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 Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems.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 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.

VGM Entry 34: Stormlord

VGM Entry 34: Stormlord
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

There were only so many things a musician could do within the limited capacity of the Commodore 64, and though a rare boundary-breaking exception or two snuck by, I think that by 1989 most music sounded like a rehash of the same old thing. It wasn’t declining in quality, but it was getting a little repetitive, while many of the best musicians were moving on to other platforms or beginning to burn out. The amount of games I feel inclined to exemplify diminishes in turn.

Dominator (System 3, 1989), composed by Matt Gray, is a perfect case in point. It was a solid four-song work that incorporated a lot of standard C64 innovations while remaining pretty laid back. It’s definitely a pleasant listen, and in a way it reminds me of Jeroen Tel’s work on Cybernoid II the previous year. It is one of the best Commodore 64 soundtracks of 1989 that I’ve found, but it offers absolutely nothing new. There’s no stylistic innovation here. It doesn’t employ the SID in any sort of novel way. It’s just a catchy tune in C64 style. That’s all well and good, but if the whole SID musical movement was defined by constant experimentation and expansion then it was surely by 1989 well in decline.

Part of Jeroen Tel’s real claim to fame was his ability to keep pushing forward in the midst of this:

Stormlord (Hewson, 1989) is a joint effort by Johannes Bjerregaard and Jeroen Tel. Its sort of cheesy extra-terrestrial vibe does little to reflect the gameplay, but that’s to be expected. I’m more impressed by how effectively poppy it is compared to Commodore 64 titles of the past. It sounds almost too pop to be SID, with even a tip of the hat to Michael Jackson (0:37) as far as I can tell, and that’s a lot of what makes it a significant composition. Jeroen Tel kept on incorporating new styles of popular music into a chiptune medium long after most SID composers had become set in their ways. Johannes Bjerregaard was of course also involved in Stormlord, and I don’t know the extent to which either contributed to this tune in particular (or if there even are other tunes in the game). Bjerregaard is a name I seldom run across, although Lemon 64 credits him with 63 compositions.

Stormlord also comes with an amusing story. The game caused Hewson Consultants a bit of trouble, and the box art you see above is not the original design. The original, if fairly innocent, would probably still cause a ruckus today.

Hewson Consultants didn’t beat around the bush. They knew that finding out the princess was in another castle wasn’t what gamers really wanted, and they attempted to deliver the real deal. So in Stormlord you play a behemoth, loin-cloth laden viking who runs around saving hot naked chicks. Sexist? Maybe, but not really sexual. This wasn’t an “adult” game by any means. Your interaction with the distressed damsels was in no way suggestive, and there was no discernible full-blown nudity. It would have surely landed a safe PG-13 rating were its contents in a movie today, but… is that the side of a pixilated breast I see? Good heavens!

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

In most cases it’s fairly reasonable to think of the ZX Spectrum as a secondary system for game music. It didn’t seem to have the capacity of the Commodore 64, and a lot of the game themes that ended up there were toned down takes on C64 originals, attempting to emulate the SID sound as closely as possible. But the ZX Spectrum did have its own unique if seldom exploited flavor, and over the course of three years one ingenious artist in particular would develop that into a brilliant new chiptune style to rival anything produced for the SID.

Some time in 1985, or perhaps a bit earlier, Mike Follin scored a programming job at Insight Software. Mike passed the soundtrack of what would be his first commercially released game, Subterranean Stryker (Insight, March 1985), down to his musically inclined younger brother Tim, who thereby got his first taste of programming. The result was fairly simple–little more than an amateur doodle–but for a 15 year old kid with no prior programming experience it was a pretty sound start. Insight Software were satisfied enough to keep Tim Follin around, and over the next year he familiarized himself with the sounds of the ZX Spectrum.

What he probably didn’t do was familiarize himself with the sounds of Rob Hubbard. What emerged from Tim Follin’s early experimentation on the ZX Spectrum was a sound all of its own. Agent X (Mastertronic, 1986) was heavily influenced by progressive rock, a feature which would characterize Tim’s work across multiple decades and platforms, but its uniqueness rested on his productive employment of the system’s excessively distorted tones. Rather than viewing the distortion as an obstacle blocking the path to quality arrangements, Tim Follin made it an essential and intrinsic feature of the music.

Agent X didn’t appear out of nowhere. Follin’s sound steadily improved during his short stint with Insight Software, such that on Vectron (late 1985) you can definitely hear a rough draft of things to come. His better works also coincided with his first real job. Follin was hired by developers Software Creations in 1986 (they developed all of the Mastertronic games I’ll be featuring here); he was no longer tailing his brother and composing for spare change. The compositional quality understandably improved in turn.

