What’s that? A new feature? Why yes, yes it is.
In MoeGamer Music, an occasional feature, I sit down with a blank post and sit down to listen to a whole album without interruptions. While doing so, I will pen some immediate thoughts about each track, as well as providing a bit of information about the album as a whole.
And yes, being a physical release sort of person, everything I will be covering in this column is available on CD, and I will be listening to it on CD rather than ripping it to my digital music library. Distraction-free listening for the win.
We begin today with Diggin in the Carts: A Collection of Pioneering Japanese Video Game Music, published by Hyperdub. If you want to listen along, check out the Bandcamp page here.
If that name sounds vaguely familiar, chances are you caught the YouTube series of the same name a while back. This was published by Red Bull Music Academy, part of the Red Bull Music & Culture channel, and span off from the Red Bull Radio show of the same name.
As the full title of the album suggests, it is an exploration specifically of Japanese video game music, mostly from the earlier days of gaming. The album unfolds over the course of 34 tracks, and covers songs from a variety of different Japanese computer and console systems from over the years, as well as a number of different composers — some more well-known than others.
In the sleeve notes for the album, executive producer Steve Goodman (aka electronic music artist and DJ Kode9) and digital music historian Nick Dwyer describe how they believe that the early chiptunes of 8- and 16-bit systems “transposed the melodies from classical music, rock, reggae and early synth pop into zeroes and ones, incubating them in circuit boards, giving birth to a vibrant sub-species of chip-tune clones and infecting a mutant array of electronic music genres, from hip-hop to techno, house to grime, dubstep to footwork and beyond.”
Goodman and Dwyer note that “the autonomy of these audio life forms to sustain themselves outside of the game context was acknowledged” from these early days, and posits that “their infectiousness came not just from their catchy tunes, but also from the sonic medium that carried these refrains.” The purity of the simple audio waveforms that made up early chiptune music provided something notably different — even unique — from other musical forms of the time, and this explains, at least in part, why they have endured so well over the years.
“While made for cheap tinny speakers,” the notes continue, “all the action seemed cramped into the mid-range, a rush of colour to the ears. Yet amplified on a sound system, they were often face-meltingly powerful in the low-end.”
Well, we’ll soon see about that. Let’s go.
1 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Opening (Cosmic Wars – Famicom)
I’m unfamiliar with a lot of the games on this album, but Konami Kukeiha Club were responsible for a lot of “greats” over time. This track most certainly gets off to a good start, with a mysterious, low sound, gradually building into something more rhythmic.
There’s something unmistakably “sci-fi” about this sound. Perhaps it’s the militaristic beats in the background; perhaps it’s the overall minor tone, shifting to a triumphant major chord for the very last note.
There’s a hint of Castlevania — particularly Castlevania III — in the melody line, which is not altogether surprising, given the source, but this piece definitely makes itself stand out in its own right by the end. Even without knowing the game, I can picture its opening sequence thanks to this music — a typical NES/Famicom-era “only you can save the universe” affair, not that there’s anything wrong with that!
2 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Mazed Music (Nemesis – Arcade)
Now we’re in slightly more familiar territory. The driving, minimalistic rhythm of this rather brief track — created without any percussion sounds whatsoever, just the bass and harmony lines — keeps things moving along nicely and provides an air of mystery to the soundscape. I can absolutely picture the Vic Viper flying slowly but methodically into combat accompanied by this music, for sure.
The combination of timbres produced by the overlapping instruments and sound waves used makes the track very distinctive; you can tell that the sound hardware here is slightly more advanced than that of the Famicom, though only by a little.
3 – Norio Nakagata: Big Mode (Genpei Touma Den – Arcade)
A distinctly Eastern-inspired track, with repetitive, majestic backing rhythms and harmonies providing the impression of perhaps an Eastern emperor arriving on the scene to inspect the state of the battlefield.
The Eastern theme extends to the pentatonic melody lines and a synthesised approximation of traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments. It’s definitely got a lot of character — and once again, the sound quality is such that you can tell we’re dealing with hardware a little more advanced than that which would have been in the home at the time.
