MUSHA Soundtrack, Toshiaki Sakoda, 1990
It’s safe to say that Compile’s well-regarded Aleste series reached its pinnacle with 1990’s MUSHA for the Sega Genesis. It ranks as one of the 16-bit era’s best shooters, with lightning-fast gameplay, an immensely challenging difficulty level and some of the most breathtaking visuals ever seen on the Genesis – all the more impressive considering that MUSHA was a first-generation title. What really helped to set the game apart was its visual style. Feeling that MUSHA had to differ significantly from its franchise predecessors, the developers came up with an unusual mix of sci-fi tropes and traditional Japanese lore. As a result, your flying mecha shoots super-charged electric shurikens while facing off against enemies like robotic ninjas and Japanese castles on tank treads.
Another one of MUSHA’s virtues fondly recalled by many gamers is its superlative soundtrack, delivered by Toshiaki Sakoda. Sakoda had worked on previous Compile titles such as Aleste 2 and the first two instalments of the Crush Pinball series. On this occasion, the music formed a more critical part of the game’s stylistic foundations than usually. In fact, art director Kazuyuki Nakashima used the phrase “Edo Metal” to pitch the game’s concept to Compile’s leadership. According to Nakashima, the developers soon settled on a “speedy heavy metal sound that would match the fast scrolling and would play from the start of the opening demo non-stop without interruption”.
As a fan of Van Halen and Michael Schenker – but also Beethoven – Sakoda happily obliged in this quest to overwhelm gamers’ senses. Setting his sights high, Sakoda aimed to achieve something he felt hadn’t been done before: the world’s first heavy metal game soundtrack – or in his words, a “heavy metal suite” that could stand on its own outside of the game as a unified piece of work. Working within the confines of Genesis FM synthesis posed obvious challenges, but Sakoda met them head-on. He spent a month creating his FM guitar sound and via trial and error identified ways to give the synthesised instruments the feel of being played by humans, such as “a modulation envelope to evoke the feel of a human arm strumming”. Company leadership’s attempts to add traditional Japanese instrument sounds to the soundtrack were met with Sakoda’s determined resistance.
Given the results, it’s impossible to disagree with his choice to keep the MUSHA soundtrack a pure-breed metal beast. Sakoda aimed to create “heavy, dangerous songs that left an impact on you” and he succeeds with flying colours, writing some of the most ferocious compositions in all of game music. As foreshadowed by Nakashima, Sakoda adopts speed-metal tempi for much of his work here. Still, he often mixes it with the melodicism and neo-classical leanings of artists like Van Halen and Iron Maiden (something that came naturally to Sakoda as a classically trained guitarist). The resulting mix lands MUSHA firmly in power metal territory – and while it’s up for debate whether MUSHA was indeed the first heavy metal game score, it is most definitely one of the very best.
Sakoda’s fondness for metal’s potential to super-charge the on-screen action was already on display in Aleste 2 and Devil’s Crush. The problem was that Aleste 2’s metal-flavoured boss tracks suffered from thin material (and some really monotonous rhythms), while Devil’s Crush featured one of the most excellent compositions to grace the TurboGrafx – but unfortunately not much else. The MUSHA soundtrack is a much better-developed example of Sakoda’s vision for a metal game score. Indeed, his work feels like a fully-fledged, first-rate power metal album that happens to be played through FM synthesis.
Most shooters begin proceedings on an upbeat, empowering note with their first stage theme. However, Sakoda chooses to let the music engulf gamers right away via the blazing intensity of “Fullmetal Fighter”. Speed metal-style drumming and genre-typical staccato 32-note riffing set pulses racing right from the start, and things get only more hair-raisingly full-on when Sakoda layers dissonant, sometimes downright manic leads on top of this fiery foundation. And just as the music reaches peak intensity, Sakoda unleashes his heroic B section, with a comparatively simple, immediately stirring lead melody that most countries would be happy to adopt as their national anthem. It’s textbook power metal, executed to a level of excellence previously unseen in video game music.
