A little while ago I cataloged the contents of the Sega Genesis mixtape I created at the tender age of twelve. I’ve been mulling over that artifact for the better part of a month, and as much as I (mostly) approve of the taste of my younger self, I have been considering how remarkably limited that little collection of Sega tunes was.
The Genesis’s audio chip is often maligned, and not without reason: Very often, what the designers meant to be “shredding guitars” or “wicked synths” came off as “ear-bleedingly torturous.” As examples, take this music from the options menu of Sonic Spinball or (again) the main title theme to Desert Strike. Really just God-awful.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Genesis was without some really superb soundtracks. Ninety percent of the music from the Sonic series is fabulous, and when the rough-around-the-edges Genesis FM synth chip was used with restraint, it could produce some awesome jams that legitimately sounded “tougher” than its competitor, the SNES.
The Genesis may never have had anything rivaling “Aria di Mezzo Carattere,” but the SNES never had anything that quite sounded like these:
Ecco the Dolphin: The Tides of Time, “Tube of Medusa”
Both of the Ecco games had unique and interesting sounds to them, though many gamers have never heard them on account of the games’ brutal difficulty. The second game, Tides of Time, isn’t quite as harsh as the first, and has a much more intense flavor, as this faux-rock track indicates.
The first game sees Ecco traveling back to the prehistoric age using the time travel technology of the long-dead Atlanteans to reconstruct an ancient entity and save the planet from aliens trying to harvest all life. The second sees him traveling to a future where dolphins have evolved psychic powers and the ability to fly, and–you know what? I’m just gonna stop right there. I think it’s obvious to everyone by now that these games are way more absurdly awesome on paper than they are in execution.
Nevertheless, you can’t deny that soundtrack. If that music doesn’t get you pumped, well, I’m frankly a little surprised.
Phantasy Star IV, “The End of the Millennium”
Boom. The instant you turn your Genesis on, you know that you’re in for serious business. There’s no waiting for developer or publisher logos to flash up, no copyright screen to sit through–it’s all Sega, so when you hit the power button, there’s their logo and a desperate, pumping bass line.
Phantasy Star IV is one of the few stellar RPGs on the Genesis, but boy, is it a doozy–offering anime “cutscenes” well before they became a staple of the genre, a serious story that involves the death of at least one major character (spoilers!), and the best science fantasy this side of Star Ocean. The soundtrack in general is solid overall, but when they hit you with something like this right off the bat, you have to be invested.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3, “Lava Reef Zone, Act 1”
I don’t know what it is about Lava Reef Zone. Do I love it because it’s a burst of high-speed freedom after the long slog of Sandopolis? Is it the first tangible hint of the intensity of the endgame? Was there a time in my youth when I attempted to play the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in one sitting, and Lava Reef coincided with a transition from blind exhaustion to a second wind? I don’t know.
All I know is that of all the superb tracks in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, this one has a special place in my heart–there’s something urgent in its tone, but it’s far more upbeat and uptempo than the music in the zone that precedes it.
In its full, complete form, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one of the best side-scrollers I’ve ever played. If you were on the other side of the console wars of the ’90s, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I think you’ll find it a particularly rewarding experience.
Streets of Rage 2, “Under Logic”
Let’s be frank: the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 2 is pure, unadulterated sonic gold. Yuzo Koshiro is the man.
And the funny thing is, Koshiro worked on the SNES as well: He’s responsible for the soundtracks for ActRaiser and Super Adventure Island, both of which are relatively good… but they’re good. They’re not this. This is the kind of music that you don’t want to come on while you’re driving for fear you’ll get pulled over for speeding. You don’t want this to come on while you’re at a party–you might get so pumped that you roundhouse kick someone in the jaw.
This music is dangerous, is what I’m saying. And while there are plenty of superb tracks on the SNES, I can’t think of a single game on the system that sounds like Streets of Rage.
Jurassic Park, “Visitor’s Center”
This might be pushing the boundaries of what’s tasteful with the Genesis’s synth “guitars”, but I don’t know anyone who actually managed to slog through the Genesis version of Jurassic Park, get to the final level, and not be excited by this music.
