The Last Blade Soundtrack (Neo Geo CD)
Brother-Hige / Yasuhiro Naka / OKAN / Yasuo Yamate / Hiroshi Yamazoe, 1998
The arranged soundtrack for The Last Blade (used in the game’s Neo Geo CD incarnation) must rank as one of game music’s greatest surprises. Firstly, there’s the music’s style – intensely romantic orchestral music that isn’t heard on any other Neo Geo score (other than The Last Blade 2, of course). Such classically-inspired music might initially feel like a mismatch for the game’s late 19th-century setting in Japan. However, it’s actually a thoughtful comment on the disappearance of traditional Japanese culture during the Bakumatsu era as the country opened up to the West.
The next surprise comes courtesy of the music’s jaw-dropping quality – in short, this is some of the greatest orchestral game music ever written. It would be easier to make sense of it all if the composers had a background in this style of music. However, there’s nothing in the artists’ prior discography that would indicate they had concert hall-quality music of this calibre in them. The Last Blade is a superlative effort with a nearly operatic sweep – even more so than a similar sturm-and-drang whirlwind of musical ideas like Heroes of Might and Magic II.
Each composition moves through an astonishing wealth of moods, giving the music stunning emotional breadth and variety. Cues are developed to absolute perfection, their dynamics and constant flow from one lavish musical thought to the next perfectly realised. The ceaselessly contrapuntal writing imbues these pieces with a richness and depth that has few peers within game music. Maybe most importantly – the composers’ melodic invention is consistently outstanding, with gorgeous melody after gorgeous melody (either presented solo or in densely intertwining lines).
Of course, it’s impossible not to wish that music of such stature was performed by an entirely live ensemble, not a handful of soloists backed by synths. Regardless, the music’s quality is strong enough to overcome its inherent timbral limitations. True, the arrangers’ choice to budget for a full live choir – rather than more instrumental soloists – might seem counterintuitive. However, listen to the monumental “Sword Master” and “Gate of an Evil God” with their magisterial four-part choral writing or the wonderfully heady, otherworldly vocal textures of “Vicissitudes”, and the artists’ decision is fully vindicated. Not much game music has the capacity to blow minds – this one does.
The Last Blade 2 (Neo Geo CD)
Yoshihiko Kitamura / Kyoko Naka / Yasuhiro Naka / Hiroshi Yamazoe, 1999
The music for The Last Blade was an utterly surprising display of compositional virtuosity – so where would its successor go? Given The Last Blade 2 was a refinement of what had made the first game great, it will raise few eyebrows that the music proceeds along similar lines. In other words – this is still absolutely first-rate orchestral music, written to a standard rivalled by very few other game scores.
However, it’s also not simply more of the (brilliant) same. Yes, the music still contains more substance and sumptuous melodies than almost any other orchestral game soundtrack. However, the composers take a slightly different approach this time. Yet another comparison with the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise proves insightful. Like Heroes of Might and Magic III, this is a score still capable of grand gestures and immense refinement.
However, The Last Blade 2 is more settled than its predecessor, no longer flitting from one idea to the next but instead carefully developing its gushing melodies. Less mercurial than their predecessors, these compositions settle on one specific mood and patiently explore its facets. Much of the music here is more rhythm-driven than on The Last Blade, taking the shape of wind-swept marches. Their sweeping romanticism combines with a more martial atmosphere to create the most tasteful kind of musical bombast, sustained as always by the composers’ masterful command of every aspect of their work – orchestrations, material, dynamics, you name it. Largely discarding The Last Blade’s excursions into chamber music, this score focuses on a more consistently large-scale orchestral approach – helped by the fact that the synths sound fuller and more realistic this time around.
Less light on its feet, The Blade 2 is arguably more ponderous than the franchise’s first score, but the composers are skilled enough to turn this trait into an asset. It’s the music’s more serious nature that allows a gripping cue like “First Movement’ Kouryu ~ Fate’ (Kouryu I)” to turn into the franchise’s most epic composition, thanks to its thrilling, massive changes in dynamics. Such supreme emotional intensity is expressed differently but just as persuasively through the exquisitely passionate solo cello melodies of “First Movement ‘Parting’ (Ending I)” and “First Movement’ Moonlight’ (Staff Roll I)” – fitting closure to another game music masterpiece.
