VGM Entry 35: Forgotten Worlds
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
I mentioned that musicians had yet to properly exploit the capabilities of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in 1989. There were nevertheless some fairly decent efforts. I wouldn’t place most of them on par with Altered Beast, but they are still worth noting.
I have seen Herzog Zwei (TechnoSoft, 1989) mentioned from time to time on ‘best of the Genesis’ type lists. It was composed by Naosuke Arai and Tomomi Ootani, and it was one of the earlier games to be released exclusively for the Genesis/Mega Drive. As a pretty standard action soundtrack, it was a definite improvement over Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade, and it’s got a few memorable moments, especially towards the beginning of this mix. But it sort of feels, to me at least, as though it could have functioned on just about any system. It seems backwards-compatible I guess, as if it could be transposed to the NES or SMS without any real alterations beyond the difference in tone quality. There weren’t too many Genesis titles against which to compete in the 80s, and I suppose it comes out near the top of its small field, but the quintessential sound of the system still remained to be defined.
Phantasy Star II (Sega, 1989) I am a bit more fond of. The Genesis was never well known for its RPGs and adventure games, but it did have them. Phantasy Star was Sega’s own attempt at an RPG series, and its second installment was the first to appear on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Like Herzog Zwei, it was released exclusively for one system. It was composed by Tokuhiko Uwabo, or “Bo” as he’s credited–that same Bo who contributed to the rather poor Ys I SMS port I mentioned earlier. But whatever went wrong there, Phantasy Star II turned out alright.
I’d hardly call it typical RPG music. It ranges from relaxed jazz to pretty hoaky pop. It’s got some awful tracks, and there’s no getting around that. Parts of it are better off in outdated infomercials (0:44). But when it’s not bad it’s pretty enjoyable and wholly appropriate. You don’t need to see any video to know that this is not your typical wizards and knights in shining armor game, but rather something futuristic or space-oriented. It wasn’t the first game to musically break with RPG tradition. Ys II certainly did the previous year. But Phantasy Star II exhibits a great degree of stylistic consistency, despite its frequent shortcomings. All of the music is closely related through a fairly unique sound. And since that sound was definitely impossible to attain on the SMS or NES, as you can easily tell, it can be regarded as one of the first games to really put the Genesis’s capabilities to proper use. It is mainly Tokuhiko Uwabo’s hesitancy to can the cheesier tracks, not featured in this sample, which prevent it from leaving a very noteworthy mark on the development of video game music. I would also argue that the style is just a little too restricting to reflect the inherent diversity of an RPG, but it’s a solid effort in creatively applying new technology. My personal favorite is “Over” (4:13).
Capcom’s Forgotten Worlds, credited to Tamayo Kawamoto and Yukichan no Papa (Yoshihiro Sakaguchi), is a pretty interesting case. You may remember Tamayo Kawamoto from the original arcade versions of both Commando and Ghouls’n Ghosts. I have reason to believe that Tamayo Kawamoto actually wrote the music, while Yoshihiro Sakaguchi may have been responsible for the finished product and port. But I am not certain of this. At any rate, it is one of the most eclectic and bizarre game soundtracks I have ever heard, and while it’s just a little too weird to be brilliant, it cannot be wholly ignored. As with the vast majority of early Genesis/Mega Drive titles, it was released on a wide variety of platforms. The version you are hearing right now is from the 1988 arcade original. Make what you will of it. What I would like to emphasize is the differences in the Genesis port.
This version, released in 1989, is an exact replica of the original in structure. Only the tones have changed. The first thing you’re bound to notice is that the opening organ on the Genesis sounds downright sinister. The arcade version has no such effect. As the song progresses, the Genesis version remains decisively sharper and more pronounced until around the break at 47 seconds. Here the composition demands a degree of clarity that the Genesis just fails to pull off. The flute is too raspy, and both the pulse tone and the sporadic deep note lack the depth of the original. It’s only as the main melody starts to run wild ten or so seconds later that the merits of the Genesis return, giving it a much more disturbing sort of feel.
I trust that both versions of the song were prepared with care. Such a peculiar song could be easily butchered, and that the Genesis version sounds, to me at least, slightly better, says something about the mindfulness with which they prepared it. It also makes the these two versions of the score a fruitful means to assess the differences between the sounds of the Genesis and the ‘arcade standard’ of the time. The Genesis seems to have lacked a little bit of the depth of arcade sound systems, but it compensated with a greater distinction of tones. Everything is a lot more pronounced in the Genesis take, and it’s only when the original calls for subtlety that the Genesis comes up a little short. I think you can hear much more vividly Tamayo Kawamoto and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s juxtaposition of peaceful and deranged tones in the port version, because it forcefully distinguishes the latter.
If you want a really interesting experience, try and sync up the two songs and play them simultaneously. The effect is pretty cool–better than either version individually–and you may observe that the arcade version is capable of much deeper bass tones. As I’ve always regarded Genesis music as being heavily bass-driven, at least in comparison to the Super Nintendo, this came as a bit of a surprise.