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Anatomy of VGM #16 – Tyrian (1995)

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This feature is based off the definitive release (Tyrian 2000), and the AdLib version of the soundtrack.

It might not be a major theme here on Invisible Blog, but I have never been a big advocate for Yamaha’s OPL2/OPL3 sound chips (often sold as part of an AdLib sound card), at least not in isolation. FM synthesis has a very particular sound that’s well suited to certain styles of music, but many of the compositions for these chips (read: An enormous compilation of DOS games) disregard this, to questionable results. As a result, the gap between good and bad OSTs for DOS games is enormous! Tyrian is very definitely on the good side, and it is my go to game for anyone who wants an idea of what an expert can do with an Adlib.

Tyrian‘s music is about equally split between fast paced, upbeat synthpop/rock songs and more evocative, theatrical filmscore type music. Most of the tracks here were written by Alexander Brandon, who would go on to write more ‘tracker’ type music for games like Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex throughout the ’90s. A few were handled by one Andreas Molnar, who also apparently served as the sound programmer (at least for the Adlib version of the music). Tyrian‘s musical prowess is the result of their close collaboration, as the tracks here both play to the strengths of the OPL chips and demonstrate solid writing. The most obvious example of this is the variety of audio effects Brandon and Molnar pull off – ADSRM tricks in the instrumentation, screaming pitch bends to simulate guitarwork, pounding echoing percussion where a lesser sequencer would be limited to mere taps and tinkles. These types of tricks help add aesthetic flavor to the music at hand.

Since Tyrian‘s music exists in more forms than Adlib in an attempt to support more sound cards, we have to take a closer look at the writing to get to the heart of why it’s so well regarded. There’s a few factors here – I mentioned the broad types of music it contains, but for its length it’s an especially varied soundtrack, constantly exposing the listener to new musical ideas as they blast through the game’s generally short levels. In general, it holds these together with a focus on simple, direct, poppy writing focused on hooky motifs. Probably the best example of this is “Rock Garden” – a rather obviously named rock song that puts the OPL to good use with surprisingly realistic guitars (given the technology). It’s also based around two riffs with alternating guitar and organ solos. There’s not much there, but what IS there is as expertly honed as a carved diamond. The less rock-oriented tracks maintain this focus on leitmotif, from the soaring chords of the Asteroid Dances, to the complicated interplay of synth in “Tyrian: The Level”, to the driving energy of “Gyges”, and so forth. In short, while you could easily do more ambitious things with the Adlib, this comes off as more of an example of how to push a subset of its abilities to their limits.

The rest of Tyrian is good too, and you can play it for free nowadays due to the generosity of its creators. The other systems in the game could fill weeks of coverage here on Invisible Blog if I were so inclined.

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Anatomy of VGM #15 – Mega Man X (1993)

35566-mega-man-x-snes-front-cover.jpgWhen I decided to take a look at Mega Man X‘s music, I was laboring under the false impression that I’d done similar for more than a single game in the franchise. I do not know what universe this belief came from, but there’s still some kernel of truth to it. The armada of composers who have written music for Mega Man and its legion of subseries have all put their own unique spin on it… …well, maybe not the composer of the DOS versions pushed out by Rozner Labs, but in their defense, they don’t exist, because those games have no music. Mega Man X clearly doesn’t have that problem. As the first Mega Man to appear on the SNES (though far from Capcom’s first title for the system), the soundtrack matches the overall goal for the game – it expands on the core concepts and puts them in a new context, but you can still hear the elements of a Mega Man soundtrack.

