Sega Motorcycle Music History
Sega Motorcycle Music History
August 14, 2009
Buy at Ebten
Game designers like Yu Suzuki and many other young planners at Sega got their start with designing racing games — the same could be said for leading game musicians like Hiroshi Kawaguchi, who himself wrote and programmed the sound for Sega’s Hang-On, a monumental achievement for arcade game music back in the mid-80s. Kawaguchi was not merely the first to use sampled percussion in his race-worthy tunes: he had always been aware of the stylistic trends in music at the time, and ever-conscious of what makes a great, memorable, and utterly-fitting music experience for arcade games, which is more challenging than one might think. Even at a later date, the same could be said for Hikoshi Hashimoto, a newcomer to the Sega Sound Team, but one with a profound style of arcade arrangement and a slew of great melodies and styles to build material off of. He is now a renowned visual novel composer and arranger.
Sega Motorcycle Music History is through-and-through a worthy tribute to the Sega motorcycle racing games of old, and especially the more obscure arcade releases that never saw an amount of coverage similar to what the Hang-On series and the OutRun franchise can still claim to carry in the modern game music scene. From the first disc’s treasure trove of music from Hashimoto’s Racing Hero and A.B. Cop to Hiro’s experimental, wide and varied selections from Enduro Racer and Cool Riders on the second disc, the album possesses excellent flow, some incredible high moments all the way through, and an overall feeling of contextual progression and definition of both of the musician’s stylistic rudiments and classic gaming soundtracks. For Kawaguchi, this album is a consummation for his brand of racing music and, for Hashimoto, his first contributions to game music history are now accessible outside of MAME emulation and lonely arcade machines, detailing the early seeds of a future career. Ultimately, the album is one of the most interesting releases from Wave Master’s album pedigree, and it’s roots lie in classic Japanese motorcycle racing culture.
Racing Hero (Hikoshi Hashimoto)
In a country where Japanese motorcycle racers and racing events have been (and continue to be) immortalized in music, movies, television productions, and media events alike, I can’t say it’s surprising that Sega would give the honor of “Racing Hero” to one of their own games. With plenty of branching paths, plenty of road obstacles, and the type of refined jazz-fusion that the Japanese public had always enjoyed, this soundtrack The “Title” acts as the game’s attract theme, and it certainly succeeds — attracting an audience with its combination of rock percussion, wailing wind-synth melody, and driving harmonies and slap-bass. Whoever designed the game itself clearly didn’t want to waste the player’s precious time, immediately heading from the flashy attract sequence to the more focused and mellow opening stage, where “BGM 1” welcomes new players to a warm new kind of texture. Hashimoto’s most immediate talent lies in crafting great melodies — ones that is highlighted with elegant melodic structure, a precise balance of instrumentation, and a series of lovely chords, fitting to a motivating progression. This is exactly what the opening track does best — all of it — and the standard has now been set for Hashimoto to deliver some more exciting tracks, before the player loses interest.
Once the first part of Racing Hero is complete, the player has to pick one of two branching paths in the game. This decision iccompanied by “Stage Select”, a track that unfortunately is never listened to for more than second at least — nothing to be excited about. Of course, as “BGM 2” works the player into the heat of the moment with its more conventional rock stylings. However, Hashimoto develops the piece more luxuriantly than one would expect, adding onto a stellar melody an additional soli sections in the latter half of the tune, and generally embellishing it with an extensive amount of rich FM synth instruments, providing a variation on the usual fast-tempo rock anthems of the time. Taking a similar approach to the fusion style with even greater deft, “BGM 3” is one of my favorites on the album. The track out strangely-similar to Hang-On’s “Attract” theme before steadily blossoming into a gallant progression of soulful harmonics and an unbridled freedom in chord complexity and fantastic melodies, recalling the days of courageous racing heroes gone by. Not only does the piece continue the winning collaboration of conventional racing music percussion and instrumentation with jazzy chord progressions and pop-out melodies, it establishes a sense of progression in-game, regardless of whatever stylized locale one might be racing at on their path to victory worldwide. Yet “BGM 2” and “BGM 3” focus on the middle emotions of a global cannonball run, whereas “BGM 1” does a great job of introducing the elements at play in Racing Hero‘s soundtrack, as well as a new beginning.
