Ten Years #45: Miki Higashino

Decade of last.fm scrobbling countdown:
45. 東野美紀 (Miki Higashino) (705 plays)
Top track (31 plays): Beautiful Golden City, from Suikoden (1995)

Ms. Higashino is the first of a handful of video game music composers to have risen through my ranks over the years, thanks almost entirely to her beautiful contributions to the soundtracks of Genso Suikoden I and II. (Funny, I would rank Suikoden II in a three way tie for my favorite video game ever, and all three relevant composers made it onto the charts.) Her discography is small but compelling, showcasing an appreciation for traditional Asian and European folk music that rarely surfaces with such force among her contemporaries. Paying special attention to Japanese and Irish folk in particular, she managed to imbue the first two Suikoden titles with a lively earthiness ideal for an unprecedented model of gameplay made possible by the Playstation. The Suikoden games eschewed fantasy in the raw for an appeal to political and military strife in which the hero moves from town to town gathering an army and waging war along grey lines, the quintessential naivete of the RPG hero being frequently exploited to generate scenarios in which the moral high ground stood open to debate. If the main plots centered around those characters most aware of war’s many faces, the hero and the bulk of his officers–108 recruitable characters in all–were simple folk, fighting for personal reasons without a grasp of the big picture. Miki Higashino’s success in the Suikoden soundtracks rested in her ability to score appropriate music for the simple majority–those characters with deep ties to the land, who lacked a grand vision and swallowed whole the political propaganda which cast their homes and country in jeopardy. Songs like Beautiful Golden City capture what the majority of the Suikoden cast fought to preserve.

Higashino has a long history in the video game music industry in spite of her short list of works. She composed her first two soundtracks–Gradius and Yie Ar Kung-Fu–in 1985, at the surprisingly young age of 17. Yie Ar Kung-Fu in particular reveals that Higashino bore an appreciation for folk music from the very beginning of her career. I’ll leave you with the NES version of this remarkably early score.

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 51: Neil Baldwin

VGM Entry 51: Neil Baldwin
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Who was Neil Baldwin? I have yet to even mention Neil Baldwin. In fact, I never even saw his name until quite recently, by a total accident of chain-clicking vaguely related youtube videos. It must be a gross oversight on my part. There’s no excuse for having missed Neil Baldwin.

I mean, his earliest works, like Shadow Skimmer (The Edge, 1987), might have been easily overlooked. They were fairly decent, but not groundbreaking in any sense, and in the glory days of Commodore 64 music ‘pretty good’ wasn’t going to stand out. Neil Baldwin was just learning the ropes in the late 80s, with the works of Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway serving as his main inspirations. His real legacy began when, much like Tim Follin, he brought the techniques of Commodore 64 composition to the NES.

And much like Tim Follin, he put 90% of Nintendo composers to shame. Magician (Taxan), released for the NES in 1990, was the first game by British developers Eurocom. It was also Neil Baldwin’s first NES composition. It sounds more advanced than nearly anything else on the system.

What exactly distinguishes it–how Neil Baldwin (and Tim Follin) were capable of producing such better sound quality on the NES than indigenous composers with no Commodore 64 background–is technical and way beyond my understanding. But thankfully, those explanations have already been made. See, Baldwin did that one thing that we all wish every video game composer would do, and which hardly ever actually happens.

He went back and wrote about his own compositions in long, thorough detail, and provided mp3s of the lot of them.


How cool is that? It would be kind of silly for me to go about repeating everything that he says here, especially when I’ll never quite understand it unless I get my hands on the equipment and try to program some game music myself. So I’ll leave it for the original artist to explain.

This particular soundtrack is Ferrari Grand Prix Challenge, the NES port of F-1 Hero MD for the Genesis/Mega Drive, released by Acclaim in 1992. Neil Baldwin’s score for the NES port is an original composition, not a replica of the Genesis music. Yes, there was still some great NES music this late in the game.

Hero Quest and Erik The Viking both have pretty interesting stories. If you scroll down far enough on Baldwin’s site you can read them in full, but to sum it up briefly, both of these games were never officially released. Baldwin actually thought that the music to Hero Quest, written in 1991, had been lost, until he ran into vgm fans talking about it. A little investigation revealed that the author of the game, Chris Shrigley, had preserved a copy of it and released it independently long after the fact.

