Actraiser Renaissance Soundtrack, Yuzo Koshiro, 2021
One of the most fondly remembered games of the first generation of SNES titles is Actraiser. Only the fourth SNES game to be released in Japan, Actraiser was developer Quartet’s first project. It was the beginning of an auspicious career that would see the company create some of the most memorable SNES projects. Actraiser was the rare game that offered something unique at the time – a combination of side-scrolling platforming action and city-building simulation. The whole concept was held together by Actraiser’s mythical narrative, pitting a protagonist with god-like powers against the forces of darkness. Unfortunately, 1993’s Actraiser 2 met with a less enthusiastic response, after it focused entirely on (punishingly difficult) platforming. And so, the franchise stopped dead in its tracks, seemingly forgotten by new rightsholder Square Enix – until out of nowhere, the company announced remake Actraiser Renaissance in September 2021.
Despite more than 30 years separating original and remake, composer Yuzo Koshiro was once again along for the ride, arranging his classic SNES score for the new title – to the delight of many, many gamers. After all, few SNES soundtracks have received the same amount of adulation as Actraiser. The fact it received not one, but two orchestral arrange albums (in 1991 and 2021, respectively) is testament to its impact on game music history. Having already established his reputation as a master of FM synthesis on Japanese PC platforms, Koshiro was intrigued by the SNES sound chip’s capacity to sample orchestral instruments – a groundbreaking innovation. Having received a classical music education from his mother, Koshiro decided to write his first orchestral game score. While composing the work came easy to Koshiro (according to interviews with the composer), the SNES’ technical limitations did pose challenges.
Koshiro, used to the flexibility of deploying his own programming language on the PC-88, found that the SNES sound chip’s programming was far more rigid. In addition, Koshiro had to contend with the platform’s memory limitation, restricting music samples to a size of 64kb. However, Koshiro and Actraiser’s lead programmer managed to work around this problem by creating a system that could swap samples from the ROM data on the fly, increasing the samples’ sound quality. The result stood proudly as the most convincing emulation of orchestral music on a non-CD gaming platform yet (yes, more so still than Wing Commander). It was a towering feat that Koshiro would repeat the following year for electronic music with Streets of Rage. Koshiro’s masterful ability to embrace the complex application of orchestral colours, dynamics and counterpoint enabled him to write for the virtual ensemble as if it was the real deal.
Seeing one of the foundation stones of orchestral game music rearranged decades later was a tantalising prospect – particularly since the two live-symphonic arrange albums had disappointed with their low production values and soporific performances. Clearly, the Actraiser Renaissance soundtrack was a labour of love for Koshiro. Not only did he rearrange his classic SNES compositions – he also wrote another whole soundtrack’s worth of entirely new cues. On top of that, he then created SNES versions of his rearrangements and new pieces. Not surprisingly, that means getting the most out of Actraiser Renaissance’s music requires some work. Koshiro’s new tracks largely tend to meander prettily (similar to Jeremy Soule’s output during the early 2010s). They are pleasant enough, but also feel aimless – although there are some exceptions. And while the SFC versions are welcome, they are ultimately low-fi renditions of the higher-quality orchestral sounds used for the arrangements.
That really leaves Koshiro’s arrangements of the pieces written for Actraiser as the main attraction of this soundtrack – and they deliver every step of the way. Put succinctly, this is the best these compositions have ever sounded, surpassing the live-orchestral arrangements. Mind you, what the Actraiser Renaissance soundtrack rarely delivers are surprises. Koshiro’s arrangements of the level tracks – with one exception – don’t deviate much from what was heard on previous arrange albums, apart from generally thicker string orchestrations and more pronounced dynamics. Koshiro faithfully reorchestrates the SNES material on these level cues, then simply repeats it (rather than clad it in different orchestrations) and finally adds some new material before heading into the loop. That new material doesn’t necessarily offer new perspectives on the piece in question, but it successfully expands upon the already established mood and emotional landscape.
In other words – music that was great before is even better now. “Bloodpool ~ Kasandora” retains its whirlwind energy that almost turns carnivalesque at times, providing a surprisingly elegant contrast to the turbulent rage of the brass and percussion orchestrations. “World Tree” equally benefits from heightened contrasts, this time between the tempestuous nature of its very obviously Star Wars-inspired opening and the exhausted, eerie peace the music drops into afterwards. The masterfully expressed sense of hushed awe, mystery and longing lingering over “Aitos ~ Temple”, “Pyramid ~ Marana”, and “North Wall” – expressed differently on each piece – has never been more potent and moving than here. The one level cue that merits swapping with one of the new pieces is “Fillmore”. “Alcaleone” presents the exact same power metal mélange, but dares to embrace the genre’s deliciously overblown style more enthusiastically – and bolsters such excess with more blazingly vibrant orchestrations.
Where the Actraiser Renaissance soundtrack goes above and beyond is when Koshiro arranges Actraiser’s shorter tracks. Well, not the triumphant closing cues, but those compositions that could do with a bit of help from a thorough rearrangement. Led by a tinny, less than expressive woodwind melody, “Birth of the People” was brief and charming on the SNES, but hardly outstanding. Koshiro not only creates a much lusher arrangement that emphasises the music’s Baroque influences. He also writes a significant amount of new material that doubles the cue’s running time, maintaining the original’s spirited nature and melodic grace – it’s impressively colourful work. “Offering” – also a bit short on solid material in its 16-bit iteration – emerges as a more fully-fledged piece. The arrangement maintains the original’s wistful, delicate charm while effortlessly expanding the music’s scope, all the way to the cosmic conclusion for chromatic strings and wordless female choir.
Action tracks like “Powerful Enemy” and “Tanzra” equally benefit from their rearrangements on the Actraiser Renaissance soundtrack. Once a compilation of crisis motifs with little melodic or rhythmic interest, “Powerful Enemy” suddenly makes an impression thanks to its far more powerful orchestral sounds. Koshiro’s more melodic new material is just as important, showing he still knows how to write brass material that triggers a first-rate adrenaline rush. “Tanzra” was the original soundtrack’s best battle cue, thanks to its intriguing progression from a raging opening to a B section filled with dissonant brass calls and despairing string melodies. Koshiro’s new take turns the piece into a thrashing orchestral tour de force, twice as long as the original and always finding the right balance between ostinato-happy hammering and sufficient melodic focus to give the music direction. Indeed, Actraiser Renaissance manages to make what was already a game music classic even better.
- 01 - Opening Koshiro, Yuzo 1:25
- 02 - Sky Palace Koshiro, Yuzo 3:28
- 03 - Alcaleone Koshiro, Yuzo 3:26
- 04 - BloodPool ~ Kasandora Koshiro, Yuzo 2:22
- 05 - Aitos ~ Temple Koshiro, Yuzo 3:23
- 06 - Powerful Enemy Koshiro, Yuzo 2:50
- 07 - Pyramid ~ Marahna Koshiro, Yuzo 5:02
- 08 - Northwall Koshiro, Yuzo 3:45
- 09 - World Tree Koshiro, Yuzo 4:14
- 10 - Tanzra Koshiro, Yuzo 3:15
- 11 - Birth of the People Koshiro, Yuzo 2:43
- 12 - Offering Koshiro, Yuzo 3:24
- 13 - Peaceful World Koshiro, Yuzo 2:31
- 14 - Ending Koshiro, Yuzo 2:01
- 15 - Grand Finale Koshiro, Yuzo 1:13