The Adventures of Batman & Robin
Jesper Kyd, 1995
Like maybe no other Genesis composer, Jesper Kyd had an instantly recognisable sonic signature that set his music apart from everything else created for the platform. His forte was gorgeously rendered techno music unravelling at glacial speed, developing a hypnotic pull that easily carries its lengthy compositions. Initially, The Adventures of Batman & Robin feels like a slightly tweaked iteration of this very specific – if quite unique – formula established on Sub-Terrania and Red Zone.
However, a few cues into Batman & Robin, it will dawn on listeners that this is Kyd’s most bracing, exhausting soundtrack so far. Where he previously moved his pieces forward by adding and subtracting elements every few seconds, here Kyd is happy to test how far he can stretch sparser, more repetitive material that’s often bereft of the catchy melody bits he peppered previous scores with. What powers Kyd’s cues are the most forceful, pounding beats heard on any Genesis game – the clarity and volume of his harmonised bass lines is truly something to behold. It feels like Kyd is responding to the game’s genre – an action-packed platformer – by turbocharging his approach, relying on hammering techno stylings much more than on previous scores.
To this sombre, sometimes suffocatingly heavy soundscape, Kyd adds more and more punishing dissonances that are a novelty in his oeuvre. “Dark Studio” is the best example of the challenging listening experience that results – seven minutes (not looped) of gloomy atmospherics and thumbing beats mixed with disorienting rhythms and knotty, biting leads. Making it through this unforgiving track – and the soundtrack as a whole – can feel like work. However, stick with the music, and you’ll be rewarded with a listening experience whose intensity is only rivalled on the Genesis by Alien Soldier.
Kyd’s accomplishment on The Adventures of Batman & Robin is creating a novel, convincing musical identity for a character as well-established as Batman. There’s no trace of the Gothic musical overtones previously associated with the character. Instead, Kyd goes for a far more dystopian, sci-fi-flavoured atmosphere, both futuristic and grimy – its textures so dense and its mood often so nightmarish that Batman & Robin’s exquisitely constructed wall of sound almost overwhelms. In other words, it perfectly fits a location like Gotham City, constantly shrouded in night and danger. Batman & Robin might well be the most monolithic soundtrack written for the Genesis and is a fitting culmination of Kyd’s particular brand of daunting maximalism.
Alien Soldier Soundtrack
Norio Hanzawa, 1995
There is no shortage of superlatives that Norio Hanzawa’s Alien Soldier deserves – “most intense”, “most daring”, “most creative”, and the list goes on. It’s hard to imagine an action game score – not just 16-bit, but across the entire history of game music – that is more ambitious, more bursting at the seams with raging originality.
Even more so than Contra, this is an AAA action score that dares to innovate on a massive scale – a true auteur’s vision that is exhausting but intensely rewarding. It is no exaggeration to say that Alien Soldier is such an incredible treasure trove of musical riches that its musical depth and complexity rival the most sophisticated RPG scores of the era. Alien Soldier confounds and confronts on many occasions. However, unlike an equally bracing action score like Streets of Rage 3, Hanzawa subscribes to a stunning brand of no-holds-barred maximalism.
That said, while this is a raging whirlwind of a score, it is not the constant onslaught one might expect from a game that’s essentially one long boss rush. “X-Ages” and “Silent” take the soundtrack’s profoundly experimental bent into a decidedly minimalist direction, using wispy synth pulses, clashing polyrhythms and single-note melodies to build on the soundtrack’s heady character. The psychedelic “!!!…Shade…” and “Epsilon-Ally” float past some particularly colourful galaxies without losing the uneasy sense of tension running through this score. Meanwhile, “3-Prayers” and “Galaxy Desert” are islands of (mostly) uninterrupted melodicism in a sea of disorienting musical experimentation.
Of course, the parts of Alien Soldier that register with unequalled force are its quirky, jaw-droppingly fierce action cues. It’s here that Hanzawa raises the bar for sheer ferocity on a Genesis score, even past a soundtrack like Phantom 2040. Pretty much any other game would be more than happy to have “Runner AD2025” as its final boss track – here’s its merely the first level tune. Hanzawa combines synth arrangements of nearly symphonic depth with traits of avant-garde electronica – such as discordant, baffling melodies and a readiness to deploy screaming dissonances liberally. The composer takes absolutely no prisoners on the nightmarish “Perfect Thing”, which piles bizarre melodies on top of each other, or “Blacksheep” – an unforgiving and wild scream of rage that feels like the most confronting mix between horror scoring and industrial metal the Genesis could muster. Alien Soldier is an overwhelming experience – but one that is unique among game scores.
Hikoshi Hashimoto / David Wise, 1993
Let’s start with a bit of housekeeping. It’s not officially confirmed that Hikoshi Hashimoto arranged David Wise’s NES Battletoads score for the game’s Sega Genesis port. However, Hashimoto definitely handled the music for the Game Gear port – developed by the same company as the Genesis version. Wise himself would not have ported his score – it was practically unheard of in the mid-90s for a Western composer to work on a Japanese game. Lastly, Battletoads on the Sega Genesis uses the Z80 sound driver popular among Japanese composers at the time. All things told it seems reasonably safe to assume Hashimoto handled the Genesis port.
Thankfully, these considerations matter little once we move to the music itself. Porting Wise’s idiosyncratic NES soundtrack is not an easy feat. Just consider the score’s Amiga and Amiga CD32 versions, which turned the music into a decent-to-middling action game soundtrack that was missing the original’s nervous pulse and twitchy intensity, despite higher-quality synths. On the Genesis, Hashimoto manages to avoid this issue, retaining the NES original’s character while subtly tweaking it.
But first, there are those more straightforward compositions that would have always been easier to port. Take “Turbo Tunnel Bike Race”, which had already been a flawless, beautifully head-banging hard rock track on the NES. Transferring it to the superior Genesis sound chip only means that the rhythm section’s single-minded focus on breathless racing action comes across all the more powerfully. Similarly, “Title Screen – Opening” doesn’t need much tweaking to rock harder than its NES equivalent while preserving its strident, catchy nature.
However, much of the original Battletoads soundtrack was surprisingly moody and jagged. Porting the score to a 16-bit platform inevitably removes much of the NES chiptunes’ haziness and their elusive nature that Wise had deployed so masterfully. However, Hashimoto finds a suitable replacement to keep the music unpredictable. His version of Battletoads preserves the original’s sense of eccentricity thanks to new, sudden changes of timbres. These combine perfectly with Wise’s erratic melodies and their confounding stop-start dynamics. On the NES as on the Genesis, such an approach makes for a surprisingly cerebral, abstract action score that does not entirely relinquish its energetic drive, but twists it into unstable shapes to deconstruct itself. Ultimately, the NES original remains the more creative work, but the Genesis Battletoads soundtrack is still immensely intriguing – a peculiar action score like no other on the platform.
Beyond Oasis Soundtrack
Yuzo Koshiro, 1994
The Sega Genesis saw its fair share of groundbreaking soundtracks towards the end of its lifespan. However, Beyond Oasis is a particular rare case – unique on the Genesis and possibly among thousands of FM synthesis game soundtracks. It is an amalgamation of several trends that ran through the work of Yuzo Koshiro, one of game music’s true innovators, during the early 1990s.
The first trend was Koshiro’s interest in reproducing orchestral music on 16-bit platforms. Writing the first noteworthy orchestral SNES score – 1990’s Actraiser – Koshiro raised the stakes three years later with Actraiser 2. Its first level cue has remained one of the most complex orchestrally-styled compositions heard on the SNES. With Beyond Oasis, Koshiro took his ambitions to yet another level. While Shining Force II manages to use FM synthesis to replicate melody-focused, movie soundtrack-inspired orchestral music on the Genesis, Koshiro has something even more difficult in mind.
