Blast Corps Soundtrack
Graeme Norgate, 1997
You could well make a claim that Blast Corps is the most creative, genre-busting soundtrack the Nintendo 64 has seen – not bad for a game with a premise as simple as “destroy all buildings in the path of a runaway nuclear missile carrier”. Then again, the Blast Corps found ingenious ways to complicate the gameplay situations that arose from its straightforward premise. So maybe it’s only natural that Graeme Norgate’s score also continuously surprises.
In short, Blast Corps’ music is gleefully all over the place, organically turning into another expression of the game’s eccentric character. The piece de resistance is no doubt “Destruction Hoedown”. Where else – if not in video game music – do you find a combination of wild country fiddle, banjo, mouth harp – and cheesy but oh-so-catchy mid-90s techno rhythms? The result is an instant classic, the sort of composition that’s utterly unique and executed to perfection, with hooks that are impossible to get out of your head the second you’ve heard them.
Not that anything else on Blast Corps sounds like “Destruction Hoedown” – Norgate refuses to settle on one musical style. If there is one recurring strain, it’s that a good part of Blast Corps sounds like a jolly construction site on the move – light, catchy industrial rhythms clanging about, clad in a seamless mix of electronic, rock, pop and orchestral elements.
However, what makes Blast Corps such riotous fun is not its consistency but its inextinguishable desire to try out new ideas. “Bombs Away” is the exact opposite of what you would expect to hear in a game about blowing up stuff. Gentle percussion and arpeggios combine with wistful synth melodies and French horn lines as if the world of Blast Corps stood still for a moment, and the gamer is left to contemplate its scope. “Upbeat Mood” is equally laid-back but uses 70s funk, wah-wah guitars and Hammond organ to reach that state of mind. And if you’re here for the action scoring, Norgate’s metal guitars on “Impending Disaster”, “The Alarm Sounds”, and “Major Trouble” have got you covered when they beef up the familiar industrial/orchestral mix. Blast Corps welcomes the arrival of a new console generation with a spectacular outburst of creativity, made possible by the new technology, heralding a bright future ahead.
Jun Chikuma, 1998
Bomberman Hero is the iconic franchise’s best score and one of the most unusual electronica game soundtracks of the 1990s. Back in the driver’s seat after sitting out Bomberman 64, series mainstay Jun Chikuma delivers what feels like the antithesis to the kind of action scoring you would expect in a game where the protagonist constantly blows up stuff. Interested in the concept of ‘absolute music’, Chikuma writes a score that doesn’t express any particular feelings or underscores locations and scenarios. She had toyed with minimalist, abstract compositions as early as Bomberman II on the NES. Super Bomberman III was the first obvious manifestation of the sound that would come to characterise Bomberman Hero.
However, those earlier works were held back by too much cutesy melodicism and a limited tonal palette. On Bomberman Hero, Chikuma takes the plunge and bravely delivers chilled-out electronica that relies only on a few instruments at a time. Her combination of drum & bass, breakbeats and acid techno was a novelty within game music, and the Chikuma executes this mix with hypnotic, intoxicating precision. Bomberman Hero might be much sparser than most game music electronica of its era, but its woozy sound gives the score a luscious character that makes these tracks much more approachable than one might think.
Each track unfolds calmly, while each instrument’s full-bodied, vibrant sounds are given plenty of space to breathe within the music’s uncluttered mix. Melodies often lie with mallet percussion instruments or electronic piano, imbuing the score with a 60s retro feel that perfectly suits its sense of effortless cool. Speaking of those lead melodies, Chikuma also knows how to write catchy, lilting melody riffs and meld them with her music’s fuzzy trippiness. Meanwhile, her skittish rhythms ensure that the music’s psychedelic meanderings never feel sophomoric and stay light on their feet.
Finally, let’s not forget those occasions where Chikuma tweaks and expands upon her formula – raising stakes on the terse, twitchy “Wok” and “Cell” or shooting the music into new realms on “Oropharynx”, its bleeping sci-fi synth leads turning into beacons disappearing in the depths of outer space. The Bomberman Hero soundtrack, on the other hand, shines brightly and warmly as one of game music’s most intriguing, smooth electronica scores.
