Category Archives: BLOCK ROCKIN’ BEEPS

Music Deconstruction – Green Hill Zone

The Mega Drive/Genesis had two chips that it had access to in order to create it’s music. The main chip was the Yamaha YM2612 FM Synthesiser which had 6 synth channels and 1 digital audio channel (DAC). This was backed up by the Texas Instruments SN76489 which had been the power behind the Sega Master System’s music, this had 1 noise channel and 3 tone channels.

For this video I’ve played out all the individual channels used to make up the iconic Green Hill Zone theme, giving a little look at how the layering works and the chips were utilized. It’s fascinating that some channels actually sound kind of ugly on their own, but great when layered up.

I particularly enjoy the bassline in the second channel and the DAC’s drums, they really emphasis some of the best qualities of Mega Drive synthesis.

Block Rockin’ Beeps – Super Fantasy Zone: Boss

Track Name: Boss
Track Composer: Naoki Kodaka
Game: Super Fantasy Zone
Platform: Mega Drive
Sound Chip/System: Yamaha YM2612

Fantasy Zone is an extremely cute game. A bright chunky game of cartoon art and silliness in which you play a sentient spaceship with wings named Opa Opa! It’s a scrolling shooter, very of its time, and part of the early days of Sega’s famous blue sky charm. It has an oddly morbid premise at times, but you’d never really notice it for all the shining happiness it presents while playing, it’s even been said to be a “Cute-em-up”.

The series is a relatively forgotten part of the Sega library. It’s been represented here and there since the final major game in the series, Super Fantasy Zone on the Mega Drive. Opa Opa’s theme song appeared in Samba De Amigo on the Dreamcast, the character was unlockable in Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing and in March a 3D remake of the original arcade title hit the 3DS eShop in Japan. Even with that it’s not something many modern gamers particularly know or care about, which is true of a lot of the early Sega arcade library, and it’s a shame because there’s a lot of quality lurking there.

A cute game tends to begat cute music and, for the most part, that’s true in Super Fantasy Zone. Each level has a delightful, bouncy theme but the surprise comes when the boss appears and this theme kicks in:

This is unexpectedly bad ass! The driving base and drum fills just scream action and fun intensity. It doesn’t take a turn into a grim or maudlin emotional sound, but it ramps up the sound of fighting and communicates to the player that you’re not up against one of the regular cannon-fodder enemies.

Whether it’s fully fitting is kind of hard to decide. It’s undoubtedly a great simple ass-kicking track but it’s a little odd to have this pumping out your speakers while you’re fighting a flying Jack-O-Lantern wearing a little pumpkin crown. It fits to the difficulty, to the actions and importance, but thematically, especially when only taking the visuals into account? Perhaps not.

Still Naoki Kodaka clearly had fun creating this boss ditty and whether it’s entirely suitable or not it’s an entertaining tune that suits the Mega Drive hardware perfectly.

Block Rockin’ Beeps – Underwater Wonders from Mario and Ristar

Track Name: Dire Dire Docks – Splash Down
Track Composer: Koji Kondo – Tomoko Sasaki
Game: Super Mario 64 – Ristar
Platform: N64 – Mega Drive
Sound Chip/System: Reality Co-Processor and/or CPU – Yamaha YM2612

Games follow trends quite heavily, much like any media, and when one particular thing becomes enormously successful then there’s bound to be countless others following the path it’s set. Take the Call of Duty style of FPS, both in singleplayer and multiplayer, from release of Modern Warfare Infinity Ward essentially set down the formula that most FPS games would follow for a good while. Extremely-scripted corridor shooting galleries with bombastic set pieces and crashing helicopters became the SP norm and the perks and progression instant-death MP did as well. Even wildly different franchises took this up, with things like the odd reboot of Syndicate that copied the COD single player formula rather inappropriately.