To really understand how MMX fits into the megaseries (!), we need to start with a good understanding of what makes a Mega Man soundtrack in general. I’ve mentioned before that the NES installments didn’t exactly push the 2A03 to its limits, but succeeded in accompanying Dr. Wily’s follies with memorable poppy tunes. Meanwhile, the third game onwards saw Capcom’s rotating door lineup of composers experimenting with more complicated variants on this formula to mixed results. If you ask me, Mega Man X leans more towards the former, in that it favors overall intensity and pop hooks over elaboration and diversity. However, it does benefit from the broader sound palette and extra sound channels that the SNES has over its predecessor. Beyond this, it retains the generally upbeat aesthetic that I’ve come to expect from the Mega Man franchise as a whole. Later X-series games would push for more darkness and edge, but I’m not familiar enough with those games to know if their composers cooperated with that.

In general, Mega Man X‘s music fits well into a hard rock/heavy metal mold. It’s got prominent guitar work that exists in precarious balance with a versatile palette of synthesizers. There are also a few excursions into more speed/thrash metal oriented territory that I appreciate, but they’re exceptions to the rule, and if I were you I wouldn’t expect a SNES game to explore sample based metal music in that much detail. While there are exceptions to that rule, this game sticks to its niche. This mostly works out, but one thing that particularly bugs me is the weak sample quality. That’s not something you want to have when you’re composing for the SNES; but MMX’s catchy tunes are (in their initial form) marred by plastic sounding guitars and grainy percussion. In general, the sample fidelity is pretty lacking – more space on the cartridge might’ve helped, but it would also have driven up the price of the game. Mega Man X2 a year later was actually a major step up in this regard, for whatever that’s worth.

While sample quality is a pretty significant flaw, it’s one that I think we can easily look past. Due to its popularity, many a composer has contorted MMX‘s tracks into their instruments of choice, so if the aesthetics of the original bother you too much, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a replacement. Barring that, the soundtrack of Mega Man X will give you a good idea of how a composer can put their own unique spin on an established sound, especially when they’ve got a hardware upgrade to help them.

P.S: Speaking of hardware upgrades, here‘s a quality remix of the OST for the Sega Genesis’s YM2612 chip.

Anatomy of VGM #14: Battle Garegga (1996)

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Artwork from the Japanese arcade version flyer. We’ll be discussing the original soundtrack this time around… as usual.

Last week’s nominally bullet hell inspired recording got me thinking about shmups again. Battle Garegga was always one of my favorites, and an important milestone in the rise of the bullet hell genre (in fact, I’ve heard it inspired the folks at Cave to push themselves to new limits when they released Dodonpachi a year later). It’s music is a milestone of mastery for FM synth enthusiasts, a loving encapsulation of EDM/techno trends of the ’90s, and entirely worthy of the hyperbole I am slathering it in at this very moment. In the interest of hype, you should make sure you’ve listened to it before reading onwards.

The composer responsible for Battle Garegga‘s aural excellence is Manabu Namiki, who rose to prominence working for 8ing/Raizing before later joining up with Cave. His early work outside this game also serves as a master class for how to use FM synthesis in music. To be fair, the tracks here are not exclusively based on FM synth; the hardware the arcade cabinet uses also has some sampling capabilities that are used mostly for percussion and electric piano hits. Pure FM synthesis tends to model this sort of thing poorly, so having some basic noise generation or sampling capability frees the FM up to do the electronic/synthetic sounds it excels at. That in itself was pretty common – in the Western world, your best reference for this is probably the Sega Genesis, which had the capacity to pull this off between all of its sound hardware. Still, when you consider just how good the FM synth in this game sounds – lots of resonant pads and thumping bass, and the genres it covers, it’s a sign that Namiki has the aesthetics where he needs them.

As previously mentioned, Battle Garegga is a techno soundtrack of the sort that I suspect was most popular in the early ’90s. The instrumentation is what really tips me off; it results in a lot of midpaced, rhythmically simple tracks that focus most of their complexity on melodic/harmonic exploration and sound layering. There’s also a funk/jazz component here that occasionally syncopates the percussion into offbeat grooves; it’s not always present, but it makes for good contrast and variety. The aspect that sticks out most for me, though, is the aforementioned chord progressions. I’ve always been a sucker for this sort of “extended harmony but still relatively consonant” approach (Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel will attest to this if you dig them out of their graves), but Battle Garegga does this in a more contemporary, jazz-inflected way than most of what I listen to in my leisure time.

