Not every console deserves its own retrospective – that doesn’t mean we should forget the classic game scores these platforms produced.
Johann Langlie / Brian Luzietti / Larry Peacock / Jim Torres / Tim Wiles, 1995
True, the mid-90s posed an immense challenge to developers that had to adapt to sweeping technological changes. However, those years were a golden era for video gaming. That era marked the popularisation of 3D gaming – and of Red Book game audio. These two momentous developments came together in Descent, which was the first fully 3D first-person shooter. Descent’s original PC version came with a MIDI score heavily influenced by then-popular industrial metal bands like Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy and Front Line Assembly. A few months later, the composers of the game’s Mac port didn’t have to try and mimic such forceful musical inspirations through MIDI emulations. They had actual instruments and Red book audio at their disposal.
Descent’s ceaselessly creative industrial metal score is a beautiful example of the artistic freedom that composers enjoyed around that time. The result is a masterful exercise in maximalist genre-bending, a monumental beast of a game score written when composers discovered the joys of working with live instruments – throwing caution and restraint to the wind in the process.
Most tracks on this score enthusiastically cram in so much that they can’t help but break through the five-minute mark. The stylistic foundation of Descent might be industrial metal, but the composers mix in such a staggering amount of ideas and styles that the score emerges as something entirely original. For example, some cues pioneer the stomping groove of the industrial funk that Frank Klepacki would later build his Command & Conquer scores around.
Elsewhere, listeners find excursions into melodic 70s hard rock, trippy 90s electronica, apocalyptic synth ostinati, squealing free jazz saxophone parts and blindingly dissonant guitar riffs that verge on avant-garde metal. All of it is dialled up to 11 to maintain maximum intensity, yet paced in such an assured fashion that the music’s relentless attitude never becomes overbearing. Listen to how the composers layer their competing musical ideas on “Titan Mine” as the piece keeps building into the sort of majestic, magnificently controlled chaos only very few scores ever achieve. Descent is a momentous achievement – industrial music at its most excessive yet tightly controlled, not just gritty and adrenaline-pumping but also convincingly expansive and spacious in its world-building. In short, one hell of an epic score.
Hero Quest II: Legacy of Sorasil Soundtrack
Patrick Phelan, 1994
In game music, few things are as satisfying as taking a deep dive into an obscure console’s library of titles, only to find a masterfully crafted soundtrack in the most unexpected of places. Case in point – Hero Quest II: Legacy of Sorasil on the Amiga CD32, a platform that only sold around 100,000 units and was discontinued after eight months on the market. It did produce one genuinely great fantasy score, though – one that really deserves a great deal more attention when the conversation turns towards the history of Western orchestral game music.
Composer Patrick Phelan’s work on the Amiga version of Top Gear 2 was one of that platform’s classic scores, and his orchestral work on Litil Divil had shown promise – but Hero Quest II operates on a different level altogether.
Even by today’s standards, the two compositions forming the bedrock of Hero Quest II are stunningly ambitious. Clocking in at 11 and 13 minutes, respectively (without loops!), “In-Game 01” and “In-Game 02” bear witness to Phelan’s astounding ability to shape his pieces. He balances the development of his material with smartly judged repetitions of melody bits that underline the music’s earthy, folk-inspired nature (only the five minutes of low-key rambling that open “In-Game 02” disappoint). Both compositions feel like long, solemn processions through a medieval world full of roughly-hewn cathedrals and soldiers ploughing on through mud towards the battlefield, waiting in eerie silence before the ferocious clash of arms.
There is little of the swash-buckling adventure and exuberant orchestrations often found in fantasy game scores. Instead, Hero Quest II paints its domain in many shades of brown and grey – a more realistic take on medieval times if you want, but certainly not one chosen very often by game composers of the era. The Amiga CD32s’ Red Book audio capacities prove crucial in allowing Phelan to clad such reflective material in vibrant timbres – just sample the extended bassoon solo opening “In-Game 01” (Phelan’s orchestral samples are first-rate for a 1994 game score). Besides, Hero Quest II can also change gears – for example, on “In-Game 03”, which combines medieval and baroque dance influences to utterly charming effect. On the other end of the spectrum, “Menu” is both triumphant and grim, exploding into a monumental climax for towering brass backed by a vortex of swirling, biting strings. It’s a stunning moment of surprise – and you might well sum up the entire score with those words.
