Technosoft Game Music Collection Vol. 4 -Elemental Master-
Technosoft Game Music Collection Vol. 4 -Elemental Master-
February 1, 1991
Buy at Official Site
Technosoft was doing more than well in 1990: Thunder Force III had just gone gold, so did said game’s sales worldwide, and the Technosoft sound team had in turn produced one of their worthiest soundtracks yet. However, Toshiharu Yamanishi, now the sound team’s shooting star and center of attention, had more than enough reason to continue fighting forward. He had a new project: Elemental Master, a grand and dramatic shooting adventure. Elemental Master, in many ways, marks the beginning of a transition from the old Technosoft to a newer Technosoft, with greater craftsmanship and greater ambitions. Toshiharu Yamanishi’s first and last solo soundtrack for the company would test the expanding limits of the Mega Drive’s internal sound system, while defining his hard rock style and numerous influences. Yet, the album displays a timeless edge, both in its excellent execution and in its dated sense of panache and free-wheeling melodical style.
Elemental Master deals with its story differently than Thunder Force does: elaborate opening cutscenes make an appearance this time, and are thus accompanied by fitting musical backing. Straight from the “Great Spirit Overture”, Yamanishi sets a surprisingly over-the-top and almost-comical tone to the epic adventure about to unfold. This musical attitude is carried into “Cursed Destiny”, a musical metal suite accompanying the tale of King Gyra and the fate befalling Laden the protagonist, and Roki the new vessel of this great demon. The musical track presents an otherwise grim scenario of brotherly love with showers of synthesized guitars, drums, harpsichords, and bells. It retains the clichéd tone all throughout, carried through the ever-evolving melodies within. These tracks succeed in setting tone and melding hard rock rudiments with dramatic classical stylings, a precedent inherent in every track on the album. Even with the musical mockery accompanying this turn of events, the player knows he has a rough road ahead — that he must resist the “Temptation of the Devil”, no matter how sinister and goading it might be. Selecting each level to this background track could give anyone goosebumps, with distorted brass synths fluctuating cyclically, and providing a precedent for the trials and tribulations to follow.
First, the player must perform the “Dance of Flame”, before facing off against the “Avatar of Flame”. The former track does a good job of setting a precedent for the early stage themes: highly melodic guitars glide through familiar metal riffs without footnote, guided by pulsating percussion and moving along common chord progressions. All of these elements masterfully keep in tune with the tone now set for the soundtrack. The following boss theme offers a notable contrast: a technical and repetitious flurry of distortion and angular composition. It’s well-developed yet well-suited for looping over an extended amount of time fighting the first boss. Ultimately, Yamanishi recognized the need to provide musical variety and contrast through easily understandable musical attitudes, and there is remarkable consistency among these early stage themes and throughout all of the boss themes in the game. This approach to creating similarity and continuity in both melodic devices and style structure among stage and boss contexts would later apply to his Thunder Force IV soundtrack, and it also works well with the early stage structure in both games. If the player were to choose any order of initial stages to complete, he’d be greeted by similarly-designed stage and boss themes, making space for any number of different playthrough options. Through these methods, playing the game through different stage choices will always feel fluid and fresh, in any number of combinations.
Nevertheless, a more morose feel begins to replace any prior sentiments with “Terror of the Glacier”, signifying the start of the player’s long haul to the final conflict. This track contrasts with the boss theme for the same stage. Combining heavy metal percussion with romantic melodic hooks, it fulfils both the severity of this late-game boss fight and the need to hook in some more catchy, easily-repeatable montage music. The atmosphere grows even more insidious upon entering the “Den of Evil”, where pulsating bass and seemingly-random synth offshoots work to provide an oppressive atmosphere. It’s perfect for evil little critters and fiends to be on the attack — at least until it loops, and loops, and loops again with little development beyond half a minute’s length. “Suspicious Beauty”, thankfully, proves its worth through an extended build-up, before exploding into a gloomy interpretation of one of Lord Gyra’s most deceptive henchmen, brought to life through cascading flute lines and suspensive brass melody. Percussion and foolish optimism finally take their full leave in the “Shudder of Darkness”, where only mystery, distortion, and alien-like sounds dominate the player’s once-innocent soundscape. Even as “Fate” still offers the suspension of such notions of chivalry and the conquest of evil from good, “King Gyra’s Revival” is still too grim for any lone adventurer to face without some anxiety, as the whole battlefield becomes distorted with guitar and sharp synth sounds. It all seems melodramatic compared to the story unraveling.
