OutRun’s Composer Rewrote Sega’s Sound Drivers So Sword Of Vermilion Could Rock

Image: Sega / Kotaku

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s ongoing hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-ass sounds they make. Today we’re diving into the sounds of Sword of Vermilion, a middling RPG for the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive with music that is anything but.

Upon the 16-bit Mega Drive’s 1988 debut, Sega of Japan redirected as much of its development muscle as possible to produce content for the fledgling console, including that of its star arcade team. Later known as AM2, this team was the essence of late ’80s arcade Sega, having worked on such classics as Space Harrier, OutRun, and After Burner. Somehow they ended up producing a console RPG, of all things.

Despite the obvious talent involved, Sword of Vermilion (playlist / longplay / VGMdb)—which hit Japan in December of 1989, where it’s known as just Vermilion—is merely okay. I’ve always felt it sat shy of greatness, both in the ways in which it held to the conventions of its day, as well as its attempts to exceed them. But this being Yu Suzuki’s arcade team, composition duties were handled by the legendary Hiroshi Kawaguchi, and it turns out he was really, really up to the task. Let’s listen:

Sega / VintaGamers Paradise (YouTube)

While these days the actual game will only appeal to RPG archaeologists, the tunes remain absolutely stellar. Check out “Statts,” with its grim, minimalist rhythm that almost evokes an early-aughts modern hip-hop aesthetic. Tracks like “Shop (City)” and “Erias” perform their duties suitably, but the best tracks arrive with danger. “Dungeon” is ominous and grimy, especially when the drums kick in at about 27 seconds. “Dungeon 2” feels tense and stressful (again helped by late-arriving drums, anticipated by that lonely hi-hat), and “Boss A” sounds like some sort of prog-rock beatdown:

Sega / VintaGamers Paradise (YouTube)

Sword of Vermilion uses a fair amount of PCM sampling for hard-hitting percussion. Kawaguchi explained in a 2009 interview (translated by the fantastic Shmuplations) that he wasn’t satisfied with the Mega Drive’s original sound drivers, so he rewrote them, in part to better utilize sampling. The difference is notable. Compare Sword of Vermilion’sVillage A” with “Excite Town” from Phantasy Star II (composed by Sega veteran Tokuhiko “Bo” Uwabo), which came out earlier the same year using the original sound drivers. Not quite as crisp, huh?

Unusually for Mega Drive soundtracks, Vermilion’s even good in more quiet moments, such as in “Shop (Village)” and the brief but enchanting “Jiji Theme.”

My two favorite tracks in the OST are the aforementioned “Statts” and the energetic “Last City.” The latter’s intense, galloping energy and catchy melody are practically begging for some lyrics and a radio release. Kawaguchi’s work on the early Mega Drive is uniformly superlative, and his other works on the system are immediately recognizable (Rent A Hero, Ninja Burai Densetsu) by their percussive prowess alone. And with that, shall we proceed to the bonus round?

As was often the case, Japanese gamers got to experience a CD release of Sword of Vermilion’s soundtrack…albeit much later. Released in 2009, Vermilion vs. Rent a Hero Original Sound Track (playlist / VGMdb) is exactly what it sounds like. It’s mostly just the original music ripped straight from the games, with two exceptions. “Light Song –[H.] Arrange Ver.” is a redbook audio kid’s version of the goofy in-game track, but “Sword of VERMILION – Mickey Arrange Ver.” destroyed me. Your turn:

Sega / CecilMcW00t (YouTube)

The track’s a medley of Vermilion tunes arranged by none other than Koichi “Mickey” Namiki, veteran composer and member of both Sega’s S.S.T. Band and Konami’s Kukeiha Club. Namiki tears it up, as he is wont to do. His transition into “Last City” at 1:50 is particularly good, as is his handling of the refrain at 4:40. It’s a rocking treatment for Vermilion, one of the strongest musical offerings of the early 16-bit console generation.

That’s a wrap for today! I hope you’ve enjoyed yourselves on this, my maiden Morning Music voyage. Sword of Vermilion has some of my favorite Genesis tunes, and I love Genesis tunes. Drop a line in the comments section below to say hi!

Nathan Daniels is a VGM addict who lives in the mighty PNW. When he’s not pretending to write, he’s playing Gang Beasts with his kids and wondering where the years went.


Alexandra Hall

As an irredeemable pedant I furrow my brow at people constantly typoing this game as “Sword of Vermillion.” Maybe Vermillion would be a better/cooler title, but there is in fact just one L. Perhaps those thus afflicted can carry the extraneous L on their person as a badge of shame.

Jk, I really don’t care that much. But seriously, this typo will never die. It’s probably more common than even Star Wars Rouge Squadron.