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 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy

VGM Entry 52: Tim Follin’s Legacy
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

The end of the NES era did not mark the end of the NES. Games would continue to appear on the system all the way up to February 1994, with Wario’s Woods (Nintendo) constituting the final licensed game for the system. Neil Baldwin was not the only classic chiptune artist to find refuge in the persistence of outdated systems. The underdog hero of my video game music series, Tim Follin, rode the third generation of gaming out to its end as well.

What’s more, the late transition of C64 chiptune artists to the NES brought out all kinds of amazing features on the system that were never realized during the system’s heyday. I did Tim Follin a terrible disservice by skipping over Silver Surfer (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Nintendo and Magic Johnson’s Basketball (Arcadia Systems, 1990) for the Commodore 64, having not really discovered either until it was too late to include them, but it’s not too late to touch on his 1991 masterpieces.

Treasure Master (American Softworks, December 1991) initially picks up right where Pictionary left off, and in this game you can really experience the climax of Follin’s NES pursuit, wherein groovy jam tracks took the place of progressive rock as a focal point. Just as Follin’s Commodore 64 works made a clean break from his original ZX Spectrum style, his NES compositions matured into a sound all of their own.

It’s not that prog elements were a thing of the past; Follin’s quintessential sound persists across every platform, and Treasure Master has its fair share. But on no two systems did he ever sound quite the same. He was ever and always a musician to place the system at the heart of the composition. It’s something I was criticizing other musicians for failing to do long before he was ever on my radar, and soundtracks like Treasure Master are vibrant proof of just how significant this sort of compositional mindset could be. This is the antithesis of Nobuo Uematsu’s eternally reinterpritable works; it is inconceivable in any other medium.

I don’t recall whether I actually made the observation before or simply thought it to myself, but I am inclined to believe that a lot of chiptune musicians struggled and faded away in the fourth generation because the lack of severe restrictions forced them to completely redefine their vision of what video game music should be. They were fundamentally musicians first and composers second, and the SNES, with its bountiful possibilities, simply could not function as an instrument. It was a means to an end, not an end itself, and that requires a whole different assortment of talents. Tim Follin struggled on the SNES, perhaps for the first time in his career. It’s no small triumph that he (and his brother Geoff, who likely contributed far more to the ‘Follin sound’ than I give him credit for) did ultimately overcome the challenge with Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge and Plok, which I will get to soon enough.

The majority of Tim Follin’s SNES works leave something to be desired however, and with the extraordinary exception of Ecco the Dolphin: Defender of the Future (Sega, 2000) for the Dreamcast, he would never really thrive as a video game composer again after the mid-90s. Suffice to say Tim Follin’s real glory days ended in 1991.

At least he went out with a bang. Gauntlet III (US Gold, 1991) was to be his final Commodore 64 title. Composed in collaboration with Geoff, it carried on in the spirit of Ghouls’n Ghosts.

A history of the development of Follin’s sound would make for an interesting mini-series all of its own. There’s certainly no linear progression to it, and I couldn’t pretend to establish one without ignoring quite a few games which defy conformity. (Even the suggestion that his NES soundtracks were inseparable from the system he wrote them for was a minor stretch if we consider similarities between Pictionary and Magic Johnson’s Basketball.) But the title theme to Gauntlet III most certainly follows from “Level 5” in Ghouls’n Ghosts, and trace signs of this thematic approach can, I think, be heard in the in-game theme from Black Lamp (Firebird, 1988) and the title theme from ChesterField: Challenge to Dark Gor (Vic Tokai, 1988). I make the observation to establish that this sound was emerging prior to Follin’s direct interaction with the original Ghouls’n Ghosts score by Tamayo Kawamoto. His outstanding cover of Level 2 aside, the C64 port shares little in common with the arcade music.

At any rate, that was only the title screen. Gauntlet III was one of those rare exceptions to the Commodore 64 rule of putting your best effort on the loader. To that credit goes the character select screen.

Was Tim Follin’s final C64 composition also his best? It’s definitely a contender. Gauntlet III lacked the quantity delivered in Ghouls’n Ghosts–I gather the actual gameplay was silent, though I’ve not been able to confirm this–but the quality is impeccable.

Tim Follin spent 1989 through 1991 breaking every mold and defying every standard ever set for what may well be considered the finest system in the history of video game music, and in so doing made his name inseparable from the final pages of the Commodore 64 legacy. Having simultaneously done the same thing for the Nintendo, and having single-handedly defined the ZX Spectrum as a system capable of a unique sound independent from both powerhouse competitors, he may well be rightly regarded as the most accomplished musician of the third generation era.

