Ecco the Dolphin
Spencer Nilsen, 1993
Like few other composers, Spencer Nilsen has left his mark on Sega CD music, thanks to his numerous works for the platform – and none is more impressive than Ecco the Dolphin. Harnessing Sega’s significant financial support and enthusiasm for the Sega CD’s audio capacities, Nilsen amassed thirty synthesisers and keyboards to write one of the most popular Western game soundtracks of the early 1990s, inspired by his fondness for the ocean and its creatures.
Nilsen called the resulting score “unique and different” – although that might have only been true within the realm of game music. To a film score fan’s trained ears, Nilsen’s languid, often melancholy synth lines and melodies more than once evoke Vangelis’ work in the science fiction genre. Then again, that stylistic lineage makes perfect sense. Nilsen was asked to underscore an underwater world free of all human elements – a universe as alien as outer space or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles.
At first listen, Ecco the Dolphin’s serene synth washes create a soothing, friction-free experience – mostly devoid of the spectral eerieness that characterised much of the Ecco games on the Sega Genesis. However, a wealth of musical depth hides beneath this relaxed, dreamy surface. Nilsen constantly reshuffles his intricately arranged synth layers around new musical ideas, so his compositions are always compelling enough to take listeners on a hypnotic journey. His clever use of gently propulsive rhythms holds the cues together and prevents them from dragging. Meanwhile, Nilsen’s silvery melodies are often enticingly unpredictable, even flighty – a captivating contrast to the mostly static synth backdrop.
Many of Nilsen’s compositions effortlessly emanate not just wondrousness but also a calm sense of awe and even majesty – more than anything else, Ecco the Dolphin is a masterful stroke of building an immersive, all-enveloping university through sound. But it’s not just this understated grandeur that has made this score such an all-time favourite. It is also those moments that movingly capture the loneliness of its protagonist as he traverses vast oceans and even time on his journey home.
Eye of the Beholder
Motohiro Kawashima / Yuzo Koshiro, 1994
Throughout the early 1990s, Yuzo Koshiro just wouldn’t stop breaking new ground. The proto-symphonic strains of Actraiser, the ever-more daring music of the Streets of Rage franchise that was the first to import electronic club music of the era into game soundtracks… and then there’s Eye of the Beholder, nothing less than a unique reimagination of what fantasy scores can sound like. Progressive techno as the aural backdrop for a high-fantasy dungeon crawler? It sounds like a bizarre concept, but such is the brilliance of Koshiro and co-composer Motohiro Kawashima’s compositions that their approach clicks.
This is not willy-nilly experimenting for the mere sake of new sounds – Koshiro and Kawashima actually hit their target and nail their assignment. Yes, their choice of musical style might be unusual. Still, with their penchant for creative, colourful arrangements, their music creates a surreal and otherworldly realm – and surely that’s exactly the kind of thing you’re looking for in a fantasy score. What’s more, their use of gratingly dissonant synths and violently clashing rhythms evokes precisely the sort of disorientation, claustrophobia and barely subdued panic your dungeon crawler score should generate.
It’s not just one harsh listening experience, though. Koshiro and Kawashima’s virtuoso brand of joyfully experimental electronica also includes more accommodating – if not entirely challenge-free – ambiences. Some cues feel like a quirkier take on the hypnotising warmth of early 90s Enigma tracks. Other compositions successfully bring classical elements into the fold – of course, not necessarily in the way one might expect. Clanging, zig-zagging piano lines battles creepily psychedelic synths, while elsewhere, the composers’ use of repetitive, impressionistic piano chords seems to predict elements of Masashi Hamauzu’s later trademark style. It’s another example of Koshiro and Kawashima’s astonishing control of the many sounds they organically merge into a heady, often uneasy, yet always inspiring whole – one of the most creative fantasy scores ever penned.
Lords of Thunder
Satoshi Miyashita, 1995
Lords of Thunder is one of those hallowed soundtracks revered enough that no review of the game is complete without mention of its fantastic metal score. It’s no hyperbole to state that Satoshi Miyashita’s Lords of Thunder – upon its original release on the TurboGrafx-CD in 1993 – set a new standard for metal game soundtracks.
However, while few will dispute the score’s superlative quality, there’s all the more debate on which version of the soundtrack is the winner – the TurboGrafx CD or the Sega CD conversion. At least for this writer, it’s a surprisingly straightforward case. The Sega CD version’s drums are overly booming, but the score’s cleaner sound is much preferable to the TurboGrafx CD’s buzzing, underpowered guitars. Yes, rough, thrashy metal is great, but the TurboGrafx CD’s guitars are nowhere near forceful enough to summon the raw intensity required to pull off this approach.
