Home > Gaming, Music > Anatomy of VGM – Hudson Hawk (NES, Amiga, etc)

Anatomy of VGM – Hudson Hawk (NES, Amiga, etc)

hudson hawk nesWhat a way to begin a totally new and never before done feature! Hudson Hawk by the now obscure British company Special FX is… literally a video game, and clearly not a metal album. It came out for pretty much every personal computer with substantial market share in the UK at the time of its release, as well as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Gameboy. It has some interesting ideas and is overall a competent 2D platforming game (although probably not one you should seek out and play right now), but you’re probably wondering why I chose to start here instead of with something better known, like the infinitude of Marios or Mega Mans or Sonics who’ve drawn countless talented composers to toil under their boxart for what is now several decades.

It turns out that I came upon this game’s soundtrack while looking for the absolutely horrible one of a different baffling movie -> video game adaptation – Dirty Harry – The War on Drugs. The less said about that game, the better, but the more said about this one’s music at the very least…

Hudson Hawk‘s soundtrack occupies an interesting middle ground between the simple, minimalistic music I tend to associate with the NES’s most popular titles (a lot of which were developed in Japan) and the more technically complex musical works so prevalent in the European gaming scene at the same time. Already this is a flawed comparison, since beyond the mere possibility of exceptions it entirely discounts, for instance, the Japanese home computer industry (coked up on sophisticated FM synthesis chips before the Adlib was even a valid purchase), and for brevity’s sake, many of the other trends of composers. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be focusing primarily on the Amiga and Nintendo versions of the game; several other platforms couldn’t be arsed to have music, while the Gameboy version outputs music very similar to that of the Nintendo, despite some differences in sound hardware.

I suspect that the Amiga arrangements were the first ones made, but whether or not this is the case, they’re pretty typical for the platform. The techniques used (particularly the heavy arpeggiation on the grounds that it turns four channels into the illusion of more) are pretty standard tools of the tracker junkie back then and still today. On Nintendo, though, what would presumably be a density booster is placed into the service of a surprisingly spacious sound! While one of the square wave channels is almost constantly used again for arpeggios, the other three (since Hudson Hawk neglects the system’s admittedly limited PCM samples) each have their own unique tricks. The other square plays main melody line to the backing of the first square; it is usually locked to a different duty cycle and is therefore easily distinguished from its companion. Under these, the triangle wave channel imitates a bassist, albeit one that spends much of its time either staccato or silent. It’s presumably responsible for much of the dense/loose dichotomy I mentioned, but even in that it’s aided by the percussion, which is realized entirely through carefully controlled bursts of static from the noise channel. In comparison to the adventurous riffing in the other instruments, it plays almost the same incredibly basic rhythm through the entire soundtrack; more on that later. It’s almost as if each channel represents a musician with their own approach. Some composers on NES hardware swear by this approach; I’ve never really bothered with it, but if you want a good example of how to do it well, you’ve got another reason to check out this game.

Now, to be fair, Hudson Hawk only has a few minutes of music; it can get away with this by virtue of being a very short game, but I too find it a bit weird that I’m going into such depth on a soundtrack so minimal in length. Besides the title screen music and the short intermission between levels, the meat of Hudson Hawk‘s soundtrack is in the five short loops that cycle as you travel through the game. Every second of music in this game shares the same style of instrumentation, and even the same not quite midpaced but not quite fast tempo, which somewhat inclines me to treat all the loops as parts of a longer song chopped up for human consumption. Each ‘song’ also shares the same overall structure – melodic lines over chromatic progressions, which actually reminds me of some of the metal I’ve reviewed on this blog. Most of it goes for a denser soundscape, but the holes in the mix here (combined with some deft tracking by the programmers) create an effect where the main melodies float and weave through the backing element. It’s a surprisingly tense and atmospheric soundtrack, at least in its NES incarnation; the Amiga version is slower, with denser samples replacing bloopy chiptune synth, and it seems a bit less espionage/action and more “house party”. Given that Hudson Hawk is supposed to be a comedy (an element which is mostly absent from the game adaptations), that might not entirely be a bad thing from an overall game design stance. Still, since the underlying compositions are about the same, it’s a minor quibble at best.

Despite everything, this game ended up with a far better soundtrack than it presumably deserves; one that remains unique on a sound chip known for the breadth of composers working with it. It turns out that the main composer for this game (Keith Tinman) now works in the film industry and recently did some sound FX work for Gravity. He hasn’t done a video game soundtrack since 2002, but it’s good to see that he’s been able to get steady work regardless.

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