It’s a shame his time with the Amiga 500 was so brief. Underwhelming in comparison to the Ghouls’n Ghosts port, Tim and Geoff’s Amiga Gauntlet III music suffers merely from a lack of sound quality. I have been unable to find any copy of this song that delivers with the depth and clarity of Ghouls’n Ghosts, but I suspect this is more a consequence of a low bit rate in its modern conversion than a flaw in its original form. The bagpipes do seem to clash with the rest of the song from 1:40 on, but I’d rather not pass judgement until I’ve heard a higher quality recording. In any case, Follin was showing no signs of relenting on the Commodore Amiga, and it was surely decisions beyond his control at Software Creations that ultimately tied him into a Super Nintendo track from 1992 on.

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)

VGM Entry 40: End of the NES era (part 2)
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

Once again, by 1990 the Nintendo had fallen way behind the times. The Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, the Commodore Amiga 500, and the NEC PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 had all left it in the dust. The fourth generation of home and computer gaming was in full swing, and Nintendo were not prepared to launch their version until November. NES composers struggled to keep up with higher standards in the meantime, pushing the Nintendo to its limits.

Mega Man 3 (Capcom, 1990) had a lot to offer. Yasuaki ‘Bun Bun’ Fujita (not to be confused with my favorite talking rabbit) picked up the job this time, and it’s pretty amazing that three different musicians could all so effectively maintain the series’ quintessential sound. Mega Man 3‘s opening theme is as excellent as any of them, and the rest of the music really is a good bit more compositionally consistent than may meet the ear.

“Hard Man” (1:52) for instance is written in unmistakable Mega Man fashion. The only reason it doesn’t sound entirely up to par is a product of bad mixing at the final stage. Every take I’ve heard of it just sounds a bit washed out. The volumes of each track don’t feel properly balanced, and they could perhaps have chosen fuller percussion. But the fundamental song-writing is ideal, and I think if you put it in the hands of say, Bit Brigade, it would shine as brightly as any track from the first two games. Whatever flaws it may have are only visible if you seek them out.

While I think this minor mixing problem persists throughout the game, the next track in this collection, “Snake Man” (2:45), is just so well written that any potential flaw in the final production is masked entirely. Mega Man 3 does have some less memorable tracks; it’s not quite as consistent as the first two games in that regard. You won’t hear them in this mix. garudoh did yet another excellent job of choosing only the best, and “Spark Man” (3:42), “Get Your Weapons Ready” (4:40), and “Proto Man” (5:18) finish off a very well-conceived compilation. But the likes of “Gemini Man” and “Magnet Man”, not featured here, leave something to be desired. Mega Man 3 is not quite as good as the first two, but Yasuaki Fujita definitely finds and maintains the Mega Man sound throughout, and by any other standard this is an excellent NES soundtrack.

The best NES music of 1990 though, as you may have guessed from my previous hints, belongs to Tim Follin. Follin carried his capacity to pack a huge punch into limited sound systems over to the NES, and the introduction to Solstice (CSG Imagesoft, 1990, produced by Software Creations) is not afraid to employ a little shock value. I’m not sure why the music in this sample is out of order, but you can hear how the game kicks off if you skip to 3:37. The cute little 10 second jingle at the start is almost tongue-in-cheek, mocking typical NES songs before exploding into musical fireworks in bombastic Follin fashion. The majority of the album feels to have benefited heavily from his recent work on Ghouls’n Ghosts. No individual tracks really stand out with the memorable qualities of that previous work, but you can definitely appreciate the level of imagination that went into the whole soundtrack. Follin had more up his sleeves for the NES anyway. He reserved his best efforts for a game which we would all expect to have an outstanding soundtrack….. Pictionary?

I don’t know. Tim Follin’s music was seldom relevant to the game. I suppose it’s quite possible that he submitted this soundtrack to Software Creations without even knowing what game it would be used for. But I picture a giddy Follin setting out to intentionally make Pictionary (LJN, 1990) one of the most exciting and absurdly uncharacteristic soundtracks on the NES, laughing all the way.

That’s about all I have to offer from the Nintendo for the time being, but it’s worth taking a brief look at some other systems before we move on. I don’t want to say the pickings were slim outside of the Nintendo–that would certainly contradict my entire point in these past two posts–but I did struggle to find much of interest in 1990 specifically. The PC Engine is quite obscure to me as a western gamer, and many of the Amiga titles that best caught my eye date to 1988 and 1989. The Genesis/Mega Drive was still a musical disappointment in so far as it rarely lived up to its full potential. Elemental Master (TechnoSoft) by Toshiharu Yamanishi deserves an honorable mention, but its music is nothing special really. I think the system just lacked much competition to spur it on. With the Amiga appealing to European computer gamers and the PC Engine pushing the Japanese market, the Genesis/Master System for a time stood alone in a number of markets as the only available fourth generation home gaming console. Phantasy Star III (Sega) saw Izuho Takeuchi take over Tokuhiko Uwabo’s role as composer, and the transition brought a whole new style of sound to the game. I would describe it as unremarkable but more consistent–where Tokuhiko Uwabo presented a rather unique RPG soundtrack that was fairly hit or miss, Izuho Takeuchi is a little more traditional and at no point that I’ve noticed really falls flat. But his music is nothing to brag about either.