Trends are strong and powerful and they’ve been there for a long time in gaming. Platform games were a strong, leading genre for over a decade across the eighties and through the mid-nineties and they developed a lot of trends and clichés that seemed inescapable. The most obvious were the level themes. No matter the character, no matter the setting it seemed like every game had to tread the same paths. Forest levels, lava levels, slippery-sliding ice levels, sewer levels (a trend that sadly continues to this day), levels made of food, the themes were explored again and again in the search for more cash. One of the most notorious was the underwater level which usually meant a slow, plodding swim that ground the action to a halt and made retrying areas incredibly frustrating. Often you’d have to continually come up for air, further delaying the gameplay.

Thankfully, not all underwater levels were like this and today I’m showing off two tracks that beautifully accompanied their respective sodden levels.

Dire, Dire Docks from Super Mario 64 is a good level. One of the true triumphs of Mario 64 was just how effective the control system was. 3D gaming was in its teething years and most games absolutely went to hell once you dropped into the water. Thankfully Miyamoto and his team nailed the controls and allowed the player to feel just as in charge in the water as they did on the land.

Koji Kondo provided the level with this wonderful, bright floating ditty and it shows off some of the characteristics that will also be heard in the next track. There’s a sense of roundness to the sound, an engulfing audio that evokes the idea of being submerged. The long decay on each note gives it that wavy, dreamlike sound. Over the course of the track it escalates from being purely calming to having a more energetic sound, but it never really raises intensity, it’s always happy and flowing. Whether you’re finding a sub or swimming after a manta ray there’s a sense of relaxation.

Now we’re jumping to the Mega Drive for this track from Ristar. A game released late in the console’s life span Ristar was hoped to be another mascot for Sega, sadly this didn’t happen as sales weren’t as high as expected, but Ristar has lived on through the many Sega collections. It’s a fantastic game with lovely art design and a set of extremely well designed levels, still it fell prey to themeing convention and the second world consisted of two underwater levels.

This music comes from the second level and like the Mario track uses long-decaying notes to create a round, enveloping sound. It uses a calm ambient feeling to portray the scenario but it’s not quite as constantly cheery as Mario. Using the percussion Tomoko Sasaki gives it a funkier beat and while not a dark track, per se, it’s little lower and a tad more serious. Still it’s very inviting and warm and suits the underwater adventures that Ristar has to be taken on. It also shows the percussive strength of the FM Synth that exists in the Mega Drive. Tomoko Sasaki’s most famous soundtrack is for NiGHTS into Dreams on the Saturn and there’s a clear stylistic link between the sound use and percussion.

It’s interesting to see in the music the similarities and differences that composers used to approach the same theme, giving each one a nice identity but tying very well the ideas and imagery.

Block Rockin’ Beeps: Gundam Wing Endless Duel – Epyon

Track Name: Epyon
Track Composer: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki, Haruo Ohashi
Game: Gundam Wing: Endless Duel
Platform: SNES
Sound Chip/System: Sony SPC700 +Sony DSP

I don’t like Gundam Wing. An odd way to start praising something bearing its name but it’s absolutely true. When I was younger and anime was only just starting to find its feet in the UK I watched nearly anything I could find. I’d buy random VHS tapes, record anything that was broadcast in the late night Friday Sci-Fi Channel anime and pick up DVDs based on cover alone. Most of what I watched was, to put it kindly, utter shite but back then this was all we had! Eventually Cartoon Network starting to get in on the anime game and me and my friends were avid watchers of whatever scraps they threw our way. When they started showing trailers for Mobile Suit Gundam Wing we were excited, at 15 years old we were looking forward to giant robots and fights! Something new!

Then it aired and despite my best efforts I couldn’t get into it. None of us could. I think we were expecting something different, perhaps the Gundams being made of Gundanium just sounded too silly or maybe it was poor timing. Whatever the reason, we never kept up with it. We did, however, stumble upon its game one day while messing around with SNES emulators.

It was surprisingly awesome. This was what we wanted, a one-on-one fighter starring giant robots beating the crap out of each other with a genuinely fun combat system. It’s not an utter classic like Street Fighter 2 but it certainly held its own as a fun fighting game, especially in multiplayer, and between me and a friend we racked up a fair few hours of battling.

What also really stuck in my mind was how damn good the music was.

