Friday, July 12, 2013

My Love Affair With Lightening Force, part 2

Here in Part 2 of "My Love Affair With Lightening Force", I want to focus on a portion of the game that has been a constant companion for me over the last 20+ years: the music.  Over the last few years, the Chiptune music community has grown from a handful of guys and gals writing music based around the Chiptune aesthetic, or some even authentically using NES, Game Boy, Genesis, or other console sound chips to generate new, original music or sometimes remakes or re-imaginings of existing game music.  Some of this music is decidedly "game music" in nature, whether it belongs to a game or not, because it has much the same construction or "feel" to it as many game soundtracks do.  Others are wholly different creations, spanning genres as diverse as classical, metal, synthpop, EBM/techno, industrial, and even factoring into nerdcore hip-hop.  Chiptune artists have begun to gain more widespread appeal, with groups like Anamanaguchi having garnered more media attention than the average obscure band.

During the early stages of computer & video game development, music was often used sparingly to accent certain scenes or situations, often signaling the achievement of a power-up, start or end of a level, indicate a boss encounter, or to let you know you just met a key level objective.  Many early arcade games had little or no music, and many early computer games did the same, because the basic "beeps and boops" of simple PC & game hardware sound chips would grate after a while, or perhaps because there wasn't enough processing power to make music AND sound at the same time successfully.  As computers became more complex, and in turn, gaming hardware followed suit, we began to have simplistic song loops that complemented the game we were playing, often trying to evoke a certain mood or feeling that matched the level, game, or overall theme of what we were playing.  There are certainly some iconic tracks accompanying games, like a chiptune version of the Peter Gunn theme playing in the game Spy Hunter, or the now infamous level 1-1 music for the original Super Mario Bros.

I'm sure the Peter Gunn theme is stuck in your head now.  You're welcome.

During each era, there are music teams and/or composers who stand out on a particular game console as masters of their craft, because either they make really effective use of the console's sound hardware, or because they push that hardware to the limit and make it do things that perhaps even the creators of the hardware didn't even know were possible.  Such was the case with Sunsoft during the heyday of the Nintendo Entertainment System.  One listen to most any of their original soundtracks, and you'd know you were listening to something that had pushed beyond the mere boundaries of what other game companies were doing to take the tunes to that next level.  One listen to the soundtracks for Sunsoft's Batman title, or Journey to Silius, and you'll know what I mean.  Compare those 2 soundtracks to any other on the system, and you know they found a way to push the hardware to new heights, with great success.  More realistic drum sounds, "fuller" instrument sounds, and just a more atmospheric overall feel.

"I'm Batman."  Stage 2 theme.

Definitely a forgotten gem of a game, and game soundtrack!  Title screen theme.

In the Genesis era, while Sega made great use of the sound hardware for its first party titles (Sonic the Hedgehog rings true), it was Techno Soft that developed into one of the masters of the Z80 sound hardware.  This didn't happen all at once, however.  Thunder Force II and III had good soundtracks, but they still relied on some of the same typical "instrument sets" as were utilized by other game makers at the time, while pioneering some of their own.  In fact, despite the similarity in sound and approach between games, the music for Thunder Force II was actually composed by Tomomi Ootani.  He worked with Toshiharu Yamanishi for Thunder Force III, but Thunder Force IV (aka Lightening Force) was primarily done by Toshiharu Yamanishi.  Toshiharu Yamanishi's credits also include the nicely done soundtrack to the Genesis game Elemental Master, a bit of a hidden shmup gem for the console.  He's also worked on soundtracks for several obscure, Japan-only releases for PlayStation and PC.  On the Sega Genesis (or MegaDrive, if you prefer), he found his voice with his compositions for Thunder Force IV.

Toshiharu Yamanishi
This man is a genius.

