The Last Ninja Soundtrack (C64), Ben Daglish / Anthony Lees, 1987
The Commodore 64 is home to more than a few legendary titles, and The Last Ninja is no doubt part of that select group. However, its development turned out to be an unexpectedly protracted affair after the initial group of developers – Budapest’s SoftView – could not make progress on the project. System 3’s Mark Cale took the code back to London, with the game’s engine rewritten for the C64 by John Twiddy. Cale’s vision for the project was an ambitious one. He envisaged an isometric ninja adventure that would create a far more expansive world for gamers to explore than what your regular C64 game accomplished. Blending exploration, adventure elements and arcade-style combat, The Last Ninja struck a chord with both critics and the masses, going on to sell about four million copies (according to Cale) and kicking off a massively successful franchise.
Like the game itself, The Last Ninja soundtrack has become the stuff of legend, again excelling on a platform that had no shortage of outstanding music. Scoring duties fell to the duo of Ben Daglish and Anthony Lees. Daglish had already built a sizeable portfolio of 8-bit computer soundtracks and was well on his way to becoming one of the most heralded game composers of the decade. Lees’ involvement was more of a surprise. He had entered a competition (run as an April Fool’s Day joke) by ZZAP! 64 magazine and his winning composition drew the attention of Cale. Lees later wrote music for Last Ninja 2, but his score was rejected as the developers found it didn’t suit the game’s style. Many of the 16-bit computer games Lees would later write for unfortunately remained unpublished before retiring from the game music scene.
A C64 score with composers sharing the workload was pretty uncommon – but then again, The Last Ninja soundtrack was hardly your average 1987 game score. Clocking in at around 50 minutes (without loops!), The Last Ninja was far more expansive than almost any other game score of its era. The running time resulted from the developers not just asking for a different tune for each level – they also requested a new composition for each level’s loading screen. What’s more, all three channels of the C64’s SID chip were dedicated to music playback, meaning that Daglish and Lees wouldn’t have to worry about sacrificing one channel for sound playback – a rare occurrence for a C64 game.
The developers’ willingness to provide their composers with such a prime opportunity to unleash their talents did not go unrewarded – although that statement comes with a qualifier. In short, Lees’ compositions are strong enough, but compared to Daglish’s masterpieces, they do fall a bit short. Lees’ melodic material relies more overtly on pentatonic clichés, while his rhythms are less flexible and sometimes border on monotonous. Similarly, while Lees does a decent job at shaping his lengthy compositions, there’s not the same sure-footed sense of development and sheer scale that Daglish imbues his tracks with. A good example is the strangely bouncy close of “Lower Level Loader” after the low-key moodiness that preceded it. Again, what Lee delivers is a reasonably impressive debut – but he’s in the unenviable situation of having to compete with what is some of the best 1980s game music ever written.
Indeed, from the first notes of “Wastelands Loader”, Daglish announces both his mastery of the SID chip and his sprawling artistic ambition. These ‘loader’ compositions were designed as scene setters, and Daglish makes the most of this opportunity, building an entire aural world within the confines of the technology available. Sweeping glissandi notes that zoom in and out of view create a mythical, suitably Eastern atmosphere without resorting to tired musical stereotypes. A series of serene melodies again pay homage to the game’s setting through their pentatonic, steady progressions and ritualistic nature, while a constant bass drone underlines the composition’s meditative undercurrent. It’s not all peaceful reverence though – pay attention to the first lead melody’s quirky upward swings at the end of each phrase.
The Last Ninja soundtrack continues such subtle, confident mood-building continues on “Wastelands In-Game”, which opens with only a brief pentatonic figure backed by heavy bass drones that are suitably foreboding. It takes the composition a little while to get going, but Daglish strikes gold when he introduces a dramatically rising and falling glissando melody that establishes an irresistible sense of otherworldly drama. Things get even better when Daglish harmonises this melody in chromatic progressions whose unearthly pull creates not just a powerfully melancholy mood but something even more rarefied. This is music that is alien yet grand, anchored by a melody whose sheer breadth and unusual tones carry listeners away into a mystical realm like some arcane tidal wave.
Other compositions have more pressing matters to address. “Wilderness In-Game” is the first outright action track on The Last Ninja soundtrack. Again Daglish’s work is more subtle than one might initially expect – that effectively agitated, almost panicking melody lead that opens the track cleverly develops into something more anthemic as the cue progresses. Then the music cranks up the tension a notch when its melodies turn grittier and more determined. At the same time, Daglish clads his torrent of notes in a fuzzy sound that oozes into every corner of the arrangement until the claustrophobia is tangible. “Dungeons Loader” is equally adept at delivering a constantly intense experience while still allowing the music to develop. Nowhere else on the score do rhythms and melodies battle each other so ferociously – particularly during the cue’s second half, when Daglish’s hyper-compressed, single-minded rhythms lock into each other with amazingly atmospheric precision.
It’s these tracks that showcase Daglish’s virtuoso handling of the C64 sound hardware most obviously – but even more impressive might be those of his compositions that combine such epic adrenaline rushes with “Wasteland Loaders”’s capacity for world-building. “Palace Gardens In-Game” dares to open with nothing but one minute of gong strikes and a skittish, high-pitched melody – and yet the cue never loses listeners’ interest. Of course, the track eventually mutates into The Last Ninja soundtrack’s densest piece, capped off with a note-shredding guitar solo. “Lower Level In-Game” is the soundtrack’s best marriage of frantic impulses and Cinemascope-sized scene-setting. Initially, pensive melodies are set against unusually heavy rhythms. Their calm determination sets the scene for the cue’s spectacular conclusion as frenzied arpeggios burst forth to lift escalating melodies as they spiral higher and higher – a moment of breathless perfection and flawless complexity that perfectly concludes a masterpiece.
- 01 - Wastelands Loader Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 5:01
- 02 - Wastelands In-Game Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 4:47
- 03 - Wilderness In-Game Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 4:16
- 04 - Palace Gardens In-Game Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 3:53
- 05 - Dungeon Loader Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 4:10
- 06 - Lower Levels In-Game Daglish, Ben / Lees, Anthony 4:20