Giacomo Lee looks at the rise of videogame soundtracks on vinyl, and the passionate indie labels bringing both new and ambitious and old retro sounds to wax. Read on, Player One…
In honour of 2017 being the 25th anniversary of the long-running Sonic The Hedgehog series, game legends Sega decided to commemorate the blue speedster’s quarter-century lap with the fanfare you’d expect from a multinational game producer. There was an anniversary event in America, where not one but two new games were announced. Japan gave the masses a Sonic-themed cafe. Most unique, though, was the vinyl-only release Sega published in collaboration with relative upstarts from the UK, Data Discs.
Summer 2017 saw the label exclusively put out the score to one of the new games announced at the anniversary event, Sonic Mania. The release was the latest in Data Discs’ impressive catalogue of game soundtracks on wax, and also the most modern. Previous releases by the London-based label have exhibited a dedication to the childhood sounds of start menus and gameplay action, taking the melodies of 80s and 90s classics into a physical format far removed from the games cartridges of vintage consoles.
“We handle every aspect of the label in-house. For example, we have our own mastering studio in South East London. The music we choose also has to work as a standalone album in some way – it’s certainly not the case that every game deserves a soundtrack release.” Jamie Crook, Founder of Data Discs
Data Discs’ first 12″ was the music to an older Sega release, 1991’s beat-’em-up romp Streets Of Rage, which Crook describes as “some of the most influential and important game music ever made”.
The Streets Of Rage series has seen three LP releases on Data Discs since 2015, a perfect time capsule of sorts of 90s dance music, with their various shades of house ranging from acid to funky. The third volume, re-released this year, is the finest; originally from 1994, its harsh echoes can be heard on more recent, equally unrelenting records, such as Daft Punk’s Human After All and the debut Justice LP.
Much of the music to Streets Of Rage was put together by Yuzo Koshiro, a composer of countless Japanese videogame scores, alongside Motohiro Kawashima, who began contributing tracks to the project from the second instalment onwards.
The duo joined forces again for Sega’s ninja-themed Shinobi, another series revisited by Data Discs across two lovingly presented releases. The success of the music to both games saw Koshiro and Kawashima reunite in 2017 to perform their soundtracks live for the very first time, in both LA and London. Once again, game music found itself becoming accessible from outside of the console, with legendary London nightclub Fabric having been the apt host of choice for the performing of these dance classics.
IMPACT OF THE INDIES
The release of vintage game music on wax doesn’t extend just to niche distributors such as Data Discs, but also in Crook’s view “passionate indie labels who are willing to take a chance and put in the work”. One such example is US label Ship To Shore Phono Co., best known for re-releasing cult 80s film soundtracks.
In 2017, the label put out the music to cyberpunk sci-fi Snatcher, a game originally released by Konami in 1988 with music made by an anonymous collective of audio technicians employed by the company. What’s surprising is how the work of Konami Kukeiha Club, as they were known, made it onto wax in the first place. “It was a lot of fun to play through the game and then record and sequence everything myself!” explains Ship To Shore owner, Aaron Hamel. “It was a lot of work, but I think the end product is one of our best overall packages.”
This lo-fi method of preserving Snatcher’s sounds for future posterity hasn’t affected the music one bit; each moody sax note and surprisingly forward-thinking use of glitchy beats can be heard, crystal clear. Easier to transfer to vinyl, no doubt, were the scores to quirky Nintendo role-player series MOTHER, composed by Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka between 1989 and 1994, as released by Sony in Japan on various CDs. The second volume on Ship To Shore is the standout, with its collection of dark avant-garde pieces rubbing shoulders with catchy hoedowns and occasional techno.
Another name that’s turned its sights to the gaming realm is Ghost Ramp, the record label co-run by Patrick McDermott of label collective Omnian Music Group. Unlike previously mentioned LPs, though, soundtracks on Ghost Ramp originate from current indie games on the market. McDermott says this was a conscious move by the label.
“I really prefer working with current composers, as it’s fun for me to work with people that are actively changing the game-music landscape in real time.” – Patrick McDermott, Omnian Music Group
One of these benchmarks in the modern scenario is Danny Baranowsky’s score to 2015’s Crypt Of The Necrodancer, which McDermott describes as “an incredible score for a very music-centric game”. The game is unique for being a maze-based role-player where actions must be carried out on the beat of the music, and Baranowsky’s electronic score is an obvious ode to the arcade dancing games where this feature originated.
THE 80S CULT OF HOTLINE MIAMI
The most influential game soundtrack of this decade has to be the music to a title in which a killer runs around in a chicken mask. Released by Devolver Games, Hotline Miami is best described as the console equivalent of cult film Drive, which was released only one year before the game’s 2012 debut. Game and movie both share a love of aesthetic gangster-upon-gangster violence, idiosyncratic mask-and-jacket combos, plus music from the 1980s.
Hotline Miami came just as the synthwave movement led by acts such as Kavinsky was legitimised by the Drive soundtrack, with its own music full of that genre’s take on 80s synths set to modern beats. The game, though, has arguably done more to popularise the synthwave scene, much like Daft Punk did with 80s-tinged IDM back in the mid-00s – a period when, lest we forget, the legendary French duo released their own fetishistic ode to masks, jackets and over-elaborate deaths in Electroma, their strange art flick from 2006.
