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
(2:54) Starting the Journey ~Breath of Fire~
(4:11) Deep Forest
(6:02) Sand Palace
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.