilities of an arcade machine if ever I’ve heard one. The bass is massive for its day, almost as a novelty. The tunes laid over top of it have a somewhat obnoxiously shrill quality made worse by one of the worst drum tones I have ever heard. The troubles just amplify in the next song, as you are forced to accept that the drum beats are truly an afterthought totally devoid of value. The song that kicks off at 7:10 sounds like elevator music. The only redeeming value is that groovy track at 2:40 that emulates every stereotype in the book and (that dreadful plague-ridden snare that just won’t die aside) just happens, almost as a fluke, to pull it off. My sincerest apologies to Kazunaka Yamane, especially in consideration of the possibility that this arrangement may have been completely out of his hands, but this whole soundtrack is just absolute garbage.
A lot of soundtracks are. Don’t take it too harshly.
Abysmal arrangements killed the arcade original, not Yamane’s compositions in the raw. But then the game was ported to the NES a year later. Whoever headed up the project–perhaps Kazunaka Yamane himself–decided it would be a good idea to retain all of the arcade version’s original tunes. The outcome couldn’t have been better.
Of course the contrast fluffs my opinions a little, but I think this really kicks ass. With the Nintendo’s monumental dearth of bass it was no longer possible to pretend that technology-exploitation could sell a game, so for starters the music compensates by blasting out at warp speed. The tones are all complimentary. The drumming, while still pretty dismally bland, is more of a non-entity than a nuisance, and it at least incorporates a little variation. And the shear ingenuity required to take that utter crap and make a solid go at it is commendable. I’d mentioned that the groove track at 2:40 was the arcade version’s only redeeming quality. But it was total bass exploitation–probably one of the hardest tracks in the game to convert. No? Skip up to 2:37 in the NES version (bless your attention to detail Garudoh). They pulled the style conversion off flawlessly.
The NES port of Double Dragon might deserve credit as one of the best CPR moves in the history of gaming music, if nothing else. It’s not my favorite soundtrack by any means, but I admire whoever accomplished it. It almost feels like a sort of proto-Mega Man.
But that’s the question these rampant port projects in the mid to late 80s have me stuck on. Who was responsible for them? Short of conducting personal interviews, how will I ever find out? Maybe Kazunaka Yamane redeemed himself in epic fashion, or maybe someone else arranged it, or, maybe having written the basic songs, Kazunaka Yamane had little further say in any of the game’s arrangements.
Did I mention Double Dragon was ported to the Sega Master System too? Yeah, that version retained all of the original melodies too, and reconstructed them in a third entirely different way. Ay yai yai….