VGM Entry 33: Amiga 500

VGM Entry 33: Amiga 500
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It was around 1988 that European computer gaming really started to make the transition over to the Amiga 500 from the Commodore 64. While the Amiga line had been around since 1985, the Amiga 500 launched in 1987 and was designed to be a much more cost effective, mass consumer-friendly product.

With a change in platform came a change in composers, oddly enough. Rob Hubbard is mentioned in a measly nine game credits on Lemon Amiga, and Martin Galway not at all. Suddenly David Whittaker, a Commodore 64 composer with an expansive library but little fame, ruled the roost. If we consider again a simple Lemon Amiga search result, his name pops up in 86 different Amiga titles. Platoon (Ocean Software, 1988) was not actually originally his, but as a faithful port of Jonathan Dunn’s 1987 C64 original (unless of course the music appeared in the movie itself; I’ve never seen it) it makes apparent the audio improvements the Amiga could offer. Whittaker’s Platoon was not necessarily better than the Jonathan Dunn original if we consider what the two artists had to work with, but he certainly did not squander or misuse the expansive new options that the Amiga 500 brought.

Whittaker’s most famous work would arrive the following year. Shadow of the Beast (Psygnosis, 1989) was a 12 song collection which really helped to solidify what we might think of as the Amiga 500 sound. The old Commodore 64 crew typically failed to carry on their legacies in the Amiga era, true, but most of the composers who replaced them did get their start programming for the C64 and enjoying the works of Hubbard and co. Artists had to be very selective about the styles of music they pursued in the C64, given its limited capacity, and what I think you hear on soundtracks like Shadow of the Beast is a continuation of those styles set to pretty decent instrument samples. This song could easily be translated into a SID piece and retain its original character. The actual C64 conversion sounded bad, as it turned out, but only because Fredrik Segerfalk did a shoddy job of it, not because the music was incompatible.

My favorite Amiga 500 tune by far though is Crystal Hammer (reLINE Software, 1988) by Karsten Obarski. The game itself is a mere Breakout copycat, but Obarski really made it shine. From what I can tell it was one of his only game compositions–Sarcophaser (Rainbow Arts, 1988) is another good one–and the brevity of his works is quite a shame. He made his name known more as a software developer, creating the highly criticized but frequently employed Ultima Soundtracker for the Amiga. Despite having almost no involvement in Commodore 64 composition whatsoever, Obarski’s music sounds just as indebted to Rob Hubbard as the rest of them. This is especially apparent on Sarcophaser, where you can get a feel for how the standard SID sounds and the more original style of Crystal Hammer existed side by side.

Chris Hülsbeck was a bit of an exception to the rule of new names on the new platform. One of his most shining moments was the Amiga 500 port of R-Type (Electric Dreams, 1989). Though Hülsbeck did, to the best of my knowledge, create the loadscreen music to the Commodore 64 version of R-Type as well, he chose two completely different songs. Never fully conforming to the ‘standard’ sound of any system, Hülsbeck was going to forge ahead with his own unique sound, and the product might not be backwards compatible.

That being said, while I have no doubt that Hülsbeck composed the Amiga title screen–it is unmistakably his style–I can’t say with certainty that he actually wrote the C64 one. Ramiro Vaca is additionally credited as a musician on the C64, as is Darius Zendeh on the Amiga, and I am not sure what role either played.


VGM Entry 25: Meanwhile in Europe…

VGM Entry 25: Meanwhile in Europe…
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It can be pretty easy to get boxed into a NES perspective and forget that, while Nintendo may have controlled the majority of the gaming market, they weren’t a total monopoly. The Commodore 64 in particular was still a close rival in the area of gaming music.

The same small handful of names seem to pop up everywhere I turn for C64 music. I don’t know if there were in fact fewer musicians, if their works drastically outshines the competition, or if most C64 composers have been unfairly forgotten, but I can tell you this much. Between 1985 and 1987 Rob Hubbard composed the music for over 60 video games. That is completely unheard of for any other time and any other system. Monty on the Run, the first Hubbard work to catch my attention, also happened to be one of his earliest. He would carry on the innovative tradition for many years to come, with such original (to the best of my knowledge) compositions as Nemesis the Warlock (Martech, 1987) rivaling his more famous 1985 works.

The tendency towards covers continued as well. Rob Hubbard visited Larry Fast and his Synergy project again on Zoids (Martech, 1986), this time arranging “Ancestors” from Audion, the same album that featured “Shibolet”. This time around, a version of the original music is conveniently available.