Erik The Viking‘s story is the exact opposite. The actual game, which was fully completed in 1992 but, due to miscommunication between the developers and producer, never released, has been lost. Baldwin observes that it could quite possibly still exist somewhere, but it is certainly a lost artifact at the present. This time around, it was Baldwin that saved all of the original audio and released it independently years later.

Neil Baldwin has composed much else besides these five games, and his post-Commodore 64 work is consistently a cut above. I definitely recommend Erik The Viking first and foremost among his NES works. As for his later SNES compositions and beyond, I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them when I get there.

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 39: End of the NES era (part 1)

VGM Entry 39: End of the NES era (part 1)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Games would continue to be made for the NES long after the release of the Super Nintendo, but its glory days had come and gone. Already by 1990, the system was starting to sound a little stale, and even the most impressive compositions faced an enormous burden in keeping pace with video game music at large on a hopelessly outdated system.

Koichi Sugiyama certainly didn’t produce much of interest. The improved rendition of the main theme aside, Dragon Quest IV (Enix, 1990) was not a particularly memorable soundtrack. It has no faults per se. It certainly had nothing approaching the annoyance of the original Dragon Quest‘s combat theme. But no amount of listening to the tracks beyond the main theme here has revealed the slightest hint of anything special. It’s a soundtrack secure in its simplicity. The music is wholly appropriate for an RPG, never clashing with the style of gameplay, but it also adds nothing to the experience save pleasant background music. I’ve heard plenty worse by RPG composers with much more diverse sound systems to work with, but it definitely feels to me as though this one stands out more for the fact that “Dragon Quest” and “Koichi Sugiyama” are attached to it than for its own worth.

Final Fantasy III (Square, 1990) was a somewhat different situation. It’s got a lot more emotion to it, and frankly it might constitute Nobuo Uematsu’s finest compositions on the NES, but in the context of its place in time it can be pretty hard to appreciate. Here’s a track list for the video:

(0:00) Prelude
(0:56) Crystal Cave
(1:54) Jinn the Fire
(2:43) Chocobo Theme
(3:20) The Invincible
(4:11) Battle
(5:06) Last Battle
(5:59) The Boundless Ocean
(6:59) Fanfare

Nobuo Uematsu definitely climaxed as a specifically NES composer on Final Fantasy III. “Battle” and “Last Battle” express a full appreciation for the NES as an instrument, and the rapid-fire accompaniments in both, but especially the latter, are some of the most powerful on the system. The SID-like sound on “Crystal Cave” and “Last Battle” adds a new dimension to the songs which would have been unthinkable for Uematsu a mere three years prior, while “The Invincible” is a practically perfect arrangement. If Final Fantasy might best be defined as lovely compositions poorly arranged, Final Fantasy III was definitely the full package.

The problem, and the reason it took me setting the game aside and coming back to it weeks later to be able to really appreciate it, is that this was 1990. Amidst the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16, the NES just sounded terrible; it was no longer novel and it was way behind the times. Nintendo’s lengthy development paid off, as things turned out, but a lot of early 1990 releases better suited for the SNES suffered from the delay.

Resting somewhere between these two in quality was Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (Konami, 1989). I have seen no less than five musicians credited with the composition. Hashing out who all among Hidenori Maezawa, Kenichi Matsubara (Castlevania II), Yoshinori Sasaki, Jun Funahashi, and Yukie Morimoto were really responsible for the music might be a fun task, but I only have the time for so many such projects. For whatever it’s worth, Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi and Yukie Morimoto are the three most frequently credited names. Consisting of a long list of virtual unknowns, this is one of those scores for which “Konami Kukeiha Club” might be the most appropriate accreditation.

One thing that strikes me as interesting here is how the drums and bass feel like they’ve borrowed from Batman (Sunsoft, 1989) by Nobuyuki Hara and Naoki Kodaka, especially considering I felt Hara an Kodaka themselves might have been inspired in part by the Castlevania series before I ever heard Castlevania III specifically. This connection, or at least the possibility of Batman‘s drum and bass influencing Castlevania III, is virtually impossible. As it turns out both games were actually released on the exact same day: December 22, 1989. (I had originally thought Castlevania III was released in 1990, hence my placing it in this post, but it’s close enough.)