Tim Follin’s ZX Spectrum sound was unlike anything heard on the Commodore 64. It was a sort of post-rock prog shoegaze madness before any such notion formally existed, meant to be blasted at maximum volume, encasing the listener in a wall of sound. Future Games (Mastertronic, June 1986), my personal favorite on the system, was a far more intelligent piece than Agent X. The way the song slowly builds up into a glitch-beat explosion at 2:06 is a tremendous feat given how little Follin had to work with. The song essentially ends unfinished at 2:31, but I think that can be forgiven in light of what all he accomplished here.

I think a lot of this style is the product of Follin’s own originality, and fairly unprecedented in its day. Certainly outside influence on some of the progressive rock elements is self-evident, and in an interview probably dated to 1999 or 2000, the original of which is now lost, Follin acknowledged that he was exposed to a lot of Genesis, Yes, and Rush growing up. But the shoegazey layer of static and especially the glitch beats are features I don’t start to identify in other musical scenes until some time later. It’s not like he was listening to Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares at home.

Agent X II (Mastertronic, 1987) was a good deal more accessible than most of his previous works, featuring a bluesy groove and plenty of rock and roll soloing, but noise was still the glue that held it all together. I think it’s pretty telling that when Tim Follin programmed the Commodore 64 port sound–Agent X II and Scumball (Mastertronic, 1987) were his first attempts at C64 composition–he wrote an entirely new set of songs. Follin based everything he wrote around the instrument with which he wrote it, and however much other artists were trying to make the ZX Spectrum sound like a C64, these were two different animals.

Chronos (Mastertronic, 1987) is probably his most famous ZX Spectrum theme, and understandably so. Technically, or so I gather from the comments I’ve read, it is his most outstanding effort on the system. I don’t know enough to recognize technical skill in chiptune programming when it slaps me in the face. But I think the music speaks for itself. Tim Follin was to the ZX Spectrum what Rob Hubbard was to the Commodore 64, and it was only his first of many legacies.

VGM Entry 09: Nintendo’s turn

VGM Entry 09: Nintendo’s turn
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

If a bit humbled by less apparent contemporaries, Koji Kondo’s work in Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) nevertheless stands as the most recognized video game music in the world. Your average Joe on the street is more likely to identify it than a Beatles or Dylan song. A lot of this has to do with successful marketing. Super Mario Bros. is not the most distributed game of all time. In fact, it barely sneaks into the top 10, at roughly 40 million copies sold. A lot of this has to do with dirt cheap mobile phone distribution. (Apparently that Angry Birds game has broken 1 billion. I still have no interest in checking it out, and anyway it’s pretty easy to exploit a free download to your heart’s content to get into the world record book. Does one seventh of the world’s population even own smartphones?) Of games that actually require you spend a little, the 2006 title Wii Sports is leading the records at 79 million. It must be that economic depression…

But really, if you asked people what they thought was the all-time best seller I’m pretty sure most would mention Nintendo’s 1985 classic, and that is an indication of the company’s groundbreaking marketing strategy. If you owned a Nintendo, you knew Mario and his music. And if you played video games in the late 80s, you probably owned a Nintendo. The company has moreover been persistently re-releasing the game ever since its conception, not to mention incorporating features of its classic soundtrack and iconic characters into newer games. The only prior game that really offered this sort of bundle–very catchy music, memorable characters, massive distribution–was Pac-Man.

But a 5 second song that doesn’t even loop and a big yellow dot just aren’t all that satisfying. Oh the ghosts had names, and I’m sure if I was born a few years earlier I’d have gotten a kick out of pretending they were somehow relevant and imagining some sort of weird plot to it all. (Preferably a better one than the Hanna-Barbera 1982 Pac-Man tv series.) But all of the important features, while present, were just too simplistic to stand the test of time. And it wasn’t a game design you could make good sequels to.

What Super Mario Bros. really offered was a full package. The “best” music of its day? No. The most memorable characters? Not in isolation. But all of the features came together to make a game that really had no flaws. Nintendo knew it, and they ran with it.

If I tried to compare Koji Kondo’s music to other game musicians of the day, I might sound a little unfair. He certainly wasn’t revolutionary in style; his music was if anything retro, harking back to earlier carnival- esque soundtracks, whereas electronic experimentation was the cutting edge. Compared to the likes of Monty on the Run (which by the way, despite being only one song, was longer than the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack in its entirety), the game sounds a little childish. But that was, after all, the target audience, and let’s not split hairs here. Koji Kondo is brilliant. He wrote a soundtrack that was simultaneously extraordinarily catchy and quite aesthetically pleasing. It never clashes with the game. It never speaks out louder than the game. It just merges harmoniously, and keeps on playing in your head when you power off.

