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 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.