VGM Entry 67: EarthBound

VGM Entry 67: EarthBound
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki composed Mother in 1989, and it would remain perhaps the most eclectic soundtrack in all of video gamedom until 1994, when they teamed up again for Mother 2.

Better known to western gamers as EarthBound, Mother 2 (Nintendo, 1994) was… well… on the new game ‘name your characters’ screen you are asked the crucial question “What is your favorite homemade food?”, and that’s about as normal as it ever got. Since Mother was never released here, EarthBound was our first experience with Shigesato Itoi’s madness, and the already ridiculous events and dialogue were made all the more bizarre by a sometimes incredibly awkward (though fairly grammatically sound) translation. (Consider that the most powerful spell in the game is called “PSI Rockin Omega”.) Perhaps this was not originally by intent, but I like to pretend NOA fell in love with it and let a few oddities through intentionally.

The EarthBound soundtrack was huge, or so it seemed to me. With no comprehensive ost on the market it can be a bit hard to tell, but at least one fan rip I came across contained 78 tracks. Every town had a theme. Every combat zone had a theme. There were easily a dozen or more different battle themes. The new music just never stopped coming from start screen to the ending credits. According to Wikipedia, Keiichi Suzuki claimed in a Famitsu interview only available in Japanese that he wrote over 100 songs for the game. Many of these obviously were not used, but Suzuki also only accounts for half of the music.

EarthBound‘s finest musical moments took place in combat. This video presents a compilation of eight battle tunes (by no means all-inclusive) which should give you a good idea of what the game had to offer. The music was a mix of smooth grooves like the first track played here and corny absurdities like the second, with the former typically representing aliens and tougher bosses and the latter such detestable foes as “New Age Retro Hippie”, “Scalding Coffee Cup”, and “Big Pile of Puke”.

The corny tracks are more representative of the larger gaming environment, but the groove numbers are where Tanaka and Suzuki really excelled, culminating with “Kraken of the Sea” (6:27).

I’m not actually sure who was responsible for the combat music throughout this game, or whether the individual tracks were collaborative efforts. (Many songs in the game in fact were.) It would certainly make sense, considering how they all fall into two neat categories, to reason that one composer made the groove tracks and another did the comedy ones, but I certainly can’t confirm this. The track “Another 2” on the highly mutilated official Mother 2 ost contains quite a few samples from the former and none from the latter, and it’s credited to Tanaka specifically, but that might simply mean he was responsible for the remix. “Another 2” contains the bicycle theme as a hidden track after a half minute of silence, and that was definitely written by Suzuki, so there’s really no clear evidence here pointing to one musician or the other.

The two best songs in the game are the last two you’ll hear before the ending. Both are combat tunes, and they couldn’t be more different. “Pokey Means Business” was my favorite song in any video game as a kid, and I don’t think I need to tell you why.

Or are you not there yet? Wait for it…

Ok so, maybe it’s not decisively the best song on the SNES, but it’s definitely the heaviest. Funny that for all the dozens of games out there marketing their edginess as their selling point, none came anywhere near goofy little EarthBound. Once again I am not sure if this is a product of Suzuki, Tanaka, or both. I just know that Pokey meant business alright…

And then there was Giygas. Credits suggest this was all a product of Tanaka’s twisted mind, and it may well go down in history as he most disturbing boss music ever written. Everything about Giygas was completely abstract, from his form to his combat moves. (The game would just say “You cannot grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack!” and deal out damage.)

There are a lot of hairbrain theories out there as to what Giygas represents, especially in connection with how his final form outlines the shape of a fetus. Frankly I think if you’re playing EarthBound for the plot you’re probably reading too much into it.

This song does have a little bit of relevance to what’s going on though. The transition starting around 1:40 and the music box charm it leads into at 2:32 reflect a break in the gameplay action where Paula uses her psychic powers to ask various friends for help. So while its inclusion certainly adds to the creepiness of the overall piece, it’s also intended to be a bit heartwarming. And anyway the song as it appears here, 4:03 in length, is a little arbitrary. The song isn’t a single continuous piece, and the transitions take place as a result of progression in the boss fight.

The song and its visual counterpart have earned quite a bit of internet popularity for its unorthodox behavior. You’ll have to forgive me for sharing this last one with you:

VGM Entry 41: Game Boy

VGM Entry 41: Game Boy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

I nearly forgot to address the Game Boy. Released in April 1989, by the end of 1990 it was already pushing 100 titles. Perhaps production was easy and inexpensive, I don’t know, but this was a system that shot off at lightning speed. In consideration of all of the great music chiptune artists are making on the Game Boy today, I made a diligent effort to listen to a good 80 or so of these early titles. I figured there had to be a ton of hidden gems out there, but there really weren’t.