Which Hubbard music I post from here is really quite arbitrary, because the quality of his works is consistently high. Delta (Thalamus, 1987) is among my favorites. Delta is an interesting example of just how low-key video game development used to be. The sequel to Sanxion (Thalamus, 1986), both Delta and its predecessor were programmed by Stavros Fasoulas and composed by Rob Hubbard. To the best of my knowledge, that’s it. Perhaps this is why Hubbard was not composing ending credits themes.

I’ve read that the music to Delta was inspired by Koyaanisqatsi by Phillip Glass, but I have no reliable source to confirm this, and I have not heard the song myself.

Ben Daglish is another prolific C64 composer with dozens upon dozens of titles to his name. It’s pretty easy to miss soundtracks like Mountie Mick’s Death Ride (Ariolasoft, 1987) in the sea of material out there, especially with Daglish not getting quite the excessive attention of Hubbard and Galway. A great stand-alone song, Mountie Mick’s Death Ride also achieves a much higher level of game relativity than the average C64 composition. Unless this video is misleading, the game doesn’t seem to have had a seperate sound effects track at all; Daglish’s composition incorporated the chug of the train into the basic beat of the music.

(This video must have been removed in the past day or two, and I could not find a replacement nor did I have time to overhaul my article to adjust for it. I do hope this was deleted by the poster’s choice and not another victim to the most recent string of copyright threats by these media conglomerates who seem to be buying up massive quantities of obscure, out of print material and erasing all record of their existence. A whole ton of similarly innocent videos from different users seem to have vanished in the past few days.)

A Commodore 64 composer I drew attention to in an early post was Martin Galway, for his work in Yie Ar Kung-Fu and Roland’s Rat Race. I didn’t quite realize how significant the guy was at the time, but the more C64 soundtracks I look at (at least up through 1987), the more he comes across as the guy who scored every soundtrack that Hubbard didn’t. The two both put out ridiculous numbers. To Hubbard’s 60+, Galway can add another 30. Just how many games were released in this three year span?

By 1987, Galway seems to have gotten pretty experimental. A lot of his works don’t feel quite as “safe” as Hubbard’s. Game Over (Imagine, 1987) is a case in point. Weird as it may be, the first 1:50 still constitute a functional game soundtrack. But as the melody all drops out and nothing but Galway’s bizarre experimental drumming is left behind, well… whatever your take on the composition, I think you’ll be hard pressed to conceive of a relevant gaming context.

Maybe it’s just Game Over‘s cool box art that makes me think a relevant gaming context matters in the first place. I mean, if you tried to musically capture the title screen of The Baby of Can Guru (Rainbow Arts, 1987) you would probably be fired. So just as he did with The Great Giana Sisters that same year, Chris Hülsbeck said “to hell with this” and wrote whatever pleased him.

I mean, if the significance of what you’re now hearing hasn’t sunk in yet, let me try to clarify:

THIS GAME has a wicked soundtrack.

Anyway, this about wraps up my thoughts on SID music up through 1987. I will leave you with another Martin Galway piece: the Commodore 64 port of Arkanoid (Imagine, 1987), which is really just as absurd as Hülsbeck’s music for The Baby of Can Guru when you consider that the game is nothing more than a Breakout copycat.

Rob Hubbard and Martin Galway were not the only two people writing music for the Commodore 64–I still know next to nothing about David Whittaker, for instance–but it is consistently their works which strike me as noteworthy in the mid-1980s. Chris Hülsbeck, or Huelsbeck if you prefer, seems to really start to make his presence known in 1987, and the works of Jeroen Tel would soon follow. Tim Follin, the mastermind behind the Bionic Commando port arrangement, would also start to really expand his impact beyond the ZX Spectrum in the late ’80s. ’85-’87 might for many people constitute the real glory days of Commodore 64 music, but there was much greatness still to come.


Notice: Square Enix have apparently deemed one of my soundtrack reviews a copyright infringement and demanded I remove the offending content (brief audio samples from an out of print ost). 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.

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture

VGM Entry 08: Ports complicate the picture
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

While I have noted that composers remained within regional spheres, games certainly did not. Ports reigned supreme, and it was not uncommon for a game to appear around the world in a half dozen different formats. Each of these required a group of programmers familiar with the given system, and it was certainly not always the case that the original arcade version remained the best at the end of the day.