Like earlier metal game score landmark MUSHA, Lords of Thunder settles on power metal – its bombastic, melody-driven stylings the ideal choice to fire up gamers to take on a blistering shoot’em-up. There’s no doubt that Miyashita takes that goal seriously – what gives Lords of Thunder its distinct personality is how irresistibly uplifting and empowering the composer’s soaring cues are. His melodies stubbornly remain in various major keys, their instantly catchy hooks often taking inspiration from pop music.
What’s truly the stuff of legend, though, is Lords of Thunder’s guitar writing. Miyashita strikes a perfect balance between memorable melodies and fearsome shredding that unfailingly takes his compositions to their heroic, fists-raised-to-skies conclusion. In short: Lords of Thunder is simply tons of fun, filled to the brim with infectious determination and energy. It’s music to make you feel invincible, rushing forth on cresting waves of adrenaline and anthemic sing-along tunes – and so, it might well be the perfect introduction to metal game scores.
Yukie Marikawa, 1991
One of the Sega CD launch titles in Japan, Nostalgia 1907 is also, by some distance, the most obscure game on this list. It’s the port of a Sharp X68000 visual novel that asks players to solve the mystery of an explosion that has damaged an Atlantic ocean liner mid-journey – all while enjoying exclusively sepia-toned still images. On the Sharp X68000, the game’s soundtrack evoked an ominous, eerie mood that would have suited the generally low-key musical style of many adventure games.
However, on the Sega CD, composer Yukie Marikawa takes a decidedly different tack as she rearranges her work for the new platform. This is a surprisingly elaborate synth-orchestral score that had few equals at the time of its release. The soundtrack’s ambitions are somewhat clouded by its washy orchestral samples, which, combined with the music’s languid pacing and often calm melodies, give it a bit of a new-age slant. Listen more closely, though, and you will discover two things.
One is a string of leisurely-paced pieces that present the most romantic, sumptuous melodies heard on the Sega CD, usually on woodwinds against a warm bed of strings. Marikawa’s writing is astonishingly confident – her unfailingly beautiful melodies often unfold and develop over several minutes, constantly captivating listeners. While it is tempting to simply luxuriate in these alluring pieces, they also reward a closer listen. For example, notice how “Paris Lardy” evokes a waltz during its mid-section but never commits to a ¾ meter, remaining rhythmically complex and ambiguous.
The second discovery are the score’s less expansive compositions, which might well be compilations of yet shorter cues (no game rip is available for this soundtrack, only the – likely arranged – album release). These pieces feature denser, colourful orchestrations and assuredly handled changes of moods. This helps them to balance the score’s dreamier, delicate excursions with a healthy dose of cinematic drama.
In the end, Nostalgia 1907 might not sound particularly… well, nostalgic, but it creates a rich tapestry of sounds that beautifully suits its period subject matter. Also, involuntarily or not, the score’s echoey sound turns the music elusive, removing it from our reach – entirely appropriate for a sepia-toned game set in a past era.
Shining Force CD
Motoaki Takenouchi, 1994
For Motoaki Takenouchi, Shining Force CD was a sort of homecoming. From his first Shining Force score – 1992’s Shining Force Gaiden – Takenouchi had shown his fondness for classically-inspired compositions full of counterpoint and richly developed material. Takenouchi would develop this style further on later Shining Force titles, creating one of the best orchestral Sega Genesis scores with Shining Force II.
In 1994, Takenouchi was finally given a chance to render his work on a console that allowed for a reasonably realistic reproduction of orchestral sounds – the Sega CD. Shining Force CD is a remake of the first two franchise titles on the Game Gear, which somewhat holds the score back in scale. You can’t help but wish this was a more extended, grander soundtrack. Still, it takes the crown of the best orchestral score on the Sega CD (just ahead of Nostalgia 1907).
Having scored all Shining Force titles for the Game Gear, it’s only natural that Takenouchi rearranges some of his earlier music – but he also writes new material. Being able to work with a full (synth)orchestral palette, he shows a particular fondness for intertwining, elegantly arranged string lines. This becomes particularly obvious on his battle tracks, which blend surprisingly graceful, energising string phrasing with the required belligerent brass dissonances. Like all compositions on this soundtrack, these cues are veritable fountains of musical ideas, as Takenouchi constantly keeps his music on the move.
