VGM Entry 60: Splatterhouse

VGM Entry 60: Splatterhouse
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Today is October 1st, and Shattered Lens readers probably have a good idea of what that means.

Namco’s Splatterhouse series first emerged in the arcades in 1988. As the advertisement poster used in this music video suggests, it was one of the first video games that really possessed the graphical capacity for some good old fashion gore. You play as Rick Taylor, a run of the mill college student who takes refuge from a thunderstorm in an old rickety mansion and inevitably finds himself demonically possessed, hacking and slashing his way through all sorts of hellspawn and ultimately butchering his girlfriend before defeating the mansion’s demon fetus-spawning womb and escaping. Quality stuff.

The game is accompanied by quite an impressive soundtrack.

When not taken to weird, incoherent noises such as on “Poltergeist”, the game has a knack for some rather pretty tunes that are only disturbing when placed in context. (The theme for Jennifer is one such instance; let’s not forget that the scene results in you chopping her head off.) I am not sure whether Yoshinori Kawamoto or Katsuro Tajima composed Splatterhouse. The former name crops up slightly more often on vgm websites, but trusting the majority consensus has lead me astray plenty of times before. Unfortunately, Namco have featured so seldom in my gaming music compilation that I am not really in a position to take an educated guess.

Splatterhouse is probably not thought of by most gamers as an arcade series. The original 1988 Splatterhouse only found obscure ports–to the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 in 1990 and the Fujitsu FM Towns in 1992. Its sequels made a bigger splash, becoming staples of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Splatterhouse 2 and Splatterhouse 3 were released only seven months apart, in August 1992 and March 1993 respectively.

Both sequels were composed by Milky Eiko, and despite their wide acclaim, Milky’s rather outlandish pseudonym does not seem to have surfaced since. I could not find any other Eiko associated with Namco, and he must be regarded as both one of the last and one of the most famous game composers to be buried in complete anonymity, before composition credits became standard.

On an odd final note, there was actually another series game, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti, released in 1989. It was an SD game, that is, super deformed, which generally refers in video games to over the top, excessively cute anime portrayals of familiar characters from earlier games. Released exclusively on the Famicom, Wanpaku Graffiti offered good clean serial murder for the whole family.

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 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 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 29: Mario’s many sequels

VGM Entry 29: Mario’s many sequels
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

While the Genesis was just getting started, Nintendo developers were pumping out sequels. Super Mario Bros. 2, Final Fantasy II, Mega Man 2, Dragon Quest III, Super Mario Bros. 3… They were coming out right and left in 1988, and most of them were improvements over the originals.

The first thing you might ask is how Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 ended up being released in the same year. Well, they actually came out a mere two months apart. There is a bit more to this story though, and since Super Mario Bros. 2 has by far the best music among NES installments of the series, there should be time enough to tell it.

The first game to be titled “Super Mario Bros. 2” was released in Japan in March 1986. It seems to be readily downloadable today, but if you’re like me and don’t play games much these days you probably only ever encountered it on Super Mario All-Stars (1993) for the SNES, where it was titled The Lost Levels. As you might recall, it wasn’t particularly interesting; it was pretty much identical to the original, music and all, just with new level designs. This was not originally intended to be the case. A much more unique and creative game had been in development, but for whatever reason Nintendo’s market research lead them to believe that an expansion of the original would have greater commercial success. The project in development was passed off to Fuji Television Network and released as Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic in July 1987. Koji Kondo’s original work went along with the package, and much of what you are hearing now first appeared in Doki Doki Panic.

Nintendo sensed a different interest in the American consumer and went ahead with the original project. You may have heard at some point years back–I know I had–that the American Super Mario Bros. 2 was just some cheaply refurbished port of a non-series Japanese title, but this is not entirely correct. The projects were one and the same for much of the game’s development. In a very peculiar turn of events by early gaming standards, North America (and Europe) got the real Super Mario Bros. 2, and Japan got the ripoff. It took so long for the game to be released in its intended form, however, that it ended up launching in North America at pretty much the exact same time that Super Mario Bros. 3 came out in Japan.

