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 Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems.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 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts


VGM Entry 38: Follin’s Ghouls’n Ghosts
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Even as the Sega Genesis was coming into its own and the Super Nintendo was on the verge of release, Tim Follin reappeared to give the “old systems” a final touch of perfection. Though his non-ZX Spectrum works immediately following the 1987 Bionic Commando arrangement were fairly insignificant, he had learned a lot (not to mention ceased to be a teenager). By 1989 he was ready to take on the world, and put to the task of reworking the Ghouls’n Ghosts (Capcom) soundtrack for the Amiga and Commodore 64, he suffered a stroke of genius which few have yet to match.

This is the title theme to Ghouls’n Ghosts for the Amiga, released in 1988. Enjoy it.

Even the tracks which were not originally his took on a whole new life. With all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, Tim Follin’s work on the Commodore 64 rendition of “Stage Two” was a drastic improvement. From the very get-go, Kawamoto’s oompa tuba and staccato flute are replaced by a booming four-note bass line and a much smoother flute tone. The song exhibits delicious dynamics, with the flute sounding out loud for the first two seconds and then immediately quieting down to make room for a wavy, ghost-tone main melody line decisively more appropriate for the theme of the game than Kawamoto’s clarinet. Kawamoto’s counterpoint on the repeat isn’t entirely convincing, and after one time through the song transitions. Follin avoids layering the melody entirely, perhaps out of necessity, but the creativity of his additional repeats and the awkward yet delightful added percussion more than compensate. Limited in the number of tracks he could produce, Follin had no hope of replicating the second half of the song on a C64, so after faithfully playing out the lower track he just took off into his own imaginative world, leaving Kawamoto behind altogether from about the 1 minute mark on. Where Kawamoto’s entire song loops at 54 seconds, Follin’s is extended to a two and a half minutes and doesn’t loop at all, fading out as a completed piece before starting over.

The music to Level 5 on the Commodore 64 is another Follin original, and it kicks off with enough amplifier worship to make Sunn O))) proud. Unlike pretty much all of his previous works, Follin’s original tracks in Ghouls’n Ghosts exhibit a sense of awareness of the game itself. He wasn’t about to let the needs of the game hold him back, but he was for once shaping his music around an appropriate theme. Follin maintains the relativity until 1:18, at which point we’re suddenly treated to an Emerson Lake & Palmer progressive rockout. The soft distortion in the background of the whistle starting at 1:58 is just brilliant, if by now completely out of touch with the game. It briefly reminds me of foggy seaside songs like Jeremy Soule’s “Pirates of Crustacia” (Secret of Evermore, Square, 1995).

Make what you will of the “End Theme” track which follows. It’s nothing to brag about, but it’s part of the package. I think the “Hi-Score” tune wrapping up the video more than compensates.

So there’s perhaps your first encounter with Tim Follin outside of the ZX Spectrum. He’s by no means forgotten, but not overwhelmingly famous either. His work on Bionic Commando 1987 made a loud statement, and his ZX Spectrum works stand in a league of their own on the system, but the Commodore 64 and Amiga arrangements of Ghouls’n Ghosts are what really brought him into full form for the first time and cemented his place in history. He would never surpass his accomplishments in 1989, in my opinion, but he would maintain an impressively high standard for many years to come, and he would excel on a more diverse range of systems than most any other composer in the business.

VGM Entry 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88


VGM Entry 32: Arcade and C64 in ’88
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

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

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

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

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

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

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