In honor of Sonic The Hedgehog’s birthday this weekend and Sega’s new interests in reviving classics for free on mobile, we’ve decided to take a look at some of the best soundtracks on their most iconic console, the Genesis. But rather than focusing on the well known classics, FACT’s resident Sega kid Miles Bowe takes a dive off the musical deep end into some of the console’s most obscure and overlooked games.
The Sega Genesis (or Mega Drive) remains the great underdog of video gaming. While these days Sega has seen better days, nothing made Nintendo sweat harder than when the Genesis and SNES battled over who ruled the 16-bit era. Sega smartly advertised their console to older gamers when the industry was still targeted mainly to children. They had the Conan-inspired brutality of Golden Axe, the brutal vigilant noir of Streets Of Rage and a smart-ass mascot named Sonic that was friends with Michael Jackson. If you wanted blood in your Mortal Kombat you weren’t getting it from Nintendo.
But if there was one area where the console lagged behind the SNES, it was sound. Launching a full two years earlier than its rival, the Genesis was technically inferior. There were musical classics like Sonic, Shinobi and Yuzo Koshiro’s legendary Streets Of Rage (which we can thank for inspiring a generation of rap and grime producers), but overall the console has earned an unfair reputation for music.
Sega has recently found itself on an upswing though. With the newly launched Sega Forever app, they’re reintroducing their catalog for free on mobile. And later this summer they’ll release Sonic Mania, a true return to classic Sonic that fans have waited their entire lives for.
We’ve already discussed the best music on the SNES and NES here, but as FACT’s resident Sega kid, I couldn’t stand by and see my favorite console get left out. But what’s the point in making some list that mentions Sonic, Ristar and predictably finishes off with Streets Of Rage 2. We’ve covered them in our best video game soundtracks of all time and published an entire Sonic mix. It deserves a much deeper look.
Instead, you’ll find below 10 of the best video game soundtracks of the 16-bit era. There are forgotten classics, unreleased oddities and hidden gems that you damn well better believe do what Nintendon’t.
McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure
Satoshi Murata, Katsuhiko Suzuki
Few developers of the 16-bit era have as intense a cult following as Treasure, a company founded by creatively frustrated Konami employees. Tired of churning out sequels and movie licenses, Treasure rejected typical corporate hierarchy and encouraged originality and creativity above all else.
It was their masterpiece Gunstar Heroes that made Treasure’s surreal art and perfectly-tuned gameplay legendary, but McDonald’s Treasure Land Adventure is almost as incredible. The game was released at around the same time as Gunstar Heroes, but mostly gets ignored due to its infamous license. Seriously, who looks at a McDonald’s game and thinks “I want to play that”?
The soundtrack is a collaboration between Gunstar sound designer Satoshi Murata and the company’s sound director Katsuhiko Suzuki and perfectly captures Treasure’s signature surrealism, augmenting it with childlike glee. Every stage has multiple themes that fit Ronald’s increasingly bizarre journey that must have left McDonalds execs baffled.
Stages with bright, sweeping themes like ‘Magical Forest’ and ‘Magical Sea’ shift into eerier atmospheres like ‘Cave’ and ‘Sunken Ship’. The soundtrack’s highlight, an interpolation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, plays over a hypnotic sequence where Ronald McDonald has to leap on the hands of dancing rabbit ballerinas. The sequence is a testament to Treasure’s holistic design philosophy, where every batshit-crazy idea collides to create something bizarre, beautiful and impossible to forget.
(Vic Tokai, 1991)
Sega Genesis soundtracks don’t get more badass than Battle Mania. Originally known to Western audiences as Trouble Shooter, the game was an arcade-style shoot-em-up (shmup, for short) filled with self-aware humor far ahead of its time. The game stars jet-pack-wearing super soldiers Madison and Crystal, who fly and blast through waves of enemies, heralded by a chorus of searing synth-guitars. The pair drive a sports car and rescue a kidnapped prince — with time left over at the end to smash the shit out of a Super Nintendo.