Musically, Super Mario Bros. 2 improved on Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic by integrating peppier renditions of themes from the original Super Mario Bros. The music is also a lot more crisp, though that might be the consequence of differences between the Famicom and the NES. At any rate, it is probably my favorite early Koji Kondo soundtrack. The main theme remains, arguably unlike the original Mario Bros. theme, unconditionally pleasant. The limitations of the NES are a total non-factor here. I wish I could pinpoint what sort of style it is–I get some distant vibe of jazz and ragtime–but it either falls beyond my knowledge base or proceeds from nothing more than Koji Kondo’s incredible talent for writing instant classics. I mean, I never played Super Mario Bros. 2 back in the NES days, but it feels more nostalgic to me than the original Mario theme.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a little less interesting in my opinion, if only because its generally laid back pace and Latin/Caribbean beats just don’t feel quite in harmony with what was probably the fastest-moving of the NES Mario games. But Super Mario Bros. 3 was also the most diverse of these soundtracks, switching up its style as needed to suit a greater variety of level designs. In some instances, most notably “Level 2 Theme” (1:09), Konjo employs sounds more akin to his work in the prequel. “Hammer Brothers” (4:28) seems to be inspired by rock and roll, and the beat-laden revision of the original underworld theme, here amusingly titled “Super Mario Rap” (2:30), is undeniably cool.

I suppose Super Mario Bros. 3 can be justly regarded as the “best” NES-era Mario soundtrack, if nothing else for the shear variety of styles Konjo successfully employed. But it lacks any particular really stand-out tracks–the sort of incredibly catchy anthems for which he is best known.

VGM Entry 19: Ys I

VGM Entry 19: Ys I
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Yuzo Koshiro’s first major breakthrough is generally considered to be Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished (Nihon Falcom, 1987), sometimes alternatively subtitled as The Vanished Omens or The Ancient Land of Ys. While I don’t think it is quite musically on par with Xanadu Scenario II, it is certainly a commendable work. arx7893 on youtube has assembled a very nice collection of songs from various versions of the game. I especially recommend you check out the song “Palace”.

My intention here is to focus specifically on the music for the last boss, known as “Dark Fact” or simply “Final Battle”. It is one of the best examples you will presently find for multi-system song porting, both because Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished was released on a staggering number of platforms and because the song is good enough for most versions to have found their way onto youtube.

This is the initial song. The game was originally developed for the PC-8801, but Yuzo Koshiro was surely aware that it would need to be quickly adapted to other platforms. This first release came on June 21, 1987, and the ports rapidly followed: to the X1 on June 26th, the PC-9801 on August 28th, the FM-7, 77, and 77AV on October 8th, the MSX2 on December 10th, the Famicom on August 26th, 1988, the Sega Mark III on October 15, 1988, the Sega Master System some time in 1988, MS-DOS, the Apple IIGS, and the PC Engine CD-ROM in 1989, the TurboGrafx-CD in 1990, the Sharp X68000 in 1991, and finally the TurboDuo in 1992. Did I mention the list was staggering? It is also available for Microsoft Windows, the Sega Saturn, the Playstation 2, the Nintendo DS, and the Wii now.

Aaanyway, what makes “Dark Fact” a little peculiar is that whoever all arranged it could not seem to agree on what constituted its main melody. In the original PC-8801 version above you have a faint, clean tone playing a simple melody over a deeper, more distorted and complex one. Throw in some basic bass and drums, occasionally accent it with a fifth track, and there’s your song.

The next readily available version is for the FM-7, released a little over three months later. You’ll notice that the original soft lead, previously overshadowed, is now completely gone, while the song’s deeper side is nearly identical. They distorted the principle bass track and made it a lot louder, but that’s about it. Half way through, the song transitions to a completely new melody which successfully outshines the bit they got rid of. From here it repeats.

Then came the MSX2 version, about another two months later. Clearly limited in sound channels, Yuzo Koshiro and crew set aside both of the humbler melodies they had toyed with earlier and elevated that deeper, distorted progression to center stage. The song does not quite function in a live playthrough, what with every other bass note cutting out, but its general idea is quite appealing. It feels like the sort of thing you might expect from a really stellar Game Boy soundtrack, and in a peculiar sort of way I find it more appealing than the previous two examples.

