VGM Entry 62: Enix

VGM Entry 62: Enix
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Today Square might be remembered as the uncontested kings of Super Nintendo RPGs, but this is not an accurate assumption. As a young kid obsessed with anything approximating the genre, I anticipated every new Enix release with nearly equal glee. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Enix was a publisher. You won’t find games developed by them. While Square’s games emerged in house from the drawing board, Enix released titles developed by a wide variety of companies.

Quintet was the leader of this pack. Quintet is a Japanese video game developer officially founded in April 1989. According to Wikipedia, the first game credited to them is Legacy of the Wizard (Nihon Falcom, 1987), an installment of the Dragon Slayer series. Hence a bit of a to-do is made about their origin, with “June 1987 / April 1989” listed as the ambiguous founding date. The source for their official founding date links to a nearly illegible magazine scan (in English), and I don’t want to give myself a headache trying to decipher it, so I’ll take the Wikipedia editor’s word on that one. (The fact that whoever edited the article noticed an ambiguity in the first place marks them as more attentive than the vast majority of game-related editors.)

But the article and its relevant links lead me to believe the issue isn’t as complex as it seems. Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, director and president of Quintet, was a Nihon Falcom employee (he was involved in developing the first three Ys titles), and it just so happens to be the case that Legacy of the Wizard was released in North America in April 1989. The only real confusion is that Wikipedia suggests that Quintet developed both the Famicom and the NES ports, and that the former was released in 1987. If both were released in 1989, or alternatively if Quintet only developed the NES release (if the division of labor between developer and publisher renders this thought unintelligible, my apologies), then there is no issue. And moreover, if Tomoyoshi Miyazaki was a Nihon Falcom employee, the ambiguity may capture a simple gap in time between Miyazaki beginning to call his development team Quintet and his registering the name as a corporate entity.

Whatever the case may be, Quintet were busy in 1993. Following ActRaiser in 1990 and Soul Blazer in 1992, they managed to pump out two games in a span of two months. This probably wasn’t a great idea in retrospect. Illusion of Gaia, composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki, was musically pretty shallow (this might account for why I never bought the game after renting it as a kid), and as an installment in the unofficial Soul Blazer Trilogy it was a sad decline from the quality of Yukihide Takekawa’s Soul Blazer. In its subtler moments, 2:49 to 5:35 for instance, it boasts an atmospheric vibe vaguely reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s Secret of Evermore two years later, but the rest is of poor quality.

ActRaiser 2 on the other hand had an outstanding score, and is a real testament to the diversity offered by Yuzo Koshiro. While I remain unmoved by his more popular Streets of Rage sound, as a classical composer he not only competes outside of the video game spectrum, but makes the Super Nintendo sound like a real symphony with unprecedented professionalism. Nobuo Uematsu is always quick to point out that he had no professional training, and my own musical inclinations lead me to treat such claims with an appreciative nod of respect, but where he did try to emulate an orchestra on the Super Nintendo he never came close to the level of Koshiro. (Indeed, “Dancing Mad”‘s charm is it’s quintessentially SNES sound within the orchestration.)

Koshiro’s work in ActRaiser 2 in contrast might as well have been a live recording. Koshiro is, like Chris Hülsbeck, an artist I’ve I in many ways simply failed to appreciate, but not here. Quintet’s problem in this instance is that Koshiro’s stellar score was ActRaiser 2‘s only redeeming value. I mean, I never played it, but that fact is directly relevant to its commercial failure. In choosing to abandon the simulation side of the gameplay and go for a straight side-scroller they essentially ostracized their entire fanbase and entered a much more competitive field in which the Enix seal of approval meant jack.

Produce was a pretty obscure developer founded in 1990, probably most known for Super Adventure Island (Hudson Soft, 1992) and The 7th Saga. My most vivid memories of The 7th Saga are of the obnoxious pseudo-avoidable encounters that were for all practical purposes random but gave you the sensation of just being bad at avoiding them. Still, as with most Enix titles it was a refreshing change of pace from the Dragon Quest-patterned norm, and perhaps it had a good plot of which I was simply oblivious at the time (I doubt it though.)

