VGM Entry 41: Game Boy

VGM Entry 41: Game Boy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I nearly forgot to address the Game Boy. Released in April 1989, by the end of 1990 it was already pushing 100 titles. Perhaps production was easy and inexpensive, I don’t know, but this was a system that shot off at lightning speed. In consideration of all of the great music chiptune artists are making on the Game Boy today, I made a diligent effort to listen to a good 80 or so of these early titles. I figured there had to be a ton of hidden gems out there, but there really weren’t.

It’s actually really surprising how completely ho-hum the vast, vast majority of early Game Boy soundtracks were. Even those you might expect to be leading the pack, Castlevania: The Adventure (Konami, 1989, Dracula Densetsu in Japan) and Super Mario Land (Nintendo, 1989) for instance, offered next to nothing worth noting. Those which did peak my interest were often quite obscure. Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe (Electro Brain Corp., 1990) for instance has no identifiable composer. I searched long and hard to no avail.

This game supposedly stunk, and perhaps the music was not held in very high regard because of this. I thought it was a pretty solid effort. The Game Boy’s bass tones are very full and encompasing, capable of giving a song a great deal of depth. Very few musicians actually put this to use, but whoever composed Fist of the North Star had an ear for it. The way the extended bass notes compliment the melody reminds me a lot of Ryuji Sasai’s approach on my favorite Game Boy soundtrack, which we’ll be getting to here in another year.

The title track to Battle Bull (SETA, 1990), composed by Takayuki Suzuki, strikes me for its ability to pack in such a big sound. It is stylistically exactly the sort of thing I set out to find. It’s a shame there seems to be only one song here, because Suzuki turns out to be one of the few Game Boy composers who really understood how to make the most of the system. In retrospect after looking a few years ahead, this is easily one of the best Game Boy songs I have ever heard.

Square’s SaGa series became a nearly annual event following the first instalment, Makai Toushi SaGa, released for the Game Boy in December 1989. The first three were known in North America as the Final Fantasy Legend series–a title chosen in the hopes that familiarity would boost sales. I know the strategy worked for me. But the series did share at least one thing in common with Final Fantasy, at least initially. Nobuo Uematsu was commissioned to compose it. Despite what you might read, I am fairly confident that he composed Final Fantasy Legend in its entirety. At least, the liner notes displayed by claim this. Final Fantasy Legend II, released the following December, was a joint effort, with Kenji Ito tackling about half of the tracks.

I am only going to present the original Final Fantasy Legend here out of consideration of space, but the sequel is about equal in quality and worth checking out. Nobuo Uematsu did an excellent job of carrying over his style onto the Game Boy, and a few tracks, like the introduction and the victory fanfare, would become series staples. The only noteworthy RPG series for the Game Boy to the best of my knowledge, the Final Fantasy Legends boasted a much larger song selection than most other Game Boy games at the time, and the consistant high quality really put to shame most of the competition.

Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito really definitively proved that the dearth of good Game Boy music was a consequence of negligent composers, not system restraints. Uematsu was as new to the Game Boy as anyone else when he composed his first work for it, and, as you can plainly hear, that was a simple enough challenge to overcome. Much like the first three Final Fantasy soundtracks, the music of the first two SaGas did not so much conform to the system as force the system to conform as much as possible to a multi-platform vision of what an RPG ought to sound like. The music of Final Fantasy Legend you are hearing here certainly bears a distinctly Game Boy sound in so far as it was impossible not to, but the music neither capitalizes on the systems strengths nor succumbs to its difficulties. It really just sounds like Uematsu doing his thing in the early years.

Gargoyle’s Quest (Capcom, 1990) was pretty amazing. It was created by Harumi Fujita, the original arcade composer of Bionic Commando, and Yoko Shimomura, a new name to the business who you’ll be hearing plenty more of in the future. It is also a part of the Ghosts’n Goblins series, which you’ve heard pleanty of already.

Gargoyle’s Quest does everything right. The decision to abandon percussion altogether did wonders for enhancing the semi-classical melodies. The songs are consistantly well-written, and the melodies are often permitted to run wild, with no stagnation and no breaks in the actual presence of sound. The Game Boy had by far the most beautiful tones of the chippier-sounding systems–that is, pre-SNES/Genesis/Amiga–and they always seem to ring out to their fullest in states of perpetual transition. I don’t know, maybe I’m superimposing what worked best for Gargoyle’s Quest onto what worked best for the Game Boy in general, but it seems like this is the sort of system where you can never have too many notes.

But if that’s stretching matters, I would at least say that the Game Boy is a system on which boldness almost always profits. It’s a shame that Tim Follin didn’t, to the best of my knowledge, write any Game Boy music. But anyway, Gargoyle’s Quest, one of the best soundtracks the system would ever know, was certainly not lacking in it. I might never be able to really put my finger on the features that so strongly attract me to this system, but you’re hearing a lot of them right now. You can hear the soundtrack in its entirety here, once again compliments of explod2A03.

Funny that, for all I just said, my favorite Game Boy soundtrack of this 1989-1990 period is soft and simple Yakuman (Nintendo, 1989), a mahjong game composed by Hirokazu Tanaka and only released in Japan. A frequently occurring figure in my articles, Tanaka’s game audio history goes all the way back to monotone bleeps in the 1970s. His role as a major composer would rapidly fade after 1990, but he was partly responsible for such esteemed works as Metroid, Mother, Earthbound, Dr. Mario, and the Nintendo ports of Tetris. He also composed Super Mario Land for the Game Boy, which I find quite dull. Go figure.

Well, that wraps up my thoughts on the first two years of the Game Boy. Honorable mention goes to Maru’s Mission (Jaleco, 1990, composer again unknown) and Burai Fighter Deluxe (Taxan, 1990/1991), composed by Nobuyuki Shioda. And really I was a bit harsh on Castlevania: The Adventure. I don’t care for it, but it’s not bad.