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 Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems.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 51: Neil Baldwin

VGM Entry 51: Neil Baldwin
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Who was Neil Baldwin? I have yet to even mention Neil Baldwin. In fact, I never even saw his name until quite recently, by a total accident of chain-clicking vaguely related youtube videos. It must be a gross oversight on my part. There’s no excuse for having missed Neil Baldwin.

I mean, his earliest works, like Shadow Skimmer (The Edge, 1987), might have been easily overlooked. They were fairly decent, but not groundbreaking in any sense, and in the glory days of Commodore 64 music ‘pretty good’ wasn’t going to stand out. Neil Baldwin was just learning the ropes in the late 80s, with the works of Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway serving as his main inspirations. His real legacy began when, much like Tim Follin, he brought the techniques of Commodore 64 composition to the NES.

And much like Tim Follin, he put 90% of Nintendo composers to shame. Magician (Taxan), released for the NES in 1990, was the first game by British developers Eurocom. It was also Neil Baldwin’s first NES composition. It sounds more advanced than nearly anything else on the system.

What exactly distinguishes it–how Neil Baldwin (and Tim Follin) were capable of producing such better sound quality on the NES than indigenous composers with no Commodore 64 background–is technical and way beyond my understanding. But thankfully, those explanations have already been made. See, Baldwin did that one thing that we all wish every video game composer would do, and which hardly ever actually happens.

He went back and wrote about his own compositions in long, thorough detail, and provided mp3s of the lot of them.

How cool is that? It would be kind of silly for me to go about repeating everything that he says here, especially when I’ll never quite understand it unless I get my hands on the equipment and try to program some game music myself. So I’ll leave it for the original artist to explain.

This particular soundtrack is Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge, the NES port of F-1 Hero MD for the Genesis/Mega Drive, released by Acclaim in 1992. Neil Baldwin’s score for the NES port is an original composition, not a replica of the Genesis music. Yes, there was still some great NES music this late in the game.

Hero Quest and Erik The Viking both have pretty interesting stories. If you scroll down far enough on Baldwin’s site you can read them in full, but to sum it up briefly, both of these games were never officially released. Baldwin actually thought that the music to Hero Quest, written in 1991, had been lost, until he ran into vgm fans talking about it. A little investigation revealed that the author of the game, Chris Shrigley, had preserved a copy of it and released it independently long after the fact.

Erik The Viking‘s story is the exact opposite. The actual game, which was fully completed in 1992 but, due to miscommunication between the developers and producer, never released, has been lost. Baldwin observes that it could quite possibly still exist somewhere, but it is certainly a lost artifact at the present. This time around, it was Baldwin that saved all of the original audio and released it independently years later.

Neil Baldwin has composed much else besides these five games, and his post-Commodore 64 work is consistently a cut above. I definitely recommend Erik The Viking first and foremost among his NES works. As for his later SNES compositions and beyond, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them when I get there.

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Once again, by 1990 the Nintendo had fallen way behind the times. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 had all left it in the dust. The fourth generation of home and computer gaming was in full swing, and Nintendo were not prepared to launch their version until November. NES composers struggled to keep up with higher standards in the meantime, pushing the Nintendo to its limits.

Mega Man 3 (Capcom, 1990) had a lot to offer. Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita (not to be confused with my favorite talking rabbit) picked up the job this time, and it’s pretty amazing that three different musicians could all so effectively maintain the series’ quintessential sound. Mega Man 3‘s opening theme is as excellent as any of them, and the rest of the music really is a good bit more compositionally consistent than may meet the ear.

“Hard Man” (1:52) for instance is written in unmistakable Mega Man fashion. The only reason it doesn’t sound entirely up to par is a product of bad mixing at the final stage. Every take I’ve heard of it just sounds a bit washed out. The volumes of each track don’t feel properly balanced, and they could perhaps have chosen fuller percussion. But the fundamental song-writing is ideal, and I think if you put it in the hands of say, Bit Brigade, it would shine as brightly as any track from the first two games. Whatever flaws it may have are only visible if you seek them out.