When it comes to 16-bit era music I’m a firm fan of the Mega Drive’s synthesis and often I find the SNES to possess slightly technically superior sound, but with weak and unimpressive samples that render its tunes less impressive. Thankfully this is not the case for Endless Duel.

Epyon is the final boss in the game and is given a suitably climatic and grand track. The opening choir-style sound (that is reprised later) is stunning, appearing more powerful and grand than the SNES should be able to produce. Underneath that the phasing vibrations shift from ear to ear, complemented by the speedy hi-hat hits that create the intensity the track deserves. The central parts of the track are dramatic, emotional and feel very much the kind of sound you’d hear in an anime series itself. It’s not just a giant robot fight; it’s something more important and powerful, something with real stakes!

Even now, some fifteen years after I first discovered the game, the music holds a good sense of power and dramatic composition. The rest of the soundtrack is of similar quality, there’s not a foot put wrong throughout, but the Epyon track is an outstanding piece. Something that feels somewhat removed from the hardware powering it, which isn’t always a good thing, but here it works, it flows and dances in a way you’re hard pressed to find in most chiptune music.

Interestingly the engine for the game was recycled, with some improvements, and used to make Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Fighting Edition, also for the SNES. The gameplay is just as good, even if the licence is a little shoddier, but sadly the music didn’t make the transition and while the new tracks aren’t too bad, they’re nothing on the level of Endless Duel.

Block Rockin Beeps: Panzer Dragoon Saga – Uru Ruins

Track Name: Uru Ruins (Water Theme)
Track Composer: Saori Kobayashi, Mariko Nanba
Game: Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998)
Platform: Sega Saturn
Sound Chip/System: Saturn Sound Processor

Rarity is not an indication of quality, especially in the video game world. Limited runs, prototype carts, competition leftovers, they’re all a part of what makes a game rare and valuable, but a surprising amount of these titles aren’t particularly interesting as games themselves. Family Stadium for the NES, the Japanese edition of “Virtual Bart” on the Mega Drive, Clay Fighter 63 1/3 on the N64, they’re just a few of the shite games that command surprisingly high prices on the collectors market.

Thankfully when it comes to the Sega Saturn’s most famous rare title, Panzer Dragoon Saga, there is an incredible game to be found. When I was a student with loan money to fritter away idiotically I was lucky enough to buy a near-mint UK edition, complete with its card sleeve, for a not-inconsiderable £100. I feared buyer’s remorse but when I played the game I felt it was worth every penny.

Panzer Dragoon Saga is a unique, wondrous RPG. To date there is nothing quite like it. It evolved out of the two acclaimed rail shooters that preceded it which is a very strange genre shift, but one that led to some truly inspired mechanics. The battle system represents a hybrid of turn-based RPG battles and the real time action that the series was famous for. All battle take place in the air, riding on the back of your dragon; you speed alongside your enemies and choose your actions on the countdown of a timer but at the same time you manoeuvre around your foes in real time. Positioning is essential to success as it affects enemy attacks and defences, as well as your own, which means that you’re always engaged in the action, even while having wait for your attack timers. It’s exhilarating, screaming through the air, flying around your enemies and blasting them out of the skies; even now I can feel the same thrill I had the first day I played it. It managed to keep true to the spirit of the prior two games, but added a tactical depth that fit into this title perfectly.

The other highlight, for me, is during the flight exploration. While not in combat there are two modes of traversal; while in towns or villages you’re on foot and the dragon waits for your return, when out in the world and dungeons you ride upon the dragon’s back. The game is, which was unusual for the genre at the time, in full 3D and when you’re exploring the world you have full 360 degree control of your dragon. Even when in the more closed environments it’s a liberating freedom and one that works surprisingly well.

When I say it’s surprising that the freedom of movement works well it’s partly in comparison to other games in the genre, but mostly because of the Saturn’s infamously awkward 3D. While there are some games on the system that overcame its limitations to some degree, none fared as well as Panzer Dragoon Saga. It’s thanks to several elements that the game comes together, the programmers at Team Andromeda worked well with the Saturn hardware and the artists had an inspiring, strange vision that gave rise to an intriguing world that players wanted to explore. Along with these though I feel what tied the entire package together was the music.

