VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI

VGM Entry 68: Final Fantasy VI
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Square released quite a number of games for the Super Nintendo, but everyone looked forward above all else to their annual blockbuster, appearing in the latter half of the year, from 1993 until 1995. Secret of Mana was the first of these. Final Fantasy VI was the second.

There is only one logical place to begin a discussion of the music of Final Fantasy VI.

And that would be at the beginning. Final Fantasy VI did not begin like other games. Sure, it was by no means the first to fade out on the title screen and play through an introduction to the plot, but this was different in a lot of respects. It provided barely any background to the story. Ok, there was a devastating war 1000 years ago in which the destructive art of “magic” was lost, and an emerging industrial revolution is beginning to recover remnants of that past. That’s all you directly get. The rest plays out more like a movie. You get hints and clues to what’s going on–a new face here, a key term there–but you’re left curious rather than informed. The intro to this game doesn’t set the plot; it sets the mood. (The revised English translation tragically lost sight of this, such that the original SNES “Final Fantasy III” is really the only port of the game worth playing.)

Nobuo Uematsu’s music went hand in hand with this approach. There is no opening anthem–no catchy piece to hum along to. The sinister organ, the harp-like transition, the windy sound effects, and ultimately the opening credit music all flow from one point to the next, breaking only for the sake of the cinematic experience, not because a particular track is over or the next scene has new “bgm”. Final Fantasy VI had perhaps the first really cinematic introduction for a video game.

It might be argued that Nobuo Uematsu revolutionized the use of music in video games from the very opening sequence, but nothing made this more apparent than the events at the Jidoor Opera House, where an odd twist in the plot leads the cast of heroes to become involved in a backstage operation during a musical performance. Not only does the opera take place in the backdrop as you work your way through the mission, but as part of the plot device the heroine Celes takes on the lead female roll in the show. Events transition back and forth between action behind the scenes and the live show, and part of the outcome is determined by your ability, as a player, to regurgitate Celes’ lines from the script.

The video I’ve linked here includes the first two songs in a four-part performance. What makes this sequence so important for the history of gaming music is that Nobuo Uematsu’s amazing score plays a direct role in the plot and gameplay. While the simulated pseudo-vocals might sound silly in hindsight, this was also a real first in gaming music in its day. Square’s sound team might not have possessed the technology to incorporate real words, but nothing prevented them from displaying them as part of the script. As an odd consequence, one of the first video games to make extensive use of lyrics had no vocals.

Uematsu’s third major accomplishment, the indisputable quality of his score aside, was to completely derail the limits of acceptable song length. Granted Commodore 64 artists had been busting out 6-8 minute epics back in the mid-80s, the standard by and large still remained firmly below the 3 minute mark. If we take the opera as a single piece (it’s divided into four tracks), Final Fantasy VI had three songs that pushed 20 minutes.

“Dancing Mad” probably remains today the longest final battle music ever written, with the original ost version clocking in at 17 minutes and 39 seconds. This might seem excessive if you haven’t played the game, but within its context nothing less could have possibly sufficed. Kefka was pretty much the greatest video game villain of all time (Luca Blight from Suikoden II might surpass him), and Final Fantasy VI might have had the most apocalyptic plot in the series. Sure, series fans had saved the world from imminent destruction five times before and plenty more since, but Zeromus, Exdeath, they were just icons of evil. In Final Fantasy VI, Square’s obsession with mass destruction finally found a human face. Kefka’s psychopathy was something you could buy into. He was entirely capable of emotion even as he slipped progressively further into insanity. He just attached no moral value to life. Where enemies before and since sought to destroy the world for destruction’s sake, Kefka was in it for the experience of the ultimate tragedy. For once it actually made sense for a final boss to let the heroes creep up on him; the whole agenda would have been pointless if no one was there to experience it with him.

Both visually and musically, the final battle of Final Fantasy VI was beautiful. Nothing else–certainly no 1-2 minute fight theme–would have been appropriate in the context of the story.

VGM Entry 67: EarthBound

VGM Entry 67: EarthBound
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Hirokazu Tanaka and Keiichi Suzuki composed Mother in 1989, and it would remain perhaps the most eclectic soundtrack in all of video gamedom until 1994, when they teamed up again for Mother 2.

