Bounty Sword First Soundtrack, Kohei Tanaka, 1997
Before Final Fantasy Tactics’ success, releases of turn-based strategy games in the West were far and few between – most of these titles were only ever released in Japan. One such game was 1995’s Bounty Sword for the SNES. Set in the year 4093, the game nonetheless featured a medieval-themed fantasy look beautifully realised through detailed 16-bit visuals. Bounty Sword’s gameplay was a bit of an oddity though. Gamers’ input into battles was minimal – they would set their units’ strategy before the fight began. After that, all they could do was command soldiers to use special moves. Even amidst the general interest for hidden late-era SNES treasures, Bounty Sword has remained obscure – and even less well-known was its PS1 remake Bounty Sword First. Ambitiously envisaged as the beginning of a trilogy, only one sequel (Bounty Sword: Double Edge) was released.
Looking at screenshots of Bounty Sword First, it’s hard to identify many visuals improvements over the SNES original. The game’s soundtrack however is a different story – and poses some interesting questions about its authorship. Kohei Tanaka is credited as the sole composer of the SNES game, with talented composer Akihiko Mori taking on sound design duties – as he had on previous collaborations with Tanaka. It seems they reprised these roles for the Bounty Sword First soundtrack, which quite faithfully reprises the SNES original’s musical material.
What’s curious about the Bounty Sword soundtrack is how different it sounds to Tanaka’s other works – and how its character is far closer to Mori’s oeuvre. The immensely detailed orchestrations and sheer density of the compositions make the score a natural companion to Mori’s works of the mid-90s – while a passage like the four-way counterpoint from 1:50 on “Choukishin” has no equivalent in Tanaka’s body of work. And it’s hard not to notice how comparatively underwhelming Tanaka’s Bounty Sword: Double Edge (without Mori’s involvement) is. Ultimately though, while it is tempting to wonder whether Mori had any compositional input into Bounty Sword and thus Bounty Sword First, such speculations must remain just that.
What we can certainly credit Mori with is the soundtrack’s outstanding (for a PS1 game) sound quality. For music with such a martial slant, a forceful brass sound is crucial. And indeed, the Bounty Sword First soundtrack delivers in spades – sample the openings of “Federal Heavy Weapons” and “Choukishin” for floor-rattling examples of the music’s power. Not only that, Mori gives the synthesised ensemble a resonant concert hall acoustic that marks a significant upgrade over the SNES original and perfectly fits the music’s character and ambition. On both the SNES and the PS1, this is one of the most classically-inspired soundtracks in the respective system’s discography, exuding a feeling of imposing grandeur throughout its entire run time.
Part of the soundtrack’s ambitious nature is its robust thematic writing. Tanaka – again not necessarily known for music that’s particularly dense thematically – injects his main theme into several compositions in elegant and creative ways. It also helps that his theme is one of the most potent melodies he has ever written. In its original form, the theme is a sturdy (rather than heroic) brass melody presented over a riding, almost bouncy snare drum accompaniment on “Main Theme”. The melody is an exciting combination of different tones, mixing brassy weightiness with surprisingly upbeat overtones.
What’s truly impressive about “Main Theme” is how Tanaka develops the theme throughout the cue’s two-minute run time. He never simply restates the theme but instead writes new melodic inserts around variations of the tune, to the point where a new musical idea pops up every few seconds – without ever breaking the flow of the piece. It’s supremely confident orchestral writing, perfectly judging the composition’s development and resulting in one of the greatest main themes in all of game music. Later cues then quote not just the theme itself but also other material introduced alongside it on “Main Theme”.