What really strikes me though, listening to this video, is that it actually had a really great soundtrack. Norihiko Yamanuki doesn’t even have a vgmdb entry, and he’s surely one of the most obscure SNES composers to have actually accomplished something. There’s nothing really compositionally striking about the music of The 7th Saga, and it doesn’t really surprise me that I overlooked it as a kid. Yamanuki’s accomplishment here is more in the subtle qualities of the arrangement. The bubbly little tapping tones that prevail throughout this collection, most dominantly in the track at 1:00, really give the game a heartwarming sort of appeal; it’s quite pretty.

Ogre Battle was probably the most successful real-time strategy game for the SNES, at least in the United States. It stemmed from a long lineage of similar titles in Japan, but few had found sufficient success for overseas ports. Quest, the developer, had worked on similar projects in the past, though Ogre Battle would be the first in their Ogre series. A game of few settings and themes–the entire plot unfolds within the combat setting, and there are no separate story scenes as in say, Final Fantasy TacticsOgre Battle demanded a whole bunch of tunes well suited for long, drawn-out conflict.

The game did, nevertheless, have a pretty extensive soundtrack. Masaharu Iwata did the bulk of the composition, contributing 24 tracks, while Hitoshi Sakimoto added 12 and Hayato Matsuo added 6 (based on the ost liner notes on vgmdb). If the music sounds a little similar to the score of Final Fantasy Tactics, that’s no coincidence. Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto composed it too.

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Super Nintendo RPG/Adventure legacy didn’t come over night. But ActRaiser (Enix, 1990), Final Fantasy IV (Square, 1991), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) did not necessarily set the stage, either. RPGs had been huge in Japan for quite some time. The Super Nintendo provided both the capacity to carry them and the consistency to focus costs on a single product (imagine the amount of time and resources which must have went into porting PC RPGs to a half-dozen different systems). This didn’t inspire computer gaming companies to switch gears–Nihon Falcom continued to pump out their titles for the PC-9801 all the way up to 1996, slowly switching to Windows with only one Super Famicom title, Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin (1995), to show for themselves in between. But other publishers saw RPGs as a more viable option now, and Capcom, Taito, and Nintendo hopped on the bandwagon while Square and Enix picked up the pace. (Konami held off producing RPGs until the Playstation era.)

The fact that these types of games did not start to appear in abundance on the SNES until 1992 might have been a simple consequence of developers spending most of 1991 making them. 1992 to 1995 were the glory days of SNES fantasy gaming, and perhaps the crowning era in the history of video game music.

Capcom’s first big RPG was Breath of Fire (1993), credited to a long list of composers including Yasuaki Fujita (Mega Man 3), Mari Yamaguchi (Mega Man 5), Minae Fujii (Mega Man 4), Yoko Shimomura (Gargoyle’s Quest, Street Fighter II), and Tatsuya Nishimura. Thankfully track by track authorship is actually available, and we can see that Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita did the grand bulk of the composing, with Mari Yamaguchi contributing five songs and the other three chipping in a song each.

Here’s a track list for the compilation:

(0:00) The Dragon Warrior
(1:24) Fate
(2:54) Starting the Journey ~Breath of Fire~
(4:11) Deep Forest
(5:18) Battling
(6:02) Sand Palace
(7:07) Dejection
(8:05) Fishing

As a series, Breath of Fire was not really all that well noted for its contributions to video game music. I don’t want to blow off the rest of the games here and now before revisiting them, but I distinctly remember playing through most of them with the radio on (I never actually played Breath of Fire V). The original Breath of Fire was definitely more of an exception than than the rule. The soundtrack is peppered with memorable, moody numbers. It’s most famous song, at least in so far as it was carried on in future installments, is Mari Yamaguchi’s overworld theme, “Starting the Journey”. But it is Yasuaki Fujita’s bleaker contributions that really make the game stand out from the crowd. “Deep Forest” and “Dejection” could both easily pass for ending credits themes to some complex plotline defying the good versus evil stereotype–the sort of RPG we all crave but rarely find outside of the Suikoden series. They’re both delightfully dark and finite, screaming “it’s over, but did you really win?”

