8GR8 #02: Training Day

In 8GR8, we examine eight excellent pieces of video game music that are loosely connected by a theme of some sort. In this installment, we look at music from train levels.

1. Clockwork Knight, “Train Boogie”
Composer: Hirofumi Murasaki
Platform/Year: Saturn, 1995

Why don’t we start with a ripper right out of the gate? Clockwork Knight was one of the first platformers with enough 3D to be called 3D, a side-scroller that used sprites rendered from 3D models in a manner similar to the Donkey Kong Country games, but with fully polygonal levels and bosses. Even though the harmonica driving this piece is pure cheeseball MIDI, it’ll get your heart racing regardless. As a bonus, it moves significantly faster and with greater urgency than the actual level it appears in, making it ideal for standalone listening.

2. Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind, “The Cattanooga Iron Horse”
Composer: Matt Benardo
Platform/Year: SNES, 1993

The first Bubsy game is one I will defend to my grave. (The others can get bent.) It received fairly positive reviews in its day, but its legacy was so badly tarnished by the legendary awfulness of Bubsy 3D that as a result critics these days tend to throw out the Bubsy with the bathwater. Despite the one-hit death mechanic and the headaches caused by its parallax scrolling, the first game encouraged exploration, provided plenty of extra lives in the early levels if you knew where to look, and had a vivid color palette with excellent animation. Bubsy also regularly takes it on the chin because he talked a lot, and most of that talking consisted of either puns or hack comedy. I think puns can be wonderfully illustrative of the flexibility of the English language, but apparently they’re considered a “low” form of humor by lots of people. Well, those people can suck eggs.

This piece plays in the first half of each of the game’s desert levels, which took place, naturally, on a train before seguing to a canyon full of far more perilous platforming. It’s a short loop, but one with a great spirit of adventure.

3. Wild Guns, “Armored Train”
Composers: Hiroyuki Iwatsuki, Haruo Ohashi
Platform/Year: SNES, 1995

I don’t know too much about this game. It was developed and published by Natsume, it’s set in the Wild West but there are robots and giant mechs, and the cartridge is really rare and usually goes for around $200 on eBay (even more if it’s complete in the box). I just kind of like the way this song pulses along, like being on the inside of the train and feeling all the bumps in the track along the way. For something so low-key, it’s pretty awesome, especially when the warbling oOoOoOo synth starts in.

4. Sonic Triple Trouble, “Sunset Park Zone, Act 3”
Composer: Yayoi Wachi
Platform/Year: Game Gear, 1994

The Game Gear was never a great portable, but Sega occasionally threw it some decent exclusive bones. The title is a reference to its three antagonists: the usual Dr. Robotnik, Knuckles the Echidna (still in his crayon-breaking nuisance phase), and treasure hunter Nack the Weasel. Somehow, the intensity of this level is enhanced by the fact that its name doesn’t appear at the beginning of it; the beginning of Act 3 is the end-of-level sign from Act 2, and it’s straight into autoscrolling train action with dive-bombing foes before the usual showdown with Dr. Robotnik.

5. Railroad Tycoon 3, “No Time to Lose”
Composer: Jim Callahan
Platform/Year: PC, 2003

I’ve never played any Tycoon game, much less any of the Railroad Tycoons. Neither business management nor real-time strategy is my gaming forte. But that doesn’t matter to the mostly indiscriminate VGM thrill-seeker in me. More sumptuous harmonica action here, this time much more realistic-sounding, hitting that sweet spot just beyond “really good” and just short of the soulless mega-talent of a John Popper type.

6. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest, “Disco Train”
Composer: David Wise
Platform/Year: SNES, 1995

The DKC2 soundtrack is one of those that is uniformly excellent from front to back, but this is a piece from it that tends to slip through the cracks. It’s driven by a bass line that has the wompiness of dubstep years before that was even a thing, and it packs frightening (and well-sampled!) screams and pensive, glittering moments in equal measure. It’s probably my favorite song on the soundtrack, to be honest, handily beating out the likes of “Stickerbush Symphony” and haunting tracks like “Forest Interlude”.

7. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters, “Metro Train ~ Karai’s Theme”
Composers: Kazuhiko Uehara, Hideto Inoue, Harumi Ueko
Platform/Year: SNES, 1993

In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing how many fighting games featured original casts of characters during the fighting game boom of the 90s—though, considering how not-great TMNT: Tournament Fighters was, maybe it was best that most developers didn’t latch onto preexisting properties. At the time, Karai was an obscure enough character that many thought she had been created for the game, though she had appeared in the Mirage comics prior. Currently, she plays a prominent role in the Nickelodeon cartoon as the Shredder’s adopted daughter. Karai was the final boss of both the SNES and Genesis ports, and had a reputation for extreme difficulty that persists today.

8. Batman Returns, “Red Triangle Circus”
Composers: Paul Gadbois, Brian Howarth
Platform/Year: Genesis, 1992

Batman Returns was one of the few games I owned during the brief period of my childhood where I owned a Genesis. I never got far enough to hear this song, because Batman Returns was spine-shatteringly hard, but thankfully, the Internet allows us to behold wonders we were never able to reach as children. Both the SNES and Genesis versions were brawlers, but the SNES version was more of a traditional beat-em-up, while the Genesis one was more of a standard platformer that happened to include punching. I prefer the Genesis one, however, since it used in-game action with no dialogue for its cutscenes more effectively than the SNES used its ugly compressed static images with walls of slow-scrolling text, and its music was much more appropriately Gothic and creepy.

Excluded for being too obvious: Final Fantasy VI, “Phantom Train”; Secret of Mana, “Did You See the Ocean?” (plays in the Grand Palace on the buried yet still operational train car overrun by zombies—Subway: Eat Flesh!); anything from Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, “Bury My Shell at Wounded Knee”
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