VGM Entry 39: End of the NES era (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Games would continue to be made for the NES long after the release of the Super Nintendo, but its glory days had come and gone. Already by 1990, the system was starting to sound a little stale, and even the most impressive compositions faced an enormous burden in keeping pace with video game music at large on a hopelessly outdated system.
Koichi Sugiyama certainly didn’t produce much of interest. The improved rendition of the main theme aside, Dragon Quest IV (Enix, 1990) was not a particularly memorable soundtrack. It has no faults per se. It certainly had nothing approaching the annoyance of the original Dragon Quest‘s combat theme. But no amount of listening to the tracks beyond the main theme here has revealed the slightest hint of anything special. It’s a soundtrack secure in its simplicity. The music is wholly appropriate for an RPG, never clashing with the style of gameplay, but it also adds nothing to the experience save pleasant background music. I’ve heard plenty worse by RPG composers with much more diverse sound systems to work with, but it definitely feels to me as though this one stands out more for the fact that “Dragon Quest” and “Koichi Sugiyama” are attached to it than for its own worth.
Final Fantasy III (Square, 1990) was a somewhat different situation. It’s got a lot more emotion to it, and frankly it might constitute Nobuo Uematsu’s finest compositions on the NES, but in the context of its place in time it can be pretty hard to appreciate. Here’s a track list for the video:
(0:56) Crystal Cave
(1:54) Jinn the Fire
(2:43) Chocobo Theme
(3:20) The Invincible
(5:06) Last Battle
(5:59) The Boundless Ocean
Nobuo Uematsu definitely climaxed as a specifically NES composer on Final Fantasy III. “Battle” and “Last Battle” express a full appreciation for the NES as an instrument, and the rapid-fire accompaniments in both, but especially the latter, are some of the most powerful on the system. The SID-like sound on “Crystal Cave” and “Last Battle” adds a new dimension to the songs which would have been unthinkable for Uematsu a mere three years prior, while “The Invincible” is a practically perfect arrangement. If Final Fantasy might best be defined as lovely compositions poorly arranged, Final Fantasy III was definitely the full package.
The problem, and the reason it took me setting the game aside and coming back to it weeks later to be able to really appreciate it, is that this was 1990. Amidst the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, the NES just sounded terrible; it was no longer novel and it was way behind the times. Nintendo’s lengthy development paid off, as things turned out, but a lot of early 1990 releases better suited for the SNES suffered from the delay.
Resting somewhere between these two in quality was Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Konami, 1989). I have seen no less than five musicians credited with the composition. Hashing out who all among Hidenori Maezawa, Kenichi Matsubara (Castlevania II), Yoshinori Sasaki, Jun Funahashi, and Yukie Morimoto were really responsible for the music might be a fun task, but I only have the time for so many such projects. For whatever it’s worth, Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto are the three most frequently credited names. Consisting of a long list of virtual unknowns, this is one of those scores for which “Konami Kukeiha Club” might be the most appropriate accreditation.
One thing that strikes me as interesting here is how the drums and bass feel like they’ve borrowed from Batman (Sunsoft, 1989) by Nobuyuki Hara and Naoki Kodaka, especially considering I felt Hara an Kodaka themselves might have been inspired in part by the Castlevania series before I ever heard Castlevania III specifically. This connection, or at least the possibility of Batman‘s drum and bass influencing Castlevania III, is virtually impossible. As it turns out both games were actually released on the exact same day: December 22, 1989. (I had originally thought Castlevania III was released in 1990, hence my placing it in this post, but it’s close enough.)
The game has some pretty impressive original tracks, especially “Beginning” (0:00) and “Mad Forest” (1:10), not to mention a new rendition of “Vampire Killer” (5:49). The overall sound is a lot less classical and a lot more peppy than previous Castlevania titles, though I think that can be forgiven in light of the good, consistent job they did with it. Again, the soundtrack only took a while to grow on me due to its historical context. It was most certainly technologically behind the times, but there wasn’t much the Konami sound team could do about that.