I cannot sing the praises of this OST enough, but what I’ve written here should be more than enough to give you an idea of why it’s so impressive.

Highlights: “Stab and Stomp!”, “Tunnel Vision”, “Subversive Awareness”

Anatomy of VGM #13: Mega Man 3 (1990)

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Seems like every other installment of this series has a disclaimer about me using some random variant of the game’s boxart. In this case, the European version adapts content from the Japanese boxart and throws in an especially ghastly Doctor Wily for good measure.

This is my (admittedly biased) vote for the best Mega Man game on the NES. For the most part, it sticks to refining and iterating on the strengths of the previous two games in the series, and it hit just before the series began to get stale. The music, however, is more of a departure. The first two Mega Man games have driving, focused soundtracks that are definitely simple and accessible, but more importantly well written and memorable. Mega Man 3 is the first in the series to diversify its music beyond that formula. Capcom has had mixed luck with this approach, but I’d say it generally works well here. The actual reason for this change might be due to a roster change in the music department; in the case of Mega Man, this appears to have happened for pretty much every game in the series. MM3 was composed by Yasuaki Fujita (“Bun Bun”) and the otherwise unrelated Harumi Fujita. To my knowledge, neither of them contributed to the games surrounding this entry. All this shifting gives each game in the series its own unique character.

One thing that definitely hasn’t changed, though, is the instrumentation. Capcom’s games for the NES used (as far as I know) a very rudimentary sound driver that leaves much of the NES’s potential unused. If you’re a chip aficionado, you might be familiar with some of the neat things you can do with the console’s sound chip- sampled DPCM, complicated waveforms, neat tricks with noise generation, and so forth, but Capcom sticks to a pretty limited subset of NES audio. This isn’t innately a bad thing, but like most simple instrumentation, it means your actual song structures have to be very on point, since you can’t rely on wacky effects to grab people’s attention quite as much.

As mentioned, Mega Man 3 takes a less “direct” approach to songwriting than its predecessors. The actual compositions for instance are a bit longer; not immensely so, but enough to increase the pure amount of ideas the songs explore. We’ve also got more ornate instrumentation, particularly in the percussion – some of the robot master themes in particular have a more off-beat feel to their rhythms. The actual melodies employ a lot of counterpoint and ornamentation that wasn’t really present before. Harumi Fujita’s contributions in particular seem to double down on this oblique approach. To be fair, there are a few tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place in the previous game – Top Man and Spark Man are the closest fits, as far as I’m concerned, but overall the emphasis is more on instrumental interplay than big, obvious, monophonic hooks.

It seems like this attempt at more complex songwriting influenced the rest of the Mega Man games on NES, for better (Mega Man 5) or worse (Mega Man 4). It’s basically the NES equivalent of playing with fire – you can end up creating some surprisingly sophisticated tracks if you succeed, but if you don’t know how to manage your complexity, you can end up with some awkward, stilted-sounding tracks. Still, Capcom seems to have had enough success with the approach this game employed that it influenced even the revival games’ sounds… although by the time Mega Man 9 came out in 2008, the barriers to writing chip music had all but collapsed, so it wasn’t exactly hard for that game’s composers to go as nuts as they wanted. Either way, Mega Man 3 has long since sold me not just on the gameplay improvements it made over its predecessors, but the soundtrack improvements as well. It’s a good entry point to the series, too, so if you’ve never played any of the Mega Mans… you might as well get on that, lest you be ostracized and thrown into a pit of fire for failing to join an early millennial’s millenarian Nintendo cult.

Anatomy of VGM #12: Cities: Skylines (2015)

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The boxart of the console ports of Cities: Skylines varies, but the OST is the same. This is not a review of the radio stations in-game, which amongst other things play music from other Paradox Interactive published titles.

