Blast Corps Soundtrack, Graeme Norgate, 1997
Developer Rare arguably rose to fame and world-wide success with its Donkey Kong Country trilogy. However, it’s usually the Nintendo 64 era that is considered Rare’s golden age – no surprise, as the company seemed incapable of not churning out classic after classic for a while. That winning streak began with Blast Corps, released just in time for the console’s launch in Europe. The title was based on an idea by Rare founder Chris Stamper, who for years had wanted to make a game about destroying building – simple as that. Beginning production in 1996, a team of just four developers (sometimes expanded to seven) fitted a gameplay concept around this idea: a nuclear missile carrier was out of control and steamrolling ahead on autopilot. The player controls an array of sometimes bizarre vehicles (including a giant one-armed robot with a rolling attack) to clear the way.
The result was met with almost universal acclaim. Blast Corps was a beautifully idiosyncratic game, combining puzzle, racing and all-out-action elements into a wholly original package. Sales – around one million copies – ended up lower than the development team had expected. However, Blast Corps remains one of the most fondly remembered N64 games, thanks to its flawless level design and tough-as-nails yet always fair difficulty curve.
Scoring duties for Rare’s second N64 game fell to Graeme Norgate, who had recently joined the company and written the Donkey Kong Land soundtrack (adapting some of David Wise’s Donkey Kong Country material). Norgate’s fondness for game music originated in the 1980s, when he tried his hand at writing music for the C64 and Amiga 1200 (while also playing in various bands). Norgate had to break new ground at Rare, being their first composer to work with the N64, which ultimately didn’t have quite as many sound channels as manufacturer Silicon Graphics had implied early on. He was helped by one of Rare’s staff members, who wrote some code that allowed Norgate to feed his MIDI-based compositions into a machine and hear exactly what they would sound like on the N64.
For the Blast Corps soundtrack, Norgate drew upon various sources of inspiration. Befitting the title’s unusual gameplay, they were wildly divergent. Firstly, Norgate approached the game from the angle of writing about the various construction vehicles that the gamer controlled to tear down buildings, settling on an industrial soundtrack. And indeed, parts of Blast Corps sound like a jolly construction site on the move. It’s here that Norgate establishes some stylistic traits that make Blast Corps such a joyously creative score. Far more often than not, industrial music is a relentlessly pounding, exceedingly sombre affair. What Norgate creates feels like a fresh take on industrial music that – contrary to the genre’s reputation – is light and poppy.
That kind of approach is mixed with other influences, making the Blast Corps soundtrack an even more diverse and surprising affair. Opening track “Blast Corps” establishes a bit of a template (as much as the score has one). Electronic, rock, pop and orchestral elements join together in colourful, lushly arranged layers that prove Norgate already had full control of the new console’s capabilities. He also sets the urgent mood necessary for a game about impending nuclear meltdown.
But Norgate’s unorthodox musical mix also establishes the soundtrack’s playful streak that refuses to take things too seriously. There’s too much fun to be had with all those catchy, clanging rhythms and brief snippets of melody, and additions like those heroic horn figures add cinematic flourishes rather than drama. Throughout the Blast Corps soundtrack, Norgate strikes a delightful balance between these two poles – crafting a sound that creates a world of immense scale, but never turns remotely ponderous.
Interestingly enough, in interviews Norgate sounded somewhat regretful about the approach he took on Blast Corps, choosing the score’s industrial style “whether it [the game] needed it or not”, adding that “I’m a bit more sensible these days, and I do things to suit the project first, rather than my own little personal agenda.” Indeed, the Blast Corps soundtrack might be unusual and maybe suited Norgate’s own interests more than the game’s needs – but then again, what exactly were the musical needs of a game as quirky as Blast Corps? Ultimately, Norgate’s music organically became simply another facet of the game’s eccentric character.
And there’s no better cue to showcase that character than “Destruction Hoedown”, Blast Corps’s piece de resistance and likely the track fans of the game remember best – and Norgate nominated it as his favourite cue from the score as well. In a demonstration of inspired madness, Norgate combines wild country fiddle, banjo and mouth harp with borderline cheesy, but oh so catchy mid-90s techno rhythms. The result is an instant classic, the sort of composition that’s utterly unique and executed to perfection, with melody hooks that are impossible to get out of your head the second you’ve heard them – and ultimately a beautiful example of the kind of music one only encounters in video games.
Norgate’s innovation doesn’t end here either. “Bombs Away” plays like the exact opposite of the kind of music one would expect to hear in a game about constantly demolishing and blowing up stuff. A patient, calm mood builder with not a hint of propulsive rhythms or melodies, “Bombs Away” combines gentle percussion and arpeggios with wistful, expansive synth melodies and French horn lines. It’s as if the world of Blast Corps had stood still for a moment and the gamer is left to contemplate its scope. “Upbeat Mood” is equally laid-back, but uses 70s funk, wah-wah guitars and hammond organ to reach that state of mind. No, Blast Corps doesn’t make for a stylistically very coherent soundtrack, but that’s part of the fun.
And let’s not forget that Norgate executes the more expected styles just as well – the sort of compositions that communicate in straightforward fashion that things might get really bad. “Impending Disaster”, “The Alarm Sounds” and “Major Trouble” all see Norgate turning up the guitar amplifiers and going from rock to metal, aided by the intensity and scale that the familiar industrial and orchestral sounds already bring with them. The brief choral vocals on “The Alarm Sounds” are a particularly nice, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek touch – not all sense of fun is lost here. Ultimately, what Norgate does on the Blast Corps soundtrack is to welcome the arrival of a new console generation with an outburst of creativity, made possible by the new technology and heralding a bright future ahead.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the game rip.
- 01 - Blast Corps (Title / Glory Crossing) Norgate, Graeme 5:28
- 02 - Plan of Action (Mission Description (General), Magma Peak, Moon, Mercury, Mars) Norgate, Graeme 4:57
- 03 - Destruction Hoedown (Simian Acres, Beeton Tracks, Crystal Rift, Diamond Sands) Norgate, Graeme 5:45
- 04 - Rolling Thunder (Thunderfist, Cromlech Court, Venus, Neptune) Norgate, Graeme 5:44
- 05 - Bombs Away! (J-Bomb, Havoc District, Lizard Island, Saline Watch, Dagger Pass) Norgate, Graeme 4:01
- 06 - Impending Disaster (Mica Park, Ironstone Mine, Outland Farm, Glander's Ranch) Norgate, Graeme 5:08
- 07 - Upbeat Mood (Blackridge Works, Ember Hamlet, Obsidian Mile) Norgate, Graeme 5:49
- 08 - Ocean Breeze (Carrick Point, Ebony Coast, Oyster Harbor) Norgate, Graeme 6:15
- 09 - The Alarm Sounds (Kipling Plant, Geode Square, Shuttle Clear) Norgate, Graeme 2:19
- 10 - Major Trouble (Tempest City, Beeton Tracks, Shuttle Clear (Intro) Norgate, Graeme 5:41
- 11 - Tension (Shuttle Gully, Morgan Hall, Sylver Junction) Norgate, Graeme 3:56
- 12 - Staff Roll Norgate, Graeme 1:50
- 13 - Mission Replay Norgate, Graeme 5:15