Before I move on to the Super Nintendo, one final 1990 release that really caught my attention was Iron Lord (Ubi Soft). Now, this version that you’re hearing above is the original 1989 Atari ST version. I want you to hear it first, because I want you to know what Jeroen Tel had to work with when he made the Commodore 64 and Amiga ports.

I don’t know who the original Atari ST composer was. I don’t know who was responsible for the MS-DOS version either. But I bet it wasn’t Jeroen Tel. C64 composers had a certain attitude about them. They knew they were the best, and they were going to keep on proving it every chance they could get. And let’s not forget here; the Commodore 64 was a year older than the Nintendo.

Hence why Jeroen Tel’s Iron Lord could introduce a power metal song. The effects of layering a medieval tune with big chippy bass and that same higher spacey tone he used on Cybernoid 2 are almost comical, but they’re entirely effective. Like a typical C64 musician, Tel expanded way beyond the scope of the original composition and made it entirely his own.

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine

VGM Entry 26: Tim Follin’s noise machine
(Thanks to Tish at FFShrine for the banner)

In most cases it’s fairly reasonable to think of the ZX Spectrum as a secondary system for game music. It didn’t seem to have the capacity of the Commodore 64, and a lot of the game themes that ended up there were toned down takes on C64 originals, attempting to emulate the SID sound as closely as possible. But the ZX Spectrum did have its own unique if seldom exploited flavor, and over the course of three years one ingenious artist in particular would develop that into a brilliant new chiptune style to rival anything produced for the SID.

Some time in 1985, or perhaps a bit earlier, Mike Follin scored a programming job at Insight Software. Mike passed the soundtrack of what would be his first commercially released game, Subterranean Stryker (Insight, March 1985), down to his musically inclined younger brother Tim, who thereby got his first taste of programming. The result was fairly simple–little more than an amateur doodle–but for a 15 year old kid with no prior programming experience it was a pretty sound start. Insight Software were satisfied enough to keep Tim Follin around, and over the next year he familiarized himself with the sounds of the ZX Spectrum.

What he probably didn’t do was familiarize himself with the sounds of Rob Hubbard. What emerged from Tim Follin’s early experimentation on the ZX Spectrum was a sound all of its own. Agent X (Mastertronic, 1986) was heavily influenced by progressive rock, a feature which would characterize Tim’s work across multiple decades and platforms, but its uniqueness rested on his productive employment of the system’s excessively distorted tones. Rather than viewing the distortion as an obstacle blocking the path to quality arrangements, Tim Follin made it an essential and intrinsic feature of the music.

Agent X didn’t appear out of nowhere. Follin’s sound steadily improved during his short stint with Insight Software, such that on Vectron (late 1985) you can definitely hear a rough draft of things to come. His better works also coincided with his first real job. Follin was hired by developers Software Creations in 1986 (they developed all of the Mastertronic games I’ll be featuring here); he was no longer tailing his brother and composing for spare change. The compositional quality understandably improved in turn.

Tim Follin’s ZX Spectrum sound was unlike anything heard on the Commodore 64. It was a sort of post-rock prog shoegaze madness before any such notion formally existed, meant to be blasted at maximum volume, encasing the listener in a wall of sound. Future Games (Mastertronic, June 1986), my personal favorite on the system, was a far more intelligent piece than Agent X. The way the song slowly builds up into a glitch-beat explosion at 2:06 is a tremendous feat given how little Follin had to work with. The song essentially ends unfinished at 2:31, but I think that can be forgiven in light of what all he accomplished here.

I think a lot of this style is the product of Follin’s own originality, and fairly unprecedented in its day. Certainly outside influence on some of the progressive rock elements is self-evident, and in an interview probably dated to 1999 or 2000, the original of which is now lost, Follin acknowledged that he was exposed to a lot of Genesis, Yes, and Rush growing up. But the shoegazey layer of static and especially the glitch beats are features I don’t start to identify in other musical scenes until some time later. It’s not like he was listening to Aphex Twin and Venetian Snares at home.

Agent X II (Mastertronic, 1987) was a good deal more accessible than most of his previous works, featuring a bluesy groove and plenty of rock and roll soloing, but noise was still the glue that held it all together. I think it’s pretty telling that when Tim Follin programmed the Commodore 64 port sound–Agent X II and Scumball (Mastertronic, 1987) were his first attempts at C64 composition–he wrote an entirely new set of songs. Follin based everything he wrote around the instrument with which he wrote it, and however much other artists were trying to make the ZX Spectrum sound like a C64, these were two different animals.

Chronos (Mastertronic, 1987) is probably his most famous ZX Spectrum theme, and understandably so. Technically, or so I gather from the comments I’ve read, it is his most outstanding effort on the system. I don’t know enough to recognize technical skill in chiptune programming when it slaps me in the face. But I think the music speaks for itself. Tim Follin was to the ZX Spectrum what Rob Hubbard was to the Commodore 64, and it was only his first of many legacies.