Much of the music on Beyond Oasis is nothing less than an attempt to write classical music – with its constantly developing material, often low-key mood and less obvious melodies – on the Genesis. It is an enormous challenge – the Genesis sound chip imposes obvious timbral limitations and melodic outbursts are usually confined to heroic brass fanfares (then again, Beyond Oasis does feature the most accomplished writing for brass of any Genesis score, as well as the console’s most convincing woodwind emulations). However, Koshiro overcomes all these obstacles, writing music of an emotional and structural complexity unmatched on the Genesis. Beyond Oasis requires close attention and doesn’t give away all its secrets at once – but that’s what makes it so enticing and invites many repeat listens.
There’s more still. Towards the second half of the score, Koshiro starts to mix in his radically experimental streak of electronica that had made Streets of Rage 3 such an acquired taste. Beyond Oasis isn’t as daring, but “Water Cave” returns that earlier score’s seemingly random melody leads, brilliantly merged here with fantasy scoring hallmarks. “Confrontation” and “Deep Hole” surprise in different ways, relying on almost confrontingly simple melodies that build intrigue through their nightmarish harmonisations. This is the Koshiro who a few months earlier rewrote fantasy scoring rules with Eye of the Beholder, creating a surreal ghost world unlike any other heard in a 16-bit RPG. Put simply, Beyond Oasis is another boundary-breaking masterpiece in the composer’s storied career.
Contra: Hard Corps Soundtrack
Aki Hata / Hiroshi Kobayashi / Hirofumi Taniguchi / Michiru Yamane / Akira Yamaoka, 1994
Surprising and confounding gamers has been part of the Contra franchise’s musical DNA since the 1987 original’s “Pulse of Shudder”, with its constantly shifting time signatures – a rarity for a game score of the era. Such rhythmic adventurousness continued with Contra III: The Alien Wars on the SNES, its booming rock-orchestral action pieces far lighter on their feet than the competition.
When the Contra franchise finally graced the Sega Genesis in 1994 with Contra: Hard Corps, the game followed in its predecessors’ challenging footsteps – but in a different way. It adopts various strains of hardcore techno and merges them with equally in-your-face thrash metal to arrive at a mix that’s rhythmically fairly straightforward. However, its melodies are often screaming, dissonant creations. The result is the most ambitious, bracing score in the series.
Konami’s dream team of composers fold their acidic leads into dissonant, borderline experimental arrangements that surpass even the white-hot intensity of earlier franchise scores. In this regard, Hard Corps is reminiscent of similarly punishing Genesis scores like Phantom 2040. The enticing difference is that Hard Corps isn’t constrained to a single (albeit large) location like Phantom 2040. Instead, it paints on a larger canvas, evoking an entire, nightmarish sci-fi world through its endlessly inventive compositions.
That opens up spaces for the composers to try out some wild ideas, and such readiness to go bizarre sets Hard Corps apart from other accomplished 16-bit action scores. “Jurassic Dope” very quickly makes it clear that this will be the strangest Contra score yet, its synth leads turning increasingly odd as they warble towards some nightmarish parallel dimension. The score’s greater sense of scale also makes space for a cue like “The Foggy Cave in the Darkness” that draws gothic elements into its electronic soundscape to create a strikingly low-key, slow-burning menace. At the other end of the spectrum, “Last Springsteen” features the Genesis’ most savagely hammering metal riffage and blistering, unpredictable guitar soli – a suitable epic and brutal climax to the soundtrack.
Contra: Hard Corps is also a beautiful example of the importance of hardware recordings – at least on the Genesis. On emulators, the score’s cleaner, long-winded melodies often have a bleepy, thin timbre that seriously undermines the music’s energy. Rendered properly, the melody lines expertly balance the score’s rhythmic and textural assault on one of the 16-bit era’s most ferocious action scores.
Dyna Brothers 2 Soundtrack
Masami Yitsuse, 1993
Given how thoroughly composers explored all facets of electronic music on the Sega Genesis, it’s a bit surprising that there aren’t a lot of great pop scores on the system. Dyna Brothers 2 sits atop that particular sub-genre of Genesis titles. That’s all the more surprising, given Dyna Brothers 2 belongs to the real-time strategy genre – which usually isn’t known for bouncy melodies.
But that’s precisely what Dyna Brothers 2 delivers in spades (although the score does run a bit out of steam towards the end). From the start, Masami Yitsuse writes track after track, charming with their sunny mood and impressing with their sheer number of excellent, catchy melodies. It’s this melodic richness and variety that helps the soundtrack stand out from the competition. Dyna Brothers 2’s best cues are fully-fledged J-pop songs arranged for the Genesis – glossy, delightful hook machines.
If all that sounds easy and obvious, it’s not – behind the many, many sing-along ditties lie some clever decisions on Yitsuse’s part to keep the lengthy score intriguing. Melody is obviously king on this soundtrack. However, the composer’s arrangements – while staying out of the tunes’ way – add enough tasteful ornamentation and arpeggios to imbue the songs with a welcome lushness. What’s more, while the soundtrack’s buoyant mood rarely changes, Yitsuse clearly knows how to make the most of small changes to the soundtrack’s formula. The laid-back, gently wistful mood on “Last Letter to You”, the more stringent rhythm section of “Stand-Up! And Go!” (including steely bass), and contrasts between back-to-back cues like the relaxed “Several Years After” and the excitable “Too Late” all help to keep the music fresh.
There’s also the fact that Yitsuse can write energising synth soli, which gives cues like “The End of the Modern Century” a greater sense of scale. That comes in handy on those tracks that actually sound like they might be underscoring battling dinosaur armies. The drums settle into a (fairly gentle) gallop, Yitsuse rachets up the score’s already abundant energy further through added chordal backing, and we get a handful of head-bopping power anthems that don’t break the score’s stylistic mould but simply accentuate some of its most endearing features. In the Genesis’ rich discography, Dyna Brothers 2 is a most welcome surprise.
Ecco: The Tides of Time Soundtrack
Andy Armer / Attila Dobos / David Javelosa / András Magyari, 1994
There’s no doubt that Ecco: The Tides of Time is a defiantly odd score, standing out even amidst the wave of late-era Genesis scores that were not afraid to push boundaries. Its approach defies easy categorisation, landing somewhere between the borderline horror of its predecessor on the Genesis and the new-age awe and majesty of Ecco the Dolphin on the Sega CD. The compositions on Ecco: The Tides of Time are significantly better developed than their counterparts on the Genesis’ Ecco the Dolphin. At the same time, Ecco: The Tides of Times retains enough of its predecessor’s spectral creepiness to make for a much more uneasy listen than Ecco the Dolphin on the Sega CD. Like that earlier game, Ecco: The Tides of Time does a superb job at creating an alien world – but it is a far stranger realm than the one found on Ecco the Dolphin.
This is easily the most experimental entry in the Ecco franchise. Several tracks are built around droning bass pads. Meanwhile, complex layers of sometimes dissonant percussion ostinato circle sparse melodies that only occasionally submit to something as emotional as Ecco the Dolphin’s wistfulness. There’s an inherent tension between these languid melodies and the relentlessly ticking percussion – one of the factors that makes this, at times, eccentric score so entrancing. Not surprisingly, there’s a tendency for the music to sound distant and icy. However, that’s carefully balanced by the bass drum and bass’ inherent warmth, which keeps the music emotionally approachable.
