Buffer’s Evolution Soundtrack
HIRA / Sasaki Junana / NIYAN, 1999
With its speed run-focused 2D platformer gameplay, Buffer’s Evolution clearly took its cues from the Sonic franchise. However, its daringly ambitious soundtrack was clearly inspired by another series of classic platformers: Mega Man. That franchise’s most outstanding 8-bit scores (Mega Man II and III) pushed the NES sound chip to its limits – and that’s precisely what Buffer’s Evolution does for the WonderSwan. This is easily the most densely arranged score on the platform and one of those chiptune soundtracks that makes you wonder how they could squeeze all that music into so few sound channels (four, in the WonderSwan’s case).
Stylistically, Buffer’s Evolution doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been attempted many times before. It’s obviously the score for a sci-fi action game, hitting listeners right from the start with concise, substantial cues. Complex layers of pumping, energetic rhythms drive anthemic melodies that empower gamers but also underscore the urgency of the mission ahead. However, where Buffer’s Evolution truly excels is in its execution. Simply put, the composers try their hardest to cram every second of this score with as many details and ideas as the WonderSwan’s sound hardware allows – and yet their exuberant arrangements never feel overstuffed, each track powering along with purpose.
It’s easy to recognise the fantastic amount of variety that Buffer’s Evolution presents through its constantly developing melodies and jagged rhythms, whose meticulously interlocking syncopations reward many repeat listens on headphones and unceasingly drive the music forwards. Each cue’s bass line provides melodic counterpoint that makes the music richer still. The result is a relentlessly exciting, twitchy and, at times, dizzyingly dense score.
What might take a bit more effort to uncover is how subtle the music can sometimes be. Listen to how the composers purposefully use chromatic harmonisations and dissonances to undermine melody progressions on compositions like “Track 8”, “Track 10”, and “Track 13”. Such precariously proceeding melodies that veer on the brink of collapsing into themselves only add to the invigorating feeling of swirling action that runs through this entire work. Few scores of the chiptunes era burst with as much creativity and vitality as the hyper-charged Buffer’s Evolution.
Pocket Fighter Soundtrack
Isao Abe / Yuki Iwai / Nokihiro Tagashi / Setsuo Yamamoto, 2000
It’s always fun to see a humble chiptune port of a technologically superior soundtrack best the higher-powered original. Bringing together characters from the Street Fighter, Darkstalkers and Red Earth fighting games, Pocket Fighter certainly wasn’t an insignificant arcade release for developer Capcom – but its soundtrack was held back by several issues that we’ll get to in a second. That situation didn’t change with the game’s PSX and Saturn ports – but when the game made its way to the WonderSwan two years later, Nokihiro Tagashi gave the Pocket Fighter soundtrack a winning makeover.
Tagashi’s approach isn’t as creative and free-wheeling as, say, that of the artists behind SNK vs. Capcom: Match of the Millenium’s on the Neo Geo Pocket Colour, which adds copious amounts of new melody lines and counterpoint. Tagashi takes a more conservative approach, sticking closely to the arcade original, but he makes many smart choices that improve the music. Having only four sound channels to work with, Tagashi obviously can’t translate the chords that support many of the melodies on the arcade original. So instead, he adds arpeggios and rhythm lines that make the music feel fuller and more substantial. This impression is further underlined by the chiptune version’s greater grit and forcefulness compared to the original’s rather watery synths.
Such an approach benefits cues like “Toy House”, which sound relaxed and joyful, rather than glossy. “Bar” equally feels more robust, thanks to crunchier percussion and a piano-like counter melody – generating a more pressing, enthusiastic sense of cool swing. Throughout all this, Tagashi highlights the score’s charming, catchy melodies more consistently than the arcade soundtrack, which sometimes undermines its greatest asset with clunky arrangements.
On some occasions, the WonderSwan’s timbral limitations are a blessing in disguise. It helps this port avoid the cheesiness of “Outside Makai: Moonlight Dark Castle” and the forced mock-Gothic atmosphere of “Inside Makai: The Devil King’s Moving”. In their place, Tagashi – while remaining true to the original melodies – places a real sense of tension and drama. Listen to how “Inside Makai”’s tense A section gives way to a swooningly melodic B section – a contrast that wasn’t present before. Even a mediocre, cliched cue like “Chinatown: Yuan Hotel” turns into a whirring hive of activity in the composer’s capable hands.
Riviera: The Promised Land Soundtrack
Minako Adachi, 2002
Outside of Square’s Final Fantasy ports, the most prominent RPG released on the WonderSwan (Color) was Riviera: The Promised Land – no doubt helped by the game’s later Game Boy Advance and PlayStation Portable versions. Riviera also features the console’s greatest RPG soundtrack. Mind you, this is not a virtuoso demonstration of technical skills like Buffer’s Evolution. Minako Adachi’s use of the WonderSwan Color’s four sound channels is pretty standard: two melody leads, a bass line, and percussion coming together in effective rather than extravagant arrangements. Instead, Adachi’s soundtrack impresses through its rich melodic invention and the effortlessly fluent development of its cues, making this work far more substantial and varied than the usual RPG chiptune score.
What’s immediately striking about Riviera: The Promised Land is how most location tracks play like driven action pieces. This imbues the score with exceptional vibrancy. The location cues are adventurous and full of enterprising vigour but also expansive and measured enough to evoke the game’s universe. “Lacrimosa Castle” is a multi-faceted, wonderfully flowing example of the heights Adachi’s music attains. Both foreboding and driven, the track’s many segments are held together by one of the composer’s numerous busy basslines.
Such constant levels of high energy don’t mean the score is monotonous – far from it. For example, “Mireno Cemetary” blends melancholy melodies with taut rhythms, while the slower-paced “Elendia” turns from cheery to enticingly mysterious, almost spooky – proof of how much harmonic and emotional subtlety can be wrought out of four simple chiptune sound channels. The game’s quasi-religious setting and protagonists make their mark on the score’s opening and closing cues. Their idyllic nature, silvery timbres and lushly layered arpeggios evoke just the right amount of angelic mysticism – and true to the score’s versatile nature, “Maze of Shadows” turns this otherworldly ambience into something far more eerie and disconcerting.
What about the game’s actual action/battle cues? Again, they don’t dazzle with pyrotechnics, but many are rock-solid. Adachi’s major key melodies are relatively simple. However, they still hit the mark thanks to their immediately uplifting nature, while the composer’s deftly arranged rhythms keep the music moving. The straightforward, anthemic “The Grim Angels” is an excellent example of Adachi’s action writing, while the jittery, asphyxiating mood of “Showdown with Hector”, ready to explode at any second, is a fascinating stylistic change of pace for the composer.