Of course neither of them are actually credits music, and Breath of Fire was never known for its plot. The series had an incredible knack for being simultaneously completely forgettable and quite fun to play–perhaps a consequence of actually challenging combat (at least, in comparison to the vast majority of turn-based RPGs.) When it came to music, the original was the only one that actually made a lasting impression on me when I played it.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, composed by Yasunori Shiono, was another series starter in 1993. There were actually only two Lufia titles in the 90s, and I suspect the later handheld releases came as an afterthought. Taito were prolific producers with a history in the gaming industry dating all the way back to 1973, but they had always shied away from the RPG market. With the cooperation of newly-established developers Neverland Co., Lufia would be their first attempt.

As for the history of Neverland, something on Wikipedia is clearly wrong. It claims Lufia‘s developer was founded on May 7th, 1993, and it claims the game was released on June 25th, 1993. But while Neverland certainly must have had an earlier origin, Lufia does appear to be their first of very few titles. In that regard, the Lufia series was kind of unique. I won’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes in the gaming industry (my dream of directing RPGs has always been a total fantasy), but I have to imagine when a producer develops their own game there’s a fairly more intimate degree of interaction between the two sides. Square and Nintendo as of 1993 nearly always developed their own games. The wildcards in the world of non-PC RPGs almost always went through Enix (the most famous developers being Quintet and Chunsoft). Neverland-Taito then seems like a pretty unique pairing–an independent developer working with a producer that had never marketed an RPG.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was in every manner a rough draft–a sort of prototype for Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which was infinitely better and one of the best RPGs in the history of the SNES. Unlike Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (from what I gather), Breath of Fire, Seiken Densetsu, Quintet’s unofficial ‘Soul Blazer Trilogy’, and Zelda really, the Lufia series was both plot-centric and cumulative, taking place in the same world with a continuous history and related/reoccurring characters. As if in collusion with the rest of the development team’s maturation, Yasunori Shiono’s compositions improved substantially in the second title, but we will get to that later.

Good adventure/RPG music was not limited to the Super Nintendo. The Game Boy was a musical instrument par excellence, with by far the most aesthetically pleasing tones of any system on the market lacking diverse instrument sampling. (I hope that’s a suitable delineation for a technical subject of which I still know absolutely nothing.) The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is far and wide my favorite score in the Zelda series. It might have nothing on Ryuji Sasai’s work on Final Fantasy Legend III, but Link’s Awakening brings the Game Boy to life in a really beautiful way. Indeed, its only real fault is a failure to employ his three-dimensional stereo effects. The game’s crowning jewel, Tal Tal Heights, appears early in this compilation (0:30), but the whole score merits attention.

Koji Kondo surprisingly had nothing to do with it. Link’s Awakening was a joint effort between Kazumi Totaka, Minako Hamano, and Kozue Ishikawa, all of whom I’ve yet to mention. Kazumi Totaka actually had a pretty long history with Nintendo, providing music for the sort of games you might expect to hear Soyo Oka on (Mario Paint, Wave Race 64, most notably Animal Crossing, which I do hope I remember to feature if I ever get that far). Minako Hamano was responsible for roughly half of the Super Metroid soundtrack, though her name rapidly fades from the pages of history, and Kozue Ishikawa is a virtual unknown. But this motley crew managed to piece together one of the quintessential scores of the Game Boy, and in doing so earn themselves a place in video game music history.

VGM Entry 53: Soul Blazer

VGM Entry 53: Soul Blazer
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

A personal SNES favorite of mine is Soul Blader (Soul Blazer in North America), composed by Yukihide Takekawa and released by Enix in January 1992. Takekawa is not a big name in the video game music industry, but he’s composed a number of other soundtracks for film and anime. I gather his main profession is as a vocalist. Whatever influences he brought to the table, Soul Blader is a much more diverse soundtrack than your standard orchestral-centric fantasy fair.

