VGM Entry 33: Amiga 500


VGM Entry 33: Amiga 500
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

It was around 1988 that European computer gaming really started to make the transition over to the Amiga 500 from the Commodore 64. While the Amiga line had been around since 1985, the Amiga 500 launched in 1987 and was designed to be a much more cost effective, mass consumer-friendly product.

With a change in platform came a change in composers, oddly enough. Rob Hubbard is mentioned in a measly nine game credits on Lemon Amiga, and Martin Galway not at all. Suddenly David Whittaker, a Commodore 64 composer with an expansive library but little fame, ruled the roost. If we consider again a simple Lemon Amiga search result, his name pops up in 86 different Amiga titles. Platoon (Ocean Software, 1988) was not actually originally his, but as a faithful port of Jonathan Dunn’s 1987 C64 original (unless of course the music appeared in the movie itself; I’ve never seen it) it makes apparent the audio improvements the Amiga could offer. Whittaker’s Platoon was not necessarily better than the Jonathan Dunn original if we consider what the two artists had to work with, but he certainly did not squander or misuse the expansive new options that the Amiga 500 brought.

Whittaker’s most famous work would arrive the following year. Shadow of the Beast (Psygnosis, 1989) was a 12 song collection which really helped to solidify what we might think of as the Amiga 500 sound. The old Commodore 64 crew typically failed to carry on their legacies in the Amiga era, true, but most of the composers who replaced them did get their start programming for the C64 and enjoying the works of Hubbard and co. Artists had to be very selective about the styles of music they pursued in the C64, given its limited capacity, and what I think you hear on soundtracks like Shadow of the Beast is a continuation of those styles set to pretty decent instrument samples. This song could easily be translated into a SID piece and retain its original character. The actual C64 conversion sounded bad, as it turned out, but only because Fredrik Segerfalk did a shoddy job of it, not because the music was incompatible.

My favorite Amiga 500 tune by far though is Crystal Hammer (reLINE Software, 1988) by Karsten Obarski. The game itself is a mere Breakout copycat, but Obarski really made it shine. From what I can tell it was one of his only game compositions–Sarcophaser (Rainbow Arts, 1988) is another good one–and the brevity of his works is quite a shame. He made his name known more as a software developer, creating the highly criticized but frequently employed Ultima Soundtracker for the Amiga. Despite having almost no involvement in Commodore 64 composition whatsoever, Obarski’s music sounds just as indebted to Rob Hubbard as the rest of them. This is especially apparent on Sarcophaser, where you can get a feel for how the standard SID sounds and the more original style of Crystal Hammer existed side by side.

Chris Hülsbeck was a bit of an exception to the rule of new names on the new platform. One of his most shining moments was the Amiga 500 port of R-Type (Electric Dreams, 1989). Though Hülsbeck did, to the best of my knowledge, create the loadscreen music to the Commodore 64 version of R-Type as well, he chose two completely different songs. Never fully conforming to the ‘standard’ sound of any system, Hülsbeck was going to forge ahead with his own unique sound, and the product might not be backwards compatible.

That being said, while I have no doubt that Hülsbeck composed the Amiga title screen–it is unmistakably his style–I can’t say with certainty that he actually wrote the C64 one. Ramiro Vaca is additionally credited as a musician on the C64, as is Darius Zendeh on the Amiga, and I am not sure what role either played.

Trailer: Branded (Official)


Lisa Marie mentioned a particular film trailer that she sawfor a film coming out soon that reminded her of a classic John Carpenter scifi film. This film was Brandedand from looking at it’s official trailer one does see some major similarities between this Russian/American scifi production with the Carpenter subversive scifi film.

The premise looks and sounds interesting but I must admit that the CG aliens/monsters/overlords look to be very subpar in comparison to most CG-effects work nowadays. Another note of interest is that it stars Leelee Sobieski who was once seen by Hollywood as a rising superstar when she first hit the scene over a decade ago. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything of note until this trailer came along.

Now I won’t say that this film is a straight rip-off of Carpenter’s They Livebut if it includes an extended scene between two men fighting it out in an alley then I shall declare shenanigans.

Branded is set for a September 7, 2012 release date.

