Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today we’re listening to the unexpectedly great NES port of an arcade underachiever.
A number of arcade-to-NES ports were outright superior to the coin-ops that spawned them, in gameplay if not technical aspects. Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden is perhaps the ultimate example of the arcade-to-NES glow-up. Another is Bionic Commando. Capcom’s NES developers transformed a fairly crappy 1987 arcade game with a novel but clunky grapple mechanic into a sprawling, engaging adventure that wrote the book on Tarzan-like 2D platforming.
And guess what? Bionic Commando (OST / Longplay / VGMdb) had a great soundtrack. Let’s listen:
Capcom / GBelair (YouTube) - (The playlist is of dodgy quality and mostly out of order, so skip around. I had trouble finding a great embed. This one has better audio quality but applies an inauthentic stereo effect...)
Junko “GON” Tamiya (interview) composed the NES version, pulling just two songs from the original arcade soundtrack by Harumi Fujita, one of them (“Bionic Commando Theme”) being the well-known, triumphant-sounding military anthem heard in the NES game’s first level, the other (“Power Plant”) a tense track used for a late-game fortress maze.
(Both composers are women, which is rad.)
When we talk about arranging video game music it’s usually in the context of orchestrating parts of an OST into something grander, or more complicated. In adapting Fujita’s two arcade tracks to the NES, Tamiya was in fact doing arrangement work herself. Just in the opposite direction, from a common, relatively featureful arcade sound chip to the more restrictive audio processing unit of the NES. And with largely improved results, subjectively.
The majority of Tamiya’s Bionic Commando tracks are original work, and they do a fantastic job of lending an oppressive atmosphere to the swingy soldier’s lonely trek through enemy territories. My favorite piece is Area 5’s tense, plaintive “Heat Wave,” which first plays during a tricky climb up an enemy tower set against a stark red sky, perhaps meant to evoke sunset. It’s remarkable how visuals and music this simple—leaving ample room for the player’s imagination—can create such a bounty of atmosphere.
“Heat Wave” and several other main level tracks sound a little sad to me, a feeling which strangely carries over into the ending sequence, where it’s revealed that the game’s events (in “198X”) are long past and merely the object of an old soldier’s reminiscing (in far-future year 2010, lolsob). It’s funny, I was probably just 9 or 10 when I finished this game and even then that end reveal with its music somehow made me feel nostalgia for some fuzzy, fictional past.
My capacity for nostalgia has always been horrifying and near-infinite.
Bionic Commando’s sharp, clean, sometimes sort of staccato, percussive sound feels to me pretty representative of Capcom’s NES audio work. Konami famously had its own NES (and MSX) sound, and this was Capcom’s. It’s pleasant, if not as lush and technically virtuosic as Konami’s best, and can be heard in many classic tracks. 1943, DuckTales, and the similarly “NES weird” (and incredibly janky) arcade port Strider are other good examples from around this time.
Bonus round? Bonus round. As was often the case a zillion mostly European PCs got Bionic Commando ports too, albeit of the iffy arcade version. On Commodore 64, legendary chiptune maestro Tim Follin did the arrangement honors on Fujita’s tracks, with results that are as wildly Follin-y as you might hope. A different taste for sure. NES fans will find Area 1 at 2:58 and Area 8 at 5:51.
Then in 1992 Capcom created a heavily reimagined version of the NES game for Game Boy (OST, Longplay), scored by Kouji Murata (a man, Capcom Japan ladies streak broken). It remixes three tracks from the NES game and is quite good in its own right, well worth a play and/or listen for NES fans.
Finally there’s 2008’s Bionic Commando Rearmed, which is, no hyperbole, one of the very best game remakes ever, with an unparalleled arranged soundtrack by Simon Viklund (interview). But I’m saving that for a rainy day. Seeing as Kotaku doesn’t have weather, I don’t know what that means; we are at an impasse.
That’s it for today’s Morning Music, but I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow! Feel free to swing into the comments to say hi. A little Bionic Commando humor, there.