VGM Entry 28: Altered Beast
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was launched in Japan on October 29th, 1988. By the end of the year, only four titles had been released on it. Three of them did not have very impressive music. Space Harrier II (Sega) and Super Thunder Blade (Sega) were designed more to showcase the system’s visual capabilities, presenting for perhaps the first time serious three dimensional gameplay outside of the arcade. In regards to audio, they both exploited the system’s sound capabilities towards the end of excessive and rather tasteless sound effects. Osomatsu-kun: Hachamecha Gekijō (Sega) was a bizarre, very Japanese side-scrolling cartoon game which might best be forgotten altogether. But the fourth game, Altered Beast (Sega), was an altogether different matter.
Toshio Kai will forever hold the honor of having composed the first excellent fourth generation gaming soundtrack. Altered Beast might not have been on par with the sound quality achieved by Hisayoshi Ogura on Darius in 1986, but it was getting pretty close, and you could enjoy it in your bedroom.
Or perhaps I am going too far here. It is easy to forget what Takahito Abe, with a little help from Yuzo Koshiro, accomplished on the PC-8801, especially since the computer was only ever marketed in Japan. Xanadu Scenario II, Ys I, and plenty of other titles completely obscure to American audiences, like Taiyou no Shinden (Nihon Falcom, 1988), were all just gorgeous, and the sound quality does not appear to be any poorer than Altered Beast. The brilliant stretch of compositions Takahito Abe crafted in 1987/88 were consistently subtle, however, and his genius may well have extended into writing music which catered to the system. Toshio Kai did not have to worry about being subtle.
Altered Beast has a bass track that actually sounds like a bass, a piano which can at least be identified as such, fuller drumming, and synthier tones which sound so by choice, not out of necessity. It really feels as though the artist was not restricted in any critical sense, and in 1988 that was something of a novelty, or at least a luxury held exclusively by arcade composers.
“Gaum-Hermer” might not be the most exciting track in the game, but it merges with the gameplay in a sort of manner that you just don’t hear on the NES or Master System. It sounds like the sort of thing Hirokazu Tanaka just couldn’t quite pull off on Metroid. It is of course because Toshio Kai does such an excellent job that the ambiance of the song hits home, but I question whether such a track was even possible before.
Altered Beast did appear first as an arcade game. It was not necessarily composed with the Genesis in mind. But the fact that it could be ported without major alterations is something of a first. Developers of ports for the Nintendo had long been in the habit of commissioning entirely new soundtracks, or else altering the arcade music in extraordinary ways, such as in Double Dragon. Decisions to simply replicate the original as closely as possibly, such as in the eventual NES port of Altered Beast, tended to fall flat. You can hear subtle changes between the arcade and Genesis versions, but the NES version sounds terrible, and some of the songs are barely recognizable. Besides, most of the differences feel more like efforts to improve the song than failures to replicate it. The ruthlessly obnoxious drum line plaguing this arcade soundtrack from start to finish, for instance, is drastically subdued.
It’s pretty hard to argue with the “Game Over” song. A lot, perhaps even the majority, of the best gaming music ever written appears on 4th generation platforms. It was an era that offered the best of both worlds. Here the sound is still electronic enough to form a distinct style. You couldn’t say, go hire a symphony orchestra and carry the recording straight away into the game. Musicians still had to work with limitations. But the technology had finally reached a point where those limitations did not deny the possibility of reproducing the same aesthetic appeal as say, an orchestra or a jazz band. The creativity and ingenuity required for good third generation song writing unabated, it was now given a medium in which to reach its full potential. The Mega Drive got a slower start than you might expect, and it wasn’t until well into the SNES era that a large collection of good Mega Drive soundtracks begin to appear, but by 1988 the possibilities were there.