The game has some pretty impressive original tracks, especially “Beginning” (0:00) and “Mad Forest” (1:10), not to mention a new rendition of “Vampire Killer” (5:49). The overall sound is a lot less classical and a lot more peppy than previous Castlevania titles, though I think that can be forgiven in light of the good, consistent job they did with it. Again, the soundtrack only took a while to grow on me due to its historical context. It was most certainly technologically behind the times, but there wasn’t much the Konami sound team could do about that.

VGM Entry 37: DuckTales

VGM Entry 37: DuckTales
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Part of going over these older game scores involves a lot of legwork in tracking down their composers. Sometimes authorship is ascribed in a straight forward manner that raises no alarms, but more often developers were especially cryptic about their musical staff. Composers tended to go by aliases rather than proper names, and sometimes confusion between composition and sound programming lead to false assumptions. That is the topic I’d like to focus on again for this next 1989 NES title.

If you are not already familiar with NES music to some extent, this selection might seem like a joke at first glance. And after all, the first track in the video is nothing but a standard rendition of the original television theme. But as the standard expectation passes on and the soundtrack comes into its own, you’ll soon be forced to admit that DuckTales (Capcom, 1989) is indeed among the very best on the NES. If “The Amazon” (1:13) fails to instantly convince you, “The Moon” (2:16) most certainly should. It’s sad and beautiful to an extent approaching Yasunori Mitsuda’s “To Far Away Times”.

The funny thing is it’s not entirely clear who wrote it. You will almost always see it credited to Yoshihiro Sakaguchi (Yukichan no Papa)–the same Sakaguchi credited alongside Tamayo Kawamoto on Forgotten Worlds. This came into question in 2010. Yoshihiro Sakaguchi is actually a name I first encountered when I was listening to Mega Man and Mega Man 2, but I ran into an interview with Manami Matsumae, Takashi Tateishi, and Yoshihiro Sakaguchi on Square Enix Music Online (SEMO) which sorted all of that out.

I’ve mentioned a number of times the vaguaries surrounding the conversion of composition into actual game sound, especially in ports. When we’re talking Commodore 64 music this isn’t really an issue, as the composers were almost always responsible for the full project from start to finish as best I can tell. But when you get into platform systems like the NES and Genesis, and full sound teams like Taito’s Zuntata and Capcom’s Alph Lyla, the business gets excruciatingly vague. The interview expressly reveals that Manami Matsumae “did the background music and sound effects on the original Mega Man“, and Takashi Tateishi “did the background music and sound effects on Mega Man 2,” while Yoshihiro Sakaguchi “was in charge of programming the sound driver.” Where is the dividing line? Was Sakaguchi’s job to program the specific tones chosen by the composers, or did he choose the tones based on their compositions? Takashi Tateishi’s comments lead me to believe that there was some collaboration involed, and the divide in work load was by no means black and white. But we’re not talking the difference between say, composing a score and conducting an orchestra. The vast differences in quality between different ports, such as those I exemplified through “Dark Fact”/”Final Battle” from Ys I, should give you an idea of how absolutely critical the programmer/arranger/whatever you want to call its role must have been on these early systems.

My relevant point here is that any revelation that Yoshihiro Sakaguchi did not compose the vast majority of the music he is credited with should not necessarily downplay his significance. As for DuckTales in particular, it is quite safe to assume that it was composed by Hiroshige Tonomura, not Yoshihiro Sakaguchi. While the published content of the SEMO interviews never specifically addresses DuckTales, Chris on vgmdb, who had some insider knowledge, stated in responce to the DuckTales question that “there are a lot of other credits with his name in, sometimes only his name in, but Sakaguchi denied his involvement composing them.” User dissident93 followed this up by claiming to have contacted Manami Matsumae on Facebook and confirmed that Hiroshige Tonomura was the composer. Hiroshige Tonomura’s stint with Capcom was brief, joining Alph Lyla in 1988 and leaving alongside Tamayo Kawamoto for Zuntata only two years later, probably adding to the obscurity of his credits there. I am convinced he wrote it, and you probably should be too, but it does make for a fun little detective story.

