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From Cartridge To Club: A Look At The Labels That Recontextualise Video Game Music

A growing collection of record nerds and video game fanatics that have taken up the task of publicly celebrating video game music.

The needle drops and it all comes flooding back.

I'm young, I couldn't be any older than five or six, and I'm crosslegged on the floor. My neck is craned towards a giant CRT television. With Sega Mega Drive controller gripped, I'm walking down a two-dimensional street, hitting two-dimensional men with my giant two-dimensional fists.

But I'm actually sitting on the edge of my bed listening to a record. There's no Mega Drive, just a record, a reissue of Yuzo Koshiro's Streets Of Rage soundtrack. The record instantly pulls me back into the body of that six year-old me. Songs that I didn't even remember that I knew come flooding back.

Data Discs, the imprint that has released the record, is one of the labels at the forefront of a growing collection of record nerds and video game fanatics that have taken up the task of re-contextualising and publicly celebrating video game music. Alongside them is Brave Wave, a label that will soon release a definitive and all-encompassing reissue of the Street Fighter II soundtrack, and Ship To Shore PhonoCo, a label that recently released the soundtracks to cult Japanese role-playing games Mother and Mother 2 [released in the West as Earthbound].

All three labels share a common ethos; that the music composed for video games (in particular the pre-CD audio video games of the 1980s and 90s) is unique, important, and worth appreciation.

“It’s engaging in much the same way as any form of early electronic music is," says Jamie Crook, founder of Data Discs. “The technical limitations of the hardware encouraged a certain level of ingenuity and resolve, the results of which are often fascinating and sometimes entirely unexpected. It’s often a thoroughly experimental process.”

Aaron Hamel of Ship To Shore PhonoCo agrees; “I believe that technical limitations often bring the best out of creative people. When you have a guy like [Mother and Mother 2 composer] Keiichi Suzuki and constrain him with this limited hardware, I'd think that it would push him to take the technology to its absolute limit.”

“I think there’s long been a misconception that early game developers treated music as an afterthought, a necessary element that was simply ‘tacked on’ at the end to serve a pedestrian purpose," adds Cook. “Although this is probably the case for some games, for others it couldn’t be any further from the truth. The best game soundtracks involved a lot of thought, both in terms of their composition and influences. When in the hands of creative individuals who understood the hardware, certain soundtracks were simply impossible to ignore.”

The interest in these labels and records echoes the excitement that has surrounded the reissues of horror film soundtracks for the past few years. Though this rapidly growing “bubble” scene of labels has included several exploitative imprints looking to make an easy buck, the outcome has been largely positive for fans of fringe and forgotten music. Not only have the horror soundtrack labels unearthed and given a wider audience to once ignored masterpieces, they have also made available classic soundtracks that have been out-of-print for decades.

“I think that, in both cases, fans are just hungry for any kind of physical product related to something they love," says Hamel, who's label Ship To Shore PhonoCo also reissues horror soundtracks alongside video game soundtracks. “For example, besides the Ness amiibo [a plastic figure of the game's protagonist], our Mother 2 record is the first piece of merchandise released in the US that fans can purchase.”

And while a large audience for these records will undoubtedly be collectors of video game merchandise (an Instagram search of #datadiscs already shows pictures of framed, wall-mounted records), the primary goal for these labels is re-contextualising this music and making it available in the same formats as any other music. And this means vinyl.

“The mobility and practicality of digital files is a necessity, so that was our main objective with the Generation Series: deliver the best soundtracks to the fans in all their preferred formats," says Mohammed Taher, creative director at Brave Wave. “Vinyl happens to have resurfaced again, and it has an intimate feeling to it. You hold the artwork in your hands, you go through the booklet and read the various essays and interviews, and these make you feel connected to the music and the people who made it. In an era where artwork is often reduced to a few pixels on a screen, it’s nice to be able to offer fans these archival prints in a giant size.”

Listening to video game soundtracks on compact disc or as files on your computer is one thing, but listening to these bleeps and bloops pressed to vinyl is a totally different experience. It seems like something unstuck in time; an entirely digital creation presented in the most beautiful of analogue formats. Unsurprisingly, these sounds were never designed to be played on anything but the boards that they're programmed onto, so capturing them in a way that does them justice can be a challenge.

“Our first step was to record the music off the original [arcade] boards with the help of experienced engineers in Japan. There really was no other option. We wanted maximum authenticity here," says Marco Guardia, engineer for Brave Wave's upcoming Street Fighter II The Definitive Soundtrack. “So already we were dealing with a level of clarity and crispness that had not existed on previous soundtracks. The next step was mixing of the two separate sound channels, as well as restoration work. This involved de-clicking, de-noising, and removing other artifacts, many of them caused by the board itself, while some of them side effects of the FM chip's output.”

One thing that is important to both Data Discs and Brave Wave is seeking input from the original composers in the creation of these soundtracks. “For Streets of Rage we worked directly with the composer, Yuzo Koshiro,” says Crook. “He supplied us with the original NEC PC-88 files (the computer he used for coding the music back in the late-80s/early-90s), which we mixed with audio captured from a Mega Drive console. We consulted with him throughout the mastering process and of course, he had approval rights over the final version.”

“My sound engineer and co-director Marco Guardia worked with [Street Fighter II composer] Yoko Shimomura to address the previous releases’ shortcomings," says Taher. “Shimomura oversaw the entire CPS-1 restoration - every single file - and gave us final approval on our new remasters.”

It's also worth noting that Brave Wave are sharing profits from their reissues of video game soundtracks with their original composers. “It’s unprecedented in the gaming industry, and we’re proud to handle our releases with a lot of care regarding the source material and the original staff," says Tahir. “I met a lot of Famicom-era composers during my trips to Japan, and they lament the fact that in most cases they don’t own the rights to their previous work and therefore don’t receive any royalties from it (even if it’s re-released).”

It would seem like a lot of work to go to for music that a lot of people would consider disposable. But for these people, the work is more than worth it, and their love for the material is evident in the work that has already been done.

“This music, which was played over and over in bedrooms across the world, seems to have an incredible ability to bury itself in your subconscious," says Crook. “It’s all lodged in there, even if you don’t realise it. It just takes a nudge or two and then it all comes flooding back. And we enjoy being the people doing some of the nudging.”

'Streets Of Rage', 'Shenmue', 'Shinobi III' and 'Super Hang-On' are available from Data Discs.

'Mother' and 'Mother 2' are available for pre-order from Ship To Shore PhonoCo.

'Street Fighter II The Definitive Soundtrack' will be available from Brave Wave later this year.

Sam Eckhardt is a Melbourne based writer who publishes Weirdo With a Dictaphone. Follow him @sjeckhardt