VGM Entry 55: Honorable mentions of ’92


VGM Entry 55: Honorable mentions of ’92
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

No ‘best of’ compilation can ever satisfy everybody, and the difficulty of coming to agreement increases with the number of options available. With the average game soundtrack’s quality always on the rise, the task of singling out anything but the obvious best becomes sort of arbitrary after a while. I present these last few titles with the recognition that I have probably missed quite a number of arguably better works:

Super Mario Kart (Nintendo, 1992) would be the last major title passed off to Soyo Oka at Nintendo. Having scored Pilotwings in 1990 and Sim City in 1991, her distinct style briefly became a major voice of the Super Nintendo, but whether she should be counted among the best is very debatable. I will stand by the claim that Sim City was an outstanding and underrated work, but in general Soyo Oka was no Koji Kondo. Her inclusion isn’t obvious.

I played Super Mario Kart as much as any kid, and not a single song from it stuck in my memory over the years. The nostalgia here isn’t old familiar tunes. It’s an old familiar style. Soyo Oka had an extraordinarily distinct sound, and it’s her style of music, not any of the melodies, which lends such consistency down the line from Pilotwings to Super Mario Kart. I count this game among the best of 1992 because it does an excellent job of sounding like a Nintendo game for the SNES. It’s quite possible that Soyo Oka’s Nintendo career quickly diminished afterwards simply because they stopped producing this type of game. Her all-purpose sound worked great for simulations and racing, but after 1992 Nintendo came to focus much more heavily on character/plot-centric action and RPG titles. Star Fox, Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, these sort of games focused on franchise characters who required distinct theme songs.

Nintendo did not produce any more high-profile, well marketed games that could have actually fit Oka’s style until 1996, with Ken Griffey, Jr.’s Winning Run and Tetris Attack, but by then she had left the company.

I have only found two titles crediting Taro Kudo as composer, and that’s quite a shame, because both have found their way into my vgm series. Masanori Adachi’s partner on Super Castlevania IV, Kudo took on the task again the following year with Axelay (Konami, 1992). His mostly chill, relaxing tunes must have made a fairly substantial impact on the gameplay. Nothing frantic or unnerving here; the music carries a sense of confidence, and makes the game look a lot easier than it probably was.

Devilish (Hot-B, developed by Genki Co, 1992), known as Dark Omen in Japan, begins like some sort of Home Alone soundtrack, but before long it breaks out into more recognizable Genesis beats that will characterize a large portion of the game. Hitoshi Sakimoto managed to produce a very consistent and haunting selection of songs here that accurately reflect the settings of the game. These settings are themselves something of an anomaly. The game is basically an enhanced version of Breakout, but it’s set in an RPG world. You bounce into those rectangles in forests, deserts, airships, castles, the works.

About the only thing this bizarre mashup has against it is a plot. The main villain “turned the prince and princess into two stone paddles”? Really? … Really?

When I was a kid I for some reason always thought Kirby was an old, classic Nintendo character, perhaps because Kirby’s Adventure (Nintendo, 1993) was released for the NES despite the Super Nintendo having been around for three years. What inspired Nintendo to market a major franchise character on outdated and secondary systems is beyond me, but the little pink cream puff wouldn’t make his Super Nintendo debut until Kirby Super Star at the absurdly late date of March 1996. This may have been due in part to HAL Laboratory, not Nintendo, actually developing the games. But HAL Laboratory had released multiple Super Nintendo games by the end of 1991, so your guess is as good as mine. Kirby’s Dream Land (Nintendo, 1992) for the Game Boy was in fact the first game of the franchise, and it established a lot of the series’ iconic songs.