The track I have picked is an eerie, mysterious piece, one of calm desolation. It plays while you explore an ancient ruin, looking for a key piece of information for the story. It’s a wide open arena which you are free to fly around and this slow expansive track scores the experience perfectly. It has the sense of space, the sense of an open area, but also the old and foreboding calmness, the eye of the storm feeling. Much of the game’s score has higher energy with more percussive elements and this track is at odds with that, but in a perfect way, the moment of unusual peace makes the exploration of the ruins more powerful, exploring an atmosphere you’ve not encountered so far.

All the music throughout fills in the gaps that graphics could not. It gives the imagination more to hold on to and elevates every part of the game, breaking its limitations astoundingly. It also achieves something very powerful with its instrumentation choices, giving the music a feeling of alien tradition. The music seems routed in a culture, but it’s a fictional one and yet it feels hundreds of years old.

It’s a sad thing that the game is hard to come by, and expensive to do so, and that SEGA has foolishly lost the source code. This is a game that should be heralded as classic, of the era and of the genre but when actually playing it is as hard as it is, that becomes impossible. The only hope at the moment is for Saturn emulation to reach some form of parity with the hardware, to allow people to experience this masterpiece. That or SEGA to actually take a risk and remake the game from scratch, but with the franchise’s last real outing being the underperforming Panzer Dragoon Orta on the original Xbox that chance seems more and more distant. Thankfully the memory is still out there; last year’s excellent Sonic and All-Stars Racing Transformed had a fantastic Panzer Dragoon themed track that tugged at my nostalgia strings in the best ways.

If there is any way to play the game for you, do it. You won’t regret it.

Block Rockin’ Beeps: Super Castlevania IV – The Trick Manor

Track Name:The Trick Manor
Track Composer: Konami Kukeiha Club
Game: Super Castlevania IV
Platform: SNES
Sound Chip/System: Sony SPC700 +Sony DSP

Castlevania is a series that is inseparable from its music. Right back to the initial instalment it has provided fantastic and memorable pieces. Tracks like Vampire Killer and Bloody Tears are iconic and have reappeared in many titles in the series and have even migrated to other Konami titles, such as this maniacal remix from Contra: Hard Corps. Several games, in their English language incarnations, even have their titles as musical references such as Symphony of the Night, Rondo of Blood and Aria of Sorrow.

Every new title in the series brings with it expectations of great music and, more often that not, they have delivered with aplomb. The track I have picked today is one that has had relatively few appearances, only manifesting twice throughout the series history.

The Trick Manor first appeared on the fantastic SNES title Super Castlevania IV and had another appearance in the GBA game Circle of the Moon. The entire SNES soundtrack is spectacular, with excellent samples complementing the compositions but this track I feel is often overlooked. It only appears in one location, a room that rotates entire around the player, who needs to whip onto a ring to survive.

What I would say is the defining sound of Castlevania is driven gothic. Energy, atmosphere and malice mixed together. This track demonstrates that easily with echoing organ-esque opening samples that are both foreboding and exciting, with fast erratic drumbeats following, segueing into a theremin-like trill that suits the gothic nature perfectly. What is most interesting to me, and worth listening out for, is the sound of creaking, stressing wood that appears occasionally. Without ruining the composition or musical flow these sounds evoke the nature of the room this appears in perfectly, the slow reconfiguring that pushes the architecture.

It’s a short sequence and watching it in silence would suggest it was fairly boring. You whip upwards, wait for the room to spin, jump on a platform and attack medusa heads and then whip up and wait again. It’s slow and steady but the music keeps the energy high and instils that sense of urgency and danger in the player, giving what a fairly simple (yet impressively high-tech on release) moment more prominence and importance.

