Music Video Of The Day: I Can’t Dance by Genesis (1992, directed by Jim Yukich)

“It’s not about being unable to dance.  It’s about guys that look good but can’t string a sentence together. Each verse is a piss-take at the scenario of a jeans commercial. It was good fun, but the audience thought, ‘What does he mean that he can’t dance?’ They didn’t see the humor, and it killed the fun.”

— Phil Collins on I Can’t Dance

Ok, Phil.  Whatever you say.

Tony Banks, Genesis’s keyboardist, has said that the song actually came about because he and Mike Rutherford were fooling around with various sounds in the recording studio and Phil, hearing what they were doing, suddenly sang out, “I can’t dance!” The song started out as an improvised joke but then went on to become one of the band’s biggest hits.  It was also nominated for a Grammy.

The end of the video is meant to be a parody of the original ending of Michael Jackson’s video for Black or WhiteBlack or White originally ended with Michael Jackson’s dancing erratically and destroying a car.  I Can’t Dance ends with Tony and Mike dragging Phil away before can do too much damage.


VGM Entry 65: Follin in the 90s

VGM Entry 65: Follin on the SNES
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The average quality of Tim Follin’s compositions seemed to progressively decline with every new improvement to technology. A sort of daredevil musician accustomed to breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, I think the relative freedom of SNES composition forced him to find new forms of inspiration. Sometimes the muses moved him, and quite often they did not. When it did click for him, he showcased the same level of creative aptitude he’d been stirring up the gaming music world with since 1985.

Plok (developed by Software Creations, first published by Tradewest, 1993) was an instance in which Follin most certainly did rise to the challenge. For a goofy little game, here was a simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful score.

Tim and Geoff collaborated on this one, as they had often times before (I may well have falsely credited Tim with Geoff’s work on occasion), and it all came together exceptionally well in this instance. The track beginning at 1:48, “Venge Thicket”, especially exhibits precisely the sort of upbeat prog rock for which Tim excels, with a definite Ghouls’n Ghosts vibe. The track at 5:00, “Cotton Island”, does a delightful job of busting out in trademark over-the-top Follin style while remaining entirely within the corny and fun setting of the game it represents. “Akrillic“, not featured in the above compilation, is more of a smooth, relaxing jazz-prog ride that far exceeds the game for which it was written.

Plok was not the first great Super Nintendo soundtrack by the Follin brothers. Tim and Geoff also collaborated for Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge, another Software Creations development, published by LJN in 1992. It was, as it turns out, the only Follin game I actually owned as a kid, and its music was the leading cause in my purchasing it after playing a rental. Tim has supposedly cited Guns N’ Roses as a musical influence, but it’s only on the Arcade’s Revenge title theme that you can clearly hear it.

The whole rock and roll approach to composition was not a one-time go for the Follin brothers, though it was fairly foreign to their pre-SNES games. They would employ a much heavier rock influence throughout most of their SNES catalogue, most obviously on Rock n’ Roll Racing (Interplay, 1993). But it didn’t always work. Arcade’s Revenge was more the exception than the rule. In any case, it was not strictly rock, and the music of the Gambit stages in particular exhibit a wide variety of electronic beats intermixed with rock and prog.

The music to the Spider-Man stages was perhaps the most memorable of the game for me, and not merely because they were the only ones I could consistantly beat. It’s definitely the most diverse song in the game, intermingling prog and classical with some funk and jazz in a subdued sort of way that matched the cool vibe of the opening level, where you infiltrate a high security facility with a smoggy night sky as your backdrop. It made an otherwise tedious game well worth playing. . . . With a Game Genie.

The Follin brothers were mostly committed to the SNES throughout the 1990s, but at least one incursion was made into the world of the Genesis/Mega Drive. To the best of my knowledge Tim is responsible for the title screen music to Time Trax, and he probably wrote it in 1993 or 1994. Its extension from the Arcade’s Revenge sound should be fairly apparent. Unfortunately neither the game itself nor any other songs from it are available. Malibu Games released a SNES version with an entirely different score in 1994, but the Mega Drive version was dropped prior to publishing.

VGM Entry 59: Street Fighter II and SNES domination

VGM Entry 59: Street Fighter II and SNES domination
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

An enormous disparity had emerged between the Super Nintendo and competing platforms by the early to mid-90s. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, released two years sooner, still didn’t have much to offer, and the arcade was fading fast. The former simply couldn’t compete with the SNES’s ability to simulate real instrumentation, and the latter, I suspect, was no longer funded the way it used to be. This lends itself to a number of comparisons, but in consideration of the fact that my available time for writing these articles is rapidly coming to an end, let’s just jump straight to the point.

The Street Fighter II series is a massive and confusing string of titles through which Capcom managed to milk a great deal of money releasing minor updates and new characters over a short period of time. The original Street Fighter II came out for the arcade in 1991. This was followed (in the arcade) by Street Fighter II: Champion Edition (April 1992), Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting (December 1992), Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers (October 1993), and Super Street Fighter II Turbo (March 1994).

If that were all, it would be fairly easy to sort out, but each of these games was given a different title based on region and platform. Street Fighter II Turbo for the SNES, for instance, was a port of Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting, not Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Street Fighter II: Special Champion Edition for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was not a port of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, but rather of Hyper Fighting. The additions made in the original Champion Edition were carried over into most future versions of the game and ports, such that the original Sega Master System Street Fighter II (released in Brazil, where there was inexplicably still an SMS market, in 1997) was actually Street Fighter II: Champion Edition.