Take Commando (Capcom, 1985) for instance. The original main theme was composed by Tamayo Kawamoto, an obscure name which will persistently resurface throughout this series of articles. It’s certainly a commanding little march (utilizing the YM2203, if my previous article has peaked anyone’s interest in this regard), and I’d have fed in my quarter in the hopes of hearing more. But quite a number of Kawamoto’s soundtracks are better known for what other artists made of them in the port process than in their original form, and Commando is no exception.

Put it in the hands of Rob Hubbard and, well, did you expect anything less? This wild ride might be his most famous 1985 work after Monty on the Run, and it’s all the more enhanced when you realize how distinct it was from the original. Again Hubbard shines best when he is expanding and improvising upon the music of others. The potentially performable original work is completely lost here, transformed into a uniquely SID sound and style, and with all due respect to Tamayo Kawamoto, its certainly not worse off in consequence. The problem, which would go on to haunt countless composers down the line, is that most fans of Commando have no idea Kawamoto had any part in writing it.

The composition was actually a single day project, and the entire port was pushed through by Elite Systems in a mere two months. Hubbard briefly discussed it in an interview by Jason ‘Kenz’ Mackenzie’s Commodore Zone magazine. (Issue 10 as best I can tell, probably released in 1997): “There is an interesting story behind Commando. I went down to their office and started working on it late at night, and worked on it through the night. I took one listen to the original arcade version and started working on the c64 version. I think they wanted some resemblance to the arcade version, but I just did what I wanted to do. By the time everyone arrived at 8.00am in the morning, I had loaded the main tune on every C64 in the building! I got my cheque and was on a train home by 10.00 am…

Yie Ar Kung-Fu (Konami, 1985) is an especially odd game to consider, because its ports varied so drastically. I couldn’t find a stand-alone sound sample of the original arcade version, but you can hear it well enough beneath the sound effects of this gameplay video. The upbeat, distinctly Asian sound is a refreshing change of pace from the usual video game song styles, and in consideration of what Rob Hubbard did with Commando, you can imagine the potential for new arrangements this presents. Arguably the most famous version of the game’s music, however, is a completely bizarre departure.

The only rational explanation I can think of for Martin Galway having replaced the traditional Asian music theme with a completely irrelevant cover of “Magnetic Fields” by Jean Michel Jarre is that the title screen music is, in fact, completely irrelevant. I think perhaps Galway, either by request or on his own initiative, submitted the song as an all-purpose Commodore 64 option for Imagine Software, who produced the European computer ports of the game, and that it found its way into Yie Ar Kung-Fu simply because it happened to be available at the time. It is not one of Galway’s finer works, but I suppose you can do what you want to the loader screen. It was the combat music that really defined the game.

Even so, the actual gameplay music to the Commodore 64 port of Yie Ar Kung-Fu is as unexpectedly similar to the arcade as the title screen is unexpectedly divergent. The arrangement makes no effort whatsoever to expand upon or even properly convert the original arcade gameplay music to suit the SID sound. Instead we’re met by an unimaginative attempt to emulate the original as closely as possible, marred by SID distortion which could have so easily emphasized the music’s finest features but instead just drowned them out. I mean, this is far more appropriate than Galway’s load screen, but so much for a middle ground between total disregard for the original and a carbon copy.

And then you have the Famicom/NES version, released in April 1985. (That’s five months before Super Mario Bros., to put things in context.) Without altering the style of the arcade version in the slightest, it offers an almost entirely original song. It’s really the best version of Yie Ar Kung-Fu out there–you’d be hard-pressed to argue otherwise–and its existence is a bit puzzling. Who composed it?

The notes I’ve found on Yie Ar Kung-Fu credit Miki Higashino, but they fail to distinguish between the arcade and NES versions, as if these weren’t completely different songs. Now, I am inclined to think Higashino wrote both, which is quite remarkable considering she was only 17 years old at the time. (The only other really famous game musician I can think of to get this early of a career start is Tim Follin.) The other titles credited to Higashino in the mid-80s don’t exhibit this kind of quality, but in consideration of the fact that ten years later she would compose one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time (Suikoden), I know she had it in her. The Suikoden soundtrack is predominantly folk and traditional music (like Yie Ar), and the consistency of style between the arcade and Famicom songs favors a single composer.