His soundtrack for LF/TFIV is nothing short of incredible.  It takes the same "bigger" approach that Sunsoft did with the NES and threw out the rule book.  The instrument set has a "fuller" and thicker sound than before, there is actual bass sound, the drum sounds in use are heavy and driving, and the music encompasses several genres of rock, heavy metal, avant-garde, electronic, and more traditional video game balladry or pomp & circumstance.  One listen to the intro music to the game's title screen (a track known as "Lightning Strikes Again"), and it's abundantly clear that this isn't going to be your typical Genesis game soundtrack.  Screaming heavy metal guitars, drum sounds that are more than just thin snare hits and limp bass drum, bass guitar sound that is present in the mix, and a layered sound that belies the fact that it is still mere sound chip-based video game music.  Each subsequent track takes you on a journey through some of the most meticulously composed and arranged music you'll hear in a video game.  While some games work best with spare music and effects, Lightening Force was all about the "bigger, better, more" approach that shoot-em-ups were taking, and the music reflected that perfectly.  Everything you love about a good, high-energy shmup soundtrack was taken to the Nth degree here.

In fact, the soundtrack for Lightening Force has been a favorite of mine since practically the first time I booted the game up.  I was instantly impressed by the music in the game so much that I would sometimes boot it up and go into the hidden options screen (accessible by holding down the A, B or C buttons at or before the Title Screen and hitting Start on the controller) for the sole purpose of listening to the music, it is that good.  Imagine my delight, then, when I found out that after beating the game, you unlock the 10 "Omake" tracks, all tracks composed for the game, but ultimately not used within any level or portion of the game.  I poured over those songs like I did the main soundtrack, because by and large, they were just as good.  Some of the Omake tracks have become just as much favorites as some of the level themes.  It's a shame there wasn't more game to include those songs, but the game is so good as it stands, it's hard to argue with them just being bonus songs.

I'm going to switch into "hyper nerd" mode for a moment, and explain my obsession with the LF/TFIV tunes a bit more in depth.  A year out of high school, I got married, and when I went into the work force shortly thereafter, I got a job with a telemarketing firm.  Initially, I was just calling leads like everyone, but a few months in I worked my way into the IT department.  From there, I advanced whenever and however I could.  Having access to the equipment that I did at that time was a real treat, and I was able to do some pretty cool things.  I began rekindling my love for gaming which had been slightly cooled between college and marriage, and pulled out my beloved Genesis console and hooked it up at home.  Pulling out Lightening Force again and playing it, I remembered what a fantastic soundtrack it was, and how much I wished I could take that soundtrack with me on the go.  Keep in mind, this was in mid-1998, when the graphical Internet was just beginning to really get a foothold, so there were no game music MP3 downloads, no .VGM files for complete soundtracks, nothing.  If I wanted to accomplish that desire, I had to do it myself.  So I moved my Genesis into the home office, connected a cable from the stereo out jack on the face of the Genesis to the Microphone/Input port on my PC's trusty Soundblaster card, and began the arduous task of using GoldWave (STILL fantastic software) to record each song from the game.  As is now standard with .VGM soundtrack rips (and indeed, most finite-length console game music rips), I recorded just over 2 loops of each track and manually programmed a 5-20 second fade-out for each one, depending on the total track length and level of repeat in the main melody line.  It wasn't an exact science, to be sure, but I feel as though my original recordings were well timed.

All those recordings were done to .WAV files, which was quite space consuming on my then-huge 1.5GB hard drive.  In order to burn them to CD, I had to somehow get them to the office.  I didn't have a CD burner yet, because those were quite expensive at first.  We had a single speed, external parallel port model at the office, that had the full tray you would drop the CD into, close the lid, then insert into the drive.  When done, you'd eject the tray, pull it out, open the lid, take out the CD and then label accordingly.  It was a thing of beauty for a guy just starting out in IT.  We didn't have USB thumb drives back then, because half the PCs around were still running Windows 95 and wouldn't even have supported such a thing, so I had to compress the files down to 256KB .MP3 files, copy them onto a pair of 100MB Iomega Zip Disks (remember those?), take them to the office, copy them back to a PC, then convert those .MP3 files back into .WAV files, since that was the only audio format the burner software recognized.  Prior to that conversion, I did a little fiddling with the files, using GoldWave to boost the bass levels a bit, so that I could get a bit more low-end when listening on a stereo system.  Unfortunately, this made the tracks slightly "buzzy", in that the added bass made the bass level just a bit too high, so when the tracks were compressed, then converted back to .WAV files, there was more a bit more noise in the mix than would be preferred.  I still think they sound good, but I'm more acutely aware of such things today as I was then.  Besides, I didn't have much choice at that time, due to limitations of the technology at my disposal.

