A-Train 5 Soundtrack, Koshiro Nishida, 1996
Few game series have shown as much longevity as the A-Train franchise. From the very first A-Train game released in 1985, the series gathered a reputation for delivering the most in-depth treatment of its subject matter gamers could ask for. Due to the corporate structure of Japanese railroad companies – which own all the stations, land and trains associated with the services they deliver – the A-Train games were always about more than just laying down train tracks and figuring out timetables. Instead, they were full-blown city-building simulators with a strong focus on rail infrastructure. The series was successful enough in Japan to pique the interest of overseas publishers (including SimCity’s Maxis) in the mid-1990s – although Western gamers seemed less interested than their Japanese counterparts. Thankfully, some decades later, digital distribution made it possible for franchise entries like A-Train All Aboard! Tourism to still reach Western shores.
Looking at the franchise’s musical legacy, it’s easily 1996’s A-Train 5 soundtrack that stands out – not just from other A-Train games, but game scores of its era in general. In several ways, the soundtrack remains an intriguing mystery. Developer Artdink decided to have the game’s music – all 22 minutes of it – recorded by a live orchestra. Keep in mind that by 1996, a fully live-orchestral game score was still an absolute rarity. What’s more, Artdink decided to not record the soundtrack with a domestic ensemble and instead went with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra – which, following recordings with the likes of Masamichi Amano and Yoko Kanno, was swiftly becoming the go-to ensemble for Japanese prestige movie, TV and game projects. It’s a somewhat puzzling decision – given the game’s otherwise rather humble production values – but it most certainly benefited the music beautifully.
The mysteries continue with the A-Train 5 soundtrack’s composer, Koshiro Nishida (at least if we stick to English-speaking websites). Nishida’s background is relatively unclear. On a Marco Polo 1982 classical music recording, he is listed as the arranger of a three-minute Taiwanese folk song for violin and orchestra. A couple of movie websites list him as a composer of two Japanese erotic movies from the late 80s. He then joined Artdink in 1994, working on titles like Lunatic Dawn II, Aquanaut’s Holiday – and A-Train 5, which stands heads and shoulders above his other game music output. No further information about his work seems available at the time of writing. The only image of Nishida currently online purports to show him at an orchestra rehearsal in 2005.
What makes this lack of information frustrating is the outstanding quality of the A-Train 5 soundtrack. Decades after its release, it still stands as one of game music’s best orchestral scores – and wouldn’t it be great to have a better view of its creator’s body of work, maybe find other soundtracks of his that are of similar quality? For the time being, A-Train 5 needs to suffice as a testament to Nishida’s talents. Clocking in at just over 20 minutes, the score inevitably doesn’t have the same narrative arc and dramatic thrust as, say, Koei’s early orchestral game scores. However, Nishida still manages to tie his pieces together into a stylistically consistent whole.
In Symphonie pour pixels, Aurélien Simon identifies Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and George Gershwin as major musical influences on the A-Train 5 soundtrack. Truth be told, there is very little of Gershwin’s jazz-influenced orchestral style to be found here, but the connection to Tchaikovsky is indeed palpable. However, much of Nishida’s melodic material is shorter and more repetitive than what one would find in classical music. Instead, A-Train 5 often evokes the shamelessly emotional romanticism of 1930s and 40s Hollywood scores. Of course, those works were directly influenced by late-romantic classical music, which means Nishida manages to locate his work at the intersection between concert hall and film music, as one was about to morph into the other. The result is a soundtrack whose emotional power and scope vastly exceed what one would expect to find in a score for a train simulator.
Opening track “A-Train 5 Main Theme” establishes the A-Train 5 soundtrack’s credentials without delay. Calm woodwind chords against iridescent strings grow into hefty, noble brass calls and evoke a Bruckner symphony opening before the music dives into the score’s first ravishingly beautiful, heart-on-sleeve string melody. Nishida’s sense for delectable orchestrations becomes obvious when interjections for solo violin trade places with glamorous string outpourings. Frolicking, tumbling woodwinds establish the soundtrack’s proximity to forms of classical dance during the composition’s B section, before Nishida takes the composition to a gloriously impassioned, string-driven climax. A solo piano surprisingly interrupts this forte conclusion, and the music slowly fades into the night over wispy violin chords, chimes and a gong strike. Nishida’s orchestrations are lavish and effortlessly elegant throughout the entire composition, while his focus on consistently memorable melodic motifs benefits from sufficient amounts of counterpoint.
Equally assured is Nishida’s grasp of developing his pieces into either delightful vignettes or moving testaments to the expressive potency of romantic orchestral music. In the latter camp, we find “Tours” and “Siciliano”. “Tours” foregoes the gentle motoric motion inherent in the rest of the soundtrack. Instead, the cue coasts on the beauty of its warmly solemn cello melody that slowly unfolds throughout the track, backed by majestic yet tastefully restrained brass. “Siciliano” might be the A-Train 5 soundtrack’s most gorgeously melodic moment. Written for full strings and solo oboe, its alternately melancholic and ravishingly dreamy melodies carry another one of Nishida’s homages to classic film scores – this time the works of Nino Rota. It’s a spell-binding composition, its gently persistent forward motion and expert use of dynamics shaping the melodic material’s flawless development during the cue’s nearly six-minute run time.
More classically inspired are two pieces that fit as many changes of instrumental colours into their short duration as possible. It’s particularly on “From the Window of A-Train 5” and “Flower Dance” that the connection with Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre becomes obvious, via the cues’ ballet-inspired stylings first aired during “A-Train 5 Main Theme”. According to “From the Window of A-Train 5”, the world outside the train windows is filled with wondrous, constantly changing sights. Nishida’s orchestrations are superb, as they dress his lightly-sprung, charming melodies in a dazzling array of timbres that also find a place for more robust tones during a brief, jolly march. “Flower Dance” is just as sparkling, its two minutes containing some of the most colourful orchestral game music ever written. The piece’s more overtly dramatic streak brings the cue’s motoric energy to a surprisingly imposing finale, full of building brass fanfares and increasingly tense string ostinati.
“After ‘A5’ Has Gone” concludes proceedings with a fittingly reflective piano solo, soon joined by gentle strings and an optimistic motif passed around the woodwind section that beautifully fits into the mood of calm and fulfilment. Nishida’s Golden Age Hollywood inspirations still lead such contented music towards one final gushing outburst, pushed onwards by a searing violin melody against timpani rolls. Finally, the music gradually fades out, leaving a feeling of affectionate, final goodbyes as the violin chords slowly subside. That the finale of such a short score turns out as moving as it does here is another testament to the A-Train 5 soundtrack’s unexpected emotional power.
- 01 - A-Train 5 Main Theme Nishida, Koshiro 4:59
- 02 - From the Window of A-Train 5 Nishida, Koshiro 2:00
- 03 - Gloria Nishida, Koshiro 0:38
- 04 - Tours Nishida, Koshiro 2:24
- 05 - Siciliano Nishida, Koshiro 5:41
- 06 - Flower Dance Nishida, Koshiro 1:56
- 07 - After 'A5' Has Gone Nishida, Koshiro 3:31