Better known to western gamers as EarthBound, Mother 2 (Nintendo, 1994) was… well… on the new game ‘name your characters’ screen you are asked the crucial question “What is your favorite homemade food?”, and that’s about as normal as it ever got. Since Mother was never released here, EarthBound was our first experience with Shigesato Itoi’s madness, and the already ridiculous events and dialogue were made all the more bizarre by a sometimes incredibly awkward (though fairly grammatically sound) translation. (Consider that the most powerful spell in the game is called “PSI Rockin Omega”.) Perhaps this was not originally by intent, but I like to pretend NOA fell in love with it and let a few oddities through intentionally.

The EarthBound soundtrack was huge, or so it seemed to me. With no comprehensive ost on the market it can be a bit hard to tell, but at least one fan rip I came across contained 78 tracks. Every town had a theme. Every combat zone had a theme. There were easily a dozen or more different battle themes. The new music just never stopped coming from start screen to the ending credits. According to Wikipedia, Keiichi Suzuki claimed in a Famitsu interview only available in Japanese that he wrote over 100 songs for the game. Many of these obviously were not used, but Suzuki also only accounts for half of the music.

EarthBound‘s finest musical moments took place in combat. This video presents a compilation of eight battle tunes (by no means all-inclusive) which should give you a good idea of what the game had to offer. The music was a mix of smooth grooves like the first track played here and corny absurdities like the second, with the former typically representing aliens and tougher bosses and the latter such detestable foes as “New Age Retro Hippie”, “Scalding Coffee Cup”, and “Big Pile of Puke”.

The corny tracks are more representative of the larger gaming environment, but the groove numbers are where Tanaka and Suzuki really excelled, culminating with “Kraken of the Sea” (6:27).

I’m not actually sure who was responsible for the combat music throughout this game, or whether the individual tracks were collaborative efforts. (Many songs in the game in fact were.) It would certainly make sense, considering how they all fall into two neat categories, to reason that one composer made the groove tracks and another did the comedy ones, but I certainly can’t confirm this. The track “Another 2” on the highly mutilated official Mother 2 ost contains quite a few samples from the former and none from the latter, and it’s credited to Tanaka specifically, but that might simply mean he was responsible for the remix. “Another 2” contains the bicycle theme as a hidden track after a half minute of silence, and that was definitely written by Suzuki, so there’s really no clear evidence here pointing to one musician or the other.

The two best songs in the game are the last two you’ll hear before the ending. Both are combat tunes, and they couldn’t be more different. “Pokey Means Business” was my favorite song in any video game as a kid, and I don’t think I need to tell you why.

Or are you not there yet? Wait for it…

Ok so, maybe it’s not decisively the best song on the SNES, but it’s definitely the heaviest. Funny that for all the dozens of games out there marketing their edginess as their selling point, none came anywhere near goofy little EarthBound. Once again I am not sure if this is a product of Suzuki, Tanaka, or both. I just know that Pokey meant business alright…

And then there was Giygas. Credits suggest this was all a product of Tanaka’s twisted mind, and it may well go down in history as he most disturbing boss music ever written. Everything about Giygas was completely abstract, from his form to his combat moves. (The game would just say “You cannot grasp the true form of Giygas’ attack!” and deal out damage.)

There are a lot of hairbrain theories out there as to what Giygas represents, especially in connection with how his final form outlines the shape of a fetus. Frankly I think if you’re playing EarthBound for the plot you’re probably reading too much into it.

This song does have a little bit of relevance to what’s going on though. The transition starting around 1:40 and the music box charm it leads into at 2:32 reflect a break in the gameplay action where Paula uses her psychic powers to ask various friends for help. So while its inclusion certainly adds to the creepiness of the overall piece, it’s also intended to be a bit heartwarming. And anyway the song as it appears here, 4:03 in length, is a little arbitrary. The song isn’t a single continuous piece, and the transitions take place as a result of progression in the boss fight.

The song and its visual counterpart have earned quite a bit of internet popularity for its unorthodox behavior. You’ll have to forgive me for sharing this last one with you:

VGM Entry 65: Follin in the 90s

VGM Entry 65: Follin on the SNES
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The average quality of Tim Follin’s compositions seemed to progressively decline with every new improvement to technology. A sort of daredevil musician accustomed to breaking barriers and pushing boundaries, I think the relative freedom of SNES composition forced him to find new forms of inspiration. Sometimes the muses moved him, and quite often they did not. When it did click for him, he showcased the same level of creative aptitude he’d been stirring up the gaming music world with since 1985.