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 31: RPGs in ’88

VGM Entry 31: RPGs in ’88
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Nobuo Uematsu and Koichi Sugiyama were both at work in 1988, recording installments of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series respectively. They both maintained their own standards, remaining at the forefront of RPG and adventure style music on the NES.

Final Fantasy II (Square, 1988) was actually a big improvement over the original. Nobuo Uematsu’s fundamental style hadn’t changed (and I would argue that it still hasn’t), but I feel like on this game he really mastered how to effectively arrange his works for the NES. I mentioned that Final Fantasy‘s arrangement felt like a finished product compared to some other genre-related games released that year, but in Nobuo’s later NES works you can start to get the feeling that the original Final Fantasy was also a sort of work in progress. It incorporated a number of slightly distorted tones which really gave his soft, subtle melodies an air of technological primitivism.

On Final Fantasy II you hear none of that. The overall sound is a lot more smooth. It’s immediately apparent in the “Main Theme” following “Prelude” in this sample. The main melody, here carried by a very soft and pretty tone, is precisely the sort of sound for which he employed a grittier, more mechanical tone in the first game. Since Final Fantasy II was released on the Famicom, not the FDS, I can’t imagine that there was any change in the platform’s capacity. I think, rather, he took some lessons from his earlier shortcomings on the production end of the spectrum.

Final Fantasy II was the first game to feature the famous “Chocobo” theme (1:40), and “Main Theme” (0:53), “Tower of Mages” (not here featured), and “Ancient Castle” (2:42) are all particularly noteworthy, but I think it’s the improved arrangement which really makes the soundtrack shine.

Dragon Quest III (Enix, 1988) is a little harder for me to assess, as I’ve somehow completely failed to acquire full soundtracks for this series. What I’ve heard seems like more of the same old, which is absolutely fine. Koichi Sugiyama seems to have continued to focus on rearranging earlier works rather than composing wholly new ones, and he had a decent amount of success in doing so. I’m not going to talk at length about a score I really know nothing about, but I thought it worth throwing out there again.

As I hope I’ve by now established though, the NES had by no means a monopoly on this style of video game music. Takahito Abe and Yuzo Koshiro’s work on Ys I is a soundtrack I’ve frequently cited, and its follow-up, Ys II: Ancient Ys Vanished – The Final Chapter (Nihon Falcom), was yet another fine 1988 sequel.

But the music here is pretty hard to come by. Takahito Abe was not a part of the sound team this go around, and Mieko Ishikawa took on the bulk of the load, with Yuzo Koshiro providing some of the more up-beat tracks, such as the one here sampled. Ishikawa isn’t a musician I’ve come across too often up to this point, but she was credited alongside Koshiro and Abe on Sorcerian, and I gather she was involved in future Ys titles. I suppose I should have featured one of her songs and not Koshiro’s, but I can’t find enough of it out there to get a good feel for it. There’s a nice sample of the song Tender People up on youtube that might give you an idea. It lacks Takahito Abe’s gentle touch, but it’s quite pretty nevertheless.

A lot of the difficulty in digging out Ys II tracks (at least in the short period of time I can allot it) stems from a remake of the game having been released for PC Engine / TurboGrafx-16 in 1989, a mere one year later. That release, Ys I & II, featured some outstanding new arrangements from Ryo Yonemitsu, but its success denies us easy access to Ishikawa’s original PC-8801 work. As far as Koshiro is concerned, some of his upbeat tracks come off quite well, but I feel like he lacked restraint on this album and ended up with a sound that just didn’t quite suite the type of game he was composing for. It’s a problem which Koshiro would thoroughly overcome over the next three years, adding such stark stylistic distinctions to his name as ActRaiser (Enix, 1990) and Streets of Rage (Sega, 1991).

Above all else in the RPG/adventure world of 1988 though, I’m most impressed by how my new-found hero Kenneth W. Arnold manages to maintain the high standards he set back in 1983.