Iomega 100MB Zip Drive
These babies were awesome for carrying around files larger than would fit on a measly 1.44MB floppy drive.

I used the company's Photoshop 4 license to design and create the CD sleeve artwork, as well as the tray card.  At the time, text with flames was a big thing, so of course, I found a Photoshop Action file to assist with that.  For the tray card, I also wanted to include screenshots of the game from various locations, but there weren't really any image search engines or great scans of most games yet (Google Images was just a glint in the eye!), so I had to make my own.  I downloaded the now-defunct Genecyst emulator for DOS (still a remarkable feat of coding) and proceeded to play through much of the game via keyboard controls in order to get the level screenshots I wanted.  I ended up with great shots from the Air Raid & Daser stages, as well as a shot over the Level 5 battleship, and a nice boss fight shot of Level 6, complete with discharge of the powered-up CRAW.  I didn't have the right software or materials to print a CD label, so I had to make due with just using a fine-tip marker to label the disc itself.  But after designing the sleeve and tray card, I used up A LOT of ink in my Epson printer in order to print them out.  Due to the limitations (at that time) of CD-R technology, I was relegated to a 650MB CD, topping out at 74 minutes of music.  The way I lined out the tracks, I filled that 74 minutes completely, and had to omit "Omake 10", the continue screen music, as well as the standard Ranking Screen theme, and even the Game Over music, and then slightly shorten a couple tracks to make it all fit.  With today's 700MB, 80-minute CD-R discs, I think I *might* be able to make it all fit on one disc.  In any event, it was an exercise in calculation and careful planning to get it all recorded, converted, formatted properly, and laid out in a manner that would allow me to get it onto a blank CD-R disc.  As you can see by the finished product below, a lot of love went into this project.

My Lightening Force music CD complete!
It doesn't look as nice today, but at the time I printed the sleeve & tray card up, I thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Something else you may not be able to tell immediately from the picture (unless you look at it full-resolution) is that I came up with all my own track names.  The Internet was still quite new, and there weren't endless resources regarding video game music yet.  No Video Game Music Database yet, no Galbadia Hotel (no, I'm not linking there!), not even a fully formed VGMusic site yet.  I had no way of knowing, other than watching the game's credits roll, who composed the music in the game, let alone the song titles of each track.  So, without the benefit of a track list, using only the instruction manual & intimate knowledge of the game as my guide, I set about naming all the songs in the game so I could come up with a nice tracklist for the tray card.  I broke each stage into a "suite", and then created 2 suites at the end, 1 for the various endgame music tracks, and 1 for the omake bonus tracks.  Below is a chart (yes, I'm that nerdy) detailing my track titles & order, along side the actual titles, and what stage/area they each correspond to.