While I think this minor mixing problem persists throughout the game, the next track in this collection, “Snake Man” (2:45), is just so well written that any potential flaw in the final production is masked entirely. Mega Man 3 does have some less memorable tracks; it’s not quite as consistent as the first two games in that regard. You won’t hear them in this mix. garudoh did yet another excellent job of choosing only the best, and “Spark Man” (3:42), “Get Your Weapons Ready” (4:40), and “Proto Man” (5:18) finish off a very well-conceived compilation. But the likes of “Gemini Man” and “Magnet Man”, not featured here, leave something to be desired. Mega Man 3 is not quite as good as the first two, but Yasuaki Fujita definitely finds and maintains the Mega Man sound throughout, and by any other standard this is an excellent NES soundtrack.

The best NES music of 1990 though, as you may have guessed from my previous hints, belongs to Tim Follin. Follin carried his capacity to pack a huge punch into limited sound systems over to the NES, and the introduction to Solstice (CSG Imagesoft, 1990, produced by Software Creations) is not afraid to employ a little shock value. I’m not sure why the music in this sample is out of order, but you can hear how the game kicks off if you skip to 3:37. The cute little 10 second jingle at the start is almost tongue-in-cheek, mocking typical NES songs before exploding into musical fireworks in bombastic Follin fashion. The majority of the album feels to have benefited heavily from his recent work on Ghouls’n Ghosts. No individual tracks really stand out with the memorable qualities of that previous work, but you can definitely appreciate the level of imagination that went into the whole soundtrack. Follin had more up his sleeves for the NES anyway. He reserved his best efforts for a game which we would all expect to have an outstanding soundtrack….. Pictionary?

I don’t know. Tim Follin’s music was seldom relevant to the game. I suppose it’s quite possible that he submitted this soundtrack to Software Creations without even knowing what game it would be used for. But I picture a giddy Follin setting out to intentionally make Pictionary (LJN, 1990) one of the most exciting and absurdly uncharacteristic soundtracks on the NES, laughing all the way.

That’s about all I have to offer from the Nintendo for the time being, but it’s worth taking a brief look at some other systems before we move on. I don’t want to say the pickings were slim outside of the Nintendo–that would certainly contradict my entire point in these past two posts–but I did struggle to find much of interest in 1990 specifically. The PC Engine is quite obscure to me as a western gamer, and many of the Amiga titles that best caught my eye date to 1988 and 1989. The Genesis/Mega Drive was still a musical disappointment in so far as it rarely lived up to its full potential. Elemental Master (TechnoSoft) by Toshiharu Yamanishi deserves an honorable mention, but its music is nothing special really. I think the system just lacked much competition to spur it on. With the Amiga appealing to European computer gamers and the PC Engine pushing the Japanese market, the Genesis/Master System for a time stood alone in a number of markets as the only available fourth generation home gaming console. Phantasy Star III (Sega) saw Izuho Takeuchi take over Tokuhiko Uwabo’s role as composer, and the transition brought a whole new style of sound to the game. I would describe it as unremarkable but more consistent–where Tokuhiko Uwabo presented a rather unique RPG soundtrack that was fairly hit or miss, Izuho Takeuchi is a little more traditional and at no point that I’ve noticed really falls flat. But his music is nothing to brag about either.

Before I move on to the Super Nintendo, one final 1990 release that really caught my attention was Iron Lord (Ubi Soft). Now, this version that you’re hearing above is the original 1989 Atari ST version. I want you to hear it first, because I want you to know what Jeroen Tel had to work with when he made the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports.

I don’t know who the original Atari ST composer was. I don’t know who was responsible for the MS-DOS version either. But I bet it wasn’t Jeroen Tel. C64 composers had a certain attitude about them. They knew they were the best, and they were going to keep on proving it every chance they could get. And let’s not forget here; the Commodore 64 was a year older than the Nintendo.

