(Please read here for an introduction to the Underappreciated Albums series)
Masato Nakamura’s work on the soundtracks for the first two Sonic games, finally receiving official release in 2012, is bound by tight technological restrictions; the compositions for each level are limited to four sounds playing simultaneously, 16 bits, and about 90 seconds of audio to loop. Such restrictions would suggest a music that is inevitably stilted and merely a product of its time, yet Nakamura weaves an evocative score which complements the speed at which the game is played, while also sculpting imaginative vistas. This is no more pronounced than in his score for the first stage of the first game, Green Hill Zone. The melody line is quite pastoral, which helps enforce the geographical non-specificity of Sonic the Hedgehog. Before it became established as a series and developed its own mythos, the story was as simple as “Dr. Ivo Robotnik, the mad scientist, is snatching innocent animals and turning them into evil robots!” (quoted from the manual). Compare this with the Mario series of games, which from the beginning creates the specific universe of the Mushroom Kingdom and has the triangle of Mario-Peach-Bowser at its core. Nakamura’s music turns the level into an abstract token for all green hills, instilling the player with a sense of freedom and beginning that is unusually direct because, in the absence of a detailed overarching narrative, setting the scene is not the main priority.This helps it achieve a monumental nostalgic power, particularly as it was the first video game played by many people thanks to Sega’s enormous marketing drive for its Genesis/Mega Drive console with Sonic as the official mascot. With no scene to set: the player is not concerned with entering into a specific location, but something more symbolic, simply trying to feel that they are on the beginning of a journey. And Nakamura pulls it off beautifully. Emerald Hill Zone in the second game carries on the theme, but it feels more confident, like reuniting with an old friend rather than meeting for the first time, the bass being much more melodic and the melody itself hitting its stride much earlier. In a similar vein, I’ve always loved the cheeky rustic harmonica style effects on the soundtrack to Hill Top Zone, cleverly imitating vibrato on a synthesiser.
There are harder elements to counterbalance though; it’s not always Japan’s green and pleasant land. Masato Nakamura worked with Sonic Team while working as bassist/arranger for Dreams Come True, and his background gives the game music a groove and an edge which the preceding 8-bit generation of games could not provide efficiently. The influence of sci-fi movies like Blade Runner is obvious on levels like Mystic Cave Zone, with the second Sonic game more willing to explore urban themes as it crawls through industrialised locales. There’s even a great interpolation of turntable scratching in Metropolis Zone. The homage to Blade Runner goes further on the game-ending Scrap Brain Zone music from the first installment, but it is innovative in a gaming context – different drum samples are used from the palette of conventional Genesis/Mega Drive samples. This gives that level an industrial feel distinct from the rest of the game, and it is preceded by the relatively laid-back and spacey Star Light Zone, showing Nakamura’s capability for restraint as well as detail within those four channels. He even has time to pull out a waltz within the special stage – a change in time signature being a clever little shorthand to emphasise how that stage of the game is separate from the main story.
Soundtracks are always a tricky business, because at their most successful they are inseparable from the visual element of the game/film, and video game soundtracks often do not see an official release – Masato Nakamura’s work only came out officially in 2011. It’s been said that the stigma of video game music has been symbolically removed with their admission to the Classic FM hall of fame. This isn’t true: the high ranking entries are from the Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy series, which are composed in imitation of classical models. RPGs by their very nature borrow tropes from opera and symphony. The stigma will really be removed when we start to see blogger/curators bold enough to nominate a soundtrack like Nakamura’s into lists of significant releases from the 1990s (depending upon how you define release date, of course). Nakamura did take his inspiration from film scoring, working only from screenshots and storyboards, and his soundtrack is scenic enough, but the music should be considered differently. It is technologically bound, but aesthetically free to prioritise fleeting moments and feelings, a soundtrack not reacting to specific visual cues but emerging through impressionistic shades. The limited sound palette means that melody has to be exceptionally strong, because there is no orchestral range or depth of sampling to create a vivid feel. He starts with the same materials as a film composer, but he is reacting to very general ideas like ‘the green stage’ or ‘the volcano stage’, dropping little nuggets of pure sensation throughout the game. Nakamura’s soundtracks do not feel like a pale imitation of symphonic precursors, but a condensation of the simple, bright yet unimaginably profound manner that an unspoilt mind – such as a child’s – might experience the world.