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Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1 :: Review by Ashley Winchester

Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1 Album Title: Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1
Record Label: Pony Canyon
Catalog No.: D28B-0013
Release Date: February 1, 1989
Purchase: Buy at eBay


Undoubtedly remembered by players for its unyielding degree of difficulty, the exploits of Ninja Dragon Ryu Hayabusa in Tecmo's Ninja Gaiden would quickly expand into a trilogy of titles on the Nintendo Entertainment System across the late 80's and early 90's. Soul crushing as the games could be, players would find themselves returning to the fray again and again, but why? Only a sucker returns for more punishment, right? As the story goes, the developers of these titles had more than a few tricks up their sleeve, one of the most important lying in what was dubbed "Tecmo Theater." A form of storytelling that was (relatively) new at the time, Ninja Gaiden and it sequels employed crude cut scenes to flesh out its characters and mature narratives. The ability to bring the player into the game was even more significant than it was before, but in all honesty, this technique owed a lot of its success to audio that accompanied it.

It's this part of the experience that is presented to the listener in Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1. That being said, a host of other surprises — like the score that accompanied the original arcade beat-'em-up and the "enhancement" of several chip tunes from the series' Famicom debut — await them as well. With such a straight-laced description rolled out before one, it sounds like a grand expedition through a simpler time. Is it, or do the forces of evil have the last laugh? It's a mystery only the listener can solve.


Ninja Gaiden on the Famicom

Before diving right into what composer Keiji Yamagishi has added to the Famicom score in this release, let's examine the music from a barebones perspective, or rather what one experiences in the game itself. As expected, there are all types of tracks here, from compulsories like stage and battle themes to their cut scene counterparts. Identifying and separating pieces according to how their used (or their perceived use if the game is an unknown quantity) is a common, almost involuntary step for most soundtrack listeners, but Ninja Gaiden casts a wicked and delightful wrench into the equation. Tracks like the poignant "Tagic Fate," the feverous "Like a Hurricane" and dreary "The Demon's Curse" may first appear in cut scenes, yet the latter two double as stage themes and the former as a boss theme later on, illustrating just how versatile some of these pieces can be. This is not to say they're unique because of this, but when looking at other scores from the same era music tends to feel much more rigid in its in-game application than it is here.

While tracks that are capable of fulfilling multiple tasks undoubtedly important to the structure of the score, it's the aforementioned "Like a Hurricane" and "The Demon's Curse" that reveals the key negative that comes with such a quality: a slight over-reliance on repetition. In general, these tunes — and others like "Ambush: Pursuit of a Nightmare" and "Assault: Stealthy Devil" — cover their tracks extremely well when one considers how they coincide with their in-game situations, but its "Like a Hurricane" that makes a complete mockery of the entire concept when the five second piece is used to define the lighting fast action at the beginning of the game's third act. Far be it to me to question the wisdom behind it, it's just bewildering how it actually works. It's occurrences like this that turns repetition it into a vice of sorts in Ninja Gaiden. In not being a super early game in the Famicom's library, there is a certain ideology that suggests that the employment of such a technique should be more reserved in order to avoid the creation of an "easy button" for quick and undeserved effectiveness.

Battles over effectiveness are waged in other areas of the soundtrack as well. In revisiting cut scenes, we find that there are two types of pieces at work: full-fledged compositions and short musical cues. With only one of the three musical cues appearing on the soundtrack ("...Suddenly!") one doesn't get a really feel for how important these classic asides are when they fuse with one another and the compositions/situations they top off. As problematic as that is, the bigger problem lies in how the sole compositions don't really meld with one another when they follow-up one another. Since each cut scene is usually limited to a single piece of music, this shortcoming rarely comes to light, but the fact remains they lose out when they do because they simply aren't built to interconnect with one other like they are in Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos. This is most apparent with "To the End of Combat" and "Irene, Prelude to Dawn" which give shape the game's ending, but are left in the dust by tracks like "Reflection" that can stand alone without any companionship.