Hence why Jeroen Tel’s Iron Lord could introduce a power metal song. The effects of layering a medieval tune with big chippy bass and that same higher spacey tone he used on Cybernoid 2 are almost comical, but they’re entirely effective. Like a typical C64 musician, Tel expanded way beyond the scope of the original composition and made it entirely his own.

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 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 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 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88

VGM Entry 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88
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Beyond the NES, a lot of great things were going on in 1988 that I am largely still unaware of. Late 80s arcade and computer gaming gets a lot less publicity today than the Nintendo counterpart, and even some of the best require a bit of digging to uncover, but here are a few I found worthy of mention.

Jeroen Tel is a Dutch composer born in 1972. I am not sure when he first got into the business, but his works really start to stand out for the first time in 1988. Cybernoid and Cybernoid II, both developed by Raffaele Cecco and published by Hewson Consultants, were also both released in 1988. The latter’s main theme is particularly catchy. The game was a sort of weird combination space shooter and action side scroller, hedging more towards the latter. It appeared on a number of platforms, but its C64 version is by far the most memorable, specifically because of Tel’s musical contributions. He would go on to be remembered alongside Rob Hubbard as one of the greatest Commodore 64 composers. His Cybernoid II music has even been performed by live orchestras, though the success of converting such an essentially chippy tune is dubious. Suffice to say this track is catchy in its original form, and clocking in at 6 minutes, it provides a pleasant motivation for extended gameplay.

The arcade had long established itself as the primary venue for optimal sound quality. The general lack of great arcade soundtracks in my experience makes me wonder if I’m not missing an enormous and important range of video game music. The works of Tamayo Kawamoto in Ghouls’n Ghosts (Capcom, 1988) certainly upholds the higher standard. The majority of the soundtrack is rather dark and ambient, and quite successful as such, but it’s the unique “Stage Two” theme which really stands out. For a relatively unknown video game composer, Tamayo Kawamoto has quite a history. She began her career on Capcom’s Alph Lyla house band, composing arcade music as early as 1984 to include the classic Commando. A few years after Ghouls’n Ghosts she would move on to join Zuntata, the Taito house band responsible for Darius and quite a number of other arcade classics.

The Ghouls’n Ghosts soundtrack, and “Stage Two” in particular, would ultimately be remembered in the form of Tim Follin’s Commodore 64 arrangement, not Tamayo Kawamoto’s original, and for good reason, but let’s give credit where credit’s due.

Even so, the world of the arcade was fading fast, and Zuntata were one of the few acts still putting their all into it. Some bad research on the part of youtube posters lead me to believe for a time that the music of the 1993 Sega-CD/Mega-CD port of The Ninja Warriors (Taito, 1988) was in fact the original, and it’s this latter version for which the game is probably most famous. But unlike with Ghouls’n Ghosts, the music to The Ninja Warriors didn’t conceptually change over time. It just improved in the light of better technology.

The soundtrack of The Ninja Warriors was headed by Hisayoshi Ogura, who also lead the composition of Darius. The track featured here, “Daddy Mulk”, is the most famous in the game. (I have no idea what the origin of this peculiar name is, and I wonder if it’s not an afterthought in consideration of the apparent sound of the electronic voice in the music.) Now that I am aware of the difference between the 1988 arcade soundtrack and its 1993 Sega-CD counterpart I’m a bit surprised that the arcade quality is quite this low. I mean, it’s outstanding compared to anything on competing platforms, but it doesn’t sound like any technological upgrades had been made since Darius two years prior. Another sign of the arcade’s fading significance? Perhaps. Zuntata certainly weren’t cutting corners, as their live renditions and later adaptations of the soundtrack would show. They were still kings of the arcade in 1988, even if this was a dying kingdom, and their legacy is well earned.