VGM Entry 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88


VGM Entry 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Beyond the NES, a lot of great things were going on in 1988 that I am largely still unaware of. Late 80s arcade and computer gaming gets a lot less publicity today than the Nintendo counterpart, and even some of the best require a bit of digging to uncover, but here are a few I found worthy of mention.

Jeroen Tel is a Dutch composer born in 1972. I am not sure when he first got into the business, but his works really start to stand out for the first time in 1988. Cybernoid and Cybernoid II, both developed by Raffaele Cecco and published by Hewson Consultants, were also both released in 1988. The latter’s main theme is particularly catchy. The game was a sort of weird combination space shooter and action side scroller, hedging more towards the latter. It appeared on a number of platforms, but its C64 version is by far the most memorable, specifically because of Tel’s musical contributions. He would go on to be remembered alongside Rob Hubbard as one of the greatest Commodore 64 composers. His Cybernoid II music has even been performed by live orchestras, though the success of converting such an essentially chippy tune is dubious. Suffice to say this track is catchy in its original form, and clocking in at 6 minutes, it provides a pleasant motivation for extended gameplay.

The arcade had long established itself as the primary venue for optimal sound quality. The general lack of great arcade soundtracks in my experience makes me wonder if I’m not missing an enormous and important range of video game music. The works of Tamayo Kawamoto in Ghouls’n Ghosts (Capcom, 1988) certainly upholds the higher standard. The majority of the soundtrack is rather dark and ambient, and quite successful as such, but it’s the unique “Stage Two” theme which really stands out. For a relatively unknown video game composer, Tamayo Kawamoto has quite a history. She began her career on Capcom’s Alph Lyla house band, composing arcade music as early as 1984 to include the classic Commando. A few years after Ghouls’n Ghosts she would move on to join Zuntata, the Taito house band responsible for Darius and quite a number of other arcade classics.

The Ghouls’n Ghosts soundtrack, and “Stage Two” in particular, would ultimately be remembered in the form of Tim Follin’s Commodore 64 arrangement, not Tamayo Kawamoto’s original, and for good reason, but let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Even so, the world of the arcade was fading fast, and Zuntata were one of the few acts still putting their all into it. Some bad research on the part of youtube posters lead me to believe for a time that the music of the 1993 Sega-CD/Mega-CD port of The Ninja Warriors (Taito, 1988) was in fact the original, and it’s this latter version for which the game is probably most famous. But unlike with Ghouls’n Ghosts, the music to The Ninja Warriors didn’t conceptually change over time. It just improved in the light of better technology.

The soundtrack of The Ninja Warriors was headed by Hisayoshi Ogura, who also lead the composition of Darius. The track featured here, “Daddy Mulk”, is the most famous in the game. (I have no idea what the origin of this peculiar name is, and I wonder if it’s not an afterthought in consideration of the apparent sound of the electronic voice in the music.) Now that I am aware of the difference between the 1988 arcade soundtrack and its 1993 Sega-CD counterpart I’m a bit surprised that the arcade quality is quite this low. I mean, it’s outstanding compared to anything on competing platforms, but it doesn’t sound like any technological upgrades had been made since Darius two years prior. Another sign of the arcade’s fading significance? Perhaps. Zuntata certainly weren’t cutting corners, as their live renditions and later adaptations of the soundtrack would show. They were still kings of the arcade in 1988, even if this was a dying kingdom, and their legacy is well earned.

AMV of the Day: Written in the Spirals (Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann)


The next “AMV of the Day” comes courtesy of AMV-producer extraordinaire tehninjarox whose other works I’ve profiled here many times.

“Written in the Spirals” is the title of this latest AMV and is a play on the title of the song used for the video, “Written in the Stars”. The song is by Tinie Tempah with Eric Turner providing the chorus between Tinie Tempah’s rhymes. The video itself is pretty straightforward in that it rarely uses many of the video effects tricks other AMV creators have been using of late. This creator just does a great job of taking the scenes from the anime series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and lets each sequence match the tempo and feel of the song. This particular video from this series has the producer focusing on one of the leads in the show, Kamina.