Just as effective at bringing climax and closure is “BGM 4”, the most hard-kicking song for the hardest courses in the game. It’s melody taking center-stage from the very start-line, and the track quickly breaks into a complex, strafing-and-shunting kind of montage theme. Featuring an assortment of wind-synth and rhythm section intricacies, it’s all brought together and to the finish line with a considerable amount of melodic development and contrasts throughout. Of particular note is how complex the track is harmonically and melodically, even though it’s just as memorable and fitting as the other stage themes are. Hashimoto’s style generally suffers from a lack of varied instrumentation and ear-piercing sound waves, but his melodic excellence is hard to match and, coupled with his instantly-recognizable style of harmony, he created four superlative jazz-fusion variations on the concept of Racing Hero. Each track presents a different set of emotions and fantastic perspectives and tributes to bands like T-Square and Casiopea, amongst other bastions of Japanese jazz fusion. Concluding the soundtrack are some shorter, brief tunes and jingles that add color and context to the score, with the roaming piano lines of “Name Regist” (sic) and the “BGM 3”-inspired franticness heard in “Continue”.
A.B. Cop (Hikoshi Hashimoto)
A year after Racing Hero came a different take on the motorcycle racing game, in the form of Sega’s A.B. Cop. With a near-future setting and Chase H.Q.-inspired game design and progression, the game needed someone with enough experience to curate a normal set of driving music conventions, and someone with enough creativity to branch out and incorporate personal stylings into the soundtrack. Hashimoto was this someone, and he delivered his largest soundtrack at the company yet heard. His new “Title” music feels reminiscent of the same kind of composition he prepared for Racing Hero, though with a cleaner melody and arrangement, jazz-fusion instrumentation, and plenty of blue-sky nostalgia coursing through the speakers. Being that the game has a more defined context than Racing Hero, Hashimoto also prepared a couple of pre- and post-stage jingles, like the ominous, albeit cartoony-sounding “Opening” for each stage, and a keyboard-based “Fanfare” and “Stage Clear” theme used to celebrate a hard day’s work after a hard day’s arrest and incarceration.
Heading into the meat of the soundtrack, the composer sets up “Stage 1-1” as the soundtrack’s stylistic abstract, with a flurry of synth arpeggiation throughout the track’s fast-paced fusion of electronica, rock, and jazz. And, with its highly-upbeat melody and addictive nature, it’s one of my favorites from the first disc of the album. While the first part of each stage in the game features a well-developed, minute-long track to form its musical background, the boss encounters at the end of each stage feature some more percussive, repetitious boss themes. This happens to be true for “Stage 1-2”, with its more-drab mixture of tribal percussion and funky bass-lines, flowing alongside an up-and-down chord progression as was the standard for many arcade game soundtracks at the time. If there’s one major disappointing quality of A.B. Cop‘s musical score that should be cited, it’s the relative lack of effort and low standard of quality established for the boss themes in-game. Also disappointing are the Noh instruments and compositional simplicity found in “Stage 3-1”, generally the weakest stage theme on the whole soundtrack and a low point for Hashimoto after his previous contributions, and it stays rather mediocre into “Stage 3-2” as well.
Perhaps it is fortunate that the other stage themes continue their level of excellence, as their standards are much higher. “Stage 2-1” opens up on a splash, heading through jungle territory with more active drumming, a smooth finish to its progression, and some of that great FM synth warmth the company’s sound team was known for back in the early 90s. A shame that the tracks get a bit shorter in development around the middle of the soundtrack, one might say when talking about this track’s lack of length relatively-speaking. Nevertheless, this is to be expected in a larger arcade soundtrack, where quick development and catchiness is more important for the programmers watching their memory constraints in-development. “Stage 2-2”, while not much more distinct than the other boss anthems, does a better job of establishing instrumental, compositional, and arrangement continuity with both the stage theme and the visuals themselves. In a sudden turn of musical inconsistency, “Stage 4-1” turns out to be the longest, most developed track on the album, with its slower funk style and extensive solis from Hashimoto’s magical electric string section — in turn, however, a tinge of capriciousness and rancor is implemented in the guitar soli section, turning around from some jazzy riffs into some more dissonant and angular exposition, and then reverting back. This level of experimentation came a bit late in the soundtrack, and is greeted by “Stage 4-2” quite quickly, with a fittingly-faster tempo and more recognizable melodic elements, which is quite a reversal of the usual conventions for Hashimoto’s stage theme/boss theme relations.
