Game Music, Reviews

A Forgotten Classic: Elemental Gearbolt (Review)

June 14, 2012 | | Comment? Share thison Facebook A Forgotten Classic: Elemental Gearbolt (Review)on Twitter

I dug up a beat-up copy of Elemental Gearbolt, the long forgotten light-gun RPG developed by Alfa System (Tales of Innocence, Phantasy Star Portable) and localized courtesy of Working Designs, by sheer luck at a local store in small-town Ontario. Finding it was a minor miracle and yet another example of a ‘quirky’ title on the edge of retail extinction. Mind you, this was nearly a decade ago, but the game’s world and its fantastical characters managed to linger in my mind ever since. I also remember hearing the pulsing, Wagnerian music for the first time: it could be lonely and fragile one moment and thunderous and operatic the next.

So how does the soundtrack hold up after all these years? Pretty well as a matter of fact. Find out more after the jump.

Composed by Kei Wakukasa, one immediately gets the feeling that the music of Elemental Gearbolt was approached not from a video game standpoint but from a movie or television series instead. This is evidenced by the fact that Wakukasa is a veteran composer of scores from the golden era of Japanese animation, oldie-but-goodies including shows like Moldiver and Dirty Pair. This is a long way of saying that the game’s music doesn’t sound like your average game OST. For one, the tracks don’t loop or loop easily – there is an awkward break of silence when the music starts to cue up again during gameplay. Clearly, each track was written as a stand-alone piece with little regard as to what was actually happening onscreen. Does this mean the musical themes clash with the events of the game? Not at all. In fact, it sometimes elevates the emotional height of the game’s frantic fights or boss encounters. I would surmise that the composer came from a solid, classical background much like Koichi Sugiyama – a traditionalist who aspired to write for the concert hall or theatre. The developers describe a potential scene of the plot to Wakukasa along with a vague idea of what the player should be feeling at this point. Then, off he goes to work.

With the exception of the album’s opener (a radio drama which you can skip over if you don’t know Japanese), the set list is organized into pairs of tracks tied together by the game’s stage and the accompanying boss that caps each experience. Each pair is a complete musical statement that is distinct and beautiful in composition.

It should be noted that there is no arrange version of this soundtrack: recorded live with an orchestra, this is the only version of the music we’ll ever get. And the results are simply stunning.

A light sprinkling of piano becomes the prologue of our story in “Menu ~ Solitude.” Its simple melody and mysterious arpeggio movement entice the listener like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I can’t emphasize how much I love this track and what a beautiful way it is to open the game.

The action starts with “Stage 1 ~ The Scout,” dropping the player directly into a tense and anxiety-filled battlefield. Violins vibrate back and forth in a sombre tone as percussion underscores the nervous advance of the piece. Who or what is waiting for you at the end? “Stage 1 Boss ~ Thunder” is your answer; the track is dark and highlights the ominous footsteps of a behemoth coming your way.

Next up, “Stage 2 ~ Forest” features a serene oboe that lulls the player into a lush fantasy world before swelling in urgency with its bombastic horns, knocking the listener flat on his feet; it’s the musical equivalent of a bait and switch.

If you love flying themes then “Stage 4 ~ Wind” is definitely not to be missed, bringing to mind Yasunori Mitsuda’s “Flight” in Xenogears. A long stretch of desert opens wide with the track’s Middle Eastern sounding woodwinds and other exotic instruments. Suddenly, the rhythm quickens and the strings punctuate – you can’t help but feel weightless as your feet lift off the ground. Royal flutes swirl like clouds in the sky as you proceed to soar above the canyons. The world is left behind.

Like most memorable soundtracks, a strong motif runs throughout the album. It is at times both heart-wrenching and melancholy, hinting at a much wider tale that has yet to be told. The motif is reprised in “Opening ~ An Ending” as a dirge richly rendered by a full, mournful choir singing out to the void. A proper eulogy, I would guess, for the lives of in-game characters who knew only of strife and loss.

Elemental Gearbolt Sound Track & Drama remains one of the best, most emotionally riveting albums ever released for a game. Although the actual suite of music is short in length, what’s there is absolutely impactful and stirs in your psyche after the final piece is played. The CD, issued by First Smile Entertainment in 1997, is long out of print and copies are hard to come by. That being said, I highly recommend this to any ardent soundtrack collector.

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