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.

VGM Entry 11: Ultima

VGM Entry 11: Ultima
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Ultima I, Wizardry, Bokosuka Wars, and Dragon Slayer–if we ignore this last title’s half-hearted attempt–all lacked my topic of interest here: music. When music first came to Eastern-style adventure/RPGs is as difficult to pinpoint as a precise definition of the type of game itself. The NES port of Bokosuka Wars had continuous music, albeit much to its detriment, but a December 14, 1985, release date renders this historically insignificant; Koji Kondo’s work in The Legend of Zelda would take the Japanese gaming world by storm only two months later. There may have been others with some music of worth, but they have evaded my notice. Western RPGs are an entirely different matter.

Kenneth W. Arnold’s work experience summary on LinkedIn claims that “Ultima III was the first game for personal computers (Apple II originally) with a musical score.” I have found no reason to doubt this claim. If I have overlooked an earlier RPG with music, it should nevertheless stand that Arnold’s work on Ultima III: Exodus (Origin Systems, 1983) is among the very first.

Much more importantly, it’s amazing. The songs are exquisitely attuned to the properties of the Mockingboard A sound chip. The deep tones carry a real sense of depth into the gameplay, and the natural distortion is wholeheartedly embraced to create a sense of something hinged between danger and mystery–this idea of an old world that is never entirely safe or wholly understood. The style of each song is ideal. It’s got everything you could expect in an RPG soundtrack: an adventurous overworld theme, a peaceful tune for towns, a haunting dungeon, and an especially noteworthy tense combat melody. In what is quite possibly the first RPG soundtrack ever written, one finds style-scenario associations which are pretty much the same today. Kenneth W. Arnold deserves a lot more credit for Ultima III than the history books grant him, not because he invented RPG music–I am inclined to believe such games naturally lend themselves to particular musical styles–but because he did everything right the first shot out the gate, without any previous standard having been set. And he did it so well that his works still stand among the finest today. Cheers to that.

It just got better from there. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (Origin Systems) was released on September 16, 1985, and with it Kenneth W. Arnold achieved a level of quality in RPG music that even Nobuo Uematsu would not be topping any time soon. The Castle theme especially (3:09) is one of the most commanding of its kind for any RPG. Shopping (1:34) presents an audio vision of some medieval market place filled with crooked old cranks peddling dubious potions. The combat theme (5:27) is a mere 12 seconds long, yet its exciting, adventurous spirit lends itself to continuous repetition better than nearly any other RPG non-boss battle music I’ve heard.

Credit goes to Apple Vault for actually reproducing this music. It wasn’t easy to come by. Ultima must be one of the most heavily ported series in history, with Ultima III appearing on the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Amiga, Atari ST, Mac, PC-8801, PC-9801, FM-7, NES, and MSX2, and Ultima IV appearing on the Atari 800, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Amiga, Atari ST, PC-8801, PC-9801, FM-7, FM Towns, Sharp X1, Sharp X68000, NES, MSX2, and SMS. Most of these ports contained the original music adapted for different sound chips, and you can see how the original Apple II Mockingboard take might get lost in the clutter. Some of these ports are pretty good approximations. Others, like the NES version, inexplicably toss out Arnold’s soundtrack altogether. But the game was originally intended to be heard on an Apple II Mockingboard, and I believe this is the most accurate version you’re going to find. Accuracy does matter here, I think. Given the amount of attention to tone quality I think Arnold put into this, preserving the medium is just as important as preserving the melodies themselves.

It’s no matter of chance that many of the best game soundtracks were RPGs. By nature among the most diverse games in setting, they naturally demand a diverse score. Thus it was the case that Ultima III, possibly the first RPG soundtrack ever, might also have been the longest soundtrack up to that time, clocking in at about six and a half minutes in 1983. But it’s the shear quality that deserves most of the attention. Kenneth W. Arnold was brilliant. These are the first truly great RPG soundtracks, and it’s a shame that they have been largely forgotten.

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.