4 – Michiharu Hasuya: Hidden Level (Solomon’s Key – Master System)
The Master System was capable of some pretty decent PSG sounds in its basic incarnation, but when equipped with its FM synthesis addon, as we hear in this track, it could produce some impressive music for the time.
This mysterious track once again gives us a bit of beefy bass and driving rhythm without relying on percussion sounds; all the energy comes from the perpetually moving, never resolving arpeggios in the background of the harmony. Over the top, a lyrical, slow-moving melody line contrasts heavily with this backdrop, providing a sense of bringing order to the chaos. Kind of appropriate for Solomon’s Key’s methodical, puzzle-centric gameplay in many ways!
5 – Konami Kukeiha Club: A Planet of Plants (Nemesis 2 – MSX)
Konami’s back again with another track, this time from the sequel to Nemesis, which was the MSX port of Gradius, but not an actual sequel to Gradius, just Nemesis. Err, anyway, this track once again provides us with some driving rhythms to push us onwards to victory. There’s actually a touch of percussion this time, but not overpoweringly so; again, most of the energy comes from the bass line, which in this case makes use of rapid, repeated notes rather than minimalist arpeggio patterns.
There’s a contrasting middle section to this track that, while brief, keeps things interesting and provides a sense of progression. Once again, I can very much picture the Vic Viper going into battle to this music — although things seem a bit more “serious” this time around!
6 – Manabu Saito: Telepathy (Chatty – PC-8801)
Now we’re getting into really obscure territory. PC-8801 games had quite a distinctive sound about them that blended elements of Famicom-style chiptunes with the more flexible synthesis of FM, and this track is very much representative of that.
Here we have another track that makes use of a simple structure to create an interesting atmosphere. The repetitive, minimalist backing contrasts with a syncopated, occasionally discordant and somewhat improvisatory-sounding melody line to create a somewhat ethereal feel that seems pretty appropriate for a track called “Telepathy”.
7 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Equipment (Nemesis 3 The Eve of Destruction – MSX)
This one’s noteworthy for having an arcade-style “you pressed start” sound at the beginning before launching into an early example of what we’ve come to expect from “pre-game” screens in arcade titles, where you might be selecting your difficulty, your route through the game, or, in this case, your ship’s loadout of weapons.
The short musical phrase that forms the basis of the track is repeated and transposed several times to give the impression of being in a “holding pattern”, waiting to launch into action. The music never resolves itself because it’s designed to be heard while the player is making an important decision; once that decision is reached, it’s into the game proper.
8 – Konami Kukeiha Club: BGM 3 (Motocross Maniacs – Game Boy)
Have I ever mentioned how much I love the Game Boy’s sound chip? It’s deliciously simplistic in terms of its capabilities, but there was something about it that made composers really make it sing. It’s that old adage about artists working best when they have limitations enforced upon themselves, and it’s just as true for music as it is for graphics.
Interestingly, this isn’t quite the kind of feel I’d necessarily expect from a Motocross game (aside from the “traffic lights” sound at the beginning) — typically I’d expect something more rock-inspired with a bit more in the way of percussion. Instead here we have repetitive arpeggios and an oddly lyrical melody line; that ostinato pattern in the harmonies really gives an impression of being constantly in motion. If anything, this sounds more like “boss music” than racing game music — but that element of the unexpected in itself makes it stand out.
9 – Toshiya Yamanaka: Visual Scene 1&2 (Wer Dragon – PC-8801)
The opening to this track sounds very much like the sort of thing you’d expect from maybe a strategy game or RPG as you prepared for battle. Driving, militaristic rhythms — with some percussion this time around — and triumphant horn fanfares acting as the main accompaniment to the understated melody.
The distinction between “Visual Scene 1” and “Visual Scene 2” presumably comes in the parts where the harmonic — but not rhythmic — pattern changes, and the percussion shifts from closed hi-hat sounds to open hi-hats for a distinct change in character. The two “scenes” are clearly closely related — hence them both being in one track, presumably — but they can absolutely be distinguished from one another.