The theme recurs particularly on the Bounty Sword First soundtrack’s militaristic battle tracks, again inserted in more elaborate ways than usually heard on game soundtracks, with frequent changes to the theme’s colours and character. “Decisive Battle ~Invincible Knight~” makes a most spectacular showing – simply by presenting the main theme ‘block’ of material heard on “Main Theme” in a sped-up rendition. The result is astoundingly powerful and at times almost overwhelmingly intense – it’s the very rare game music action cue that is both a whirlwind and yet utterly monumental. During the first half of the score, other battles cues maintain the march compositions’ initial optimism, and the main theme underpins the buoyant mood of a track like “Heroic Mission”. Later on, the atmosphere turns more severe and dire, so it’s no surprise that the raging “Federal Heavy Weapons” brings back the main theme in a more desperate, sombre rendition.
Fittingly enough, the main theme also leaves its mark on the Bounty Sword First soundtrack’s conclusion. The tremendously exciting final battle track “Choukishin” adds choral voices and a subtle modern touch through persistent percussion to a composition bursting at the seams with drama and fresh ideas. The cue’s climax best illustrates this point. After all its turbulent bombast, the music segues not into something even bigger and grander. Instead, an entirely unanticipated, almost delirious string melody sweeps listeners off their feet and brings the score’s other main facet – its esoteric tendencies – to a head. After this, only a rendition of the main theme can return us onto solid ground. Finally, “Staff Roll” closes the score with yet more majestic renditions of the theme and its assorted materials – not a surprising move, but one that doesn’t fail to take the score to a fittingly momentous conclusion.
There’s more to the Bounty Sword First soundtrack though than splendidly realised grandiosity. Tanaka not only underscores battle scenes eloquently – he also vividly sets the stage for these confrontations by bringing the game’s world to live. Some of his quieter compositions are just impassioned as their stormy counterparts. “Rescued Soldiers” is that rarest of 16/32bit-era game music pieces – a string adagio that isn’t felled by the timbral limitations of instrument synthesis. Tanaka’s melodies are so emotional and subtly unpredictable, his use for dynamic differentiations so well-judged that the resulting music is profoundly moving, despite the synthetic nature of the string ensemble evident at every turn. “Theme of Furis” blossoms from a circular piano motif that suggests a struggle to move on into a duet between piano and solo cello, before the touching ballad is closed by a lovely acoustic guitar solo.
“Farewell, My Friends…” is just as affecting. Opening with an arid, resigned acoustic guitar motif, the cue passes the melody on to the piano. Then Tanaka’s skilful orchestration combines choir, clarinet and acoustic guitar – it’s the choral backing that gives the clarinet melody’s sorrow a feeling of inevitability. “Bounty of Gods” crystallises the score’s mythical undertones, supported aptly by the score’s general sense of gravity. The cue combines ethereal choral vocals with another unexpected instrument mix – a reedy flute and chimes – to mesmerising results. Finally, “Walking in Peace” and “South Europea” see Tanaka having some fun, with their layers of colourful, light-hearted percussion, gangly woodwind calls and syncopated rhythms. Assuming all the music here is indeed his own, Tanaka delivers the strongest score of his entire career with the Bounty Sword First soundtrack.