Red Alarm Soundtrack
Ken Kojima, 1995
It’s probably fair to say that the Virtual Boy – with its technical limitations and clunky design – never stood a chance. That’s a shame because it could have taken chiptune game music to new heights with its six sound channels (two more than the NES and Game Boy). Sadly, due to the console’s swift demise, only one soundtrack showcases the system’s musical capabilities: Ken Kojima’s Red Alarm, one of the Virtual Boy’s better-received titles (out of a grand total of 22).
While the Virtual Boy was technically a 32-bit platform, its sound was really closer to the Game Boy’s gritty timbres. Kojima makes the most of this sonic signature, writing a relentlessly intense score that miraculously merges two seemingly incompatible music genres: industrial rock’s single-minded, ferocious forward momentum and prog rock’s rhythmic complexity. On top of this dazzling, churning cosmic furnace, Kojima places melodies that run the gamut – sometimes soaring above the pulverising rhythms, sometimes crumbling bit by bit, worn down by the syncopated onslaught.
The entire soundtrack feels like a never-ending battle between empowering, sometimes even achingly beautiful melodies and grinding layers of increasingly discordant rhythms. As the soundtrack progresses further and further into enemy territory, Kojima’s virtuoso handling of his constantly morphing material allows him to subtly shift the balance between those two poles. What starts with one of the catchiest shoot’em up melodies of the 90s on “Stage 1” turns into a blasted wasteland, as rhythms nearly morph into white noise, while melodies veer between bitter staccato notes, panicked cries, breathlessly rushing arpeggios, and wailing sirens.
Sitting through the entirety of Red Alarm is not an easy feat, thanks to the music’s unceasing complexity, harshness and almost asphyxiating mood. However, it’s a challenge worth taking – Red Alarm is one of game music’s densest and most ambitious industrial scores. The music might sound all-consumingly ferocious thanks to its unrelenting, pumping rhythms – but Kojima always balances such unyielding displays of force with superbly constructed melodies that might sometimes almost disintegrate but never truly perish. In short: this is one of the most captivating and audacious shoot’em up scores from the genre’s golden era.
SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millenium Soundtrack
DECO / Kira / Yoshihiko Kitamura / Mitsuo / Miwa, 1999
After spending much of the 1990s battling over who was the reigning champion of fighting games, Capcom and SNK finally joined forces for a series of titles that brought together their illustrious roster of stars for some dream team matches. The first such game was the appropriately titled SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millenium, released for SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color handheld. Commemorating the occasion was the greatest soundtrack written for an NGPC game, courtesy of four members of SNK’s in-house sound team.
Before The Match of the Millenium, there had been no shortage of chiptune versions of music made famous through the Street Fighter and King of Fighters games. However, the composers of those Game Boy versions were mainly concerned with respectfully porting the 16-bit originals. The artists behind The Match of the Millenium set their goals higher than that – they are actually having fun tweaking and reworking the original compositions.
That approach is particularly obvious on the Street Fighter character themes – maybe because their melodies are so iconic that any change will be that much more apparent. The composers constantly add new melody lines that tastefully supplement Yoko Shimomura’s classic tunes, striking a perfect balance between respecting the originals and making them feel fresh again. There are also some unexpected but fitting changes to the atmosphere of some pieces. High-pitched oscillations give “Chun-Li” an extra dose of heady mysticism, while the previously heavy-going “Zangief” turns convincingly lighter and nearly playful.
The real surprise, though, are the SNK themes. Firstly, hearing them rendered via the same (limited) chiptune instruments as the Capcom cues underlines their stylistic differences. While the Capcom pieces waste no time in launching their classic melodies, the SNK compositions cycle through different sections and melody leads, clearly inspired by various musical genres outside of video game music. On the Neo Geo and even the Neo Geo CD, those genre trappings had sometimes been an issue – take the stock-standard, weakly buzzing guitar riffs on several character cues or the clumsy Jazz syncopations on Terry Bogart’s theme.
Amazingly enough, these pieces often work better on the humble Neo Geo Pocket Colour. Now their complex, long-spun melodies get to shine through the decluttered arrangements, which still preserve the pieces’ original, ambitious nature – but now in smarter fashion through densely woven countermelodies and even polyrhythms. This is how you tackle the challenging task of de-making music written for technologically vastly superior platforms – you preserve only what’s great and then add more good stuff on top.