The vast majority of the game’s soundtrack was ambient, low-key, and generally inobtrusive–it was there to build tension, as the game was relatively terrifying: if a velociraptor appeared out of a nowhere, it was even odds you were about to be disemboweled. The Tyrannosaurus popped through the wall in at least four different levels to say “hi” and devour you whole.
It didn’t help, of course, that the game’s controls were only vaguely connected to what was going onscreen. God help you if the developers wanted you to jump and grab a ledge. Hope you had your Game Genie ready.
But if you made it to the final level somehow, you were treated to this music, along with a plethora of weapons and a level that had blissfully few jumping sections. “All right,” the game seemed to say. “You got through the platforming gauntlet. Have a rocket launcher and some shredding guitars. Let’s go to town.”
Vectorman 2, “Turn Up the Heat (Lava Boss)”
The Vectorman games were both relatively tight platformers with some pretty graphics and good tunes. They came toward the end of the Genesis’s life cycle, when many gamers’ attention was already on the consoles to come, and so they’re sometimes overlooked.
This track is a good example of the attitude the games put forward: They were all about the faux-techno beats and in-your-face rhythms, and they did it pretty well. I think that Sega maybe wanted Vectorman to take off as a character? It didn’t happen. The games are pretty good, though. You should give them a look-see.
Castlevania: Bloodlines, “Calling from Heaven”
Bloodlines is the only Castlevania on Genesis, and it’s of a much different flavor than its SNES cousins Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X. I’m pretty sure it’s an accepted truth that Dracula X had the best Castlevania music of the 16-bit generation (I mean, come on, listen to this stuff), but I don’t think any single track in the series fires me up quite the same way as the music from the final stage of Bloodlines. I could listen to those first ten seconds over and over.
It’s superb final stage music–conveying clearly that you’re on the pathway to the final conflict. It’s dripping with tension, hope, and importance. Considering how many of Castlevania’s classic melodies are reiterated throughout the series, I’m immensely surprised to find that “Calling from Heaven” hasn’t made its way into another game (despite the fact that other tracks from Bloodlines have– “Iron Blue Intention” shows up in Portrait of Ruin, for instance, and “The Sinking Old Sanctuary” made its way into Circle of the Moon, for whatever reason).
So, there you have it–would that I could send myself back in time to share these superb Genesis tracks with my twelve-year-old self, or at least convince him that they would be worthy additions to his mix-tape. Alas, all I can do now is to put them up here and exhort you to listen, listen, listen, my friends.
Speak not ill of the Genesis, for even the bearer of grotesquely shredding synths hath treasures to lay at thy feet.
I was a gamer from a very young age. Despite my parents’ firmly-held (and probably correct) belief that too much screen time is a bad thing for a developing mind, my extended family gifted me with a classic Game Boy when I turned six. This my parents tolerated–after all, it wasn’t a television, and could only be played in direct light. Then, when I turned nine, someone (not my parents) got me one of these bad boys:
A Sega Genesis. It was probably the best birthday ever up to that point, despite the fact that the games they picked for me were Krusty’s Super Fun House and James Pond. It didn’t matter! The system came bundled with Sonic 2, which was (and still is) a masterpiece of platforming.
I don’t know how it is that we gamers end up getting the music bug, but I already had it by the time I unwrapped my Sega. I had it bad. I was pulling up the sound test in every Game Boy game I owned, holding that pathetic speaker to my ear like I was some sort of boom-box sporting 90’s cliche. By the age of eight, I was already a dedicated game music enthusiast.
But a Genesis wasn’t portable like a Game Boy, and I couldn’t bring its excellent tunes in the car with me, or anywhere that wasn’t TV-adjacent. However, being a resourceful young lad with access to a handful of electronic devices, I devised a cunning plan: I held my parents’ stereo up to the TV speaker and made a Sega Genesis mixtape.
I’m writing to you, ladies and gentlemen, not simply to reminisce, but because I have made an archaeological discovery. I’ve uncovered that mixtape, and analyzed its contents. And I am here to tell you that young Nate had mostly great taste in 16-bit music.
What follows are, and I am not kidding you, the actual tracks on the Genesis mixtape I made when I was 12 years old.
1. Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine, “Versus Mode”
This is what I’m talking about when I say that young me knew what he was talking about. The Genesis’s sound chip was kind of weird and limited compared to that of its competitor, the SNES, but I didn’t know that at the time! All I knew was that I liked these poorly-synthesized shredding guitars! This is the sort of piece that really deserves some attention on OCRemix. One of their musical sorcerers could undoubtedly translate this into something superb.