It’s actually really surprising how completely ho-hum the vast, vast majority of early Game Boy soundtracks were. Even those you might expect to be leading the pack, Castlevania: The Adventure (Konami, 1989, Dracula Densetsu in Japan) and Super Mario Land (Nintendo, 1989) for instance, offered next to nothing worth noting. Those which did peak my interest were often quite obscure. Fist of the North Star: 10 Big Brawls for the King of Universe (Electro Brain Corp., 1990) for instance has no identifiable composer. I searched long and hard to no avail.

This game supposedly stunk, and perhaps the music was not held in very high regard because of this. I thought it was a pretty solid effort. The Game Boy’s bass tones are very full and encompasing, capable of giving a song a great deal of depth. Very few musicians actually put this to use, but whoever composed Fist of the North Star had an ear for it. The way the extended bass notes compliment the melody reminds me a lot of Ryuji Sasai’s approach on my favorite Game Boy soundtrack, which we’ll be getting to here in another year.

The title track to Battle Bull (SETA, 1990), composed by Takayuki Suzuki, strikes me for its ability to pack in such a big sound. It is stylistically exactly the sort of thing I set out to find. It’s a shame there seems to be only one song here, because Suzuki turns out to be one of the few Game Boy composers who really understood how to make the most of the system. In retrospect after looking a few years ahead, this is easily one of the best Game Boy songs I have ever heard.

Square’s SaGa series became a nearly annual event following the first instalment, Makai Toushi SaGa, released for the Game Boy in December 1989. The first three were known in North America as the Final Fantasy Legend series–a title chosen in the hopes that familiarity would boost sales. I know the strategy worked for me. But the series did share at least one thing in common with Final Fantasy, at least initially. Nobuo Uematsu was commissioned to compose it. Despite what you might read, I am fairly confident that he composed Final Fantasy Legend in its entirety. At least, the liner notes displayed by claim this. Final Fantasy Legend II, released the following December, was a joint effort, with Kenji Ito tackling about half of the tracks.

I am only going to present the original Final Fantasy Legend here out of consideration of space, but the sequel is about equal in quality and worth checking out. Nobuo Uematsu did an excellent job of carrying over his style onto the Game Boy, and a few tracks, like the introduction and the victory fanfare, would become series staples. The only noteworthy RPG series for the Game Boy to the best of my knowledge, the Final Fantasy Legends boasted a much larger song selection than most other Game Boy games at the time, and the consistant high quality really put to shame most of the competition.

Nobuo Uematsu and Kenji Ito really definitively proved that the dearth of good Game Boy music was a consequence of negligent composers, not system restraints. Uematsu was as new to the Game Boy as anyone else when he composed his first work for it, and, as you can plainly hear, that was a simple enough challenge to overcome. Much like the first three Final Fantasy soundtracks, the music of the first two SaGas did not so much conform to the system as force the system to conform as much as possible to a multi-platform vision of what an RPG ought to sound like. The music of Final Fantasy Legend you are hearing here certainly bears a distinctly Game Boy sound in so far as it was impossible not to, but the music neither capitalizes on the systems strengths nor succumbs to its difficulties. It really just sounds like Uematsu doing his thing in the early years.

Gargoyle’s Quest (Capcom, 1990) was pretty amazing. It was created by Harumi Fujita, the original arcade composer of Bionic Commando, and Yoko Shimomura, a new name to the business who you’ll be hearing plenty more of in the future. It is also a part of the Ghosts’n Goblins series, which you’ve heard pleanty of already.

Gargoyle’s Quest does everything right. The decision to abandon percussion altogether did wonders for enhancing the semi-classical melodies. The songs are consistantly well-written, and the melodies are often permitted to run wild, with no stagnation and no breaks in the actual presence of sound. The Game Boy had by far the most beautiful tones of the chippier-sounding systems–that is, pre-SNES/Genesis/Amiga–and they always seem to ring out to their fullest in states of perpetual transition. I don’t know, maybe I’m superimposing what worked best for Gargoyle’s Quest onto what worked best for the Game Boy in general, but it seems like this is the sort of system where you can never have too many notes.

