Who, or maybe should we say 'what', is Wade Watts? It has been recently discovered that this entity has been synthesised in a FPGA (a neat piece of technology, a kind of reprogrammable set of circuits located on a chip). And yet, Wade Watts lives inside T-Scale's organic head permanently. A ghost in the shell, perhaps? A non-malicious virus?
No one knows. All we know for now are its releases on various labels such as Dionysian Mysteries, LOST EARS and more recently on our LL017 V/A Vol.I with a satiric track simply called COVID19, as well as an appearance on our Mix Series last year. It also has a perchance for video game music...
Retro VGM (Video Game Music) can be put into two distinct categories:
- games that came out on previous generations of cartridge-based consoles such as the Sega Megadrive, Nintendo Super NES, Sega Master System or Nintendo NES.
- games that came out on CD-based consoles such as Sega Saturn or Sony Playstation. From then on, the music is usually playing like on a normal CD player (a method called redbook) although sound effects would generally be generated on a chip.
The former category have a unique feel to them because of one feature, or lack thereof; this generation of games had to use more rudimentary hardware, so developers alongside composers had to perform clever tricks in order to deliver quality products when it came to music and sound design.
You couldn't just play an Ogg (format similar to MP3, used in the video game industry) and call it a day.
Ok, that's a bit exaggerated but let's just say it wasn't straightforward to play music on a console or a computer at that time. They had to be creative and have extremely good knowledge of the hardware.
1. Yuzo Koshiro & Motohiro Kawashima - Streets of Rage 3 (Sega)
First on the list and first VGM involving the excellent Yamaha YM2612 FM chip, a chip commonly known as the music chip installed on the Sega Megadrive (or Genesis in the US). Capable of 6 channels of FM synthesis (with its 6th channel capable of playing short 8-bit samples), this chip was a little synthesizer inside the console, if you will.
The 'Streets of Rage' series, known in Japan as Bare Knuckle, are rightfully popular beat'em up games with great graphics for the time, adored for their underground Techno and electronic music soundtracks made by Yuzo Koshiro and Motoshiro Kawashima (2 and 3), who decades later performed in electronic music festivals and in 2017, were invited by Hyperdub's Kode9 for the Diggin' In The Carts On Tour at Fabric, London.
It comes as no surprise that these game soundtracks have now been remastered and released on wax.
Released in the summer of 1994, 'Streets of Rage 3' is the follow up to one of the most loved beat'em up of all time, rightfully so! Although i've never been familiar with this one as much as its predecessor, I've recently re-listened to its soundtrack and I've realised it's in some way superior to 'Streets of Rage 2', which is in itself an achievement.
The reason, I think, is simple: Motohiro Kawashima, who collaborated with Yuzo Koshiro on 'Streets of Rage 2', played a more important role in the third installment. The game had a more industrial feel with lots of machines and robots, which the soundtrack reflected with its dark and aggressive music.
In an interview with Red Bull magazine, Kawashima said "With Bare Knuckle III, we got rid of even more of the human element."
And I love that. Less human, more me.
2. Norio Hanzawa - Alien Soldier (Treasure / Sega)
Released in 1995. Another Sega Megadrive game and another YM2612 VGM, (recorded here from its YM3438 variant but it's basically the same). There are some gems in there. It's also been remastered, pressed on vinyl and all that.
The intro track, Sidelimits, is a detuned, trippy tune that just sounds alien. Retro, pixelated alien that is.
A few weird random, borderline annoying tunes past and comes Slap-up, a joyful, euphoric laidback jam that verges on cheesy, but unlike a lot of these kinds of tunes, it has some swag.
X-Age, following, is also very good; a dreamy electro bleep tune that could definitely be something released recently. Proper lo-fi material.
Another few tunes forward til Shade... Another swaggy bleepy trippy weird one that has a little bit of a junglistic beat.
Here comes the techno you've all been waiting for and it's called Silent. It's actually bloody good and it's worth shaking a buttocks or two on an imaginary dancefloor.
A few weird tracks forward and we reach the digital FM kosmische musik of Oblivious Past, probably the best one, at least in my opinion. But to each their own.
