VGM Entry 23: Wizards & Warriors
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
If we are looking for the best soundtracks in the fantasy genre up through 1987, of what I have heard Koichi Sugiyama, Nobuo Uematsu, and the early team efforts of Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe take the cake in pretty much every category, while the works of Kenneth W. Arnold in Ultima III and Ultima IV for the Apple II remain my personal favorites. But there is probably a lot of great stuff out there which I am missing. There are also some absolutely phenomenal songs that simply lack the context of well-rounded albums.
The works of David Wise in Wizards & Warriors (Acclaim, developed by Rare, 1987) make for an excellent example. The game is not in RPG or adventure format; it is a typical side-scrolling hack and slash with a medieval setting. As such, it calls for slightly more action-oriented songs, and that seems to have been a weak point for Wise at this stage of his career. But perhaps more importantly, he seems to sell himself short, leaving a lot of songs unfinished.
The title screen track is a simply gorgeous classical piano piece which could not help but function in any gaming medium past or present. It is a nice little reminder that the excessive emphasis on orchestration today is not always necessary. And it is not the only excellent song in the game.
“Outside the Castle” is arguably much better. In spite of the track looping after only 17 seconds, it feels as though it could go on forever. The periodically fading wave in the background is such a small touch, but it magnificently transforms an already pretty pleasing tune into something entirely enchanting. It has that sort of time dilation effect which came to characterize later forest-theme songs.
But the brevity of Wise’s compositions quickly begins to cause trouble. “Inside the Tree” could be a wonderful song, full of subtle, tasteful variations on a theme which is neither too safe for a little action nor too aggressive for anything else. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s only six seconds long! Wise, what were you thinking?
And on that note, why is this called “Inside the Tree” anyway? It sounds like it should be the sort of tune that plays inside a castle or library or something, whereas the actual song “Inside the Castle” is a boring mess that should have never been included in the game. I don’t think I’m being picky here–”Outside the Castle” functions well enough, but it definitely has a forest vibe to me, and there is a forest stage, you know. “Invincibility Potion” is actually really pretty, and could have functioned effectively as an end credit theme, or at least the start of one. (It’s only 16 seconds.) Instead, the game has no ending credit music at all. Meanwhile,”Invincibility Potion” is so out of character for any action sequence that I think I’d have been inclined to avoid the item during gameplay just to not ruin the vibe. And the boss music, oh the boss music! It simulates the sort of dread you might associate with learning that your mother-in-law is visiting for the weekend.
Here is “Forest”, or “Forest of Elrond”, depending on which track listing you’re looking at. Entirely inappropriate for the theme of the game and absurdly obnoxious when heard for more than half a minute or so, I think it reiterates my point. This whole soundtrack to me feels like Dave Wise either had zero confidence in his song-writing capabilities or else was given about three days to complete the project and had to submit incomplete tracks and some slapped-together last minute fillers. And yet the songs that pull through, most notably the title screen/end credits and “Outside the Castle”, rank among the best songs on the NES.
The music of Gauntlet (Tengen, 1987) for the Nintendo was composed by Hal Canon. (Atari’s 1985 arcade Gauntlet, on which it is based, contained very little music, and Canon’s work is original.) The theme of Stage 1 is entirely appropriate for the ghoul and goblin-graced dungeon on the load screen. Despite the game being quite distanced from your typical adventure game, the music manages to keep pace and still present a wonderful medieval vibe. I do not wish to say that the album falls short after the first level, because it does remain fairly well written and entirely appropriate to the gameplay, but it abandons any serious attempt to sound classical after that first phenomenal success. The music only continues to work because the game itself isn’t nearly as thematic as the title screen leads us to believe. Hal Canon proves here to be a consistently good composer; he doesn’t quit trying the way Wise seems to have. If only he’d remained consistent in style as well, Gauntlet could have numbered among the best.