Plok (developed by Software Creations, first published by Tradewest, 1993) was an instance in which Follin most certainly did rise to the challenge. For a goofy little game, here was a simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful score.

Tim and Geoff collaborated on this one, as they had often times before (I may well have falsely credited Tim with Geoff’s work on occasion), and it all came together exceptionally well in this instance. The track beginning at 1:48, “Venge Thicket”, especially exhibits precisely the sort of upbeat prog rock for which Tim excels, with a definite Ghouls’n Ghosts vibe. The track at 5:00, “Cotton Island”, does a delightful job of busting out in trademark over-the-top Follin style while remaining entirely within the corny and fun setting of the game it represents. “Akrillic“, not featured in the above compilation, is more of a smooth, relaxing jazz-prog ride that far exceeds the game for which it was written.

Plok was not the first great Super Nintendo soundtrack by the Follin brothers. Tim and Geoff also collaborated for Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge, another Software Creations development, published by LJN in 1992. It was, as it turns out, the only Follin game I actually owned as a kid, and its music was the leading cause in my purchasing it after playing a rental. Tim has supposedly cited Guns N’ Roses as a musical influence, but it’s only on the Arcade’s Revenge title theme that you can clearly hear it.

The whole rock and roll approach to composition was not a one-time go for the Follin brothers, though it was fairly foreign to their pre-SNES games. They would employ a much heavier rock influence throughout most of their SNES catalogue, most obviously on Rock n’ Roll Racing (Interplay, 1993). But it didn’t always work. Arcade’s Revenge was more the exception than the rule. In any case, it was not strictly rock, and the music of the Gambit stages in particular exhibit a wide variety of electronic beats intermixed with rock and prog.

The music to the Spider-Man stages was perhaps the most memorable of the game for me, and not merely because they were the only ones I could consistantly beat. It’s definitely the most diverse song in the game, intermingling prog and classical with some funk and jazz in a subdued sort of way that matched the cool vibe of the opening level, where you infiltrate a high security facility with a smoggy night sky as your backdrop. It made an otherwise tedious game well worth playing. . . . With a Game Genie.

The Follin brothers were mostly committed to the SNES throughout the 1990s, but at least one incursion was made into the world of the Genesis/Mega Drive. To the best of my knowledge Tim is responsible for the title screen music to Time Trax, and he probably wrote it in 1993 or 1994. Its extension from the Arcade’s Revenge sound should be fairly apparent. Unfortunately neither the game itself nor any other songs from it are available. Malibu Games released a SNES version with an entirely different score in 1994, but the Mega Drive version was dropped prior to publishing.

VGM Entry 64: Star Fox and Turrican

VGM Entry 64: Star Fox and Turrican
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Fantasy genre gaming alone did not define the Super Nintendo, and it’s time to look again at what was transpiring in more action-oriented fields. Star Fox was probably the most well-known action game of 1993. Super Turrican was perhaps one of the least.

Star Fox launched yet another major Nintendo series still being marketed today, and it was a novel game in many ways. It was the flagship title for Argonaut Games’ new Super FX chip, and as such featured a style of graphics never before seen on the system. It was the must have non-RPG of the year, and I can safely say the music had no factor in selling the game. It was just a wonderful added bonus.

Hajime Hirasawa is not a significant figure in game music composition generally. As best I can tell he only ever scored two games: Time Twist: Rekishi no Katasumi de… (Nintendo, 1991) for the Family Computer Disk System (FDS) peripheral to the Famicom, and Star Fox. (The former, as you might quickly notice, is pretty bad.) Hirasawa left Nintendo upon the completion of Star Fox and, a few small arrangement jobs aside, doesn’t seem to have had any further involvement in the gaming industry. He ranks alongside Yukihide Takekawa as one of the greatest one-hit wonders of the era.

Super Turrican (Seika, 1993) on the other hand marked the Super Nintendo debut (to the best of my knowledge) of a video game music legend. The Turrican series has a long and convoluted history, throughout which Chris Hülsbeck did the grand bulk of the composing, and it is for the first SNES installment that he is most remembered.