Quintet made a lot of amazing games for the Super Nintendo, but this one was probably their best. Like ActRaiser, the game revolves around a heaven and hell scenario, where The Master faces off against The King of Evil, in this case named Deathtoll. Basically, a powerful king corrupted by greed forces a scientist, Dr. Leo, to invent a portal to hell so that the king can strike a deal with the devil. Deathtoll agrees to give him all the riches in the world in exchange for all of the souls in his empire, and King Magridd promptly goes about replicating these hell portals all over the place and trapping pretty much all life and material connected to it within them. The Master sends you, his messenger, to earth to destroy the portals and set the Freil Empire free.

That’s the entire plot, really. There aren’t any major twists or turns. You just make your way across a fantasy realm freeing souls until you finally confront and defeat Deathtoll. As far as an actual story is concerned, yeah, it’s pretty bland, but Quintet manage to really turn it into something wonderful.

You may have heard of the “Soul Blazer” series, consisting of Soul Blader, Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma. I never played Illusion of Gaia, and Terranigma was never released in North America, but I gather the unofficial series attribution is derived from subtle commonalities and returning side-characters rather than any overt consistency in plot or gameplay. If that is the case, then I think we can safely regard ActRaiser as an equal shareholder in the collection. But before I get into that, let’s look at this initial track compilation. It consists of:

(0:00) Intro Theme
(1:27) Lonely Town
(2:14) World of Soul Blader
(3:32) Solitary Island
(4:34) The Mines
(6:01) Into the Dream
(6:40) Dr. Leo’s Lab
(7:37) The Marshland of Lost Sight
(8:24) Lisa’s Song

Solitary Island, The Mines, Dr. Leo’s Lab, and The Marshland of Lost Sight are all combat zone themes, and perhaps the most obvious examples of what an amazing job Yukihide Takekawa did here. If you’re struggling to really define his style, I think the appropriate term is “video game music”. I mean, Takekawa transcends all style standards in precisely that way Super Nintendo music ought to. If you check out Solitary Island especially, you’re going to here an amalgamation of folk, orchestral, and rock elements so thoroughly intertwined that any attempt to distinguish between them would be simply misguided. The effect produced in the listener is what really counts at this point. Takekawa’s combat music, aside from the final boss theme, is never really intimidating. It’s adventurous and, as a consequence of the bass and drums, a little bit grimy, precisely as it ought to be. I mean, you’re God’s avatar here. You can’t ‘die’. There’s no serious danger, just work to be done. This is music for getting down to business, and your business is killing demons. If the regular boss battle music (“The Battle for Liberation”) is utterly generic and “Dr. Leo’s Lab” gets old quickly, I would still say Takekawa did an outstanding job over all.

And besides that, the combat music is all extraordinarily relevant. The sort of creatures you’ll be fighting in Dr. Leo’s lab is obvious enough through the music, and likewise “Solitary Island” has a sort of pirate vibe going on. “Icefield of Laynole” (or “The Icy Fields of Leinore”, or “Ice Field of Lanoyle”, depending on your source) is one of the best at this. Without ever devorcing the drum and bass style that ties the whole soundtrack together, it nails a snow and ice-themed zone sound. It doesn’t bend to any stereotypes of what a winter zone ought to sound like, but the jazzy overtones lend some real credence to the expression “smooth as ice”.

Isn’t this just gorgeous? I think so. Takekawa let his imagination run wild with some of these, and you can hear the whole game in action even if you’ve never actually seen it. “Seabed of Saint Elle’s” (or “The Depths of the Sea of Saint Elle’s”) is obviously the water level. Like “Icefield of Laynole”, it doesn’t feel nearly as dirty as the other combat zone tracks, and it’s no coincidence that these are the two most fanciful zones in the game, inhabited by dolphins on the one end and gnomes on the other.