Toshikazu Tanaka, 2003
More often than not, ‘kooky and zany’ is the kiss of death for a game music score. Usually, these attributes are an excuse for composers to take shortcuts, relying on gimmickry and forced humour to pull together their soundtrack. Matrimelee is one of the very few exceptions – the rare example of a game score that is not just genuinely funny but also simply great music.
Tanaka writes one of the most ambitious Neo Geo soundtracks, by and large consisting of several songs – vocals, full band arrangements and all that, with no Red Book audio support. Matrimelee is a testament to how hard artists were able to push the ageing Neo Geo hardware 13(!) years after its release. Yes, the Neo Geo’s ADPCM channels add some graininess to the tracks, but this only adds to their charm – they sound like they are being played back on a transistor radio.
What about the music itself? It is a rollercoaster ride through wildly divergent musical genres that few other games have dared attempt. Each song dives headfirst into new sounds with boundless enthusiasm and abandon. “Fighting Games of Youth” is first-rate surf rock, “Let’s Go! Onmyoji” mixes irrepressibly bouncy euro trash techno with traditional Japanese instruments, the improbably moving “Our Secret” combines an electronically manipulated, child-like voice with ukulele and theremin… No matter how odd Tanaka’s stylistic choices get, what rarely changes is his consistently strong songwriting.
In other words – the secret to Matrimelee’s success is that its songs win you over, whether you get the jokes or not. So yes, you could just ignore the lyrics of the love-lorn, impassioned torch song “A Small Happiness” and just enjoy the song’s pathos and heaving emotions. However, the music turns from moving to hilarious once you understand that all the drama is not about a lost lover but rather some fries that the waitress took away too soon. Similarly, the protagonist of the sentai theme song homage “Poor Man No-money” turns out to be an office worker who has been laid off on a pitiful severance payment and whose superpower is taking up high-interest loans. It’s the Weird Al approach to parodies – combine emotionally charged music with lyrics about utter mundanity and you’ve got comedy gold on your hands.
Metal Slug Soundtrack
Takushi Hiyamuta / JIM, 1996
The Metal Slug soundtrack – or at least one half of it – is a prime example of how to work with musical stereotypes that so often turn tedious but, in the right hands, can trigger boundless excitement. Metal Slug’s composers rely on the kind of militaristic sounds you would expect for this kind of game: tense snare drum rolls, unceasing orchestral hits, belligerent brass fanfares, dramatic string melodies, all joining forces to throw gamers right into the midst of combat.
What’s different about Metal Slug is the staggering amount of ideas that the composers churn out, how fluidly the densely arranged compositions transition from one breathlessly exciting section to the next every few seconds. During these moments, Metal Slug is nothing less than one of the best orchestral action game scores of the 1990s. Its almost relentless bombast never falls flat, thanks to the sheer musical depth of these compositions. A piece like “Assault Theme (Stage 3)” – powered by eerie choir and syncopated hand percussion layers – is an absolute beast of a track, exhilarating and almost exhausting thanks to its constant, hammering tension and raging spectacle. “Main Theme from Metal Slug (Stage 1)” and “Final Attack (Stage 6)” also brim with energy, their single-minded focus empowering gamers as few other titles can.
But that’s only one facet of the soundtrack. The other side of the coin is announced by an unexpected but well-integrated saxophone solo on “Main Theme from Metal Slug (Stage 1)”. Half of the Metal Slug level tracks switch gears to a jazz-hard rock fusion approach that’s executed just as skilfully as the orchestral cues. Take the rhythmically tricky guitar and piano lines on “Inner Station (Stage 2)” before the track segues into soaring leads traded between guitar and trumpet. It’s no surprise that these rocking pieces feature impressively fully-fledged soli, but the impression of hearing an actual band performing is also created by less showy elements. For example, listen to finer details like the drums on “Gerhardt City (Stage 5)”, which sound improvisatory and loose enough to feel like the real thing. Last but not least, these jazz-rock cues underline the score’s ultimately light-hearted nature and find a link to the orchestral pieces, emotionally uniting Metal Slug’s two musical approaches – both are equally fun, crafted with utmost attention to detail and bolstering fighting spirits.