GoldenEye 007 Soundtrack
Robin Beanland / Grant Kirkhope / Graeme Norgate, 1997
There’s no doubt that GoldenEye 007 was a game-changer. It turned consoles into a potential home for great first-person shooters, proved that games based on movie licences could be amazing – and sold a cool eight million copies in the process. GoldenEye 007 also produced one of gaming’s great FPS soundtracks, helped by the fact that its composers had the licence to use one of movie history’s most famous tunes – the immortal Bond theme.
This is where GoldenEye 007 makes the first of many smart musical choices. Other Bond games often overuse the theme and state it in full over and over again until the melody becomes merely obnoxious. GoldenEye 007, on the other hand, does an outstanding job at reprising the theme in a myriad of different disguises, constantly changing the structure, tempo and orchestration of the melody.
While it heavily relies on the Bond theme, GoldenEye 007 is almost the opposite of the elegant, sometimes jazzy Bond movie scores of yore. Instead, much of this soundtrack plays like a modern update of the Bond sound within the parameters of a stealth shooter. This translates to a string of surprisingly quiet compositions. Rhythms are usually persistent and driving but are given to softer instruments like xylophone and delicate electronics.
On top of this foundation, the composers skillfully mix orchestral, rock and electronic elements, creating spellbinding, subtly emotional music. Melodies are used sparingly but with masterful judgment about where they make the biggest impact. While the music might sometimes feel like it’s drawing characters and locations in subdued shades of grey, the score’s carefully sculpted, brooding atmospherics, flawless pacing and memorable melodies develop an almost hypnotic pull.
Norgate and Kirkhope (Beanland only composed the elevator music) are clearly patient enough to let each musical building block make its full impact before they add more – but equally, their music doesn’t turn monotonous either. And within their potentially limiting, hushed template of simple melodies, synth drones and constant tension, Norgate and Kirkhope achieve an impressive amount of tonal variety.
As the GoldenEye 007 soundtrack moves into its second half, it doesn’t drop its deliberate pacing and mix of traditional and modern musical elements but still becomes more outwardly dramatic. And once again, the composers prove themselves more than capable of coming up with fresh ideas and approaches for each level. Their most original concoction is “Control”, which uses suitably understated trip-hop rhythms to support the album’s most unexpected, twisted renditions of the Bond theme. The best score ever to grace a Bond video game, GoldenEye 007 manages something near-miraculous – it successfully reimagines an iconic franchise’s music decades into its existence.
Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards Soundtrack
Ando Hirokazu / Jun Ishikawa, 2000
Competing with Mickey’s Speedway USA for the title of ‘most fun Nintendo 64 score’, Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards returns the Kirby franchise to musical heights not seen since 1993’s Kirby’s Adventure on the NES. Series regulars Jun Ishikawa and Hirokazu Ando return, continuing the proud Kirby tradition of constantly upbeat and colourful scores. However, their writing is more melody-focused than on the rather superficial Kirby SNES games. Also, their compositions are better developed, packing more ideas and variety than any previous Kirby soundtrack.
Where Mickey’s Speedway USA taps into jazz’s swinging energy to make listeners happy, Kirby 64 delves into orchestral pop – the strongest example of this particular style on the Nintendo 64. Yes, the mood is still cartoony, and the bouncy compositions are eager to please at every single turn. Miraculously, the music doesn’t turn cloying – how so? In short, there’s a load of substance behind the score’s most delightful cues, backed by prominent, immediately catchy melodies and dense arrangements that make exemplary use of both acoustic and electronic instruments.
Particularly during its first half, Kirby 64 maintains the mood set on “Training” – easy-going melodicism, endearingly busy accompaniments that are too swift-footed for the music to ever turn saccharine, and an exhilarating rhythmic rush that contrasts effectively with the idyllic tunes. “Rock Star” and its pounding drums prepare the arrival of heavier tones that manifest on “Neo Star” and “Factory Inspection”. Rhythms now turn industrial and clanging, their interlocking layers carrying the music more than the sparser melodies do. It speaks volumes about the composers’ skills that such a change of scenery doesn’t disrupt the soundtrack’s overall musical shape. Instead, these compositions feel like organic expansions of the score’s palette, turning its usually adorable propulsive nature into something more awe-inspiring and grander in scale.