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine
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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 25: Meanwhile in Europe…

VGM Entry 25: Meanwhile in Europe…
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

It can be pretty easy to get boxed into a NES perspective and forget that, while Nintendo may have controlled the majority of the gaming market, they weren’t a total monopoly. The Commodore 64 in particular was still a close rival in the area of gaming music.

The same small handful of names seem to pop up everywhere I turn for C64 music. I don’t know if there were in fact fewer musicians, if their works drastically outshines the competition, or if most C64 composers have been unfairly forgotten, but I can tell you this much. Between 1985 and 1987 Rob Hubbard composed the music for over 60 video games. That is completely unheard of for any other time and any other system. Monty on the Run, the first Hubbard work to catch my attention, also happened to be one of his earliest. He would carry on the innovative tradition for many years to come, with such original (to the best of my knowledge) compositions as Nemesis the Warlock (Martech, 1987) rivaling his more famous 1985 works.

The tendency towards covers continued as well. Rob Hubbard visited Larry Fast and his Synergy project again on Zoids (Martech, 1986), this time arranging “Ancestors” from Audion, the same album that featured “Shibolet”. This time around, a version of the original music is conveniently available.

Which Hubbard music I post from here is really quite arbitrary, because the quality of his works is consistently high. Delta (Thalamus, 1987) is among my favorites. Delta is an interesting example of just how low-key video game development used to be. The sequel to Sanxion (Thalamus, 1986), both Delta and its predecessor were programmed by Stavros Fasoulas and composed by Rob Hubbard. To the best of my knowledge, that’s it. Perhaps this is why Hubbard was not composing ending credits themes.

I’ve read that the music to Delta was inspired by Koyaanisqatsi by Phillip Glass, but I have no reliable source to confirm this, and I have not heard the song myself.

Ben Daglish is another prolific C64 composer with dozens upon dozens of titles to his name. It’s pretty easy to miss soundtracks like Mountie Mick’s Death Ride (Ariolasoft, 1987) in the sea of material out there, especially with Daglish not getting quite the excessive attention of Hubbard and Galway. A great stand-alone song, Mountie Mick’s Death Ride also achieves a much higher level of game relativity than the average C64 composition. Unless this video is misleading, the game doesn’t seem to have had a seperate sound effects track at all; Daglish’s composition incorporated the chug of the train into the basic beat of the music.

(This video must have been removed in the past day or two, and I could not find a replacement nor did I have time to overhaul my article to adjust for it. I do hope this was deleted by the poster’s choice and not another victim to the most recent string of copyright threats by these media conglomerates who seem to be buying up massive quantities of obscure, out of print material and erasing all record of their existence. A whole ton of similarly innocent videos from different users seem to have vanished in the past few days.)

A Commodore 64 composer I drew attention to in an early post was Martin Galway, for his work in Yie Ar Kung-Fu and Roland’s Rat Race. I didn’t quite realize how significant the guy was at the time, but the more C64 soundtracks I look at (at least up through 1987), the more he comes across as the guy who scored every soundtrack that Hubbard didn’t. The two both put out ridiculous numbers. To Hubbard’s 60+, Galway can add another 30. Just how many games were released in this three year span?

By 1987, Galway seems to have gotten pretty experimental. A lot of his works don’t feel quite as “safe” as Hubbard’s. Game Over (Imagine, 1987) is a case in point. Weird as it may be, the first 1:50 still constitute a functional game soundtrack. But as the melody all drops out and nothing but Galway’s bizarre experimental drumming is left behind, well… whatever your take on the composition, I think you’ll be hard pressed to conceive of a relevant gaming context.

Maybe it’s just Game Over‘s cool box art that makes me think a relevant gaming context matters in the first place. I mean, if you tried to musically capture the title screen of The Baby of Can Guru (Rainbow Arts, 1987) you would probably be fired. So just as he did with The Great Giana Sisters that same year, Chris Hülsbeck said “to hell with this” and wrote whatever pleased him.

I mean, if the significance of what you’re now hearing hasn’t sunk in yet, let me try to clarify:

THIS GAME has a wicked soundtrack.

