Game That Tune

Thunder Force IV

Electric Slide

The music of Thunder Force IV is the sound of airborne triumph.

By Derrick Sanskrit • March 21, 2013

Game music has the power to earworm its way into your heart long after you put the controller down. Each week in Game That Tune, we highlight a great tune from a great game (or a great tune from a just-okay game).

There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a pilot for the Galaxy Federation. There are just so many ORN forces getting all up in your face all the time, and lordy bagordy some of their ships are enormous. It’s tense work! On the other hand: You’re flying! That’s radical! Yes, by and large the soundtrack to Thunder Force IV (released in the United States as Lightening Force: Quest For The Darkstar) plays awfully close to the industrial rock that was gaining popularity in the early ’90s, but there’s one track early on that seems more interested in celebrating your freedom than damning you to eternal battle, and that tune is “Fighting Back”:

The song comes in four movements. The first builds momentum, firing thruster rockets and forcing the audience against gravity. A steady barrage of warm synth arpeggios drive up the heart rate while a deep reverberating tom creates a sense of space. It’s high-energy and enthusiastic, like a training montage done up in day-glo. The second movement is all about the act of flight. Superfluous noises drop out, and we’re left weightless. A slap bass mirrors the tapped keys as they keep the horizon level. A second delayed synth follows the lead, gently warbling as though lost in the blustery air. The third movement is a ditty I like to call “You. You’re Awesome.” The arpeggios come back—because arps are awesome—the snares and toms scramble from center to right to left and back again, and the lead reaches for the stars in a series of repeated climbs toward the stratosphere. The fourth movement, in the throes of combat, is a lot like the first movement, only with lasers. And honestly, who doesn’t love extra lasers? Come back to flight, throw some bonus fills into “You’re Awesome,” and repeat from the beginning. Eat your heart out, Top Gun.

Thanks to George_Liquor for the suggestion!

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19 Responses to “Electric Slide”

  1. PaganPoet says:

    So, what was the deal with the Genesis/Mega Drive’s sound chip? How come the MIDI from these games doesn’t sound too far removed from the NES? Especially when you compare it to soundtracks of SNES games, which were so lush and varied by comparison.

    • Destroy Him My Robots says:

      As far as I know, the Genesis/Mega Drive used regular FM synthesis while the SNES allowed for samples in sound banks similar to trackers. If the Genesis/Mega Drive is a DX7, then the SNES is a D-50, if that helps.

      • George_Liquor says:

        That’s a good example, as the sound chip in the Genesis is a Yamaha YM2612, a cheaper cousin of the one in the DX7

  2. Chalkdust says:

    Love these densely ornamented 16-bit era tracks.  I dabbled with sequenced music a bit back in junior/high school and I couldn’t help but write in this style, so ingrained in my mind that it is.

    On the subject of side-scrolling sci-fi shooter games, I’d like to toss in for Kenichiro Fukui’s fantastic “Einhänder” score.  It has stuck with me over the years in a way few other soundtracks have.  A few of my favorites:




    Frankly it’s all great but those are good places to start.  PSX-era Squaresoft was a golden age for game music, during which many of the in-house composers produced, in my opinion, their definitive works.

    I’ll stop there for now, but I could go on (oh boy could I go on)… should I go on?

      • Chalkdust says:

        Well okay!  You asked for it.

        I guess I’ll get the big one out of the way first: Nobuo Uematsu.  He’s kinda like John Williams: not especially innovative, but a prolific and dependable workhorse of a composer with an ear for catchy melodies.  Plus, as Williams is a composer that even folks who don’t pay much attention to movie music know by name, so too does every gamer out there know who Uematsu is.

        Personally, I think FF6 is his best overall soundtrack, but FF7 has some outstanding pieces, but I want to talk about “One-Winged Angel”.  It’s the apotheosis of decisive battle music, and eschews Uematsu’s proclivity to get all weedly-deedly with the prog rock influences.  While it suffers a bit from the spotty instrument samples that make up all of FF7’s music (I’m looking at you, abruptly clipped snare drum and super-wobbly strings), it comes out the gates strong with Orffian majesty and a tense build-up.  And then, holy crap!  Chanting!  In its time, the inclusion of actual human voices in video game music was revelatory, and it’s still a powerful piece of music these many years later (though I prefer the arranged version off the Reunion Tracks CD.