This guy’s music blows me away every time I hear it, and his work on Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (Origin Systems, 1988) is no exception. It’s atmospherically perfect. “Engagement and Melee” might be a simple song, but could it have been any more appropriate for a tense medieval battle? It doesn’t deliver with speed and aggression, but rather with a vision of the distant fantasy world it represents. The distortion sounds archaic in the best of ways.

There are a lot of different versions of it floating around out there, as best I understand because Apple II music is nearly impossible to rip and requires some creative liberty. But I did manage to nab a replica of the original Apple II sound as it was meant to be heard through a Mockingboard sound card, and I present these samples to you now. (Thanks again to Apple Vault.)

The aesthetics here never fail to impress me. The sound quality in “Greyson’s Tale” is exploited flawlessly, using every potential adverse limitation to the music’s advantage. The distortion and the fairly minimalistic, distinctly medieval compositions paint every ideal image you’ve ever had a of a fantasy world. There’s something not quite clear and not quite safe about all of it.

In “Dream of Lady Nan” the distorted bass is so forceful you can feel the vibrations, and the melody is crystal clear, creating an unnatural juxtaposition that’s completely haunting. I normally avoid encouraging the free download of potentially copyrighted material, but in consideration of the fact that the owners of this material have nothing to lose and everything to gain from it being distributed, I highly recommend you go download all of Kenneth W. Arnold’s works in Ultima III-V. You can find them in their ideal form at this link.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. It’s not quite on par with Ultima III and Ultima IV in my opinion, and the tracks don’t loop quite as flawlessly as they used to, but it maintains the series’ standing in a complete league of its own, beyond comparison to the contemporary best efforts of Nobuo Uematsu and company. If there were other soundtracks out there like it, well, I would very much like to hear them.

VGM Entry 29: Mario’s many sequels

VGM Entry 29: Mario’s many sequels
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

While the Genesis was just getting started, Nintendo developers were pumping out sequels. Super Mario Bros. 2, Final Fantasy II, Mega Man 2, Dragon Quest III, Super Mario Bros. 3… They were coming out right and left in 1988, and most of them were improvements over the originals.

The first thing you might ask is how Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Bros. 3 ended up being released in the same year. Well, they actually came out a mere two months apart. There is a bit more to this story though, and since Super Mario Bros. 2 has by far the best music among NES installments of the series, there should be time enough to tell it.

The first game to be titled “Super Mario Bros. 2” was released in Japan in March 1986. It seems to be readily downloadable today, but if you’re like me and don’t play games much these days you probably only ever encountered it on Super Mario All-Stars (1993) for the SNES, where it was titled The Lost Levels. As you might recall, it wasn’t particularly interesting; it was pretty much identical to the original, music and all, just with new level designs. This was not originally intended to be the case. A much more unique and creative game had been in development, but for whatever reason Nintendo’s market research lead them to believe that an expansion of the original would have greater commercial success. The project in development was passed off to Fuji Television Network and released as Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic in July 1987. Koji Kondo’s original work went along with the package, and much of what you are hearing now first appeared in Doki Doki Panic.

Nintendo sensed a different interest in the American consumer and went ahead with the original project. You may have heard at some point years back–I know I had–that the American Super Mario Bros. 2 was just some cheaply refurbished port of a non-series Japanese title, but this is not entirely correct. The projects were one and the same for much of the game’s development. In a very peculiar turn of events by early gaming standards, North America (and Europe) got the real Super Mario Bros. 2, and Japan got the ripoff. It took so long for the game to be released in its intended form, however, that it ended up launching in North America at pretty much the exact same time that Super Mario Bros. 3 came out in Japan.

