After Burner Soundtrack (FM Towns), Norio Hanzawa / Hiroshi Kawaguchi, 1989
Sega’s After Burner was such a smash hit in arcades that the game was ported to an astonishing number of console and home computer platforms. Of course, thanks to the power of After Burner’s X-Board arcade technology, none of the contemporary ports matched the original game’s sense of speed and visual fireworks. In some cases – such as the European C64 release – one might argue that developers should never have attempted a port in the first place. Out of all the many adaptations of After Burner, the FM Towns version came closest to matching the arcade original – not a surprise, given the platform’s powerful hardware that bested contemporaries like the Sega Genesis or the PC Engine.
Thanks to the FM Town’s CD drive, another drawcard of many of its ports was a Red Book audio soundtrack, leading to several score arrangements exclusive to the FM Towns (such as Raiden). The same applied to the After Burner conversion. Developer CRI – a subsidiary of Sega – decided to go the extra mile and spend additional funds to record the score using live instruments rather than samples. Interestingly enough, CRI didn’t use Sega’s own in-house band S.S.I. but instead pulled together an ensemble of veteran session musicians, some of them with resumes spanning decades (check out the VGMdb profiles for keyboarder Tatsuya Nishiwaki and drummer Soul Toul). Strangely enough, the game’s credits don’t list a guitarist, despite the prominent role that the instrument plays on the score’s FM Towns arrangements.
Said arrangements are the work of Norio Hanzawa, who was at the beginning of his illustrious career – in fact, it’s possible this was his first game music assignment. From here onwards, Hanzawa worked on several Konami games, including Castlevania: The Adventure, The Simpsons and Bucky O’Hare. After that, Hanzawa moved to developer Treasure, (co-)writing the music for many of its classic games, such as Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy and Alien Soldier – pushing the limits of the Sega Genesis audio hardware to its limits during this period. Hanzawa continued working at Treasure throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, his game music credits became sparser during this time – although his name still appeared as recently as 2020 on War of the Vision: Final Fantasy Brave Exvius.
Given how early the After Burner soundtrack pops up in Hanzawa’s storied career, it’s impressive to see the composer making all the right moves on his arrangements. Actually, this is nothing less than the definitive version of After Burner – this is what the game should have sounded like in arcades.
With a few exceptions, Hanzawa sticks close to the arcade original, but real instruments performing the music makes an enormous difference. The secret ingredient in the mix are the three added brass players (two trumpets, one tenor sax). They either perform existing melodic material, or Hanzawa asks them to perform staccato fanfares around other lead instruments. The choice of instruments is absolutely inspired – the brass adds a vibrant, swinging energy that simply wasn’t present on the arcade original (and not on the S.S.T. Band’s version of the After Burner score, either). Of course, the use of jazzy brass also nicely underlines After Burner’s 80s roots – and its ambition to sound like Top Gun on steroids. On the FM Towns, that ambition is finally realised.
Right from the start of “Final Take Off”, the FM Towns version of the After Burner soundtrack sounds far ballsier and more powerful than the arcade original. Here and elsewhere on the score, Hanzawa hands the lead melody to the guitar rather than keyboards, which gives the tunes a convincingly soaring quality, while the punchy brass fanfares fire up the music further still. In fact, there’s little to be heard of the keyboards on “Final Take Off” (somewhat ironic, given that the game’s credits list three performers for the instrument). In Hanzawa’s hands, the music decisively moves towards melody-heavy, enthusiastic hard rock. Underneath it all, Soul Toul’s versatile drumming carries the track effortlessly – from syncopated rhythms to dramatic but never showy drum fills.
The opening of “Red Out” benefits in similar ways – it’s mainly the inspired drumming that powers the chugging, mid-tempo opening. The brass’ almost squealing notes ramp up the tension further before the arrival of the main melody, now given to (synthesised) xylophone, held aloft by the forceful hard rock backing. Like Adam Gilmore on the European C64 port, Hanzawa succeeds by making the score more dramatic and rousing than the comparatively laid-back arcade original. The composer even manages to make potentially problematic passages work. In arcades, “Red Out”’s frantic C section featured a fragmented melody line that felt clumsy rather than pulse-pounding. Translated into aggressive brass stabs on the FM Towns, that same material now works perfectly well and further turns up the heat on an already blistering track.
Even “Super Stripe”, the arcade game’s most monotonous piece, turns out well on this version of the After Burner soundtrack – although it takes Hanzawa some creative reworking of the source material to get there. Yes, it helps that the repetitive lead melody is given to the brass and, as a result, hits its target far better in this fiery arrangement. However, Hanzawa’s coup is to cover the melody with two clean electric guitars playing funky polyrhythms. It’s a stylistic choice that’s perfectly in tune with the rest of the soundtrack, adds new colours to the score and imbues the otherwise simple cue with a welcome degree of complexity and intrigue.
It’s no surprise then that final action track “After Burner” reveals itself as the hard rock epic that this port deserves. The arcade original featured the score’s most developed and inspired melodies. However, they were let down by original composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s decision to hand them to a wispy synth lead that wasn’t exactly as rousing as the occasion called for. Hanzawa simply gives those melodies to the solo guitar (whose fuzzy tones could have done with a better album production), adds yet more vivacious brass fanfares and keyboard flourishes, lets Soul Toul work his propulsive magic behind the drum kit – and voila, all of the music’s roaring dramatic potential is unlocked. After such a sizzling finale, Hanzawa’s career was indeed off to an auspicious start.
- 01 - Final Take Off Hanzawa, Norio / Kawaguchi, Norio 3:25
- 02 - Red Out Hanzawa, Norio / Kawaguchi, Norio 3:22
- 03 - Super Stripe Hanzawa, Norio / Kawaguchi, Norio 2:13
- 04 - After Burner Hanzawa, Norio / Kawaguchi, Norio 5:33