I would love to sort all this in a nice coherent list, but it would take me all day, and as I said, my time for writing these articles is starting to run short. So let’s just look at the version currently playing: Super Street Fighter II: The New Challengers. This one was released for the Super Nintendo in 1994 as simply Super Street Fighter II. Skip ahead to 5:12 and you’ll hear a delicious little oriental arrangement reminiscent of Miki Higashino’s Yie Ar Kung-Fu. (Again, time restricts me from actually finding the name of the song.)

Wikipedia credits Isao Abe and Syun Nishigaki with composing the Super Street Fighter II soundtrack. This is a little confusing as well, since Isao Abe and Yoko Shimomura get credited for the original Street Fighter II and a lot of the music is the same, but whoever wrote it, you’ve now heard the arcade version of the song, and I think we can all agree that at least in the 80s sound quality (not necessarily composition and arrangement) was substantially better in the arcade than on any home system.

The same song appears in the SNES Super Street Fighter II song compilation at 4:29, and I don’t think I need to point out how it’s better. Here’s a game released for a 1990 system, and the quality of sound is decisively better than Capcom’s 1993 arcade release. Forget about state of the art technology in the arcade; I think at this point companies were cutting costs, and high-end sound systems had to go.

Here’s another case in point. Shining Force (Sega, 1992) was a tactical RPG released for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive. Composed by Masahiko Yoshimura, it is one of the most highly regarded soundtracks on the system. Aside from a ton of spin-off titles, Shining Force as a series only saw three installments, and each of these featured a different composer. Motoaki Takenouchi, for all his talents, didn’t do such a hot job with Shining Force II (Sega, 1993), and the third was released on the Saturn, so we’ll just focus on the original.

Masahiko Yoshimura did a really outstanding job here with the limited resources available to him, especially when the gameplay situation called for intensity. The tracks beginning at 1:47 and 2:34 especially impress me in this regard. Yoshimura’s militant snare carries the day, and there’s also something interesting going on in company with the bass. The deep piano tones on this second track play tricks on my ears, projecting a piano vibration onto the bass when I listen to the song as a whole which clearly isn’t there when I focus on the bass specifically. Both at the start of the 1:47 track and mid-way into the next, around 3:19, he musically employs a tone that sounds more like a jumping sound effect in order to simulate an instrument sample that probably wasn’t available on the system, and it works. You can catch some more of this in the track that kicks off at 7:23.

Packed with catchy songs creatively arranged to artificially simulate a higher degree of orchestration than the system allowed, Shining Force was a great success.

But what it took a lot of creativity to pull off on the Genesis the SNES made easy. Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando (both of Kirby series fame) composed Arcana (HAL Laboratory, 1992) the same year Shining Force came out, and the improvement in sound quality was staggering. RPGs to a large extent defined the SNES. I have no statistics to back this up, but I have to imagine more popular games outside of Japan fell into the RPG/adventure/tactics spectrum on the SNES than on any other system, to such an extent that NOA even incorporated an “Epic Center” column into Nintendo Power for two years (March 1995-November 1996).

An end date of late 1996 roughly coincides with the North American launch of the Nintendo 64, when Nintendo Power subscribers began to feel the effects of the cartridge gaming fallout. RPGs were big games, calling for big capacity, and the Playstation rapidly became developers’ new system of choice.

But this was 1992, and even little known, quickly forgotten titles like Arcana were blowing Sega and arcade gaming out of the water.

VGM Entry 57: Snatcher (part 2)

VGM Entry 57: Snatcher (part 2)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Needless to say, when a game is released in six formats over a span of eight years the list of credits gets pretty wild. If we take Wikipedia’s unsourced credit synopsis for every Snatcher release mingled into one, it would appear that Akira Yamaoka, Keizou Nakamura, Masanori Adachi, Kazuhito Imai, and Masanori Ouchi are responsible for the score. But let’s not do that.

Konami’s ost releases generally only credit the Kukeiha Club as a collective, so that’s of no real help. Thanks to Snatcher‘s devout fan base though, a video of the end credits is available on youtube for every version of this game. They struck me as a bit suspect in so far as every version except the PC-Engine was in English, when only the Sega CD version was officially translated. But I do get the feeling–I’m sure plenty of people could easily confirm or deny–that a lot of games in Japan for whatever reason have English credits.

In any case, the PC-8801 ending credits are perhaps the most thorough I’ve ever seen in a game, and whether their English (Engrish really) is a fan translation or the authentic original, I do think it would be nice to provide a transcript. This is the track by track credits as listed in the two-part youtube video posted by AFX6502, condensed to save some space. Most tracks were listed with two names: one in quotations and one in parenthesis.