I’ll admit it – I haven’t put nearly the hours into this game as my previous city builder of choice (SimCity 4), but I honestly think the rest of Paradox Interactive’s published titles are to blame. While Cities: Skylines lacks the sheer scale of that game, with its region building shenanigans, it’s still a great outlet for your creativity, and a far better successor to SC4 than EA’s efforts in 2013. What of the soundtrack? It’s certainly a substantial departure from the Cities in Motion series that birthed this, and even further from Jerry Martin’s approach to scoring SimCity titles, so at the very least, it’s going to win some points for audacity.

Cities: Skylines ships with 2 hours of strikingly modern/contemporary classical music. I’m not familiar with the bleeding edge of that genre, since my own experience tends towards the so called “common practice period“, but I have heard some music in the past that resembles what’s available here. The first thing you’ll notice is that the freedom of tonality – constant dissonance in the service of what more often than not is upbeat, optimistic, swelling orchestration. This is more prominent if you play relatively zoomed in – if I remember correctly, viewing your entire playing area tends to summon ambient synth soundscapes. The actual songwriting has something of an ambient feel to it as well – amorphous loops with abrupt transitions – trying to evoke overall feelings and paint pictures more than form a coherent narrative. It makes sense to a point – a simulation game like this has no preset story, so trying to score narrative setpieces might backfire – your ‘dramatic reveal’ might come as I meticulously place scenery to create a park for my Cims. I haven’t logged enough gameplay to really say how much the soundtrack reacts to your gameplay, but I suspect some of the more dissonant and imposing tracks are reserved for cities in crisis – at least those running a deficit. It’s not much, but it’s more than I’ve experienced in Maxis titles, which is at least potentially interesting.

My main difficulty in discussing the music of Cities: Skylines is that I don’t have a nostalgic attachment to it, and I can’t help but compare the music to that of Simcity 3000 and Simcity 4. It could be for the better that the composer went for something very different. The other part is that I’m not versed enough in ultra-modern classical to say whether or not I like it. The music here certainly challenges me if I try to sit down and listen to it, and it seems appropriate enough for the actual gameplay, though. Ultimately, I suspect people who are especially enthusiastic about this style of music will find much to love in Cities: Skylines‘ soundtrack. It might help that I have enough appetite for dissonance in my music that I didn’t immediately reject this approach, but at the moment, I feel like I’m too intellectually removed from the soundtrack to even so much as have a strong opinion on it. Usually writing helps, but not so much this time.

Anatomy of VGM #11: Castlevania – Rondo of Blood (1993)

241440-castlevania-rondo-of-blood-turbografx-cd-front-cover.jpgNote: As with all “Anatomy of Video Game Music” installments, I focus on one version of the soundtrack. Today, we’ll be looking at the PC Engine/Turbografx 16 version. Perhaps someday, we’ll look at the ports.

Remember how the last time we did an Anatomy of VGM feature, I said that Rondo of Blood had a more focused and upbeat soundtrack than Super Castlevania IV? If I’d gone into this unfamiliar with either game’s music, then I probably would’ve guessed otherwise. If you extrapolate from other CD-ROM debuts of established franchises, you might expect an especially experimental and varied soundtrack from this game, but instead, it’s mostly a synth rock/funk extravaganza of the sort that was unusually popular on TG16 CD based games. Did it have something to do with the musical climate in Japan at the time? I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

Regardless of why this Castlevania installment sounds the way it does, it’s essentially a continuation of the approach of the earlier titles in the series. It does get and employs the instrumental flexibility boost that you’d expect from streamed audio, but ultimately, Rondo of Blood cleaves more orthodox cuts, with a focus on compact songwriting, and several reprisals of established classic tracks from the series. It even lapses into a few tunes featuring the Turbografx’s distinctive sound chip (which is flexible, but oddly grainy). If I had to guess, I’d say this was probably an attempt to save disc space and/or loading time for small areas. Either way, despite the overall direction of the soundtrack, there’s still time for a few asides, like the chorale on the menu screen, or the bombastic orchestral sounds of the boss fights. I find myself neutral on this; you can imagine how an action platformer’s boss music might try to be more dramatic than its usual fare, Castlevania in general is no exception, and the actual motifs on display here seem logically consistent with how previous boss themes in the series were written.