10 – Goblin Sound: Opening (Hisou Kihei X-Serd – PC Engine)
Another intro track, this time featuring some meaty sampled drums and a repetitive, throbbing bassline. After a short period, this is accompanied by long, sustained pad sounds with somewhat muted harmonies, and a “sparkling” synth pattern over the top of it all.
This piece lacks a traditional melody line, making it ideal for accompanying something the player needs to pay attention to — like, say, the introductory story sequence to the game.
11 – Tadahiro Nitta: An-Un (Ominous Clouds) (Xak II – MSX2)
This one has a wonderful start, consisting of big, beefy minor chords that are clearly intended to put across the idea of something Evil with a capital E. It’s actually strongly reminiscent of the sort of tracks we’d still be hearing in Japanese RPGs nearly a decade after this game’s 1990 release — there’s more than a hint of Sephiroth’s theme from Final Fantasy VII about this one.
One key difference is that despite the ominous, slow opening, this piece gradually builds in intensity and complexity as it progresses, which is not something Sephiroth’s theme really does beyond a certain point; the later track’s creepiness comes from its simplicity. Either way, this is a delightfully Evil track, and I recommend blasting it out the next time you enter a room wearing a cape.
12 – Yuzo Koshiro: Temple (Actraiser – Super Famicom)
Koshiro is one of the most respected video game musicians out there, with his experience stretching all the way back into the 8- and 16-bit eras and continuing well into today, with his most recent contributions being to games like Etrian Odyssey, Time and Eternity and the upcoming Streets of Rage 4.
Actraiser is one of his more unusual, experimental soundtracks, and this is very much apparent in this track; plenty of discordant harmonies, a distinctly “cinematic” structure rather than the usual sort of repetitive ongoing sound you’d expect from game music… and some of the Super Famicom’s most iconic synthesiser sounds, including its distinctive string, brass and timpani sounds. I bet you can hear them right now.
13 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Road to Agartha (Mouryou Senki MADARA – Famicom)
This is one of those tracks that sounds way better than you’d expect from the Famicom’s humble sound chip, and is likely the result of a cartridge that included additional sound hardware over and above what the base system offered. Probably the best-known example of this is Castlevania III, but this piece is a good example, too, providing a rich, warm sound very reminiscent of the sort of things we’d hear from the PC-8801 or the Master System with its FM addon.
As a piece, this is relatively nondescript, but it fits nicely with the theme of taking a journey somewhere. A repetitive, ongoing, never-resolved ostinato in the harmony parts is contrasted by a slow-moving, sustained melody line; it gives a real feeling of a slow and laborious “trudge” to a destination. By no means the catchiest track you’ll ever hear, but a good example of how an atmosphere can be created with relatively limited audio resources.
14 – Hiroyuki Kawada: King Erekiman (The Legend of Valkyrie – PC Engine)
This track makes sparing use of different instrument sounds and provides most of its energy through its repetitive percussion part; a bassy, perpetual tom pattern contrasted with syncopated synth parts over the top, with sporadic interjections of a melody line with a slightly “Eastern” feel about it.
Interestingly, listening to this track on a good sound system reveals an obvious “hiss” in the background that you probably wouldn’t have heard on a TV, but here it actually adds slightly to the texture, and provides a certain amount of “charm through imperfection”.
15 – Katsuro Tajima: Exercise (MEGA PANEL – Mega Drive)
Now we’re into the distinctive FM synthesis of Sega’s Mega Drive, and a track whose main melody line sounds suspiciously close to Shantae’s theme — or, more accurately, the other way around. There’s definitely a distinctly Arabian feel to the main melody line, and the repetitive somewhat tabla-esque melodic drum sounds that accompany the tune add somewhat to the Middle Eastern feel.
This is another good example of how a piece of music doesn’t have to be terribly complex to create a solid atmosphere. There are so few individual parts in this track that you can pick them out by ear very easily, but the combination of them has a very evocative effect that will almost certainly call to mind a very specific mental image of towering minarets and Islamic arches.
