Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku Soundtrack (PC-88), Yoko Kanno, 1990
Developer KOEI didn’t rock the boat much with this fourth instalment of its Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise. The game continued its predecessors’ brand of menu-heavy strategising, set amongst feuding warlords in Japan during the 16th century. As before, it targeted those gamers who preferred intensely in-depth gameplay over elaborate visuals. Despite the geographically specific subject matter, KOEI felt that there was an overseas audience for Bushou Fuuunroko, bringing the SNES and Sega Genesis ports to the American market under the title of Lord of Darkness.
While the early Nobunaga’s Ambition games were never visual stunners, their music was an entirely different story. Since the franchise’s second title Zenkokuban, future film and TV score legend Yoko Kanno had been responsible for the games’ soundtracks. Their various PC and console chiptunes scores didn’t give a strong indication of Kanno’s burgeoning talents. However, KOEI had developed a fascinating concept dubbed “Soundware”. Soundware albums contained Red Book audio scores for a number of KOEI PC-88 games. These albums replaced the games’ chiptunes soundtracks with upgraded music in case the PC in question was equipped with a CD drive. Sometimes incorrectly referred to as arrange albums, these CDs were sold with special retail editions of various Nobunaga’s Ambition games. However, KOEI also sold them separately as simple music albums.
The Soundware albums had allowed Kanno to write for studio-grade synths and small live ensembles since Genghis Khan, recorded largely in 1987. In the next few years, Kanno was given an amazing number of opportunities to record her game music with live musicians on Soundware albums including Zenkokuban, Ishin no Arashi, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sengoku Gun’yuuden, Romance of the Three Kingdoms / Sangokushi and Uncharted Waters / Daikoukai Jidai. All of these works showed promise and flashes of greatness, but suffered from inconsistent songwriting quality and often less-than-complimentary recording sound. The Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku soundtrack is an improvement in all regards on Kanno’s earlier works, standing as the first great score of her career – and in fact the first great live orchestral game music score!
With Bushou Fuuunroku, Kanno for the first time develops a consistent musical vision for the Nobunaga’s Ambition franchise, able to contain her trademark eclecticism within a coherent stylistic framework. As previously, Western classical music inspires much of her music, be it when Kanno deploys her full ensemble (34 performers strong) or when she dabbles in chamber music-sized instrument combinations. During these moments, she already hints at her 1991 masterpiece The Creation. Not surprisingly, the full ensemble is heard most clearly on those compositions that either raise the curtain on the war-torn scenery or herald the conclusion of the adventure.
“Signal Fire” sees Kanno coax an admirably grand sound out of her small group of performers. At this early point in her career, she already showcases her talent for sweeping, elegant string melodies with a strong classical touch. She also confidently achieves a cinematic sense of scale for her compositions through their rich development – take the beguiling shakuhachi duet during “Signal Fire”’s mid-section. The cue’s proud horn lead – performed solo – is arguably underpowered against the strident string backing, but its rousing qualities persist. “As Eternal as Heaven and Earth” intriguingly starts out a bit like the closing title for a 1940s Western movie, with its riding, memorable brass fanfares. Contrapuntally denser than “Signal Fire”, “As Eternal as Heaven and Earth” features another ravishing mid-section, this time led by solo flute.
Ideally, Kanno’s ensemble would ideally be larger to sell these compositions even better as the historic epics that they clearly aim to be. However, there are also advantages to working with a smaller orchestral group. Its lean sound is vividly captured through the dry, natural album sound which particularly benefits the battle tracks. Rather than relying on forceful demonstrations of grandeur, these compositions rely on the sinewy, gritty attack of the performers.
Some of the action cues on the the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku soundtrack are rather short. Like the slashed electric violin stabs of “Flame of the Battlefield”, they sometimes register merely as intriguing experiments. But they are eclipsed by highlights like “Demon King of the Sixth Heaven First Chapter”. The cue leads various solo instruments and the ensemble into a fierce standoff that generates the album’s most complex piece. It easily belies its short run time and small instrumental forces thanks to its sheer amount of musical ideas, colours and subtlety, seeing Kanno tease emotional shades out of her compositions rarely heard before in game music. “A Dangerous Castle Entrance” isn’t quite as ambitious, with a standard, if effectively roiling orchestral background. But Kanno’s idea to have a solo trumpet perform against this martial backdrop with freewheeling, harsh inserts gives the music a intriguingly jagged, jazz-inspired progression and unpredictable aggression.