The story scenes following the opening exposition simplify the often-chaotic musical interpretations brought forth through the late stage themes and boss themes, and effectively provide emotional contrast between both main stages of the game progression. Just after completing whatever stage was chosen first, the player meets the “Spirit of Light” — a scene that establishes the initial wishful thinking felt by both Laden and the player, as they pummel through easy initial opponents early in the game. Despite the ominous state of affairs both parties are dealing with, the track certainly reflects the hope and lightness with which these events have affected Laden and the player emotionally; it certainly helps that Yamanishi’s harp, piano, and trumpet trio arranging accentuates every important role in weaving this opening view of such emotions. Yet, as the plunge into the heart of darkness continues, the mood dims and not much more than a mere “Ring of Light”: only a lone bass pushes the piece forward, as a low-glowing synth lead relates the same melody, same tempo, different extreme of internal stress. By the end of this sordid story, all we can be treated to now is a “Sorrowful Requiem”, with its moving harpsichord rhythms and desperate melodies, echoing every sentiment featured in the album previously, from self-torture to self-determination. Funky Surounin certainly must know how to spin a funk in anyone!
“Setting Out” is certainly a fitting title for an ending theme so motivating and momentous. It also works as a summary for many, if not all, of the musical components the soundtrack is based on. The album then continues through the composer’s synthesized and live-recorded rearrangements of his own tracks, though this is where the album’s overall quality begins to diminishes in turn. The “Great Spirit Suite” is particularly effective in combining the opening themes and ending themes, revealing how effectively the classic undertones of these tracks work even under traditional orchestration and rearrangement. However, the inclusion of original tracks such as “Pair of Angels” and the jazz instrumental “My Heart Sad and Lonely” also show how much Yamanishi could care less about staying with rearrangements of tracks already present on the album, instead deciding to kick back and compose some good old-fashioned tunes, all for a nice fun time. Yamanishi, instead of going with a traditional rearrangement structure for the album’s backend, experiments with stylized rearrangements of “Dance of Flame” and “Calling on the Dark Dragon”, both channeling an interesting jazz and bossa nova style brought to live both on synthesizer and in the studio, with the only weak link being a slower and more stiff interpretation of the typical boss battle theme in “Devil”. In the process of diversifying his portfolio of styles and experimentation, the composer also showcases youth and naivety even in his original work and rearrangements.
Overall, Elemental Master succeeds in breathing a surprising amount of vitality into an otherwise orthodox hard rock soundtrack. At the same time, it fulfils stylistic prerequisites and providies a subtle spin on an archetypal scenario. This is not to say that there aren’t weak links here and there — there certainly could be more development in some of the later stage themes, which also feel less diverse in compositional and technical mastery. However, the overall symbiosis and orderly structure of the album allows it to hold up well as something both time-conscious and timeless. Yamanishi also gives the listener a glimpse into his own compositional style and personal attitudes, marking this album as a marvel of composition and technical prowess, as well as the maturation of a seemingly-obscure yet brilliant game scorer. Truly, both Technosoft and Yamanishi are themselves masters of making unique and well-balanced shooting game experiences — for both, Elemental Master is a paradigm of game design and musical vision.
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Posted on August 1, 2012 by Leon Staton. Last modified on August 1, 2012.