16 – Goblin Sound: Game Over (Hisou Kihei X-Serd – PC Engine)
Ah, the humble Game Over track; how often it is neglected. Here we have one where a bit of effort has clearly been put in, however. The echoing sampled drums, the droning harmonies and the mournful yet hopeful melody over the top makes one think that yes, one might well have fucked up this time, but a simple press of the Start button (I’m sorry, the Run button, this is the PC Engine, isn’t it?) is all it takes to pick yourself back up and try again.
It’s interesting that this track continues into perpetuity rather than tailing off; as such, it means it lacks a sense of “finality”, which in turn feeds into that idea of “maybe just one more go”. A dangerous thing when it comes to strategy games such as Hisou Kihei X-Serd!
17 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Beyond the Terminus (Block Hole – Arcade)
Another track that makes heavy use of arpeggiated ostinato patterns, the high pitch of the accompaniment part in this track contrasted with the tune in the bassline provides a very distinctive feel.
While mysterious to begin with, the track builds to a sense of triumph over adversity by its midpoint as the long, slow, sustained notes of the melody in the bass are replaced by a driving piano part and the tune moves into the upper registers.
18 – Kazuko Umino (Zuntata): Waltz of Water and Bubbles (Liquid Kids – Arcade)
Ah, Zuntata. What a delight you are. How creative you are, and this piece, although not as well known as some of your other work, is an absolutely prime example. Opening with a somewhat discordant melody that almost immediately grinds to a halt, the track then proceeds through a simple, two-part jazzy piece that subsequently gets accompanied by some simple percussion… and most emphatically isn’t a waltz due to not being in triple time.
There actually is a bit of waltz influence here in the bridge section that occurs between repetitions of the overall tune, but it doesn’t take long for that to grind to a halt again and once again take us back to that catchy little jazzy theme.
19 – Hiroto Saito: Main Stage BGM 1 (Time Cruise II – PC Engine)
“Level one” music is an art form unto itself, and Hiroto Saito absolutely nails it here with an energetic piece featuring a distinct intro sequence that concludes with an impressive drum fill (you can practically see the “GET READY” as you hear it).
This is followed up by constant, driving rhythms thanks to a pounding bassline and sampled drums, a sense of building drama through complexity of texture, and an overall minor timbre that gives us the sense that although we might be fairly badass, we definitely have a long way to go before we can consider ourselves true heroes.
20 – Yasuhisa Watanabe (Zuntata): Area 26-10 (Metal Black – Arcade)
One can assume that “Area 26-10” is quite late in the game, and this somewhat chaotic, cacophonous number very much gives the impression of being deep within enemy territory, perhaps surrounded by heavy industry or dangerous weaponry all just waiting to blast you into smithereens.
In true Zuntata tradition, this track sounds a bit “odd”; its repetitive percussion and bassline keeps things driving onwards — though there’s a surprise ritardando partway through before things get moving again — but its melodies and harmonies that complement the backing almost sound like they’re from two different pieces of music overlaid on top of one another.
21 – Hiroto Saito: Site 3-1 (Torrid City) (Metal Stoker – PC Engine)
Hiroto Saito is back again, once again showing he knows how to make a mean shoot ’em up soundtrack. This time around, we kick of with energetic rhythms and harmonies moving in a “circular” pattern before a somewhat more lyrical middle section.
The elaborate, almost virtuosic synth lines that form the main melodies in the early parts of this track are a delight to listen to; while not necessarily providing much in the way of a memorable tune, they’re exciting and thrilling to listen to in the same way that you probably couldn’t hum a favourite guitar solo, but you appreciate it nonetheless.
22 – Tadahiro Nitta: Metal Area (Illusion City – MSXturboR)
Another track making heavy use of minimalist influences here, with a repetitive, fast-moving synthesised backdrop overlaid with reversed, discordant waveforms and two percussion parts “fighting” with one another — the regular drum pattern is complemented by a metallic thumping sound that plays on syncopated offbeats, giving the whole thing a distinctly uncomfortable, threatening feel.