There were, as best I understand it, six distinct Turrican games in all, but many of these were ported to wildly different systems and must have underwent some drastic changes. Turrican (Rainbow Arts, 1990) and Turrican II (Rainbow Arts, 1991) were both designed for the Commodore 64 originally, by Manfred Trenz, that dubious developer of The Great Giana Sisters. In the span of about one year–to give you some idea of the wide variety of versions here–Turrican was ported to the Amiga 500 and Atari ST (by Factor 5), the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum (by Probe Software), and the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, PC Engine, and Game Boy (by Code Monkeys and Accolade.) It would be nice to at least know which of them Chris Hülsbeck was directly involved in, because not all of their music is good. The Game Boy port is especially terrible.

Super Turrican was one of three installments of the series developed in 1993. The first, Mega Turrican, had to be shelved for year for lack of a publisher on the Mega Drive, but it did make it to the Amiga as Turrican 3: Payment Day, resulting in the odd consequence of a port of the game being released a year ahead of the original. The other two were, confusingly, both called Super Turrican. Manfred Trenz and Rainbow Arts developed the Nintendo Super Turrican, based loosely around the original two C64 titles, and got the game published through Imagineer. Factor 5 in the meantime developed the Super Nintendo Super Turrican on the model of the Sega Mega Drive version, which was published by Seika as well as, according to Wikipedia, Hudson Soft and Tonkin House. Whatever all confusion must have surrounded this game, they didn’t forget to bring back the series’ main composer, and Chris Hülsbeck’s Super Turrican stands among the best on the SNES today.

VGM Entry 63: Secret of Mana

VGM Entry 63: Secret of Mana
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Super Nintendo may have been video game music’s finest hour with or without them, but three soundtracks in particular carried this system to an unprecedented level of greatness which has really never been matched since. Each was composed by a different artist, and each was released by Square. The first of these was Secret of Mana.

Here is the track list for garudoh’s compilation:

(0:00) Angle’s Fear
(0:53) selection menu track not featured on the ost
(1:23) Into the Thick of It
(2:17) Colour of the Summer Sky
(2:55) Ceremony
(3:53) Star of Darkness
(4:46) Strange Event
(5:46) Spirit of the Night
(6:22) Eternal Recurrence
(7:29) The Sorcerer
(8:15) Leave Time for Love
(8:44) Dancing Beasts
(9:24) Calm Before the Storm

Hiroki Kikuta was brand new to the world of video game music when he scored Secret of Mana, released in 1993. (Called Seiken Densetsu 2 in Japan, the game was technically the sequel to what we commonly know as Final Fantasy Adventure for the Game Boy.) He had worked on the sound effects for Romancing SaGa in 1992, and beyond that he only had two animes to his credit (The Adventure of Robin Hood and The Legend of Snow White, both released in 1990.) Like the more famous Square composer whose 1995 composition would overshadow Kikuta, his work would emerge from pure inspiration, with almost no past experience upon which to build. He single-handedly made an otherwise fairly average game one of the most beloved titles on the system. I suppose average is an odd way to describe Secret of Mana–it was a very unique game within the adventure genre–but its success hinged entirely on the soundtrack. With limited plot potential and almost zero character development (the playable characters are named Boy, Girl, and Sprite for goodness sake), Secret of Mana‘s success was due entirely to Kikuta’s ability to bring the visual environment to life in fantastic ways.

garudoh chose some odd tracks for this compilation, and judging by the fact that some of the songs fade before they’re anywhere near looping (Leave Time for Love for instance) I have to assume he wasn’t personally very familiar with the music. I’ll offer you some additional tracks that didn’t make it into his mix.

Secret of Mana was a game about elements. This was not integrated in any sort of forced way, as with say, the crystals of earth, water, air, etc in the Final Fantasy series, but rather it was a natural consequence of the games strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I doubt anyone remembers why, plot-wise, you ever end up in a desert, but the experience of being there is a lasting memory.

Secret of the Arid Sands

Kikuta didn’t rely on any stereotypical reference points here. He didn’t give his music a Middle-Eastern vibe or any such nonsense. Instead he chose tones that actually reflected a visual experience of a desert. The accompaniment to the melody here flickers up and down from the bass of the music like boiling bubbles and mirages dancing off the desert sands. It’s largely in these world encounter zones, where the plot was least relevant, that Kikuta’s music is at its finest, because he was at liberty to paint a timeless musical image without any concern for the events taking place there.

