Welcome back to No Tune Unturned, a feature in which some dude with no musical training beyond boring childhood piano lessons elaborates on why, precisely, he likes videogame music so much. The theme of fantasy has come and gone, but we don’t have to part ways with every dwarf and wolfman we’ve come to love; we merely need accept their screechy, low fidelity voices that join together in a chorus that is the Mega Drive.
As Sega’s last console that didn’t actively kick them in the shins of failure, the Mega Drive was home to a tidal wave of attitude-infused titles that fought a war with Nintendo over the impressionable minds of youngsters. Compared to the SNES, these games played differently, looked differently, and– most relevant to our purposes– sounded differently. Some have described the Mega Drive’s musical capabilities as cutting edge, able to simulate complex instruments of the modern age; others described it as an audio representation of earwax. Everyone can agree, however, that the Mega Drive had a singular sound of its own, and that’s exactly what we’re about to explore.
Composed by Fumito Tamayama/Hiroto Kanno
DecapAttack is a game about Chuck D. Head, a re-animated mummy who throws his own face as a projectile. Invented by mad scientist Frank N. Stein, it is Chuck’s mission in life (?) to defeat the unquestionably evil Max D. Cap and thus save the world. As I can’t hope to match that level of witty wordplay, I’ll just move right along to this monstrous intro sequence; a real night of the living shred. As if torn from the beating heart of a heavy metal god, the pretend guitars fret themselves into a fury, running up and down scales as they hit notes of discord and creepiness. It’s doubtful that Chuck has a pulse, but it would theoretically shoot off the charts during 0:57’s burst of energy, finishing off the dazzling display with a kapow. DecapAttack is in fact a slippery platformer that doesn’t do much to capture this mood, but the music was certainly a-head of its time.
Rise From Your Grave
From Altered Beast
Composed by Toshio Kai
Undoubtedly the stupidest game in this feature, Altered Beast was originally a pack-in game for all those lucky Mega Drive owners who didn’t know any better. Zeus with a speech impediment resurrects a dead Roman wearing a speedo to battle the doom-welcoming Demon God in a punch-happy adventure of love and loss. The triumphant opening notes of this song have become pseudo-iconic, bringing to mind vivid visions of a man rising from his grave and systematically enlarging his muscles with magic orbs. A self-serious, imperious beat drives the action forward with dogged heroism until the tune changes at 0:52, offering the arrangement a bit more catchy sophistication than expected. Of course, the music comes to a grinding halt when the final orb is absorbed (consumed?) and the Roman undergoes a harrowing transformation wreathed in blinding fire followed by a very silly boss fight. Indeed, to hear this music is to relive a golden age of gaming.
From Comix Zone
Composed by Howard Drossin
Comix Zone is a Mega Drive game late to the party, nearly colliding with the Saturn’s launch in the mid-nineties, and holy Batman did it push the hardware. In fact, the radical soundtrack is handily overshadowed by the absolutely gorgeous 2D art, which will certainly be featured in the upcoming series “No Pixel Un-Probed”. (I’m not actually doing that.) All the same, comic book artist Sketch has a fitting batch of songs to serenade the journey inside his own creation, chilled out and totally cool just like him. This first thirty seconds warm up the kick/punch combos with a laidback melody, but 0:24 ramps up the pace by tapping into the guts of the Mega Drive’s sound chip and coming out with a fistful of satisfying beats. The song circles back to a familiar theme, making its way to a new panel on the page at 1:23, which plays out to a clever loop. Cool, complex, and reminiscent of grunge rock, the soundtrack to Comix Zone is extremely un-Nintendo-like, capturing the Mega Drive’s tone with ample attitude.
From Golden Axe II
Composed by Naofumi Hataya
Spiritual successor to dumb beat ’em up Altered Beast, dumb beat ’em Golden Axe spawned two sequels from its Conan-style quest. The second of these endeavours opens with a small hamlet burning to the ground, overrun with a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Yet when the hour is darkest, three frighteningly muscular and largely unclothed heroes leap from the wreckage and start kneeing bad guys in the stomach! This dramatically rising music leaps with them, setting a tense mood of danger and epic deeds to be proud of. 0:15 floats through the heat waves of vengeance, growing hotter by the moment until the volcano of justice (we’ve switched metaphors, keep up) erupts to the clash of steel and cry of trumpets. A rhythm that would sound brilliant recorded as a Spanish guitar runs beneath the entire arrangement, keeping those awkwardly stiff legs pumping from beginning to end. One can hardly help but to get swept up in the thrill of it all.
Hydrocity Zone Act 2
From Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Composed by Masayuki Nagao
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is fast, slick, vibrant, and just a little bit too cool for school; unsurprisingly, so is the music. Something of a genre-hopping electronic pop fusion from the nineteen-eighty-nineties, these tunes are Mega Drive masterworks and pretty darn catchy to boot. Each zone is given a radically different treatment, the soundtrack shifting for every act. Hydrocity Zone is known for its waterfalls, waterslides, and… water, really. This chaotic, nearly uncontrollable splash attack is captured with a song that packs more jazzy pizazz into its first twenty seconds than most games manage in a whole soundtrack. Moments later the whole world has exploded into a musical atom bomb: there are snazzy drums, chipper horns, a soul-moving bass, a radical lead instrument I can’t even identify, and all kinds of craziness to fill in the gaps. How do so many elements running on a Mega Drive work in tandem? I don’t know; how does a hedgehog run so fast underwater? Just appreciate the resulting Sonic jam.
