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Legacy of the Z80 Sound Chip Vol. 01

The Genesis has long been maligned for its weakling sound chip. Clocking in at a mere four kilobytes of RAM, the Z80 was admittedly of poorer quality than rival Nintendo’s SNES audio prowess. Does that mean that the Genesis didn’t have any good tunes? Far from it. It wasn’t as technically impressive, maybe, but the Genesis is still home to a ton of games with excellent soundtracks. It seems like nearly all of them have at least one or two great compositions, despite the quality of the rest of the game.

But for this article we can only list ten soundtracks of truly exceptional quality. Music that will stick in your head and chase you all over the house, music that you can thrill to, music that you will love. Here they are: ten of the best Genesis soundtracks of all time. They’re in no particular order: to say that one is better than the rest would be just unfair. (Not to mention it’d just be asking for flames.) Every single one has its own special brilliancy, and each deserves a place here.

 

Adventures of Batman & Robin

This game has left its mark on me (and a friend in gaming) for its sheer INSANITY!!! Everything about this game is so over-the-top that it borders on the realm of mind-numbing: the masses of enemies, the explosions, and the crazy bosses. And the music is not about to be left behind, of course. In this little cart lies some of the most intense aural compilations to ever come out of the Genesis. I’d seriously like to know just what these Clockwork Tortoise people were taking during production—exploding robot bunnies? Electrically-charged dolls? Mechanical cat faces? Whatever it was, though, it impaired neither their programming skill—the graphical effects are unmatched, even by the much-lauded Gunstar Heroes—nor their musical talents. (If sending all the cartoon-addicted six-year-olds into fits of epilepsy on Christmas morning can be called talent.) This surpasses even Lightning Force, folks, and is truly a soundtrack to be mentioned in whispered reverence. A techno/eurosynth fan’s dream.

Tracks to check out: 3 and 15

Alisia Dragoon

Ranger X‘s fantasy counterpart—as far as overlooked greatness is concerned—Alisia Dragoon has side-scrolling action that will glue you to your gamepad. What self-respecting gamer out there can’t dig a vengeance-bent chick who throws lightning? Great levels and artwork, certainly, but it has music that might actually get you to use that sound test feature! I’m not exactly sure who Mecano Associates is (was?), but it’s sad they didn’t make more soundtracks for our beautiful system—they definitely had some skill. Their work bleeds haunting medieval glory while at the same time including enough rhythm and bass to take the ancient feel to a decidedly quasi-modern plane. Just like the levels (not to mention the main character) are an intriguing blend of fantasy and technology, the music does an astounding job of mixing the two up. This is not a soundtrack to be denied, folks—don’t even think about playing a stereo during your sessions. Crank up your television and revel in the hauntingly medieval glory. Very rarely does a package like this come to your gaming doorstep, so don’t let it pass you by!

Track to check out: 05

Arcus Odyssey

Another one of Wolfteam’s obscure titles, (was there ever a team that had more underrated games?) Odyssey is lost to most of the gaming world. That’s a pity, because there’s a lot to enjoy here, not the least of which is the soundtrack. It’s of the usual Wolfteam quality…translation: some parts are inspired and some parts are horrible. But the inspired sections shine through and overpower their insufferable brethren, so it’s all good in the end. And more so than the other games listed here, I would venture that Odyssey is defined by its music. Each track sets the scene for its respective level impeccably; from the opening notes you can instantly get the feel for what the level is about—adventurous overworlding, dark dungeon-spelunking, or depressing prison-exploring. A very well done selection that really has to be experienced along with the actual game for full effect.

Tracks to check out: 4, 12, 17, 21, 29

Lightening Force

Whoa. I think the adjective ‘driving’ was invented with this game in mind. It’s been said before that Lightening Force might just be the best side-scrolling shmup of all time, and I think that the music is definitely on the same level of excellence. Head-shaking bass and beats that simply never let up. And those boss tracks! Heavy, heavy, heavy stuff here that will surely get your adrenaline surging. In fact, these tracks are so intense and so loud that I often get a headache if I play the game too long with headphones—a ringing endorsement for all you deadheads out there. (wink-wink) Seriously, though, I respect Technosoft’s decision to ditch any hint of finesse or diplomacy and just shove layer after layer of metal at you. It fits with the similarly brutal approach of the game itself, after all. And miraculously, they still manage to emulate the feel of bizarre alien environments, despite all the rocking-ness. Truly the mark of musical expertise.

Tracks to check out: 08, 15, or any Boss selection.

Ranger-X

Such a tragically overlooked game back in its day, although it seems like people are starting to rediscover this gem. The game owns, bottom line, and so does the music. It’s got a wonderfully synthesized feel—none of that Tallarico-esque sampling, thank you—and each piece fits its respective level perfectly. Some games have nice tunes that don’t add much to the game, but Nextech (Gau Entertainment when they made this) did an excellent job of pumping you up with their soundtrack. There’s also a refreshing mix of music paces and types. The contemplative intro, the heroic opening level, the driving mid-way-pick-me-up, the stealthy infiltration, the eclectically experimental final tracks, and the mandatory ‘bum-bum-BUUUUUM’ final boss theme. Yoshinobu Haiwara deserves an award: every bit of his work is infective and worthy of downloading.