The Famicom port the following year built upon the same approach. Aside from adding drums to the mix, it tweaked the bass a bit to create a sound more suited for the system. Those rare moments where the bass line manages to not cut out in the MSX2 version video, mainly at the very start of the fight, you can really tell how beautifully the two tones compliment each other. The two tracks play fairly equal roles in creating what feels like a single solid sound. But Famicom tones were always a little soft, and the sound team made amends by having the bass line here function more as an appendage to the percussion. The bass note changes as seldom as possible, remaining stagnant where the MSX2 version does not. Rather than complimenting the melody to the fullest, it emphasizes the breakneck pace of the song, creating a much more intense feel to the whole fight.

The MSX2 version is a much more aesthetically pleasing stand-alone track–probably my favorite among the lot of them–but it doesn’t really enhance the fight much, especially considering it pushes too far beyond the system’s limitations for the player to effectively experience it and kill the boss simultaneously. On the Famicom it almost feels as if they acknowledged this and focused on an arrangement that, while fairly similar, makes a bit of a self-sacrifice for the sake of enhancing the actual gameplay experience.

When the game finally made it to the Sega Master System, that soft melody present on the original PC-8801 take and long since forgotten mysteriously resurfaced. The arrangement is bland, lacking any of the contrast of the original, and the obnoxiously bad drums really nullify any redeeming values it may have otherwise had. But the return is an interesting decision. I wonder, whose decision was it?

It is nearly impossible to tell where Yuzo Koshiro’s involvement ends and that of various other staff members begins. The PC-8801, FM-7, MSX2, and Famicom versions certainly sound to me like a careful progression through improvement and system adaptation. I am convinced if nothing else that whoever arranged each of them listened to the previous versions and not just the original.

The SMS approach gives me no such impression. It sounds like the arrangement took the original PC-8801 cut and hastily slapped together a replica with no attention to detail. It is completely devoid of the sophistication present in all four earlier arrangements I have been able to find. The end-game credits list Bo (Tokuhiko Uwabo), Ippo (Izuho Numata), and Neko (still anonymous today) as the sound team, and make no mention of Yuzo Koshiro. The game also features a number of original tracks.

If I may go out of sequence for a moment, it’s worth noting that the Sharp X68000 version, released in 1991, is even worse. It completely abandons the complex and compelling melody which the MSX2 and Famicom versions embraced exclusively, providing nothing more than that boring PC-8801 ‘soft’ melody track and a gimmick “rock and roll” drum beat and guitar rhythm. The drums are less annoying than in the SMS version only because better technology carries them, and they have no greater value. And in consideration of the technology, the wholesale abandonment of the more complex melody is simply inexcusable.

But an interesting point can still be made here. If all you had to go on were the MSX2 and the Sharp X68000 versions, you would likely conclude that they were two entirely unrelated compositions. Yet both clearly and distinctly derive from the original.

I will leave you with the 1989 PC Engine CD-ROM arrangement of “Final Battle”/”Dark Fact”, because almost all future ports and remakes of the game (the Sharp X68000 version excluded) derive from it, not the original.

Based on various liner notes and some samples of his other works, I am pretty positive this was arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu. Unlike the “port arrangements”, which focused on direct improvements to the original, system limitations, or otherwise mere expedience, the PC Engine CD-ROM approach is more of an authentic reinterpretation of the music. It pays ample homage to Yuzo Koshiro, but it doesn’t feel confined by any obligations or limitations. It is faithful and unique at the same time. While I am certainly not blown away, I respect what Ryo Yonemitsu is doing here.

Ryo Yonemitsu, by the way, has quite a history with the Ys soundtrack, having released arrangements of it as early as 1987. Was he the guiding light who ensured so many excellent port arrangements of the final battle theme? Was it Yuzo Koshiro himself? Or was it perhaps a chance occurrence–the consequence of various talented artists recognizing the song’s worth and having a go at it?

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest

VGM Entry 12: Zelda and Dragon Quest
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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.