Blue Forest Story: Kaze no Fuuin Soundtrack
Yukiko Hino / Shinji Kawashima / Tadashi Sawashita, 1996
One thing that set the 3DO apart from many other – equally unsuccessful – CD consoles of the mid-90s is the support it received from Japanese developers. That’s how we ended up with super-obscure games like Blue Forest Story: Kaze no Fuuin. Not only did the game never make it to the West, but it was also released on a platform that did not last long on the market (although a later PS1 port dragged Blue Forest Story a bit out of the shadows). That might be why the game’s highly original soundtrack has mostly gone under the radar – a shame since it presents a really intriguing alternative take on JRPG scoring conventions.
JRPG scores are famous for their merry genre-hopping. Blue Forest Story chooses a different path – it concocts one individualistic musical style and then twists and tweaks it throughout the soundtrack. In short, the composers manage to seamlessly combine woozy 90s electronica with various non-Western musical cultures (sitar and gamelans feature heavily), driven by both electronic beats and intricate acoustic percussion layers. The resulting heady brew is a lush, fragrant tapestry of sounds whose genre mix feels both organic and futuristic – perfectly sculpted to evoke an alluring fantasy realm. In other words – the entire score feels like the musical exploration of a vast, mysterious forest world full of awe-inspiring alien sights and sun-dappled glades that invite adventurers to rest.
However, while much of the music has a drifting, soothing quality, it can also turn eerie, haunting, jaunty – even menacing (if less convincingly so – the game rip requires some curating to optimise the listening experience). Just as importantly, the composers know how to write attractive, languid melodies, often for woodwind solo instruments. This is crucial in how Blue Forest Story achieves its impressive balancing act. It’s a score that’s constantly inviting and approachable – yet it also never relinquishes its elusive, slippery ambience. Equally, at its best, Blue Forest Story has a mythical quality that’s leavened by its joyful genre-bending and -mashing. Very few game music scores succeed in building a unique sound world that is concise yet kaleidoscopic – Blue Forest Story is one such rare case.
The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes Soundtrack
Rob Hubbard, 1994
There is no shortage of excellent game soundtracks that haven’t received the attention they deserve. However, very few scores are as unjustly forgotten as Rob Hubbard’s The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes. Put simply, this is one of the most ambitious, fully-realised synth-orchestral scores of the 1990s. True, the soundtrack’s sound quality is far from amazing. It’s hard not to wish this lavishly arranged music was presented with the tonal clarity found on fellow 3DO game Lucienne’s Quest, for example.
In short, Hubbard aims for nothing less than a synthetic recreation of a colourful, classically-inspired period movie score – no looping cues or other classic telltale signs of video game music in sight. The fluidity of Hubbard’s orchestrations and the ease with which he constantly develops his material are astounding. The score holds a marvellous wealth of musical riches, filled to the brim with emotional subtleties and nuances that survive their less-than-lifelike rendition on Hubbard’s ageing synths. Do not be fooled by the short run times of most compositions – there’s more substance to these pieces than to most video game cues several times their length.
What this music first and foremost projects is a sense of effortless elegance, even (Victorian-era) understatement. Arguably befitting the game’s unflappable protagonist, this underlying mood of splendid refinement runs through both the score’s jollier moments and its more serious, even tragic expressions (although there is not much outright sombre music on this score).
Through this prism, Hubbard’s astoundingly graceful compositions successfully build an entire world with brush strokes that are both sophisticated and powerfully expressive – to the point that the soundtrack presents convincing emulations of 19th-century operatic music (sans voices). What’s particularly impressive is the amount of delicate, melodic beauty Hubbard wrings out of the soundtrack’s slower-paced compositions that rely on relatively thin string textures – by no means an easy sell on early 1990s synths. Given The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes was released as a late port of a low-profile PC game on a console doomed to fail, it’s no surprise few sing its praises these days. However, there is no doubt that this work is an important – and utterly delightful – milestone in the history of Western orchestral game music.
Zhadnost: The People’s Party Soundtrack
David Govett / Joe McDermott / Weston Phelan / George Sanger, 1995
Zhadnost: The People’s Party could have only emerged in the early to mid-1990s – that heady period when developers were trying to figure out what to do with that newfangled CD-ROM technology. In this case, they realised their very particular vision of a whacko communist game show whose contestants compete for their freedom after being kidnapped by the totalitarian nation of Bizarrnia. Yes, they don’t make them like they used to.
How do you score an out-there premise like that? The composers go for a musical style as unexpected as the game’s narrative: surf rock. That choice makes more sense than one might expect. The incongruence between subject matter and music only increases the game’s zany appeal. At the same time, the music itself doesn’t have to ramp up the wackiness and can play it straight – and of course, surf rock’s jittery energy and sunny disposition are perfect for a party game.
This soundtrack is such an intriguing exercise in nostalgia because it dabbles in a music genre that hardly ever features in video games. Sanger and his band have surf rock’s idiom down pat, churning out zippy, invigorating nuggets of first-rate 1960s rock – irresistibly fun and full of wiry, antsy energy. Both confidently laid-back and exuberant, the music doesn’t rush to make its point but, at the same time, is always vibrant.
What’s more, the composers can do more than just surf rock. Other period-appropriate styles join the party – blues rock, psychedelia, mariachi, and even a bit of 1970s funk rock. However, Sanger and his team have more on their minds than just a simple musical revival. Witness how “Hula Surf Dream” ’s fuzzy, surreal guitar tone turns the music into a hazy recollection of the past – a dream indeed, not the real thing. That might explain the unexpected wistfulness of closing track “The Old Dream Ending”, as it slowly shuffles out the door, like a reluctant realisation that the past must remain just that. Gradually drifting away, the track closes the album on an effortlessly poignant note. There’s some real depth underneath the score’s easy-going facade – decades after its release, Zhadnost remains one of game music’s more thoughtful engagements with the musical past.