While these pieces already heavily rely on solo instruments, other compositions deploys smaller instrumental forces still. “The Helpful God of War’s Banner Last Chapter” is a display of instrumental virtuosity unheard of within game music when the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku soundtrack was released. Kanno launches into a breathlessly rushing piano solo that gives her an opportunity to display her impressive performing chops, even if the composition’s substance isn’t particularly complex. Other compositions carried by a single instrument have a greater impact on the soundtrack’s stylistic direction though. “Elegance” and “Shadows” consist of lengthy, impeccably composed shakuhachi soli that work their arresting spell with ease, as Kanno displays her melodic gifts once again. With both tracks recorded in a spacious concert hall acoustic, their shakuhachi notes seem to wring out over serene mountain tops, transporting listeners to the far distant time in which the game is set.
These compositions are more strongly carried by traditional Japanese instruments than previous Nobunaga’s Ambition scores. Imbued with an sense of spiritualism (at least to Western ears), these pieces subtly lay the groundwork for the least expected musical style found on the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku soundtrack: electronica. On “Distant Mountains and Rivers” and “Heart”, Kanno relies on synthesised instruments to build upon the established aura of mysticism, taking listener into a realm that feels further and further removed from the present day. It’s a precursor to Kanno’s still more original evocations of the past on projects like The Inspired Dragon: Where To Now. “Distant Mountains and Rivers” relies a bit too much on oriental clichés – a chiming background figure, a soft pentatonic horn lead – to convince. “Heart” fares significantly better, as Kanno evokes an otherworldly mood through a lushly flowing harp solo with an intriguingly syncopated, heady melody.
Arguably, not everything on this album works and there’s no doubt that Kanno would go on to greater things (quite soon, in fact). Including the Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku soundtrack on this site is a bit of a close call then. However, there’s no denying that at its best, this score is rivalled by few other orchestral game soundtracks, as it conjures up images of medieval Japan with grace, fantastic attention to detail and great creativity. An early high watermark for orchestral game music from a rapidly maturing composer, roughly-hewn edges and all, in an idiom Kanno would rarely revisit once she had access to larger ensembles.
Like its predecessors, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Bushou Fuuunroku was ported to numerous other platforms. Interestingly enough, none of these ports are particularly worthwhile – apart from the PC Engine CD version, which reprises the redbook audio score. They all suffer from repetitive, thin material and an inherent inability to replicate Kanno’s expert instrumental effects and colours.
The lack of musical substance might come as a surprise. However, upon closer inspection, elements like the trumpet solo on “A Dangerous Castle Entrance” are simply impossible to replicate on chiptunes platforms and once the solo is removed, there’s little left to the composition. And the additional material that Kanno composes for these ports is arguably fairly lacklustre, again largely devoid of sufficient substance.
As all ports share almost the exact same material, questions of preference are mostly down to a matter of which platform produces the most pleasant and / or life-like sound. The Sharp X68000 version fares well on the first count, producing more realistic timbres than the PC-88 chiptunes score and sounding more spacious and less cramped than the Sega Genesis version. Naturally, the SNES port produces the most realistic timbres, but its alternately hollow or watery samples aren’t exactly a stunning example of what the platform is capable of. Of particular interest is the NES version. Due to hardware limitations, it doesn’t seek to replicate any authentic instrument timbres and instead simply presents the substance of Kanno’s compositions with little fuss – an approach that works surprisingly well, albeit without generating a consistently strong score.
- 01 - Elegance Kanno, Yoko 2:29
- 02 - Signal Fire Kanno, Yoko 3:31
- 03 - Demon King of the Sixth Heaven First Chapter Kanno, Yoko 2:51
- 04 - Demon King of the Sixth Heaven Last Chapter Kanno, Yoko 1:05
- 05 - The Helpful God of War's Banner First Chapter Kanno, Yoko 3:07
- 06 - The Helpful God of War's Banner Last Chapter Kanno, Yoko 1:46
- 07 - A Dangerous Castle Entrance Kanno, Yoko 3:00
- 08 - Shadows Kanno, Yoko 3:18
- 09 - Heart Kanno, Yoko 3:11
- 10 - As Eternal as Heaven and Earth Kanno, Yoko 2:57