This same idea of audio imagery really stands out to me in “Into the Thick of It” (1:23 in the garudoh video), where at the start the plucked sort of harpsichord-guitar line accented by the drum beat and displayed on the backdrop of a simple, confident bass and quiet but encompassing synth creates the image of a forest rushing by. (Much of the drumming is hard to find in the low bitrate youtube sample, with exaggerated alterations in volume obscuring the fact that the staccato metronome-sounding drum hits on every beat.) The bass and synth fill in the earth and sky; the drum sets things in motion; the plucked notes count off the passing tree trunks; the fuzzy guitarpsichord resonance depicts the myriad interwoven branches, tying each note into the next. However pretentious that may sound, and regardless of whether or not it reflects Kikuta’s intentions, I’ve always heard something roughly along these lines in this song. I want to clearly distinguish it from music which captures the sense of being in a forest. This doesn’t tap into emotional reactions to environments so much as it generates an actual physical image of the environment, supported by the game’s graphics proper, upon which the players can impose their own emotional values. It’s fantasy in the purest sense. As “Into the Thick of It” progresses the song flushes out into more obvious visions: woodwinds capturing the blowing breeze and rustling grass, bubbly staccato synth tones depicting passing streams. And this is precisely the graphic environment in which the song is employed.

What the Forests Taught Me

“Into the Thick of It”, where the player is rushing on ahead on a well established path, is nicely contrasted by “What the Forests Taught Me”, in which the game sets you in a much more secluded forest. Here the motion is removed, and you get a standing image of a forest clearing full of life. The calm is a bit more displaced from the gameplay, considering you’re hacking and slashing your way through, but this is entirely in keeping with Kikuta’s tendency in such plotless zones to score music descriptive of the visual environment and allow the players to attach their own value to the events taking place there.

A Wish

The sort of apex to this side of his soundtrack is “A Wish”, which plays in the winter forest combat zones. An environment blanketed in a single, neutral, stagnant substance, full of life but only subtly altered by its motion–Kikuta composed a track perfectly descriptive of what the player, upon taking a break from mechanical combat and visualizing themselves in this fantasy world, would experience. A lot of truly great musicians have attempted to capture this sort of situation–Sigur Rós and George Winston come to mind–but as the nature of video games dictates looping tracks, “A Wish” offers this vision in a uniquely and authentically eternal sort of way.

The mental images in a work of fantasy are not always natural, and for Secret of Mana‘s darker side Kikuta needed to get pretty creative. “Ceremony” (2:55) and “The Sorcerer” (7:29) represent the game’s darkest moments, and the former, though not my favorite track, might be his finest accomplishment in the mix. In a score through which the player is accustomed to deriving physical imagery, Ceremony’s twisted patterns and displaced tones take on added weight. There is nothing natural to latch onto here–no coherent vision, just some disturbing, chaotic mass. It’s got to be one of the creepiest video game songs out there, second on the SNES only to the Final Battle music of EarthBound by Hirokazu Tanaka. “The Sorcerer” is just as if not more disturbing, made only slightly less intimidating in practice by the distraction of having to actually fight a boss while it’s playing.

Steel and Snare

One thing you may have noticed listening through garudoh’s mix is Kikuta’s tendency towards hard-hitting, dominant percussion. It’s one of his strongest consistencies, tying a wide variety of musical styles together under a common feature, and on one of my other favorite tracks, “Steel and Snare”, he really lets it all out. This is one of those songs I’ve wanted to cover in a rock band since the first time I ever heard it, and I remember having the whole thing worked out on bass at one point in my life (along with Meridian Dance; this never really crossed my mind before, but when I first bought a bass it was always Hiroki Kikuta and Ryuji Sasai that I turned to.) The music again drives the setting of the game, with the continuous tone in the background simulating the air around the floating castle, and the drum and bass track giving all of the enemies a decidedly mechanical feel. I don’t actually know that they -were- mechanical. I don’t remember what they looked like precisely. But whatever they were meant to be, the music dictated my memory of the scene.

I’ll leave you with one last song:


I’ve managed to maintain this as my ringtone for well over a decade, and it’s become such a continuous occurrence in my daily life that I don’t think I can even intelligibly discuss it in the context of the game anymore, but I was in love with it when I first heard it and I still am now. I suppose I should have featured Meridian Dance here instead, as it seems a bit silly to ignore Secret of Mana‘s most epic track through all this, but I’d rather draw attention to the less commonly featured great ones anyway. Enjoy.

