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.

VGM Entry 13: Darius

VGM Entry 13: Darius
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Taito have kindly sent me a letter informing me of their intention to sue me for this post, and in particular for its visual and audio depictions of an out of print soundtrack for an out of print arcade machine, if I do not remove such content immediately. Taito being a subsidiary of Square Enix, I highly encourage you to boycott all Square Enix products in the future. Since their games are terrible these days anyway I am probably doing you a favor.

Unfortunately Hisayoshi Ogura is the one that suffers here, since Square Enix have simultaneously expressed no intention of legally distributing his work and barred all attempts by fans to share it.

It is very easy to get on a one-track mind and focus down home gaming in total disregard for the arcade. Arcade composers rarely had the lasting impact of Nintendo and computer game music, perhaps in part because arcade gaming as a business was pretty much dead by the end of the 80s. Where arcade music is still remembered today, it is usually in the form of NES and C64 port renditions. Yet in the mid-1980s, some producers still placed their finest resources into refining the arcade game first and foremost. Taito’s Zuntata sound team most significantly, and also Konami’s Kukeiha Club and Capcom’s Alph Lyla, were composing arcade music that far exceeded in sound quality anything ever heard on a home system. Taito did it best, and among their eccentric and innovative staff no one shines brighter than Hisayoshi Ogura. When Taito released its arcade shooter Darius in 1986, it achieved a level of sound quality that would not be surpassed until at least the late 1990s.

***Video removed due to Square Enix’s corporate bullying.***
Chaos and Boss 4

A collection of experimental oddities both catchy and disturbing, it could not have been better suited for the game it represents. Darius was experimental and innovative in many ways, featuring a triple-screen ultra-wide display and a non-linear level progression which would mix up the seven stages between (I believe) twenty-six possible maps, creating a slightly different experience on every play through. It even featured multiple endings–something you might not expect from a shooter game.

You probably wouldn’t expect to be fighting giant evil space fish, either. Darius receives pretty mixed reviews from a lot of shooter junkies these days, but if I was going to spend my quarters on anything in 1986 I know it’s the first game I’d have tried. It attempts to awe and bewilder, and it succeeds.

***Video removed due to Square Enix’s corporate bullying.***

You can really tell that Ogura designed his score to exploit every technological possibility available to him. The depth and fullness of the sound is overwhelming. It reminds me of the sort of audio experience I got from Square’s Einhänder–a game I bought specifically for the music. But Einhänder was released in 1997! Darius was 11 years old by then.

If it doesn’t sound that special to you, try plugging in headphones. Much like Kenneth W. Arnold’s Ultima soundtracks, my lousy laptop speakers can’t do it justice. I also recommend you try to get your hands on a copy of the soundtrack; Taito released a version as early as 1987, fully aware of its significance. I included a gameplay video of “Chaos” to showcase the music in action, but a playlist of the ost is also available. (Youtube link removed due to threats by Square Enix.) You can find full gameplay videos of each level with music on youtube thanks to *censored*.

***Video removed due to Square Enix’s corporate bullying.***

“The Sea” might be the most eclectic song in the mix. It’s certainly my favorite. You quickly discover that it does not intend to be a typical aquatic theme when the demented chime tones come into play. The next transition back to relative normalcy is quickly derailed by an erratic explosion of mechanized blast beats, and Hisayoshi Ogura wraps it all up in fittingly weird form with what feels like some sort of proto-dubstep.

Taito knew they were kings of the arcade. Their house band, Zuntata, even went so far as to perform some of the Darius soundtrack live.

***Video removed due to Square Enix’s corporate bullying.***
Chaos, performed live by Zuntata

A lot of game developers had “house bands” in the early days. This is part of why it is difficult to attribute authorship to a lot of game soundtracks of the era. Taking a closer look at these bands could prove pretty interesting–perhaps another task for another summer. Hisayoshi Ogura was not the first video game composer to perform his material live. I believe that credit goes to Koichi Sugiyama. But this concert, dated to 1990, has to be among the first.

Darius–a 1986 video game music masterpiece. Considering how easily it might have slipped by me unnoticed, I have to wonder how much more I am leaving behind.