Musically, Super Mario Bros. 2 improved on Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic by integrating peppier renditions of themes from the original Super Mario Bros. The music is also a lot more crisp, though that might be the consequence of differences between the Famicom and the NES. At any rate, it is probably my favorite early Koji Kondo soundtrack. The main theme remains, arguably unlike the original Mario Bros. theme, unconditionally pleasant. The limitations of the NES are a total non-factor here. I wish I could pinpoint what sort of style it is–I get some distant vibe of jazz and ragtime–but it either falls beyond my knowledge base or proceeds from nothing more than Koji Kondo’s incredible talent for writing instant classics. I mean, I never played Super Mario Bros. 2 back in the NES days, but it feels more nostalgic to me than the original Mario theme.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a little less interesting in my opinion, if only because its generally laid back pace and Latin/Caribbean beats just don’t feel quite in harmony with what was probably the fastest-moving of the NES Mario games. But Super Mario Bros. 3 was also the most diverse of these soundtracks, switching up its style as needed to suit a greater variety of level designs. In some instances, most notably “Level 2 Theme” (1:09), Konjo employs sounds more akin to his work in the prequel. “Hammer Brothers” (4:28) seems to be inspired by rock and roll, and the beat-laden revision of the original underworld theme, here amusingly titled “Super Mario Rap” (2:30), is undeniably cool.

I suppose Super Mario Bros. 3 can be justly regarded as the “best” NES-era Mario soundtrack, if nothing else for the shear variety of styles Konjo successfully employed. But it lacks any particular really stand-out tracks–the sort of incredibly catchy anthems for which he is best known.

VGM Entry 24: Metal Gear and More

VGM Entry 24: Metal Gear and More
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Notice: Square Enix have apparently deemed one of my soundtrack reviews a copyright infringement and demanded I remove it. I have complied, and I kindly 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. (Their complaint involved brief audio samples from only one video game–amusingly out of print today–so I have left my other reviews intact.)

At the same time that RPG/adventure game music was coming into its own on the Nintendo, a lot of solid action soundtracks followed in the wake of Castlevania. Metal Gear (Konami, 1987) kicked off a series that would not really rise to major prominence until 1998, but its history of good scores dates back to the originals.

Metal Gear called for a lot of spy work and sneaking around, and its original soundtrack captured precisely that. Not the music you were expecting to hear? Well, two versions of Metal Gear were released in 1987. The first, released in July, was for the MSX2, and it contained a completely different soundtrack from the NES version that followed it in December. It’s not entirely clear who composed it; Wikipedia lists Iku Mizutani, Shigehiro Takenouchi, and Motoaki Furukawa as the composers for Metal Gear without distinguishing between ports. That’s pretty shady business, as Kazuki Muraoka’s NES score contained a number of original compositions and was much more popular, at least in the western world. Most sites only list Iku Mizutani for the MSX2 and Kazuki Muraoka for the NES, while the only official release of the MSX2 soundtrack simply credits Konami Kukeiha Club.

Well, I watched the actual ending credits of the MSX2 version, and Konami lists it as:

Main Sound Effect:
Iku Mizutani

Sub Sound Effect:
Shigehiro Takenouchi
Motoaki Furukawa

The same bad translation persists on the NES version, where Kazuki Muraoka is responsible for all “Sound Effect”. So that’s enough to sort it out, right? All evidence suggests that Mizutani composed the MSX2 version (with a little help from Takenouchi and Furukawa) and Muraoka composed the NES version.

Of course these indecisive credits always leave room for speculation. Here’s one for you: The PC88 visual novel Snatcher (Konami, 1988) contains an arrangement of the song “Theme of Tara” (1:49). The game offers very thorough credits, and it expressly states that the song was composed by Masanori Adachi and arranged by Masahiro Ikariko and Kazuhiko Uehara. If it’s just an arrangement of the MSX2 original, then… wait a minute…

But Adachi isn’t even credited in Metal Gear. Did Konami perhaps forget who wrote the MSX2 music and credit Adachi by mistake? Here’s the real kicker. Snatcher was ported to the MSX2 shortly after its release, and for the port Iku Mizutani is credited with arranging Masanori Adachi’s composition, which was, if our credits all add up, a copy of Iku Mizutani’s original Metal Gear composition.

Oh well. We are at least pretty sure Kazuki Muraoka wrote the NES one. In the very least he’s the only name appearing in the credits in association with sound. His score was a mix of arrangements from the MSX2 and new songs, and as far as I’m concerned the new material was almost always an improvement. Generally this consisted of replacing the weaker tracks, but Muraoka did take the risk of replacing “Red Alert!” (0:16 in the previous video), perhaps the best song in the MSX2 mix, with a completely new track under the same name (2:03). The decision paid off.