There’s definitely a strongly “metallic” feel to this track. It provides the impression of being surrounded by things that are completely alien and threatening, stoking a desire to get out of there as quickly as possible, even if that means blasting through everything in your path.
23 – Hiroto Saito: Site 6-2 (Metal Stoker – PC Engine)
We’re back with Metal Stoker again, and this time around we’ve actually got a somewhat more downtempo number. There’s a fairly elaborate sampled drum backing providing the main driving force behind this one, accompanied by a descending harmonic pattern that gets joined by a high-pitched, somewhat theremin-esque whining melody for part of its duration.
This track provides the sense of being at something of a “midpoint”; there’s a sense of melancholy exhaustion about it thanks to its slower tempo, but also a feeling of inevitability: a sense that you’ve come this far, so there’s no point turning back now.
24 – Masumi Itou: Tactics 4 (Super Royal Blood – Super Famicom)
Yet another minimalist inspired piece, this time consisting of two intertwining lines, one forming a somewhat improvisatory melody of sorts while the other provides an ostinato pattern. This is then interrupted by what sounds like an alarm klaxon, suggesting that one should probably hurry up with one’s “Tactics” if one doesn’t wish to find oneself splattered across the nearest wall. I assume, anyway; once again, I don’t know the game here.
This piece is actually quite a bit more complex than initially appears, developing through a number of distinct phases as it progresses before returning to that initial intertwining melodies idea. It’s constantly moving onwards, providing a sense that you should be doing something rather than sitting around… and yet the overall timbre of the piece suggests that you probably won’t be the one on the frontlines here.
25 – Goblin Sound: My Phase (Stage 12/14) (Vixen 357 – Mega Drive)
The discordant intro to this track sounds distinctly like you’re encountering some sort of boss, and the track then moves into a somewhat “sparkly” piece, with the sound of crystalline raindrops forming an ostinato pattern in the background and long, slow sustained melodic notes contrasting with this over the top.
Then it’s all over very suddenly. A rather strange track, all round!
26 – Hiroaki Yoshida: Kyoushin (Lunatic Forest) (Dragon Gun – Arcade)
This one is noteworthy for having a distinctly “noisetracker” feel to it, with each of the individual sounds involved sounding very much like crunchy, low-resolution samples rather than sounds from a MIDI synthesiser. There’s quite an “Amiga” feel to this track as a result.
It’s an atmospheric track, but not particularly tuneful. I can see this accompanying a dramatic action sequence, and the way that the repeated pattern in the background doesn’t really “fit” with the rest of the composition from a harmonic perspective adds somewhat to the chaotic, “lunatic” feel that is presumably intended to be conveyed here.
27 – Konami Kukeiha Club: Underwater Dungeon (Esper Dream 2 – Famicom)
Everyone loves an underwater dungeon! And this track is a prime example of the sort of thing you can probably expect from the musical accompaniment to an underwater dungeon — albeit with rather more bass than I’m typically accustomed to.
The overwhelming sound in this track are the bassy harmonies, but these are complemented by repetitive ostinato patterns played by echoey synth sounds that give a distinct sense of “bubbles”. Once again we’re in enhanced sound chip territory here, too, giving a much thicker, more resonant texture to the overall sound than one would typically expect from a “vanilla” Famicom game.
28 – Technosoft: Shooting Stars (Thunder Force IV – Mega Drive)
This is not the one everyone knows from Thunder Force IV, but it’s a good one nonetheless, providing a nicely “ethereal” sound through its twinkling minimalist ostinato backing, contrasting strongly with raspy synth pads in the mid range and a subtle, slow-paced, improvisatory melody of the top of it all.
It’s another good example of a piece that is atmospheric and evocative rather than “catchy” as such; you probably won’t be humming this one to yourself, but it most certainly creates a mental picture, even if you’ve never played Thunder Force IV.
29 – Soshi Hosoi: Mister Diviner (The Mahjong Touhaiden – Super Famicom)
Here’s another distinctly “Super Famicom”-sounding track, with the overlapping, intertwining, staccato organ sounds creating something of a sense of urgency for the opening to this track, with the texture gradually building as the piece proceeds thanks to the addition of booming drums, timpani and piano.