        Next, how about Squaresoft’s second-most-famous composer, Yasunori Mitsuda?  After toiling away on the classic Chrono Trigger, for which he spent so much time in the studio that he later recounted stories of falling asleep there, then waking up and immediately composing what was in his mind, he was supposed to be the heir to Uematsu’s throne.  Unfortunately, he’s faded into irrelevance in the past decade and has shifted his focus to managing other composers.  In the PSX era, however, he provided the worldy jazz fusion music for Chrono Cross, and more dear to my heart, Xenogears.  Xenogears is a solid bridge between the styles of Trigger and Cross, built on the former’s orchestral foundation and introducing exotic elements that make up the latter.  At times it is extraordinarily haunting, too, with deep droning strings and melancholy melodies that swell and recede, such as in Premonition and The One Who is Torn Apart.  Plus, the decisive battle theme, One Who Bares Fangs at God always creeped me out with its delicately manipulated synth voice samples and shimmering percussive backdrop.  Kind of an audio uncanny valley working for instead of against it.

        Then we got Tsuyoshi Sekito, whose primary contributions to Square music have been rearranging the legacy Final Fantasy scores for when those games were re-released on other systems.  But, he also contributed the delightfully game-y music for Brave Fencer Musashi.  A standout track would be Steam Knight, with its driving toms, flute and clarinet ornaments, and dramatic B section.

        Masashi Hamauzu, who would go on to contribute to (FFX) and eventually take over (FFXIII) the flagship series, came to prominence with SaGa Frontier 2, which shows off his knack for shimmering piano parts and rich orchestral arrangements.  This soundtrack is also ambitious in that practically every one of its 70+ tracks is a variation on one of a small handful of themes (three or four core melodies, tops), without ever necessarily feeling repetitive.  Vorspiel (track 1!) introduces the main melody, which gets super earworm-y around the 50 second mark.

        Yoko Shimomura gets two winners in this era, Parasite Eve and Legend of Mana.  Just about every track in Parasite Eve, from its explosive intro piece Primal Eyes to the four-stage decisive battle track U.B., gives me chills.  There’s always some subtle twist hiding behind the main instrumentation… some little glitchy noise or inorganic tone that suggests and supports the mutative bio-horror premise behind the game.  Here is something familiar, which may be subverted unexpectedly in an unsettling way.

        Legend of Mana is just lovely all around.

        Kenji Ito, one of those guys who’s been working for a long time but never really blowing anyone away, will always get my ear for his contributions to SaGa Frontier, especially the decisive battle tracks for the game’s seven (!) final bosses (each of the characters in the game has a self-contained but overlapping storyline).  Check out Last Battle ~ Asellus, Last Battle ~ Red and Last Battle ~ Emelia.

        I know I’ve been picking a lot of decisive battle themes, but echoing my first mention, in an RPG, I feel that last battle is the most important moment, as it represents both the culmination of the storyline as well as your investment in character growth, so it should be thesis and conclusion all in one.  Great moments stand out strongly, and it’s all the more disappointing when you’re given a moment which is not wholly memorable, from challenge to meaning to music.

        One additional nod to Hitoshi Sakimoto, who had great work pre-Square and post-Square, but his contributions to Final Fantasy Tactics and Vagrant Story cannot be undersold (basically I’m cutting it short cuz I spent my whole lunch hour writing this!  ya happy!?  I am.)

        Echoing something Mike_From_Chicago said on the Adapt and Die piece for the Home Improvement game, they were saying that pixel art when done well had an elegance that suggested through abstraction the true form.  In a way, the ‘incomplete fidelity’ of this era of game music has a similar appeal to me, and Square was the best at it during that time.

        • Citric says:

          I’m waiting to make a phone call, so how about Hiroki Kikuta? He’s probably best known for Secret of Mana, but the soundtrack to Soukaigi is top to bottom amazing. It’s a bit obscure (it’s Japan-only and seems pretty terrible to be honest) but it’s one of the great all time game soundtracks.

          Then Kikuta left to form Sacnoth, participated in the messy development of Koudelka, and eventually went on to compose for porno before eventually coming back to proper games.