Compositions by M. Ikariko:
“Prologue Demo” (Bio Hazard Snatcher)
“Title Telop” (Evil Ripple)
“Pursuer Part1” (Creeping Silence)
“Pursuer Part3” (Pleasure of Tension)
“Pursuer Part4” (Endless Pursue)
“Katrine Part1” (Innocent Girl)
“Katrine Part2” (Theme of Katrine)
“Bath Room” (Virulent Smile)
“Joy Division” (Decadance Beat)
“Blow Up Tricycle”
“Mortuary Part1” (Morg)
“Search Light” (Spreading Diehard)
“Game Over” (Lement for The Death)

Compositions by M. Shirakawa:
“Team Logo” (Slave to Metal)
“Jaime” (Theme of Jaime)
“Outer Heaven2” (Theme of Izabel)
“Title Part1” (Theme of JUNKER)
“Title Part2” (Theme of Randam)
“Title Part3” (Faded Memories)
“Title Part5” (Peace of Mind)
“Action” (Danger Dance…and Justice for all)
“Epirogue” (Beyond Sorrows)

Compositions by S. Fukami:
“Theme of Opening” (Twilight of Neo Kobe City)
“Outer Heaven1” (The Entrance to Hell)
“Goodbye Randam” (Eternal Promise)
“Requiem” (For Harry)

Compositions by S. Masuda:
“Pursuer Part2” (Criminal Omen)
“Pursuer Part5” (Follow up the Scent)
“Wrong Answer” (Axia)
“Transform Risa” (Virtual Image)

Compositions by M. Izumi:
“Ending 1” (Master of Puppets Among The Disease)
“Theme of Ending” (We Have to Struggle for Our Future Against Our Doubt)

Compositions by M. Adachi:
“Theme of Metal Gear” (Theme of Tara)
-remix from “Metal Gear” RC_750 1987-

Joint composition by I. Mizutani and M. Ikariko:
“Snatcher Title” (Squeak!!)

Composition by Pear Point:
“Jingle Bell” (Jingle Bell 2042)

So there you have it. Originally, Masahiro Ikariko composed 16 of the tracks, the rather elusive M. Shirakawa composed 9, and the remaining 13 were composed by a combination of Masanori Adachi, Seiichi Fukami, Mutsuhiko Izumi, Iku Mizutani, and another virtually anonymous figure, S. Masuda. Ikariko, Shirakawa, Fukami, and Masuda are given clear precedence over Adachi, Izumi, and Mizutani in the credits, and must have comprised the main music team. (While the credits to the original MSX version of Metal Gear are likewise confusing and Adachi is not listed where I looked, I have to assume he wrote the original song, “Theme of Tara”, upon which the Snatcher tune is based and had no direct involvement here.) We don’t even know M. Shirakawa and S. Masuda’s full names. Isn’t that something?

The PC-8801 credits tell us quite a bit more about Snatcher‘s music than simply the track-by-track credits. For instance, chief editors Hideo Kojima and Naoki Matsui named the songs. Iku Mizutani did the sound effects, and Masahiro Ikariko and Kazuhiko Uehara “arranged” the music–a credit Konami clearly distinguishes from composition.

The MSX2 credits are included in the PC-8801 version, so there’s no ambiguity on this front. Masahiro Ikariko and Kazuhiko Uehara made the MSX2 arrangements (with the exceptions of “Theme of Metal Gear”, converted by Uehara and Mizutani, and “Jingle Bell”, converted by Ikariko, Uehara, and Shirakawa).

The PC-Engine credits are in Japanese, and in the mess of a hundred open Firefox tabs I’ve lost track of the url to the translation I found, but I did copy it down:

Sound Program:
Kazuki Muraoka
Motoaki Furukawa
Kazuki Muraoka
Masahiro Ikariko
Seiichi Fukami
Mutsuhiko Izumi
Kazuki Muraoka

It’s kind of weird to me that Shirakawa, who wrote a quarter of the music in the game, is not included here, but perhaps he and Masuda had left Konami and were erased from memory. Or perhaps Ikariko, Fukami, and Izumi returned to write additional material, but based on the songs I’ve heard, I get the impression that the list of original compositions for the PC-Engine version is quite short. Based on how the PC-8801’s credits were worded, I am lead to believe the PC-Engine arrangement was Kazuki Muraoka’s baby, with Motoaki Furukawa filling in the few added original tracks, however Furukawa has referred to himself as being “in charge of the BGM” for the PC-Engine port. Whether he meant merely the new compositions or the arrangements of the originals is beyond me.

The PC-Engine version and future releases included a revamped intro scene, for which I’ve provided the Sega CD take in spite of its awful voice acting, so that you can hear it in English. “One Night in Neo Kobe”, the song beginning at 2:55 in this video, was one of the new PC-Engine additions written by Motoaki Furukawa (he also confirmed composition of “Tears and Stains”, which must be “Tear-Stained Eyes“), and it remains one of the most famous songs of the game.

The Sega CD port was the first major departure from Ikariko and company’s original score. The credits here, which I’ve derived directly from the English version of the game, are pretty vague:

SegaCD Sound Design:
Keizou Nakamura
Masanori Adachi
Kazuhito Imai
Masanori Ouchi
Akira Yamaoka
Sound Programmer:
Osamu Kasai
Akira Souji

This list is kind of strange, because it was the Sega CD port’s arrangement that made it so drastically distinct from the first three versions. The songs were still based on the originals, but in a manner akin to Rob Hubbard and Tim Follin’s liberal port adaptations (consider the C64 ports of Commando and Bionic Commando respectively, for example). The credits clearly refer to the Sega CD arrangement, and Masanori Adachi must have been directly involved this time around. Even so, some of the tracks, “One Night in Neo Kobe”, aren’t even arrangements, but rather the exact same songs appearing on the PC-Engine. It’s pretty odd that Motoaki Furukawa and Kazuki Muraoka are restricted to a “Special Thanks” mention at the end of the credit roll.

