Arena: Maze of Death Soundtrack
Paul Lathem, 1995
Sometimes you don’t need much to achieve a whole lot. The Arena: Maze of Death soundtrack consists of only three substantial compositions – even for a handheld title, that was not much by 1995. However, Arena builds a surprisingly potent, bleak atmosphere that utterly envelops listeners – perfect for the game’s dystopian sci-fi settings.
It’s all the more surprising that Arena seems to be the only game Mark Lathem ever scored. Listening to the soundtrack’s lengthy, patiently developing cues, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is the work of a veteran of the European computer game scene (particularly once those layered arpeggios kick in, providing the soundtrack’s few surges of excitement and empowerment). Within just a few minutes and even fewer cues, Arena convincingly builds its sombre world. The score repeats one gloomy musical idea often enough to create a potent mood of desolation but is also varied enough to not tax listeners unduly.
Lathem takes great pains to build his compositions – some of the longest found on the Game Gear – around varying constellations of the same contrast. Industrial grooves and pulses animate his expansive cues, insistent enough to evoke an unforgiving atmosphere without turning monotonous. Their gritty intensity provides the kind of steady, satisfying rhythmic drive you want to see in an action game.
However, this is an unusually atmospheric genre soundtrack, and for that, we have to thank Lathem’s melodies. They are sparse and slow, not just contrasting with the churn of the rhythmic undergrowth but threatening to succumb to its coldly churning motion. Lathem makes clever use of the Game Gear’s limitations. He deploys the platform’s bright, borderline tinny timbres to push his melody leads into the highest registers, where their sustained notes shiver and jitter, exposed to the rhythmic onslaught. He also enjoys seeing his melodies tumble downwards in chromatic glissandi, ramping up the feeling of insecurity and threat further still. Even at only three tracks long, Arena is an uncommonly emotional, powerfully minimalist handheld action game score.
Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya Soundtrack
Motoaki Takenouchi, 1993
Considering the limitations of the Game Gear’s sound chip, writing a pseudo-orchestral score for the platform might seem like a doomed undertaking. Thankfully, Motoaki Takenouchi defies the odds and delivers a fantasy score to rival Motoi Sakuraba’s outstanding Zan Gear. It’s no surprise that following this soundtrack, Takenouchi would become the Shining franchise’s go-to composer, leading to highlights such as the Sega Genesis’ Shining Force II (one of the greatest pseudo-orchestral score on that platform) and Shining Force CD (ditto for the Sega CD – no surprise, given the score rearranges significant portions of Shining Force: The Sword of Hajya).
What is the secret of Takenouchi’s success? On a conceptual level, it’s simple – pump your compositions full of attractive musical ideas, write richly varied melodies and support them with lavish arrangements. Three of the Game Gear’s four sound channels are stuck playing square waves – but that still leaves ambitious composers with the option to write constantly busy compositions full of intertwining lines. Takenouchi’s writing here isn’t necessarily intensely contrapuntal. “A Long Journey”’s A section showcases the approach he takes instead, supporting a memorable, enterprising melody lead with complex arrangements that unobtrusively add texture and depth. The result is the type of sprawling, expansive music you find in the best fantasy scores.
Such sophisticated writing has few peers among chiptune RPGs – this is a genre score that the Game Boy would be proud to call its own. Arguably, not everything on this soundtrack works equally well. As soon as the mood turns menacingly brooding, the lack of melodic material sees the music’s quality dip. However, while the remaining compositions mostly feature a similarly sturdy, borderline militaristic bent, they also showcase an impressive range of emotions and approaches.
“The Last Selection” segues with astonishing subtlety from its elegant, almost dance-like opening to a more troubled mood that culminates in desperate staccato declamations. Writing a convincing chiptune adagio is one of the toughest challenges game composers face, but “The Prince of Tragedy” is the score’s most impressive display of Takenouchi’s melodic gifts, surprisingly moving and full of pathos. Finally, there’s “Departs to Another World”, the best example of classical music-inspired on the Game Gear – indomitably adventurous and developing its material with utter confidence. There’s no better proof than Sword of Hajya that writing a chiptune epic on the Game Gear’s SN76489 sound chip is indeed possible.