Within this already peculiar stylistic framework, the composers add further surprises. There’s the music’s embrace of prog and psychedelic rock when the cues turn more melody-focused. As abstract and deliberately-paced as Ecco: The Tides of Time often feels, it is by no static. The best example is “Crystal Springs”, which opens with a driving bass solo and folds funky grooves into the score’s rather ethereal pattern, here filled with chromatic, whining glissandi – an unlikely but successful mix of disparate elements. “Tube of Medusa” almost manages to combine pop, freestyle synth soli and discordant melodies into a convincing whole. Meanwhile, “Convergence”’s yearning B section works its way to an honest-to-goodness lush and uplifting conclusion. Delving into Ecco: The Tides of Time truly feels like a trip into the unfathomable depths of the ocean, a foreign world viewed through the distorting lens of myriads of undersea crystals.
Elemental Master Soundtrack
Toshiharu Yamanishi, 1990
After the Sega Genesis’ release, it took the platform two full years to generate consistently great, original soundtracks. However, when they finally arrived, they did so via the vigorous one-two punch of Elemental Master and MUSHA, showcasing just how great the Genesis could sound in the right hands. Toshiharu Yamanishi had been responsible for the better parts of the only-occasionally-brilliant Thunder Force III, and with developer Technosoft’s Elemental Master, he gets to write his first classic game score. Clearly, Technosoft knew how to make the Genesis’ Yamaha YM2612 sound chip sing during the console’s early days – they were also responsible for the first excellent soundtrack on the platform: Herzog Zwei.
There’s benefit in comparing Elemental Master in a bit more detail with the games listed above. MUSHA presents itself as the epitome of the adrenaline rush that so many shoot ’em ups seek – a relentless barrage of heavy metal riffs and fierce melodies. Elemental Master takes a much more measured approach, mostly opting for mid-tempo synth rock with distinct pop and prog influences. That mix might not be unusual for a 16-bit shoot ’em up. What does make Elemental Master stand out is the sweeping, detailed development of cues like “Cursed Destiny”. This characteristic gives the music the feel of a sprawling RPG score while borrowing the focused forward drive and momentum of the best shooter soundtracks.
Where Elemental Master resembles Herzog Zwei – that earlier Technosoft soundtrack – is how the score feels simultaneously grand and catchy (helped by some beautifully punchy FM drums). Yamanishi opens “Dance of Flames”, “Like the Wind”, and “Until the End of the Earth” with all-mighty synth hooks that are among the most memorable melodic ideas the Sega Genesis has witnessed. He then marries these fist-to-the-sky moments with complex, multi-layered arrangements and moments of majesty, for example during the second half of “Like the Wind”. Glassy leads, stately echoing melodies and what sounds like an organ solo all add a welcome touch of grandiosity – again, this is not your typical shooter action rush.
A few genre excursions top off the Elemental Master score. “Blood-Stained Lake” is a more straightforward rocker, while “Terror of the Glacier”’s trembling, chromatically twisted leads evoke a horror-adjacent mood befitting the cue’s title. Finally, closing track “Setting Out” mixes pounding rock rhythms and guitars with a J-Pop-inspired, expansive melody lead that turns appropriately soaring during the choruses. In short, it’s one of the greatest pop songs of the 16-bit era and another jewel in the soundtrack’s crown.
Matt Furniss, 1992
Matt Furniss’ reputation as one of the wizards who pushed the Sega Genesis sound chip to its limits is well-established. However, he isn’t necessarily known as a composer of fantasy scores – but that’s precisely what Galahad (released initially as Leander on the Amiga) is. What’s more, at least on the level of individual compositions, this is nothing less than Furniss’ most structurally ambitious work.
Look no further than “Title Theme”, where synth ostinato stabs, pounding percussion and swirling strings effortlessly set the required epic fantasy mood. Never forsaking its Gothic spirit, the cue develops flawlessly, constantly and seamlessly integrating new material, melodies and ambiences. What’s particularly surprising is Furniss’ ability to write more classically-inspired material. His fantastically powerful rhythms don’t come as a surprise but no other score of his features such pronounced contrapuntal writing.
Generally speaking, Furniss’ version of the Galahad soundtrack has little to do with its Amiga predecessor. “World One” is the only substantial cue that reprises material heard on the Amiga, but it expands significantly on the original. Clocking in at more than seven minutes (looped), “World One” is a magnificent accomplishment, densely arranged with layers upon layers of melodies and rhythms. Like the entire score, the cue is also a delicate balancing act pulled off superbly. The medieval atmosphere evoked by its melody leads meshes seamlessly with the contemporary – and absolutely spectacular-sounding – percussion. Furniss’ melodies are almost lilting and usually optimistic – this is a score that mixes the often carefree mood and energetic drive of a platformer with the musical and atmospheric complexities of an RPG score.
“World Two” and “World Three” feature entirely original material – and while they are not as expansive as earlier pieces, they benefit from the same superb development that sees them pushing from melody to melody within seconds. Meanwhile, Furniss’ sturdy percussion holds the track together and moves it forward. “World Three” is tenser still than “World Two”, leaning into its pop / rock elements more strongly. Furniss’ arrangement remains ornate, with a focus on bell-like instruments and metal percussion that help to heighten the game’s fantasy atmosphere. Undoubtedly, the Galahad soundtrack is one of the most sweeping Sega Genesis fantasy scores – showcasing a new facet to Furniss’ talents.
Gauntlet IV Soundtrack
Masaharu Iwata / Hitoshi Sakimoto, 1993
There’s not exactly a surplus of excellent high fantasy scores on the Sega Genesis, particularly compared to its arch-rival, the SNES. Thankfully, two of game music’s greatest fantasy score writers – Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata – blessed the Genesis with one of their best works: Gauntlet IV. It helps that their talents also extend into the technical realm, with Sakimoto’s Terpsichorean sound driver creating some of the richest FM synthesis known to gamers. Gauntlet IV also marked an important transition in the career of these two artists. Together with the same year’s Ogre Battle and Super Back to the Future Part II, it saw the composers start to branch out into the lush orchestral-style game music they would become famous for.
However, they don’t turn Gauntlet IV into a purely orchestral affair in the melody-focused, late-romantic style that so many fantasy scores rely on. Instead, this is a fascinating mix of classical and experimental fantasy scoring – an approach that would find its apogee within Sakimoto’s oeuvre with Vagrant Story. That’s not to say that this soundtrack doesn’t pull off traditional fantasy bombast really well – it does, possibly better than any other Sega Genesis score. “Sortie” quickly explodes into one of the console’s most heroic brass melodies, bursting at the seams with exuberant energy and sounding fantastically punchy and towering. “Retribution” is an equally imposing fantasy epic that moves organically from a forbidding opening into a triumphant brass climax – these are the most realistic, full-bodied brass sounds you’ll hear on the Genesis.
As impressive as these compositions are, Gauntlet IV intrigues most on other cues. “Transparent Obstacle” is reminiscent of earlier works by Sakimoto and Iwata, such as Starship Rendevous, combining electronic, prog and pop / rock elements. The cue’s most astounding section is its opening – a sound collage that evokes a genuine sense of cosmic terror. Elsewhere on the score, the composers stray further still from traditional fantasy scoring tropes. “Whisper of Phantom”, with its uneven synth pulse, spectral drones and sparse percussion, would be right at home in a horror game. “Crux” ends the score on a note of jittery anxiety, its curiously fluttering woodwind lead set in an all-consuming void of spooky synth drones and ritualistic percussion. Such genre-atypical compositions only add to the score’s character as a fascinating, dark fantasy score that both plays by the rules and breaks them.