Also, the distinction between “Sound Design” and “Sound Programmer” is completely obscure here. Konami don’t even bother with distinguishing between music and sound effects. Some of the ‘sound design team’ credits may have almost no real involvement in the music. Keizou Nakamura is credited specifically for SFX in a later version of the game, suggesting that that was his role here as well, and someone claiming to have spoken with Akira Yamaoka says he had little to no involvement in the project.

At this point in time technology may have advanced to the point where “programmer” did not as a rule imply “arranger”, and it’s possible that Osamu Kasai and Akira Souji’s contributions comprised a technical task which made the audio possible but did not affect what it actually sounded like. Never mind my uneducated speculation though; suffice to say the Sega CD port is a grey area dividing the old Snatcher compositions from the new.

Most PSX/Sega Saturn Snatcher songs were in fact new compositions entirely distinct from the originals. “The Morgue” is an example in which the changes are pretty rewarding. I think they definitely improve the whole ‘surrounded by rotting corpses’ atmosphere, whether that is actually the appropriate atmosphere for the scene in context or not. It does little to compensate for the outrageous censorship rules Sony inherited from Nintendo, but whatever. Here are the credits for both:

Sound System Programmer:
Noritada ‘Nor’ Matukawa
Sound Mixer:
God Adachi
Music Composer/Arranger/Performer:
Hiroe Noguchi
Guest composers:
Hiroshi Tamawari
Akira Yamaoka
Kosuke Soeda
Guest Performer:
Original Score Composers:
Kazuki Muraoka
Motoaki Furukawa

Sound Programmer:
Sound Mixer:
Masanori Adachi
Music Composer/Arranger/Performer:
Syouichirou Hirata
Keizou Nakamura
Guest composers:
Akira Yamaoka
Hiroshi Tamawari
Guest Performer:
Original score composers:
Kazuki Muraoka
Motoaki Furukawa
Akira Yamaoka
Hiroshi Tamawari

If you’re curious about the aliases here, “Akiropito” is Akira Souji, “God Adachi” is Masanori Adachi, “Tappy” is Tappi Iwase, and I couldn’t find the slightest clue for identifying “KIDA-Sun”. This makes for an odd discussion, as “KIDA-Sun” appears to be the most responsible party for the PSX and Saturn soundtracks. It’s also rather strange that Akira Yamaoka, Hiroshi Tamawari, and KIDA-Sun are listed as original score composers on the Saturn but not on the PSX, as to the best of my knowledge the Saturn used the exact same songs, making only minor (but always for the better) changes throughout. I don’t know that this change to the credits indicates a real change though: Akira Yamaoka and Hiroshi Tamawari are listed as ‘guest composers” in both versions, and a guest composer is still a composer, so it might all boil down to redundancy. In that case, we need only ask what became of Kosuke Soeda.

So basically, our credits look like this:

PC-8801 and MSX2
Composition: Masahiro Ikariko (16), M. Shirakawa (9), Seiichi Fukami (4), S. Masuda (4), Mutsuhiko Izumi (2), Iku Mizutani (1), Masanori Adachi (1)
Arrangement: Masahiro Ikariko, Kazuhiko Uehara

Composition: Primarily the original 1988 staff, with additions (probably) limited to Kazuki Muraoka and Motoaki Furukawa
Arrangement: Kazuki Muraoka

Sega CD
Sound staff: Keizou Nakamura, Masanori Adachi, Kazuhito Imai, Masanori Ouchi, Akira Yamaoka
Sound Programmer: Osamu Kasai, Akira Souji

PSX and Saturn
Composition: Kazuki Muraoka, Motoaki Furukawa, KIDA-Sun, Akira Yamaoka, Hiroshi Tamawari, Kosuke Soeda (Saturn only)
Arrangement: KIDA-Sun, Syouichirou Hirata (Saturn only)

I’ll leave it at that. I hope you’ve enjoyed the sound samples in the meantime. I know I certainly have.

VGM Entry 56: Snatcher (part 1)

VGM Entry 56: Snatcher (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

At this point I think it’s safe to talk about Snatcher. Snatcher has quite a long history. Konami first released it on the PC-8801 in November 1988, following this up with an MSX2 port the following month. In 1992 it found its way to the PC-Engine, and in 1994 it got its first English translation via the Sega Mega-CD. It would go on to appear on the Playstation in February 1996 and the Sega Saturn in March before all was said and done.

Snatcher was a cyberpunk visual novel, which isn’t the sort of thing North American and European gamers are particularly familiar with. It also featured some graphic violence, partial nudity, and cultural references, which didn’t jive well with North America’s outrageous censorship and copyright laws. All of these factors contributed to the long delay of an English port, and it’s quite remarkable that Konami ended up making one at all. The market was not in fact ready for it, and Jeremy Blaustein, who oversaw the localization, admitted that the game “only sold a couple thousand units”. He provided the legitimate argument that this resulted from Konami’s decision to release a game on the rapidly tanking Sega CD, not any shortcomings of the game itself. Snatcher remained popular in Japan however, and by the sixth and final release in March 1996 it also boasted six different variations on the main soundtrack.

What’s great for our purposes is that liquidpolicenaut on youtube already did all the legwork for comparing them. In some cases, such as “Decadence Beat (Joy Division)”, the original PC-8801 and MSX2 versions survive every port on into the Sega Saturn, but more often the songs get replaced for the Sega CD or Playstation and retain their new forms the rest of the way.