VGM Entry 62: Enix

VGM Entry 62: Enix
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Today Square might be remembered as the uncontested kings of Super Nintendo RPGs, but this is not an accurate assumption. As a young kid obsessed with anything approximating the genre, I anticipated every new Enix release with nearly equal glee. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Enix was a publisher. You won’t find games developed by them. While Square’s games emerged in house from the drawing board, Enix released titles developed by a wide variety of companies.

Quintet was the leader of this pack. Quintet is a Japanese video game developer officially founded in April 1989. According to Wikipedia, the first game credited to them is Legacy of the Wizard (Nihon Falcom, 1987), an installment of the Dragon Slayer series. Hence a bit of a to-do is made about their origin, with “June 1987 / April 1989” listed as the ambiguous founding date. The source for their official founding date links to a nearly illegible magazine scan (in English), and I don’t want to give myself a headache trying to decipher it, so I’ll take the Wikipedia editor’s word on that one. (The fact that whoever edited the article noticed an ambiguity in the first place marks them as more attentive than the vast majority of game-related editors.)

But the article and its relevant links lead me to believe the issue isn’t as complex as it seems. Tomoyoshi Miyazaki, director and president of Quintet, was a Nihon Falcom employee (he was involved in developing the first three Ys titles), and it just so happens to be the case that Legacy of the Wizard was released in North America in April 1989. The only real confusion is that Wikipedia suggests that Quintet developed both the Famicom and the NES ports, and that the former was released in 1987. If both were released in 1989, or alternatively if Quintet only developed the NES release (if the division of labor between developer and publisher renders this thought unintelligible, my apologies), then there is no issue. And moreover, if Tomoyoshi Miyazaki was a Nihon Falcom employee, the ambiguity may capture a simple gap in time between Miyazaki beginning to call his development team Quintet and his registering the name as a corporate entity.

Whatever the case may be, Quintet were busy in 1993. Following ActRaiser in 1990 and Soul Blazer in 1992, they managed to pump out two games in a span of two months. This probably wasn’t a great idea in retrospect. Illusion of Gaia, composed by Yasuhiro Kawasaki, was musically pretty shallow (this might account for why I never bought the game after renting it as a kid), and as an installment in the unofficial Soul Blazer Trilogy it was a sad decline from the quality of Yukihide Takekawa’s Soul Blazer. In its subtler moments, 2:49 to 5:35 for instance, it boasts an atmospheric vibe vaguely reminiscent of Jeremy Soule’s Secret of Evermore two years later, but the rest is of poor quality.

ActRaiser 2 on the other hand had an outstanding score, and is a real testament to the diversity offered by Yuzo Koshiro. While I remain unmoved by his more popular Streets of Rage sound, as a classical composer he not only competes outside of the video game spectrum, but makes the Super Nintendo sound like a real symphony with unprecedented professionalism. Nobuo Uematsu is always quick to point out that he had no professional training, and my own musical inclinations lead me to treat such claims with an appreciative nod of respect, but where he did try to emulate an orchestra on the Super Nintendo he never came close to the level of Koshiro. (Indeed, “Dancing Mad”‘s charm is it’s quintessentially SNES sound within the orchestration.)

Koshiro’s work in ActRaiser 2 in contrast might as well have been a live recording. Koshiro is, like Chris Hülsbeck, an artist I’ve I in many ways simply failed to appreciate, but not here. Quintet’s problem in this instance is that Koshiro’s stellar score was ActRaiser 2‘s only redeeming value. I mean, I never played it, but that fact is directly relevant to its commercial failure. In choosing to abandon the simulation side of the gameplay and go for a straight side-scroller they essentially ostracized their entire fanbase and entered a much more competitive field in which the Enix seal of approval meant jack.

Produce was a pretty obscure developer founded in 1990, probably most known for Super Adventure Island (Hudson Soft, 1992) and The 7th Saga. My most vivid memories of The 7th Saga are of the obnoxious pseudo-avoidable encounters that were for all practical purposes random but gave you the sensation of just being bad at avoiding them. Still, as with most Enix titles it was a refreshing change of pace from the Dragon Quest-patterned norm, and perhaps it had a good plot of which I was simply oblivious at the time (I doubt it though.)