Track to check out: 04

Revenge of Shinobi

Everybody knew this was a given, right? Another bit ‘o brilliancy by the young Yuzo Koshiro, the Revenge of Shinobi soundtrack made waves back in the day and is still a fan favorite in our modern era of gaming. Another fusion of a bygone culture and 20th century tech, this soundtrack is a flawlessly executed amalgam of fast songs, plaintive songs, moderately-paced songs, mechanical songs, and organic songs. Something for everyone, and no one can truly be disappointed. It’s an early Genesis game, and therefore the complexity isn’t exactly going to make the Z80 melt or anything. Still, Koshiro used the relatively new technology quite admirably. There’s just nothing like beating the lights out of present-day ninjas to the beat of Ninja Step and Shinobi Walk.

Tracks to check out: Shinobi Walk, Ninja Step.

Sonic 3D Blast

As much as the game itself it criticized and demeaned, I don’t think that anyone can complain about the soundtrack. Indeed, here are some of the catchiest tunes to grace a Sonic game: after you hear them a few times they’ll never go away. Another thing I really admire about the composition is the way Traveler’s Tales used the stereo capabilities of the Genesis (whether it be headphones of the M1 or the normal hookup of the M2). Instead of the boring ‘same song, two speakers’ junk you get with many games, the various notes and instruments are masterfully broken up into the left and right speakers. Even if you hate the game, get this soundtrack. It’s got lovely coordination with level themes and some solid orchestration. Yes, it’s all just your standard Ice Level, Happy Green Level, Weird CyberTech Level, and Ancient Level music, but each track seems to defy the cliché looming over it with its pure, clean, sparkling melodies.

Tracks to check out: 03, 09, 0D

Streets of Rage series

Everyone who has a Genesis knows about this legendary trilogy. For more than a decade, gamers have loved both the frantic street-brawling action and Yuzo Koshiro’s masterful soundtracks. Apparently Mr. Koshiro visited many of New York’s top dance clubs before crafting these killer tunes, and it shows. Every track has a maddeningly addictive tune, driving beats, surprisingly thumping bass, and they’re all very long. Indeed, this is possibly as good as it gets for the Genesis. These games are worth it for the music alone, folks. Fans argue quite a bit about which of the three games has the best music, but it’s just crazy to nitpick here: each one is far better than most of the other games out at the time. Each has its positives and negatives; each one should be treasured equally. Get all three albums and decide for yourself which will get priority on your iPod.

Tracks to check out: all.

Sunset Riders

This may come as just a bit of surprise to many readers, but if you take a moment and listen, I think you’ll agree with me. Konami captured the feel of the Wild West flawlessly, and even managed to stick in some killer melodies, too—you can actually sing these in the shower or pick out the melodies on your guitar! This game is a must-buy for the twitchy, one-hit-death run ‘n gun goodness, anyway, so the toe-tapping music just makes it even more appealing. There aren’t any bad apples, either: every bit of sound to come out of your speakers (at least music-wise) is of the same superiority. Who knew that this type of quality was lurking in such a relatively unknown title, much less that the aforementioned title would be a Konami action game? I’m not complaining, though. Just saddle up, turn it up, and shoot ‘em up!

Tracks to check out: all.

VectorMan

Although the style is technically electronica/techno, it’s not in the same vein as The Adventures of Batman and Robin. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a beat or some aggressive melodies; it’s just that it doesn’t have the ‘knock-you-senseless’ feel that Batman and Robin does. It’s much quieter, which is fitting, considering the fact that you are the lone hero on an abandoned planet. Blue Sky did a commendable job of creating a musical score that matches right up with the gameplay and manages to evoke the proper emotions at the proper times. My only gripe is that none of it is very hummable—something I consider to be ideal for soundtracks that aren’t aiming for adrenaline surges. All-in-all a nicely upbeat album that’s a refreshing change from the hard, sometimes headache-inducing Genesis library. (See Lightening Force). This is a great thing to hear in stereo, by the way. If you don’t have a Model 2 with S-Video (or even AV Cables), stop being such a tightwad and go get one!

Tracks to check out: Port, Bunker

 

The bottom line is that there are just too many good Genesis soundtracks out there! This article was just a tiny sampling of the auditory ecstasies just waiting to be unleashed. Other games to investigate would include Rocket Knight Adventures, Light Crusader, Sparkster: Rocket Knight Adventures II, Shadow Dancer: The Secret of Shinobi, the rest of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Wonderboy in Monster World, MUSHA, Gaiares, Valis I and III, Golden Axe, Sword of Vermillion, and—I reluctantly put this here—Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker.

That’s all great, you might say, but what about when you want to take the Z80 ear-candy with you? Here’s a great site that’ll definitely get you started on Genesis soundtracks: SegaXtreme. You’ll find lots of beautiful MP3s there; with a bit of web searching you’ll be able to rustle up at least MIDI’s of pretty much anything you want. You might also want to check out the Megadriver web page for awesome remixes of your favorite Genesis masterpieces!

~Vive la Z80!~

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