Dolphins? Really? Well, Quintet were a bit more creative about that than you might think. One of the big reoccurring themes throughout Soul Blazer is reincarnation, and as God you can communicate with anything that has a soul. So you’re not dealing with some weird anthropomorphic society here. They’re certainly a bit more, well, technologically advanced than real dolphins, but so are plenty of fictional human societies. The souls you encounter everywhere are all capable of more or less the same level of intelligence and are only restricted by their physical bodies. The gnomes, for instance, have an incredibly short lifespan, and their souls often reflect on how much they’d taken for granted in past lives as humans. You get used to this pretty quick; the first character you meet in the game is a tulip.

I’m not sure why these track titles are so screwy. I have this song as “Temple of Light”. RPGFan, who I consider reputable, have it as “A Temple in Ruins”, and the youtube video says “Rotting Temple”. Your guess is as good as mine. Anyway, here is one of the few combat zone tracks that sets aside the drum and bass drive. Aside from the simple fact that this made for a great song, the change of pace fits its situation in the game as a dungeon within a dungeon; you enter the temple from the “Marshland of Lost Sight” combat zone.

Anyway, the biggest parallel between Soul Blazer and ActRaiser is really in the whole city-building simulation appeal. Quintet didn’t give Soul Blazer an actual city simulation side, but each town does grow as a direct consequence of your actions. Each town zone starts out as an empty map, and it’s only as you release souls within the combat zones that their bodies reappear and their homes are rebuilt. You certainly don’t have to save every soul to beat the game, and a number of them are hidden, so you do retain a modest degree of control over how each town will ultimately appear. Any possibility of boredom with the game’s fairly basic combat mechanics is nullified by it; you essentially build cities by killing monsters, which is a perfect amalgamation of ActRaiser‘s two different modes.

Did I mention Yukihide Takekawa was a vocalist? He might be the only video game composer to sing on his own score. This rendition of Lisa’s Song (also credited as A Night Without Lovers /Koibito no Inaiyoru) appeared on the official soundtrack released about a month after the game, and I think it’s safe to assume that it would have appeared in the game’s ending credits had the technology of the day allowed for it.

And now if you’ll go excuse me, I have a date with ZSNES. And I’d been so good about not wasting time on replays up to this point…

VGM Entry 43: ActRaiser

VGM Entry 43: ActRaiser
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Three other SNES games I have yet to mention were relased in 1990. One was Gradius III, composed by the Konami Kukeiha Club (in this case Junichiro Kaneda, Seiichi Fukami, Miki Higashino, Keizo Nakamura, and Mutsuhiko Izumi) and originally released in the arcade in 1989. Another was Pilotwings, composed by Soyo Oka. The third was easily the most impressive soundtrack released in 1990.

I have questioned Yuzo Koshiro’s judgement in the past, but I will do no such thing today. ActRaiser (Enix, 1990) decisively set the RPG and adventure gaming musical standard on the SNES. Funny that it wasn’t either. Through this weird and extraordinary amalgamation of side-scroll action and city simulation, Yuzo Koshiro crafted not only the first truly and unconditionally great Super Nintendo soundtrack, but the first gaming music I have encountered to feel like a real orchestration, and not merely the basis for one.

This was inevitable. The likes of Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama were crafting music that was clearly intended for orchestration in the early days of the Nintendo. Moreover, while arcade systems may have been capable of creating similarly orchestrated sounds, the extended gameplay associated with this sort of music just wouldn’t have been practical. That Yuzo Koshiro was the first to pull it off though, and to pull it off so well, comes as somewhat of a surprise to me. He was by no means new to this genre of music, but it never seemed to be his desired focus. As a musician who would end up best known for clubhouse-mixable material, the level of success he achieved within the symphonic spectrum on the SNES is remarkable, far exceeding both his PC-8801 material and all of my expectations.

But then, ActRaiser was part side-scroller. There was room for action music of a more ‘single level’ sort than say, an RPG battle tune. On “Filmore”, or “Filmoa”, Koshiro got to let loose his more rocking nature. It’s actually remarkable that he managed to retain such an authentically classical vibe in the midst of it. Whatever light bulb went off on in his head, he managed to produce one of the Super Nintendo’s most famous pieces. “Filmore” deserves just about any amount of praise you can heap on it.