The other thing that caught me off guard is Jun Ishikawa composed it. I had been lead to believe it was the work of Hirokazu Ando. Ando did make an appearance on Kirby’s Adventure and many future installments, but the earliest original compositions appear to belong to Ishikawa. Ando and Ishikawa appear to have been HAL Laboratory’s main composers, collaborating together in many HAL titles both within the Kirby franchise and without, and perhaps this has created some of the confusion. Or perhaps Wikipedia is simply wrong. The bold claim in the Kirby’s Dream Land article that Jun Ishikawa was “the only composer for this game” (rather than just listing him as the composer and leaving it at that) is sourced to another game wiki site (Moby Games) which lists the credits in more or less the same unsourced manner that Wikipedia does, and makes no such explicit claim. Maybe Ishikawa wrote it all, or maybe he and Ando were in collaboration from the get-go, but either way Kirby’s Dream Land initiated a major Nintendo franchise series with catchy, highly regarded songs that ought not go unmentioned.

The last song I’d like to point out is the title theme to Agony (Psygnosis, 1992), composed by Tim Wright. Agony was a peculiar little shmup for the Amiga 500, fantasy themed to the extent of featuring a laser-blasting owl as the main hero. There is little room in your standard video game for a classical piano piece of this sort; it’s certainly not the type of thing you might associate with active gameplay. With the Commodore 64’s long history of loader music completely disassociated from the game however, and the Amiga’s much improved audio, this was the most probable platform for a work like Tim Wright’s to take shape.

VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy


VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The end of the NES era did not mark the end of the NES. Games would continue to appear on the system all the way up to February 1994, with Wario’s Woods (Nintendo) constituting the final licensed game for the system. Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems. The underdog hero of my video game music series, Tim Follin, rode the third generation of gaming out to its end as well.

What’s more, the late transition of C64 chiptune artists to the NES brought out all kinds of amazing features on the system that were never realized during the system’s heyday. I did Tim Follin a terrible disservice by skipping over Silver Surfer (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Nintendo and Magic Johnson’s Basketball (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Commodore 64, having not really discovered either until it was too late to include them, but it’s not too late to touch on his 1991 masterpieces.

Treasure Master (American Softworks, December 1991) initially picks up right where Pictionary left off, and in this game you can really experience the climax of Follin’s NES pursuit, wherein groovy jam tracks took the place of progressive rock as a focal point. Just as Follin’s Commodore 64 works made a clean break from his original ZX Spectrum style, his NES compositions matured into a sound all of their own.

It’s not that prog elements were a thing of the past; Follin’s quintessential sound persists across every platform, and Treasure Master has its fair share. But on no two systems did he ever sound quite the same. He was ever and always a musician to place the system at the heart of the composition. It’s something I was criticizing other musicians for failing to do long before he was ever on my radar, and soundtracks like Treasure Master are vibrant proof of just how significant this sort of compositional mindset could be. This is the antithesis of Nobuo Uematsu’s eternally reinterpritable works; it is inconceivable in any other medium.

I don’t recall whether I actually made the observation before or simply thought it to myself, but I am inclined to believe that a lot of chiptune musicians struggled and faded away in the fourth generation because the lack of severe restrictions forced them to completely redefine their vision of what video game music should be. They were fundamentally musicians first and composers second, and the SNES, with its bountiful possibilities, simply could not function as an instrument. It was a means to an end, not an end itself, and that requires a whole different assortment of talents. Tim Follin struggled on the SNES, perhaps for the first time in his career. It’s no small triumph that he (and his brother Geoff, who likely contributed far more to the ‘Follin sound’ than I give him credit for) did ultimately overcome the challenge with Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge and Plok, which I will get to soon enough.

The majority of Tim Follin’s SNES works leave something to be desired however, and with the extraordinary exception of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (Sega, 2000) for the Dreamcast, he would never really thrive as a video game composer again after the mid-90s. Suffice to say Tim Follin’s real glory days ended in 1991.

