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.
Summer is upon us! The season of sun, surf, and freedom is just beginning, and the blue skies and long, warm evenings are calling to all of us. But with three months of endless possibilities stretching out before you, how do you plan to fill that time? Are you at risk of spending all summer bumming around your apartment, your parents’ basement, or your Arctic doombase? Are you worried that you won’t make yourself get out and do something?
Don’t fret! There are thousands of potential exotic locales you might visit, and of all these, there are a couple that immediately jump out as superb destinations. No matter your disposition, I guarantee that you’ll find a place on this list where you can make your summer satisfying.
1. Besaid Island, Final Fantasy X
Looking for someplace to get away from it all? Someplace with sun, sand, surf, and Sin? Well, okay, maybe not the Sin part. Nevertheless! If you’d like to spend the summer working on your tan, hiking through the tropical jungle (complete with waterfalls and ancient
forbidden machina ruins), or just tossing the blitzball around in the sand with your bros, then Besaid Island is the paradise for you. The villagers are friendly, the local wildlife is low-level, and the jaw-dropping vistas just can’t be beat.
If you’re thinking of vacationing on Besaid, timing is key: you want to plan your trip after the colossal avatar of destruction that decimates the towns of Spira has been defeated. If you can swing this, then there’s nothing to prevent you from enjoying three long months of good weather, hospitable company, and beautiful scenery.
2. Mineral Town, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature
Of course, some people aren’t happy unless they have a project to carry them through the summer. For anyone inclined to spend the long daylight hours working up a sweat, there’s no better place to head to in June than your grandpa’s farm out in the country. A place like this is just waiting for some ambitious upstart to restore it to its former glory! Mineral Town, in particular, offers several amenities for the hard-working farmer: monthly festivals, beautiful woods and hills, excellent fishing, and a town full of personable characters eager to meet a newcomer from the big city. Who knows? You might even find romance! There are a disproportionate number of attractive young people in this quaint farming village.
Sure, there’s a lot of work to be done on a farm– planting, watering, feeding, milking, collecting, mining, inventory management– but at the end of the summer, you can sit back proudly knowing that you’ve made something that will last. You might have such a good time, you decide you want to stick around through the winter!
3. Casino Night Zone, Sonic the Hedgehog 2
For those to whom a leisurely, rural vacation does not appeal, I would heartily recommend a visit to the Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2. A veritable ocean of glittering neon, the Casino Night Zone offers everything a gambler or gamer could ask for: slots, pinball… rings. If you’re the sort of person who is up all night at the blackjack table and spends most of the day in bed, then this is the vacation destination for you. Just be careful that you don’t get caught up in the whirlwind adrenaline rush of gambling and leave your partner behind… offscreen… to catch up to you what seems like eons later.
Seriously, Tails, you’re an abominable sidekick. Moving on!
So perhaps gambling isn’t your thing. Perhaps you’d like someplace that combines the rural pleasures of a country vacation with the nostalgia of your youth. What better way to relive the summers spent away from your parents than going back to camp? Whispering Rock has everything a camper could ask for: friendly bunk-mates, counselors who are experts in their fields, and a terrifying, abandoned insane asylum just across the lake! A few weeks spent at Whispering Rock and you’ll have made friends, done some arts and crafts, and learned how to set things on fire with your mind.
There are some potential hazards in visiting Whispering Rock, as with any summer camp: you might not get along with some of the counselors (especially if they force you into the twisted hellscapes of their subconscious), you might get picked on by the other campers (or captured by a hideous, building-sized lungfish for use in maniacal experiments), and, if you’re not careful, you might get cooties. Nevertheless, if you have even a passing interest in clairvoyance, telekinesis, or levitation, then Whispering Rock is the summer destination for you.
5. Star Tropics, Star Tropics
Maybe you’re the adventurous type, an individual whose summer would be incomplete without a little action and danger. Does spelunking through creature-infested caves in a tropical paradise, armed only with a yo-yo and a baseball bat, sound like your cup of tea? That’s what the Star Tropics have to offer. Well, that, and maybe a little early-90s residual racism toward Pacific Islanders. But hey! It was developed by the same guys that made Punch-Out. A little cultural insensitivity oughta be expected.
