Norio Hanzawa / Hiroshi Kawaguchi, 1989
This is nothing less than the definitive version of one of arcade gaming’s most famous soundtracks. Now, truth be told, After Burner – despite the love and acclaim it has received over the years – is not Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s best work. While the score pulls off hook-heavy synth-rock well enough, its melodies rarely take off – so the lengthy cues start to meander – and the whole soundtrack feels too relaxed for a non-stop action fest.
That is something Norio Hanzawa fixes for this FM port of the game. With a few exceptions, Hanzawa sticks close to the arcade original, but having the music performed by real instruments makes an enormous difference. The secret ingredient in the mix are the three added brass players. The choice of instruments is absolutely inspired – the brass adds a vibrant, swinging energy that simply wasn’t present on the arcade original. Of course, the use of jazzy brass during action cues also nicely underlines After Burner’s 80s roots.
Right from the start of “Final Take Off”, the FM Towns version of the soundtrack sounds far ballsier and more powerful than the arcade original. Here and elsewhere on the score, Hanzawa hands the lead melody to the guitar rather than keyboards, which gives the tunes a convincingly soaring quality, while the punchy brass fanfares fire up the music further still. In the composer’s hands, the music decisively moves towards melody-heavy, enthusiastic hard rock. Ultimately, Hanzawa succeeds because he transforms the score into something more dramatic and rousing than the comparatively laid-back arcade original.
Even “Super Stripe”, the arcade game’s most monotonous piece, turns out well here – Hanzawa’s coup is to cover the not-so-inspired melody lead with two clean electric guitars playing funky polyrhythms. After all this, it’s no surprise that final action track “After Burner” reveals itself as the hard rock epic that this port deserves – a sizzling finale for a score that finally attains the status of a true classic.
Akira Satoh, 1991
So many Japanese video games of the late 80s and early 90s adapted that same proudly anthemic, 80s-inspired synth-rock that lived and died by the quality of its (ideally) massive hooks. However, no other soundtrack realised this better than the Raiden port for the FM Towns, written by Akira Satoh. This isn’t music of great subtlety or a work that presents a well-developed narrative or emotional arc – all it does is aim for the brain’s pleasure centres with ruthless efficiency. With the game’s intro, outro and boss tracks all playing like filler, the meat of the score really are the four stage themes, which combined clock in at less than ten minutes (looped). But during those few minutes, Raiden fires off more stadium-sized, rousing synth-pop/rock melodies than almost any other game score. Every single hook on these few compositions could anchor a fists-raised-to-the-sky sing-along.
Why go for the FM Towns version of Raiden when the equally Red Book audio-powered TurboGrafx-CD port features two additional level themes and two new final boss tracks? Well, this is music that needs to be rendered on the punchiest, most dramatic synths available, and you can’t deny that the FM Towns port sounds more powerful and vivid than the TurboGrafx-CD version – not to mention it’s better produced and mixed. In other words, the FM Towns rendition of the Raiden soundtrack beautifully plays to the score’s strengths.
Particularly on a track like “Fighting Thunder”, which relies on thinner material, the FM Towns’ synth upgrade is crucially important. Those almost nagging melody leads now have new bite and aggression, while the heightened dynamics give the cue the climactic rise and fall required for a final level cue. It all adds up to only a few minutes of music – but hardly any other game score is such a pure, joyful shot of endorphins and unforgettable melodies.
Super Street Fighter II
Isao Abe / Syun Nishigaki / Yoko Shimomura, 1994
Once again, the FM Towns walks away with the best version of a veritable arcade classic – in this case, maybe even the greatest and most influential of all arcade classics: Street Fighter II (or, rather, its sequel/expansion Super Street Fighter II). However, the case is not as clear cut as it is with, say, After Burner or Raiden. The game’s PC port puts up a formidable fight, landing a few blows. Ultimately though, the FM Towns soundtrack (which the 3DO later inherited) is the more consistent work.
