Elemental Master Is Top-Tier Mega Drive Rock, But Skip These Remixes

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Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today, a dose of pure, straight-up, 1990 Technosoft. These folks could make the Sega Genesis sing.


One of my great childhood gaming surprises was a gently used copy of Thunder Force III. I don’t remember how informed I was or wasn’t in choosing it, but I do know it made me realize I loved shoot ‘em ups. And it was my first exposure to developer Technosoft (sometimes, Tecno Soft), which I quickly came to appreciate.

Technosoft released a second Mega Drive game in 1990, though America’s Genesis wouldn’t get it until 1993. Elemental Master (longplay) was a very good vertical-scrolling shooter that was odd for several reasons, the main being that you played a mage running around on foot, blasting enemies with various element-themed spells you could switch between at will (similar to Thunder Force).

True to Technosoft form (and also similar to Thunder Force III) it enjoyed a strong soundtrack that made excellent use of the Genesis’ oft-misunderstood Yamaha YM2612 FM synth.

Let’s listen:

Technosoft / VintaGamers Paradise (YouTube)

Ah, see? That’s what the Mega Drive can sound like in the hands of an expert. Opening cinematic tune “Cursed Destiny” gives an excellent taste of what’s to come, developing over two minutes into a rollicking rock track with driving percussion and an ongoing progression.

Yo some really good track titles here.
Yo some really good track titles here.
Screenshot: Alexandra Hall

The fire stage’s “Dance of Flame” delivers a typically strong melody, and as a member of the YM2612 defense squad I enjoy those crystal-clear chime/xylophone sounds that hit at 0:30. The Mega Drive’s FM synth can sound super clean; just gotta program it correctly. Technosoft used its own in-house Mega Drive sound engine, which explains why all its games have a certain recognizable audio quality.

Other standout stage themes include “Like the Wind,” “Until the End of the Earth,” (some lovely pitch-bending early on) and especially the small masterpiece “Blood-Stained Lake.” Good luck finding more driving, urgent-sounding music to quest by. Wikipedia helpfully describes Elemental Master’s music as “synth rock with classical vibes,” which describes “Lake” to a tee.

Every boss has its own intense little theme. Again, just like Thunder Force III. The two games’ sound effects have a lot of overlap as well.

As it happens, both games’ scores are the work of one man, Toshiharu Yamanishi (VGMdb). If his VGMdb bio is accurate he created each of these soundtracks, both high-water marks for the Mega Drive and its YM2612, while only 18 or 19. Remarkable, especially given how tricky many other musicians found this hardware. He would go on to score 1994’s Thunder Force IV, which is a typical answer when people get to naming best Mega Drive soundtracks.

Elemental Master received a soundtrack release in Technosoft Game Music Collection Vol. 4 ~ Elemental Master (playlist / VGMdb), which in addition to the excellent OST features five “synthesizer version” tracks arranged for a higher-end synth. They go pretty far afield—two have not-great vocals!—and are mostly not improvements on the OST. Alarmingly, “Dance of Flame” now sounds like Out Run’s “Magical Sound Shower.” These tracks are a weird mix of pleasingly warm synth burbles and the cheesy fake instruments I commended Strider Hiryu’s AST last week for avoiding.

The final three tracks are “live versions” and… well, here’s a jazzy live version of the stage 5 boss ditty “Call on the Dark Dragon King,” for some reason. It’s unrecognizable:

Technosoft / CecilMcW00t (YouTube)

I dunno, man. I just don’t know.

On the bright side, the cover art makes it look like some evil god-thing is launching an enormous fire-dick at the hero. More of that, I say!


That’s it for today’s Morning Music! Any other YM2612 defense squad members present? I’ll see you again tomorrow, and may your day be filled with more excellent 16-bit chiptunes and fewer flaming phalli of indeterminate purpose, origin, or motive.

Staff Editor, Kotaku.

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DISCUSSION

popsiclezeratul
popsiclezeratul

Everyone’s memories of shooters obviously defaults to the Nintendo (and SNES) given the volume of them on those systems. But Sega has its own curated legacy of wonderful shumps that go overlooked regularly, like this one. And it’s an example how certain games really only work on certain systems. The synth music in Elemental Master is part of the experience of playing it, and if it sounded any different the game would be different too. Take Thunder Force III: I remember that it eventually made its way over to the SNES as Thunder Spirits, and if you play it, the game is OK, but not great. The wonderful dark synth sounds of the Mega Drive don’t survive the transition to the SNES and its sample based soundtrack. It sounds more like something out of Konami (it feels very Super Castlevania IV-ish) than it does Technosoft. If they had ported over Elemental Master, I’m sure the same thing would’ve happened, so let’s be glad that never happened.

On another note, I just want to say that you are killing it, Alexandra. This column has become by far my favorite thing on Kotaku to read, and you are nailing it with one amazing soundtrack exploration after another! Game music really doesn’t get enough of its due and you’re helping to spread its joy to the masses. It’s a blast to read this every day and I thank you for all of it. Keep up the fantastic work!