Maybe that should be remembered as one of his greater contributions to video game music. A lot of the Commodore 64 tracks I’ve been listening to, while feeling more progressive than Super Mario Bros., seem to disregard their games entirely. A good case in point is Roland’s Rat Race.

Another 1985 title, composed by Martin Galway, Roland’s Rat Race (Ocean Software) is a sleazy little bop, perfect for an inner-city street fighter, or perhaps, in consideration of the peculiar opening sequence, something to do with extraterrestrial pimps. It’s great stuff, way better than the vast majority of soundtracks that would ever appear on the Nintendo Entertainment System. But the problem here should become pretty obvious when you take another look at the game’s cover art.

You will find irrelevant soundtracks up to this day, and plenty of carefully coordinated ones prior to Koji Kondo, but I do have to wonder if perhaps Super Mario Bros.‘ success lead to developers demanding a little more attention to audio relativity.

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

While I have noted that composers remained within regional spheres, games certainly did not. Ports reigned supreme, and it was not uncommon for a game to appear around the world in a half dozen different formats. Each of these required a group of programmers familiar with the given system, and it was certainly not always the case that the original arcade version remained the best at the end of the day.

Take Commando (Capcom, 1985) for instance. The original main theme was composed by Tamayo Kawamoto, an obscure name which will persistently resurface throughout this series of articles. It’s certainly a commanding little march (utilizing the YM2203, if my previous article has peaked anyone’s interest in this regard), and I’d have fed in my quarter in the hopes of hearing more. But quite a number of Kawamoto’s soundtracks are better known for what other artists made of them in the port process than in their original form, and Commando is no exception.

Put it in the hands of Rob Hubbard and, well, did you expect anything less? This wild ride might be his most famous 1985 work after Monty on the Run, and it’s all the more enhanced when you realize how distinct it was from the original. Again Hubbard shines best when he is expanding and improvising upon the music of others. The potentially performable original work is completely lost here, transformed into a uniquely SID sound and style, and with all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, its certainly not worse off in consequence. The problem, which would go on to haunt countless composers down the line, is that most fans of Commando have no idea Kawamoto had any part in writing it.

The composition was actually a single day project, and the entire port was pushed through by Elite Systems in a mere two months. Hubbard briefly discussed it in an interview by Jason ‘Kenz’ Mackenzie’s Commodore Zone magazine. (Issue 10 as best I can tell, probably released in 1997): “There is an interesting story behind Commando. I went down to their office and started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the c64 version. I think they wanted some resemblance to the arcade version, but I just did what I wanted to do. By the time everyone arrived at 8.00am in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00 am…

Yie Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985) is an especially odd game to consider, because its ports varied so drastically. I couldn’t find a stand-alone sound sample of the original arcade version, but you can hear it well enough beneath the sound effects of this gameplay video. The upbeat, distinctly Asian sound is a refreshing change of pace from the usual video game song styles, and in consideration of what Rob Hubbard did with Commando, you can imagine the potential for new arrangements this presents. Arguably the most famous version of the game’s music, however, is a completely bizarre departure.

The only rational explanation I can think of for Martin Galway having replaced the traditional Asian music theme with a completely irrelevant cover of “Magnetic Fields” by Jean Michel Jarre is that the title screen music is, in fact, completely irrelevant. I think perhaps Galway, either by request or on his own initiative, submitted the song as an all-purpose Commodore 64 option for Imagine Software, who produced the European computer ports of the game, and that it found its way into Yie Ar Kung-Fu simply because it happened to be available at the time. It is not one of Galway’s finer works, but I suppose you can do what you want to the loader screen. It was the combat music that really defined the game.

Even so, the actual gameplay music to the Commodore 64 port of Yie Ar Kung-Fu is as unexpectedly similar to the arcade as the title screen is unexpectedly divergent. The arrangement makes no effort whatsoever to expand upon or even properly convert the original arcade gameplay music to suit the SID sound. Instead we’re met by an unimaginative attempt to emulate the original as closely as possible, marred by SID distortion which could have so easily emphasized the music’s finest features but instead just drowned them out. I mean, this is far more appropriate than Galway’s load screen, but so much for a middle ground between total disregard for the original and a carbon copy.