But if that’s stretching matters, I would at least say that the Game Boy is a system on which boldness almost always profits. It’s a shame that Tim Follin didn’t, to the best of my knowledge, write any Game Boy music. But anyway, Gargoyle’s Quest, one of the best soundtracks the system would ever know, was certainly not lacking in it. I might never be able to really put my finger on the features that so strongly attract me to this system, but you’re hearing a lot of them right now. You can hear the soundtrack in its entirety here, once again compliments of explod2A03.

Funny that, for all I just said, my favorite Game Boy soundtrack of this 1989-1990 period is soft and simple Yakuman (Nintendo, 1989), a mahjong game composed by Hirokazu Tanaka and only released in Japan. A frequently occurring figure in my articles, Tanaka’s game audio history goes all the way back to monotone bleeps in the 1970s. His role as a major composer would rapidly fade after 1990, but he was partly responsible for such esteemed works as Metroid, Mother, Earthbound, Dr. Mario, and the Nintendo ports of Tetris. He also composed Super Mario Land for the Game Boy, which I find quite dull. Go figure.

Well, that wraps up my thoughts on the first two years of the Game Boy. Honorable mention goes to Maru’s Mission (Jaleco, 1990, composer again unknown) and Burai Fighter Deluxe (Taxan, 1990/1991), composed by Nobuyuki Shioda. And really I was a bit harsh on Castlevania: The Adventure. I don’t care for it, but it’s not bad.

VGM Entry 36: Mother, Batman, Goemon

VGM Entry 36: Mother, Batman, Goemon
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

A lot of solid Nintendo soundtracks were released in 1989, and I can’t touch on all of them, but here are a few other noteworthies I can’t justify passing over.

Ganbare Goemon 2 (Konami, 1989) added a lot to the sound of the original 1986 Goemon titles (Legend of the Mystical Ninja series in the west), maintaining the same style but adding a percussion track and much more complimentary and varied tone selections. I’ve not managed to find a satisfactory answer as to who composed it though. Tomoya Tomita, Koji Murata, and Michiru Yamane have all been credited here an there without any explanation as to their different rolls, and I’m pretty sure at least the latter two were definitely involved in some capacity, but I can’t be sure.

Konami has a long history of botching the names of their video games, and the Goemon series is no exception. For instance, I have seen sites unattentively list authorship credits as: “Goemon: Satoko Miyawaki. Goemon 2: Michiru Yamane”. But not only was there no game in the Goemon series actually titled Goemon or Ganbare Goemon, there were two games titled Ganbare Goemon 2. Different sub-titles sort this out, but I don’t trust the creators of massive composer compilation lists to have attentively adhered to this.

In so far as the original Mr. Goemon was released on arcade and the third Ganbare Goemon title was an MSX port of the first NES game (I’m not sure why it’s listed separately), calling the 1989 instalment Ganbare Goemon 2 was a fair move. The confusion in this instance did not arise until Konami decided to release Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shogun Magginesu in 1993. (If you add them all up, the second “Goemon 2” was the tenth Goemon video game.)

At any rate, you’re hearing Ganbare Goemon 2, no subtitle, and it was released in 1989. Enjoy.

Nobuyuki Hara and Naoki Kodaka composed Batman (Sunsoft, 1989) in the wake of Mega Man 2, when the bar for NES action game soundtracks was through the roof. I certainly don’t think it’s as good as Takashi Tateishi’s historic work, but it demands an honorable mention. Its most famous track, first in this compilation, feels straight out of a Castlevania game, whereas the second song here kicks off with more of a Mega Man vibe. All the while it is consistently driven by a forceful bass which really best defines the soundtrack. It is in large part the consequence of Hara and Kodaka landing on highly complimentary bass and drum tones which seem to mutually emphasize each other. The bass track is also much more complex in a lot of these songs than was typical for Nintendo music, and the dark, punchy vibe is perfectly suited for a Batman-themed action game.

Similarly, the frequent employment of Castlevania-style melodies is less a ripoff than a completely appropriate sound for the game. I mean, it could be a total coincidence that they sound alike at all. What is our hero here supposed to be again? Oh yeah, a bat.

Or it could be the case that Hara and Kodaka were avid fans of contemporary video game musicians and incorporated the best of every world with conscious intent. A lot of amazing works have derived from calculated stylistic fusions, and I would not rule out either possibility.