16-bit soundtracks don’t necessarily translate heaviness well, but the hard rocking music in Battle Mania fits perfectly with the game’s over-the-top aesthetic. The Japanese-only sequel is even better with tracks like ‘Driving Hunter’ channeling so much of the game’s personality. It does what any good soundtrack should do, the difference is, few games have as much personality as Battle Mania. And yes, there are actual guitar covers of the songs.
(Game Freak, 1994)
Released shortly before Sega abruptly killed development on the Genesis to focus their attention on the Saturn, Pulseman follows its half-human/half-computer program hero through hyper-colorful worlds that meld elements of Sonic and Megaman. It never even got a legitimate release in America or Europe. It’s a shame, because the game was an early glimpse into the minds of Pokémon braintrust Ken Sugimori, Satoshi Tajiri and composer Junichi Masuda. Only a year later, they had a franchise so successful it’s absorbed every facet of their career since.
Pulseman is impossible to untie from what followed it, but that’s not a bad thing. Many of Masuda’s themes here sound like blueprints for Pokémon while going far beyond the 8-bit limitations of those games. The music also has a sprinting intensity that wouldn’t fit in an RPG, but works wonders for Pulseman; this is a rare chance to hear Masuda take on an action-packed platformer and unsurprisingly, it’s one of the best scores of its kind. Maybe one day we’ll be blessed with a sequel, but who knows if the team will ever been able to finish counting all of that Pokémon money.
An obvious predecessor to Sailor Moon, the Valis series had a narrative and cinematic ambition that was almost unheard of from late ‘80s platformers. The games followed high school student Yuko, who inherits the mystical Valis sword and must defend Earth from inter-dimensional monsters.
Valis III is the best in the series and though it was originally released for the more powerful Turbo-Grafx 16, the Genesis version is still stuffed with lengthy anime cutscenes and stunning music from Michiko Naruke. It was literally a game too big to port to the console and while designers carefully cut corners to make it possible, it’s Naruke’s lush, dramatic score that retains the original’s epic quality. Naruke carries the game, softening its dense plot and awkward controls by drawing you in with emotive character themes like ‘Nizetti’ and the villainous ‘Glames’.
Valis reached a happy ending by game four, but the larger story is more tragic. The game’s developer, Telenet Japan, ran itself into the ground before desperately licensing Valis for a hentai game in 2006 (to add insult to injury, they advertised this as a “20th anniversary celebration”). The series later recovered in manga form, thankfully.
Shining Force II
Sega often found itself in Nintendo’s shadow when it came to JRPGs, which has left the excellent Shining series overlooked in modern times. It’s a shame, because Shining Force II offered a tactical RPG experience more fun, humorous and approachable that nearly anything the Big N could muster (yes, that includes Fire Emblem).
Masahiko Yoshimura’s charming score shows lightheartedness in the jazzy ‘Lively Town’ and ‘Mithril Knives’ and gripping intensity in themes like ‘Into Darkness’ and the epic ‘Final Battle’. It achieves grandeur without ever sinking into melodrama, which is still one of the hardest balancing acts in RPGs to this day.
(Malibu Interactive, 1993, Unreleased)
Tim Follin had the bad luck of making incredible soundtracks for lousy games. Though a noted influence on more famous auteurs like David Wise, he remains one of the most overlooked composers of his day. Time Trax was a platformer based on the failed ‘90s sci-fi show of the same name, but was shelved by Sega, despite being finished. Thankfully, Follin’s score lives on and still has people scratching their heads about how the hell he even squeezed these sounds out of the humble Genesis.
Much of this is due to Follin’s grasp of FM synthesis (a notoriously difficult skill to master) which fills the six songs with synth tones and drum sounds beyond the technical abilities of most video game composers. The game’s lack of a proper release only adds to the mystique. Had Follin been offered the chance to soundtrack a game that met him even halfway in terms of quality, he’d be one of the era’s greats — instead he’s its best kept secret.