Golden Axe III Soundtrack
Naofumi Hataya / Tatsuyuki Maeda / Haruyo Oguro / Tomonori Sawada, 1993
Much of the reputation enjoyed by the music for the Golden Axe games relies on a single track: “Wilderness”, Golden Axe’s first-level track. However, only one title within the franchise delivers a consistently strong soundtrack: Golden Axe III.
Like Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata on the Gauntlet IV soundtrack, the Golden Axe III composers offer a fresh perspective on fantasy game scoring. True, Golden Axe III is bookended by the kind of orchestral bombast you expect to hear in this particular genre. However, Golden Axe III distinguishes itself even in this stylistically predictable area. On “The Gate of Fate” and “Castle”, the composers do so simply through the quality of their compositions – the richness of the melodic material, the sumptuous and colourful orchestrations (take note of those grainy, yet still powerful timpani samples) and the sense of cinematic drama exuding from the music’s gripping ebb and flow. Earlier, on “The Vast Field” and “Death Mountain”, the composers deftly mix orchestral and rock / pop elements, always with a keen ear for intriguing musical details.
Equally, when Golden Axe III whips out the kind of lavish rock- and metal-inspired stylings often associated with fantasy games, it simply does this better than the competition thanks to intriguing long-winded melodies, beautifully developed musical ideas and intricate rhythms. “Bloody Street” and “A Voyage to Castle” are rousing synth-rock anthems with unusually busy and classy instrumentations, while the frantic “Ride the Whirlwind” turns into full-on power metal – one of the most energising metal tracks heard on the Genesis.
However, where Golden Axe III fascinates most is during its atmospherically more experimental tracks. “Ancient Mould” and “Tender Hamlet” manage to combine the hard strut of new jack swing and funk influences with pensive melodies (leading into “Tender Hamlet”’s almost swooning finale). “Cave of Crystals” evokes its otherworldly location cleverly through static rhythms and a slow-moving melody that grows increasingly eerie as it climbs the scale, doubled by a second voice in chromatic harmonies that are constantly enticing and mysterious. “Dim Jungle” is the score’s most daring invention, a collage-like collection of sparse musical ideas that fascinates and disorientates. It all adds up to one of the most colourful scores on the Genesis, its aural diversity effortlessly evoking the scale required for a fantasy score of the highest calibre.
Gunstar Heroes Soundtrack
Norio Hanzawa, 1993
Put simply, there is no other 16-bit score like Gunstar Heroes out there. Norio Hazanawa had shown himself capable of great things with his fiery arrangement of After Burner’s soundtrack for the Sharp X68000 port. However, that his very first Sega Genesis score would rewrite the rules of action game scoring and push the platform to its limits is mind-boggling.
To a degree, Gunstar Heroes’ musical style is what you might expect from a colourful 2D run ’n’ gun with a zany sense of humour. Hanzawa derives much of the score’s melodic trappings from upbeat synth pop, whose playfulness – however distorted – doesn’t desert the soundtrack even during its most experimental moments. Where Hanzawa starts to diverge from the norm is with his arrangements. This score feels utterly maximalist, every second of it crammed with booming statements, small countermelodies and -rhythms that flit across the stereo field, and everything in between. It’s all rendered convincingly through stunningly virtuoso use of the Genesis sound chip.
Another aspect of Gunstar Heroes is more daring still. Hanzawa builds candy-coloured walls of sound, only for the sparkly hues to melt into bizarre, hallucinatory shapes. Bouncy melodies twist into discordant shapes while rhythms and beats collide head-on in disorienting, head-spinning polyrhythms. Taking in Gunstar Heroes via headphones feels like a breathless chase across a noisy fairground, hounded by a horde of angry toys that are staging a late-night riot. Gunstar Heroes is the musical equivalent of a clown’s face that’s both jolly and terrifying – a sense of fun that could derail into something ghastly any second.
However, while there might be more going on here than on almost any other Genesis score, and the music might well disintegrate in the hand of a lesser composer, Hanzawa always maintains the music’s feeling of magnificently controlled chaos. Take the rhythmic maelstrom that is “Theme of Smash Daisaku”, shredding any melody bits that gets sucked into its vortex, or the cheerily disintegrating “Good Night, Baby!” Thankfully, despite the score’s uniquely intense carnivalesque mood, the music rarely turns outright nightmarish – although it certainly can when stakes need raising on “Control Unit HDR” and the suffocatingly heavy “Theme of Golden Silver”. They take the soundtrack’s heady noise-pop brew to its extreme: a refreshingly bold, entirely successful combination of pop, dance and experimental music that had no equal within game music at the time of its release.
Herzog Zwei Soundtrack
Naosuke Arai / Tomomi Otani, 1989
You wouldn’t necessarily expect one of the progenitors of the real-time strategy genre of games to originate on consoles. However, Sega Genesis exclusive Herzog Zwei indeed established many of the traits that would come to characterise this soon-booming genre. Then again, Herzog Zwei was the sequel to Herzog, a Japanese computer title, so the PC lineage still applies to a degree. It definitely does regarding Herzog Zwei’s soundtrack, which saw Naosuke Arai and Tomomi Otani return to rearrange and expand their score for Herzog – and create the first great Sega Genesis score.
The Sega Genesis’ improved FM synthesis (over the MSX and PC-88/98) was a boon for a score that had already impressed on those technologically inferior platforms. Herzog Zwei’s compositions rely on two elements which these cues combine with impressive ease. Firstly, there’s an imperious feeling of cinematic drama and martial undertones. Combined with an imposing sense of scale that flows through these tracks, you get the kind of musical approach more or less expected in a soundtrack that underscores armies clashing with each other on extraterrestrial planets.
Still, while these influences are executed beautifully, what really sets Herzog Zwei apart is its ability to meld its grand sci-fi atmosphere with a constant supply of catchy synth-pop hooks. The two styles by no means cancel each other out. Instead, those anthemic, proud melodies only bolster the music’s forward drive and immediacy, and turn Herzog Zwei into one of the most melody-focused, accessible RTS scores. Arai and Otani string their melodic episodes together into surprisingly long cues whose careful, steady development links Herzog Zwei back to music outside of pop.
That’s not to say this score doesn’t also hit the bullseye, aiming for immediate impact. Pieces like “A Breach of Contract” and “The Mournful War” are less ambitious in their structure. Instead, they push onwards with their insistent rhythms, overcoming their repetitious nature through the sheer strength of their melodies. Once again, the composers derive much of the music’s effect by juxtaposing competing elements. “Back to Square One” and “The Super Fighter Invigorated Us” are particularly commanding due to the push and pull between their swirling rhythms and slowly unfolding synth melodies. This contrast gives these tunes a majestically detached feel that makes them hit even harder, towering over the battlefield like all-mighty overlords.
Toshiaki Sakoda, 1990
Composer Toshiaki Sakoda set his sights high for the MUSHA score: his plan was to write what he felt would be the world’s first heavy metal game soundtrack. Now, whether MUSHA was indeed the first heavy metal score game music had seen is up for debate. However, it might well have been the first great heavy metal game soundtrack – convincingly capturing the genre’s ferocious energy, hammering intensity and technical complexity. In the process, it also turned into a virtuoso display of what the Sega Genesis sound chip was capable of – some of the blindingly fast, note-shredding guitar soli on this score remained unequalled during the 16-bit era. What’s more, Sakoda created an FM synthesis guitar tone that is not just clear and blistering but also vivid and soulful.