Then, the rest of the tracks are of that same messy, weird alien epic stuff. You might like it, depends on your mood.
I've never actually played this game, but it plays well with me.
3. Channel X - The Phantom Voltage from Steep Slope Sliders (Victor / Sega)
1997. Jungle. Acid Techno. Breaks and snowboard. You get the picture.
The Sega Saturn, a console that was annihilated by the success of the Sony Playstation, had a very interesting hardware. Other than being a 2D graphics beast (but not that good in the 3D department, the big trend at the time), the console contained a Yamaha YMF292 chip also known as Saturn Custom Sound Processor (SCSP).
Almost like a next-gen YM2612, this chip gives a grainy lo-fi quality to the sound, fed into the ubiquitous FH-1 multi-FX chip, which is also present in a variety of pedals and effect processors to this very day. Sadly, to my knowledge, it wasn't exploited for music which was played directly from the CD.
I've never played the game but my personal favourite track is the sweet lo-fi Jungle of The Phantom Voltage by Channel X (embedded above). Proper vibing.
The rest of the soundtrack is somewhat solid; there's a lot of tracks taking influences from Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Skint records, Wall of Sound and all that Big Beat stuff, as well. Some bleepy Electro, some of this, some of that. I can't snowboard to save my life and i've never played the game.
There's not much online information on featured artists except this entry on gutenberg.org: http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/Steep_Slope_Sliders
I'm not even human. How do I even snowboard IRL?
EDIT: after further investigation, there's a good number of games using the SCSP for music, such as Panzer Dragon Saga or Bulk Slash. This will be featured in a future article!
4. Photek - The Third Sequence from WipEout 2097 (Psygnosis / Sony)
Released in September 1996, following up its successful predecessor, WipEout 2097 is one of the most culturally definitive games ever made. You've probably heard of it.
With its logo aesthetics designed by Aphex Twin's logo designer Paul Nicholson, it came out during the peak of Techno, DnB and other 90s dance music, a time when Red Bull came into the market, flooding ravers with intense sugar rushes alongside its intense caffeine high that modifies your genetics, resulting in wings popping out of your shoulder blades.
And that brand had billboards right inside the game. I'm not talking about your usual annoying ad pop-up, but naturally integrated into the CGI world.
While it was also released on the Sega Saturn the next year, featuring a soundtrack by brilliant Welsh VGM composer Tim Wright, the Playstation version contained only two of his tracks, populating the tracklist with acts such as The Future Sound Of London, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Underworld or Photek. Meaning that the soundtrack itself was an actual electronic dance music V/A compilation joint to a futuristic flying vehicle racing game, it can't be more Techno than that.
You got to admit this was a neat marketing stunt!
Kids loved it, ravers loved it, Red Bull loved it, I loved it.
5. BCJ (CJ Bolland) - Thanato from Ghost in the Shell (Exact / IG Production / Sony)
Being a sucker for all things cyberpunk, I'm a massive fan of Mamoru Oshii's anime film adaptation of Masamune Shirow's original manga.
And this game, released in 1997 in Japan and a year later in Europe, is one of those really good video game adaptations; fast-paced, futuristic and with a great gameplay.
The soundtrack is, similarly to WipEout 2097, composed of many high-profile Techno artists such as Takkyu Ishino, Mad Mike (under his Brother From Another Planet pseudonym), Hardfloor, Westbam, Joy Beltram, Scan X, The Advent, CJ Bolland (as BCJ), Dave Angel, Derrick May and Mijk Van Dijk. And it fits the bill so perfectly I'd dare to say it's even superior to WipEout 2097!
You get full-on Detroit, Minimal, Acid, Electro and Industrial gems from top producers, fitting the futuristic, dystopian anime setting perfectly!
The game was sold with an additional limited CD featuring an exclusive track from all artists from the orignal in-game soundtrack. Ironically, one of the best 90s Techno V/A comes in video game form.
Sign of the times.
6. John Baker - ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (ToeJam & Earl Productions / Sega)
Yet another YM2612 VGM!
While the first ToeJam & Earl is regarded as a Sega Megadrive classic with its unique funky soundtrack, this sequel released in Europe in 1994 boasts a more mature and detailed soundtrack.
