January 25, 1991
Buy Used Copy
If there is an early achievement that Enix will be remembered for outside Japan, it will likely be ActRaiser, a revolutionary first-generation SNES game that first enticed American audiences 15 years ago. With a clever combination of Civilization-style town building and Castlevania-style platformer action, accompanied by a relatively deep story, some profound graphics, and a captivating musical score, the game managed to be unique, challenging, and downright fun. The score certainly demands especially close attention, as it was unique in its day for technical and compositional reasons. While retaining the memorable melodies and elements of the harmonic simplicity that defined early game music scores, ActRaiser provided a convincing quasi-orchestral score that featured superior sound quality and admirable employment of a synthetic orchestra in a wide variety of styles. Though still in his early 20s, one man, Yuzo Koshiro, was behind this masterwork, ultimately creating a soundtrack that boasted an array of unforgettable adrenaline-pumping action themes and evocative storyline themes, while influencing a lot of symphonic game music available today.
Starting strongly, a testament to Yuzo Koshiro’s versatility is demonstrated by the first two tracks, which feature enormous contrasts in styles. With “Opening,” a series of imposing brass fanfares build up grandly and lead to the eventual announcement of the main melody. Fast-paced and apparently Star Wars-esque, this march sets a high standard straightaway and is contrasted by some mellower sections; it’s only let down marginally with the initial fanfare motif being repeated too many times in latter parts of the piece. Treated as a grandiose overture with classical orientation, “Opening” is a flawed yet remarkable work that remains fondly remembered to this today. After such glee, Koshiro gives the soundtrack some grit with the subsequent track, “Sky Palace”; a church organ theme that represents divinity against evil, it’s used as the gamer navigates a floating palace around the world map. Messiaen-inspired, with plenty of dissonance created by endless suspensions and diminished chords, most will feel unnerved by this awe-inspiring experiment. Certainly, with both of these themes coming from a soundtrack made in 1991, it’s already clear that ActRaiser was incredible for its time.
Following the first of three short yet memorable fanfare-like themes, the first action theme is introduced. With an unforgettable melody, brisk pace, and a sense of adventure, “Filmoa” stimulates the gamer and listener alike, proving to be a classic old-school Koshiro theme. It has intriguing instrumentation, with a rock organ leading the melody, diverting constructively from a full-orchestral approach; despite using an instrument similar in name to the pipe organ used in “Sky Palace,” it creates a completely different emotional effect. The organ is well-supported by a classic bass line and some punchy orchestra hits, keeping everything simple yet buoyant. “Filmoa” represents how using and subtly modifying traditional game music approaches can be just as credible and influential as unprecedented stylistic experiments. “The Beast Appears” is the Filmoa level’s accompanying boss theme and somehow stands out through the way the instruments are utilised; with powerful timpani rolls, brass crisis motifs, healthy amounts of dissonance, and clever ‘call and response’ patterns between contrasting instruments, it manages to be one of the strongest quasi-orchestral battle themes available for its time. It’s clear from this theme that Koshiro’s experiment isn’t doing anything musically unheard of, but integrating established composing methods into a game setting with musical and technical refinement.
Like many soundtracks, ActRaiser largely follows the format of stage themes being followed by boss themes with some extras here and there to boot. This format is well-sustained especially by the originality of the stage themes. “Blood Pool ~ Casandora” is a delectable blend of what “Filmoa” and “The Beast Appears” had to offer; it alternates wildly between featuring fun lyrical passages with Koshiro’s clean ‘call and response’ structures and much more aggressive passages that darken with a succession of string discords. “Pyramid ~ Marana” combines a quirky opening riff with some of the most gorgeous metamorphoses of emotion to ever be heard in a game score; the way it seamlessly alternates with great finesse between conveying daintiness, mystery, grandeur, and beauty of the finest form, all within an oriental-influenced framework, makes it nothing short of a masterpiece. ActRaiser‘s peak of tension comes with “World Tree”. The track’s three minutes worth of development incorporates an articulate brass and string overture, an abstract Mos Eisley-esque section, a brief action-packed extravaganza, and, best of all, a delicious series of discords that gradually slow down as they increase in pitch and grow more harrowing while the theme eventually fades into silence. Immediately after comes the final battle theme, “Satan,” a threatening mountain of discords, shrill trills, and timpani rolls, made unique through its string discords over rallentandos and influences of Mussorgsky’s “Night on a Bald Mountain”.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Koshiro’s music lies in the tracks “Birth of the People” and “Offering.” Both play during the town-building interludes, meaning they have to sustain about two to three solid hours of gameplay between them. Nonetheless, they never grow boring. “Birth of the People” is written in rococo style; featuring simplified contrapuntal phrasing and transparent accompaniment, its melodic emphasis establishes a sense of innocence. It also feels distinctly like game music, almost Sugiyama-esque, with Koshiro deliberately employing beep sounds in the first phrase to form an endearing introduction. “Offering” is essentially a brief dab of colour with its rich and warm melodies, used for representing music playing to one’s land. Any educated musician would deem both thtmes devoid of any original musical qualities and somewhat underdeveloped, but this is not to the discredit of Koshiro, considering how well they sustain in-game use; the power of the melody and atmosphere created by these tracks alone makes them outstanding compositions. Aspects of both of these themes are integrated into “Peaceful World” and “Ending,” which conclude the soundtrack in an appealing way, though discussions of their classically-influenced refinement and melodic depth ignore their principle feature — no, not the wretched imitation of the 20th Century Fox fanfare in the latter, but the bags of nostalgia they carry that can only be testified to by personal experience.
Highly recommended to pretty much all listeners, ActRaiser provides an excellent introduction to one of the three sides of Yuzo Koshiro. It’s an influential piece of game music and a highly enjoyable and accessible score in its own right. While the soundtrack is immensely rare and requires $80+ to pick up, it remains recommended. And, even if one cannot pick up the album, the game remains a classic today, so, if you have five or so hours to spend, play through the game and enjoy the music; in fact, it might well even heighten the Koshiro experience. Managing to be musically and technically profound, while retaining the fun melodic aspect that characterises a lot of game music, though the ActRaiser score is brief, the level of enjoyment that can be derived from it emotionally and intellectually should not be underestimated.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Chris Greening. Last modified on January 18, 2016.