At least he went out with a bang. Gauntlet III (US Gold, 1991) was to be his final Commodore 64 title. Composed in collaboration with Geoff, it carried on in the spirit of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

A history of the development of Follin’s sound would make for an interesting mini-series all of its own. There’s certainly no linear progression to it, and I couldn’t pretend to establish one without ignoring quite a few games which defy conformity. (Even the suggestion that his NES soundtracks were inseparable from the system he wrote them for was a minor stretch if we consider similarities between Pictionary and Magic Johnson’s Basketball.) But the title theme to Gauntlet III most certainly follows from “Level 5” in Ghouls’n Ghosts, and trace signs of this thematic approach can, I think, be heard in the in-game theme from Black Lamp (Firebird, 1988) and the title theme from ChesterField: Challenge to Dark Gor (Vic Tokai, 1988). I make the observation to establish that this sound was emerging prior to Follin’s direct interaction with the original Ghouls’n Ghosts score by Tamayo Kawamoto. His outstanding cover of Level 2 aside, the C64 port shares little in common with the arcade music.

At any rate, that was only the title screen. Gauntlet III was one of those rare exceptions to the Commodore 64 rule of putting your best effort on the loader. To that credit goes the character select screen.

Was Tim Follin’s final C64 composition also his best? It’s definitely a contender. Gauntlet III lacked the quantity delivered in Ghouls’n Ghosts–I gather the actual gameplay was silent, though I’ve not been able to confirm this–but the quality is impeccable.

Tim Follin spent 1989 through 1991 breaking every mold and defying every standard ever set for what may well be considered the finest system in the history of video game music, and in so doing made his name inseparable from the final pages of the Commodore 64 legacy. Having simultaneously done the same thing for the Nintendo, and having single-handedly defined the ZX Spectrum as a system capable of a unique sound independent from both powerhouse competitors, he may well be rightly regarded as the most accomplished musician of the third generation era.

It’s a shame his time with the Amiga 500 was so brief. Underwhelming in comparison to the Ghouls’n Ghosts port, Tim and Geoff’s Amiga Gauntlet III music suffers merely from a lack of sound quality. I have been unable to find any copy of this song that delivers with the depth and clarity of Ghouls’n Ghosts, but I suspect this is more a consequence of a low bit rate in its modern conversion than a flaw in its original form. The bagpipes do seem to clash with the rest of the song from 1:40 on, but I’d rather not pass judgement until I’ve heard a higher quality recording. In any case, Follin was showing no signs of relenting on the Commodore Amiga, and it was surely decisions beyond his control at Software Creations that ultimately tied him into a Super Nintendo track from 1992 on.

VGM Entry 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts


VGM Entry 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Even as the Sega Genesis was coming into its own and the Super Nintendo was on the verge of release, Tim Follin reappeared to give the “old systems” a final touch of perfection. Though his non-ZX Spectrum works immediately following the 1987 Bionic Commando arrangement were fairly insignificant, he had learned a lot (not to mention ceased to be a teenager). By 1989 he was ready to take on the world, and put to the task of reworking the Ghouls’n Ghosts (Capcom) soundtrack for the Amiga and Commodore 64, he suffered a stroke of genius which few have yet to match.

This is the title theme to Ghouls’n Ghosts for the Amiga, released in 1988. Enjoy it.

Even the tracks which were not originally his took on a whole new life. With all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, Tim Follin’s work on the Commodore 64 rendition of “Stage Two” was a drastic improvement. From the very get-go, Kawamoto’s oompa tuba and staccato flute are replaced by a booming four-note bass line and a much smoother flute tone. The song exhibits delicious dynamics, with the flute sounding out loud for the first two seconds and then immediately quieting down to make room for a wavy, ghost-tone main melody line decisively more appropriate for the theme of the game than Kawamoto’s clarinet. Kawamoto’s counterpoint on the repeat isn’t entirely convincing, and after one time through the song transitions. Follin avoids layering the melody entirely, perhaps out of necessity, but the creativity of his additional repeats and the awkward yet delightful added percussion more than compensate. Limited in the number of tracks he could produce, Follin had no hope of replicating the second half of the song on a C64, so after faithfully playing out the lower track he just took off into his own imaginative world, leaving Kawamoto behind altogether from about the 1 minute mark on. Where Kawamoto’s entire song loops at 54 seconds, Follin’s is extended to a two and a half minutes and doesn’t loop at all, fading out as a completed piece before starting over.