Star Tropics has several amenities which make it well-suited to being a summer getaway: plenty of unspoiled, pristine islands to explore, a submarine in which to cruise around and take in the sights, and a surprising number of English-speaking native creatures! I’m pretty sure there were at least a dolphin and a parrot, maybe more. If you’ve spent too many summers in Hyrule and need to find a retreat that’s just a little more balmy and pleasant, the Star Tropics are the place for you.
6. St. Mystere, Professor Layton and the Curious Village
If, on the other hand, you’re the sort of person who would prefer their summer to contain the least possible amount of danger, I would suggest seeing if you couldn’t find boarding at the inn in St. Mystere, a quaint little town full of friendly personalities and charming character. Just… never mind that ominous, looming tower in the distance. St. Mystere has plenty to offer, including lovely parks, a cozy cafe or two, and beautiful, old-world style architecture. You’ll spend your summer reading outside a coffee shop, listening to the soothing strains of French accordion music, and trying to put your finger on what, exactly, seems to be amiss in the quaint little town…
A word of warning, however: if you’re planning on vacationing in this Curious Village, make sure to pack your thinking cap. You can’t get anywhere in this town without solving a puzzle. Want to check into your room at the inn? Hope you’re good at chess! Want a place to park your car? Get ready to slide some blocks around. Like a cappuccino from the shop down the street? Better be able to get those chickens and wolves across the river without any of them eating each other. Students eager to leave the brain-twisting challenges of academia behind might want to pick a different destination.
7. Shibuya, The World Ends With You
Maybe your idea of a good summer is to bombard your senses with as much stimulation as possible. If you can’t stand the thought of leaving the madding crowd and feel most at home in a sea of strangers, then you would do well to check out Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, one of the world’s primo shopping districts and centers of night life. Of course, if you’re visiting the Shibuya of The World Ends With You, you might be a little distracted by all of the abstract animal/graffiti monsters trying to snuff you out to have a good time, but still! Think of all the shopping!
Reapers and Noise aside, there’s no better place in all of videogamedom to be bathed in neon, deafened by club music, and surrounded by your fellow human beings. Anybody looking to spend most of their summer holidays in a dance hall, Shibuya is the place to be. And if you happen to be interested in being hunted “Most Dangerous Game” style and fighting back with stylish pins and the latest fashions, Shibuya works for that, too! If you have an aversion to anime kids with huge hair, you might want to look elsewhere.
8. The Great Sea, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Hyrule is one of the most beloved vacation destinations of gamers everywhere, whether they’re seeking a link to their past, an awakening of sorts, or are just out to feel like a hero (of time) for a while. But it’s the Great Sea of The Wind Waker that I’m going to recommend as the optimal place to unwind for the discerning gamer on vacation. Refreshing sea breezes, the call of seabirds, and the gentle rocking of a boat beneath your feet all combine to create a truly idyllic escape. The Great Sea sports many tiny islands to explore and take in, each with its own unique charm. There are several dungeons to traverse and investigate, if you’re adventurous. If you’d prefer, however, you could while away your summer sipping fruity drinks on the beach or immersing yourself in the native culture.
If you’re not a sailor, you won’t be able to make the most of a visit to the Great Sea, so be warned: there is a lot of sailing involved. A lot! We’re talking hours and hours here. However, if the thought of setting out onto the bounding main with the wind rushing through your hair fills you with the spirit of adventure, then this is absolutely where you should book passage this summer.
9. Mushroom Kingdom, Mario Series
The Mushroom Kingdom is the Disney World of videogames. This is the kind of place to which you’ll want to bring the kids, book a stay for a week or so, and devote at least a day to taking in everything there is to see. Forget your Wii Sports Resort; the Mushroom Kingdom has everything: tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, go-karts, they even have their own Olympics. You’ve got castles, haunted houses, picturesque volcanoes, a mountain where you can literally climb to the stars… and did I mention dinosaurs? Or that you could compete in the luge against penguins?
Everything’s very kid-friendly, of course, and so there’s not much “adult” entertainment available–but when you can race your friends on go-karts through an active volcano, there’s not much to complain about. There are parties all the time, cakes are getting baked by royalty–it’s a good time for everyone. Even the bad guys seem pretty friendly. This is one vacation destination that I can wholeheartedly recommend without reservation.
I just hope you don’t mind Italian food.