- 01 - Main Theme Tanaka, Kohei 2:25
- 02 - Bounty Mission Tanaka, Kohei 2:32
- 03 - Bounty Combat Tanaka, Kohei 3:09
- 04 - Decisive Battle ~Invincible Knight~ Tanaka, Kohei 3:02
- 05 - Campfire Tanaka, Kohei 2:50
- 06 - Walking in Peace Tanaka, Kohei 3:24
- 07 - Rescued Soldiers Tanaka, Kohei 3:38
- 08 - Theme of Furis Tanaka, Kohei 3:46
- 09 - Farewell, My Friends... Tanaka, Kohei 3:58
- 10 - Heroic Mission Tanaka, Kohei 4:12
- 11 - Western Comrades Tanaka, Kohei 3:21
- 12 - Rebel Army Tanaka, Kohei 2:30
- 13 - Pleading for Life Tanaka, Kohei 1:40
- 14 - Federal Heavy Weapons Tanaka, Kohei 4:23
- 15 - South Europea Tanaka, Kohei 3:24
- 16 - Messina Tanaka, Kohei 3:12
- 17 - Bounty of Gods Tanaka, Kohei 3:39
- 18 - Choukishin Tanaka, Kohei 7:11
- 19 - Fate and Conscience Tanaka, Kohei 4:24
- 20 - Staff Roll Tanaka, Kohei 10:20
Terry F. says
It seems to me interesting that it is Mori with the densely contrapuntal orchestral works, when Tanaka is the composer that more often worked with live orchestras and so, presumably, would’ve had more opportunity to exercise abilities with the knowledge of how an orchestra would play it. The question of Tanaka/Mori influence has been something I’ve wondered about, but usually I’d figured that it would’ve worked in the other direction — but I’m not too familiar with Tanaka or Mori’s ouevre. With Mori handling sound design, and trusting in your knowledge of their respective bodies of work, though, it makes sense that, with Tanaka composing and Mori handling sound implementation, that Mori might be arranging Tanaka’s compositions. Certainly a little fugue (or fughetta, perhaps) is quite unlike Tanaka!
Anyway. The SNES Bounty Sword is one of that most underrated scores on the platform, in my opinion. This PSX remaster is excellent, an excellent example of the ROMpler orchestras that game scores can handle so well. I dunno if I’d rank it first among Tanaka’s discography, but again, I am unfamiliar with most of it. Bounty Sword, and a little bit of the first Gravity Rush, and a little bit of the first Alundra, is the extent of it.
Simon Elchlepp says
That’s a good point regarding Tanaka having had more experience with live orchestras and Mori’s work turning out more densely orchestrated and contrapuntal! It would be really interesting to find out more about the work relationship between Tanaka and Mori, which started in the early 1990s with Paladin’s Quest. Both might very well have inspired each other, with Mori maybe picking up knowledge about the use of orchestras from Tanaka at the beginning, before arguably exceeding Tanaka’s ability to make full use of an orchestra’s capacities. By the way, Mori apparently did study music at university according to an obituary, but where he did so and his degree aren’t clear. That academic background might explain his fondness for fugal structures – “The Mother Goddess” and “Birth” on Mystic Ark are excellent examples and really unusual for a 16-bit score, so hearing something similar on Bounty Sword feels like a strong indication of his compositional input (you’re spot on with your comment about Tanaka and fugues!)
Absolutely agree on Bounty Sword being an undiscovered gem, likely due to how utterly obscure the game is and glad you’re enjoying it too! What I really found interesting about the PSX remake is the concert hall ambience, which is something I haven’t heard much before (if at all) on the system – really outstanding sound design. In regards to other worthwhile works by Tanaka: I must admit I was surprised by how few of his scores I ended up enjoying, often because his compositions felt like they didn’t have much substance and repeated their melodies quite a bit. I also wonder to some degree whether it’s just the nature of Tanaka’s scoring assignments that holds his music back – for example, the score release for Bastard!! almost exclusively consists of short 60-90 second compositions which don’t have enough time to really develop. However, there is a fan-arranged release of that score that groups tracks together – and suddenly the music is a lot stronger.
Long story short: the other works by Tanaka that I can recommend are Galaxy Express 999 ~Eternal Fantasy~, Galactic Pauper Corps (an original symphonic suite inspired by the Japanese science fiction book series Ginga Kojiki Gundan) and…Sakura Wars GB, a melodcially much more substantial and succinct work (lavishly arranged chiptune pop) than the other Sakura Wars games on more powerful platforms. Go figure… I’ve also heard good things about the Bastard!! symphonic suite.
Terry F. says
He’s very much working in a simpler mode than, say, Sugiyama’s classical riffs or Sakuraba’s complex prog. (Interestingly there’s one very long score with both composers — Sakuraba handling battle tunes and Tanaka handling area themes. I haven’t listened to it.) I will check out those other works, thank you for the recommendations!