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 19: Ys I

VGM Entry 19: Ys I
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Yuzo Koshiro’s first major breakthrough is generally considered to be Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished (Nihon Falcom, 1987), sometimes alternatively subtitled as The Vanished Omens or The Ancient Land of Ys. While I don’t think it is quite musically on par with Xanadu Scenario II, it is certainly a commendable work. arx7893 on youtube has assembled a very nice collection of songs from various versions of the game. I especially recommend you check out the song “Palace”.

My intention here is to focus specifically on the music for the last boss, known as “Dark Fact” or simply “Final Battle”. It is one of the best examples you will presently find for multi-system song porting, both because Ys I: Ancient Ys Vanished was released on a staggering number of platforms and because the song is good enough for most versions to have found their way onto youtube.

This is the initial song. The game was originally developed for the PC-8801, but Yuzo Koshiro was surely aware that it would need to be quickly adapted to other platforms. This first release came on June 21, 1987, and the ports rapidly followed: to the X1 on June 26th, the PC-9801 on August 28th, the FM-7, 77, and 77AV on October 8th, the MSX2 on December 10th, the Famicom on August 26th, 1988, the Sega Mark III on October 15, 1988, the Sega Master System some time in 1988, MS-DOS, the Apple IIGS, and the PC Engine CD-ROM in 1989, the TurboGrafx-CD in 1990, the Sharp X68000 in 1991, and finally the TurboDuo in 1992. Did I mention the list was staggering? It is also available for Microsoft Windows, the Sega Saturn, the Playstation 2, the Nintendo DS, and the Wii now.

Aaanyway, what makes “Dark Fact” a little peculiar is that whoever all arranged it could not seem to agree on what constituted its main melody. In the original PC-8801 version above you have a faint, clean tone playing a simple melody over a deeper, more distorted and complex one. Throw in some basic bass and drums, occasionally accent it with a fifth track, and there’s your song.

The next readily available version is for the FM-7, released a little over three months later. You’ll notice that the original soft lead, previously overshadowed, is now completely gone, while the song’s deeper side is nearly identical. They distorted the principle bass track and made it a lot louder, but that’s about it. Half way through, the song transitions to a completely new melody which successfully outshines the bit they got rid of. From here it repeats.

Then came the MSX2 version, about another two months later. Clearly limited in sound channels, Yuzo Koshiro and crew set aside both of the humbler melodies they had toyed with earlier and elevated that deeper, distorted progression to center stage. The song does not quite function in a live playthrough, what with every other bass note cutting out, but its general idea is quite appealing. It feels like the sort of thing you might expect from a really stellar Game Boy soundtrack, and in a peculiar sort of way I find it more appealing than the previous two examples.

The Famicom port the following year built upon the same approach. Aside from adding drums to the mix, it tweaked the bass a bit to create a sound more suited for the system. Those rare moments where the bass line manages to not cut out in the MSX2 version video, mainly at the very start of the fight, you can really tell how beautifully the two tones compliment each other. The two tracks play fairly equal roles in creating what feels like a single solid sound. But Famicom tones were always a little soft, and the sound team made amends by having the bass line here function more as an appendage to the percussion. The bass note changes as seldom as possible, remaining stagnant where the MSX2 version does not. Rather than complimenting the melody to the fullest, it emphasizes the breakneck pace of the song, creating a much more intense feel to the whole fight.

The MSX2 version is a much more aesthetically pleasing stand-alone track–probably my favorite among the lot of them–but it doesn’t really enhance the fight much, especially considering it pushes too far beyond the system’s limitations for the player to effectively experience it and kill the boss simultaneously. On the Famicom it almost feels as if they acknowledged this and focused on an arrangement that, while fairly similar, makes a bit of a self-sacrifice for the sake of enhancing the actual gameplay experience.

When the game finally made it to the Sega Master System, that soft melody present on the original PC-8801 take and long since forgotten mysteriously resurfaced. The arrangement is bland, lacking any of the contrast of the original, and the obnoxiously bad drums really nullify any redeeming values it may have otherwise had. But the return is an interesting decision. I wonder, whose decision was it?

It is nearly impossible to tell where Yuzo Koshiro’s involvement ends and that of various other staff members begins. The PC-8801, FM-7, MSX2, and Famicom versions certainly sound to me like a careful progression through improvement and system adaptation. I am convinced if nothing else that whoever arranged each of them listened to the previous versions and not just the original.

The SMS approach gives me no such impression. It sounds like the arrangement took the original PC-8801 cut and hastily slapped together a replica with no attention to detail. It is completely devoid of the sophistication present in all four earlier arrangements I have been able to find. The end-game credits list Bo (Tokuhiko Uwabo), Ippo (Izuho Numata), and Neko (still anonymous today) as the sound team, and make no mention of Yuzo Koshiro. The game also features a number of original tracks.

If I may go out of sequence for a moment, it’s worth noting that the Sharp X68000 version, released in 1991, is even worse. It completely abandons the complex and compelling melody which the MSX2 and Famicom versions embraced exclusively, providing nothing more than that boring PC-8801 ‘soft’ melody track and a gimmick “rock and roll” drum beat and guitar rhythm. The drums are less annoying than in the SMS version only because better technology carries them, and they have no greater value. And in consideration of the technology, the wholesale abandonment of the more complex melody is simply inexcusable.

But an interesting point can still be made here. If all you had to go on were the MSX2 and the Sharp X68000 versions, you would likely conclude that they were two entirely unrelated compositions. Yet both clearly and distinctly derive from the original.

I will leave you with the 1989 PC Engine CD-ROM arrangement of “Final Battle”/”Dark Fact”, because almost all future ports and remakes of the game (the Sharp X68000 version excluded) derive from it, not the original.

Based on various liner notes and some samples of his other works, I am pretty positive this was arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu. Unlike the “port arrangements”, which focused on direct improvements to the original, system limitations, or otherwise mere expedience, the PC Engine CD-ROM approach is more of an authentic reinterpretation of the music. It pays ample homage to Yuzo Koshiro, but it doesn’t feel confined by any obligations or limitations. It is faithful and unique at the same time. While I am certainly not blown away, I respect what Ryo Yonemitsu is doing here.

Ryo Yonemitsu, by the way, has quite a history with the Ys soundtrack, having released arrangements of it as early as 1987. Was he the guiding light who ensured so many excellent port arrangements of the final battle theme? Was it Yuzo Koshiro himself? Or was it perhaps a chance occurrence–the consequence of various talented artists recognizing the song’s worth and having a go at it?