Mahjong never sounded so dramatic. I bet you still don’t know how to play it though. And even if you can do, I can see this track getting rather distracting and hypnotic after a while!
30 – Jun Ishikawa: Main Theme (Alchahest – Super Famicom)
After the hypnotic chaos of that last track, this one is blessed relief. We’ve got a traditional texture for once — a nice major key melody line played on strings and flute in the upper registers, and a simple rhythmic backing with straightforward percussion and repeated brass notes.
This one very much has the distinctive “Super Famicom sound” about it, too; you’ll recognise those instrument sounds anywhere.
31 – Kazuhiko Nagai: Keel (Golden Axe II The Duel – Arcade)
Here’s a peculiar one, combining distinctly rhythmic, bassy guitar patterns with obvious Celtic influences such as the use of a fiddle melody. There are some very strange sound effects in the background of this one, too, including what sounds like a bush rustling, wet flesh slapping and dripping water.
I’m not altogether convinced this one quite “works”, but it definitely makes one feel something…
32 – Koichi Ishibashi: Bad Data (Dezaemon – Super Famicom)
Another track making use of those famous Super Famicom instrument sounds, this time adopting some discordant harmonies and an overall structure that never feels like it quite “resolves” itself.
This is clearly the accompaniment to something bad happening — or perhaps a grand finale. Either way, again, it’s not something you’ll be humming, but there’s a definite sense of “atmosphere” there.
33 – Yasuaki Fujita: What is Your Birthday? (Tarot Mystery – Super Famicom)
Oh, now this is nice. We’ve got some recognisable Super Famicom sounds here, but a few we don’t tend to hear quite so much, like melodic percussion and choir “aahs”. This very much gives an appropriately mysterious “tarot reading”-type feeling to the experience.
The second half of the track continues the minimalist ostinato backing that accompanies the first, with slightly different instrumentation, the dropping of the choir sound and a slightly more obvious melody line. It’s a very pleasing track to listen to, particularly after the threatening chaos of the previous one.
34 – Kazuo Hanzawa: Oblivious Past (Alien Soldier – Mega Drive)
And finally we cap off the album with this track from Alien Soldier. It’s an atmospheric one, incorporating a thick, complex texture with interesting use of modulation and pitch bend for a distinctly “sci-fi” feeling. Its overall slow tempo provides a somewhat nostalgic, melancholy feeling, and as the track progresses, a slow, regular synth pattern breaks through the middle of these deliciously rich harmonies, providing us something to hold onto as our journey comes to an end.
The second part of the track has a definite sense of “finality” about it, with a catchy, triumphant but slow-paced and slightly emotionally downbeat melody over the top of the harmonies underneath. We conclude with the texture thinning out and a sense of continuing mysteries. Perhaps there is more out there to discover, but for now, our journey is over…
This is an enjoyable album that showcases the capabilities of a variety of Japanese systems from over the years along with a broad array of composers and styles.
Don’t come into this expecting a super-catchy tuneful album, mind; the tracks here err very much on the side of atmosphere and mood rather than toe-tapping melodic and rhythmic hooks, with a couple of notable exceptions. This is an album about the majesty and versatility of old sound hardware rather than The Greatest Game Themes Ever Volume 1, and I respect it for that. Of course, this means it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s definitely a grower that rewards active listening and appreciation of what is going on.
“The accidental beauty of the early game music, the crunchy soundtrack to all those little pixelated animations, tells us much about aesthetic process and technical intention,” write Goodman and Dwyer. “The arrow of technological innovation is at right angles to aesthetic innovation. What seems like an accident to the real intention of the machine is actually its true inhuman purpose, partially hidden, occulted, only to make itself apparent through tinkering and messing around.”
There’s definitely a sense of the “experimental” to this album, and that’s an aspect of early game music that is well worth exploring in greater detail. Everyone knows how good the Super Mario Bros. theme is and why — what we have here is composers trying something different with the limited hardware available to them, and taken on those terms, this is a fascinating album to explore.
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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