It’s by no means immediately obvious which take on this song is best. As songs by themselves, displaced from any game, the MSX2 version stands out the most to me, but the comments by actual fans of the game seem to denounce the MSX2 version as out of touch with the atmosphere of the scene. “Joy Division” (censored to “Plato’s Cavern” for the US Sega CD port) was Snatcher‘s general store chain. As a cyberpunk game, it naturally ought to be a little bit sleazy, but since I never played it personally I can’t say just how far that should go. The Sega CD version sounds like a porn shop, and the PSX version sounds like the score to what the Sega CD store is selling. The Sega Saturn take, despite being practically identical to the PSX take in construction, comes off quite tasteful due to better quality instrument samples. The potential complaint, of course, is that it’s too tasteful to be wholly appropriate.

If the PC-8801 take is a bit too funky and the PC-Engine a bit too weird, I’m left with the MSX2 take. It has a very technological feel to it. This is music for the sort of store I’d go to to buy my cybernetic crack injection kits for sure. The visual helps it out too; the store clerk looks a lot more seedy and a lot less evil on the MSX2 and PC-8801 than in the other takes, and the emphasis on grey (the PC-8801 has a brown floor) makes the whole place seem a little metalic–a little more futuristic. Oh the MSX2 take wins for me hands-down. But I’m listening to this with nothing but a song, a single image, and a general idea of cyberpunk to go on. I never played the game. Maybe the MSX2’s atmosphere, while consistent in audio and imagery, is totally out of place in it. One of the great benefits of Snatcher and liquidpolicenaut’s comparison videos is to bring these finer aesthetic considerations to mind.

I mentioned that “Joy Division” was renamed “Plato’s Cavern” on the Sega CD. It’s one of many censorship issues that forced minor changes in detail as new ports were made. The left-hand mask on the wall behind the store clerk on the MSX2 and PC-8801 was Predator, and it vanishes starting with the PC Engine. Amazing what petty things billionaires will file lawsuits over…

The censorship on “Pursuer Part 4 (Endless Pursue)” is a little more obvious. (Supposedly the dog was twitching, still alive on the original versions, and this was removed before they took out the image altogether.) Musically, this is another instance where the same song was maintained for all six versions of the game. Here the differences aren’t nearly as extreme, either. Again the Playstation take comes off the worst to my ears, and this time the Saturn’s improved sound does not sufficiently redeem it–at least if this is meant to be the fairly tense, down to the wire scene that the track title and early versions imply.

I can’t think of any context in which the PSX and Saturn versions might sound appropriate to be quite honest. The PSX take kicks off like some progy jazz piece that completely fails to acknowledge any sort of distress, or anything remotely unsettling (we’re still staring at a dog with its guts spilled out mind you, even if it’s censored). The bass drum beat is made no less obnoxious in the Saturn version by actually sounding like a bass drum, and its pace is totally out of touch with the melody. No, the PSX and Saturn versions are bad–no getting around that.

If you go back to the MSX2 take, you’ll find that it’s far more imaginative anyway. Variations in the intensity of the drum beats give it a dimension lacking in the last two versions. The higher-pitched notes behind the main melody in the PC-8801 introduction carry the song much more effectively than their MSX2 equivalent, emphasizing the pace of events, and the variations in percussion intensity are retained, but the main melody is just a bit too clean. The MSX2 take has a more hollow, raspy sound. I suppose I would characterize the MSX2 and PC Engine versions as prioritizing an element of danger, while urgency dominates the PC-8801 and Sega CD takes.

I could go on like this for every track, but I fancy it’s already gotten old. Tomorrow I’ll tackle who exactly wrote it all.

VGM Entry 55: Honorable mentions of ’92

VGM Entry 55: Honorable mentions of ’92
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

No ‘best of’ compilation can ever satisfy everybody, and the difficulty of coming to agreement increases with the number of options available. With the average game soundtrack’s quality always on the rise, the task of singling out anything but the obvious best becomes sort of arbitrary after a while. I present these last few titles with the recognition that I have probably missed quite a number of arguably better works:

Super Mario Kart (Nintendo, 1992) would be the last major title passed off to Soyo Oka at Nintendo. Having scored Pilotwings in 1990 and Sim City in 1991, her distinct style briefly became a major voice of the Super Nintendo, but whether she should be counted among the best is very debatable. I will stand by the claim that Sim City was an outstanding and underrated work, but in general Soyo Oka was no Koji Kondo. Her inclusion isn’t obvious.

I played Super Mario Kart as much as any kid, and not a single song from it stuck in my memory over the years. The nostalgia here isn’t old familiar tunes. It’s an old familiar style. Soyo Oka had an extraordinarily distinct sound, and it’s her style of music, not any of the melodies, which lends such consistency down the line from Pilotwings to Super Mario Kart. I count this game among the best of 1992 because it does an excellent job of sounding like a Nintendo game for the SNES. It’s quite possible that Soyo Oka’s Nintendo career quickly diminished afterwards simply because they stopped producing this type of game. Her all-purpose sound worked great for simulations and racing, but after 1992 Nintendo came to focus much more heavily on character/plot-centric action and RPG titles. Star Fox, Super Metroid, Donkey Kong Country, these sort of games focused on franchise characters who required distinct theme songs.