Regardless, conceptual snags such as these do little to pull down the experience, especially when a great stage/character theme like "Ryu's Determination" makes its appearance or one of the later boss themes. Things do get off to slow start with the standard battle theme "Offense and Defense: To the Hideout of Death" due to the fact it's been featured (and tweaked) throughout the Famicom trilogy, more or less defeating any charm it may have had. Passing over the already accounted for "Tragic Fate," all that's left is the final battle theme, the commandeering "Dilemma: The Battle of Ordeal." The title summarizes it all: the drama, suspense and teasing nature needs to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Upgrades and Downgrades

As mentioned before, Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1 is more than a simple, no frills dub of the music from the game. Like many other albums of the time (e.g. All Sounds of Final Fantasy I & II), things start off with an arranged medley. In recapping such worthy stops like "Tragic Fate" and "Ryu's Determination" the arrangement also includes many little touches, like finishing off key climaxes with in-game sound effects. The take on "Irene, Prelude to Dawn" that concludes the proceedings is somewhat of a downer, a feeling that is born more out of how it is represented than the piece itself. Concerns over presentation come into play for the whole medley, however, the thinness of the instruments doing little justice to the material at its core.

The same can really be said for the "upgraded" selections as well. Most of the stage tracks that have received these tweaks, such as "The Ninja Dragon" and "Ambush: Pursuit of a Nightmare" don't really benefit from their new leads and overcomplicate what were simple yet effective compositions. On the flip side, "Heroism: The Approaching Evil" finds the middle ground that allows it to co-exist with its add-ons. Other tweaks revolve around the systematic shifting between the left and right channels in the sinister, character driven "CIA" while those lower on the scale just seem to have an increase in echo or reverb.

Unfortunately, all of this only reinforces the idea that these enhancements lead to an uneven listen, which unwittingly acts as an unofficial prelude to the remaining tribulations that hold this disc back. Bringing the presentation down an additional notch is a handful of omissions consisting of about three missing pieces, not including the staff roll variation of "Ryu's Determination," the game over theme and the previously mentioned cues. Nothing too damaging, but then we're only getting started. Really, is there any way ten seconds of "Like a Hurricane" can be humanly satisfying? I don't think so. You really need to expand a track like that (to at least thirty seconds) to allow it to sink in. "Ambush: Pursuit of a Nightmare" also falls prey in that it fails to offer a full play through, disallowing one to hear instrument change up in the later half. Last but not least, some tracks unintentionally bleed into one another; "The Ninja Dragon" still fading when the moody "Mysterious Woman" comes up to bat.

In writing that last paragraph, I can't help but think there was another, somewhat similar video game soundtrack out there. I can't seem to put my finger on it. Hmmm. It's on the tip of my tongue... Oh! Crap, I had it but lost it. Hold on a second... Oh! Now I remember! Super Metroid: Sound in Action! Check it: you've got a disc with a magnificent score that's hindered by a bunch of small yet nagging flaws, sprinkled lightly with an arrange or two and whose value lies more in being a collector's item than a viable way to listen to the music. Bingo! But before we can pass any kind of judgment, there's one more chapter we need to cover.

Shamelessness Knows No Bounds in the Arcades

OK, I was going to try and be cute here and into work a joke about what follows, but I can't. It would just be too hard and come off as really lame. Anyway, take a look at the title for track 33 — "I am Man". Think about that title for a second, is there any (non-VGM) song that has a seemingly similar title? Here's a hint: keep "Man" but run "I am" into a single word when you say it. If you can't figure it out phonetically, listening to the track will sure as hell tell you what I'm alluding to. "I am Man" is a near note-for-note recreation of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" from their 1970 album Paranoid. Sad, funny and completely true. Quick, someone call Ozzy! Sharon! While this is the only blatant example of this occurring (the track has been removed from modern ports of the title in order to avoid the obvious legal implications) this doesn't stop the score from channeling material heard elsewhere. "Nature's Symphony" sounds a lot more Castlevania-ish than it has a right to, and there are probably even more examples weaved throughout.

Still, the strange thing is, even though the synth leaves a lot to be desired, there is this odd, almost whimsical, quality it adds to the music that makes it, dare I say... interesting? Simply put, to say what is here is good seems extreme and saying its bad seems harsh, but if anything it isn't too original. It goes without saying that it doesn't have much on the Famicom soundtrack or that of its first sequel, but you could certainly do worse. It's a very peculiar score, and the value it adds or subtracts from the package is of legitimate concern to those with an interest in the disc.


Throughout the above, I don't think I've tried to make it any kind of a secret that the music from the Famicom version of Ninja Gaiden holds a special place in my heart. It deserves to be heard by video game music enthusiasts old and new. However, this doesn't exactly correlate into a ringing endorsement for Ninja Gaiden ~ G.S.M. Tecmo 1. Much like Super Metroid: Sound in Action, the negatives can take a serious bite out of its allure and raises serious doubts about the overall value of such an acquisition. If faced with the decision, weigh your options carefully and remember that the music derived straight from the console can be just as enjoyable, if not more so.

Overall Score: 7/10