As the adventure grows more challenging and terrifying, the music manages to stay calm, cool, and collected even in “Stage 5-1”. These feelings are a product of Hashimoto’s melodic sense, jazz-funk backdrop, and an interesting combination of high-riding synth line and counterpoint further into the tune, all on top of a brooding chord progression that, even in nasty circumstances, knows when to lighten up a little. Unfortunately, “Stage 5-2” goes for a more generic synth-orchestra route in its ascending harmonic line and poorly-programmed instrument sounds, though “Stage 6” is an effective conclusion for the main game, playing with the player’s adrenaline as the player fights through all of the bosses fought previously in one go, and finally leads into a fitting “Ending” anthem. Perhaps the most interesting quirk that Hashimoto had in his earlier years was an inability to finish his soundtracks with much bravado and feeling of conclusion — not to say that the ending theme is mediocre, as it’s mixture of psuedo-baroque synth lines and militaristic themes works quite effectively, but it never feels like enough. This disc’s last notable stand-out track, the “Name Entry” theme, manages to make up for some of the generally-complacent efforts put onto the soundtrack with its peppy attitude and rhythmic synth focus. A.B. Cop‘s soundtrack, ultimately, shows Hashimoto’s lack of experience with larger projects, while still showing that he had plenty of potential that, thankfully, has taken him quite far in the Japanese game music scene. The differences in musical consistency and context between Racing Hero and A.B. Cop certainly provide an eerily-precise portrait into the early musical tendencies of the future visual novel musician.
Enduro Racer (Hiroshi Kawaguchi)
From here, though, the album switches from the young Hashimoto to the veteran Kawaguchi, the true racing Hiro of the Sega Sound Team. Kawaguchi already had Hang-On and Space Harrier under his belt when, in 1986, he took on the challenge of scoring Enduro Racer. This motocross racing game took Hang-On to a new level of excitement and challenge, and led the way for games like OutRun to expand the audiovisual capabilities of Sega’s arcade productions. And for its time, Enduro Racer had a great soundtrack to call its own. The lead Sega musician enters the foreground with a brief “Opening” theme, displaying both his admiration for rock music and the technical limitations that he had to deal with when composing and arranging the soundtrack. Indeed, it also circumscribes the potential this short piece had for more development, as it’s little more than a brief attraction for any prospective players, and it turns out that Hiro had been saving his time and effort for the big audio track of the soundtrack.
The “Main Theme” of Enduro Racer happens to be the longest single track on the album in terms of development, and it happens to be the major whole of the game’s short score in its entirety. From the start, however, one could easily hear and understand why Hiro focused so much on perfecting this one song for the game. Not only does the player have to have something worth racing to, it also has to fit the context: with a bumpy rock-swing groove, vamp drums and percussion, and varying implementations of the Yamaha FM chips’s signature slap-bass sounds, the tune is rhythmically propulsive and a profound stylistic analogue to the sport of racing motorbikes over dirt hills and through whole fields of obstacles and opponents. And this is all through a brilliant and simple arrangement style! Kawaguchi always benefited from the relative innocence of his melodies and arrangements, mainly in that he was pushing racing game music. Starting out with a whimsical piano downward glissando, Enduro Racer starts out with a bang and just keeps on banging, with its romantic melodies supplemented by aged instrumentation, and heads through a number of surprising embellishments, these being a brief 6/4-time hard rock interlude, some slight usage of dissonant piano chords, and a series of guitar and synth solos, ending on a beautiful piano feature that sums up the whole experience through one of the most expertly-crafted fusion solos I’ve ever experienced in an arcade game’s soundtrack. There’s no doubt about it: this track has aged incredibly well, and it’s a shame that the rest of the soundtrack feels less substantial in comparison.
Having some time to relax and rock out, both “Name Entry 1” and “Name Entry 2” focus on some interesting chord progressions and guitar riffs that are typical of Kawaguchi’s early work, and they’re both quite fitting and fulfilling after a challenging run through one of Sega’s most challenging arcade games. And, after “BGM 01” provides one more brief rock interlude on the album, Enduro Racer‘s part is but done, resulting in a good soundtrack that’s mostly supported by the sheer brilliance of the “Main Theme” — not that this is a fault on the album, as the longest track on the album hits so many sweet spots for its time and today that it allows the soundtrack to hold up well, surpassing the weak quality of Kawaguchi’s FM synth sampling with excellent composition and varied arrangement.