Kamina is sort of like the Han Solo of the series and also ends up becoming the mentor to the main lead of the show in Simon. This video is only the second one I’ve picked which uses the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann series as the backdrop. As much as I truly enjoy this video it’s still not the best I’ve seen using this series. That honor goes to Nighthawk’s “Spinning Infinity”.

Anime: Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann

Song: “Written in the Stars” by Tinie Tempah feat. Eric Turner

Creator: tehninjarox

Past AMVs of the Day

VGM Entry 31: RPGs in ’88


VGM Entry 31: RPGs in ’88
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama were both at work in 1988, recording installments of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series respectively. They both maintained their own standards, remaining at the forefront of RPG and adventure style music on the NES.

Final Fantasy II (Square, 1988) was actually a big improvement over the original. Nobuo Uematsu’s fundamental style hadn’t changed (and I would argue that it still hasn’t), but I feel like on this game he really mastered how to effectively arrange his works for the NES. I mentioned that Final Fantasy‘s arrangement felt like a finished product compared to some other genre-related games released that year, but in Nobuo’s later NES works you can start to get the feeling that the original Final Fantasy was also a sort of work in progress. It incorporated a number of slightly distorted tones which really gave his soft, subtle melodies an air of technological primitivism.

On Final Fantasy II you hear none of that. The overall sound is a lot more smooth. It’s immediately apparent in the “Main Theme” following “Prelude” in this sample. The main melody, here carried by a very soft and pretty tone, is precisely the sort of sound for which he employed a grittier, more mechanical tone in the first game. Since Final Fantasy II was released on the Famicom, not the FDS, I can’t imagine that there was any change in the platform’s capacity. I think, rather, he took some lessons from his earlier shortcomings on the production end of the spectrum.

Final Fantasy II was the first game to feature the famous “Chocobo” theme (1:40), and “Main Theme” (0:53), “Tower of Mages” (not here featured), and “Ancient Castle” (2:42) are all particularly noteworthy, but I think it’s the improved arrangement which really makes the soundtrack shine.

Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988) is a little harder for me to assess, as I’ve somehow completely failed to acquire full soundtracks for this series. What I’ve heard seems like more of the same old, which is absolutely fine. Koichi Sugiyama seems to have continued to focus on rearranging earlier works rather than composing wholly new ones, and he had a decent amount of success in doing so. I’m not going to talk at length about a score I really know nothing about, but I thought it worth throwing out there again.

As I hope I’ve by now established though, the NES had by no means a monopoly on this style of video game music. Takahito Abe and Yuzo Koshiro’s work on Ys I is a soundtrack I’ve frequently cited, and its follow-up, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter (Nihon Falcom), was yet another fine 1988 sequel.

But the music here is pretty hard to come by. Takahito Abe was not a part of the sound team this go around, and Mieko Ishikawa took on the bulk of the load, with Yuzo Koshiro providing some of the more up-beat tracks, such as the one here sampled. Ishikawa isn’t a musician I’ve come across too often up to this point, but she was credited alongside Koshiro and Abe on Sorcerian, and I gather she was involved in future Ys titles. I suppose I should have featured one of her songs and not Koshiro’s, but I can’t find enough of it out there to get a good feel for it. There’s a nice sample of the song Tender People up on youtube that might give you an idea. It lacks Takahito Abe’s gentle touch, but it’s quite pretty nevertheless.

A lot of the difficulty in digging out Ys II tracks (at least in the short period of time I can allot it) stems from a remake of the game having been released for PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, a mere one year later. That release, Ys I & II, featured some outstanding new arrangements from Ryo Yonemitsu, but its success denies us easy access to Ishikawa’s original PC-8801 work. As far as Koshiro is concerned, some of his upbeat tracks come off quite well, but I feel like he lacked restraint on this album and ended up with a sound that just didn’t quite suite the type of game he was composing for. It’s a problem which Koshiro would thoroughly overcome over the next three years, adding such stark stylistic distinctions to his name as ActRaiser (Enix, 1990) and Streets of Rage (Sega, 1991).

Above all else in the RPG/adventure world of 1988 though, I’m most impressed by how my new-found hero Kenneth W. Arnold manages to maintain the high standards he set back in 1983.

