Starship Rendezvous Soundtrack (PC-88), Masaharu Iwata / Hitoshi Sakimoto, 1989
At first glance, there is precious little setting Starship Rendezvous apart from the glut of doujin games released during the late 1980s and early 90s on Japanese home computer systems. The game’s laggy, basic top-down shooter gameplay is spread across only four levels. To make matters worse, gamers could only shoot one bullet at a time – and then had to wait for it to leave the screen. At least enemies would only notice players when they ended up in their direct line of view. Then again, none of this was really the point of the game – that would be the “boss” fights against female characters in various states of undress. Yes, it’s an adult game, and per (almost) usual, the gameplay is a mere afterthought.
Really, the only reason why Starship Rendezvous is still remembered decades after its release is that two of game music’s future stars wrote its score – Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata. This wasn’t the first game either composer had worked on – it wasn’t even their first collaboration (that would have been the promising, if scattershot Revolter). However, this was the duo’s first consistently excellent effort.
The younger of the two composers, Hitoshi Sakimoto had absorbed a multitude of musical influences by the time he reached his late teens. Artists who had inspired the young Sakimoto included Yellow Magic Orchestra, Chick Corea, Kraftwerk and early 70s prog-rock – but also video game artists such as Yuzo Koshiro and Miki Higashino. Iwata shared similar influences, and like Sakimoto, he was entirely self-taught, having played in bands during his school years. Looking to find work that combined his love of music and video games, Iwata joined developer Bothtec. After creating the scores for several of their games, Bothtec was merged into Quest Corporation, and Iwata left to become a freelance composer.
During his tenure at Bothtec, Iwata had been introduced to Sakimoto, and the two bonded, starting what is maybe game music’s greatest composer partnership. Their next game would be Revolter, which deployed Sakimoto’s “Terpsichorean” sound driver for the PC-88. A programmer as much as a composer during this time, Sakimoto had written a sound driver that created far richer FM synthesis than what was commonly heard in other games of the era. In fact, Sakimoto’s driver made such an impact that it was licensed and used in numerous Japanese games of the early 1990s. Iwata and Sakimoto were also enterprising enough to organise commercial distribution of their music themselves at this stage of their career, selling a cassette containing the scores for Revolter and Starship Rendezvous at Comiket 34.
It’s easy to see why the latter game brought both composers their first taste of industry recognition. The Starship Rendezvous soundtrack is a massively overachieving work, magnitudes more ambitious than the game it accompanies. Sakimoto and Iwata successfully combine synth-pop, prog and grinding industrial electronica – an unlikely yet wholly successful blend of accessibility and sonic experiments. Importantly, Starship Rendezvous already highlights the duo’s ability to surprise and subvert conventions – but also to write memorable, accessible melodies.
The latter attribute bookends the soundtrack, inviting listeners in and easing them out of what’s one of the most intense game scores of the decade. “Operation of Rendezvous” opens the score as an anthemic piece of synth-rock, not too dissimilar to many of the era’s Japanese shoot’em up scores, with their fondness for big singalong hooks and sturdy, riding rhythms. Iwata hits all those required notes, his harmonised leads giving the melodies enough staying power to whether their frequent repetitions. The sonic benefits of Sakimoto’s “Terpsichorean” sound driver are apparent already. Its lush sounds – and the pronounced differences between the cue’s A, B and C sections – give “Operation of Rendezvous” an impressive sense of sweep and sci-fi drama (again, more than the game’s narrative or visuals ever communicate).
The Starship Rendezvous soundtrack then focuses on melodies again towards its conclusion. Penultimate track “The Sunset for the America” is an astonishing accomplishment. Many other game scores of the era also chose to close with a pop ballad emulation. However, the composers (in this case, Iwata) again decide to go bigger than the competition. “The Sunset for the America” is a glistening confection of a synth ballad, stretched across more than seven minutes. Its crystalline textures reference the sheer otherworldliness that characterised the score’s mid-section and effortlessly transpose it into the realm of pop music. What ultimately makes the track so captivating is the haunting wistfulness that runs through its melodies, creating a potent contrast to the track’s sugary, glossy surface and giving the music its calmly grandiose feel.
“Don’t Forget Your Wonderful Memory” is less ambitious and introspective. Instead, Sakimoto’s composition returns to “Operation of Rendezvous”‘s upbeat mood and turns it brighter still with bouncy rhythms and celebratory melodies that hit harder still after a patient 40-second intro that expertly builds expectations. Sakimoto and Iwata’s later work is often regarded as cerebral rather than accessible or emotionally affecting. However, “The Sunset for the America” and “Don’t Forget Your Wonderful Memory” show that both artists are also canny pop-craftsmen that at times are happy to simply let their melodies carry uncluttered compositions.
Between these melody-heavy cues, the Starship Rendezvous soundtrack packs far more demanding but just as entertaining material that truly turns this score into a satisfyingly challenging sci-fi epic. Sakimoto’s “The Art of Noise” is appropriately titled, hammering along like a chaotic machine about to spin out of control, with pistons pumping in slippery polyrhythmic patterns and an aggressive synth line that feels like a rougher take on Kraftwork’s trademark stiff rhythms. Interestingly, while the cue never produces fully developed tunes, its use of melody fragments – a Sakimoto trademark – adds a moving touch of sorrow. “Madness & Its Synergistic Effect” is an equally heady piece of electronica, marrying prog and pop elements and turning them alienating and abstract, thanks to their harsh, mechanised surroundings. Sakimoto once again plays with melodic progressions, hinting at a heroic tune that is abruptly cut short when the composition stumbles into a tangle of syncopated rhythms.
Iwata is equally adventurous in his compositions, steeped in biting dissonances. “Maze Trap!” layers three different metres on top of each other during its dizzyingly dense, chaotic opening. A surging major-key melody is again cut short by gnawing, acidic motifs before the melody lead contorts itself into unpredictable, head-spinning progressions. While such a combination of elements makes “Maze Trap!” the perfect summation of the Starship Rendezvous soundtrack’s unconventional approach, “Work of Digging into Manhole” might be the score’s most daring piece. Kicking off in almost Gothic horror-style, the cue is a fascinating exercise in minimalism. Its six-minute run time is sustained by nothing but a sparse, chilling synth melody, faint and ghostly countermelodies, bell strikes, and a hypnotic bass line. “Work of Digging into Manhole” is yet another experiment that the composers pull off with astonishing ease and skill – marking the arrival of two major new talents on the scene.
- 01 - Operation of Rendezvous Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 4:12
- 02 - The Art of Noise Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 1:37
- 03 - Madness & Its Synergistic Effect Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 3:58
- 04 - Work of Digging into Manhole Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 6:04
- 05 - Maze Trap! Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 5:23
- 06 - Exploding Bass Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 5:17
- 07 - The Outsider Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 4:33
- 08 - Sunset for the America Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 7:26
- 09 - Don't Forget Your Wonderful Dream Iwata, Masaharu / Sakimoto, Hitoshi 4:08