VGM Entry 49: The Game Boy in ’91


VGM Entry 49: The Game Boy in ’91
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

How was the Game Boy doing? 1989 and 1990 were fairly dismal (remember that what I presented was the best out of close to one hundred titles), but things had to improve sooner or later. And Capcom released not one, but two Mega Man games for the system in 1991. Surely they would make the most of Game Boy sound and give their competitors something to strive for.

Well, no. I suppose not. I don’t know what Mega Man did with those scissors last time he whooped him, but this is about the most impotent rendition of Cut Man conceivable. The only track Makoto Tomozawa actually gets right in Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge is Fire Man, and that’s too little too late for redemption. Part of the problem might be that Capcom outsourced their Game Boy titles. Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge, released in July, was still generally well received.

The sequel Mega Man II, pumped out a mere five months later by a different developer than Dr. Wily’s Revenge, was more of a total botched job. The team supposedly had no familiarity with the game series when they got tasked with it. This doesn’t necessarily show in the music so much as in the gameplay. I’ve never played it, but it’s supposedly just a dumbed down and spliced port of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

Kenji Yamazaki, to be fair, did a moderately decent job of maintaining the general style of the series. Despite being an original score, his is more true to form than Makoto Tomozawa’s attempt to arrange songs from the original Mega Man. But it still leaves a lot to be desired. If the tracks at 3:18 and 7:31 feel like they could be Mega Man classics, the track at 1:28 kind of makes me want to die.

How Capcom missed the bandwagon after Gargoyle’s Quest is beyond me, because Konami sure didn’t. I couldn’t find any composition credits for F-1 Spirit (known as World Circuit Series in North America and The Spirit of F-1 in Europe), but the music kicks ass. The decision to keep that running motor sound effect in the background throughout the game was certainly questionable, but I’m not going to say they’d have been a little better off without it. It’s not an obvious nuisance, adding an extra gritty feel to an already really chippy soundtrack. I think the excellent selection of percussion tones does the job well enough on its own, but hey, if they want to keep it as noisy as possible I’m not going to complain. The Game Boy was good at that. The tunes are perpetually catchy, the drumming is loud and intense, and the constant distortion of the sound effect keeps everything good and heavy even when the main melody occasionally chills out.

Sports games have a long history of terrible soundtracks, but Konami really nailed it this time. And it wouldn’t be their greatest accomplishment in 1991 either.

This game has a funny name. I mean, it’s not a port of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge is an entirely different game. There’s no obvious explanation for why Konami chose to go this route. Why not call it Castlevania: The Adventure II? The Japanese titles straighten this out, sort of. Castlevania: The Adventure was Legend of Dracula there, whereas the original 1986 Castlevania was Devil’s Castle Dracula. So there was no ambiguity in naming it The Legend of Dracula II. This was actually the only title in the series that made any sense at all.

See, the game Haunted Castle was also called Devil’s Castle Dracula. Oh, and so was the game Vampire Killer. And you know Castlevania IV? Yeah, that was also called Devil’s Castle Dracula. And while our The Adventure was Legend of Dracula, our Simon’s Quest was Devil’s Castle Legend. It’s kind of like how they confusingly called the North American N64 Castlevania installment Castlevania instead of, you know, Castlevania 64. Except they really still haven’t straightened things out forty-some titles later.

But whatever. I wish I could post every single track from Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge for you, because there isn’t a downer in the mix. You can find a complete collection on youtube, compliments again of explod2A03. Hidehiro Funauchi didn’t just perfect the Game Boy sound on this one; he nearly surpassed every game in the series while doing so. If you put all the songs of the early Castlevania titles in the same medium I suppose Castlevania II: Belmont’s Revenge might not come out on top. The melodies aren’t quite as catchy, and the songs are a bit more repetitive in general. But I do believe it makes more effective use of its system’s capabilities than Castlevania IV or any of the NES titles. The whole album is in constant motion, even on some of the softer songs, and while the back and forth speaker-hopping doesn’t quite work through headphones–the contrast is just too severe–it greatly enhances the effect out my speakers.

“Evil Gods” is my favorite song in the game. It’s deliciously distorted, embracing as its main drive the sort of tones that many Game Boy musicians had gone out of their way to avoid up to that time. The sound is really massive, more so I think than even a lot of major Commodore 64 works. Hidehiro Funauchi figured out how to make the Game Boy sound amazing, and it had a lot more to do with choosing the right sounds than with writing a catchy melody.

Yeah, 1991 was definitely the year that Game Boy music came into full bloom. Ultimately the prize goes to Ryoji Yoshitomi for his masterpiece Metroid II: Return of Samus. It is everything that the original Metroid didn’t quite manage to be. Metroid tried really hard to feel like an ambient and natural element of the game. It tried to bring the planet to life through sound, it just… didn’t.

Metroid II starts out like a Hitchcock nightmare, and the chaotic random blips which soon join in don’t exactly soothe the soul either. By the one minute mark I’m thoroughly unnerved, and then something really pretty happens. What’s going on here? Well, I think this is Ryoji Yoshitomi nailing the whole point of the game. Here you are on SR388, the Metroid home planet, sent to exterminate their species. Sure, the place is creepy as hell, but it’s also a living organism. You want to breathe life into the planet through the music? This is how you do it. Using sound effects of the ground shaking as the drum beat was a pretty sweet final touch.

Most of the music in Metroid II is more upbeat than the introduction. The track beginning around 2:05 is one of the most memorable I’ve heard on the Game Boy, and it’s so astonishingly well attuned to the system that it really couldn’t have sounded any better on the SNES or beyond. The bass and drums feel like they’re a part of the earth below you, not some tune playing in the background. Sure, sci-fi and chiptunes go hand in hand, but plenty of other musicians missed the mark. And what about that mesmerizing number at 4:08, eh? It’s pretty much post-rock, and I think I could contently listen to it for hours on end if I could get my hands on the ost.

Not every track in the game is great. The one at 3:26 is nothing to brag about, and the ending theme is a stereotypical and irrelevant jingle, albeit pretty. But I’m sold. Yoshitomi’s soundtrack lives and breathes in rhythm with the planet it’s set upon. It accomplishes exactly what the original Metroid soundtrack set out to, and I think, alongside Yoshitomi’s creative genius, the beautiful and unique tones of the Game Boy made it happen.

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