VGM legend John Baker proved once again his mastery of the YM2612! Squeezing all the funk out of it, Baker composed 14 swag-o-tastic tunes that are hard not to nod your head to even if you have no head.
The games themselves are cool, in the aesthetic definition of the word. Gameplay-wise, they're alright.
Still they're unique; blending a peculiar sense of humour with constant nods to the Funk/Hip-Hop culture.
But it's really the soundtrack that set them apart from the rest. How many other games at the time had such a tight Funk soundtrack?
7. Mark Miller - Kid Chameleon (Sega)
Maybe I'm obsessed with the YM2612 or maybe it's just great? If you've been reading while listening to the
tracks, you've realised how unique this little chip sounds by now.
Kid Chameleon is a platformer released in 1992 on the Sega Megadrive. It plays a little bit like Super Mario
but you can transform into quite a few different colourful characters with their own abilities. Some regarded
it as some weak clone of Super Mario while others, like me, loved it!
I'm taking the opportunity to note that, when I'm taking a tangible form I tend to take the appearance of Skycutter,
the futuristic hoverboard character featured in the game. I dedicated a track called An Ode To Skycutter's Engine (Faster), released in 2017 on LOST EARS's crowdfunding compilation THE BARN: A MIXTAPE. Unfortunately, the Bandcamp store link is broken but you can still find the slow version on my abandoned Soundcloud.
Back to the game, after this blatant attempt at self-promotion.
Composed by Mark Miller, at the time the main composer and sound designer at Sega of America, the project was led by Sega Technical Institute founder Mark Cerny, more recently known for being the PS5 architect.
The soundtrack is in some way similar to ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, except it's faster paced for the most part and contains a few Bleep House tunes like Ruins and some Electro jams like Woods or Mountain.
Like the game, the soundtrack has a lot of character. It was also unofficially released on vinyl by an unknown label in 2019.
Collect all of dem gems. Get dem 1-ups.
8. Ellen Meijers - Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee (Oddworld Inhabitants / Sony)
I've always liked the aesthetics of the Oddworld series but, for some reason, I've never played any of the games.
That doesn't stop me from finding this soundtrack absolutely brilliant; Ellen Meijers' blend of Dark Ambient, Industrial and musique-concrète is really moody and dark yet playful, somehow.
'Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee' was released in 1997 on Sony Playstation and has been ported to PC and... Game Boy.
From the first notes of the intro, you might recognise something familiar. And you'd be right. It has been sampled by quite a few producers, mostly in the Hip-Hop and Trip-Hop genre. Your job now is to find out which.
If you're into it, you can actually buy the 'rebuilt' soundtrack for $1 on Bandcamp:
I still have to play this game at some point.
9. Hiroshi Okubo & Nobuhide Isayama - Ridge Racer Revolution (Namco / Sony)
Racing games are a gataway to busy, fast-paced music. And this one is no exception!
Released in Japan in 1995 and in 1996 in Europe on Sony Playstation, 'Ridge Racer Revolution' is the sequel to the arcade game from which it borrows most of the music.
In a nutshell: you're driving a car, arcade style, while some over-the-top Gabba, Happy Hardcore and Jungle blasts out from the speakers!
10. Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell & Michael Land - Day of the Tentacle (LucasArt)
First and only PC game on this list. That doesn't mean there aren't any great VGM on PC, on the contrary.
The thing is, considering the amount of different chips used in different PCs to play MIDI files, it's not as streamlined as, say, a Sega Megadrive with its YM2612 chip. Having said that, Clint Bajakian, Peter McConnell and Michael Land together composed a stellar soundtrack which is considered a classic by many.
The game is a point-and-click adventure with lots of funny dialogues, situations and very colourful characters.
First released on PC in 1993, it has been re-released and re-mastered in 2020 for most modern platforms.
Note that the soundtrack shown here is not the actual original experience, as it has been played through more
modern hardware or even software, I don't know for sure.
Anyway, the composition is brilliant, light-hearted and totally epic in a wacky way!
Here we are! These were my picks. Hope you've had a good time listening to these VGM and maybe you've discovered something! See you somewhere in the aether, sometime.