Mean Bean Machine is a pretty good game, too–as a Puyo Puyo clone, you could definitely do worse. I’d take it over Kirby’s Avalanche any day, even if it does have licensing from the Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon (the bad one).
2. The Lion King, “To Die For”
Disney interactive had a pretty great streak of making delightful games in the mid-90’s. Well, it had two, at least. The Genesis versions of both Aladdin and The Lion King were superior to their SNES counterparts, in my experience. (My wife could vouch for the Beauty and the Beast tie-in games, but I never played them myself.) Really good platformers, both of them! You should go play them.
It seems silly that young me should have preferred the 16-bit translations of Hans Zimmer’s excellent film score (which is superb), but, well, I didn’t have that film score, and in any case, the track in question takes a few brief measures of the piece which shares its name and extends them to become a whole piece unto itself–a piece which plays during a very cool level which was a departure from the standard side-scrolling the game had shown me up until that point.
3. Ristar, “Crazy Kings”
Ristar is amazing. A colorful, cartoonish platformer developed by Sonic Team, Ristar revolves around a quirky combat/navigation mechanic which is much more fun to play around with than it sounds (the titular character has… stretchy arms. Look, it works, okay?). Each world you visit in the game has a distinct personality and lush, detailed visuals. Because this is Sonic Team we’re talking about, the music is toe-tappingly great as well.
But for my money, nothing sells this game like the bosses. Fighting a shark in a submerged cavern, fighting a giant mechanical mole while in freefall down a mineshaft, fighting a deranged buzzard as it tries to take the stage from a songbird virtuoso–every boss in the game is unique, each one is gorgeous, and you get to fight them all while this music is playing. I’d listen to this while fighting possessed alien tyrants anyday.
4. Desert Strike: Return to the Gulf, “Intro”
All right, they weren’t all going to be gems. I was twelve, after all. This one takes the shredding guitars of Mean Bean Machine and takes them to their (il)logical extreme. Listening to this sounds like putting a Cylon through a wood chipper.
Desert Strike was a pretty cool game, I seem to recall, but man, was it difficult. I don’t think I got past the first area more than a couple times. Maybe that’s one worth revisiting. Was it, like, weirdly prescient? We did end up “returning to the gulf,” after all. Maybe there’s more to this one than meets the eye…
5. Cool Spot, “Rave Dance Tune”
Oh man! If YouTube is to be trusted (and I can’t think of a single circumstance where that wouldn’t be the case), this one’s by Tommy Tallarico, the guy responsible for Earthworm Jim and a handful of other 16-bit classics, as well as one of the creators of Video Games Live, an absolutely excellent show that I recommend you all attend when it makes its way to your city.
Cool Spot was not a great game. I seem to recall really wanting it, which about makes sense for a twelve-year-old. Some of its music included riffs on some pop culture tunes (wasn’t there the theme to The Magnificent Seven in there somewhere?), but other than that, well… it was about as engaging as you might imagine a game based around a soda mascot would be. I had almost forgotten about the game entirely until I discovered this track on my old mixtape. Nevertheless, a pretty nifty tune, huh?
6. Sonic 3D Blast, “Gene Gadget Zone Act 1”
This game was a mess. Sonic’s signature speed was gone, it was difficult to control, and the graphics were–well, the graphics were decent, but I think I was spoiled by a better 2D-to-3D conversion of a major gaming mascot. Coming out near the end of the Genesis’s lifetime, Sonic 3D Blast wasn’t really the swan song that Sega was hoping for, I think, and boded ill for the hedgehog’s future three-dimensional outings. Nevertheless, just about every track on this game’s score is solid musical gold. In fact, I may have spent more time with the sound test than I did actually playing the game.
And that’s it! Yep, six songs. Either that was enough to constitute a “mixtape” when I was twelve, or I just got bored and tired of holding that stereo up to the TV. In any case, I carried that tape around in my Walkman for several months before it became lost in a closet somewhere, buried beneath strata of personal belongings, to be excavated by me only recently.
That tape was important, though: it was telling. It was early evidence of a growing obsession with the music of video games–an obsession which continues to this very day!