More than almost any other video game score, MUSHA feels like a non-stop adrenaline rush. To match the game’s raw intensity, Sakoda significantly develops the heavy metal stylings of his earlier works like Aleste 2 and Devil’s Crush. He ultimately reaches the point where MUSHA plays like a fully-fledged, first-rate power metal album that happens to be played through FM synthesis. “Fullmetal Fighter” sets the template for the score right from the start. Speed metal-style drumming, genre-typical staccato 32-note riffing and dissonant, sometimes downright manic leads set pulses racing before Sakoda unleashes a heroic, immediately stirring lead melody that most countries would be happy to adopt as their national anthem.
Other tracks repeat this mix of note-shredding leads and more melody-driven B sections. The latter harness the music’s rocket-like propulsion and take it through the stratosphere. Commensurate with the astounding complexity of his arrangements, Sakoda never turns the music into a blunt object of sheer force. Instead, he injects even the score’s most forceful moments with intriguing details. Take the squalling rhythm guitars on “Stratospheric Struggle” that subtly but effectively provide counter-rhythms to the relentless melody leads and drums. In fact, Sakoda consistently uses his rhythm guitars to both power the music along and make it more complex through additional melodic counterpoint and polyrhythms. The best example of this approach is “Noh Specter” – the soundtrack’s longest track and the one where the sheer density of Sakoda’s writing approaches prog metal territory. MUSHA is textbook power metal, executed to a level of excellence previously unseen in video game music.
Phantom 2040 Soundtrack
Burke Trieschmann, 1995
Game music never existed in a vacuum – instead, it has always responded to other musical genres surrounding it. So, game music composers paid attention when industrial metal reached its commercial zenith in the mid-1990s. However, replicating the genre’s raging fury was challenging when working with technologically limited 16-bit platforms. One of the very few composers to successfully translate industrial metal into FM synthesis was Burke Trieschmann on Phantom 2040, a surprisingly ambitious platformer with Metroidvania traces.
In short, this is the most abrasive, aggressive music heard on the Sega Genesis, even beating out ferocious contenders like Streets of Rage 3. The harsh wall of grinding machine sounds that Trieschmann unleashes on Phantom 2040 perfectly underscores the futuristic scenario of a dangerous, nearly overwhelming concrete and steel jungle. However, Trieschmann cleverly eases listeners into the soundtrack before tightening the screws. Earlier tracks on the score are grooving rather than hammering, working at mid-tempo speeds and happy to have their catchy electro/funk hybrids led by clearly identifiable melodies.
It’s on “Chapter 4 – Biot Factory” that Trieschmann reveals his true intentions and goes for broke. Ultra-fast double bass hits mercilessly hammer the music onwards while a rising, dissonant melody motif poisons the air with dread and claustrophobia until the tension becomes almost unbearable. From here on, Trieschmann writes some of the most challenging material penned for a 16-bit score – a compilation of punishing, syncopated industrial rhythms and discordant melodies desperately trying to cut through the churning mayhem. The music grows increasingly chaotic, with the rhythmic structure of “Chapter 4 – Lab” initially almost falling apart. What little melodic material emerges feels panicked and rushed, nearly tripping over while fleeing some inescapable menace.
The GEMS sound driver does not have a great reputation, but the fuzzy, somewhat lo-fi textures and beats it produces here actually work in the score’s favour. The result has a grimy grittiness that perfectly fits the game’s world and narrative – and it contributes to the soundtrack’s suffocatingly effective wall-of-sound approach. There’s no doubt that Phantom 2040 is one exhausting listen. However, it combines compositional smarts, a willingness to challenge and the ability to pull absolutely no punches like few other game scores.
Matt Furniss, 1993
After 1992’s Galahad, Matt Furniss was clearly in the mood for more music that mixed elements of fantasy RPG and platformer scores – but Puggsy turned out to be more ambitious still in its world-building than that earlier game. In short, this is one of the most extensive, lavishly arranged platformer soundtracks of the 16-bit era.
Yes, Furniss’ gift for writing catchy melodies and cladding them in elaborate arrangements to prop up meticulously developed tracks is on full display here. Equally, the sounds he coaxes out of the Sega Genesis are both crystal clear and impressively powerful, ranking up there with the very best found on the system (just listen to those rock drums). However, Puggsy goes one step further – Furniss creates a unique sound world through his orchestrations, a real that’s whimsical yet richly emotional. The crucial piece of the puzzle is Furniss’ decision to use bells, glockenspiel and other metal instruments to carry his melodies. These chiming instruments imbue the music with a wonderful aura that alternates between playfulness, foreboding, mysticism and unforced gravitas – giving Puggsy an enchanting mood all of its own.
Not only is the instrumental palette Furniss uses highly original – he also effortlessly modifies it throughout the score to carefully build the game’s vibrant fantasy world. Among the light-hearted, earlier tracks on the soundtrack, “Star Fall Lake” is a standout. It truly blossoms thanks to the kind of lyrical writing which evokes a world that’s massive in scope yet filled with innocent, child-like wonder. The thankfully cliche-free “Pyramids” finds a different outlet for the score’s brand of mysticism that beautifully suits this particular location, shrouded as it is in mystery and legend.
However, the soundtrack’s atmosphere soon turns darker and more diverse. As cute as the game’s lead character might look, the score paints his journey as a grand adventure full of perils and wonders. Listeners who might have feared after the soundtrack’s first half that Puggsy would be too fluffy will welcome “Darkblade Forest”. Here, the music effortlessly evokes a menacing, awe-inspiring location through a stoic composition somewhere between fantasy epic and rock anthem. Final level track “Raclantis Docks” provides an outlet for all the pent-up tension. The cue’s churning, multi-layered rhythms form the soundtrack’s most strident percussive backdrop, backing a melody whose repetition Furniss carefully harnesses to create urgency and focus.
Red Zone Soundtrack
Jesper Kyd, 1994
It’s always a pleasure to encounter a soundtrack that is happy to overdeliver relentlessly – and there might be no larger act of over-delivery in the entire Sega Genesis discography than Jesper Kyd’s Red Zone. After all, where else would you find a ‘Mission Complete’ track that runs for a mind-boggling 11 minutes once looped?
Kyd had introduced his demo scene-inspired brand of Genesis music on Sub-Terrania – mid-paced, sprawling techno cues, engineered with marvellous precision and confidence while rendered in some of the very best sound the Genesis could create. It wouldn’t be entirely correct to say that Red Zone simply offers more of the same, but Kyd also doesn’t reinvent the wheel here. It’s a matter of carefully tweaking what already worked while keeping up the compositional quality.
The latter isn’t an easy task, considering this is the longest Genesis score ever written at nearly three hours. Yes, Kyd writes even more extended pieces here than on Sub-Terrania, and he still manages to develop them flawlessly, adding and subtracting elements every few seconds, always keeping the music on the move – and, importantly, catchy, thanks to an abundance of melodic and rhythmic hooks. Just the sheer amount of musical ideas – and their impeccable deployment – will see more than a few jaws hit the floor. There’s also always just the right degree of melodicism present on these massive cues to carry their runtimes.
This soundtrack also never feels over-long because Kyd introduces a variation on the formula first heard on Sub-Terrania. His rhythms here are harder-edged and pushier – no doubt due to Red Zone’s militaristic subject matter. This music isn’t so much about world-building (as it was on Sub-Terrania) but about maintaining an air of focus and forceful determination for the entirety of the score’s duration without ever letting up or turning into a grind. As monolithic as this music sounds, cues here do create extended musical arcs and actually go somewhere – sample the pained, chromatic melody towards the end of “Title Music” or a twisted, dissonant melodic outburst late into “DataRum”.
Because Kyd takes his time to build towards these moments slowly and methodically, his music achieves a sweeping sense of cinematic drama once these melodies land. Red Zone mixes thumping momentum with a feeling of vast scale unparalleled on the Genesis, turning into one of the most monumental action game scores of the 1990s.
