Final Soldier Soundtrack, Masakatsu Maekawa, 1991
There’s no doubt that one of the TurboGrafx-16’s strengths was its stellar line-up of shoot’em ups. However, that also meant any developer who decided to throw their hat in the ring would find it harder to stand out from the crowd. Hudson Soft should have been well-placed to hit the target with Final Soldier, their third entry in the Star Soldier franchise and successor to commercial and critical success Super Star Soldier. Alas, Final Soldier offered little that other shoot’em ups hadn’t already brought to the table. Contemporary reviews agreed that this Japan-only release delivered the polish expected from a Hudson Soft shoot’em up. At the same time, a lower difficulty level meant that the game was over relatively soon for experienced players. A solid, well-designed game rather than a great one, seemed to be the general conclusion.
Scoring duties for the Final Soldier soundtrack went to Masakatsu Maekawa, who had already amassed several years of industry experience by this stage, debuting with 1986’s Metro-Cross (at least he probably did – available sources aren’t entirely clear). A member of developer Now Production since graduating from university, Maekawa was immensely prolific in the 1990s, for example working on Hudson Soft franchises such as Rolling Thunder, Adventure Island and Splatterhouse. Leaving Now Production in 1994 to form his own company Music Worx (a subcontractor for game sound) did little to slow his output during that decade.
In some ways, his Final Soldier soundtrack resembles the game it accompanies, in that it doesn’t innovate in any particular way. Instead, the music focuses on doing what it does really, really well – in fact, much better than the vast majority of similarly styled shoot’em up scores of the era, making this the most substantial score in the entire Star Soldier franchise. The genre inspirations for Final Soldier are obvious – melodic metal, sprinkled with a fair share of pop influences, as well as power metal tendencies (galloping drums and anthemic leads).
So far, so common for early 1990s Japanese shoot’em up scores – but Final Soldier exceeds in two areas. Maekawa’s optimistic, energetic melodies strike the perfect balance between repetition and variety – riding their hooks long enough to make their full impact, while always moving along to the next well-developed tune before the music starts belabouring the point. And these dynamic melodies are all over the Final Soldier soundtrack, keeping the cues on point and pumping them full of substance, despite the tracks’ relatively short running time.
The other secret to the success of the Final Soldier soundtrack is the stellar drumming. Like very few other game composers, Maekawa manages to write synthesised drum tracks that actually sound like a (very talented) human drummer, chock full of creative ad-lib fills and rolls, playing around the beat rather than merely keeping it. In fact, on many cues the drums are effectively the second lead instrument. Together with the vigorous melodies, they turn these cues into full-blown synth metal tracks that happen to be performed on the PC Engine sound hardware (which rarely sounded better than it does here).
If the above points – the melodies and drumming – don’t seem like that much of a big deal, listen to the Star Soldier franchise’s next instalment Soldier Blade. Written in the same style, that soundtrack relies on solid but more repetitive melodies, the rhythms efficient yet more perfunctory. The result is a good score, but undoubtedly a step down from the Final Soldier soundtrack.
And while Maekawa’s approach is generally fairly straightforward – quickly set up high-energy rhythms to back buoyant melodies – he also creates a predictable, but compelling album arc, courtesy of assured changes to the formula. “Taking Off” bursts out of the gate with galloping drums and sing-along leads that quickly establish the music’s 80s pop-metal credentials. A more significant role for steely bass on “Sole Warrior” adds tension and focus to the music, while the bright synth melodies remain joyful and empowering. Staccato elements imbue “Progression” with added drama, helping its upbeat groove to push the proud melodies forward.
From here on, things get increasingly intense. On “Sky High”, melodies and rhythms are more harried and rushing than before, without forsaking the music’s tuneful nature. “Infinity” is the Final Soldier soundtrack’s most extended composition and also its richest, best-developed cue – if you need proof of Maekawa’s outstanding drum programming, head straight here. Particularly exciting is the cue’s B section, with a mechanical bassline powering a thin, precariously placed melody. And while “Into the Core” takes things a step too far by forsaking the music’s usual rhythmic variety and melodic abundance, the preceding level track “Turn On” satisfyingly caps off the score’s careful tightening of the screws. Melodies are now surprisingly dissonant and ghostly, at times rising perilously before nosediving right after having reached their peak. A brief note-shredding passage just before the loop cleverly harnesses all the tension Maekawa has built up so far.
After all this, “Dead or Alive” and “Caravan Stars” (music for the game’s two time-attack modes) don’t add anything new but maintain the score’s nearly consistent level of excellence. Ultimately, the Final Soldier soundtrack doesn’t just register as the Star Soldier franchise’s best score, but also emerges as one of its era’s finest shoot’em up scores – a melodic gem bolstered by virtuoso performances.
- 01 - Taking Off (Stage 1) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:56
- 02 - Sole Warrior (Stage 2) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:36
- 03 - Progression (Stage 3) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:40
- 04 - Sky High (Stage 4) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:24
- 05 - Infinity (Stage 5) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:58
- 06 - Turn On (Stage 6) Maekawa, Masakatsu 2:24
- 07 - Dead Or Alive (2 Minute Game) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:50
- 08 - Caravan Stars (5 Minute Game) Maekawa, Masakatsu 1:36