Cool Riders (Hiroshi Kawaguchi)
Coming much later, in 1994, is the most advanced and well-rounded soundtrack on the album: Kawaguchi’s Cool Riders, Sega’s most eclectic motorcycle racing game yet developed. Much like its spiritual predecessor OutRunners, the game gave players the ability to choose their own vehicles, their own branching pathways through the game, and a wide assortment of different musical selections at any time during their country-wide, neo-pop adventure in the last big non-3D racer Sega ever released. And Kawaguchi, having already contributed to Outrunners, was ready for his own take on said game’s musical formula. In fact, he makes the continuousness of ideas and attitudes between both titles perfectly clear by reusing Takayuki Nakamura’s “Select” opener from OutRunners in the soundtrack, featuring touring guitar sampling for the hard rock melody and the whole slew of American rock conventions interpreted by Takayuki two years earlier. From here on out, though, it’s Kawaguchi’s time to go nuts, and thus begins “DAIOH ~The fat is in the fire~”. If the fat is in the fire, than it sure smells nice, like every 80s metal song should after a good cookin’. The piece begins and runs on a bass-heavy guitar line, underscoring some technical synth riffs and the main melody, as it meanders through various improvisational sections featuring distorted guitars and organs. It suits its role as chief pulse-pounding metal track excellently, at times feeling industrial and, much of the time, working off of many of the melodic tendencies that Kawaguchi is known, compensating for more basic chords and harmonic repetition.
His “DISCOVERY” was that “~Grandpa is still alive~”, which might make some sense if his grandfather really was Jamaican, as evidenced by this laid-back reggae contribution. Kawaguchi shows his capability to mix calypso beats, full of wood-block percussion, drums, and pianos with a memorable organ melody and guitar backing. Some subtle and lengthy development takes advantage of contrasts and dead sections in the music to provide a smooth progression between variations in the track. Indeed, the tune isn’t merely in the reggae style, it’s in the reggae mindset, efficiently moving through different moods while maintaining a vamp presence throughout the player’s American cannonball run. “Grasshopper ~Into the mountains~” is an obvious ode to American folk music, with its combination of acoustic guitars and winds backed by a modern rock drumbeat to give the piece a bit more power and forward momentum, all to a warm, western melody. Though it does undergo a key change later in its duration, the piece is less developed than its Caribbean cousin and, frankly, it’s the least impressive track featured in the score. These two tracks focused on a folk background from multiple parts of the American melting pot, but “I.C.B.M. ~Condition red~” is familiar territory for a composer who found his musical audience in the 80s, focusing on an intense brand of Cold War-era hard rock that takes advantage of Kawaguchi’s natural melodic capabilities, infuses it with some more interesting harmonies than found in “DAIOH”, and sprinkles some excellent synth and guitar solo sections on top his robust ensemble offerings within the track.
It seems as though “LIGHTNING” always strikes for the veteran musician, even when he only does “~A little good~” compared to some his best offerings from years past. Taking inspiration from T-Square and other J-fusion and J-pop music of the early 90s and late 80s, Kawaguchi kicks back and lets a rich texture of background strings, synthesized piano and brass interjections, and an emotive wind synth lead recall days spent on the beach in southern California, or even just memories of an average daily commute—the melody is that strong here, and so is the soulful chord progression and solo sections that give the track its timely yet timeless feel, a cosmopolitan smooth jazz standard-bearer even now. Interestingly, it manages to develop better and more naturally than “Grasshopper” with only slightly more time to develop, though “LoveMachine ~BLUE ISLAND~” goes even further, tempering the jazzy nature of the previous track with active latin percussion and a mix of strings, bass, and guitar appearances that mix well with the ever-present brass elements, generally utilizing a similar approach while cultivating a less-saccharine mood, now one more romantic and blue than ever. At this point, I think it’s easy to tell that Kawaguchi put his more varied compositions at the forefront of the soundtrack in an effort to convince the listener that this music is still good old Kawaguchi — just with a bit of ceruse, circus behavior, and self-conscious offerings that provide a humorous look at the stereotyped pop aesthetic that the Japanese public continues to cling to when they think of America. Even after having played in a mostly supervisory role for more than a while, his heartfelt return to racing music proves to be just as exciting and thrilling as his older works, but now channeled through higher quality samples and Yamaha FM usage.
The kind of fusion-style music in Cool Riders must have been the most comfortable way for Kawaguchi to fine-tune his melodic merriness and harmonic half, both of which coalesce to form fast and furious Japanese hard rock themes like “Revolution” and “Wild Cat”. Whereas the former truly gives the player/listener an immersive feeling of “Sightseeing at mach 1”, the latter proclaims “Here comes queen of hurricanes”. Both tracks effectively take advantage of the brassy exteriors of the previous jazz-fusion grooves and integrate bluesy melodies with rock chord progressions, and both provide a unique interpretation of the classic motorcycle racing rock’n’roll themes that Kawaguchi set a precedent for back in Hang-On. Alongside brilliant group efforts come the fire-flinging solos that Kawaguchi is also adept at, with their seemingly-effortless mix of jazz melodies and technicality with catchy hooks and contrasting moments of dissonance and fulfilling resolution.
