VGM Entry 43: ActRaiser
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)
Three other SNES games I have yet to mention were relased in 1990. One was Gradius III, composed by the Konami Kukeiha Club (in this case Junichiro Kaneda, Seiichi Fukami, Miki Higashino, Keizo Nakamura, and Mutsuhiko Izumi) and originally released in the arcade in 1989. Another was Pilotwings, composed by Soyo Oka. The third was easily the most impressive soundtrack released in 1990.
I have questioned Yuzo Koshiro’s judgement in the past, but I will do no such thing today. ActRaiser (Enix, 1990) decisively set the RPG and adventure gaming musical standard on the SNES. Funny that it wasn’t either. Through this weird and extraordinary amalgamation of side-scroll action and city simulation, Yuzo Koshiro crafted not only the first truly and unconditionally great Super Nintendo soundtrack, but the first gaming music I have encountered to feel like a real orchestration, and not merely the basis for one.
This was inevitable. The likes of Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama were crafting music that was clearly intended for orchestration in the early days of the Nintendo. Moreover, while arcade systems may have been capable of creating similarly orchestrated sounds, the extended gameplay associated with this sort of music just wouldn’t have been practical. That Yuzo Koshiro was the first to pull it off though, and to pull it off so well, comes as somewhat of a surprise to me. He was by no means new to this genre of music, but it never seemed to be his desired focus. As a musician who would end up best known for clubhouse-mixable material, the level of success he achieved within the symphonic spectrum on the SNES is remarkable, far exceeding both his PC-8801 material and all of my expectations.
But then, ActRaiser was part side-scroller. There was room for action music of a more ‘single level’ sort than say, an RPG battle tune. On “Filmore”, or “Filmoa”, Koshiro got to let loose his more rocking nature. It’s actually remarkable that he managed to retain such an authentically classical vibe in the midst of it. Whatever light bulb went off on in his head, he managed to produce one of the Super Nintendo’s most famous pieces. “Filmore” deserves just about any amount of praise you can heap on it.
Already within a month of the Super Nintendo’s Japanese launch, here was a musician utilizing the new technology to create essentially a fully orchestrated album. ActRaiser was recorded by a real symphony the following year, and while action tracks like “Filmore” sounded distinctly different, Yuzo Koshiro’s softer stuff was barely distinguishable from the original material. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the difference in quality is obvious, but the parts were already written. Little needed be added to convert the music into a live performance. On songs like “Sacrifices” you can plainly tell that Koshiro was himself making no distinction. There is no attempt to conform to limitations here. Koshiro did not need to alter his orchestral vision to suit a distinctly electronic sound. That was a concern of the past. On the SNES you could sound orchestral if you wanted to with no misgivings, or you could maintain older styles of video game composition and sound worlds above your predecessors, as in the case of say, Bombuzal. Many musicians would go on to effectively fuse both.
There had been unconditionally excellent game soundtracks before outside of the C64. Hisayoshi Ogura and Tim Follin were the names attached to many of these, while I will continue to hold that Kenneth W. Arnold reigned supreme. Manami Matsumae, and moreso Takashi Tateishi, managed two rare ‘perfect’ NES compositions. But these were all such grand exceptions. The SNES would begin to pump out rivals at an alarming rate, and would continue to do so for its entire history. The system’s proximity to real instrumentation allowed musicians to do nearly anything they wanted with it.
I think maybe Commodore 64 music sounds so great because it is so distanced from any natural sounds that it feels like an entirely new genre of music, more on the cutting edge than outdated. Of the rest, arcade music was simply too much of a small niche market to really thrive, while the Nintendo’s sound was some wishy-wash in between. Musicians like Manami Matsumae and Takashi Tateishi managed to really embrace the chippy sound and give their music a fresh vibe, but most artists were stuck in that middle ground of being far, far distanced from real instrumentation and yet a bit too close to constitute anything else. Even the best efforts, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, were only great by NES standards. Super Nintendo music, like Commodore 64 music, could be great in its own right, and much like the C64, the SNES would inspire a generation of competitive and creative musicians determined to leave their mark on the world.