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 Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems.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 23: Wizards & Warriors

VGM Entry 23: Wizards & Warriors
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

If we are looking for the best soundtracks in the fantasy genre up through 1987, of what I have heard Koichi Sugiyama, Nobuo Uematsu, and the early team efforts of Yuzo Koshiro and Takahito Abe take the cake in pretty much every category, while the works of Kenneth W. Arnold in Ultima III and Ultima IV for the Apple II remain my personal favorites. But there is probably a lot of great stuff out there which I am missing. There are also some absolutely phenomenal songs that simply lack the context of well-rounded albums.

The works of David Wise in Wizards & Warriors (Acclaim, developed by Rare, 1987) make for an excellent example. The game is not in RPG or adventure format; it is a typical side-scrolling hack and slash with a medieval setting. As such, it calls for slightly more action-oriented songs, and that seems to have been a weak point for Wise at this stage of his career. But perhaps more importantly, he seems to sell himself short, leaving a lot of songs unfinished.

The title screen track is a simply gorgeous classical piano piece which could not help but function in any gaming medium past or present. It is a nice little reminder that the excessive emphasis on orchestration today is not always necessary. And it is not the only excellent song in the game.

“Outside the Castle” is arguably much better. In spite of the track looping after only 17 seconds, it feels as though it could go on forever. The periodically fading wave in the background is such a small touch, but it magnificently transforms an already pretty pleasing tune into something entirely enchanting. It has that sort of time dilation effect which came to characterize later forest-theme songs.

But the brevity of Wise’s compositions quickly begins to cause trouble. “Inside the Tree” could be a wonderful song, full of subtle, tasteful variations on a theme which is neither too safe for a little action nor too aggressive for anything else. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s only six seconds long! Wise, what were you thinking?

And on that note, why is this called “Inside the Tree” anyway? It sounds like it should be the sort of tune that plays inside a castle or library or something, whereas the actual song “Inside the Castle” is a boring mess that should have never been included in the game. I don’t think I’m being picky here–“Outside the Castle” functions well enough, but it definitely has a forest vibe to me, and there is a forest stage, you know. “Invincibility Potion” is actually really pretty, and could have functioned effectively as an end credit theme, or at least the start of one. (It’s only 16 seconds.) Instead, the game has no ending credit music at all. Meanwhile,”Invincibility Potion” is so out of character for any action sequence that I think I’d have been inclined to avoid the item during gameplay just to not ruin the vibe. And the boss music, oh the boss music! It simulates the sort of dread you might associate with learning that your mother-in-law is visiting for the weekend.

Here is “Forest”, or “Forest of Elrond”, depending on which track listing you’re looking at. Entirely inappropriate for the theme of the game and absurdly obnoxious when heard for more than half a minute or so, I think it reiterates my point. This whole soundtrack to me feels like Dave Wise either had zero confidence in his song-writing capabilities or else was given about three days to complete the project and had to submit incomplete tracks and some slapped-together last minute fillers. And yet the songs that pull through, most notably the title screen/end credits and “Outside the Castle”, rank among the best songs on the NES.

The music of Gauntlet (Tengen, 1987) for the Nintendo was composed by Hal Canon. (Atari’s 1985 arcade Gauntlet, on which it is based, contained very little music, and Canon’s work is original.) The theme of Stage 1 is entirely appropriate for the ghoul and goblin-graced dungeon on the load screen. Despite the game being quite distanced from your typical adventure game, the music manages to keep pace and still present a wonderful medieval vibe. I do not wish to say that the album falls short after the first level, because it does remain fairly well written and entirely appropriate to the gameplay, but it abandons any serious attempt to sound classical after that first phenomenal success. The music only continues to work because the game itself isn’t nearly as thematic as the title screen leads us to believe. Hal Canon proves here to be a consistently good composer; he doesn’t quit trying the way Wise seems to have. If only he’d remained consistent in style as well, Gauntlet could have numbered among the best.