Shinobi Music Collection - Legend of Joe Musashi :: Review by Chris
Many Sega gamers will fondly remember their experiences battling ninjas as Joe Musashi in the Shinobi series. Though the series' music has continually been an integral part of the game experience, only Yuzo Koshiro's The Revenge of Shinobi and the PlayStation 2's Shinobi had been properly commemorated in an album prior to 2009. The Shinobi Music Collection - Legend of Joe Musashi changes that with a four disc set featuring the complete original scores for the Arcade, Master System, Mega Drive, and Game Gear titles for the series. However, it isn't a complete box set, since it omits the more recent soundtracks to Shinobi Legions, Shinobi X, Nightshade, and the PlayStation 2's Shinobi. Throughout the series history, Sega composers have represented both the action and scenery of the titles through blending traditional Japanese influences with contemporary styles such as funk, rock, and techno. Right from the series' ancient origins, the music proves much more ambitious and emotional than what most games were offering at the time. Let's see how this box set provides a testament to this...
The first disc of the album is mainly dedicated to the surprisingly rich score to Shinobi, released in Arcades back in 1987. The first mission theme instantly captures the Eastern flavour of the series by contrasting a mellow flute lead with lively koto backing; while the instruments are primitively synthesized, the simple shapes of the melodies and harmonies are more than enough to reflect the intended sound. It should nevertheless be said that the synthesis is still good for the time and Sega once again demonstrated they were ahead of other companies. On "BGM 2", the composer once again demonstrates his capacity to blend soft and abrasive elements, contrasting the beautiful Japanese scenery with the action-packed gameplay. "BGM 3" was a clear influence for Koshiro's scores for the series with its distinctive pitch blends and funk backing while "BGM 4" is decent but unremarkable theme that elaborates on the funk feel. The normal boss theme is perhaps the most delightful offering on the disc, juxtaposing dance grooves and oriental leads in an atmospheric and motivating way, while the second boss theme is quite a bit heavier and discordant. The soundtrack also offers a few jingles such as for the bonus stage and a short but expressive ending theme. Note that there are also some voice introductions to a few tracks, but they're not too bothersome. Overall, an impressive stylistic foundation for the series.
The second game in the Shinobi series, Shadow Dancer, is the main addition to the fourth disc. Though released just a year after Shinobi, it already demonstrates a more commanded use of the Arcade's sound source. "Stage 1" instantly feels more experimental in its approach with its emphasis on tribal percussion cross-rhythms and it's only at the 0:51 that a true melody enters. "Stage 2-1" is another rhythmically focused theme and, while some sections are clamorous, the beautiful climax is worthwhile. "Stage 3-1" and "Stage 4" are relatively minimalistic themes that set a stern mood for feudal Japan while "Stage 3-3" is a then-unprecedented experiment with electronic noise that is bound to perplex a lot of people. Nonetheless, some themes still hearken back to the original Shinobi, most notably the funk-influenced "Stage 2-2", though it is much more developed than earlier themes in the series and even features some wind solos. Tsukahara also offered a boss theme for each stage, most notably the relatively lyrical first boss theme, the colourful ever-changing "Stage 3 Boss", and the brooding ambient accompaniment for the final boss. The soundtrack also includes a range of supplementary themes and jingles, which tend to clutter up the start and end of the release, and a stand-alone voice collection. While lacking accessibility, the overall soundtrack is impressively creative and atmospheric for its time.
A Wavemaster compilation wouldn't seem complete without its port soundtracks and this album features a few. There are two versions of the Arcade's Shinobi written for the Sega Master System. Whether presented in the bright PSG synth or expressive FM synth, the sound quality is a step down from the Arcade version, though the melodies still come across well. Sega made a few major changes to the soundtrack, such as shuffling the four level themes, omitting the "Boss 2" and "Bonus Stage" themes, and adding a few new jingles. The Master System version of the once elaborate Shadow Dancer score suffers even further. Several of the substage themes were cut altogether and others were given superficial arrangements, such as "Round 1" now without its percussive introduction or accompaniment. "Bonus Stage 2" is a short new composition, but it hardly compensate for these losses. At least for the Mega Drive version, Tsukahara wrote an essentially new soundtrack that makes the very most of the console's technical capacity. The themes are a lot denser than before, ranging from the hard funk and organ-based themes for Burning Downtown, the abrasive and brassy boss themes, or the moody ambient accompaniment to the final stage theme. Nevertheless, a lighter edge is sometimes provided with the comical hip-hop flavour of "Bonus Stage" and "Battle on the Runway 2" or the feathery synthpop ending theme. The resultant score is quite fascinating and hardly superfluous.
The centrepiece of the album is, of course, Yuzo Koshiro's complete soundtrack to The Revenge of Shinobi on disc two. The classic first stage theme "The Shinobi" homages the original Shinobi score with its oriental lead, funk backing, and pitch bending. However, its also instilled with Koshiro's individuality too with its moody chord progressions and danceable rhythms, while strangely fitting the ruined landscapes too. "China Town" is written in a similar way, but the pentatonic melodies are just enough to give it a Chinese feel instead and the deep development seals its status as one of Koshiro's all-time best. "Ninja Step" serves as a precursor to Streets of Rage with its surprisingly accessible industrial techno while "The Dark City" fits the nighttime city scenery with its jazzy elements; while these tracks loop sooner than the rest, they rarely inspire antagonism because the core elements are just so enjoyable. There are also faster paced compositions, such as "Sunrise Blvd." and "Run or Die", that affirm Koshiro has rhythm and lots of melody too. The diversity doesn't end there with the remaining stage themes featuring blends oriental instrumentation with various styles, ranging from the disco grooves of "Make Me Dance" to the rocking guitars of "Like a Wind" to the warm RPG influences of "Over the Bay". With every stage theme a classic, Koshiro doesn't let down the show with the hybridised final battle theme, which boasts some deep orchestration similar to ActRaiser. The mellow pop-influenced ending theme is enjoyable too.