“Quiet Forest”, arguably the score’s most popular cue, eschews such constant motion for a far more measured approach. Its various chiming bell, synth and woodwind ostinati evoke a wondrous, almost mystical place – not the kind of thing you’d expect in a Kirby game, but executed to perfection here. Just as intriguing, though, is “Ripple Star”, presenting a fascinating mutant take on jazz that throws in harsh synth staccato chords and eerie electronic background chords. It’s a creative mix that works far better than one would expect – another sign of just how musically rich and accomplished this soundtrack is.
Mickey’s Speedway USA Soundtrack
Ben Cullum, 2000
Rare’s era-defining winning streak on the Nintendo 64 came to a screeching halt with Mickey’s Speedway USA. No, the game wasn’t bad, but ‘pretty good’ felt underwhelming after the likes of Blast Corps, GoldenEye 007, Diddy Kong Racing, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Perfect Dark. In other words – this is not the kind of game you would expect to produce one of the most fun soundtracks of the fifth console generation. Praise be to Ben Cullum for defying the odds.
Mickey’s Speedway USA has no other ambition than to please and entertain. Far too often, game soundtracks that are required to sound cheery throughout their runtime use this as an excuse to churn out superficial, flimsy compositions. What’s so impressive about Cullum’s work here is just how much musical substance he pours into his relentlessly playful template – surpassing even David Wise’s work on Diddy Kong Racing. In short, it’s an absolutely fantastic feel-good album.
Given the cartoony license, there was no way for Mickey’s Speedway USA not to sound cute, but in Cullum’s capable hands, that consistently adorable character never turns cloying. He mixes jazz and 70s funk to energise the music, giving it a nice touch of class and creating a constantly swinging, celebratory mood that doesn’t grate. Rare’s technical prowess is evident in the quality of the instrument samples, providing the crucial warmth and immediacy that this music needs to make its full impact.
With 22 racing tracks, one might expect Cullum to stretch his smooth formula beyond breaking point, but that’s not the case. There are a ton of details that set each track apart – the disco strings on “San Francisco”, the lush big band jazz of “Las Vegas”, uptempo jazz scoring a bustling metropolis on “New York”, and on the opposite end of the spectrum the relaxed smooth jazz of “Malibu”. The most apparent stylistic divide within Mickey’s Speedway USA lies between tracks for city races and cues that underscore rural locations. On the latter, Cullum again colours inside the lines. Still, he does so with his usual panache and dependable penchant for quality compositions when he throws steel guitar, fiddle, harmonica, banjo and warm, Americana-style strings into the mix.
No matter what stereotypes Cullum’s arrangements draw upon, they all contribute to Mickey’s Speedway USA’s ceaselessly fun and buoyant character. It’s an unlikely contender for the title of Rare’s last great N64 score, but Cullum’s work has far too much charm to deny it this honour.
Perfect Dark Soundtrack
David Clynick / Grant Kirkhope / Graeme Norgate, 2000
Let’s make a bold statement: Perfect Dark is arguably a better game than GoldenEye 007. It allowed Rare to finetune their approach to developing a first-person shooter. The game also pushed the Nintendo 64 to its limits and crammed a jaw-dropping amount of content into the humble 32 MB cartridge. Then again, GoldenEye 007 had arguably been the more groundbreaking title, while Perfect Dark was an immense refinement rather than another quantum leap.
You could say similar things about the Perfect Dark soundtrack, which isn’t necessarily greater than GoldenEye 007’s (comparisons are inevitable, given the games share two composers – Grant Kirkhope and Graeme Norgate). However, Perfect Dark is a first-rate demonstration of how to write a brilliant sequel score that smartly tweaks its predecessors’ musical approach, creating something both familiar and excitingly fresh.
