Gauntlet IV Soundtrack, Masaharu Iwata / Hitoshi Sakimoto, 1993
In an industry dominated so much by spin, it is refreshing to see a corporate history description as honest as developer M2’s: “Gathered a bunch of friends who used to play Gauntlet together at the arcades and ported it to PC (X68000) for fun. Presented it to TENGEN/ATARI GAMES, who then sold it for the MegaDrive title after some back and forth.” It’s a perfectly succinct description of how Gauntlet IV came about – although it is worth pointing out that at least the game’s title was a clever bit of marketing. Technically, Gauntlet IV was a significantly enhanced port of the original Gauntlet, adding three new gameplay modes. However, naming the game after an eight-year-old title that had already been ported many times to other platforms probably didn’t look like a promising strategy. So, a roman numerical was added, and Gauntlet IV was instead sold as a sequel.
Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata were drafted to create the Gauntlet IV soundtrack – specifically, the music for the game’s new modes. The way Gauntlet IV came about might have reminded Sakimoto and Iwata of how they got their own start in the video game industry a few years prior – through passion projects organised between friends. After kicking off their career in the Japanese home computer scene, Sakimoto and Iwata started to move into the console market, focusing on the Sega Genesis. That was no surprise, given that Genesis soundtracks – like scores for PC-88/98 and the Sharp X68000 games – relied on FM synthesis, which meant the duo could keep using Sakimoto’s “Terpsichorean” sound driver.
Another change that Sakimoto and Iwata’s music had undergone was a burgeoning interest in orchestral music – a style that would soon become their calling card. Another project that the duo undertook in 1993 was the score for Ogre Battle – their first entirely (synth)orchestral score. Let’s also not forget that Sakimoto arranged Alan Silvestri’s music for Super Back to the Future Part II in 1993. However, pulling off a high-fantasy score on a platform like the Sega Genesis was significantly more challenging than on the SNES – making FM synthesis resemble orchestral instruments took a particular kind of technical and compositional wizardry.
Thankfully, Sakimoto and Iwata possess exactly that particular set of skills. However, they don’t turn the Gauntlet IV soundtrack into a purely orchestral affair in the melody-focused, late-romantic style that so many fantasy scores rely on. Instead, Gauntlet IV is a fascinating mix of classical and experimental fantasy scoring – an approach that would find its pinnacle within Sakimoto’s oeuvre with Vagrant Story, which Gauntlet IV already foreshadows.
That’s not to say that the Gauntlet IV soundtrack doesn’t pull off traditional fantasy bombast really well – it does, possibly better than any other Sega Genesis score. “Sortie” quickly explodes into one of the console’s most heroic brass melodies, bursting at the seams with exuberant energy and sounding fantastically punchy and towering. The cue’s B section consists of a more serious episode with complex layers of contemporary rhythms, before the composition returns to the unbridled swagger of its opening. “Retribution” is an equally imposing fantasy epic that moves organically from a forbidding opening into a triumphant brass climax. Like on “Sortie”, the composers contrast such ebullience with a B section that introduces a markedly different mood, here via a surprisingly lyrical passage full of lush arpeggios and silvery leads. In the artists’ assured hands, the result isn’t disjointed but instead dramatic and rich in varied moods.
As impressive as these compositions are, the Gauntlet IV soundtrack intrigues most on other cues. “Transparent Obstacle” is reminiscent of earlier works by Sakimoto and Iwata like Starship Rendevous, that combined electronic, prog and pop/rock elements. A chromatic, glockenspiel-like ostinato line evokes a mysterious, vast open space, while eerie glissandi fade in and out of sight, like black holes opening and closing. The contrast between these sound effects and the glockenspiel creates a potent feeling of cosmic terror – before the music settles into a more reassuring rock drum beat and insistent synth riff. Befitting for a composition of such scale and ambition, Sakimoto and Iwata then unroll the soundtrack’s best developed, most long-winded melody. It’s a bold synth solo whose neo-classical underpinnings tie the music in spirit (if not in sound) back in with the traditional fantasy template. Coming together seamlessly, all these elements make “Transparent Obstacle” one of the most original compositions for the Genesis.
While “Transparent Obstacle” is the most individualistic composition on the Gauntlet IV soundtrack, “Adventures of Iron” is the score’s most derivative cue – although that’s not an entirely bad thing, as it turns out. Effectively, “Adventures of Iron” sounds very much like Sakimoto and Iwata’s fantasy take on Brad Fiedel’s famous Terminator theme. Of course, the two composers don’t adapt any of Fiedel’s material. Still, the way their anthemic, 80s-synth rock-inspired lead holds its own against roiling percussion is quite unmistakable (although said percussion is less harsh than on Fiedel’s work and has an intriguing, wooden sound to it, as well as subtle polyrhythms). The synth lead that Sakimoto and Iwata deploy here feels significantly more futuristic than on, say, “Sortie” – a demonstration of the composers’ care in crafting the sounds they use and their ambition to jump between and blend genres.
Elsewhere on the Gauntlet IV soundtrack, the composers stray further still from traditional fantasy scoring tropes. “Whisper of Phantom”, with its uneven synth pulse, spectral drones and sparse percussion, would be right at home in a horror game. The music feels unmoving – the darkness is inescapable, but the composers write this kind of primarily ambient music in a way that holds listeners’ attention. They offer some hope and warmth through a brief woodwind motif that doesn’t banish the evil spirits, though, as it remains harmonically and thus emotionally unresolved. “Crux” ends the score on a note of jittery anxiety, with its curious, fluttering woodwind lead set in an all-consuming void against a spooky mix of synth drones and wooden, ritualistic percussion. Such genre-atypical compositions only add to the score’s character as a fascinating, dark fantasy score that both plays by the rules and breaks them.
- 01 - Whisper of Phantom Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 4:26
- 02 - March in the Dark Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 2:40
- 03 - Sortie Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 3:28
- 04 - Transparent Obstacle Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 5:13
- 05 - Adventures of Iron Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 4:52
- 06 - Retribution Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 3:37
- 07 - Crux Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 1:48