Terminator 2: Judgment Day Soundtrack (NES), Geoff Follin, 1992
If you take a closer look at the history of movies and their video game adaptations, James Cameron’s 1991 Terminator 2: Judgment Day emerges as a watershed moment. At the time of its release, T2 became one of the highest-grossing movies of all time worldwide. Its futuristic, action-packed plot and revolutionary visuals made T2 an obvious candidate for a video game adaptation. What’s more, the film was released at a time when the home video game market had diversified and matured, to the point where it could support two console generations simultaneously. The result was a glut of T2-related games, followed soon by numerous titles based on The Terminator. The creators of Terminator 2: Judgment Day were certainly aware of video games’ commercial potential. After all, the film’s end credits finished with a message reading “Play the hit Nintendo game from Acclaim/LJN Entertainment.”
In the end, that game took nearly seven months to arrive, hitting the NES in 1992, with conversions to the Master System and Game Gear to follow. Coming from LJN, few contemporary reviewers were surprised to find the game a frustrating, at best middling affair – although the developers at Software Creations had at least made an effort to follow the film’s story line closely. Where the game really shone was with its soundtrack, penned by Geoff Follin on one of the few occasions where he didn’t share scoring duties with his brother Tim.
Geoff is on record saying that – despite sporting one of the most impressive discographies of any NES composer – his “heart was never really into it.” You certainly couldn’t tell from listening to the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack. This is a score that turns out to be one of the most daring and experimental works written for the NES. There’s a resemblance to David Wise’s later Battletoads soundtrack, in that both composers undermine chiptunes action scoring conventions. But while Wise twists these tropes into something new yet recognisable, Geoff almost entirely throws them out of the window. Neither score is meant to simply motivate gamers and fire them up for battle. However, T2 goes a few steps further and aims to creep out and unsettle listeners – ultimately convincing them that the struggle for the future is lost.
“Title Screen” is the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack’s most conventional composition, but it already plants the seeds for the score’s dystopian mood that will be fully realised later. The usual technical wizardry expected from a Follin score is obvious in the track’s powerfully stomping drums, a fantastically grooving, elastic bass line and lushly cascading arpeggios that subtly hint at melodies amidst the torrent of notes. Despite the obvious absence of stereo effects on the NES, Geoff manages to create a vibrant, three-dimensional soundscape. He uses brilliant echo effects on the arpeggios and cleverly deploys the sound chip’s volume settings to move musical elements towards and away from the listener.
It’s the kind of maximalism you would expect from a Follin score, but the mood is foreboding with frequent breakdowns that bring back the opening’s ominously pounding drums. What’s more disconcerting still is a mid-section for buzzing sounds that crawl like mad ants, moving the music into horror scoring territory.
Things only get bleaker from there, but in spectacular fashion. The Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack’s level themes are astounding compositions. They all clock in at more than six minutes, with a fascinating minimalist bent that feels like the opposite of the usual sonic onslaught heard on a Follin brothers score. Make no mistake though, all the musical elements Geoff uses are as meticulously shaped and fuzzed over as the NES’ limited sound technology could possibly for.
“Level 1: Truck Stop” maintains some action scoring conventions, with at times almost upbeat rhythms. But ultimately, Geoff seems entirely disinterested in underscoring the onscreen action, instead creating abstract soundscapes that operate entirely on their own terms. “Level 1: Truck Stop” slowly builds from a gloomy melody riff and masterful variations of a particular arpeggio figure. Then the cue suddenly breaks down at 1:35, shifting into what feels like a whole new track full of metallic clanging and upward-rising arpeggios that end on impossibly high, chromatic intervals – unnerving listeners just before they disappear into the circuitry of a malevolent super computer.
Here and on other level themes, Geoff showcases his impressive control of the music’s complex structure and emotional pull – no matter how cerebral the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack might get, it never ceases to fascinate. On “Level 2 & 4: Drainage Canal / Cyberdyne”, Geoff further cements his innovative use of arpeggios – deployed not so much to generate a full sound, but instead to unsettle through smart timbre manipulations. “Level 2 & 4: Drainage Canal / Cyberdyne” relies on nervous arpeggios rushing through their highest registers as if squeezed to death, mixed with whining, high-pitched drones. Geoff contrasts this emotionally raw material with robust rock drums for maximum contrast and in numerous constellations, again mixing action and atmospheric scoring in ways previously unheard on the NES.
“Level 3: Pescadero State” continues in a similar vein, tightening the screws further by cranking up the music’s twisted creepiness – truly fitting for a level set in a mental asylum. It’s “Level 5: Steel Mill / Ending” though that turns out to be the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack’s masterstroke. Opening with noise channel washes, siren sounds and ominous mechanical pumping, the composition is a masterful sound collage, relying almost entirely on alien timbres – on sound hardware that really wasn’t built for that sort of thing.
Geoff breaks all the rules of action game music here – at one point, the music entirely collapses into twenty seconds of nothing but churning noise. Later, the track gets stuck on a far distant arpeggio motif that has left earth’s orbit and maniacally circles around itself, lost in the darkness. There’s hardly any melody to speak of here or rhythmic gratification – this is indeed machine music, almost entirely devoid of warmth or elements that feel human. And yet it’s utterly gripping, a work of baffling brilliance that has few peers on chiptunes consoles. “Level 5: Steel Mill / Ending” hammers home the point that the Terminator 2: Judgment Day soundtrack is far more than a simple platformer score. It’s the vision of a desolate future where humanity’s survival hangs on by an ever-thinning thread, until it finally snaps.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the game rip.
- 01 - Title Screen Follin, Geoff 2:50
- 02 - Level 1: Truck Stop Follin, Geoff 6:46
- 03 - Levels 2 & 4: Drainage Canal / Cyberdyne Follin, Geoff 6:29
- 04 - Level 3: Pescadero State Follin, Geoff 7:28
- 04 - Level 5: Steel Mill / Ending Follin, Geoff 6:42