From Shinobi III: Revenge of the Ninja Master
Composed by Masayuki Nagao/Hirofumi Murasaki/Morihiko Akiyama
Have you ever wanted to be a ninja? Have you ever wanted to be a ninja on a horse? To be honest, the thought never crossed my mind until playing Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, but now I can’t imagine a world where that dream doesn’t exist. Galloping off at a breakneck speed, Idaten comes to life when Joe Musashi takes to the great plains riding bareback atop an horse that is good at jumping. An ancient Japanese flair grants the drums and bass an exciting mystic edge, fluttering in and out as if a kite on the wind. 0:32 cuts right to the chase, bearing down on the beat with the focus of ninjitsu itself, leading into a solo that sings sweetly of ninja freedom. In summary, we need more side-scrolling horse games.
From Streets of Rage 2
Composed by Yuzo Koshiro
I hope you’re not tired of games that feature muscular people beating up bad guys, because that was kind of the Mega Drive’s thing. Rather than trudging through old Greek-inspired architecture or smouldering hamlets, however, we’re taking this to the streets… the Streets of Rage! (Are you impressed with my mastery of the English language yet?) Dreamer uses its groovy charm to light up an amusement park with smooth music, accompanied by the static-infused screams of punks that get in your way. Refined techno/trance merges with knuckle-headed, bare-knuckled knuckle sandwiches for a violent melody that kids ate up like Frosted Flakes back in the day. Repetitive and rhythmic, this is one song that won’t hesitate to put you in the zone, especially when 0:29’s hummable chorus starts up. Although I don’t personally think it’s safe for a child in rollerblades to eat discarded hamburgers from a garbage bin located in a theme park filled with angry thugs at night, this is definitely the song I recommend he load up on his Walkman.
From Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention
Composed by ???
Shining Force: The Legacy of Great Intention has one of the best subtitles in the history of subtitles, and the music isn’t bad either. As a strategy RPG akin to Fire Emblem, turn-based battles pop up left and right in the form of huge, detailed, colourful dioramas. Punctuated by the trill of war, each fight begins with a tense trading of blows, working up to a spirited charge at 0:11 that unleashes fiery justice with every note. Relentless in its heroism and grandiose in its vision, this is a short song that demands an orchestration but, as that particular feature was lacking under the Mega Drive’s hood, makes do with what it has. At the very least, we can agree it was a Great Intention.
2-Player Versus Mode
From Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine / Puyo Puyo
Composed by ???
If you were to blindly guess that a Puyo Puyo clone based on Dr. Robotnik from the Sonic the Hedgehog animated children’s show would feature an intensely metal soundtrack for the game’s two-player mode, I’d tell you to get out of town, you incurable scallywag. And yet you would be totally right; Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine has a whole bunch of neat ditties, but the versus mode knocks it out of the park. The drums alone are a head-banging affair, but a sharp-as-knives guitar and smooth synth sounds turn the friendly competition into a ridiculously exciting fight to the death. These two lead instruments take turns soloing themselves into a frenzy as beans drop from the sky like paratroopers in the great Candy Land wars, ratcheting up the tension without mercy. Rainbow-coloured mounds of the bright baubles pile high; players are fretting and so is the guitar, all of them on the verge of bursting into flames. There can only be one winner, which the ominously electric music makes clear, and sooner or later– BAM! There’s no coming back when your side of the screen is chock full of evil beans, leaving only one course of action: play another round. Although lifted straight from the original Puyo Puyo, I’ve chosen this version because (like all the games listed) it’s available within Sega Mega Drive Ultimate Collection and Dr. Robotnik is hilarious.
Composed by Tomoko Sasaki
By the whiskers of the diabolical Dr. Robotnik, we’ve made it! The end is finally here, so what better way to take us out than a proper The End? Ristar never made much of a splash in the world of videogames, but the cheery platformer protagonist saved the galaxy anyway, which is pretty cool. As the credits roll, an endless line of Ristars parade across the screen, unable to keep from dancing along to the unbelievably catchy song of victory. A funky, feel-good beat starts up at 0:11, joined by a chorus of happy voices and purely awesome low-fi samples that invite you to sing along with open arms. The main Ristar theme breaks through at 0:58, tinged with the nostalgia of years gone by, leading into a soulful synth solo and a punchy finale that fizzles out with warm, fuzzy feeling.
How’d you like the selection of classic Mega Drive music? I was this close to including Aladdin, but there was a big fight with Disney over licensing issues and we only parted semi-amicably. I also would have added a Vectorman song except that Vectorman music is kind of boring. Maybe I’ll round up some SNES games next time, but that concept is sacrilege in this holy place of Sega, so let’s not open that can of worms just yet.
Before you go, I’d like to remind you of Twitter, the popular social media service of No Tune Unturned a part. Follow the official No Tune Unturned account for one videogame song a day until I die, forget, or decide to stop. I take requests both there and here, so type words if you’ve got them. Lastly, remember this key piece of advice for life in general:
Videogame music is great, so listen to it!