Nintendo did not produce any more high-profile, well marketed games that could have actually fit Oka’s style until 1996, with Ken Griffey, Jr.’s Winning Run and Tetris Attack, but by then she had left the company.

I have only found two titles crediting Taro Kudo as composer, and that’s quite a shame, because both have found their way into my vgm series. Masanori Adachi’s partner on Super Castlevania IV, Kudo took on the task again the following year with Axelay (Konami, 1992). His mostly chill, relaxing tunes must have made a fairly substantial impact on the gameplay. Nothing frantic or unnerving here; the music carries a sense of confidence, and makes the game look a lot easier than it probably was.

Devilish (Hot-B, developed by Genki Co, 1992), known as Dark Omen in Japan, begins like some sort of Home Alone soundtrack, but before long it breaks out into more recognizable Genesis beats that will characterize a large portion of the game. Hitoshi Sakimoto managed to produce a very consistent and haunting selection of songs here that accurately reflect the settings of the game. These settings are themselves something of an anomaly. The game is basically an enhanced version of Breakout, but it’s set in an RPG world. You bounce into those rectangles in forests, deserts, airships, castles, the works.

About the only thing this bizarre mashup has against it is a plot. The main villain “turned the prince and princess into two stone paddles”? Really? … Really?

When I was a kid I for some reason always thought Kirby was an old, classic Nintendo character, perhaps because Kirby’s Adventure (Nintendo, 1993) was released for the NES despite the Super Nintendo having been around for three years. What inspired Nintendo to market a major franchise character on outdated and secondary systems is beyond me, but the little pink cream puff wouldn’t make his Super Nintendo debut until Kirby Super Star at the absurdly late date of March 1996. This may have been due in part to HAL Laboratory, not Nintendo, actually developing the games. But HAL Laboratory had released multiple Super Nintendo games by the end of 1991, so your guess is as good as mine. Kirby’s Dream Land (Nintendo, 1992) for the Game Boy was in fact the first game of the franchise, and it established a lot of the series’ iconic songs.

The other thing that caught me off guard is Jun Ishikawa composed it. I had been lead to believe it was the work of Hirokazu Ando. Ando did make an appearance on Kirby’s Adventure and many future installments, but the earliest original compositions appear to belong to Ishikawa. Ando and Ishikawa appear to have been HAL Laboratory’s main composers, collaborating together in many HAL titles both within the Kirby franchise and without, and perhaps this has created some of the confusion. Or perhaps Wikipedia is simply wrong. The bold claim in the Kirby’s Dream Land article that Jun Ishikawa was “the only composer for this game” (rather than just listing him as the composer and leaving it at that) is sourced to another game wiki site (Moby Games) which lists the credits in more or less the same unsourced manner that Wikipedia does, and makes no such explicit claim. Maybe Ishikawa wrote it all, or maybe he and Ando were in collaboration from the get-go, but either way Kirby’s Dream Land initiated a major Nintendo franchise series with catchy, highly regarded songs that ought not go unmentioned.

The last song I’d like to point out is the title theme to Agony (Psygnosis, 1992), composed by Tim Wright. Agony was a peculiar little shmup for the Amiga 500, fantasy themed to the extent of featuring a laser-blasting owl as the main hero. There is little room in your standard video game for a classical piano piece of this sort; it’s certainly not the type of thing you might associate with active gameplay. With the Commodore 64’s long history of loader music completely disassociated from the game however, and the Amiga’s much improved audio, this was the most probable platform for a work like Tim Wright’s to take shape.

VGM Entry 48: Streets of Golden Hedgehogs

VGM Entry 48: Streets of Golden Hedgehogs
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

With the new higher standards brought on by the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive composers would have to start trying a little harder if they wanted to compete. Some certainly did pick up the pace, and 1991 might be considered the first year with a decent selection to choose from.

There were a couple famous soundtracks in the mix. Streets of Rage (Sega) by Yuzo Koshiro is certainly one of them. I do not possess the patience to listen to each and every Genesis/Mega Drive soundtrack like I’ve been doing with the Game Boy, nor did I ever own the system as a kid. I can only really pick and choose these titles based on my perception of popular opinion. But the one series that popped up more consistently than any other on people’s lists was Streets of Rage.

It’s a chill, laid back score that I could listen to all day without ever really tiring of, and the gritty melodies make it a lot more down to earth and appropriate for a street fighting game than the more airy sounds I tend to associate with this sort of musical style. And perhaps more importantly, the music I associate with this style was mostly written long after Streets of Rage.

I mean, Koshiro deserves a lot of additional credit for being the first game musician to really try this–or else, the first to really pull it off. It’s a style I take for granted today, and perhaps that’s why Streets of Rage doesn’t strike me as immediately as it ought to, but in 1991 games just didn’t ever sound like this. A lot of them couldn’t, really. You couldn’t do this on the SNES. The bass and drum tones just weren’t good enough. You certainly couldn’t do it on anything earlier outside of the arcade. Koshiro did an outstanding job of acknowledging and exploiting the Genesis’s best sound qualities, and perhaps a lot of the best system scores to follow are a bit in debt to him.

We’ve all heard “Green Hill Zone”. As a game intended to compete with the Mario series, the music of Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega), composed by Masato Nakamura, definitely falls a little short, but that doesn’t make it bad. The songs were sufficiently catchy, and for a high-speed game they provided a pleasant counterweight.