“Hotline Miami was all about great taste and great timing. The game came out in 2012 when, you could argue, there was a real flourishing of experimental electronica online around platforms like SoundCloud, so its soundtrack effectively served as a carefully curated playlist of some of the best underground music around at the time.” – Danny Kelleher, Laced Records
Turning back to cinema once more, one can find further proof of Hotline Miami’s reach when the trailer for recent Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok featured a tune originally used in the game’s sequel, In The Face Of Evil, by US trio Magic Sword.
Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, as the 2015 follow-up was called, used plenty of tracks in the vein of Magic Sword’s: new music that “leans into the retro trappings of synthwave” according to Jon Gibson, one of the founders of iam8bit, the game-merch company behind its vinyl release. “It’s undoubtedly 80s-influenced atmospheric tuneage.”
Kelleher concurs on the 80s influence. “The tracks they picked vibed perfectly with the visual aesthetic of the game, which paid homage to Drive, while adding a heavy dose of neon-soaked 80s kitsch. That combination was so powerful that there are fans of the Hotline Miami aesthetic who haven’t even played the game!”
UEMATSU and THE SOUNDS OF FINAL FANTASY
The catalogue of Laced Records is also associated with another modern game-music touchstone, including as it does two tribute LPs of music to the classic Final Fantasy series. The original compositions by Nobuo Uematsu arguably lent gaming music credibility from the 90s onwards, when the series became a sucessful worldwide phenomenon.
“It’s no secret why music from Final Fantasy is loved by fans all over the world: the tracks almost always feature wonderful, memorable melodies.” – Danny Kelleher
“From the earliest games in the 1980s, technological limitations, together with the pacing and the levels of interactivity in the game, meant that Uematsu had to create strong, direct melodies to carry the player along.”
The original music first came to vinyl in 2012, via a rare boxset of selections from legendary game company Square Enix. In 2016, Laced Records pressed reinterpretations of tracks by the London Symphony and Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestras, with both albums mastered at Abbey Road studios under the direct supervision of Uematsu himself.
“People love Final Fantasy games for their worlds and characters,” Kelleher says. “It helps that a lot of the core themes of the games are universal, like love, loss, growing up. Uematsu’s music is so central to those games, it’s pretty much a character by itself.”
FROM VIDEO TO VINYL
The popularity of Final Fantasy has led us to today’s reverence of videogame scores. But what about the demand for such music on vinyl? Aaron Hamel thinks it all stems from gamers’ desire for a physical product.
“Before our MOTHER LP, what physical merchandise was there for that series in the West?” he points out. “Fans of these sort of niche things are looking for a tangible piece of memorabilia.” McDermott of Ghost Ramp agrees on this importance of the ‘tangible’.
“When we all grew up the games box meant so much. Finding that poster in a classic Sega game or carrying a user manual to school – that tactile element is impossible to replace, and people miss that. Vinyl offers fans a collectible keepsake as well as a form of musical consumption.” – Patrick McDermott
Gibson of LA’s iam8bit has the last word on the whole phenomenon. “It’s really shitty when someone qualifies these scores as ‘video game music’,” he says. “You don’t hear people discounting John Williams because he’s making music for movies. It doesn’t matter that it’s from a videogame – what matters is that it’s damn good.
“And with vinyl, you get to hold the music in your hands. You are a human instrument, integral to its playback. And when you listen, you see visions of Neo Tokyo and robots and telekinetic mohawk awesomeness. It’s transportive, and the portal is wax – goddamn vinyl!”
Gameplay Sounds on vinyl
Available to play on your turntable now, these are the key tracks from over three decades of classic gaming soundtracks…
Album: Hotline Miami
Label: Laced Records, 2013
A perfect example of the Hotline Miami synthwave sound, which Danny Kelleher of Laced defines as 80s kitsch, but “filtered through a woozy, druggy haze”.
Artist: Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka
Album: MOTHER 2
Label: Ship To Shore Phono Co., 2016
More of an alien transmission than an example of game music, this instrumental from 1994 goes on to channel some spooky trip-hop in its closing minutes.
Artist: Yuzo Koshiro
Album: Streets Of Rage 3
Label: Data Discs, 2017
Dark and frantic sounds such as this not only anticipated German trance music, but also the gabber sounds of early Squarepusher and the 90s IDM scene.
He’s My Dad
Artist: Widdly 2 Diddly
Label: Ghost Ramp, 2016
The two LISA game soundtracks work best when America’s Widdly 2 Diddly ditches the synthwave and aims straight for the emotional jugular. This minimal piece from Lisa: The Joyful, for example, is coloured with halcyon chimes and bright pipes.
A Fleeting Dream
Artist: Nobuo Uematsu
Album: Final Fantasy Vinyls
Label: Square Enix, 2012
Composed for 2001’s Final Fantasy X, this track shows Uematsu’s knack for a sublime and elegiac melody remained as strong as it was on the early games.
Balloon Trip (Arrange Version)
Artist: Hirokazu Tanaka v Yoshihiro Kunimoto
Album: Famicom Music
Label: G.M.O. Records, 1986
Yet to be re-released is this sparkling LP of Nintendo soundtracks. Kunimoto’s remix of a track from 1984 game Balloon Fight is part calypso, part chiptune, riding a skittish beat that hasn’t dated one bit.