Game Music Highlight: Tactics Ogre (but it’s really a lot of words about “improving” chiptunes)

Things happened when CD-ROM was introduced to gaming in the late 80s. Look at this new technology, they said! 600-some megabytes — not megabits, megaBYTES — of storage, more than any human being could ever need! Cinematic video with REAL VOICES! And, oh my gosh, actual CD-quality audio played right off the disc itself! Forget those bleeps and bloops from FM synth, you could get actual ORCHESTRAS playing music for a video game! WOOOOOOWWWWW!

Indeed, the moment you’d put on Ys Books I and II for the Turbografx CD and watch the opening cutscenes play, people would be stunned. Game characters were animated and actually talking! The music was amazing! Yet the price tag on CD game technology then was so prohibitive that only the kids with the richest parents could possibly afford it, even after the prices began to come down in the early 90s and more CD consoles began to hit the market. That barrier to entry and the low install base of CD systems made a lot of developers wary of investing significantly in developing CD-based games. More than a few of them opted to take a “safe” route: low-cost ports of cartridge games to CD with some added cutscenes, maybe a handful of new levels or something else taking advantage of additional tech, and, of course, a redone soundtrack. This practice persisted well into the 32-bit generation: you can find quite a few ports of 16-bit console games (and Japanese PC games of the era) to the PlayStation and Saturn, and even the 3DO.

To young game music nerd me, the idea of new soundtracks was perhaps one of the most appealing points of these platforms. I never owned a Turbo CD or Sega CD when they first came out, much less something crazy like a 3DO. But boy, was I ever jealous! I’d beg the people I knew with Sega CDs (because seriously, nobody my age owned a Duo) to record the soundtracks off their games for me onto cassette. Yet somehow, when I actually heard most of this music, I’d come away disappointed more often than not — especially with the redone chiptune music. Something about the chiptune-to-“real”-music conversion just felt off.

Of course, now that I’m older and am not trying to constantly justify my hobby’s legitimacy, I fully understand that sound chips of old hardware are instruments in themselves, capable of producing distinct, powerful sounds that make fantastic songs — these compositions have no need to be orchestrated and played with anything else to be recognized as true music.

Where am I going with all this? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how these attempts to make “enhanced” chiptune soundtracks frequently turn out to be disappointing — including a fairly recent example, in my opinion, does a disservice to one of my favorite 16-bit-era compositions.

There are a lot of arranged CD soundtracks that embody this problem, but I think the best example of sucking all of the soul out of the original chiptunes is the arranged version of Megaman X3. This is, honestly, one of my favorite SNES soundtracks — it uses the hell out of that “Capcom guitar” sample that was heard in every game they made through like 1999, but it works well with the overall compositions, which are incredibly catchy and memorable. When they ported the game to CD on PS and Saturn, though, the compositions suffered significantly in the process.

Here’s one of my favorite tracks from X3, the Toxic Seahorse stage. It has a nice, harsh, loud and grimy sound to it that fits the tone of the sewer level it accompanies.

Then there’s the arranged version from the PS/Saturn re-release of the game. It’s got problems.

Besides it being weirdly slower, it feels like the arrangers were trying way too hard. It’s still got a sludgey feel to it, but there’s a weird bounciness present as well that makes it feel much less fitting than the original chiptune song.

It’s not just that one, either: ever arranged track is significantly worse: Doppler Stage 1, another song from the game I really like, has a CD version that misses the point so spectacularly that it’s hard to believe they’re the same piece at times. (“Hey, how about we take a song that’s all guitar but completely dump the guitar?”) Hell, the Blast Hornet remix is so bad I’m not even going to link it.

Not all of these chiptune-to-CD transplants were bad, however. Taito’s Mega CD ports of The Ninja Warriors and Night Striker offered completely rearranged soundtracks that are both excellent, primarily because they take the same approach as a typical Zuntata arrangement album: give a specific song to one of the Zuntata musicians to re-arrange and let them go nuts with it. The results are fascinatingly eclectic and unique. I’m personally a big fan of the Night Striker arrangements (which were released in extended versions on the Night Striker Complete Album soundtrack), though I knew a fair few folks that aren’t. I’ll admit that the quality of the tracks varies pretty wildly, but the really good tracks are, like, really friggin’ good.

MCD Night Striker also gave us the version of Burning Road Zuntata used as a basis at concerts for years, so there’s that!

There’s also the weird phenomena of backwards CD-to-chiptune soundtracks: games that were ported from CD to cart and needed chiptune versions of the redbook audio tracks. This happened with releases like Earnest Evans, Sol-Feace, and SNES Dracula X. The former two honestly turned out pretty great: they’re early Motoi Sakuraba works (his musical peak, IMO), and I sincerely think the FM synth version of Earnest Evans sounds better than the CD version. (I daresay it’s the only thing worth playing that game for!) Dracula X is a bit more hit-or-miss, but Konami certainly put in some effort to make it sound good.

Anyway, I talked about Tactics Ogre in the title, right? Well, that was the game that got me thinking about this subject, as I’ve been listening to its OST a fair bit as of late. I missed out on Tactics Ogre when it was first released, but I loved the hell out of the more recent PSP remake. I daresay it’s superior to Final Fantasy Tactics, even!

The remake is really, really well-done, making the game feel incredibly fresh and accessible while keeping the gameplay and tough story choices that make the game so special. One of the elements that got a serious overhaul was the music: it’s an early soundtrack from Hitoshi Sakimoto and Masaharu Iwata, and they went back and totally reworked everything for the PSP version. These aren’t just the same songs with new instruments: in many cases they actually expanded and changed up existing pieces. Having heard the PSP versions and having gone back to hear the originals, my opinions on this are… well, I think they went a little too far.

Here’s the track I wanted to highlight: Avilla Hanya. It’s a fantastic piece, probably one of my favorite RPG battle compositions. Take a listen to the original SFC version:

Isn’t that a great piece of of music? It starts with that slow, creeping crawl, leading up slowly to something big with drums and strings coming in, and then BAM! It gets loud and intense and awesome. And don’t those samples sound great for the hardware? It’s just so, so good.

So here’s the PSP version. At first, you might just think “oh, it’s just the same song with far superior instrument samples,” but listen a little longer…

Yeah, that long-ass bridge they added that effectively double the length of the song? Not a fan at all. While it does have a few nice callbacks to other Tactics Ogre musical bits, it reduces the effectiveness of the piece as a whole by adding more soft, quiet downtime to a song where the central appeal is the contrast between the first half — the quiet, uneasy intro — and the second half — the part where it gets REALLY LOUD and gets you totally pumped to smack some enemy troops around the grid. The SFC version really is the better of the two, on numerous levels.

Honestly, though, it’s the fact that people still feel like there’s a need to go back and re-do or “fix” classic game chiptune music in modern re-releases that bothers me. Sure, putting in some better instrument samples is fine to an extent — though a lot of the old samples that were used have their own distinct charm that risks getting lost. When you’re doing things like adding parts to songs that weren’t there originally, though, that’s when things start to feel awfully iffy to me. With a new wave of HD retro remakes and callback-heavy stuff like Sonic Mania cropping up, I hope people won’t go overboard in attempting to make game music “better.” At the very least, give us a way to switch between the old and new music, please?

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