Dick Tracy Soundtrack (Game Boy), George Sanger, 1991
The success of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman kicked off the first wave of comic-book movies to hit cinemas. Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy – released the following year – might have looked like it was riding on the caped crusader’s coattails, but in fact the project had been in development since the early 1980s. It turned out to be one of the decade’s more artistically and financially successful comic book movies, with its extravagant visual design drenched in primary colours still impressive decades later. Unfortunately, none of the film’s many video game adaptations – mostly for 8-bit platforms – could hope to match that kind of visual splendour.
Prolific developer Realtime Associates handled Dick Tracy’s NES and Game Boy versions – which meant gamers had another soundtrack from in-house composer George Sanger to look forward to. Interestingly enough, the NES and Game Boy ports turned out to be sufficiently different from one another to warrant one score for the NES game and another one for the Game Boy title. Of course, Sanger wrote both soundtracks, with the Game Boy one coming out on top. The NES version is jazzier, but in its adherence to that genre’s stereotypes, it’s also less interesting than the ambitious Game Boy equivalent. What also helps is that the compositions on the Game Boy score are significantly longer and more substantial than on the NES.
While the Dick Tracy soundtrack – once whittled down to its essentials – clocks in at less than 10 minutes, Sanger does his best to throw everything he’s got at these cues. “Track 01” proves right off the bat that this is not your average Game Boy platformer score – instead, the composition feels more like it was inspired by Sanger and David Govett’s “Fanfare” on Wing Commander. Like that classic earlier piece, “Track 01” cycles through a multitude of strong melodies and sections, although at a more restless pace.
It starts with a strident, yet swinging melody lead, driven by a restless, jazz-inspired bass line and smartly deployed snare drums that infuse the music with the right amount of action and tension. Other passages take this heroic mood further until we reach a bright staccato melody – before the music plunges into a grimly animated, nocturnal episode full of constantly moving, syncopated rhythms. It all leads into a fanfare finale that appropriately caps off all this cinematic drama.
The transitions between the different sections of “Track 01” aren’t necessarily very smooth – but Sanger wonderfully manages to sustain just enough coherence that these sudden shifts are breathlessly exciting rather than disjointed. “Track 02” equally benefits from Sanger’s talent to pull together disparate material into something quite thrilling. It’s an instantly striking cue, with its precariously rising, disorienting arpeggios and sharp melody fragments – always harmonised chromatically to keep the agitated music on edge. Its abrupt, at times seemingly aimless progression suggests barely suppressed frenzy, but that impression is brilliantly balanced by just enough direction and forward momentum in those stinging melody bits.
The most driven piece on the Dick Tracy soundtrack, “Track 02” never relaxes, turning into a showcase of how to pull off this kind of crisis cue on a chiptunes platform. Again driven by a jazzy bass, the piece seemingly relaxes during its slower B section. But while it’s the composition’s most melodic moment, Sanger combines the second pulse wave channel and the wave channel into dissonant background harmonies that thanks to Sanger’s unusual mix of channels creates an effectively harsh, destabilising timbre.
These two opening tracks might well constitute Sanger’s densest chiptunes work (outside of Tecmo NES Basketball’s menu theme – if only that score had more cues of such caliber). “Track 03” and “Track 04” are far shorter than their predecessors, but still deliver some noteworthy material and see Sanger further experimenting with the Game Boy’s sound channels. “Track 03” is the Dick Tracy soundtrack’s most obviously jazz-inspired cue, with some standard mid-tempo swing jazz rhythms. What makes the cue interesting is Sanger’s clever use of phasing between the two pulse wave channels to approximate the timbre of the lead saxophone, lending it an intriguingly glassy tone with some surprising glissandi effects. The cue’s only shortcoming is its brevity – it would have been fascinating to see Sanger further explore the unusual timbres he creates.
“Track 04” closes proceedings with a reprise of “Track 03”’s melody – before it suddenly morphs into a triumphant single pulse wave channel lead that proudly heralds victory. While the melody is memorable enough, the real interest lies in what Sanger does with the other three channels. He lets them all fire away as he tries to create as many notes and textural density as the hardware allows, to the point where it all becomes a hyperactive, impenetrable wall of sound – that still doesn’t overwhelm the melody lead. The Dick Tracy soundtrack might be over fairly soon after it started, but Sanger makes sure to compress as many ideas and tricks as he can into its brief run time.
- 01 - Track 01 Sanger, George 3:22
- 02 - Track 02 Sanger, George 3:14
- 03 - Track 03 Sanger, George 1:02
- 04 - Track 04 Sanger, George 1:05