Ultimate Rivals: The Court Soundtrack, Honnda, 2021
Putting together usually impossible dream teams is something video games have always excelled at, all the way back to King of Fighters ‘94. And so, Ultimate Rivals: The Court‘s concept is simply another take on a proud gaming tradition. The game pits athletes from various pro sports (NHL, NBA, MLB, WNBA, soccer etc.) against each other on the basketball court. With that kind of set-up, you’re not going to get a realistic basketball simulation. Instead, each athlete brings their own unique moves derived from their regular sport to the game, as teams of three face off against each other on futuristic courts. Of course, this kind of over-the-top, arcade-style basketball gameplay will remind seasoned gamers of the immortal NBA Jam franchise – and developer Bit Fry Game Studios were clearly aware of that historical connection, even bringing in NBA Jam announcer Tim Kitzrow.
For the Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack, Bit Fry Studios made the inspiring choice of hiring electronic music artist Honnda (aka Amnon Freidlin). Thanks to his eclectic artistic background, Freidlin’s involvement promised an intriguing, original game score. His musical credits are diverse, to say the least – ranging from the electronica of his Honnda outfit to the champer-punk of Normal Love, his video and audio work for pop/thrash outfit Mouthguard 88, and his previous involvement in post-minimalist group Zs. Navigating the intersection of futuristic pop music and art, Freidlin’s work includes music and video installations, delivered for artists such as Nick Cave, Patti Smith, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Michael Kors, Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich, John Zorn, and the New York Philharmonic.
And Freidlin’s work for Ultimate Rivals: The Court doesn’t disappoint. In fact, it continues several trends present in 2021’s strongest game music releases – smashing game score debuts by established artists (Genesis Noir, Knockout City, Returnal), wildly original electronica (The Caligula Effect 2, Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth – and Knockout City and Returnal, again) and stylistically free-wheeling sports games (Knockout City, once more). The Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack clocks in at EP length and runs shorter than any of the above works. However, it still leaves its mark, and while the score is less genre-bending and idiosyncratic than Freidlin’s previous solo works, Ultimate Rivals: The Court still introduces fresh electronica stylings to game music.
Opener “Megabloom” is a homage to NYC and not just because a futuristic version of the city features as the game’s backdrop. Freidlin’s work on the Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in NYC in Spring 2020. As a result, “Megabloom” emerged as “a mammoth track with NYC artists channeling the city and hitting with this big ‘comeback’ energy”, according to Freidlin. Indeed, “Megabloom” is a perfect cyberpunk anthem, driven by beats that are as pumping and head-nodding as they are intricately layered, full of rewarding rhythmic details. Dai Burger’s rap vocals add some playful, off-beat bragging, but it’s really moistbreezy’s cooly majestic delivery of the track’s big catchy hook – similar to the work on her own excellent 2020 single “Oasis” – that seals the deal.
Maybe not surprisingly, the music playing during matches is less concerned with big, effortlessly cool melodic statements – but most of the time, it is just as strong as “Megabloom”. “Cape Canaveral” combines a slow, controlled synth groove with clattering percussion. Meticulously arranged and layered, those sinewy sounds give the lushly produced music a lean, energising undercurrent. The cue occasionally returns to “Megabloom”’s anthemic interludes, but its melodies are more unstable now, simultaneously sweet and edgy. “Cape Canaveral” turns more eccentric when whooping hip-hop samples enter, and the melodies start to wobble through cyberspace. Of course, that the cue ends with spacey synths and tinkling sounds befits the location, but playful vocals keep the music just irreverent enough.
The one cue on the Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack that doesn’t quite stick the landing is “Radio Music City Hall”. Both its rhythms and its hook – a phase-shifted take on those NFL game synth-brass fanfares – are too static and straightforward, outstaying their welcome as the cue moves past the four-minute mark. “Times Square”, on the other hand, manages to evoke the trance-induced focus that “Radio Music City Hall” seems to be aiming for. It’s a cerebral track with almost ritualistic voice samples and tense, nervy beats, as if the music can only just keep its own energy contained. There are more breakdowns and a more intriguing rhythmic base here than on “Radio Music City Hall”. Also, those whining synth leads towards the end of the track perfectly suit the cue’s equally controlled and agitated mood.
Two shorter, but no-less carefully crafted cues round out the Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack. Neither of them really goes anywhere, but they constantly remain in entertaining motion. Surrounded by swirling, cut-up samples, “Bounce Castle”’s myriad rhythms tumble over each other without ever sacrificing the cue’s underlying groove, which is a minor miracle. It’s fun, upbeat music that perfectly befits the track’s title. As a menu track, “The Golden Age of Content” is more settled. It’s the perfect comedown at the end of a busy album, with those anthemic brass leads heard on “Radio City Music Hall” returning, but this time they’re set against more flexible R’n’B rhythms – and a funky flute line. The latter isn’t just a nice addition to the score’s whirling genre mix. It also creates a compelling timbral contrast between the flute’s lithe tones and the pounding synth brass.
Ultimately, there are 15 minutes of innovative, ambitious electronic music on the Ultimate Rivals: The Court soundtrack – packed with more ideas than what 95% of game soundtracks often deliver in several times that duration. Ultimate Rivals: The Court’s arcade gameplay might be straightforward and didn’t require a soundtrack of immense depth and variety – but that’s precisely what Freidlin delivers here, while never neglecting the need to keep hands and feet moving.