Contra & A-Jax / Music from Super

Music from Super Contra & A-Jax Album Title:
Music from Super Contra & A-Jax
Record Label:
King Records
Catalog No.:
K30X-7702 (1st Edition); KICA-2307 (2nd Edition)
Release Date:
March 21, 1988; May 21, 1993
Purchase:
Buy Used Copy

Overview

The coolest thing about classic video game music is the limitless potential and aural magic achieved with otherwise limited technology. There are those niche scores most understand, a few groundbreaking ones, and some that fall in the middle. Falling more into the latter category, Music from Super Contra & A-Jax features the music of two popular arcade games from the 80s. Both games represent faithfully their cinema influences in their design and music — Super Contra just like a stereotypical Arnie action movie, whereas A-Jax more like Top Gun. The music plays an important role in the experience, and everything that was said about the games can be said exactly the same about their soundtracks. From Super Contra‘s over-the-top action themes with a militaristic and futuristic vibe, to A-Jax‘s cheesy and upbeat themes, there’s a lot on offer in this release.

Body

The first portion of the album is reserved for Super Contra and my previous claims stand absolutely true right when the album starts. “What is this place?” is a masterpiece of cheesiness that refuses to leave your head. It immediately starts with a blast of synth instruments, full with catchy percussion and a fun action motif that seems to be taken straight out of action cartoon show’s opening. If the music wasn’t enough, the cheesiness factor goes sky-high with the gloriously digitized voices of the characters saying “What is this place?!” and “I don’t know, but keep your eyes peeled!” followed by gun shots and explosions and aliens screaming from their agonizing death. I love this track, and it never gets boring.

The synth used defines the overall listening experience for both scores. Arcade games usually had much more complex and rich sound hardware in contrast to their home console counterparts of the time. In the case of the first Contra, the arcade version sounded pretty messy and somewhat irritating, while the chiptune version is way more memorable and catchy. Super Contra is quite the opposite of that. Its soundtrack has the primarily goal of creating futuristic and chaotic soundscapes and the arcade synth helped in making it sound much more unique in that respect. The NES version wasn’t that memorable due to the lack of great compositions and that lost focus, so it’s a good thing that the arcade version is represented on the soundtrack release.

Focusing on some of the best tracks on the soundtrack, the next track “Thunder Landing” is a badass stage opener, and much like the name implies, it’s an awe-inspiring action theme full of heroic and militaristic motifs. In my opinion, it ranks among the franchise’s best themes. “Jungle Juncture” is very catchy and fun to listen due its exotic sound effects and funky bass rythms. Reserved for the game’s final moments, “Deathbed” is minimalistic but very effective in conveying a sense of approaching climax and great challenge, whereas “Hotter Than Hell” is a really cool boss theme featuring a catchy electric guitar rhythm and danger-inspiring motifs.

That said, the Super Contra score ends up sounding very repetitive and samey during some tracks. Certain themes like “In a Tight Breeze” and “No Escape” follow the same stylistic formula, sounding a lot like infiltration cues, with the latter having a better melody. Three of the boss themes are quite dull and repetitive, while “Creature from Outer Space” is a chaotic but also repetitive urgent theme that gets the job done despite its bland formula. Also, besides the legendary victory jingle, most tracks besides the stage and boss themes are uninteresting and simply exists for contextual purposes. It ranks as one of the better old-school Konami soundtracks out there, but could have done even more.

Unfortunately, A-Jax‘s score doesn’t fare much better. Most of the themes are pretty cheesy, written in Motoaki Furukawa’s characteristic rock style, and the synth makes them even more. This is not a big problem, but unlike Super Contra, A-Jax‘s themes sound pretty messy and lack coherency. The score sounds confusing and seems to lack a melodic focus, something that is not noticeable in the beginning because the random synth riffs can fool the listener. That’s not to say that there are no good tracks though. “Hotness” and “Dive Bomber” are repetitive as hell but convey a sense of cool aerial action and manage to be enjoyable during their brief playtime. “Fighting Spirit” and “Look for a Fortress” are a chaotic mes of notes but are strangely addictive and fun to listen.

The album features also some unused tracks for each game respectively, and while they aren’t anything special, there are a few decent moments here and there. However, the best bonus of all is definitely the addition of the four live arrangements. Super Contra‘s arranged tracks are far superior and offer something cool and unique. The arrangement of “Thunder Landing” offers a blast of synths and electric guitars with a cool sax in the middle, and while it’s in a much slower tempo, there is a great laid-back feeling as well as an action vibe to it. The game’s final moments are represented with the medley of “Deathbed” and “Hotter Than Hell” which offers a blast of trumpets, guitars, and synths to create a catchy sonic fusion and entertain with each listen, and too bad that it’s so short, since it could benefited from more development.

Moving to the arrangements from A-Jax, the medley of “Dive Bomber” and “Deadline” is a very fun upbeat track. Typical of Konami’s music at the time, it features some amazing guitar solos, courtesy of the CGM Project. “Congratulation” meanwhile is laid-back and features relaxing piano melodies. These arrangements further prove the games’ influence from the 80’s, since the musical style is very reminiscent from that era. Ultimately, they are a very cool and memorable addition to the album.

Summary

Music from Super Contra & A-Jax features two decent arcade soundtracks which both have their fair share of problems. Super Contra‘s soundtrack features some really cool action themes that, despite following a mostly dull formula, manage to sound unique in their conveying of futuristic soundscapes and most of the time are fun to listen. Interestingly enough, I found Super C’s pseudo-militaristic themes to strangely entertain in background while playing a modern action game with stylistically similar settings, a fact that I found morbidly amusing until the music ended up sounding badass and fitting the action. On the other hand, A-Jax‘s aerial themes are cool but mostly end up sounding messy and confusing with their repetitive riffing and lack of coherency. Also, having a really short playtime doesn’t help much matters.

Unless you are already familiar with the music of the games, it’s difficult to recommend this album. It’s not bad or terrible, but there isn’t much going on besides its charm and, at most times, cheesiness. The bonus arrangements are really good and worthy to listen, particularly for their 80’s feel, but aren’t enough to complement this otherwise crowded track list. If you really love classic arcade soundtracks and their characterizing synth, then I really recommend this album, since most of its flaws won’t bother you and the overall feeling and vibe is totally worth it. It’s a defining album for the Konami sound. That said, if you aren’t one of those people, then it may be better to consider other instalments in the Contra series instead.

Contra & A-Jax / Music from Super George Capi

Do you agree with the review and score? Let us know in the comments below!

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Posted on August 1, 2012 by George Capi. Last modified on August 1, 2012.


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