But firstly, what makes Yoko Shimomura’s score such a genre landmark that has remained popular for decades, quoted and re-quoted dozens of times in those franchise entries following Street Fighter II? (Isao Abo and Syun Nishigaki contribute bits and pieces to this score, while the arranger of the FM Towns port remains unknown) Put simply, it’s the fact that Shimomura writes an amazing array of melodies that range from immediately catchy and memorable to elegant and long-spun.
Her score is far more melody-focused than your average fighting game. In fact, sometimes, this music doesn’t seem to focus all that much on underscoring intense action but instead wants to create colourful, lushly arranged sonic tapestries. Shimomura’s elaborate arrangements are another trump card that sets her work apart from the competition – her soundtrack takes the second part of Street Fighter II’s title (“The World Warrior“) seriously and evokes various cultures with ease. Finally, she powers her compositions through complex layers of rhythms and counter-rhythms that give the music yet more depth and interest.
Broadly speaking, Shimomura writes in two different modes on Street Fighter II. First, there are the more straightforward – if still meticulously composed – power anthems for the game’s American characters (Ken, Guile, Balrog) and Ryu. They combine unforgettable synth rock hooks and melodies with carefully crafted arrangements and tons of musical substance. Shimomura’s second kind of composition is still more interesting, as she finds a musical approach that’s both individualistic and convincing for every character, be they from Russia, China, Japan, Brazil or India (something the King of Fighters franchise routinely struggles with). These cues still sport indelible melodies but also emphasise creative textures – making for what was a peerlessly varied fighting game score at the time of Street Fighter II’s release.
What makes the FM Towns port the best version of this revered work? Of course, it benefits from more life-like synths than the arcade originals and other home console ports, clarifying many of the textures and rendering them more vibrant. This port takes few chances with the source material but does make some clever additions to make the music richer still (the swirling, heady “Dhalsim” is an absolute delight). It also gives many compositions a lighter tone, imbuing tracks like “E.Honda” and “Vega” with a more lyrical, almost romantic touch. Not everything is a winner on this port – those lighter timbres really work against the near-apocalyptic mood of “M.Bison”. But all things considered, this is the best version of most of Street Fighter II’s music – capping off the franchise’s musical history so far before it would move on to a new chapter.
David Govett / George Sanger / Nenad Vugrinec, 1992
Wing Commander was a watershed moment for game music. Firstly, look at that intro of an orchestra (in space) tuning and then launching into a triumphant fanfare. It’s a natural consequence of game producer Chris Roberts’ ambition to create a full-blown space opera. That intro shows that Roberts knew how important music was for realising his dream – you couldn’t have Star Wars without John Williams’ swashbuckling score.
As a result, it’s no surprise that Roberts asked composers George Sanger and David Govett to emulate Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In 1990 such lofty aims weren’t common for a game score. On gaming platforms available in the West, the introduction of the Roland MT-32 module had only recently made it possible to convincingly mimic orchestral instruments.
While fashioned after classic, well-known movie soundtracks, Wing Commander broke new ground within game music. It attempted a degree of tightly-wound thematic integration no other previous game score had accomplished. Sanger and Govett’s heroic and bold main theme is first heard on the multi-tiered “Fanfare”, whose sweep shows how brilliantly the composers approximate the sound of a Silver Era space opera score using 1990 chip synthesis. After this spectacular curtain-raiser, Sanger and Govett reprise their malleable theme in constantly new disguises throughout the soundtrack. Even by today’s standards, the composers’ always skilful and multi-faceted manipulation of the theme is quite extraordinary.
That’s not to say that the fanfare is the only provider of melodic ideas on this soundtrack. Far from it – even on tense militaristic underscore like “Commander’s Office”, Govett and Sanger’s music has sufficient melodic backbone to engross listeners. So outstanding is Wing Commander that the soundtrack’s impact is felt to this day – from this score onwards, game and film music would be inextricably intertwined.
As for the FM Towns version? (ported in 1992 by Nenad Vugrinec) It is a faithful adaptation of the PC original’s material, and the synths aren’t a quantum leap over the 1990 MIDI instruments. What makes the FM Towns version feel significantly bigger and more dramatic is how it places the instruments in far more spacious, vibrant acoustics – precisely what you would want for these cinematic compositions.