Already within a month of the Super Nintendo’s Japanese launch, here was a musician utilizing the new technology to create essentially a fully orchestrated album. ActRaiser was recorded by a real symphony the following year, and while action tracks like “Filmore” sounded distinctly different, Yuzo Koshiro’s softer stuff was barely distinguishable from the original material. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the difference in quality is obvious, but the parts were already written. Little needed be added to convert the music into a live performance. On songs like “Sacrifices” you can plainly tell that Koshiro was himself making no distinction. There is no attempt to conform to limitations here. Koshiro did not need to alter his orchestral vision to suit a distinctly electronic sound. That was a concern of the past. On the SNES you could sound orchestral if you wanted to with no misgivings, or you could maintain older styles of video game composition and sound worlds above your predecessors, as in the case of say, Bombuzal. Many musicians would go on to effectively fuse both.

There had been unconditionally excellent game soundtracks before outside of the C64. Hisayoshi Ogura and Tim Follin were the names attached to many of these, while I will continue to hold that Kenneth W. Arnold reigned supreme. Manami Matsumae, and moreso Takashi Tateishi, managed two rare ‘perfect’ NES compositions. But these were all such grand exceptions. The SNES would begin to pump out rivals at an alarming rate, and would continue to do so for its entire history. The system’s proximity to real instrumentation allowed musicians to do nearly anything they wanted with it.

I think maybe Commodore 64 music sounds so great because it is so distanced from any natural sounds that it feels like an entirely new genre of music, more on the cutting edge than outdated. Of the rest, arcade music was simply too much of a small niche market to really thrive, while the Nintendo’s sound was some wishy-wash in between. Musicians like Manami Matsumae and Takashi Tateishi managed to really embrace the chippy sound and give their music a fresh vibe, but most artists were stuck in that middle ground of being far, far distanced from real instrumentation and yet a bit too close to constitute anything else. Even the best efforts, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, were only great by NES standards. Super Nintendo music, like Commodore 64 music, could be great in its own right, and much like the C64, the SNES would inspire a generation of competitive and creative musicians determined to leave their mark on the world.

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 27: PC-8801

VGM Entry 27: PC-8801
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

If I want to cover every field, it would be a certain mistake to overlook the impact of the NEC PC-8801 during this time. I have incorporated a few titles into the mix already. Thexder (Game Arts, 1985) by Hibiki Godai was the first noteworthy soundtrack for the platform I’ve found making use of the Yamaha YM2203 sound chip. Xanadu Scenario II (Nihon Falcom, 1986), predominantly the work of Takahito Abe, and Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished (Nihon Falcom, 1987) by Yuzo Koshiro the following year were developed for various platforms, but the PC-8801 seems to have been Falcom’s flagship. Unfortunately I’ve found it nearly impossible, between the language barrier and the myriad ports, to find suitable examples of most of Takahito Abe’s other PC-8801 works, and Yuzo Koshiro’s pre-1988 works seem to be just as obscure. But were they the only composers making the system shine?

Silpheed (Game Arts, 1986) was another product of Hibiki Godai, at least as best I can tell. The only credits I could find were for the 1988 MS-DOS port by Sierra On-Line, which list Hibiki Godai, Nobuyuki Aoshima, Fumihito Kasatani, and Hiromi Ohba. Since the majority of the other names in the credits are Americans, it’s quite possible that all four of these musicians had a hand in the original composition.

In a way, the music feels a little bland compared to that of the European musicians I’ve recently discussed. This is certainly a product of differences in sound chips, but I am at least a little inclined to believe that both the distorted nature of Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum sound and the atmosphere of experimentation and bold composition that permeated European sound programming did in fact inspire better music than competing scenes managed to produce at the time. Even so, Silpheed has some exceptional songs–most notably the one beginning at 13:00–and it’s a good example of what Japanese computer gaming sounded like.