The music to Level 5 on the Commodore 64 is another Follin original, and it kicks off with enough amplifier worship to make Sunn O))) proud. Unlike pretty much all of his previous works, Follin’s original tracks in Ghouls’n Ghosts exhibit a sense of awareness of the game itself. He wasn’t about to let the needs of the game hold him back, but he was for once shaping his music around an appropriate theme. Follin maintains the relativity until 1:18, at which point we’re suddenly treated to an Emerson Lake & Palmer progressive rockout. The soft distortion in the background of the whistle starting at 1:58 is just brilliant, if by now completely out of touch with the game. It briefly reminds me of foggy seaside songs like Jeremy Soule’s “Pirates of Crustacia” (Secret of Evermore, Square, 1995).

Make what you will of the “End Theme” track which follows. It’s nothing to brag about, but it’s part of the package. I think the “Hi-Score” tune wrapping up the video more than compensates.

So there’s perhaps your first encounter with Tim Follin outside of the ZX Spectrum. He’s by no means forgotten, but not overwhelmingly famous either. His work on Bionic Commando 1987 made a loud statement, and his ZX Spectrum works stand in a league of their own on the system, but the Commodore 64 and Amiga arrangements of Ghouls’n Ghosts are what really brought him into full form for the first time and cemented his place in history. He would never surpass his accomplishments in 1989, in my opinion, but he would maintain an impressively high standard for many years to come, and he would excel on a more diverse range of systems than most any other composer in the business.

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.

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.

VGM Entry 04: The dark ages


VGM Entry 04: The dark ages
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner

One of the final systems to be categorized as “second generation” was Coleco’s ColecoVision, released in 1982. It also happens to be the only second generation system for which I have found an example of good music.

I don’t believe that any music actually appears in the original arcade version of SubRoc-3D (Sega, 1982), but the following year’s ColecoVision port features a wild avant-garde pause screen tune that I really think captures the best second gen technology had to offer. Certainly the ColecoVision had better audio than the Atari 2600 to begin with, but it’s a little easier to imagine a piece like this on other platforms. Who needs a coherent melody anyway? On more advanced systems like the Nintendo, game audio is plagued by attempts to capture musical styles beyond the system’s means. Nobuo Uematsu for instance may be found guilty on such charges, and the scores for the first three Final Fantasy titles really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. What you get with SubRoc-3D is a pretty early example of a sound programmer adapting musical style to the needs of the machine.

But the third generation and its partners in crime did not rise up from the dust and ashes in 1985. The mediums through which the first really great video game music would take shape often originated years before developers, and specifically sound programmers, took notice of them. Just as the Atari 2600, a pop culture icon of the early 80s, was actually released in 1977, gaming as it came to be redefined around 1985 often took place on early 1980s systems. The gap between system release and major game development would not really disappear until the fourth generation. If you look for music in the earliest years of the Commodore 64 for instance, the best you’re going to find–or at least the best I could find–are tunes like that of 3D Skramble (Anirog, 1983). Given what Commodore 64 music would soon become without any improvements in technology, it’s reasonable to wonder whether a few solid early 80s works have been forgotten over time.

A lot of the early to mid-80s systems which would resuscitate the video game industry are a bit obscure. Different systems thrived in different markets, and the North American gamer is not likely to have ever heard of say, the PC-8801 or the MSX, despite their significance in Japan. Let’s take a moment to look at some of the names that will be reoccurring throughout this series of articles. I’m not going to pretend I know much about them, but at least some name recognition will help clarify future events.

The one overwhelming exception to the rule of ho-hum early 80s home gaming music is Ultima III: Exodus, composed by Kenneth W. Arnold and released across a large variety of systems (and thus a large variety of audio formats). I will be returning to it later, but I thought it might provide a nice background piece for the moment.