This guy’s music blows me away every time I hear it, and his work on Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988) is no exception. It’s atmospherically perfect. “Engagement and Melee” might be a simple song, but could it have been any more appropriate for a tense medieval battle? It doesn’t deliver with speed and aggression, but rather with a vision of the distant fantasy world it represents. The distortion sounds archaic in the best of ways.

There are a lot of different versions of it floating around out there, as best I understand because Apple II music is nearly impossible to rip and requires some creative liberty. But I did manage to nab a replica of the original Apple II sound as it was meant to be heard through a Mockingboard sound card, and I present these samples to you now. (Thanks again to Apple Vault.)

The aesthetics here never fail to impress me. The sound quality in “Greyson’s Tale” is exploited flawlessly, using every potential adverse limitation to the music’s advantage. The distortion and the fairly minimalistic, distinctly medieval compositions paint every ideal image you’ve ever had a of a fantasy world. There’s something not quite clear and not quite safe about all of it.

In “Dream of Lady Nan” the distorted bass is so forceful you can feel the vibrations, and the melody is crystal clear, creating an unnatural juxtaposition that’s completely haunting. I normally avoid encouraging the free download of potentially copyrighted material, but in consideration of the fact that the owners of this material have nothing to lose and everything to gain from it being distributed, I highly recommend you go download all of Kenneth W. Arnold’s works in Ultima III-V. You can find them in their ideal form at this link.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. It’s not quite on par with Ultima III and Ultima IV in my opinion, and the tracks don’t loop quite as flawlessly as they used to, but it maintains the series’ standing in a complete league of its own, beyond comparison to the contemporary best efforts of Nobuo Uematsu and company. If there were other soundtracks out there like it, well, I would very much like to hear them.

Film Review: The Apparition (dir. by Todd Lincoln)


Since it opened last Friday, the new PG-13 horror film The Apparition hasn’t been getting much love from either critics or audiences.  When last I checked, the film had a 3% approval rating over at Rotten Tomatoes and it had gotten exactly one positive review.  However, if I’ve made one thing very clear in my reviews here on the Shattered Lens, it’s that I hate the bandwagon mentality that runs rampant throughout the online film community.  So, instead of immediately focusing on The Apparition’s (many) faults, I’m going to start this review by pointing out a few positive things about this film.

The Apparition is only 82 minutes long and is shorter than both Avatar and David Fincher’s rip-off of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Apparation is not in 3-D.

The Apparition is not a found footage film.  There’s no attempt made to try to insult your intelligence by convincing you that you’re watching something that actually happened 20 years ago.

Though an adorable (if intrusive) dog dies early on, no cats are harmed during the course of this movie.

The film’s final 10 minutes are actually rather effective and oddly disturbing.  Solely on the basis of the film’s final scenes, I would probably see the next movie that Todd Lincoln directs.

Finally, if you’re like me and you enjoy making out at the movies, The Apparition is the perfect film to see.  First off, it’s a horror movie and, even though nothing scary actually happens for the majority of the film, you can always fake being scared as an excuse to grab your man.  (And, as we all know, sometimes you just have to fake it…) Secondly, chances are that if you two do see The Apparition, you’ll pretty much have the entire theater to yourself.  Third, since nothing really happens for the most of the movie, you won’t have to worry about missing anything important while you two are having your fun.

As for the film itself, it tells a story that should be familiar to anyone who has seen Paranormal Activity or Insidious

Kelly (Ashley Greene) and her boyfriend Ben (Sebastian Stan) are taking care of a house located in a nearly deserted subdivision.    We spend the first half of the movie getting to know Kelly and Ben.  We follow them as they debate what to have for lunch, as they shop at Costco, and as they play video games.  We quickly discover that, together, Kelly and Ben are perhaps the most boring couple ever.  Seriously, I have had nightmares about befriending a couple like Kelly and Ben and then having to attend a couples party at their house where all the other couples play Pictionary and want to tell you all the details about the last time they went snowboarding at Telluride.

Of course, a huge part of the problem with Ben and Kelly, as a couple, is that the actors playing them have next to no chemistry.  Watching Greene and Stan on-screen, you have a hard time believing that they’ve even known each other for five minutes, let alone that they’re enough in love that they would stay together even after it becomes apparent that there’s some sort of otherworldly demon chasing after Ben as the result of a séance that he attended 3 years ago.