Block Rockin’ Beeps – Forbidden Siren: Hanuda Elementary School

Track Name: Hanuda Elementary School
Track Composer: Hitomi Shimizu, Gary Ashiya
Game: Forbidden Siren
Platform: Playstation 2
Sound Chip/System: SP1+SP2

Forbidden Siren (simply know as Siren in the US) is game with brilliant ideas, inventive gameplay concepts and one of the most stunningly unnerving atmospheres you can find in horror gaming. You play ten separate characters, across a 3-day period, with stages being presented in non-linear “loops” allowing information to be learned in an intriguing manner. The game begins with the town of Hanuda suddenly being surrounded by a red sea that most of the inhabitants submerse themselves in compulsively, emerging as strange zombie-like creatures known as Shibito. These creatures cannot be killed, only temporarily stunned, and they’re versatile; being able to wield melee weapons and even sniper rifles. The focus of the game is horror-stealth, avoiding confrontation using a brilliant mechanic known as Sight-Jacking, which allows you to “tune in” to the view through the eyes of other people in the stage (zombies and survivors alike). It’s a unique, fantastic and tense idea.

Sadly Forbidden Siren is also a hugely frustrating game, on so many levels. It hampers its potential with awkward controls, annoyingly persistent enemies, ludicrous puzzles and an obtuse structure that confuses what could have been interesting. The expectation on the player to understand the designer’s intentions is immense and unfathomable. On some levels if you wander off the path you’re intended to follow you’ll be shot instantly by a sniper, get shot again and you’ll die. Some levels have escorts who seem to be allergic to taking cover. Puzzles are often done via connections between stages; your actions in a stage that takes place early in the 3-days will unlock an objective necessary to progress for another character that enters the same area later. These are often bizarre actions that make no sense for the character performing them to do, and they’re not told to the player, you have to find them for yourself.

The most memorable, for me, was a puzzle that required the player to make their way past a Shibito in a café that was armed with a pistol. If you enter the only unlocked door you will be unavoidably shot and killed so you have to distract the creature. This requires you to climb to the top floor of a house in the level, get a scarf from a washing line, bring to the café kitchen, soak it in water and put it in the freezer, then leave the level. The next character you play as in the area needs to get past the Shibito, so they have to find a piggy-bank in the level, take out the now-frozen towel, place it across a gap in the kitchen counter, place the piggy bank on the towel, leave the building and wait for it to melt so the bank crashes to the ground, making a sound that brings out the shibito so you can hit them on the back of the head and take them out for a short while.

Intuitive!

Still the game has some stunning work and ends up frustrating mostly because it’s a waste of brilliant potential. Listen to this track:

The music is a mix of terrifying ambient sounds and otherworldly instrumentation. While often compared to Silent Hill it has it’s own style of terror, one that I feel comes from a sense of confusion and foreboding mixed together. This track, as the name suggests, plays during stages set in the village’s Elementary school and fits the claustrophobic unknown feel of the level. The gameplay in Forbidden Siren is tense and slow, much more than a Resident Evil or Silent Hill, because you are much more vulnerable and enemies literally cannot die. As such the music takes a slow, methodical feel, creating a sense of place that fires upon the imagination and fills in the gaps in the purposefully dark visuals. Many stages in the game take place outside use the layering of natural sounds and rain to add to the sense of a soundscape combined with musical elements. It’s a soundtrack to a new, unearthly place, and it doesn’t feel as stereotypical as people would expect.

Akira Yamaoka’s work is rightfully praised incredibly highly for his inventive music and sound work on the Silent Hill series, giving it an identity that stretches far beyond the games themselves. I find it sad that thanks to the spotty quality of Forbidden Siren, it’s sequel and the reimagining on PS3 (Blood Curse), the work that Hitomi Shimizu and Gary Ashiya have down on the soundtracks is often forgotten. Its quality is on par with Yamaoka’s best works and the music actually went a long way to pushing me past some of the games glaring flaws. It supported the great artwork and the excellent ideas that, unfortunately, weren’t cohesive or polished enough to make the game a classic.

A wonderful horror masterpiece to itself, the soundtrack is worth listening to for anyone with an interest in dark ambient music and soundscapes. If you liked the Silent Hill music or the work Trent Reznor did for the original Quake, you’ll like this.