Contra: Hard Corps
Hiroshi Kobayashi, Michiru Yamane, Akira Yamaoka, Hirofumi Taniguchi, Aki Hata
Konami’s Contra may have been a Nintendo-centric series, but the run-and-gun classic’s only appearance on Genesis topped every previous iteration in sheer artistic and musical lunacy. Composed by a wrecking crew of greats including Akira Yamaoka (Silent Hill) and Michiro Yamane (Castlevania), the Hard Corps soundtrack’s tone is distilled in song titles like ‘R.A.V.E.’ and ‘Contra Overdrive’. They are dizzying, techno-influenced tracks, and the hyper-aggressive music is one of the keys to mastering the seemingly impossible patterns in the game.
It actually takes longer to listen to the Hard Corps score than it takes a seasoned player to beat it (despite the game’s notorious difficulty level). But the two elements fit seamlessly and the music approaches Yuzo Koshiro’s famous Streets Of Rage 2 in terms of pure symbiotic genius. Even the grotesque aliens and robots you’re mowing down appear to dance in time. Once you lock into the groove, you will too.
Columns III: The Revenge Of Columns
There are few games I loathe as much as Columns, a Greek-themed Tetris clone with irritating music-box melodies. It made me nauseous as a kid and I still avoid puzzle games as an adult. Based on that, Columns III: The Revenge Of Columns should be something out of my nightmares, but Morihiko Akiyama’s dreamlike score contains some of the most blissful music on the Genesis.
Akiyama had his work cut out for him, he was one of three composers Sega hired to fill Yuzo Koshiro’s shoes for Shinobi III, but Columns III was his chance to shine on his own. The playful score brings to mind Sonic Team’s bright, shimmering bonus stage music. Then there’s ‘Chinese Bicycle’ which, well, it’s impossible not to love anything that sounds that much like Yellow Magic Orchestra. It’s a soundtrack so good, I forget how much I hate the game.
(GAU Entertainment, 1993)
One of the most perfectly crafted action games ever made, Ranger X also one of the great anomalies of its era. With their first and last game, developer GAU aimed to push the Genesis sound and color palette beyond what anyone thought possible. They did — and promptly went out of business. Similarly, composer Yoshinobu Hiraiwa unleashed one of the finest 16-bit soundtracks ever made and then disappeared. Ranger X is the only video game he ever composed music for.
From the crisp drums, heavy bass and lush synth tones, Hiraiwa’s score defies every notion people have about the Genesis’s sound. But Ranger X is so much more than just a technical showcase. Whether his elements form bold, brash overloads (‘Desert’), hypnotic minimalist exercises (‘Cave’) or eerie industrial atmospheres (‘City At Night’), Hiraiwa constantly finds new ways to twist new progressions out of his endlessly complex arrangements. The most stunning is still ‘Jungle’ where he weaves layer upon layer of tough melodies over a militaristic drumbeat that doesn’t seem possible on a video game console. It may be the only score Hiraiwa ever made, but it’s enough to put him in a league of his own.
Treasure’s Alien Soldier distills everything that’s great about the developer, the Genesis and the 16-bit era like it’s moonshine. It breaks the run and gun genre down to an hour-long rush of brutally difficult boss fights (31 – a Guinness World Record) that’s as seamless and euphoric as a dance mix — with music from Norio Hanzawa that burns like jet fuel.
The music here is essentially split between “faster” and “FASTER!” with even the briefest moments of calm acting like the eye to another storm of drums and surging synths. But despite the maximalist excess, it retains the melodic brilliance of Hanzawa’s iconic Gunstar Heroes score. The music may seem dense to the point of incoherence and the game may appear unplayably difficult, but gradually they reveal a grace and complexity unlike anything else.
Considering we began with Treasure’s sunny McDonalds kids game, it’s fitting to end with this battle-bruised, almost grotesque soundtrack. It was a two-year-in-the-making passion project by Hideyuki Suganami, and the story goes he even worked through Christmas and New Year’s Eve to finish, something he never felt he really did. Big surprise: nobody played it and it never got a release in America! Over time (and with some modern re-releases), however, its genius is slowly being recognized. As for those mind-boggling tunes, they’re an apt swan song for the final days of the Sega Genesis.
Miles Bowe is on Twitter.