VGM Entry 17: A question of authorship (part 3)

VGM Entry 17: A question of authorship (part 3)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Kinuyo Yamashita and Kazunaka Yamane: two respected video game composers whose main melodies have appeared in both refined, noteworthy form (on the NES) and in rather half-hearted, trashy form (on the MSX and in the arcade respectively.) The lack of well-documented attribution leaves us clueless as to how much of a role either played in this disparity. But at least we can be fairly confident that they wrote the basic melodies of the songs.

In the case of some pretty famous works, even that much information can be difficult to come by.

Take Bionic Commando. Its main theme (calling it the “main theme” might be something of an afterthought; it first appears as the background music for level 2) is an iconic NES classic. But in the span of about a year between 1987 and 1988, Capcom released this game for the arcade, the Amiga, the Atari ST, the Commodore 64, the Amstrad CPC, the ZX Spectrum, DOS, and oh yes, the Nintendo. The Nintendo version did have its fair share of differences, both in gameplay and in song selection (perhaps as an undermining of Nintendo’s licensing laws akin to Vampire Killer), but the “Main Theme” faithfully appears in every version.

Here is a collection of some of the song’s variations over the years. You’ll notice that even the early takes were each quite different:

The first track in this mix is the arcade version. You’ll notice the central roll of the drums and the flutey trills, giving the song a distinctly martial feel quite appropriate for the game. It was clearly composed with an orchestra in mind, and could I imagine be preformed live with hardly any alterations.

The second track in the mix is from the Commodore 64 version. Tim Follin is credited with the arrangement, and if you’re at all familiar with his unique and lively approach to video game music, there can be hardly any doubt. The then about 17 year old Follin was determined to make a musical impact, and he certainly did, taking such spirited risks as mixing in the Star Wars theme song and converting an upbeat march into a grimy space groove. Completely inappropriate for the game, it’s certainly sub par to the arcade version, but Follin was fairly new to C64 sound programming at the time, having made his initial mark in the world of the ZX Spectrum. (Follin did use this same version of the song for the ZX Spectrum release, not featured in the compilation video, but considering its drastic departure from his previous Spectrum compositions I have to assume his arrangement was originally intended for the C64.)

The next track, confoundingly labeled “Nintendo Sequel”, “WRONG AMIGA VERSION”, and a bit later “Bionic Commando Rearmed” is in fact the Amiga 500 version. You might think of it as a toned down, slightly safer take on Follin’s C64 version.

The fourth take is the Nintendo version. Whether it should be regarded as a “sequel” or simply a heavily altered port is debatable. Its music in this instance is faithful to the arcade version, ignoring Follin’s spin, but it fails to incorporate a lot of the original’s frills or deliver with nearly the same impact. It is, I would say, by far the weakest of the five, while the original arcade take is the best. (The “Bionic Commando Rearmed” version which follows in this video is obviously a travesty, but it was released in 2008.)

Now tell me: who wrote this song? Do a quick google search, pull your best resources, see what you can come up with. Pretty much every result is going to direct you to either the 2008 remake Bionic Commando Rearmed or the 2009 sequel Bionic Commando (both by Capcom, same publisher as the originals), because their soundtracks were actually released and the latter uses the exact same name. You’ll find a lot of sites that simply list a composer for the 80s versions with no further information, but they can’t all seem to come to an agreement. Something official from the publishers would be nice. The original game manuals contain no credits (I checked), nor do the original games appear to have ending credits, save the NES version, which lists the composer under a pseudonym. So I pulled up the official liner notes of the 2008 and 2009 game soundtracks. Both acknowledge “Main Theme” to be based on the original by Junko Tamiya. A-ha. We have an answer.

But Wikipedia lists Harumi Fujita as the composer of Bionic Commando (arcade, 1987)–providing no source–and Junko Tamiya as the composer of Bionic Commando (NES, 1988)–providing precisely the 2009 liner notes I used as a source. And we know that “Main Theme” appears in the arcade version. You just heard it. The NES version wiki’s subsection on Music states that “The music for the game was created by female videogame music composer Junko Tamiya, who was credited under the pseudonym “Gondamin”. It is very highly praised for its militaristic compositional element. Two songs from the Arcade versions are used in some areas.” This last comment again has no source.

That makes a bit more sense. I picked up copies of both soundtracks, and sure enough, aside from “Main Theme” and “Power Plant”, all of the NES music is original. Junko Tamiya did likely compose sixteen out of its eighteen tracks. The problem is that one of the two she did not compose happens to be her most famous composition!

What to do when a few unsourced claims on Wikipedia get the credits right and Capcom, the people who actually made the game, don’t?

Bionic Commando‘s “Main Theme” is one of the most revered video game songs of the 1980s. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about figuring out who originally wrote it. It would certainly appear as though Harumi Fujita wrote it, Junko Tamiya rearranged it for the Nintendo shortly thereafter, and an oversite more then twenty years later lead the company who released it to get the two mixed up. But this is only a best guess. It just goes to reaffirm the dismal state of preservation of even some of the best early video game music.