And then you have the Famicom/NES version, released in April 1985. (That’s five months before Super Mario Bros., to put things in context.) Without altering the style of the arcade version in the slightest, it offers an almost entirely original song. It’s really the best version of Yie Ar Kung-Fu out there–you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise–and its existence is a bit puzzling. Who composed it?

The notes I’ve found on Yie Ar Kung-Fu credit Miki Higashino, but they fail to distinguish between the arcade and NES versions, as if these weren’t completely different songs. Now, I am inclined to think Higashino wrote both, which is quite remarkable considering she was only 17 years old at the time. (The only other really famous game musician I can think of to get this early of a career start is Tim Follin.) The other titles credited to Higashino in the mid-80s don’t exhibit this kind of quality, but in consideration of the fact that ten years later she would compose one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time (Suikoden), I know she had it in her. The Suikoden soundtrack is predominantly folk and traditional music (like Yie Ar), and the consistency of style between the arcade and Famicom songs favors a single composer.

The other thing Higashino-authorship has going for it is that she worked for Konami, who made both the arcade and Famicom versions. She would have been involved in the sound team of both, so it’s reasonable to believe she would have had the liberty to create an entirely new song when it came time to program the port. Her hands would have been tied for the European versions, which were produced by Imagine Software. On a final interesting note, the MSX version ports the Famicom soundtrack, not the original arcade music.

It’s all just speculation though. Anyone at Konami could have potentially been responsible for the changes. I’ll leave you with one final version that was most certainly not arranged by Miki Higashino. … Ok, I’m really going to try to avoid video game covers where they aren’t historically relevant, but you have to admit this Markdoom Shehand cover is one of the most awesome things ever.

VGM Entry 07: Other chip options

VGM Entry 07: Other chip options
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I am at the unfortunate disadvantage of having no clue what key terms such as “FM Synthesis” and “Programmable Sound Generator” really mean, and no amount of reading technical explanations or listening to arbitrary examples of audio employing one or the other is really going to fill me in. I feel like it is the very sort of thing this series of articles is intended to explain, but it’s not currently within my grasp.

One thing I’d like to know is what makes arcade games like Tube Panic (Nichibutsu/Fujitek, 1984) sound so much better than their arcade predecessors of only a year or two prior. (Unfortunately this composer’s name has eluded me, perhaps lost in translation.) This game uses a General Instrument AY-3-8910 chip, or so I am told, which is a PSG. So did Jungle Hunt, and the two are worlds apart. Jungle Hunt‘s three very basic tones could barely hold themselves together, constantly breaking out of rhythm and sounding quite primitive even when they all synced up. Of course the glitchiness was part of the charm, but Tube Panic is an entirely different animal. There is definitely no sense that the system is struggling to contain the music, and the tones are much fuller. What changed? And if it’s the case that later arcade games stacked multiple audio chips where early ones did not, how exactly does this effect the end product?

There is one thing I’ve noticed, and it’s probably both an amateur observation for those who know what they’re talking about and a pointless one for those who don’t. But it seems to me like audio employing FM-synthesis is much cleaner.

Thexder (Game Arts, 1985) for instance was composed by Hibiki Godai and released for the NEC PC-8801 the same year that this system began to incorporate a Yamaha YM2203 sound chip, which, as best I understand it, used FM synthesis. Whatever that actually entails, what I seem to be hearing here is a lack of distortion never attained with the AY-3-8910, or with the Commodore 64 SID for that matter (another PSG). That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing–distortion was the perfecting touch to the early Ultima soundtracks (the Mockingboard also employed multiple AY-3-8910 chips) and it would be the focal point for some of the best ZX Spectrum titles. But there is a noticeable difference in clarity, and if I had to guess I’d say it’s the dominant difference between FM synthesis chips and PSGs.

The most impressive early consequence of this cleaner sound is Marble Madness (Atari, 1984), which used the YM2151, an FM synthesis chip similar to the YM2203. The music Brad Fuller and Hal Cannon manage to create here is gorgeous and completely unbecoming of an otherwise conceptually mundane video game. The music of Marble Madness can essentially function as a stand alone semi-ambient synth album. With a few exceptions and a little longer content it could have been commercially released independent of any game to reasonable acclaim, and it is not all that particularly different from the sort of works you might expect on the Yamaha keyboards employed by 1980s synth musicians. Tasking Brad Fuller and Hal Cannon with the job and providing them with the sound chip to get it done might have been one of the only things Atari did right in the 1980s.

The last thing to note here is that Earl Vickers is credited as the Marble Madness sound programmer. This is one of the earliest games for which I’ve noticed different names associated with ‘composition’ and ‘sound programming’, and it’s a confusing distinction which will impact plenty of future discussions.