Anyway, this about wraps up my thoughts on SID music up through 1987. I will leave you with another Martin Galway piece: the Commodore 64 port of Arkanoid (Imagine, 1987), which is really just as absurd as Hülsbeck’s music for The Baby of Can Guru when you consider that the game is nothing more than a Breakout copycat.

Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were not the only two people writing music for the Commodore 64–I still know next to nothing about David Whittaker, for instance–but it is consistently their works which strike me as noteworthy in the mid-1980s. Chris Hülsbeck, or Huelsbeck if you prefer, seems to really start to make his presence known in 1987, and the works of Jeroen Tel would soon follow. Tim Follin, the mastermind behind the Bionic Commando port arrangement, would also start to really expand his impact beyond the ZX Spectrum in the late ’80s. ’85-’87 might for many people constitute the real glory days of Commodore 64 music, but there was much greatness still to come.


Notice: Square Enix have apparently deemed one of my soundtrack reviews a copyright infringement and demanded I remove the offending content (brief audio samples from an out of print ost). I have complied, and I kindly encourage you to boycott all Square Enix products in the future. Since their games are terrible these days anyway I am probably doing you a favor.

VGM Entry 20: The Great Giana Sisters

VGM Entry 20: The Great Giana Sisters
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

A number of video games released in 1987 would go on to become major generation-spanning series. The Great Giana Sisters was not one of them. In fact, if was probably one of the worst ideas in gaming history. It was apparently developed for release on the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and MSX2 all at the same time, with a ZX Spectrum version to shortly follow. It was intended to be Rainbow Arts’ major commercial rival to the smash hit Super Mario Bros. But what was it exactly?

Well, one version of the box art depicts an attractive, perky-breasted woman in a miniskirt flying through a bizarre montage of giant lobsters, magical mushrooms, UFOs, and deadly dragons guarding foreboding castles on grim, icy mountain peaks.

Another depicts two trailer trash meth addicts sporting peace signs and an “I’m Cool” nametag, along with the suggestive comment that “The brothers are history!” A bit contradictory? Well, look right here! Zzap!64 says it’s “the greatest platform game of all time”, so it must be true!

The music, too, might lead you to believe this. It was also one of the first soundtracks composed by the now legendary Chris Huelsbeck (more often spelled Hülsbeck, though the artist himself uses Anglicized adaptation. For the sake of consistency I’ll stick to the latter in the future). The game’s title screen theme is pretty intriguing, bearing a sense of foreboding that aptly reflects the degree of strife and diversity which at least some versions of the cover art promise to bring.

Are you excited? Or at least curious? Good or bad, all signs point to a game that will in the very least be extraordinarily unique. Well, let’s take a look at the gameplay. Brace yourselves.

Needless to say, they got their pants sued off and pulled every version of the game from the shelves within weeks of its release, never again to see the light of day until Nintendo, perhaps for pure comedy value, allowed publisher Destineer to release it on the DS last year.

Rainbow Arts was a German publisher, and perhaps copyright laws are different there, but one has to imagine that a good many staff members were flipping burgers after this brilliant idea. Chris Hülsbeck would not be among them. He would go on to compose for many Rainbow Arts games to come, including the highly acclaimed Turrican series for which he is best known.

But before we brush The Great Giana Sisters off, really, what is going on with the music here? The main gameplay song is quite catchy and appropriate, but the title screen and underground theme (see Stage 4 in the video, 3:24) have about as much in common with the game as the box art. It would be interesting to find out why he chose these songs in particular. Perhaps they were some unaffiliated demos he had lying around in a dusty desk drawer, or perhaps he took advantage of a terrible game to write what he wanted to with no concern for relativity.

Whatever the case, the staff at Rainbow Arts heard his work even if no consumers did, and his future game assignments seem to reflect his personal style, not the reverse. The title theme and Stage 4 of The Great Giana Sisters examplify precisely the sound he would become famous for.