Or so I like to believe. Sorcerian (Nihon Falcom, 1987) is yet another Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe collaboration, with Mieko Ishikawa additionally credited. Kenji Kawai is listed separately as the 1992 PC-Engine arranger, so for once we can at least make some distinction in that regard. But so long as the same names keep popping up, I can’t help but think I’m only getting a very small sample of a much larger field. And furthermore, the significance of the PC-8801 for these titles musically is not a given. Almost all of Nihon Falcom’s games were released across an enormous spread of systems which typically included at least the PC-8801, PC-9801, Sharp X1, and MSX2. As has been shown with Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished, this entailed endless variation and reinterpretation of the central themes. “Dark Fact” almost seemed to evolve with every port, with no clear explanation as to whether Yuzo Koshiro changed his mind about how it ought to sound or port arrangers independently reinterpreted the music at every step, often basing their take on previous ports rather than the original.

If these composers knew that their songs would take so many forms, did they really write their music for the PC-8801 at all, or were they aiming for compositions which could function through a wide array of sound configurations? Or, if they were personally involved in the ports, did they perhaps gear their music towards a preferred system for which the game might not necessarily be released on first? No amount of exploring PC-8801 compositions has helped to clarify these questions.

The problem is compounded by a complete absence of credits for the vast majority of PC-8801 games. In the absence of a PC88 game library (I am eternally in debt to such sites as Lemon 64, World of Spectrum, and Lemon Amiga), I have absolutely no clue what Shinra Bansho (Nihon Telenet, 1987) is beyond the name of its developer. This is my second favorite PC-8801 soundtrack (after Snatcher, which I’ll be addressing later), but I haven’t a clue who wrote it. Perhaps Nihon implies Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe, if they were the only house musicians, but since this is Nihon Telenet, not Nihon Falcom, and I have no idea what that distinction entails, it would be folly to ascribe any artist attribution.

I am entirely at the mercy of grad1u52 on youtube for finding PC-8801 music in the first place, as he is the only member taking active steps to preserve it, but the information he supplies for each game is unfortunately non-existent. Lots of other titles, the music for which is readily available, fall into this same boat.

The only substantial hint I can offer is that composers hardly ever freelanced at this time, and developers rarely boasted a large sound staff. If you can identify a developer’s house composer in the mid-80s, it almost always seems to be the case that they scored every release during their tenure. Square and Enix make a good case in point. Such obscure PC-8801 titles as Cruise Chaser Blassty (Square, 1986) and Jesus: Dreadful Bio-Monster (Enix, 1987) were composed by Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama respectively, not passed off to secondary musicians (not that Uematsu had succeeded in making a name for himself by 1986). Both soundtracks were second rate, with Uematsu sounding completely lost in a non-fantasy setting and Sugiyama cutting corners to the extent of including tracks from Dragon Quest, but that is quite besides the point. With the company consistently identifying the composer, there might still exist a means to figure these old, cryptically credited PC-8801 games out short of learning Japanese.

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Two fantasy-style games in 1986 achieved massive retail success and thereby brought the genre to the attention of the masses. These, it should be fairly obvious, were The Legend of Zelda (Nintendo) and Dragon Quest (Enix). Both games are likewise frequently cited among the most important soundtracks for the Famicom/NES. I think this can be a bit misleading.

The Legend of Zelda had a truly epic main theme, with which Koji Kondo almost certainly surpassed his work in Super Mario Bros. Whether it was the best video game song written up to that point is really a matter of personal preference; it is not as though it had no competition. Regardless, this was the first installment of Nintendo’s second major franchise gaming series, and the sort of anthem Koji Kondo was able to craft for Link had enormous marketing benefits. It’s not as though lead characters in Nintendo’s games became popular out of the shear force of the company’s good name. No one really remembers say, Professor Hector (Gyromite and Stack-Up) or Mr. Stevenson (Gumshoe). If Link was going to become a franchise character, he was going to need a theme song, and in that regard Koji Kondo pulled through once again.