        • Destroy Him My Robots says:

          Whoa, that’s a lot to discuss, pace yourself! Just two things: Mitsuda’s still got it. Listen to and try not to pretend you’re a conductor with your fingers. It can’t be done!

          And Itoken? If there’s one person in this world who can bring me to the brink of tears with GameBoy music, it’s him.

        • Chalkdust says:

           @Citric:disqus I gotta give Soukaigi a listen, but I am of mixed opinion on Kikuta.  Secret of Mana is very good, but I’ve never been a fan of Seiken Densetsu 3’s music.  It’s merely okay… there are very few particularly memorable tracks that aren’t just rehashes of Secret of Mana’s best songs, and it feels inelegant at times.  Like he didn’t have enough time to work on it.

          The arrangement isn’t rich; there’s a lot of emptiness around the melodies, straight doubling of a phrase with multiple instruments, it’s lean on harmony and counterpoint, and the percussion is usually very simple.  Sometimes that pared-down approach can work, but I don’t think it does in SD3’s case.

          The only thing that I really remembered immediately about SD3’s music is that, during one of the final boss songs, he uses the game’s sound effect of a plate breaking, played at half speed, as a percussive element.  I can’t decide if that’s clever or lazy, but it does make me laugh.

          Though, it does have a few good examples of “tenuous grasp of English” song titles: “Faith Total Machine”, “Damn Damn Drum”, and my favorite, “Female Turbulence”.

        • Chalkdust says:

          @DestroyHimMyRobots:disqus  Hmm, not super-feelin’ it on that Inazuma Eleven track but I’ll hold out hope and check out the rest of it.  A soccer RPG?  Never played it, but then it looks like it never got a US release.

          I feel like Mitsuda ran out of steam with Xenosaga Ep. I, Legaia 2 and his meager contributions to Shadow Hearts, and hasn’t really recovered since then, but if he can impress me again like he did with Chrono Cross and Xenogears, I’ll be happy.

          But yeah, Ito’s Game Boy stuff is worthwhile… I gotta revisit the Final Fantasy Legend music sometime.

        • Chalkdust says:

          @Citric:disqus Update: Wow, yeah, Soukaigi is fantastic.  Definitely fits into my PSX golden age.  Hard to believe this is the same composer behind SD3 (and even Secret of Mana)… it’s just so different and much more accomplished.  Consensus seems to be that Fire Wire is the standout track.

        • GhaleonQ says:

          @Chalkdust_TMAI:disqus  Really?  Try those.  Inazuma/Lightning 11 is the best new property of the last generation pretty handily.  I talk about it a lot, but apparently not enough!

    • PaganPoet says:

      I wish I could like this more than once. I adore Einhander, and much of it has to do with the wonderful soundtrack.

    • George_Liquor says:

      Wow, thanks for reminding me of Einhänder. I played a demo of it years ago and loved it, but I could never find a copy of the full game.

      To Fleabay!

  3. George_Liquor says:

    Aww heck Derrick, you’ve made my whole week! Your description’s totally on the nose, too. Strite, the level that this background tune plays in, is very much a training mission: It introduces you to all of the game’s mechanics, like the CLAW, the various weapon power-ups, the mini-bosses and the huge, multi-stage main bosses, all while you speed over a day-glo pink & blue coastline.

    The Genesis has loads of good shmups, but Thunder Force 3 and 4 are some of the finest examples of the whole genre.

    • Good, because next week we’re back to games that I love and nobody else has played for reasons I’ll never understand.

      This one’s a blast and it inspired me to fire up the old Genesis emulator for the first time in years. Thanks for the suggestion, I happily kept this soundtrack on my iPod for months!

      • George_Liquor says:

        Cool, I’m glad you liked playing it. I love to spread the gospel of Thunder Force.

        I love this feature & what you’re doing with it, too. I can’t think of another site that’s giving equal consideration to a game’s soundtrack, unless the game happens to revolve around music.

  4. Chronomage says:

    Thanks for the write up!  I remember playing Thunder Force III back in the hallowed days of Genesis, but don’t recall trying IV.  Another Genesis side shooter that had an awesome soundtrack was Target Earth.  I don’t think anybody played it because it was insanely hard, but I was happy to get repeatedly pummeled just to experience the music.  Here’s a clip: