Monster Max Soundtrack, David Wise, 1994
Sometimes the universe (or at least video game publishers) work in mysterious ways. On paper, Monster Max should have been a success – not a million-seller (few isometric action adventures on the Game Boy were), but still a game that would deliver respectable sales figures. Its pedigree was impeccable – a collaboration between Rare and the duo of Jon Ritman and Bernie Drummond. Both parties had created genre classics in the 1980s – Rare with Knight Lore, Alien 8 and Nightshade, while Ritman and Drummond (inspired by Knight Lore) were the men behind Batman and Head Over Heels. Ritman had just finished work on a development system Rare used for many of their games, and he decided to start work on a Game Boy title.
Upon “release” in late 1994, Monster Max then went on to garner outstanding reviews from critics, setting itself up for success as the Christmas season was approaching (Rare’s other contender for that period was of course Donkey Kong Country). However, there’s a reason for the quotation marks around ‘release’. While publisher Titus officially released the game in 1994, it only produced copies that would hit store shelves a full ten months later, effectively burying the game it was distributing for no discernible reason. By mid-1995, everybody’s attention had naturally moved on to the new 32-bit platforms, and Monster Max was largely forgotten – although its quality ensured it retained a dedicated if small following.
Just as Rare was about to expand its sound team beyond the talents of David Wise, he delivered his final chiptune classic with the Monster Max soundtrack. The creative process seems to have been fairly straightforward. Asked how Ritman collaborated with Wise, Ritman responded that “it was more or less a case of me phoning him and asking for music/sound effects and him sending it to me.” As with Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, the musical direction for the game had been set before a note of music was written. After all, this was a game about rock ‘n’ roll guitarist Max, who had to complete his training as a hero to topple the evil King Krond, who has banned all music on Monster Planet.
In other words, chiptune rock awaits – and this time, it’s the heavy kind, as opposed to the more swinging rock of Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll. The Game Boy’s crunchy sound lends itself well to this sort of stomping, riff-driven rock. What’s still surprising is how much heaviness Wise manages to induce into the Monster Max soundtrack, as he teases a fantastic amount of powerful rhythms out of the Game Boy’s sound chip. Throughout the score, he gets to indulge in the earthier rock tones of the NES Battletoads’ “Title Screen / Opening”, which that soundtrack largely dropped afterwards (and the Arcade Battletoads went for metal rather than hard rock).
Given the stylistic connections to other classics in his discography, it’s evident that Wise knows how to pull off this sort of music successfully. “Track 1” draws in listeners with its up-tempo rhythms and crashing chords. The electrifying cue also introduces Wise’s penchant for determined, anthemic melody leads that have a propulsive sing-along quality to them – what better music for an aspiring rock hero? And as one would hope, Wise’s tracks play like rock instrumentals that seamlessly flow from one section to the next.
The Game Boy’s sound limitations pose some challenges when working with a particular musical approach, as Wise does here. However, his talents allow him to write a wealth of material that’s sufficiently varied (not to mention vigorous) to overcome this potential hindrance. “Track 2” is at least initially more groove-based and lighter, as it eases gamers into a title whose difficulty can be immensely challenging (it’s a Rare game, after all). “Track 3” is more focused, all plodding rhythms, stripped-back melodies and memorable riffs that exude raw energy.
Wise’s expert use of the noise channel is another strong point of the Monster Max soundtrack, creating convincing ad-lib drum fills and licks that give the music an energising spontaneity. And on “Track 4”, Wise contrasts an insisting bass pulse with a high-pitched melody line that floats above the chugging rhythms and their marching stride. The cue’s contrasting timbres successfully spotlight just how memorable (and just a bit pop-inspired) Wise’s memorable, proud melody lead is.
Thundering hard rock often enough has a grim gravitas. As a result, the Monster Max soundtrack never sells the conflict between Max and King Krong as anything less than an epic (if grooving) battle. “Track 5” brings these more ominous ambiences to the fore with swelling bass notes and a sinister chromatic melody, wrapped in cleverly implemented echo effects that give the music a foreboding scale. Once again, Wise uses this sombre start as an opportunity to play with tonal contrasts – the melody that now enters is the soundtrack’s most grandstanding, almost triumphant moment. Focused squarely on the bass register, “Track 6” ups the ante further with the soundtrack’s most driving rhythms and heaviest riffing. The cue successfully creates a massive sound that is relentless and yet melodic, bringing the atmosphere built up throughout the soundtrack to a head.
If anything, “Track 7” is even more intense, adding urgent arpeggios and almost industrial rhythms. This mix turns denser still with melodies that are now intricately layered, maintaining the soundtrack’s strident yet catchy nature. After all that, “Track 8” feels like little more than an uplifting, head-bopping ditty – but it’s a welcome bit of sunshine after what has been an intense but rewarding trek through the halls of the Mega Hero Academy and its myriad challenges.
- 01 - Track 1 Wise, David 1:38
- 02 - Track 2 Wise, David 2:37
- 03 - Track 3 Wise, David 3:27
- 04 - Track 4 Wise, David 2:11
- 05 - Track 5 Wise, David 2:35
- 06 - Track 6 Wise, David 1:46
- 07 - Track 7 Wise, David 2:30
- 08 - Track 8 Wise, David 0:46
Ostra Diemgi says
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Ottifanten: Baby Brunos Nightmare. It’s another isometric platformer on the GB with an interesting soundtrack, that nobody knows.
Similarly, Altered Space also got a neat soundtrack by Geoff Follin.
Simon Elchlepp says
Funny you should mention Ottifanten: Baby Bruno’s Nightmare – yes, I listened to that one a while ago and really enjoyed it (like so many of Alberto José Gonzalez’s works – will need to do a review focus on him one day, and of course one for the Follin brothers).
I understand why no one knows about the game – the Ottifanten were really only ever popular in Germany for a few years, so I was actually surprised that the game got a release in other countries. Also, if you haven’t listened to it yet, try Ottifanten: Kommando Stortebeker for the Game Boy Color. There might be no other game that pushes the Game Boy’s sound chip as hard as this one.
Ostra Diemgi says
Ofcourse I know Stello Doussis’ legendary soundtrack. A lot of Europeans were doing impressive work on the GBC. Allister Brimble (and others) got pulse width modulation working on the wavetable and Gonzalez’ Turok: Rage Wars really abuses the wavetable. One of the most impressive features I’ve noticed in Doussis tunes, is that he managed to do a fade out on the wavetable, despite that channel only having four volume settings.
But the most impressive thing to me is still Manabu Namiki’s Doki Doki Sasete.
Simon Elchlepp says
You clearly know your chiptune music (potentially more than I do!) There was an article in Retro Gamer not long about about how the GBC was the last platform that allowed developers to continue the tradition of the demo scene – to enter into a friendly competition about who could push the (limited) hardware hardest. And I guess that seeped into the music as well, which is why we got the kind of amazing scores that you mention.
I must admit I hadn’t heard of Doki Doki Sasete before – gave it a quick listen today and indeed, what an amazingly rich score, thanks for this! Listening to the opening track, I couldn’t help thinking of the NES Silver Surfer soundtrack and how both scores manages to make their few chiptune channels sound as if a whole band is performing. Interesting also to hear how different composers used their talents in different ways: while Stello Doussis writes these wild, proggy chiptune epics, Manabu Namiki uses the same tools (and expertise) to create catchy pop tunes.