There’s not much I can really say about the songwriting beyond this – fans have already dissected the ups and downs of every version of “Vampire Killer”, and will continue to do so until the garlic supply collapses and unleashes the undead upon us. The only real complaint I have with this soundtrack is its production and mixing, which is somewhat anemic, and perhaps a bit too shiny for its own good. My recommendation as a digital audio workstation would be to reduce the treble frequencies, and add more bassy instruments, but that might be my personal biases coming through. This is actually something the SNES adaptation of the game did better than the original, although in the interest of focus I can’t go into too much detail. Either way, it’s a minor blemish on what is otherwise a fine soundtrack, and an enhancement to one of the many quality Castlevanias this world has been blessed with. Given how consistently good the series was in its heyday, though, there’s not much else I can say.

Anatomy of VGM #10: Super Castlevania IV (1991)

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Konami’s composers were no strangers to writing ambitious music for the Castlevania series by 1991. This is the company that made their own custom NES expansion chip (the VRC6, my one true chiplove) and used it to enhance this game’s immediate predecessor (Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse). A good decision; that’s for certain. The Super Nintendo, though, brings an entirely different approach to creating music, though – instead of programming sound generators, you’re using sampled sounds. Super Castlevania IV came out early in the system’s life, but to my understanding, it wasn’t even Konami’s first effort for the system – their port of Gradius III came out months before in Japan… which may be a moot point, since I don’t know if the games shared composers. The important bit, though, is that Super Castlevania IV is an aural high point in a series well regarded for its musical achievements. The game’s pretty good too, although I’ve heard complaints about the reduced difficulty…

SC4‘s main achievement as a soundtrack is its unprecedented emphasis on atmosphere and ambience compared to previous Castlevania OSTs. Previous titles weren’t complete strangers to this, and Dracula’s Curse in particular has its share of creepy tunes, but this game uses its expanded aesthetic variety to explore an even greater variety of moods and concepts. This commitment begins at the very title screen – where Dracula’s Curse began with an alternatively triumphant and mysterious prelude, Super Castlevania IV introduces itself with brooding dissonance that eventually gives way to darker, more ominous repetition. Future Castlevania soundtracks take advantage of the extra mindspace this one opened, but they rarely get this dark – even the SNES port of Rondo of Blood (Dracula X) focuses more on rocking anthems. Here, the tracks are generally more sombre than scary, but it still fits the ambience. Besides, the fear of losing Simon to one of this game’s tougher challenges should be all the fear you need.

This isn’t to say that Super Castlevania IV is free of the more driving tunes its predecessors popularized – you need only clear the first few screens to hear the famous “Theme of Simon Belmont”, which is written to the same specifications that introduced the earlier NES Castlevanias, even if it trades in their square waves for keyboards and woodwinds. Despite the newfound expansion of sound, I’d say there’s about a 50/50 split between these two styles. It’s actually not long before the two start mixing – stage 3-3 places Simon in submerged ruins, and introduces a hint of off-kilter jazz, making for an strange but welcome stylistic fusion. There aren’t any other genre bends in this game that quite match up to this – from the vantage point of 2017, it’s more of a preview of the sort of experimentation video game musicians would engage in as their technical barriers were lifted. Still, it’s neat – I wouldn’t have expected jazz music to fit in a game like Castlevania, but with the right setting and a skilled hand on the conductor’s baton, it works wonders.

As previously stated, Super Castlevania IV‘s lessons were well applied on the future games’ OSTs, but few of them got as moody as this one, at least in the series’ prime. I won’t judge the tracks here for their overall mood, but if you want an especially dark and haunting soundtrack, this one is an excellent bet.