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Super R-Type's Space Funk Goes HAM From Stage One

Screenshot: Irem / 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. Today we’re checking out Super R-Type, a first-year SNES shooter that sounded like pretty much nothing else.

Super R-Type (longplay), that weird not-quite-port of R-Type II (longplay), has a mixed reputation owing to its massive slowdowns and rude difficulty (it lacks mid-stage checkpoints). I’ve always theorized that it and Gradius III were so visually lush—and thus, plagued by slowdown—because in those earliest SNES days devs didn’t know they ought to lay off the pedal slightly to let the poor CPU catch its breath. So we got pokey shooters that, on the upside, looked closer to arcade titles than the more prudently cautious SNES games that followed.

Super R-Type’s three composers apparently didn’t have much chill, either, because its soundtrack goes hard and strange and never lets up. It’s got a jazzy, funky sound all its own, full of orchestra hits and seriously killer basslines, occasionally incorporating melodies from the two prior R-Type games (mostly in stage 2’s “Counterattack ‘91,” boss theme “Return of the Creature,” and the Pro-difficulty ending “R-Type Medley”) but mostly doing its own, deeply satisfying space-jazz-funk thing.

If there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I love music that can be labeled space jazz.

Let’s listen:

Irem / spokompton1983 (YouTube)

The first stage’s “Solo Sortie” is both an intention setter and a little masterpiece. Here you’ve got great-sounding horns, keyboard, fantastic bass, and more orchestra hits than possibly any video game before or since, all showing off the game-changing, sample-based nature of the SNES’ SPC700 audio chip.

The Bydo have a national anthem. Sorry, this is canon now.
The Bydo have a national anthem. Sorry, this is canon now.

But the best and weirdest thing about “Solo Sortie” is that the first stage takes less than two minutes to play, at which point this song is just getting started, segueing into a monstrous bass solo (1:39) even as the visuals fade out. Then comes the trumpet (1:52)! And a beautiful keyboard sequence (2:20)! It only finally loops at 2:56 and you wouldn’t ever know this unless you played it in the sound test or on YouTube, where it usually ends at around 5:52. These Irem guys were feelin’ themselves.

No other track is quite as epic in scope, though stage 3’s “As Wet As A Fish” makes a fair stab with a hell of a groove, nice breakbeats, a bass-dominant melody, more late-surprise keyboards (1:19), and a whole new variation spanning from 2:06 to the fade-out.

Every track’s a treat, and if they have anything in common it’s a jazzy sensibility, a surfeit of fantastic basslines, and a tendency to pitch those beloved orchestra-hit samples every which way to draw out weird new sounds, some of which (as in “A Submerging Titan” and “R Dance”) get used as integral parts of the melodies.

It’s dope. But as far as I can see Super R-Type—being half a port of R-Type II, half its own thing—was something of an evolutionary dead end that Irem would never refer back to again, including musically. I don’t think it got a soundtrack release; it’s not even in series-spanning retrospective albums. Too bad, because while the game suffered from massive slowdown and overly punitive deaths, it was brilliant aesthetically, and nowhere more so than in its one-of-a-kind soundtrack.

Here’s an uber-chill piano arrangement of “As Wet As A Fish” by Cody Carpenter to play us out.

Irem / Cody Carpenter (YouTube)

That’s it for today’s Morning Music! What’s with these early SNES games? This is just the first of several I’ll probably feature that go hard in the best way. The creative joy of a new sound chip, or just something in that 1991 water? (Nanomachines, I’m implying. Obviously.) Anyway, say hi in the comments, and I’ll see y’all tomorrow!