By and large, Perfect Dark fits the same mould as Golden Eye 007. This is mainly subdued, brooding music for a stealth game, doing an impressive job at holding listeners’ attention throughout many extended, often low-key compositions. However, GoldenEye007’s pieces often achieved a nearly hypnotic impact by juxtaposing sparse textures with repetitive, memorable melodies on a single solo instrument. Kirkhope’s flawless judgment of pacing his cues and ability to write compelling melodies remains intact on Perfect Dark. However, this time his orchestrations are lusher and more intricate, carefully layered and sculpted.
Another substantial difference that comes with Perfect Dark’s futuristic backdrop is a distinct lack of GoldenEye007’s grittiness. Instead, from the very first track, Perfect Dark’s sci-fi, neo-noir elegance fittingly underscores the architecture of the game’s locations – all shiny metal surfaces gleaming in the night and massive structures cast in imposing angles. Perfect Dark’s score also aptly emphasises the game’s larger scale – all while eschewing theatrics – by adding choral vocals and theremin-like, whistled melodies, ingeniously accentuating the music’s alien qualities.
However, this isn’t music that’s constantly cool to the touch. “Chicago: Stealth” is a striking melange of haunting atmospherics and outright melodicism, with the whistled lead melody suddenly sounding lonely rather than unsettling. Also, like GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark – despite the static nature of many of its compositions – knows how to ramp things up as the stakes keep rising. The flawlessly executed climax of this build-up is the suitably epic final boss track “Skedar Leader”. The composition showcases Kirkhope’s ability to also write extended action tracks, thanks to an abundance of perfectly developed material.
Neil Voss, 1997
For several decades, very few Western game soundtracks would receive a standalone score release. It’s encouraging to see that this didn’t stop deserving works from receiving the acclaim they were due. Case in point: Neil Voss’ Tetrisphere, voted “Best Soundtrack” at Nintendo Power’s 1997 annual awards and widely recognised as one of the greatest Nintendo 64 scores.
Indeed, this is the most creative, complex and best-developed electronic soundtrack on the console. Many puzzler scores tactfully remain in the background to avoid breaking gamers’ concentration. Tetrisphere also accomplishes this feat with its steadily paced, mid-tempo techno cues, but this music is anything but subdued and low-key. Voss’ creation is far more ambitious than most other puzzle scores, amounting to a fully-fledged piece of sci-fi world-building that could also play in a futuristic RPG.
Tetrisphere is full of musical and atmospheric complexities, constantly finding new ways to express the twitchy tension of the game’s challenging 3d gameplay. Voss’ melodies are twisting, squelching, unpredictable creations, backed by layers upon layers of syncopated beats that inject the music with nervous energy. Eerie, spacious background synths give the score an uneasy sense of scale that preserves the music’s edginess and feeling of subtle discomfort. All these elements combine to create acidic, at times paranoid music that’s designed to keep players on edge while pushing them forward – all while developing flawlessly. Witness how “T. Grey” builds from its down-tempo start, hinting just enough at that high-strung jitter running through many other pieces to slowly and convincingly build towards that particular mood.
Voss sustains the soundtrack’s extensive run time by exploring the full emotional range his musical template allows. “Faze”, “Phony” (with its Prodigy inspirations), and “ManicDrumMix” take no prisoners and let the music’s usually controlled aggression bubble to the surface, leaning into harsh robotic leads and erratic, disorienting drum rhythms. “Flim Flam” creatively uses 70s wah-wah synths to create a dense, claustrophobic backdrop for its whirring polyrhythms.
At the other end of the spectrum, “Hallucid”, “Perpetuate303”, and “Learn” function as necessary breathers. The music slows to an ethereal, floating pace, the near psychedelic mood soothing listeners after what can be an intense listening experience elsewhere. Mind you, Voss still convincingly inserts his trenchant melody leads into this calming environment to sustain the soundtrack’s overall caustic mood – yet more proof of Tetrisphere’s level of sheer excellence.
