Wonder Project J Soundtrack, Akihiko Mori, 1994
The SNES isn’t necessarily known for its abundance of adventure games – a genre that flourished far more on PCs than on consoles during the mid-1990s. However, there are some adventure gems to be unearthed in the SNES’ library of games and the Japan-only Wonder Project J is undoubtedly one of them. Not only that, but it might well be one of the most unique and creative SNES games (and has rightfully amassed somewhat of a cult following since its release). Taking inspiration from Adventures of Pinoccio, Astro Boy and some of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, Wonder Project J sees the player indirectly controlling a young android boy, Pino. While there is a storyline to complete, the player’s main task is to teach and train the naive boy, praising and scolding him for his actions (his default reaction to seeing any new object is to eat it).
Wonder Project J really comes to life through its gorgeous pixel art and lavish animations. This visual delight is matched by the game’s beautiful soundtrack, written by Akihiko Mori. Mori had created the score for developer Almanic’s previous game Shien’s Revenge, leaving his mark with one of the most densely orchestrated, opulent SNES soundtracks written up to that point. The young composer brings the same sensibilities to the Wonder Project J soundtrack. This time though, he gets a chance to apply his style to a more varied narrative that teases out his melodic talents.
As one would expect looking at almost any screenshot from Wonder Project J, most of the game has a sunny, optimistic outlook, underscored by Mori with a mix of bright orchestral colours and some pop elements. The latter are heard particularly through the music’s catchy rhythms and some of the melody progressions. The addition of these pop stylings to the orchestral palette highlights the game’s obvious anime sensibilities and inspirations.
Pop music is a genre that Mori hadn’t explored in much depth previously, but he executes this stylistic influence to perfection. “Piece” is a showcase of how to seamlessly merge rich orchestral strains with pop influences, including a hooky string melody and upbeat drum kit accompaniment. “Treasure” isn’t as elaborate, but its transition from tender piano solo to rushing, enthusiastic pop song is just as irresistible. The same pop appeal is found on “Theme”, which presents what would become the Wonder Project J franchise’s main theme – a tune clearly mimicking a vocal melody.
Not surprisingly, parts of the Wonder Project J soundtrack can feel like a (very, very classy) score for a children’s cartoon. However, as on his later Gokinjo Bouken Tai soundtrack, Mori never talks down to his audience, treating the soundtrack’s kid-friendly tendencies with just as much care as its near-symphonic splendour. A track like “March” is comical rather than remotely imposing. Equally entertaining is “Sport”, a xylophone-led sprint with oohmpa double bass rhythms whose humour might initially feel a bit on the nose in their mickey-mousing. But then the piece turns into an opportunity for Mori to deliver a full-bodied orchestral scherzo full of frenzied activity. And even though “Circus” ticks all the boxes for the sort of zany music one would expect for this sort of location, Mori shapes the piece into a varied, fully-fledged composition that exceeds genre stereotypes.
The game’s broader emotional range – compared to Lock On and Shien’s Revenge – gives Mori the opportunity to let his skills as a master melodicist shine more brightly than ever before. That he is able to combine his music’s new-found lyricism with the trademark complexity of his orchestrations is remarkable. Take “House”, which realises its rustic atmosphere through recorder and cello soli over string pizzicati. But these melodies are as carefree as they are intricately arranged, as Mori layers up to three melodies on top of each other, achieving a sound that is both intimate and lush. “Messala” repeats a similar feat, scoring the game’s antagonist with Baroque-inspired music (and a melody that has more than a passing resemblance to that of a more famous bad guy – Final Fantasy VI‘s Kefka). The motoric, focused drive of “Messala”‘s string lines suitably underscores a cold, powerful character – potential musical clichés that Mori bypasses through his sheer compositional skills, as he once more combines three string melodies playing in counterpoint.
Such complexity and ambition reaches its breathtaking apex on “Staff Roll”. Using the game’s main theme as its basis, “Staff Roll” is a flawlessly structured orchestral extravaganza of the highest order, encompassing the Wonder Project J soundtrack’s entire world within a whirlwind five minutes that couldn’t be more packed with musical ideas and colours. This is concert hall-quality orchestral music written for the SNES – very, very few other compositions for the system reach the same elevated level of excellence.
Despite what one might believe looking at Wonder Project J’s whimsical aesthetic, conflict is very much present in the game’s world, with a simmering conflict between humans and androids about to erupt. However, little of that conflict is felt in Mori’s music – there are a couple of battle tracks, but little else to suggest escalating tension. Instead, what gently provides some counterpoint to the Wonder Project J soundtrack’s buoyancy is the music’s underlying current of nostalgia. Heard throughout the score – sample the harpsichord accompaniment on “Piece” or the fiddle lead on “Mimi’s House” – this sense of longing is most keenly felt on “Song”. The cue presents the game’s main theme as a wistful melody, performed by a (synthesised) boy soprano. It’s a striking piece of characterisation, as the piece effortlessly communicates Pino’s innocence and innate warmth, as well as his wish to become human.
Just before “Staff Roll”, “Memories” reprises the theme in a similar vein and expands upon its treatment through delicate woodwind leads against soft strings. The mood is dreamy, tinged with just a bit of sadness at the thought that the adventure is over, drifting into the distance. That feeling of loss while saying farewell is a sentiment that Wonder Project J2 would explore more fully.
This playlist is a curated selection of music from the game rip.
- 01 - Opening Akihiko Mori 2:12
- 02 - Theme Akihiko Mori 1:55
- 03 - Menu Akihiko Mori 1:00
- 04 - March Akihiko Mori 1:20
- 05 - House Akihiko Mori 1:58
- 06 - Field Akihiko Mori 2:28
- 07 - Piece Akihiko Mori 3:01
- 08 - Farm Akihiko Mori 2:28
- 09 - Sports Akihiko Mori 1:53
- 10 - Treasure Akihiko Mori 2:22
- 11 - Messala Akihiko Mori 3:16
- 12 - Palace Akihiko Mori 1:36
- 13 - Battle Akihiko Mori 1:23
- 14 - Mimi's House Akihiko Mori 1:22
- 15 - Song Akihiko Mori 1:41
- 16 - Circus Akihiko Mori 1:40
- 17 - Chorus Akihiko Mori 1:32
- 18 - Yamaneko Akihiko Mori 1:42
- 19 - Last Battle Akihiko Mori 2:18
- 20 - Tiffany Akihiko Mori 3:13
- 21 - Memories Akihiko Mori 4:09
- 22 - Staff Roll Akihiko Mori 5:29