And then there is Mother (Nintendo, 1989). If you ever played Earthbound on the SNES, its music is etched into your memory whether you like it or not. Earthbound was the sequel, and Mother has still yet to be released outside of Japan today. I was a cool little middle school computer nerd who managed to get his hands on a fan-translated ROM, but having succeeded in acquiring it, I promptly lost all interest in actually playing it. It’s a shame, because now I am completely perplexed as to how these two games overlapped. The gameplay is literally identical to the SNES sequel, and I’m not wholly convinced that the plot is not as well. Likewise, quite a number of the songs of Earthbound first appear in Mother, including a lot of the battle themes. Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka remained partners for both titles, and there is hardly any break where one lets off and the other begins. The original was certainly one of the most unique compositions on the Nintendo, but the same can be said for its sequel on the SNES despite the music really not changing much.

This compilation is really one of garudoh’s weaker efforts, and I can’t easily provide you with many alternatives, so I may leave most of the Mother discussion for Earthbound when I get to it.

But on a final note, here is one of the revisited battle themes in its original form, just to give you an idea of how effective Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka’s drum and bass emphasis was even on a system as limited as the NES.

VGM Entry 21: Zelda II and Metroid

VGM Entry 21: Zelda II and Metroid
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

You’re going to see Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo, 1987) on a lot of “best of the NES” soundtrack lists. I considered skipping over it, since I’m not a big fan myself, but I suppose a famous score ought to be addressed whether I care for it or not.

Zelda II brought a completely new soundtrack to the table, sharing nothing in common with the original Legend of Zelda save a passing nod at the beginning of “Hyrule Overworld”. (The track list on this compilation is “The Adventure of Link” (0:00), “Hyrule Overworld” (1:22), “Danger” (2:17), “Village Theme 1” (2:53), “Village Theme 2” (4:07), “Palace” (4:27), and “Ending” (5:57), if you’re curious.) This departure is not a surprise in itself; Nintendo oddly chose to give Akito Nakatsuka rather than Koji Kondo the job, so we’re dealing with a different composer here. Zelda II was also a much more extensive soundtrack than the original, featuring 13 full-length songs if I’m counting correctly.

There is no obvious reason to dislike the soundtrack. “Hyrule Overworld” is catchy, no doubt, and “Palace” is a particularly noteworthy song. Zelda II has a few gems, and more thought went into it than many contemporary video game soundtracks out there. But is it really anything special? The simple fact that it wasn’t bad might have stood for something a few years prior, but by 1987 I expect a bit more. Most of Akito Nakatsuka’s compositions are pretty simplistic, not all that memorable, blandly arranged, and generally fail to capitalize on any of the system’s unique potential. I am rather inclined to believe the music was popular merely due to its having the name “Zelda” attached to it.

Another game which receives, I think, a little more praise than it deserves is Metroid (Nintendo, 1986). My complaint here is not nearly so well founded, especially considering it was, I’ll admit, a great soundtrack, and Hirokazu Tanaka, unlike Akita Nakatsuka, had a long and meritorious career in the video game music industry. (Nakatsuka’s only other claim to fame to the best of my knowledge is Excitebike (Nintendo, 1984).)

But Metroid and Zelda II are remembered in different degrees. If Zelda II makes all the lists, Metroid always seems to top them. The problem here can be seen in which tracks are well remembered. “Brinstar” (1:40) is probably the most famous song in the game, followed by the title theme (0:00). But “Brinstar”, much like “Escape” (4:09) and “Victorious” (5:18) in this video, are pretty standard fair. Catchy songs, better than most; I’ll grant them that. The best on the NES? Well, they’re at least worth considering as candidates. But if these are the songs Metroid is best remembered for, something went wrong here. What you hear at the beginning of the intro, as well as in “Norfair” (2:34) and “Kraid’s Lair” (3:17), is a bit more indicative of what I think Tanaka was aiming for, and the brief “Bridge” (7:33) at the end of this video is probably the most revealing track.

Tanaka was trying to bring the world of Metroid alive through music. He wasn’t just writing background pieces; he was integrating music into the gameplay environment, and that was no easy task on the Nintendo. To quote an interview with Hirokazu Tanaka conducted by Alex Brandon and published in 2002:

“…sound designers in many studios started to compete with each other by creating upbeat melodies for game music. The pop-like, lilting tunes were everywhere. The industry was delighted, but on the contrary, I wasn’t happy with the trend, because those melodies weren’t necessarily matched with the tastes and atmospheres that the games originally had. The sound design for Metroid was, therefore, intended to be the antithesis for that trend. I had a concept that the music for Metroid should be created not as game music, but as music the players feel as if they were encountering a living creature. I wanted to create the sound without any distinctions between music and sound effects.”

