VGM Entry 48: Streets of Golden Hedgehogs

VGM Entry 48: Streets of Golden Hedgehogs
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

With the new higher standards brought on by the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive composers would have to start trying a little harder if they wanted to compete. Some certainly did pick up the pace, and 1991 might be considered the first year with a decent selection to choose from.

There were a couple famous soundtracks in the mix. Streets of Rage (Sega) by Yuzo Koshiro is certainly one of them. I do not possess the patience to listen to each and every Genesis/Mega Drive soundtrack like I’ve been doing with the Game Boy, nor did I ever own the system as a kid. I can only really pick and choose these titles based on my perception of popular opinion. But the one series that popped up more consistently than any other on people’s lists was Streets of Rage.

It’s a chill, laid back score that I could listen to all day without ever really tiring of, and the gritty melodies make it a lot more down to earth and appropriate for a street fighting game than the more airy sounds I tend to associate with this sort of musical style. And perhaps more importantly, the music I associate with this style was mostly written long after Streets of Rage.

I mean, Koshiro deserves a lot of additional credit for being the first game musician to really try this–or else, the first to really pull it off. It’s a style I take for granted today, and perhaps that’s why Streets of Rage doesn’t strike me as immediately as it ought to, but in 1991 games just didn’t ever sound like this. A lot of them couldn’t, really. You couldn’t do this on the SNES. The bass and drum tones just weren’t good enough. You certainly couldn’t do it on anything earlier outside of the arcade. Koshiro did an outstanding job of acknowledging and exploiting the Genesis’s best sound qualities, and perhaps a lot of the best system scores to follow are a bit in debt to him.

We’ve all heard “Green Hill Zone”. As a game intended to compete with the Mario series, the music of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega), composed by Masato Nakamura, definitely falls a little short, but that doesn’t make it bad. The songs were sufficiently catchy, and for a high-speed game they provided a pleasant counterweight.

One of the distinct features of Sonic the Hedgehog is the bass lines. Songs like “Spring Yard Zone” (1:58) are really made by them, and even such hopelessly generic tracks as “Labyrinth Zone” (2:49) maintain a distinct Sonic the Hedgehog flavor through the bass.

I could post a lot of other also-rans that are much better than previous Genesis music yet stil leave something to desire. Jewel Master by Motoaki Takenouchi and Zero Wing by Tatsuya Uemura, Toshiaki Tomisawa, and Masahiro Yuge certainly fall into this category. But I just don’t feel that they’re all that valuable in the larger picture. With so many unconditionally great scores out there by 1991, being the best for a particular system simply no longer mattered all that much.

The real Genesis winner for me this year is Golden Axe II (Sega), by Naofumi Hataya, and you’ll hear why in the very first sound in the game. What that crushing drum beat is doing here is beyond me, but I love it. It makes absolutely no sense in what is ultimately a bluesy jam title track, but I couldn’t care less. From start to finish, the soundtrack to Golden Axe II is underwritten by a restrained desire to be heavy metal.

This shines on some tracks more than others. “Ravaged Village”, for instance, lacks the heavy drumming, but the highly distorted bass tones do the job. Maybe not ‘metal’ in this instance, it still retains quite an edge. The bass feels like a pool of lava bubbling beneath you. There’s something very familiar sounding about this sort of bass with that snake-like melody on top, but I can’t quite put my finger on it–perhaps a coincidental similarity in a later game.

This was Naofumi Hataya’s first game score by the way, as far as I can tell. He joined Sega in 1990, and would go on to play a major role in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise up through the present day. If his future works were as good as this one, I have a lot to look forward to.

“Castle” is completely ridiculous, accenting a slow, foreboding song which meets all of the stereotype standards for a fantasy game with a crushing mechanical drum line that I’m pretty sure is trying to punch me in my face through my headphones.

Thank you for being awesome, Naofumi Hataya.

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