My Title Actual Title Stage/Area
Intro to Kha-Oss Lightning Strikes Again Title Screen
Prepare For Battle Tan Tan Ta Ta Ta Tan Options Screen
Decisions, Decisions... Don't Go Off Course Select
Conflict Above the Strite Sea Fighting Back Stage 1A
Testing the Waters What! Stage 1B
Battle of the Stritian Sea Evil Destroyer Stage 1 Boss
Daser Deluge Sand Hell Stage 4A
Desert Assault Where! Stage 4B
Iron Phoenix Strike Out Stage 4 Boss
Target Practice Space Walk Stage 2A
Left In Ruins Danger!! Danger!! Stage 2B
Ruined By the Clawed Wonder Attack Sharply Stage 2 Boss
Intercepting the Fleet The Sky Line Stage 3A
Air-Raid in the Eastern Sky Air Raid Stage 3B
Multi-Faceted Techno Terror Simmer Down Stage 3 Boss
Battleship Battle Ship Stage 5
Indestructable Behemoth Stranger Stage 5 Boss
Knighted With Thunder Neo Weapon Stage 5 Docking
Braving the Waves of Volbados Great Sea Power Stage 6
Frozen Aquatic Menace The Breaker Stage 6 Boss
Entrance to the Bio-Base Sea of Flame Stage 7
Armordillo Rancor Stage 7 Boss
Bio-Infiltration Metal Squad Stage 8
Infestation vs. Electro-Pesticide Phantom Stage 8 Bosss
Heart of Vios Down Right Attack Stage 9
Menacing Mass of Machinery and Mayhem Recalcitrance Stage 9 Boss
Paradox (Cannon In Death Major) The Danger Zone Stage 10
Supercomputer Shutdown War Like Requiem Stage 10 Boss
Reflections of a Shallow Victory Shooting Stars Easy Ending
Still No Impending Danger Silvery Light of the Moon Normal Ending
Almost Overtaken Light of Silence Hard Ending
True Victory Love Dream Maniac Ending
Victory's Theme Stand Up Against Myself Staff Roll
Next To Excellence Remember of Knight of Legend Name Entry
Spoils of War Because You're Number One Name Entry Ace Ranking
Rynex Theme Omake 1 Omake 1
Fight Theme Omake 2 Omake 2
Stukk's Theme Omake 3 Omake 3
Galaxy Federation Theme Omake 4 Omake 4
Kha-Oss Theme Omake 5 Omake 5
Vios Theme Omake 6 Omake 6
Emperor Lohun's Theme Omake 7 Omake 7
Lightening Force Theme Omake 8 Omake 8
Cruise Home Omake 9 Omake 9

Now, keep in mind, the main purpose for this chart is to preserve my own work.  I don't expect anyone else to care about it, really, but since the Photoshop files for this stuff are probably long gone and I can't easily re-create them without going through all the steps again, part of what I'm trying to do here is to just save this for my own posterity.  Plus it gave me a chance to see a couple gross errors in my track listing.  I had the tracks for the Daser, Air Raid and the Ruins stages switched around and they were labeled wrong on my custom tray card, so that's something I would want to fix.  In addition, I noticed that for "Omake 7", I had a typo resulting in the title showing up as "Eperor" instead of "Emperor".  I'm generally meticulous enough to avoid such things, but mistakes like that happen, and it's good that I'm finally catching some of that.  Not because I can do anything about it now, but because I'm picky about such things and I have some teensy sense of closure this way.  It also factors in to my decision to possibly tackle this project again, with the key differences being that I'll try & fit all songs onto the one CD, I won't enhance or change the tracks in any way prior to them being burned to CD, no compression will take place prior to the CD burn, and the sleeve & tray card prints will be done via my personal color laser printer, probably on a heavier card stock for a more durable, long-lasting and professional look.  If I do that, I will probably make the finished product available for download in various parts, probably a combination of high-res .PNG or GiMP formatted graphics and then FLAC files for the audio.  My big decision will be whether to use the "official" track names, or keep my own and augment them with a few new ones.  I really like some of the original names, such as "Recalcitrance", "War Like Requiem", "Sand Hell", "Because You're Number One", and especially "Stand Up Against Myself" - awesome stuff.

So with all of my blubbering on about how excellent the music is, and all my nostalgia for the CD project that took so much love and effort, I think it's about time I stop talking about it and just share.  Below, I'll be linking to a couple things.  First, a YouTube video that contains a nice play-through and the entire soundtrack to the game straight through, in a nice sequential order.  In addition, I'm going to link to the soundtrack download via Project2612, a great website which offers downloads of Sega Genesis/Megadrive rips in .VGM format, the current recognized king of Sega Genesis (and other consoles) music formats.  VGM way outperforms the older .GYM specification in nearly every aspect, but keep in mind that Genesis sound emulation isn't 100% accurate.  It's so close that you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, but it's not 1:1 sound.  For a really authentic experience, the way to do it is to get the cart yourself and experience it firsthand.

Project2612 page to download of the Thunder Force IV soundtrack

Stay tuned for part 3, where I gush about the game's graphics!

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