One of the distinct features of Sonic the Hedgehog is the bass lines. Songs like “Spring Yard Zone” (1:58) are really made by them, and even such hopelessly generic tracks as “Labyrinth Zone” (2:49) maintain a distinct Sonic the Hedgehog flavor through the bass.

I could post a lot of other also-rans that are much better than previous Genesis music yet stil leave something to desire. Jewel Master by Motoaki Takenouchi and Zero Wing by Tatsuya Uemura, Toshiaki Tomisawa, and Masahiro Yuge certainly fall into this category. But I just don’t feel that they’re all that valuable in the larger picture. With so many unconditionally great scores out there by 1991, being the best for a particular system simply no longer mattered all that much.

The real Genesis winner for me this year is Golden Axe II (Sega), by Naofumi Hataya, and you’ll hear why in the very first sound in the game. What that crushing drum beat is doing here is beyond me, but I love it. It makes absolutely no sense in what is ultimately a bluesy jam title track, but I couldn’t care less. From start to finish, the soundtrack to Golden Axe II is underwritten by a restrained desire to be heavy metal.

This shines on some tracks more than others. “Ravaged Village”, for instance, lacks the heavy drumming, but the highly distorted bass tones do the job. Maybe not ‘metal’ in this instance, it still retains quite an edge. The bass feels like a pool of lava bubbling beneath you. There’s something very familiar sounding about this sort of bass with that snake-like melody on top, but I can’t quite put my finger on it–perhaps a coincidental similarity in a later game.

This was Naofumi Hataya’s first game score by the way, as far as I can tell. He joined Sega in 1990, and would go on to play a major role in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise up through the present day. If his future works were as good as this one, I have a lot to look forward to.

“Castle” is completely ridiculous, accenting a slow, foreboding song which meets all of the stereotype standards for a fantasy game with a crushing mechanical drum line that I’m pretty sure is trying to punch me in my face through my headphones.

Thank you for being awesome, Naofumi Hataya.

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 35: Forgotten Worlds

VGM Entry 35: Forgotten Worlds
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I mentioned that musicians had yet to properly exploit the capabilities of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive in 1989. There were nevertheless some fairly decent efforts. I wouldn’t place most of them on par with Altered Beast, but they are still worth noting.

I have seen Herzog Zwei (TechnoSoft, 1989) mentioned from time to time on ‘best of the Genesis’ type lists. It was composed by Naosuke Arai and Tomomi Ootani, and it was one of the earlier games to be released exclusively for the Genesis/Mega Drive. As a pretty standard action soundtrack, it was a definite improvement over Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade, and it’s got a few memorable moments, especially towards the beginning of this mix. But it sort of feels, to me at least, as though it could have functioned on just about any system. It seems backwards-compatible I guess, as if it could be transposed to the NES or SMS without any real alterations beyond the difference in tone quality. There weren’t too many Genesis titles against which to compete in the 80s, and I suppose it comes out near the top of its small field, but the quintessential sound of the system still remained to be defined.

Phantasy Star II (Sega, 1989) I am a bit more fond of. The Genesis was never well known for its RPGs and adventure games, but it did have them. Phantasy Star was Sega’s own attempt at an RPG series, and its second installment was the first to appear on the Genesis/Mega Drive. Like Herzog Zwei, it was released exclusively for one system. It was composed by Tokuhiko Uwabo, or “Bo” as he’s credited–that same Bo who contributed to the rather poor Ys I SMS port I mentioned earlier. But whatever went wrong there, Phantasy Star II turned out alright.

I’d hardly call it typical RPG music. It ranges from relaxed jazz to pretty hoaky pop. It’s got some awful tracks, and there’s no getting around that. Parts of it are better off in outdated infomercials (0:44). But when it’s not bad it’s pretty enjoyable and wholly appropriate. You don’t need to see any video to know that this is not your typical wizards and knights in shining armor game, but rather something futuristic or space-oriented. It wasn’t the first game to musically break with RPG tradition. Ys II certainly did the previous year. But Phantasy Star II exhibits a great degree of stylistic consistency, despite its frequent shortcomings. All of the music is closely related through a fairly unique sound. And since that sound was definitely impossible to attain on the SMS or NES, as you can easily tell, it can be regarded as one of the first games to really put the Genesis’s capabilities to proper use. It is mainly Tokuhiko Uwabo’s hesitancy to can the cheesier tracks, not featured in this sample, which prevent it from leaving a very noteworthy mark on the development of video game music. I would also argue that the style is just a little too restricting to reflect the inherent diversity of an RPG, but it’s a solid effort in creatively applying new technology. My personal favorite is “Over” (4:13).

Capcom’s Forgotten Worlds, credited to Tamayo Kawamoto and Yukichan no Papa (Yoshihiro Sakaguchi), is a pretty interesting case. You may remember Tamayo Kawamoto from the original arcade versions of both Commando and Ghouls’n Ghosts. I have reason to believe that Tamayo Kawamoto actually wrote the music, while Yoshihiro Sakaguchi may have been responsible for the finished product and port. But I am not certain of this. At any rate, it is one of the most eclectic and bizarre game soundtracks I have ever heard, and while it’s just a little too weird to be brilliant, it cannot be wholly ignored. As with the vast majority of early Genesis/Mega Drive titles, it was released on a wide variety of platforms. The version you are hearing right now is from the 1988 arcade original. Make what you will of it. What I would like to emphasize is the differences in the Genesis port.