1977 – Apple II
The Apple II was a home computer designed by Steve Wozniak and released in 1977. (Steve Jobs was little more than a shady businessman exploiting his success as far as I’m concerned, though I don’t know whether Wozniak would agree). As with any system of that era, its sound capacity was very limited, but upgrades were developed over the following years. Sweet Microsystems released their first Apple II soundcard, Sound I, in 1981, and at some point in time between then and 1983 this was upgraded into the Mockingboard A, which used the General Instrument AY-3-8910 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). Game audio as it actually sounded through the Mockingboard is a little hard to come by these days, but the most important music to utilize the Mockingboard, that of the Ultima series, has been faithfully reconstructed.

1981 – PC-8801
NEC Corporation’s PC-8801 was a computer only released in Japan, and judging by the shear quantity of material created for it I have to imagine it became Japan’s most dominant gaming system. As a musical entity the PC-8801 came to life in 1985, when new models began to incorporate the Yamaha YM2203 FM synthesis chip.

1982 – ZX Spectrum
Britian’s Sinclair Research Ltd. released the ZX Spectrum home computer in April 1982. Musically, the ZX Spectrum would always take second stage to the Commodore 64, but it was sufficiently capable for some significant names in sound programming to work their magic on it. Later ZX Spectrum models would employ the General Instrument AY-3-8910 PSG.

1982 – Commodore 64
Commodore International was founded in Toronto and headquartered in Pennsylvania, but their Commodore 64 found the bulk of its success in Europe. Released in August 1982, it would become the quintessential medium for chiptunes. Its SID chip (Sound Interface Device) continues to define the genre today, and the most famous European sound programmers of the 1980s all had a go at it. Through the SID such figures as Rob Hubbard, Tim Follin, Martin Galway, Chris Hülsbeck, Jeroen Tel, and Neil Baldwin would revolutionize game music.

1982 – FM-7
The FM-7, or Fujitsu Micro 7, was a Japanese home computer equipped with the AY-3-8910 for which little original game material has been brought to my attention. Occasional game port projects for the FM-7 may make for some interesting comparisons.

1983 – MSX
The AY-3-8910 was a prolifically distributed chip, and it found its way into the MSX as well. The MSX was an industry standardization project headed by Kazuhiko Nishi, vice-president of Microsoft’s Japanese branch and director of ASCII. The MSX model found a lot of success outside of the United States, and many early computer games were designed for it. This was followed by the MSX2 in 1985, which switched the audio chip to a Yamaha YM2149 PSG. I am not sure that this should be considered an upgrade though. As I understand it the YM2149 was a replica of the AY-3-8910, produced by Yamaha under license from General Instrument. At any rate, games like Vampire Killer (Konami, 1986) and Final Fantasy (Square, 1987, ported in 1989) would feature it.

1983 – Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System (NES)
The NES requires little introduction, but it is certainly worth reiterating the fact that it was released in 1983. Super Mario Bros. was not actually a launch title (though it would be in the United States), and it would take two years, and arguably the brilliance of Koji Kondo, to really get the Nintendo game music revolution under way. NES hardware included its own audio design.

1984 – Amstrad CPC
Amstrad was yet another British company to employ the AY-3-8910. Amstrad would go on to purchase the rights to the ZX Spectrum in 1986 and develop new models of that system, so the CPC and later versions of the Spectrum would have a lot of technological overlap.

1985 – Sega Master System (SMS)
Sega showed up late on the scene with their Master System, in part because it was a recovery from the relative failure of the SG-1000, released in 1983. The Master System faired only slightly better. It used the Texas Instruments SN76489A–the same PSG chip appearing in the ColecoVision sampled above.

1985 – Amiga
The Amiga was Commodore’s next generation of home computers, with the original Amiga 1000 designed to be a major upgrade over the Commodore 64 (which dated back to 1982). But much like the Atari 2600, the Commodore 64 came into its prime a few years after its release, and consumers weren’t quite ready to upgrade in 1985. It would be the Amiga 500 version, released in 1987, that became the C64’s rightful heir. Like the C64, the Amiga had its own unique sound chip, called Paula.