Neo Turf Masters Soundtrack (Neo Geo CD)
Takushi Hiyamuta, 1996
A golf simulator really isn’t the kind of game you’d expect to find in arcades – but that didn’t stop developer Nazca (of Metal Slug fame). They managed to produce one of the more accessible, fast-paced golf games in Neo Turf Masters. Takushi Hiyamuta’s soundtrack can make a similar claim to standing out from the crowd. Most golf titles go with easy listening music that unobtrusively noodles away in the background – one of the easiest kinds of game score to simply phone in. Hiyamuta chooses the same style of music but shows how great such a soundtrack can be when treated with utmost care. If Steely Dan had ever written game music, it would probably sound like Neo Turf Masters.
Yes, there’s an inherent cheesiness to this kind of velvety smooth jazz – but there’s also no denying that these compositions never meander or merely mark time like so many of their competitors in the same genre. Hiyamuta constantly delivers plenty of musical substance and strong, lengthy melodies. “Fuyijama Oriental Golf Club – Japan” sets the template with an upbeat solo piano introduction before saxophone and electric guitar trade off increasingly agitated lines that lead into a surprisingly ardent declaration of intent from the guitar. Indeed, as laid-back as this music might be, Hiyamuta’s compositions are rich enough that he can develop them with confidence as they rise and fall organically. Also, listen to his supple, creative bass – it’s practically another solo instrument, adding both taut rhythmic support that keeps the music grooving and melodic counterpoint.
The remaining cues vary this template in different ways, each time successfully. “Baden National Golf Course – Germany” evokes images of tropical beaches with its hand percussion and feathery female vocals – not necessarily appropriate underscoring for the location at hand, but all the more charming thanks to its warm melody hooks. “Grand Canyon Golf Course – USA” is the soundtrack’s brashest, most buoyant composition, filled with 80s synth fanfares and pressing, rock-inspired percussion. There are hints of Philly soul on “Blue Lagoon Golf Course – Australia” – again, not exactly geographically topical music, but it’s another skilfully implemented twist to Hiyamuta’s buttery musical approach. Also, the silvery, soothing synth lead propelled upwards by swirling strings during the cue’s B section makes for a fitting conclusion to this most delectable soundtrack.
Samurai Shodown III: Blades of Blood Soundtrack (Neo Geo CD)
Yoshihiko Kitamura / MARIKO / Mitsuo / Yasuo Yamate, 1995
The Samurai Shodown soundtracks have been groundbreaking in their steadfast dedication to traditional Japanese music. Even in their somewhat crudely synthesised versions on the Neo Geo, these scores dared to rely mainly on the sparse timbres of a few solo instruments such as shakuhachi, shamisen and koto. However, it was really on the live performances of the arrange albums (used in the games’ Neo Geo CD ports) that this music came alive – no wonder, given how much this minimalist style relies on the vivid, life-like rendering of each note.
Out of the franchise’s discography, it’s the Neo Geo CD version of Samurai Shodown III: Blades of Blood that takes the crown. Musically, the game doesn’t reinvent the wheel and follows the same approach as its two predecessors – it just does it better.
Again, there are those compositions that deploy only a handful of traditional Japanese instruments. These pieces remain low-key, but they are anything but dispassionate. There is a tightly controlled passion and single-minded focus quivering through those sensitively performed shakuhachi soli that make them immediately gripping – and since the melodic writing is richer this time, these tracks also continue to hold listeners’ attention. The composers make every single note count and are well aware of the music’s ritualistic severity and air of authority. They take this almost religious undercurrent to its logical conclusion on the mesmerising “Temple” – which mainly consists of animal noises in a night forest, massive gong strikes and what sounds like a distant children’s choir.
As on previous (and later) franchise scores, there is another, surprisingly different component to the soundtrack – those cues that introduce electric guitars and raging hard rock sounds. Initially, that might seem like the polar opposite of the score’s meditative moments – but the composers manage to bridge that gap. Here as well, the Japanese instruments usually take the melody lead, folded with impressive skill into the contemporary arrangements. Again, it helps that the songwriting is more robust and that the cues are better developed than on other Samurai Shodown soundtracks. What’s more, the composers are happy to experiment, leading to impressive results like “Lament of Sanzu River”. As if merging Western hard rock and Japanese folk music wasn’t enough, a high-strung, challenging solo violin adds a frenetic, invigorating touch of jazz fusion to one of the most virtuosic pieces in the entire Neo Geo discography.