Sonic Blast Soundtrack
Kojiro Mikusa, 1996
The last Game Gear title released in Japan, Sonic Blast was probably no one’s idea of a fitting close to an era. Still, the game at least produced a delightful soundtrack, courtesy of Kojiro Mikusa, who had gathered plenty of experience on previous Sonic handheld games. Sonic Blast easily ranks as his best franchise score and the strongest handheld Sonic soundtrack of the 1990s.
No, this score does not reinvent the wheel or is likely to blow minds. Mikusa delivers an entertaining, succinct game score that cheerfully gets the job done and moves on (few tracks loop after the 40-second mark). Stylistically, it’s a typical platformer soundtrack, but it executes this particular style very well indeed through carefully wrought arrangements and instantly charming melodies.
“Green Hill Zone” sets the scene, presenting its catchy tunes in straightforward fashion, while the remaining square wave channels add beguiling silvery ornamentations that flit around the melody line. Other than on “Blue Marine Zone”, Mikusa always knows when to move on to the next melody riff – two or three of them are enough to carry a piece when bolstered by such an expertly crafted backdrop. The crunchy noise channel percussion adds a few subtle syncopations and deftly placed breakdowns that never stop the cue from bopping along but still add a bit of spice.
Each track cleverly introduces its own twist on the formula. “Special Stage” maintains “Green Hill Zone”’s upbeat mood, but its B section has an almost pastoral charm. “Boss Theme” off-beat, high-pitched melody accompaniment gives the cue a playfully experimental touch, while “Yellow Desert Level” uses pentatonic scales and melodic repetition surprisingly skilfully to create its attractively heady atmosphere. “Red Volcano Base” and “Silver Castle Zone” lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. The former opts for lumbering, persistent rhythms and cautiously advancing melodies, while the latter is the score’s most frantic cue, its constantly tapping percussion pushing the soundtrack’s bubbly disposition into a more frenetic mood. Sonic Blast might not set its sights very high, but that makes it no less satisfying.
Zan Gear Soundtrack
Motoi Sakuraba / Masaaki Uno, 1990
You wouldn’t expect a composer to pack a historical epic’s cinematic sweep and breadth into a humble Game Gear score. You most definitely wouldn’t expect an artist to pull off this feat on a first-generation title for the musically rather challenged platform. However, that is precisely what Motoi Sakuraba and Masaaki Uno accomplish on Zen Gear.
It’s a jaw-dropping soundtrack in several ways. Firstly, no other Game Gear score offers compositions of comparable emotional complexity and richness. These cues are multi-tiered creations that develop with astonishing patience, bolstered by the composers’ decision to arrange their ideas in lengthy compositions that create a rousing, dramatic flow. Take “Turbulent Age” and how its carefully prepared changes in tempo make the music that much more exciting when it bursts forth after a slower-paced episode.
What’s more, there is not a single dud amidst the many, many melodies Sakuraba and Uno concoct – the confidence with which their music unfolds is deeply impressive. The natural result is that a cue like “Age of Heat Haze” can convincingly build its calmly majestic atmosphere, with moments of introspection still giving the music greater depth. If you need further proof of the composers’ melodic talents, check out “Tears of Mortification”. Its pace is more steady than that of other cues, but this allows Uno to write what might be the most expansive melody heard on the Game Gear, its tune never failing to captivate.
Hearing such lavishly arranged music, drawing upon the full capacities of the Game Gear’s sound chip on a game that was released two weeks after the console hit the Japanese market, is astonishing. Part of the fascination stems from the composers’ technical wizardry. In unshowy fashion, they do a sterling job at prioritising voices through clever volume changes while cleverly varying textures, frequently switching between contrapuntal episodes and beautifully harmonised melodies. Listen to “Final Dirge” and the genuine pathos of its most striking melody – a simple two-note ostinato, coached in sorrowful harmonies and surrounded by more complex material that makes this moment of simple, unadorned sadness all the more arresting.
While it’s hard not to feel some disappointment over the fact that the Game Gear’s discography didn’t fulfil the promise of an early masterpiece like Zen Gear, the score’s existence proves that excellent music was a reality on this platform from day one.