Naofumi Hataya / Masafumi Ogata / Tomoko Sasaki, 1994
Since Ristar was a colourful, late-era Genesis platformer with an anthropomorphic title character, comparisons with the Sonic titles were probably inevitable. As it happens, such parallels carried over into Ristar’s soundtrack as well, with Sonic CD composers Naofumi Hataya and Masafumi Ogata joining relative newcomer Tomoko Sasaki on this project.
The comparison with Sonic CD – the best 16-bit Sonic soundtrack – is, in fact, an apt one. Both soundtracks share the same penchant for exuberantly colourful compositions. Where they differ is in their emotional expression. While Sonic CD is a brash, outgoing concoction, Ristar is far more subdued, sometimes even wistful and reflective. It certainly isn’t your regular, peppy platformer score. Instead, at its best, this soundtrack goes for a more subtle but no less original approach. Ristar’s beguiling cues happily live at the intersection between pop, electronica, jazz, R&B and hip hop, featuring the most fully realised and original genre mix of any Genesis platformer score.
Admittedly, Ristar also has a weird streak that is more or less successfully integrated into the music, leading to several tracks that feel like a bunch of intriguing but unconnected ideas. As a result, Ristar’s highlights form a shorter package than one would hope for – because when the music hits the mark, it reaches heights that few other 1990s platformers attain. With its surprisingly relaxed pace, Ristar is less interested in action underscoring and more in creating a sound world entirely of its own.
Lead instruments are usually placed in echoey surroundings. This imbues the score with a tangible sense of scale and highlights the melodies’ often dreamy nature on a cue like the wintry “Ring Rink”. These tunes are surrounded by some of the best-developed, unobtrusively brilliant arrangements on the Genesis. Just take “Dancing Leaves” and how its perky, syncopated background pop beat almost imperceptibly changes – until you suddenly realise that the cue has seamlessly turned into a swinging jazz track.
Like several other compositions, “Break Silence” hands its lead melody to a solo flute – an unusual choice of instrument for a 16-bit platformer – but then surprises by breaking into a disjointed, chaotic trumpet solo. “Ice Scream” manages to fold 90s R&B beats into the soundtrack’s nearly wistful template, while “Crying World” opts for heavier, rawer hip hop rhythms backing a shadowy melody – sinister, but not without its twisted sense of playfulness. It’s such understated brilliance that truly makes Ristar an absolutely delightful experience.
Shining Force II Soundtrack
Motoaki Takenouchi, 1993
The SNES marked a watershed moment for orchestral game scores, thanks to its capacity for sample playback – and its extensive library of amazing RPGs that often came with lavishly scored soundtracks. Things looked slightly different on the Sega Genesis, where FM synthesis made writing orchestrally-styled scores much harder. Genre titles like Gauntlet IV or Light Crusader worked around the issue by breaking with the “fantasy game = orchestral soundtrack” tradition. They drew upon other musical styles to bring their fanciful realms to life.
However, two RPG scores on the Genesis successfully tackled the challenge head-on – recreating a densely layered, luscious orchestral sound via the platform’s FM synthesis: Shining Force II and Beyond Oasis. Out of the two works, Takenouchi’s score is certainly the more approachable one. On the Game Gear’s Shining Force Gaiden: The Sword of Hajya, Takenouchi had already proven his ability to wring astoundingly complex cues of classical stature out of sound chips that really weren’t built for that kind of thing. He repeats this feat on Shining Force II, doing an exceptional job at allocating traditional instruments of the orchestra to various colourful FM timbres.
Essentially, Shining Force II follows the same formula that already led The Sword of Hajya to success: an abundance of musical ideas, a constant stream of ingratiating melodies and impressively fluid orchestrations. For quick proof of Takenouchi’s talents, listen to the B section of “The Bloodline of Ground Seal”. The composer seamlessly passes the melody from one instrument to the next every few seconds while delightful countermelodies gracefully circle in the background. Such a degree of both musical substance and elegance has very few peers on the Genesis – or among 16-bit RPG music in general.
Yes, the score isn’t as extensive as many of its SNES genre brethren, and its quality can be a bit spotty. However, Shining Force II still covers all the bases you’d expect it to, and it does so with utter aplomb. A cheerful town theme, moments of beautifully evoked mysticism, sorrowful adagios relying less on counterpoint and more on melodies that tug at the heartstrings, exploration cues bursting at the seams with indomitable energy and enthusiasm to listeners off their feet… they’re all accounted for here. A shout-out goes to “The King of Devils has Appeared”. The composition dares to contrast orchestral heroism with borderline experimental material, including screaming synth chords and whining dissonances that disappear into mysterious nothingness. In 1993, Shining Force II finally proved that, yes, amazing orchestral scores are possible on the Genesis.
Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master Soundtrack
Morihiko Akiyama / Hirofumi Murasaki / Masayuki Nagao, 1993
With Revenge of the Shinobi, Yuzo Koshiro arguably wrote the best-known score of the Shinobi franchise. However, the series reached its musical peak with Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (fittingly also the franchise’s greatest entry overall). Considering this was a relatively early work for all three composers involved, the level of confidence and skill on display here is stunning.
Like many Japanese game composers of the early 1990s, Akiyama, Murasaki and Nagao draw upon funk’s hard-hitting strut – particularly in its New Jack Swing incarnation – to animate their cues. However, the three artists masterfully combine these contemporary sounds with traditional Japanese elements – only fitting, given the game’s protagonist. Shinobi III’s adventurous spirit goes further still. Put simply, these are some of the most fully-realised cues heard on the Sega Genesis. Most of the time, this sounds less like 16-bit game music and more like a first-rate funk band jamming through tracks that range from impressively sprawling to ferociously tight.
To sample the soundtrack’s mighty ambitions, check out “He Runs” and “Ninja Soul”. Both cues wrap so many individual sections and instrumental soli into their elaborate structures that the music borders on progressive funk. At the same time, this seamless blend of retro and futuristic sounds skips and grooves along to intricate, syncopated drum patterns that are as creative as the frequently acerbic melody leads. The percussion section’s skittish energy accomplishes a rare feat here. It holds together each of the soundtrack’s action cues while adding yet another level of complexity and intrigue to these already densely packed compositions.
And yet, there’s still more to Shinobi III. Much of it sounds street-smart and gritty, fiercely determined in the style of a beat’em up. However, the composers also know how to write power anthems like “Idaten” and “Whirlwind”, whose less busy arrangements are happy to rely on the fist-pumping qualities of their sing-along melodies. Most intriguing, though, are psychedelic slow-burners “Izayoi” and “Inner Darkside”. Both tracks are far more interested in evoking a shadowy, enigmatic atmosphere than in underscoring action-driven heroics. The composers’ excellent use of FM timbres on display here is second to none on the Genesis. Very few other games on the platform sport such vividly realised, fascinatingly eerie atmospherics. Covering all these bases with impressive ease, Shinobi III stands tall as one of the early 1990s’ most inspired, fully-fledged game scores outside of the RPG genre.
Skeleton Krew Soundtrack
Nathan McCree, 1995
Out of the many, many genres game music has inhabited over the decades, dark ambient electronica is one of the most challenging examples to pull off successfully. On so many scores, that particular style is a guarantee for muted, meandering compositions that too often play like sonic wallpaper.