Bringing the album to a climax comes his ultimate racing theme on the Cool Riders soundtrack: a rearrangement of the original Hang-On theme, now dubbed the “~Theme of Love~” by its loving creator. What was once a lonely piano passage at the song’s intro is now orchestrated with contrapuntal synth lines, brought to life with more percussive and clear drums than ever before, and coming to the middle section with piano on lead melody and a swift bass-line underneath, bringing the action forward and generally accentuating the tense atmosphere of the original in tandem with richer arrangement. Such inclusions as an organ interlude and a well constructed sax solo eventually lead into a chaotic, seemingly-atypical section of quick solo conversations between a dissonant piano and a terribly-agitated alto sax, yet the power of comping drums, bright brass, and overpowering chords brings the piece to a conclusive high point, before it presumably loops around to the start once more. Upon reaching the “Goal”, the player is greeted by an oriental fanfare of Western brass and flute, before transitioning into a slower, more lyrical section that provides something new for anyone who expected a rollicking rock rout at the end of their sweet sojourn. Contributing some club-scene elements to the soundtrack is the “Map” interlude, with voice samples and a useful guitar-organ combo that makes the otherwise jingly track a bit more substantial. On a bright note, the “Name Entry” anthem evokes long-lost nostalgia of shorter themes that Kawaguchi composed for games like Enduro Racer and OutRun, with its minimal usage of electronic pulsations, piano chords, and a lead synth that enters with a positive, motivating little ditty that always helps after any disappointments at the score table.
And, most interestingly of all, the lead composer also had two unused tracks to place on the album, for the sake of providing more perspective on the ideas and concepts he was prototyping for Cool Riders. First comes the typical 80s pop-rock single, something that Kawaguchi tries here and succeeds at marvelously, with some contrasting lyrical sections against a poppy sax melody and, later into the piece, a great-sounding electric guitar improv. All of this, along with the ever-present brass and orchestral backing, mixes with other contemporary instrumentation to make an interesting foray into an area not covered or, more likely, not as desirable for the arcade soundtrack (once again kicked out due to memory constraints, no doubt). And last comes the most angular piece on the album: a strange, Sampling Masters-inspired rave-rock combination that drops the usual reliance on melody and instead focuses on distortion and stark contrasts to display a strenuous, twisted view into the crazy world of Cool Riders. Normally, chord glissandos find more conventional uses in game music, e.g. Katsuhiro Hayashi’s main theme of Quartet, but Kawaguchi’s integration of such a device here is more chaotic and intentionally obnoxious, though it shares space with a technical and ruthless bassline, dissonant piano chords, and all sorts of embellishments along the rough road of beating dance rhythms. And, yet, Kawaguchi gives a developing respite from this cluster of resonance through some more lyrical features later into the piece, a welcome addition I might say. Overall, tracks like these are what make Cool Riders a unique moment in the lead’s career: applying his musical principles to a very distorted, diverse set of scenes and emotions can make for an impressive sampler of what an artist is truly capable of, especially if produces such golden eggs as this last track.
From start to finish, Sega Motorcycle Music History is both a tight racer and a loose cannon, full of fresh ideas and some inconsistency along the way. In the middle of the album is where the inconsistency lies, at least, with A.B. Cop‘s naive boss themes and Enduro Racer‘s lack of care and arrangement outside of the classic main racing theme. Still, this is insignificant compared to the successes of each respective soundtrack: Racing Hero‘s wondrous montage themes catapult the player through a wide array of feels and cool deals, while Cool Rider‘s sheer quantity of varied racing and relaxation tunes, when applied in-game, give the player control of how the audiovisuals should feel and provides options during a single playthrough. Hashimoto’s bright, rigid style of melody and harmonic complexity makes him a real stand-out on the first disc, while Kawaguchi’s ability to contextualize and impart his influence on conventional situations in game music give him a lot of flexibility and allows him room to stretch out some interesting ideas across two different kinds of soundtracks entirely. This album is but one of the most comprehensive albums dedicated to Sega’s more obscure musical output from their earlier arcade years and, in conjunction with album releases of soundtracks from Gunblade: NY and Rad Mobile, provide characterization and new perspective upon the audio ascendance of the still-strong Sega sound team. There’s not so much to hate here at all and Sega Mototrcycle Music History is a rock-solid collection of racing game music.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Leon Staton. Last modified on January 16, 2016.