The other thing Higashino-authorship has going for it is that she worked for Konami, who made both the arcade and Famicom versions. She would have been involved in the sound team of both, so it’s reasonable to believe she would have had the liberty to create an entirely new song when it came time to program the port. Her hands would have been tied for the European versions, which were produced by Imagine Software. On a final interesting note, the MSX version ports the Famicom soundtrack, not the original arcade music.

It’s all just speculation though. Anyone at Konami could have potentially been responsible for the changes. I’ll leave you with one final version that was most certainly not arranged by Miki Higashino. … Ok, I’m really going to try to avoid video game covers where they aren’t historically relevant, but you have to admit this Markdoom Shehand cover is one of the most awesome things ever.

VGM Entry 06: Hubbard’s covers

VGM Entry 06: Hubbard’s covers
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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.

VGM Entry 05: SID comes to life

VGM Entry 05: SID comes to life
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

1985 was the year that changed video game music forever, and this transpired primarily through the mediums of the Commodore 64 and the Nintendo Entertainment System. At a glance it can seem a lot easier to discuss the latter, what with Koji Kondo’s classics being performed around the world in symphonies today. The former still lacks a formalized history. Where people will readily make the bold and overpresumptuous claim that Super Mario Bros. revolutionized NES music, or even all game music, you don’t really hear the same claim being made about Monty on the Run. This is good, because neither are entirely true. The main difference I suppose is that Super Mario Bros. was undeniably the most popular game of its day, while you may well have never even heard of Monty on the Run. I don’t know if its priority over other Commodore 64 works stems from greater marketing success in 1985 or from a later acknowledgement that it was probably the best among a whole lot of excellent songs.

Let’s focus on the Commodore 64 first. The C64 sound revolution required a lot of programming innovations. The sort of sounds Rob Hubbard, Martin Galway, and the like were able to produce weren’t preset to the click of a button, and they weren’t at all obvious. Hubbard was most certainly the first prolific composer for the system, and a lot of SID programming innovations were his in origin, but to what extent C64 musicians influenced each other at this point in time is hard to say.

Monty on the Run (Gremlin Graphics, 1985) is probably Rob Hubbard’s most famous work, granted it was one of many he composed in 1985, and the improvement here over C64 examples from previous years is certainly staggering. I mean, games like 3D Skramble in 1983 may serve as fine examples of the SID’s naturally appealing tones, but they certainly don’t predict a chip and roll epic. With Rob Hubbard in 1985, and with Monty on the Run as the hallmark, we can really mark the end of serious technological limitations for home gaming sound. Programming sound for the Commodore 64 was a painstaking process no doubt, but its sound capacity was not so limiting as to physically deny quality in anything but the obscure/avantgarde. It took sound programmers a while to catch on, and perhaps, in light of the fact that they were not previously expected to compose great music for home game systems, it took a while for developers and real musicians to partner up. But three years after the release of the Commodore 64 and its legendary SID chip, home gaming music really came into its own.

Despite both making their first major waves in 1985, western and Japanese sound programming probably developed independently at first. Early game composers tended to stay within their regional spheres of influence. The European movement was not exclusive to the SID, but rather to local systems. Rob Hubbard for instance composed for the ZX Spectrum as well as the Commodore 64 early on, scoring such games as Spellbound (Mastertronic, 1985), but he never really branched out to Japanese gaming mediums. The Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC formed a fairly isolated pocket of platforms. Similarly, Koji Kondo composed exclusively for Nintendo, and Nobuo Uematsu’s non-NES works were all on computers of Japanese origin, such as the PC-8801 and MSX. A few British musicians, notably Tim Follin and Neil Baldwin, would later turn to the Nintendo, but the language barrier proved daunting. Some of Neil Baldwin’s best works were never commercially released due to communication difficulties between British developers and Japanese producers.

The most interesting indicator of what was going on with the Commodore 64 might be “Synth Sample” by Georg Feil. Composed in 1984 or 1985, it was a widely distributed file in the early days of the internet and had no affiliation with any sort of commercial enterprise. No one needed to ‘invent’ game music. It wasn’t discovered; it didn’t come to the first sound programmer as a sort of epiphany. It was the natural result of improvements in sound chips. Once the potential for good music was out there, it would happen with or without support from major game developers. The SID sounded great, it still sounds great, and it was an inspirational instrument in its own right. Hubbard and others might have been lucky enough to be paid a pittance for their works, but I like to think of them as musicians more so than ‘composers’ in the commercial sense.