Nathan McCree’s Skeleton Krew is one of the rare exceptions to the rule – all the more remarkable for appearing on a technologically limited platform like the Sega Genesis and unique among 16-bit scores. For a soundtrack underscoring a 2D shooter, McCree’s score is exceedingly low-key and minimalist – much more concerned with establishing a mood than raising adrenaline levels. That mood is oppressive, crawling with fear and paranoia, yet energised by a sense of forward movement that prevents the music from becoming too static and suffocating.
McCree builds most of his compositions around minimalist combinations of synth pulses that can function as ostinati or short melodic motifs. He layers these pulses in various ways: at times, they run alongside each other in different metres, creating destabilising counter-rhythms. On other occasions, McCree has the two pulses playing almost, but not entirely, on the same beat – the two layers remain tantalisingly out of sync and perplexing.
To deliver its full atmospheric impact, this kind of music requires immense attention to detail from the composer, and McCree certainly delivers. Firstly, this is one of the best-sounding Genesis scores – sample those ground-shaking bass synth pads that open up like black holes to swallow the music wholesale. McCree also spreads his instruments across the entire width of the stereo soundscape to create an immense sense of space and scope – but more importantly, he disorients listeners, with his synth pulses moving unpredictably from speaker to speaker.
Ultimately, such understated music manages to captivate not just thanks to its clever use of minimalist rhythms and timbres but also because it is such an intense emotional experience. Few other game scores evoke such a potently dystopian, nightmarish atmosphere. Forlorn, melancholic synth pads ebb and swell through these cues like roving searchlights in the abyss – at times, the score plays like a sombre, twisted step-brother of Vangelis’ Blade Runner. There’s nothing noisy or shouty about Skeleton Krew, but maybe that’s why it leaves such an indelible mark.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles Soundtrack
Sega’s legendary blue mascot isn’t as prominently represented on this list as one might have expected. Sonic the Hedgehog set the stylistic foundations for the franchise’s music, mixing synth-pop, funk and New Jack Swing. However, the score suffered from thin material and short, sometimes underdeveloped tracks. Both that soundtrack and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 also struggled with – at times – tinny, blaring synth leads. However, Masato Nakamura’s compositions were more varied and creative – rhythmically and atmospherically – the second time around. Unfortunately, the score’s latter half reverted to Sonic the Hedgehog’s threadbare approach, and Nakamura’s genre excursions into jazz and classical bombast fell back on cliches.
Truth be told, Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ musical quality is patchy as well – it takes the soundtracks of both games combined to crib together sufficient excellent material for a score selection of reasonable length. Again, too many (short) compositions coast by on a couple of hooks. Meanwhile, several Act 1 / 2 cues sound too similar to each other and drag out the soundtrack with what’s essentially filler material. Thus, on 16-bit platforms, Sonic CD remains the gold standard for this franchise’s music.
However, when Sonic 3 & Knuckles is at its best, it features some of the most colourful, fun music heard on a Genesis platformer. The small armada of composers involved further broadens the score’s stylistic scope, while the music benefits from a major sound upgrade over previous Sonic games. The two Angel Island Zone cues quickly set the bar high. That’s not just because of their laid-back, sunny Caribbean stylings but also because their arrangements are more detailed and packed with musical ideas than anything heard in the first two Sonic games. The Hydrocity Zone tracks bring back the new jack swing influences recurring through the series’ early days, but this time in a rhythmically more complex and intriguing iteration.
Later compositions deliver some wonderful surprises. The composers develop two different approaches to scoring sandy environments, ranging from the surprisingly heavy atmosphere of “Sandopolis – Act 2” to the joyous funk-pop of “Desert Palace”. “Sky Sanctuary Zone” beautifully plays against type. Hard-hitting double bass inserts and drum fills drive the track’s expectedly soaring but still unpredictably progressing lead melody. “Endless Mine” adds another unforeseen twist. This gentle, almost feathery track develops its long-winded, wistful melody just as carefully as “Sky Sanctuary Zone”, backed by a soft, complex call-and-response pattern wandering between the stereo speakers. Sonic 3 & Knuckle’s brilliance is only intermittently apparent but undeniable.
Streets of Rage 2 Soundtrack
Motohiro Kawashima / Yuzo Koshiro, 1993
If you had to pick one Sega Genesis soundtrack most likely to elicit disbelieving cries of “This is video game music?!”, it would have to be Streets of Rage 2 (yes, even more so than Thunder Force IV). Yuzo Koshiro – with help from frequent collaborator Motohiro Kawashima – writes a game score that could easily pass as a classic early 1990s dance album synthesising various strands of then-contemporary electronic music. One reason Streets of Rage 2 became such powerful work that seeped into the mainstream and influenced numerous electronic music artists is Koshiro’s technical wizardry – he created his own programming language to harness the Genesis’ full audio capabilities. The result is video game music that sounds like ‘the real thing’ and not like something that came from a rather low-tech sound chip.
But such technological mastery was only part of why Streets of Rage 2 redefined what a video game score can sound like. Streets of Rage had already displayed the musical inspirations Koshiro had soaked up during a trip to LA in 1988, but that earlier work felt like a genre exercise. On Streets of Rage 2, there’s no doubt that Koshiro has truly mastered each musical style he’s deploying – and that he can now bend and meld his inspirations to suit his artistic vision.
Acid house-inspired first-level track “Go Straight” gets the necessary sense of urban cool and grittiness across right away. However, what’s most intriguing is how Koshiro balances all the small rhythmic details with the single-minded focus of his two metallic lead instruments. “In the Bar” does its name proud and proves that Koshiro can fold genres outside of electronica – such as jazz – into his formula. His most spectacular genre mix is “Wave 131”, a swaggering, irresistibly grooving combination of electronic beats, pumping R’n’B grooves and snappy, joyous Hammond Organ leads.
“Dreamer” and “Slow Moon” base their excursions into pop territory on house-inspired piano chord progressions that back sweet, memorable melodies. On the other end of the spectrum are harsh, wildly ambitious cues like “Never Return Alive”, “Expander”, and “Spin on the Bridge”. These tracks flirt with progressive techno and overflow with frantic, edgy ideas that foreshadow the controversial Streets of Rage 3. Koshiro also proves himself not just a master of beats but also of atmospherics – take “Jungle Base”’s quivering tension and enigmatic quirks, led by a spectral melody that feels almost Gothic. Streets of Rage 2’s versatility is yet another facet of what is genuinely one of game music’s masterpieces.
Streets of Rage 3 Soundtrack
Motohiro Kawashima / Yuzo Koshiro, 1994
It might well have been the most stunning turnaround any gaming franchise’s music has witnessed. Streets of Rage 2 saw composers Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima on top of the world, writing a universally acclaimed score that redefined what electronic game music could sound like. Fast forward just one year to Streets of Rage 3, and its soundtrack was met with a mix of confusion and outright hostility.
What happened? Two things. Firstly, the composers wanted to push the envelope further still after Streets of Rage 2, going for more distorted and harsher sounds. Particularly Kawashima’s cues go straight for the jugular, continuing the stylistic direction already taken by Streets of Rage 2’s more abrasive cues. No, these are by no means easy listens – but take this music on its own merits, and you will discover some of the most intense, ambitious 16-bit music ever written. Kawashima’s tracks are whirlwinds of industrial, eccentric beats whose disorienting layers create their own ruthless groove. Though confronting as the music might be, there is no denying that it is impeccably crafted, piling up intricate layers of rhythms and counter-rhythms. It’s hardcore techno at its most epic.
And that’s the accessible part of the soundtrack. For Streets of Rage 3, Koshiro decided to write software that created music on its own based on parameters the composers entered. Kawashima and Koshiro would then compile the best computer-generated patterns into their cues. Such reliance on aleatoric elements was a revolutionary idea for a mid-1990s video game. Kawashima integrates these randomly created elements into somewhat traditional song structures. Koshiro, on the other hand, is happy to imbue his compositions with a level of abstraction unheard of in video game music up to this point – and rarely repeated since.
