Top Gear 2 Soundtrack (Amiga), Patrick Phelan, 1994
At least in its SNES incarnation, the Top Gear franchise remains quite fondly remembered to this day. However, looking at contemporary reviews, it’s obvious that the series has always proved somewhat divisive. More than a few critics pointed out that the Top Gear games presented a no-frills, arcade-style approach to racing that produced solid, but not necessarily spectacular results. The fact that developer Gremlin Graphics (later Gremlin Interactive) used the Top Gear games to effectively regurgitate its own Lotus titles only amplified the feeling of ‘been there, done that’. That being said, Top Gear 2 remains the franchise’s best-regarded entry – while it played like a mere expansion pack of its predecessor, it made enough tweaks to improve upon Top Gear.
That was on the SNES though. Once Top Gear 2 reached the Amiga in 1994, reviewers were decidedly less pleased with the game, highlighting its lack of innovation and the fact that it didn’t meet the standards set by the Lotus games a few years earlier. The one area in which the Amiga port ultimately did excel was its soundtrack, matched within the Top Gear franchise only by Barry Leitch’s Top Gear Rally. After Leitch had set the musical foundations for the Top Gear and Lotus franchises, Patrick Phelan had taken over composing duties on both series, further developing their electronica-heavy scores and mixing in contemporary mid-90s influences.
It’s true that both the Lotus and Top Gear series have generated lots of fond memories amongst vintage game music fans due to some standout compositions. However, what’s intriguing is that before Top Gear 2, none of these games actually managed to put together a consistently strong soundtrack experience (take Lotus Turbo Challenge 2, which outside of its wonderful intro and ending cues only consists of short course themes that don’t achieve much). Phelan’s Top Gear 2 soundtrack (on the Amiga) is the series’ first score that satisfies all the way through – yes, it’s only three tracks long, but each composition hits the mark.
Again, things aren’t all that straightforward though if you look at the various versions of this score. Top Gear 2 originated in 1993 on the SNES, so one might assume that this soundtrack is the one to go for. But while the SNES score (like the Genesis port) features five rather than three tracks, it is actually the weakest link in the chain. Its tone is significantly thinner than what the Genesis and Amiga muster and has nowhere near the impact of those versions. It tries to overcome this caveat through significantly faster tempi, but ultimately only feels rushed and fairly insubstantial.
The Genesis port fares better – it can’t match the power of the Amiga samples, but offers some intriguing alternative perspectives on the same melodic material. Where the Amiga version mostly succeeds based on its anthemic melody declamations, on the Genesis the same tunes are heard on rubbery synth notes that fade into each other, creating more complex textures.
While the Lotus and Top Gear scores were products of their time, they incorporated more than just 90s electronica. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the Top Gear 2 soundtrack’s “Burn Rubber” (“Canterbury Plains” on the console versions). There’s no shortage of memorable melodies in the Lotus and Top Gear games and Phelan delivers one these franchises’ best tunes: a triumphant, 80s-inspired melody line backed by proud synth fanfares that’s ready to get the crowd at a sold-out stadium concert roaring. The elastic, forceful bass gives the catchy composition a contemporary edge before the melody segues nicely into a note-shredding solo that’s as enthusiastic as the rest of the music, while kicking the cue into a higher gear. The interaction between melody and chordal accompaniment (those fanfares) is a bit more complex than one might expect, underpinning this perfectly-written power anthem with some welcome substance.
The melodies on “Destructive Comment” (“Ayers Rock” elsewhere) are as enduring as on “Burn Rubber”, but here the Top Gear 2 soundtrack get a bit more adventurous. Initially, “Destructive Comment” rocks harder than what’s come before – its stomping drums and driving rock bass again show how Phelan pushes the Amiga to its limits on this score. But then the cue introduces a floaty synth pad backdrop and a lead melody whose watery timbre lands the music in trance territory. Typical for its genre, the trance lead on “Destructive Comment” is more repetitive than the synth-rock tune guiding “Burn Rubber”. However, Phelan cleverly changes the melody’s pitch to help its longevity and its almost hammered staccato nature takes on an unexpectedly dramatic character when placed against the spacious, static synth backdrop. Like “Burn Rubber”, it’s a hymn to the joys of high-speed racing, only realised with different means.
“Night Train” most firmly plants its feet in 90s electronica with much more pronounced grooves and house piano riffs (and yes, this is the track with the famous “You might be missing some of the benefits that stereo can provide” voice sample). Still, the Top Gear 2 soundtrack keeps dishing up subtle surprises, as Phelan mixes his electronic influences with a strong, acoustic bass that delivers a fantastic, tight rhythm. It lays the foundation for the horn samples and hand claps Phelan mixes in later – now the score has arrived on the dance floor, thanks to a perfectly concocted house/funk hybrid. As on previous tracks, Phelan also uses breakdowns judiciously to sustain his reasonably long compositions and organically shape their flow. It took a little while, but Gremlin’s signature racing games finally produced a genre classic.
- 01 - Burn Rubber Phelan, Patrick 4:00
- 02 - Destructive Comment Phelan, Patrick 4:48
- 03 - Night Train Phelan, Patrick 4:09