What else did The Legend of Zelda have going for it musically? Well… very little. I mean, the Underground Level theme (3:18) is pretty cool–all 18 seconds of it. It reminds me of some of Uematsu and Mitsuda’s later works. But there just isn’t much else to this game. The title screen and overworld theme are variations on the same (awesome) melody. Death Mountain (3:48) sounds like it was thrown together in five minutes, and the ending theme (1:42), while catchy, is simply in the wrong game. It is Mario music.

Koji Kondo is one of the most important figures in the history of video game music, no doubt about it, but the bar had not been raised quite so high on the NES in 1986 as it had been in the home computing world. Thus The Legend of Zelda sounds great within the context of its system, but a little primitive in the larger scope of things.

The interesting thing about Dragon Quest to my western ears is that the game series was never all that hot here. I seem to recall reading at the time of Dragon Quest VIII‘s Japanese release–and we’re talking 2004 so I may be very much mistaken–that the game franchise had sold more copies than Final Fantasy. At any rate, it is important to recognize that this series was huge in Japan. The original Dragon Quest formalized nearly every stereotype of traditional RPGs. This video should make that fairly clear, and it’s pretty significant to note that this was not a product of Eastern adventure/RPG traditions. Yuji Horii took his inspiration from the Ultima and Wizardy series on the Apple II, and it’s at this point that the two genres really diverge. Japan would become the centerpoint of both Eastern and Western traditions, and just a Legend of Zelda served as the quintessential starting point for the modern adventure game, Dragon Quest permanently defined the RPG.

Like The Legend of Zelda‘s overworld theme, Dragon Quest‘s title theme became a series staple, but “Overture March” took quite a while to grow on me. A good many other ears might hear delicious nostalgia, but its quality does not immediately jump out at me. It’s really how Koichi Sugiyama continually developed and improved upon it in future games that makes the original fun to revisit. The rest of the soundtrack was, like Ultima III and Ultima IV, perfectly well suited for the RPG experience, and wider distribution meant that Sugiyama would be much more influential in standardizing this approach. I would be shocked if “Unknown World” (1:40) did not heavily influence Nobuo Uematsu. It could be a chiptune take on a Final Fantasy VII track, and it’s quite pleasant. Still, and unlike Kenneth W. Arnold’s works, the original soundtrack does have its flaws. The combat music (2:22) is terrible, grating on the ears on the first listen let alone after the constant encounters one expects in an RPG.

But in setting the standards for the series he would faithfully continue to compose for the next twenty five years (the man is now 81 years old and still making music), Koichi Sugiyama also set the standard for what RPGs should sound like. The standard was already in practice, as I hope I have shown, but the enormous influence that the Dragon Quest series would have on video games in Japan probably prevented a lot of deviation from this norm in the future. And much to Koichi Sugiyama’s credit, the music definitely improved over time. Dragon Quest II, released by Enix in January 1987, less than a year after the series debut, would retain the original’s best tracks while replacing the obvious duds with significant improvements.

By Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988), Koichi Sugiyama had firmly established himself as one of the best RPG composers of the 1980s. His emphasis on continuity and improvement of past works rather than wholly original soundtracks allowed each game to feel both refreshing and entirely familiar. In the cases of the best tracks, the changes are barely even noticeable. “Overture March” in Dragon Quest III begins almost identically to the original for instance. The melody is a little more staccato, and that’s it. If it’s not broke, why fix it?

I don’t know that I would call either The Legend of Zelda or Dragon Quest great soundtracks. The Legend of Zelda contained an especially great song, but I feel like allowing one song to carry a game was beginning to be a cop-out by 1986. Dragon Quest formed a more complex whole, and it’s definitely closer to excellence, but I feel like it still lets the shortcoming of the NES get the better of it at times in sound selection for what were certainly wonderful melodies. It’s also got the Combat theme to deal with, and such a reoccurring flaw is hard to ignore. Koichi Sugiyama would continually improve, and Koji Kondo too would be stepping up his game before the Famicom expired, particularly with Super Mario Bros. 2 in 1988.