A Brief Guide to SEGA's Soundtracks on Spotify
Music streaming services have been a boon for lovers of video game soundtracks. Nearly every new indie game and a growing number of AAA games have soundtracks available on Spotify. Game publishers with a large existing back catalog of soundtracks, mainly major Japanese companies that have been releasing game soundtracks since the 80s, have started to put their archives up for streaming. While huge gaps still exist, companies like Capcom and Falcom have made hours upon hours of classic game music available. Perhaps the most notable company to drop some archival love on Spotify is SEGA. The soundtracks currently available are not yet a definitive collection of SEGA soundtracks; major omissions include Panzer Dragoon, Phantasy Star, and Daytona USA. The tagging is also sloppy, with some questionable track titles and the vast majority of tracks simply attributed to “SEGA SOUND TEAM”, obfuscating the true composer. But what has been made available includes extensive collections for many important series, including some long-forgotten ones like Alex Kidd and Golden Axe.
Over at USgamer, Jeremy Parish weighed in with some of his favorites, but I found that my choices didn’t have much crossover with his, other than Out Run. So I’ve created a playlist on Spotify to collect my favorites. Additional thoughts are below the cut.
Hiroshi Kawaguchi’s soundtrack to the original Out Run (1986) is one of the most fondly remembered of the 80s. The three main tracks, one of which is selected by the player at the beginning of the game through an FM radio interface, are long, jazzy excursions with a fluidity and subtlety that was rare in game soundtracks of the era. Of the three, “Passing Breeze” comes closest to pure jazz fusion, without the Latin touches of “Magical Sound Shower” or the rock backbeat of “Splash Wave”. There have been many remixes and adaptations of “Passing Breeze” throughout the years, but it wasn’t until 2003’s Out Run 2 that SEGA finally got it right. “PASSING BREEZE (OutRun 2 series)” is a near note-for-note remake that perfectly realizes the original’s potential in a live band setting.
- “SHINY WORLD (OutRun 2 series)” is a rock-oriented (a la “Splash Wave”) OutRun 2 original that holds its own alongside the classic three.
- “Adventure (OutRunners)” is an excellent Latin-tinged track that’s an underappreciated gem from the mostly-forgotten OutRunners (1992).
Shinobi & Kunoichi
Most Shinobi soundtracks are still missing from Spotify, including the excellent soundtracks to the 16-bit classics Revenge of Shinobi (1989) and Shinobi 3: Return of the Ninja Master (1993). The two currently available soundtracks are for the Devil May Cry-esque 3D action Shinobi games for PlayStation 2: the simply titled Shinobi (2002) and its 2003 pseudo-sequel Kunoichi (released outside of Japan as Nightshade). These thoroughly decent games arrived to critical and commercial indifference, unable to differentiate themselves from Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. The games and their soundtracks are not without their charms, although neither lives up to Shinboi’s 16-bit heights. The soundtracks mix traditional Japanese elements (shakuhachis pop up frequently), modern electronic music, and some nods to the classic 16-bit soundtracks. There are eight composers credited across the two games, making specific track attribution difficult, but they all more or less fit into the same mould, save a few more atmospheric pieces. Among the most successful tracks is “Wet Crowd” from Kunoichi, which throws in some warm electric piano and a killer prog breakdown in the middle.
- “Henbou” opens up the first stage of Shinobi and sets the perfect mood for the game’s neon-noir atmosphere.
- “Ougonjo” is a foreboding drum’n’bass tune that pops up towards the end of both games (retitled for Kunoichi as “Kan-Ei-Ji”).
The first Virtua Fighter (1993) was a revolutionary game that single-handedly created the 3D fighting genre and played a pivotal role in the transition to polygonal graphics. It has also aged terribly and is a garbage game compared to its more refined sequels. While the game itself is mostly of historical interest, Takayuki Nakamura’s soundtrack remains as vibrant as ever. “JACKY (VF 1)” opens with some piano stabs straight out of Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” that are soon joined by a sparkling synth lead melody and joyous horns.
- “SARAH (VF 1)” is breakbeat-driven dance-pop that would have fit in perfectly with Yuzo Koshiro’s Streets of Rage soundtracks.
- “KAGE (VF 2)” is a percussive workout that eschews the obnoxious power chord samples that dominate Virtua Fighter 2’s soundtrack.
NiGHTS Into Dreams
NiGHTS Into Dreams (1996) is the most SEGA game ever, a one-of-a-kind acrobatic action game influenced by Jungian psychology and Cirque du Soleil that was promoted as the Saturn’s answer to Super Mario 64 and Crash Bandicoot. Its soundtrack takes a kitchen sink approach, throwing in techno, jazz, rock, ambient, and pretty much everything else into a blender without any regard for genre boundaries. The main level themes can also undergo a surprising amount of variation depending on the state of the game’s artificial intelligence A-LIFE system. Tracks like “Gloom of The N.H.C. : Complete Ver.”, the strangely named soundtrack to the Mystic Forest stage, hover around the nine minute mark, yet they never wear out their welcome. Synths, breakbeats, and all sorts of wonderfully weird sounds swirl around in endless permutations.
- “Paternal Horn : Complete Ver.” provides the bright backdrop to Spring Valley, the NiGHTS equivalent of Green Hill Zone.
- “The Mantle” is a relatively brief boss battle track that jams together big band horns, breakbeats, and Kraftwerk-esque robot voices.
Galaxy Force II & Thunder Blade
Among the more obscure SEGA games to receive the Spotify soundtrack treatment is Galaxy Force II (1988), which is paired on a disc with Thunder Blade (1987). Both games are from the era when SEGA pushed sprite scaling technology to the limits in an effort to simulate 3D space, and they share a composer in Koichi Namiki. (Katsuhiro Hayashi and Tohru Nakabayashi are also credited on some tracks.) Galaxy Force II was quite a showcase for SEGA’s technical prowess in its time. It was nearly impossible to port to 16-bit consoles, ensuring it stayed relegated to arcades that had the space to devote to its massive cockpit cabinet. While Galaxy Force II is more about spectacle than gameplay, it has a superb soundtrack. “Beyond the Galaxy (Scene A) (GALAXY FORCE II)” is a moody prog-rock standout, driven by a melodic bass line and heavy drums.
- “Take Back (Scene C) (GALAXY FORCE II)” is an upbeat jazz fusion number with some inspired synth soloing.
- “Thunder Blade (BGM1) (THUNDER BLADE)” is more proggy goodness, right down to its 7/4 time signature.