The introduction and “Bridge” pull this off wonderfully, and “Norfair” and “Kraid’s Lair” suit the vision admirably as well, but the majority of the more popular tracks from Metroid are nevertheless Tanaka’s poppier pieces. I wish I could write this off as fan failure to appreciate, but the truth is the other more obscure tracks, “Tourian” and “Mother Brain”, are excluded from garudoh’s compilation for a reason. They missed the mark, and they just weren’t all that good. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting Metroid was anything short of a great soundtrack, but it was nevertheless a little short of what it strove to be, and many of its redeeming qualities rest in the residual traces of precisely what Tanaka was trying to weed out.

Metroid deserves an honorable mention on any list of NES soundtrack greats, but it’s not top ten material. I think it has too many faults for that, and Tanaka himself would contribute to a better NES score on Mother a few years later anyway.

VGM Entry 06: Hubbard’s covers

VGM Entry 06: Hubbard’s covers
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Monty on the Run is arguably Rob Hubbard’s most famous work today, and perhaps because of that I am inclined to believe it was one of his most distributed songs at the time, but it remains one game among many. A broad and stylistically diverse collection of games released in 1985 all featured Hubbard’s novel techniques as well as his high standard of quality, and it was through this larger catalog that Hubbard really made his mark on the future of game sound. What may come as a surprise is that a lot of these songs were not actually original. Hubbard had a knack for finding obscure preexisting songs that could translate well into the SID sound.

In fact, Monty on the Run was essentially a cover song. It was a rock arrangement of “Devil’s Galop”, a classical piece by Charles Williams which served as the theme to the radio show Dick Barton – Special Agent. Dick Barton, moreover, aired from 1946 until 1951, and Hubbard was born in 1955, so I doubt the choice was merely nostalgic. But whatever inspired him to choose the song, rock and roll was no obvious style through which to reinterpret it. It took a pretty unique ear to hear this and envision a C64 chiptune epic.

It helped that Hubbard was an experienced musician. His career began as a studio musician, not a programmer, and his first effort as a programmer was to design musical education software for the Commodore 64. When he submitted the project to Gremlin Graphics, it was his demo songs rather than the associated software that peaked their interest, and his new career was born.

Elsewhere, Hubbard took more recent and relevant inspiration. Master of Magic (Richard Darling, published by Mastertronic, 1985) was an arrangement of “Shibolet”, written by Larry Fast for his Synergy project and released on Audion in 1981. Trying to obtain more than a 10 second clip of the original has become more trouble than it’s worth for me, but I have to imagine that, as with all else, Hubbard made it uniquely his own.

The fact that he was even listening to contemporary synth composers–far more relevant to chiptunes than say, classical music–says a bit about how he viewed his work. Certainly Monty on the Run had a ‘guitar’ solo, but I doubt he intended the song to sound like an actual rock band in the same sort of way that some early NES composers tried to emulate real orchestras. In covering a synth artist, he was turning to a style of music designed for precisely the type of instrument the Commodore 64 was. He employed the sounds available to him for what they were, not for what they distantly resembled. This concept of viewing the SID as an instrument, not as a means to approximate instruments, is not an obvious step, and it’s much to his credit that C64 sound came to evolve as an instrument in the first place. I think it’s telling that when the likes of Tim Follin and Neil Baldwin began composing for the NES their music had a distinct Commodore 64 sound; Hubbard’s SID manipulations manifested as a unique and classifiable style of music.

His most exciting early work to consider is Rasputin (Firebird, 1985). It is derived from traditional and early Soviet-era Russian folk tunes, but wait a minute here. Yes, Tetris was created in 1984, but Alexey Pajitnov’s original was silent, and in any case it was initially isolated to the U.S.S.R. Hirokazu Tanaka, another video game music legend, composed its famous tunes based on Russian folk songs, but that wasn’t until 1989. Whether Rob Hubbard influenced him or not, the reverse is certainly not the case.

szigand on youtube actually took the trouble to dissect the components of this song and the order they appear in. It’s an amalgamation of Katyusha by Soviet composer Matvey Blanter, Czardas by Italian composer Vittorio Monti, and the traditional Hungarian folk song Kaljinka. Where Hubbard might have found them, let alone what inspired him to combine them into a chiptune classic, is anyone’s guess, but the result is brilliant.