What really strikes me though, listening to this video, is that it actually had a really great soundtrack. Norihiko Yamanuki doesn’t even have a vgmdb entry, and he’s surely one of the most obscure SNES composers to have actually accomplished something. There’s nothing really compositionally striking about the music of The 7th Saga, and it doesn’t really surprise me that I overlooked it as a kid. Yamanuki’s accomplishment here is more in the subtle qualities of the arrangement. The bubbly little tapping tones that prevail throughout this collection, most dominantly in the track at 1:00, really give the game a heartwarming sort of appeal; it’s quite pretty.

Ogre Battle was probably the most successful real-time strategy game for the SNES, at least in the United States. It stemmed from a long lineage of similar titles in Japan, but few had found sufficient success for overseas ports. Quest, the developer, had worked on similar projects in the past, though Ogre Battle would be the first in their Ogre series. A game of few settings and themes–the entire plot unfolds within the combat setting, and there are no separate story scenes as in say, Final Fantasy TacticsOgre Battle demanded a whole bunch of tunes well suited for long, drawn-out conflict.

The game did, nevertheless, have a pretty extensive soundtrack. Masaharu Iwata did the bulk of the composition, contributing 24 tracks, while Hitoshi Sakimoto added 12 and Hayato Matsuo added 6 (based on the ost liner notes on vgmdb). If the music sounds a little similar to the score of Final Fantasy Tactics, that’s no coincidence. Masaharu Iwata and Hitoshi Sakimoto composed it too.

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation

VGM Entry 61: The RPG generation
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The Super Nintendo RPG/Adventure legacy didn’t come over night. But ActRaiser (Enix, 1990), Final Fantasy IV (Square, 1991), and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (Nintendo, 1991) did not necessarily set the stage, either. RPGs had been huge in Japan for quite some time. The Super Nintendo provided both the capacity to carry them and the consistency to focus costs on a single product (imagine the amount of time and resources which must have went into porting PC RPGs to a half-dozen different systems). This didn’t inspire computer gaming companies to switch gears–Nihon Falcom continued to pump out their titles for the PC-9801 all the way up to 1996, slowly switching to Windows with only one Super Famicom title, Ys V: Ushinawareta Suna no Miyako Kefin (1995), to show for themselves in between. But other publishers saw RPGs as a more viable option now, and Capcom, Taito, and Nintendo hopped on the bandwagon while Square and Enix picked up the pace. (Konami held off producing RPGs until the Playstation era.)

The fact that these types of games did not start to appear in abundance on the SNES until 1992 might have been a simple consequence of developers spending most of 1991 making them. 1992 to 1995 were the glory days of SNES fantasy gaming, and perhaps the crowning era in the history of video game music.

Capcom’s first big RPG was Breath of Fire (1993), credited to a long list of composers including Yasuaki Fujita (Mega Man 3), Mari Yamaguchi (Mega Man 5), Minae Fujii (Mega Man 4), Yoko Shimomura (Gargoyle’s Quest, Street Fighter II), and Tatsuya Nishimura. Thankfully track by track authorship is actually available, and we can see that Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita did the grand bulk of the composing, with Mari Yamaguchi contributing five songs and the other three chipping in a song each.

Here’s a track list for the compilation:

(0:00) The Dragon Warrior
(1:24) Fate
(2:54) Starting the Journey ~Breath of Fire~
(4:11) Deep Forest
(5:18) Battling
(6:02) Sand Palace
(7:07) Dejection
(8:05) Fishing

As a series, Breath of Fire was not really all that well noted for its contributions to video game music. I don’t want to blow off the rest of the games here and now before revisiting them, but I distinctly remember playing through most of them with the radio on (I never actually played Breath of Fire V). The original Breath of Fire was definitely more of an exception than than the rule. The soundtrack is peppered with memorable, moody numbers. It’s most famous song, at least in so far as it was carried on in future installments, is Mari Yamaguchi’s overworld theme, “Starting the Journey”. But it is Yasuaki Fujita’s bleaker contributions that really make the game stand out from the crowd. “Deep Forest” and “Dejection” could both easily pass for ending credits themes to some complex plotline defying the good versus evil stereotype–the sort of RPG we all crave but rarely find outside of the Suikoden series. They’re both delightfully dark and finite, screaming “it’s over, but did you really win?”

Of course neither of them are actually credits music, and Breath of Fire was never known for its plot. The series had an incredible knack for being simultaneously completely forgettable and quite fun to play–perhaps a consequence of actually challenging combat (at least, in comparison to the vast majority of turn-based RPGs.) When it came to music, the original was the only one that actually made a lasting impression on me when I played it.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom, composed by Yasunori Shiono, was another series starter in 1993. There were actually only two Lufia titles in the 90s, and I suspect the later handheld releases came as an afterthought. Taito were prolific producers with a history in the gaming industry dating all the way back to 1973, but they had always shied away from the RPG market. With the cooperation of newly-established developers Neverland Co., Lufia would be their first attempt.