If you would like to hear some comparisons between the original MSX2 compositions and Muraoka’s ports, look for “Mercenary” (4:21 on the MSX2 video, 2:55 on the NES) and “Return of Fox Hounder” (6:52 on the MSX2 and 4:25 on the NES). Unless I overlooked something, the rest of this NES compilation consists of original compositions. The whole Metal Gear sound as established on the MSX2 turned out to be excellently suited for the NES–a system on which speed and catchiness served well to compensate for a lack of much bass or distortion. Even so, my favorite Muraoka addition is a slow one. I have no idea why “Password Entry” (3:37) was put to such petty use. It would have made a fine ending credits theme.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (Konami) also made its first appearance in the summer of ’87. By this time Kinuyo Yamashita had moved on to other projects, and Kenichi Matsubara picked up the job. Like Kinuyo Yamashita in the original, it would be his only contribution to the series.

And what a contribution it was. His efforts to maintain stylistic consistency with the first game are commendable, and he did so while writing equally catchy and memorable songs. Obviously his most famous work (and probably the most famous song in the series) is “Bloody Tears”, appearing second in the video. But I was really quite surprised to encounter tracks like “Dwelling of Doom” (2:10), which could just as easily have become series staples had future writers chosen to retain them. Kenichi Matsubara arguably surpassed the original Castlevania with this soundtrack, and it wouldn’t be the last time that the series stood at the forefront of video game music.

In the meantime, Kinuyo Yamashita had by no means fallen by the wayside. Her work on Arumana no Kiseki (Konami, 1987) is really outstanding, taking advantage of the Family Computer Disk System’s enhanced capabilities to produce a very clean, crisp sound. (The FDS was an extension of the Famicom released only in Japan. Its early titles included The Legend of Zelda and Metroid.) I have to imagine the only reason Arumana no Kiseki never got much praise is because fewer people heard it. Konami seem to have gotten around the copywrite challenges of making an Indiana Jones ripoff by simply never releasing the game outside of Japan, although they may have been better off paying up and releasing it. The first licensed series game for the NES, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Mindscape), released some time in 1987 or 1988, was a gameplay disaster on par with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and its soundtrack is a lame attempt to preserve the original John Williams score.

explod2A03 on youtube provides a nice collection of music from Arumana no Kiseki, available here, along with a number of other forgotten soundtracks from the era.

Of course we all know what the most important video game music series on the NES was, and Capcom, not Konami, get the credit this time. Known as Rockman in Japan, the original Mega Man was unleashed upon the world in December 1987. Manami Matsumae did not compose for the Mega Man series for long. After scoring Mega Man and contributing to Takashi Tateishi’s work in Mega Man 2, she sort of dropped off the face of the earth, not to resurface in the series again until Mega Man 10‘s massive collaborative effort in 2010. But the legacy she began is one of the finest in gaming history.

Here’s a track list for the compilation, in case you’re interested:
(0:00) Epilogue
(1:40) Stage Select
(1:57) Robot Intro
(2:04) Cutman
(2:52) Fireman
(3:28) Elecman
(4:22) Gutsman
(4:57) Iceman
(6:00) Dr. Wily’s Castle 1
(6:44) Dr. Wily’s Castle 2
(7:20) Robot Battle
(7:49) Dr. Wily Battle
(8:17) Bombman
(9:02) Victory!

Of course the series did not find massive commercial success until Mega Man 2 the following year, but from the beginning it was as intimately tied to its score as the Final Fantasy series. It isn’t nostalgia that leads modern-day rock bands and chiptune artists to cover “Cutman”, “Fireman”, and “Bombman”, just to name a few. It’s because the music is outstanding. I mean, I think the samples speak for themselves. Manami Matsumae established a standard of quality which Capcom would strive to maintain for many years to come. Takashi Tateishi would soon raise the bar higher, but it may well be argued that, without Manami Matsumae’s original concept of what Mega Man music ought to sound like, none of the future improvements would have ever been possible.