Just sample “Open Plains”, which surges forth with irresistibly youthful vigour and enthusiasm, its excitement the result of Takenouchi changing lead instruments every few seconds. Yes, this might be a short soundtrack, but cues like “Open Plains” help it to cover more musical ground than fantasy scores several times its length. “Ending 3” takes such busyness to exuberant heights, showcasing some of the most ambitious orchestral writing of the 16-bit era. Thrown in a couple of equally well-executed genre excursions – laid-back jazz on “Heavily Drunk”, traditional Japanese music on “Indoor Garden” – and you’ve got yourself a classic RPG score that deserves to be much better known.
Naofumi Hayata / Masafumi Ogata, 1993
The 16-bit console wars were bad enough, but needlessly outraged fans could still take things one ridiculous step further. For the release of Sega CD flagship title Sonic CD, Sega of America commissioned a new soundtrack to replace the Japanese original. Much hand-wringing has ensued since, targeting this supposedly “biggest injustice in localization history” (GameFan). Such hyperbole is hysterical nonsense. Yes, this writer also prefers the Japanese soundtrack – but in and of itself, Spencer Nilsen, David Young, and Mark “Sterling” Crew’s score is a carefully crafted work that benefits from its bigger budget, which allowed for the use of live instruments. Mind you, it is true that the US soundtrack is not as audacious and more subdued than the Japanese original. As a result, the score that American gamers received could, at times, feel a bit like slightly meandering background music.
Naofumi Hayata and Masafumi Ogata’s score for the Japan release is far more in-your-face, vibrant and bold. It also heavily uses early 90s electronica, drawing upon house, techno and trance (conspicuously absent on the American release). But that’s not all – the composers pull in a myriad of other genres, including the sci-fi synth funk that had characterised earlier Sonic soundtracks, riotous Caribbean influences (the Palmtree Panic cues burst at the seams with whirring energy), flashes of playfully cinematic drama (sample the soprano vocals on “Final Fever”) and many more. The soundtrack’s sheer stylistic scope and torrent of musical ideas is a marvel to behold – and they mirror the game’s immense ambition, time travel game mechanics and all.
The result is the first classic Sonic soundtrack and the franchise’s musical apogee up to that point (with apologies to all Sonic the Hedgehog 2 fans – yes, that score’s first half is excellent, but the quality dips quickly afterwards, and 15 minutes of outstanding music aren’t quite enough). Hayata and Ogata not only combine their smorgasbord of inspirations into a kaleidoscopic whole but also mould – rather than simply adapt – their influences into a fascinating new whole. Sonic CD might not be as idiosyncratic and daring as Eye of the Beholder (see above). However, both works twist early 90s electronica into unexpected shapes to build fantasy worlds that brim with colour and character – and the psychedelic Sonic CD arguably does so on a much larger scale.
Tommy Tallarico, 1993
Discussing Tommy Tallarico’s contribution to video game music is a frustrating undertaking. Through his tremendously successful Video Games Live concerts and the foundation of G.A.N.G. (Game Audio Network Guild), he has done more for game music than almost any other artist. Unfortunately, he is also prone to contentious, self-aggrandising statements, such as that he “is considered the person most instrumental in changing the game industry from bleeps & bloops to real music”. It also doesn’t help that most of his game soundtracks just aren’t that great.
There is one exception to the rule, though: The Terminator for the Sega CD (even though Tallarico’s claim that this was “the first game to ever use a live guitar” is bollocks). What Tallarico aims for on this score is not so much traditional game music underscoring. Instead, he pens a string of first-rate, exuberant pop metal cues that just happen to feature no vocals. ‘Exuberance’ is not necessarily a term you would readily associate with the Terminator franchise – what Tallarico delivers is the exact emotional opposite of Brad Fiedel’s bleak scores for the first two Terminator movies. Then again, Tallarico’s synth-heavy glam metal is precisely what would have ruled the airwaves in 1984, so his approach isn’t inappropriate either.
This is unabashedly melodic hard rock that perfectly balances its various genre inspirations. Tallarico’s searing guitar-shredding and solid riffing add gritty virtuoso energy, while his pop instincts keep the music approachable and catchy. The icing on this delicious cheesecake is the glossy, flawless album production, which coats everything in a big, shiny sound. This sort of music lives and dies on the strength of its melodies and hooks, and Tallarico delivers in spades. Listen to the circular keyboard melody on “Destinationz Unknown” – it’s the sort of thing REO Speedwagon and Journey built their hit singles on. Tallarico then adds more and more bombast as the cue spirals towards stadium rock heaven. Ultimately, there is one claim that this soundtrack can credibly make – it did push Western game music closer to the pop/rock mainstream than any other game score before it.