As for the history of Neverland, something on Wikipedia is clearly wrong. It claims Lufia‘s developer was founded on May 7th, 1993, and it claims the game was released on June 25th, 1993. But while Neverland certainly must have had an earlier origin, Lufia does appear to be their first of very few titles. In that regard, the Lufia series was kind of unique. I won’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes in the gaming industry (my dream of directing RPGs has always been a total fantasy), but I have to imagine when a producer develops their own game there’s a fairly more intimate degree of interaction between the two sides. Square and Nintendo as of 1993 nearly always developed their own games. The wildcards in the world of non-PC RPGs almost always went through Enix (the most famous developers being Quintet and Chunsoft). Neverland-Taito then seems like a pretty unique pairing–an independent developer working with a producer that had never marketed an RPG.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom was in every manner a rough draft–a sort of prototype for Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals, which was infinitely better and one of the best RPGs in the history of the SNES. Unlike Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest (from what I gather), Breath of Fire, Seiken Densetsu, Quintet’s unofficial ‘Soul Blazer Trilogy’, and Zelda really, the Lufia series was both plot-centric and cumulative, taking place in the same world with a continuous history and related/reoccurring characters. As if in collusion with the rest of the development team’s maturation, Yasunori Shiono’s compositions improved substantially in the second title, but we will get to that later.

Good adventure/RPG music was not limited to the Super Nintendo. The Game Boy was a musical instrument par excellence, with by far the most aesthetically pleasing tones of any system on the market lacking diverse instrument sampling. (I hope that’s a suitable delineation for a technical subject of which I still know absolutely nothing.) The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is far and wide my favorite score in the Zelda series. It might have nothing on Ryuji Sasai’s work on Final Fantasy Legend III, but Link’s Awakening brings the Game Boy to life in a really beautiful way. Indeed, its only real fault is a failure to employ his three-dimensional stereo effects. The game’s crowning jewel, Tal Tal Heights, appears early in this compilation (0:30), but the whole score merits attention.

Koji Kondo surprisingly had nothing to do with it. Link’s Awakening was a joint effort between Kazumi Totaka, Minako Hamano, and Kozue Ishikawa, all of whom I’ve yet to mention. Kazumi Totaka actually had a pretty long history with Nintendo, providing music for the sort of games you might expect to hear Soyo Oka on (Mario Paint, Wave Race 64, most notably Animal Crossing, which I do hope I remember to feature if I ever get that far). Minako Hamano was responsible for roughly half of the Super Metroid soundtrack, though her name rapidly fades from the pages of history, and Kozue Ishikawa is a virtual unknown. But this motley crew managed to piece together one of the quintessential scores of the Game Boy, and in doing so earn themselves a place in video game music history.

October Music Series: 下村陽子 – Beware the Forest’s Mushrooms

Yoko Shimomura was a rising star when she composed the Super Mario RPG soundtrack in 1996, fresh out of Capcom and ready to embark on a higher profile career with Square. The whole soundtrack was exceptional, but one track in particular was so catchy that it’s been stuck in my head ever since, and it’s most certainly appropriate for a fall theme.

Within the game, the song plays to a forest maze–one of those looping maps that can have you wondering around forever if you don’t pay attention. ‘Forest music’ has always been among the best tracks in RPG scores, but I don’t know that anyone’s pulled one off as effectively as Yoko Shimomura. It’s not quite as dark and haunting as say, Koji Kondo’s “Forest” from A Link to the Past or Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita’s “Deep Forest” from Breath of Fire, nor as calm as Yasunori Mitsuda’s “Secret of the Forest” from Chrono Trigger, to name some contemporaries. It’s far more friendly and inviting, which really makes it all the more dangerous, because at the end of the day you’re still getting lost in a deep forest maze filled with monsters out to kill you. It draws you in, makes you want to keep on wandering, like a good proper evil enchanted forest ought to.

It’s also the theme song to Geno, a doll possessed by the spirit of one of the stars you’re out to rescue, who really creeped me out as a kid because I thought that orange thing on his hat was his nose for some reason.

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.