Top Gear Rally Soundtrack
Barry Leitch, 1997
The Top Gear franchise’s most prolific period was the 64-bit era when Top Gear Rally, Top Gear: Overdrive, Top Gear Rally 2 and Top Gear Hyper-Bike hit the Nintendo 64 in quick succession. Top Gear Rally saw the return of a familiar name: Barry Leitch, who had scored the first two Lotus games and Top Gear in the early 1990s. However, at first listen, Top Gear Rally’s soundtrack doesn’t bear much resemblance to the sleek 1980s-inspired synth sounds of Leitch’s earlier racing game scores – maybe befitting the gritty terrain these race cars have to traverse.
“Mountain” is the best example of Top Gear Rally’s harsher approach. It’s the soundtrack’s most driven and abstract cue, grabbing listeners’ attention with its build-up of polyrhythmic synth lines and borderline grating, industrial guitar sounds. The cue also shows how meticulously Leitch constructs his lengthy compositions. Witness how he adapts his trademark staccato melody figures into something more skittish and high-strung to suit the track’s twitchy nature. He then carefully and subtly weaves the result – a nervous pulse that suddenly peaks and trails off – into the composition’s fabric.
While Top Gear Rally is far more focused on heavy beats than Leitch’s earlier franchise scores, it doesn’t entirely forsake their melodicism. “Jungle”’s melody glistens like polished chrome, soaring above a rhythmic backdrop of coarse metal guitars. Leitch plays up the contrast between his gliding melodies and monster riffs to full effect. Rock and electronic elements also mingle on “Coastline”. Here, the drums take on a huge, pounding sound that contrasts with the fidgety, complex electronics and another catchy staccato melody that isn’t too far removed from what Leitch had written for Top Gear.
However, Leitch’s best-developed melody arrives on the final track “Desert”. It’s an introspective, tentative lead that Leitch first develops for over a minute by splitting it across the two stereo channels and playing with call-and-response patterns. Then he manages to twist the initially downcast melody into a surprising statement of determination as it climbs the scale and reaches its defiant, if only brief, conclusion. On a score that is never short of ideas, it’s the most unexpected moment and further proof that the Top Gear Rally soundtrack is capable of marrying a full-on electronic adrenaline rush with compositional elegance.
Wonder Project J2 Soundtrack
Akihiko Mori, 1996
After scoring Wonder Project J like the world’s most lavish children’s movie, Akihiko Mori returned for Wonder Project J2 – writing his last major score before passing away in 1998 at the age of 31. Drawing parallels between a composer’s life circumstances and the music they produce is often a fraught undertaking. Still, it’s hard not to take note of Wonder Project J2’s wistful mood without thinking of what was ahead for Mori.
Given the composer had made a name for himself with orchestral SNES soundtracks of rare sophistication, density and melodic beauty, would his music become even more elaborate and lush on the more powerful Nintendo 64? Actually, Wonder Project J2 moves in the opposite direction, responding to the game’s more reflective mood. Mori relies less on contrapuntal structures than any of his major SNES soundtracks. On many occasions, he is happy to have one melody, backed by unobtrusive orchestrations, carry a composition. Of course, for a gifted melodicist like Mori, that’s not a problem – although it’s hard to deny that the quality of Wonder Project J2 is spottier than that of the composer’s previous classics.
Whereas Wonder Project J was all about the excitement of embarking on an adventure, its successor is more concerned with establishing and preserving a sense of home and belonging – reassuring stasis instead of reaching out for new horizons. True, the panache of Mori’s earlier works returns as the Wonder Project J2 soundtrack discovers – for a while – its sense of optimism and excitement. There is also no shortage of militaristic, tense action music, creating a sense of conflict that was absent on Wonder Project J.
Ultimately though, what the Wonder Project J2 soundtrack focuses on is amplifying its predecessor’s undercurrent of melancholia and yearning (relying heavily on its main theme, which carries over from Wonder Project J). Take the score’s ending, which cautiously yet hopefully looks towards the future. Closing the soundtrack with the same wistfulness that opened it – but mixing in more optimism – “I Believe in Tomorrow….” is a calm orchestral ballad. It’s also one final showcase of Mori’s orchestral prowess, as he carries the four-minute piece almost solely through moving woodwind variations of the main theme. It’s farewell towards an unknown fate, but hope persists at the end of what is the Nintendo 64’s greatest orchestral soundtrack.
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