His cues proudly flaunt their computer-generated roots – shadowy compilations of twitchy, glitchy electronic noises, made even more challenging to appreciate because of their low-key nature. The most overtly ear-catching moment is a melody from Koshiro’s The Revenge of Shinobi played backwards. In 1994, there simply would not have been the vocabulary available within video game criticism to describe this kind of music, no frame of reference – other than maybe the hidden corners of contemporary underground electronica.
Decades later and with the benefit of hindsight, it has become easier to recognise just how exceedingly daring and original Koshiro’s compositions on Streets of Rage 3 are. Yes, they remain an acquired taste. However, they are also meticulously constructed, layering their clashing layers into something groovy and sticky. Ultimately, Streets of Rage 3 witnesses nothing less than the invention of a new musical language within game music – and how many scores can make that claim?
Jesper Kyd, 1994
Quite a few composers managed to turn their hobby work in Europe’s computer game demo scene into professional careers. However, none achieved the longevity of Jesper Kyd’s decades-long stint in the industry – and he announced himself as a major talent right from the start. Kyd’s soundtrack for Sub-Terrania pushes Sega Genesis music into previously unexplored territory – one that Kyd would keep mining on later scores on the same platform.
What catches listeners’ attention even before the music starts are the extraordinarily extended run times of Kyd’s compositions. They consistently clock in between five to ten minutes – a feat previously unencountered on the Genesis (but with obvious roots in Kyd’s demo scene background). The composer sets himself a formidable challenge here. His moody, brooding techno tracks stick to the same mid-tempo pacing throughout the entire soundtrack, never turning remotely frantic or pulse-pounding. This is music that proceeds at a deliberate pace, as it organises the sprawling development of its cues with clinical precision – techno that carefully crafts a trip into a vast sci-fi world you can lose yourself in. Sub-Terrania is a slow-burning industrial churn that feels otherworldly and strange enough to convincingly underscore its outer space premise.
One of the reasons why such a long, atmospherically consistent work turns hypnotic rather than sleep-inducing is Kyd’s uncanny ability to perfectly judge when to add and subtract layers of his immaculately arranged cues. Yes, these are lengthy compositions, but that’s simply a result of the abundance of material Kyd writes. Also, while the music’s tempo rarely ever changes, it never feels static. Kyd keeps the music on the move through a constant supply of new, seamlessly implemented ideas and the seemingly unstoppable force of its industrial beats.
That’s the second big trump card Sub-Terrania plays – Kyd’s custom-built sound driver that produces what might well be the most vivid sounds heard on the Genesis, even surpassing the efforts of Matt Furniss and Yuzo Koshiro. There’s a wonderfully authoritative quality to the punchy bass and percussion, while textures and melody leads are rendered in astonishing, crystal-clear quality. Such expressive synths are crucial to sustain interest in Kyd’s monolithic pieces despite the repetitive nature of its (abundant) material.
Thunder Force IV Soundtrack
Toshiharu Yamanishi / Takeshi Yoshida, 1992
Out of all Sega Genesis soundtracks, only Streets of Rage 2 has attained the same semi-mythical reputation as Thunder Force IV. It’s the kind of game score spoken of in hushed, revered tones – and for good reason. Right from the start of first level cue “Fighting Back”, Thunder Force IV reveals itself to be way, way more ambitious than your average 16-bit shoot’em-up score. Toshiharu Yamanishi’s arrangements are among the densest and most imaginative on the platform. They create a staggering sonic richness that’s enhanced by the jaw-dropping palette of timbres and instrumental colours the composers and sound designers tease out of this console. In fact, at times, it’s easy to forget that this is music coming out of a Genesis.
In some ways, though, Thunder Force IV’s reputation isn’t entirely correct. The soundtrack is often discussed as one of the hardest-rocking scores on the Genesis – and yes, Takeshi Yoshida’s boss battle cues are roaring, fierce head-bangers. However, these tracks also don’t have much more than heavy guitar riffs and far too monotonous drumming to offer. Unfortunately, try as it may, the Genesis can’t imbue those relentless riffs with enough power to let them carry these short, under-developed tracks on their own. Much more convincing genre emulations are level tracks “Sea of Flame” – with its shaking, screaming outburst of thrash metal intensity – and particularly “Metal Squad”. This cue is so ornate in its multi-tiered construction and powerful in its boundless drama that it might well be 16-bit game music’s greatest metal opera.
The musical style that comes to characterise Thunder Force IV most memorably is ultimately a different one – jazz fusion. From “Space Walk” onwards, the game’s level tracks take a decidedly heady, almost psychedelic bend, held together by supremely creative bass lines. They and numerous clipped melody progressions instill the prevailing sense of cosmic floatiness with the necessary sense of urgency. These compositions reveal Yamanishi’s true intentions – not just to rock out but to also evoke a multi-faceted, sometimes bizarre alien world. Yaminishi even manages to merge carefully sculpted atmospherics with metallic aggression on “Down Right Attack”. Hammering riffs set against a forlorn synth line create a powerfully bleak atmosphere. That downcast mood is violently interrupted as a constantly repeating, frantic riff takes over before the music is thrown off course again, getting tangled up in a knotty, nervous bass line. Like the score as a whole, “Down Right Attack” is not just heavy but also weird, daring and ingenious.
Time Trax Soundtrack
Tim Follin, Unreleased
Time Trax is one of those cancelled games best remembered for its soundtrack – no surprise, given it was game music legend Tim Follin’s only Genesis score (working with a sound driver unique to Time Trax, to boot). After his supremely maximalist works on the NES, Follin’s scores on the SNES were marked by stylistic experimentation (there’s no other SNES score like the ambient Equinox) – so where would his foray into FM synthesis land?
There’s no easy way to succinctly summarise Follin’s approach to Time Trax, no particular traits that hold the album together – other than the feeling that these cues feel like fully-fledged band jams (a rare occurrence on the Sega Genesis) and a somewhat trippy general mood. Other than that, Time Trax simply sounds like Follin having fun genre-hopping, exploring the opportunities opened up by the Yamaha YM2612.
That Follin is still fond of densely arranged compositions is immediately apparent on the trippy “Title Screen / Credits”, with its many countermelodies and small details like the synth fills that keep bubbling up behind the melody lines. For most of its runtime, “Title Screen / Credits” draws upon 90s trance – but then folds in a lengthy guitar solo that cleverly links the cue to another psychedelic music genre: 70s psych rock. That solo is a harbinger of what’s to come on “Stages 1 / 3 / 8”, which sees Follin going for riff-heavy hard rock. This is a masterclass in how to write a mid-paced, melodic guitar piece on FM synthesis. Follin combines up to three guitar lines simultaneously, dishing up some of the most varied guitar work heard on the Genesis.
Merrily bouncing back and forth between styles, Time Trax then heads into “Stages 2 / 5 / 7”, which picks up the psychedelic mood established by “Title Screen / Credits” and translates it into an intriguing mix of acoustic and electronic sounds. Melodies are handed to gongs and other metallic instruments. They give the music a vaguely mystical, Far-Eastern sound, which Follin capitalises on through a wonderfully evocative, richly layered arrangement. Finally, “Stages 4 / 6” combines chugging rock guitars and trance elements before segueing into wildly cascading synth soli and squalling, jazz-inspired melody leads. If one thing is certain, it’s that Time Trax makes you deeply regret Follin didn’t get more opportunities to write for the Genesis.