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This Cassette Tape Made Double Dragon Sound Awesome

Here's how old cassettes worked. After listening to half the album you had to flip the tape over. Later, you had to rewind it. Then you steamed it, peeled off the excess membrane, and stored it in a special freezer.
Image: Technos / VGMdb / Kotaku
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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. Double Dragon’s super-famous 1987 soundtrack interests me for two reasons: It kind of sucked on its original arcade hardware, and a much better version came out on a cassette tape!

Okay, “sucked” is a bit strong, but hear me out.

So yeah, Double Dragon: a big deal in late ‘80s arcades, the game that really solidified the whole beat ‘em up genre that would claim a zillion quarters over the next decade. Double Dragon’s score, by Technos’ Kazunaka Yamane, was driving, tense, and sometimes pretty catchy. But I don’t think its original arcade incarnation did these compositions justice.

Let’s listen:

Technos / TurkishBullet19 (YouTube)

Right off the bat you have the iconic opening theme known by fans around the world. But you’ll immediately notice that awful percussion. It sounds like splats—I call them splat drums. (See also: Gaiares on the Genesis.) The rest of the instruments sound tinny and hollow, too. Great composition, not-great sounds.

We move on to the also-beloved first-level theme, “City Slum (The Black Warriors Arrive).” There’s an immediate buzz! It sounds like a damn mosquito. When that ends there’s a deeper, also-annoying background thrum. The classic melody everyone punched a thousand Abobos to is all here, but it sounds like a MIDI with somewhat carelessly assigned instruments. (The boss theme just sucks, full stop, unless you love sirens and alarm clocks.)

How much of that comes down to the Yamaha YM2151 audio hardware and how much is just Yamane’s choices is unclear, though I suspect it’s a mix of both. R-Type and Ninja Spirit both use the same chip, both sound a little rough and primitive in similar ways, but neither suffer such obviously grating instrumentation. You can audition other YM2151 games over on VGMRips.

Fortunately, Double Dragon almost immediately got an arranged soundtrack. The (very deceptively named) album Original Sound of Double Dragon - Arcade Version (VGMdb) hit in February ‘88, seven months after the game’s debut, and its arrangements are a significant improvement on every front.

Let’s listen:

Technos / TurkishBullet19 (YouTube)

Literally everything here sounds much more pleasant, warmer, fuller. The drums alone are exponentially improved, sounding fresh out of a fancy-pants synthesizer. Splats, be gone. Without the distractions of the YM2151—whether they were intentional or not—these compositions can attain their full potentials. (Okay, “The Giant Abobo Appears” is still a bit much… but at least now in a fun way.)

Also, it came on a damn cassette tape! (A CD release followed at the end of the year.) Très rètro!

A pleasing collection of objects.
A pleasing collection of objects.
Image: Technos / VGMdb / MobyGames / Kotaku

Look at this. That lovely 1987 anime art, rarely seen in the West outside of like, the first issue of Nintendo Power. I wish Technos had used that style more, it’s beautiful. (Note to self: Look up the artist.)

I’ve been listening to this version of the soundtrack for several years and after a while I came to believe this was how Double Dragon arcade always sounded. Recently I thought, this is possibly too lush for 1987… I better check and… oh. Huh. Wow. Okay. Yeah, original version, not as good.

But that’s okay, Original Sound of Double Dragon - Arcade Version is all I need. It’s a wonderful rendition of an influential soundtrack that helps this music sound just as good in reality as it does in our memories. Or in mine, at least.

That’s it for today’s Morning Music! Why not say hello, and discuss the finer points of this classic beat ‘em up soundtrack? Or maybe exercise to it? Excellent home gym music, imo. (I’m trying to motivate myself here.) See ya tomorrow!