Other tracks repeat this mix of note-shredding leads and more melody-driven B sections, which harness the music’s rocket-like propulsion and take it through the stratosphere. “Armed Armor” goes further still, with one of the soundtrack’s most virtuoso guitar soli topping off the chorus, soaring above the constantly hammering rhythm guitars. Final stage track “Aggressive Attack” manages to take things a notch higher still. The galloping drumming and syncopated rhythm guitar accents make this a head-spinningly breathless flight, while the rousing melody leads now must struggle to be heard over the rhythm section’s onslaught. That is, until Sakoda unleashes the soundtrack’s most expansive melody – creating the perfect mix between a merciless assault on the senses and melodic redemption.
Of course, Sakoda is more than able to vary his approach throughout the MUSHA soundtrack. Other level tracks like “Galvanic Gear” and “Divine Devise” adopt slower, stomping tempi and a more atmospheric approach in their melodies to contrast with the score’s high-energy aesthetic. “Galvanic Gear” is a perfect example of how much more varied Sakoda’s drum work is than in earlier genre exercises like Aleste 2. Meanwhile, “Divine Devise” showcases the composer’s virtuoso handling of the Genesis’ sound chip during the revving-up guitar effects just before the loop.
Boss battle tracks equally evince creativity. On one end of the spectrum is “Stratospheric Struggle”, which must be one of the blindingly fast game music pieces ever penned, opening with an astonishing bass line that sets the tone for this blistering cue. On the other end of the spectrum, we find “Phase of the Phantom”. It cranks up the tension not by breaking speed records, but instead through its thick atmosphere of dread, courtesy of industrial undertones, liberal use of dissonances and extreme, disorienting changes in timbres, from a high-pitched, nervous lead to a buzzing bass oscillation.
Commensurate with the astounding complexity of the MUSHA soundtrack’s arrangements, Sakoda never turns the music into a blunt object of sheer force. Instead, he injects even the score’s most forceful moments with intriguing details – take the squalling rhythm guitars on “Stratospheric Struggle” that subtly but effectively provide counter-rhythms to the relentless melody leads and drums. In fact, Sakoda consistently uses his rhythm guitars not just to power the music along, but also to make it more complex still through additional melodic counterpoint and polyrhythms.
The best example of this approach is “Noh Specter” – the soundtrack’s longest track and the one where the sheer density of Sakoda’s writing approaches prog metal territory. Melody leads change every few seconds as Sakoda puts together a breathtakingly dramatic track that climaxes in a glorious over-the-top finale as two harmonising guitars shred through some of the fastest arpeggios the Genesis’ sound chip allows for. It’s one of the countless occasions on which the MUSHA soundtrack proudly showcases the precise, powerful guitar tone Sakoda has achieved through his hard work. Significantly less warm and earthy than the SNES’ guitar tone (see Mystic Ark’s “Hey! Don’t Attack Me!” for a handy comparison), MUSHA’s guitars are harsher and more brittle. While this wouldn’t work for any guitar-driven rock style, it perfectly suits the aggression of an 80s power/speed metal score like MUSHA. Chiptunes metal probably never got better than this.
- 01 - Theme of MUSHA Aleste (Opening) Sakoda, Toshiaki 2:37
- 02 - Fullmetal Fighter (Round 1) Sakoda, Toshiaki 2:34
- 03 - Galvanic Gear (Round 2) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:04
- 04 - Phase of the Phantom (Round 2 Boss) Sakoda, Toshiaki 0:59
- 05 - Armed Armor (Round 3) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:11
- 06 - Divine Devise (Round 4) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:10
- 07 - Stratospheric Struggle (Round 4, 5, 6 Boss) Sakoda, Toshiaki 1:57
- 08 - Noh Specter (Round 5) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:58
- 09 - Offensive Overdrive (Round 6) Sakoda, Toshiaki 1:41
- 10 - Aggressive Attack (Round 7) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:26
- 11 - Alpha Wave (Ending) Sakoda, Toshiaki 1:29
- 12 - For The Love of... (Ending) Sakoda, Toshiaki 3:22