Of course, that's not all from Yuzo Koshiro as he also leads the scores to the two Game Gear titles. Given the limitations of the console, he largely abandoned the oriental sound in favour of a melodic chiptune approach. Some tracks such as "Rush", "Darkside", and "Forest" are so mellow and youthful that they could be from his Ys score. However, there are also pieces that sound more serious and moody despite their humble synth, such as "Distant Thunder", "Cavern", and "The Last Dungeon". In addition to original compositions, Koshiro offers some chiptune arrangements of his Revenge of Shinobi work. While a few references are blatant such as the boss theme, others are more subtle such as in "Spirit". Koshiro was more ambitious with the sequel score, Shinobi II: The Silent Fury. The demo theme instantly portrays more humanity than its precursors while the first stage theme features such a resonant melody crafted in Shinobi tradition. Much like its predecessor, a lot of the compositions have a very mellow chiptune sound, particularly the themes used in the first half of each stage. There is a fair amount of diversity nevertheless with Arabian flavours, industrial beats, and crisis motifs being emulated in "Canyon 2", "Factory 2", and "Enemy's Base 2" respectively despite the limiting synth. The climax of the score is especially impressive with the tense "Final Boss 1" transitioning into the panic-inducing "Final Boss 2". Koshiro rounds off his contribution to the series on a pleasing note with the innocent melodies of "Ending".
While Yuzo Koshiro didn't return to Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, a three-man team went some way to continuing his musical and technological evolution of the series. The music isn't always as memorable as Koshiro's music direct homages such as "Shinobi Walk" aside but the team makes up for it in other ways. What immediately sticks out about the first stage theme "Japonesque" is the quality of the instrumental samples; the team managed to make the shinobue lead sound more authentic and expressive than any of the previous samples in the series and that is no mean feat. Meanwhile "He Runs" stands out as a stylistically accomplished composition given the way the composers integrate the sudden flute wails so well with the hard funk elements. What's more, this theme and "Inner Darkside" are incredibly expansive in contrast to Koshiro's short but sweet work, each offering so many emotional and stylistic contrasts during the long gameplay. Most will find darker ambient themes such as "Izaho" and "Trap Boogie" harder to get into, despite their impact in context. However, the team make up for it with lighter catchy tracks, such as the rock anthem "Whirlwind", rhythmically persuasive "Ninja Soul", and especially colourful "Rush and Soul". The team also offer a strong set of boss themes, culminating in the heavy gothic rock piece "Shadow Master", and a couple of very personal ending themes. One of beauties of the score, "Izayoi", was also given an exclusive beautiful seven minute arrangement encompassing oriental, progressive rock, and funk elements.
The box set also features the soundtracks for two Master System spinoffs released only in the West. The rather unimpressive score for The Cyber Shinobi concludes the third disc. The opening theme is quite peppy, but the melody rips the Peter Gunn theme too closely and the accompaniment is very choppy. The subsequent stage themes maintain the simple approach of an underdeveloped melody against choppy bass, but perhaps most frustratingly there is barely any correspondence between the two parts and hence little harmony. There is a fair amount of variety offered, ranging from the dreamy synth work of "Stage 1" and traditional ornamentations of "Stage 2" to the jovial chiptunes of the intermediate levels and the tense melodic suspensions for the final stage. However, none of the compositions manage to captivate listeners given their simplicity and brevity. At the end of the first disc, there is also the short score for Alex Kidd in Shinobi World. Given the nature of the character, the music is suitably cheery and childish, though there are nevertheless some very charming efforts. "Opening" instantly reflects the youthful nature of the main character with its sweeping arpeggios while the first stage theme is instantly entertaining with its fast high-pitched melody inspired by the original Shinobi. Although the other stage themes are quite enjoyable, all but the last adhere to underdeveloped hooks and poppy influences, so don't really sustain repeated listens well. Nevertheless, this soundtrack is an enjoyable bonus filled with the spirit of old-school game music.
The soundtracks for the Shinobi series shine among the most catchy, emotional, and technologically pioneering of early game music out there. It's amazingly what places the series' music went despite its rather consistent oriental-contemporary fusions. The main highlights are the surprisingly strong Arcade scores for the series, Yuzo Koshiro's super-catchy Revenge of Shinobi soundtrack, and the more more mature and refined music for its Mega Drive successor. The Game Gear and Master System scores are largely superfluous, especially the ports, but they are still enjoyable for occasional listens. It's a pity that the music from Shinobi X or the next-generation games wasn't included, but what is offered is still great value for money. Unlike many Sega commemorations, every disc counts and there are a tonne of exclusives here, given most scores hadn't been released before and there's even a bonus arranged version. This collection is highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed the music in the games or likes old-school Yuzo Koshiro music. It's still available at VGM World, so seriously consider a purchase if the styles are likely to appeal.
Overall Score: 9/10