One of the frustrating things about The Apparition is that, occasionally, you can see hints of the movie that it could have been if the script had been a little bit sharper and if the performances were a little less flat.  Visually, Lincoln does a good job of highlighting the isolation of the house and, even if he didn’t quite succeed, I can appreciate what he was attempting with the slow build up.  But this is one of those films where every effective moment is immediately answered by two moments that don’t work.  This is a film that’s smart enough to have Kelly demand to leave the haunted house, just to then reveal that leaving means camping out in a tent that’s been set up in the back yard.

(Even worse, the film later establishes that there’s actually a pretty nice motel within driving distance of the house.  You really do have to wonder why Kelly — who was so terrified that she literally ran out of the house in her underwear — would feel safer just because she’s now staying in a tent that’s about two feet away from the demon that’s trying to kill her.  Then again, I hate camping so maybe it’s something that I’m just not capable of understanding.)

Finally, if you’re like me and you’re still suffering withdrawal pains from the end of the Harry Potter films, you might want to see this film just for the chance to see Tom Fenton playing the role of Ben’s friend Patrick.  Unfortunately, Fenton’s only in about ten minutes of the film and Patrick, sad to say, is no Draco.

VGM Entry 30: Mega Man 2


VGM Entry 30: Mega Man 2
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I’ve never actually played a main series Mega Man game in my life. I know, it’s embarrassing. We just somehow never crossed paths. I played Mega Man X and Mega Man X2 when they came out, but not the classics. Ah well. I suppose Mega Man 2 (Capcom, 1988) was most people’s first encounter with the series, but it picks up exactly where the first installment left off, both in plot and in music.

The introduction is pretty epic really, for all its simplicity. You start out hearing the end credits music to the original Mega Man while gazing out over a futuristic 8-bit cityscape. As you learn that Dr. Willy has returned with new robots, the pace quickens, the camera begins to zoom up, and bam, there’s Mega Man standing in the breeze with a hero’s anthem pounding out behind him. It’s the ultimate super hero introduction, better than any of that glossy Hollywood stuff you see today. And from this point forward, the music never really stops kicking ass.

If I had to fight a guy with a giant blade saw on his head I’d be sweating it. The music to Metalman is packed with a real sense of danger that I don’t think any previous game–and few since–have so effectively captured. The effect is huge, and that might be the best way to describe the rest of the music in this game too. With nothing but two main tracks and drums and bass, Takashi Tateishi manages to craft music that cements you to your chair and locks you into the action like never before.

And he does it so consistently. He also does so without ever letting on that he did not actually composed the first Mega Man game. The style is completely in keeping with Manami Matsumae’s work in the original, acknowledging every good thing she had going and improving upon it rather than making an independent statement. The two did work together somewhat, I would imagine. Manami Matsumae is not completely absent in this game. She composed the introduction, which quite effectively set the stage for everything to follow, as well as the music for Airman. (She wrote the stage start tune too, though this is the same as in the first game.)

The clock isn’t always ticking, but when Tateishi isn’t chugging out Iron Maiden bass lines he’s still presenting a heroic vibe. The music to Crashman makes you feel like you’re winning, but that’s just another part of the action. Its bluesy rock grooves keep on moving and carry the player along.

It would be impossible to showcase every good song in this game short of literally posting every song in the game, so though it may seem a crime to leave out Flashman or Heatman, I must be moving on.

Because like any good rock star, Tateishi saved his best works for the end of the album. Or close enough. The first Dr. Wily level’s music is so epic it makes all of the previous bosses look like wimps. Total Iron Maiden worship? Perhaps, and so what if it is?

Takashi Tateishi stated in an interview conducted by Chris Greening that he “aimed to create melodies that people could hum along with, or play in their bands”. I wonder if he had any idea just how successful he was. The Mega Man series in general, but most especially Mega Man 2, has been the subject of countless covers and live renditions over the ages. With a real explosion of interest in vgm over the past couple years, some exceptionally successful efforts are coming to the surface.

I’ll leave you with a live speed run of Mega Man 2 performed by Bit Brigade at MAGFest X in January 2012. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the most awesome thing in the history of mankind. Sorry vikings and skydiving. You lose.