This version, released in 1989, is an exact replica of the original in structure. Only the tones have changed. The first thing you’re bound to notice is that the opening organ on the Genesis sounds downright sinister. The arcade version has no such effect. As the song progresses, the Genesis version remains decisively sharper and more pronounced until around the break at 47 seconds. Here the composition demands a degree of clarity that the Genesis just fails to pull off. The flute is too raspy, and both the pulse tone and the sporadic deep note lack the depth of the original. It’s only as the main melody starts to run wild ten or so seconds later that the merits of the Genesis return, giving it a much more disturbing sort of feel.

I trust that both versions of the song were prepared with care. Such a peculiar song could be easily butchered, and that the Genesis version sounds, to me at least, slightly better, says something about the mindfulness with which they prepared it. It also makes the these two versions of the score a fruitful means to assess the differences between the sounds of the Genesis and the ‘arcade standard’ of the time. The Genesis seems to have lacked a little bit of the depth of arcade sound systems, but it compensated with a greater distinction of tones. Everything is a lot more pronounced in the Genesis take, and it’s only when the original calls for subtlety that the Genesis comes up a little short. I think you can hear much more vividly Tamayo Kawamoto and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s juxtaposition of peaceful and deranged tones in the port version, because it forcefully distinguishes the latter.

If you want a really interesting experience, try and sync up the two songs and play them simultaneously. The effect is pretty cool–better than either version individually–and you may observe that the arcade version is capable of much deeper bass tones. As I’ve always regarded Genesis music as being heavily bass-driven, at least in comparison to the Super Nintendo, this came as a bit of a surprise.

VGM Entry 28: Altered Beast

VGM Entry 28: Altered Beast
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive was launched in Japan on October 29th, 1988. By the end of the year, only four titles had been released on it. Three of them did not have very impressive music. Space Harrier II (Sega) and Super Thunder Blade (Sega) were designed more to showcase the system’s visual capabilities, presenting for perhaps the first time serious three dimensional gameplay outside of the arcade. In regards to audio, they both exploited the system’s sound capabilities towards the end of excessive and rather tasteless sound effects. Osomatsu-kun: Hachamecha Gekijō (Sega) was a bizarre, very Japanese side-scrolling cartoon game which might best be forgotten altogether. But the fourth game, Altered Beast (Sega), was an altogether different matter.

Toshio Kai will forever hold the honor of having composed the first excellent fourth generation gaming soundtrack. Altered Beast might not have been on par with the sound quality achieved by Hisayoshi Ogura on Darius in 1986, but it was getting pretty close, and you could enjoy it in your bedroom.

Or perhaps I am going too far here. It is easy to forget what Takahito Abe, with a little help from Yuzo Koshiro, accomplished on the PC-8801, especially since the computer was only ever marketed in Japan. Xanadu Scenario II, Ys I, and plenty of other titles completely obscure to American audiences, like Taiyou no Shinden (Nihon Falcom, 1988), were all just gorgeous, and the sound quality does not appear to be any poorer than Altered Beast. The brilliant stretch of compositions Takahito Abe crafted in 1987/88 were consistently subtle, however, and his genius may well have extended into writing music which catered to the system. Toshio Kai did not have to worry about being subtle.

Altered Beast has a bass track that actually sounds like a bass, a piano which can at least be identified as such, fuller drumming, and synthier tones which sound so by choice, not out of necessity. It really feels as though the artist was not restricted in any critical sense, and in 1988 that was something of a novelty, or at least a luxury held exclusively by arcade composers.

“Gaum-Hermer” might not be the most exciting track in the game, but it merges with the gameplay in a sort of manner that you just don’t hear on the NES or Master System. It sounds like the sort of thing Hirokazu Tanaka just couldn’t quite pull off on Metroid. It is of course because Toshio Kai does such an excellent job that the ambiance of the song hits home, but I question whether such a track was even possible before.

Altered Beast did appear first as an arcade game. It was not necessarily composed with the Genesis in mind. But the fact that it could be ported without major alterations is something of a first. Developers of ports for the Nintendo had long been in the habit of commissioning entirely new soundtracks, or else altering the arcade music in extraordinary ways, such as in Double Dragon. Decisions to simply replicate the original as closely as possibly, such as in the eventual NES port of Altered Beast, tended to fall flat. You can hear subtle changes between the arcade and Genesis versions, but the NES version sounds terrible, and some of the songs are barely recognizable. Besides, most of the differences feel more like efforts to improve the song than failures to replicate it. The ruthlessly obnoxious drum line plaguing this arcade soundtrack from start to finish, for instance, is drastically subdued.

It’s pretty hard to argue with the “Game Over” song. A lot, perhaps even the majority, of the best gaming music ever written appears on 4th generation platforms. It was an era that offered the best of both worlds. Here the sound is still electronic enough to form a distinct style. You couldn’t say, go hire a symphony orchestra and carry the recording straight away into the game. Musicians still had to work with limitations. But the technology had finally reached a point where those limitations did not deny the possibility of reproducing the same aesthetic appeal as say, an orchestra or a jazz band. The creativity and ingenuity required for good third generation song writing unabated, it was now given a medium in which to reach its full potential. The Mega Drive got a slower start than you might expect, and it wasn’t until well into the SNES era that a large collection of good Mega Drive soundtracks begin to appear, but by 1988 the possibilities were there.