Game Music, Reviews

A Huge Battleship is Approaching Fast: SAGAIA (Review)

March 17, 2010 | | 5 Comments Share thison Facebook A Huge Battleship is Approaching Fast: SAGAIA (Review)on Twitter

Taito’s Darius series (of which Sagaia is a part) has always been regarded by the wider gaming public as somehow lagging behind the other big-name horizontal shooting series. As a steadfast supporter of the games, I’ve long thought of this as a disheartening and near-criminal injustice, but to be perfectly honest, the popular view is all too understandable. The first two Darius titles relied on their innovative triple-screen displays and their GIGANTIC SPACE FISH to impress arcade-goers in the late 80s, and upon revisiting them today, most players find them to be rather staid and sedate affairs with unadventurous whack-a-mole level design. It took 1994’s Darius Gaiden and 1997’s G-Darius to really prove the worth of the series to most shoot-em-up aficionados, but they certainly didn’t lay to rest the ghosts of its reputation. The truly disheartening thing about the relative unpopularity of the original games, though, is that it’s meant that scant few people have been exposed to the wonders of their music.

It seems Taito understand this well enough, as they’ve been busy releasing a slew of the Darius soundtrack and remix CDs on the iTunes service, with the soundtrack to the Game Boy version of Sagaia being among the most recent. But is this release likely to win the series any new fans?

Click the jump to find out!

To be absolutely frank about it, there’s more chance of an actual robotic fish from space coming to cleave the Earth in half with white-hot lasers. That’s not to say that the music on offer here is bad, but it’s fairly important that listeners understand some of the background of the music in this release, and of the game it comes from, if they’re going to get anything out of it. The music for all of the Darius games, excluding the most recent installment on the PSP and possibly the two ho-hum SNES efforts, was composed by Hisayoshi Ogura (best known as “OGR”), an original member of Taito’s in-house band, Zuntata. Ogura is renowned for his genuinely eclectic fusions of musical stylings and his incredible versatility; no two soundtracks of his sound alike, and on top of his long career with this series and with Zuntata, he is also responsible for the music to The Ninja Warriors and the maddening earworms of Arkanoid. The bit of background information that’s “fairly important,” though, is that while Sagaia is usually the US name for various home conversions of Darius II, the Game Boy Sagaia is actually a disingenuously-named remake of the original Darius, and this is where all of its music comes from.

Nothing in this release is from the game it’s named after, then. Your mileage with it will depend almost entirely on how familiar you are with the tunes from the original game, and this is because the versions of them presented here are rather pared-down, minimalist compositions that don’t give the uninitiated listener an awful lot to latch on to. The thing about the music of the original Darius is that it’s already quite austere; while it certainly has a few upbeat, lively action themes, most of the material is fairly sparse and designed chiefly to unsettle the player or to set a jarring rhythm to accompany a frantic boss battle. Sagaia takes this even further, often using just two of the Game Boy’s available sound channels, so the scope for casual listening is somewhat diminished.

Anyway, enough about what this release doesn’t do. Perhaps it’s too pessimistic to suggest that a newcomer would have a hard time appreciating it; time has been kind to Ogura’s compositions for Darius, and their heart and soul are still largely preserved here. The album opens with the iconic “Captain Neo,” a piece originally composed for the little-known Metal Soldier Isaac II, which was released in 1985, a year before the original Darius. In spite of its unusual provenance, the tune is perfectly suited to the mysterious subterranean setting of this game’s first level, with its driving bass line and almost naïve melody inspiring senses of both urgency and wonderment. This one works well enough outside the context of the game, but it’s immediately followed by a track that embodies most of the possible problems mentioned earlier. “Boss Scene 1” is an incredibly reductive track that uses murky, mushy-sounding percussion in an attempt to evoke the effect of war-drumming, while meager synths add to the tension. It does this perfectly well, but again, it’s hardly a track that’s going to captivate a first-time listener, and it’s indicative of much of the material to come; most of the other six boss themes, which make up almost half of the soundtrack, are comprised of rapidly repeating bass notes played in odd time signatures and interspersed with discordant chord progressions in order to create atmospheres of crisis and hopelessness. They all bring the battles to life very effectively, and help to frame the experience of fighting robotic fish in space as serious business, but out of context they can be rather unaesthetic and grating.

It’s not all bad news, though. There are a few unforgettable, show-stopping tracks in here. One of the highlights, for me, is “Inorganic Beat,” a techno-inspired piece full of complex and interesting use of percussion, which owes a big debt to early Yellow Magic Orchestra and which boasts funky bass fills and an excitable melody clearly intended to inspire awe at the retro-futuristic setting of the level it accompanies. Another definite strong track is “Cosmic Air Way,” the theme of the game’s mountainous areas, which begins with a flurry of staccato notes and quickly settles into a poppy rhythm with an energetic and enthusiastic melody that really captures the excitement and intensity of the scene, and of flight. It sounds a fair bit more playful and chirpy here than it does in the original game, but it’s none the worse for it.

“The Sea” is a deeply mysterious piece. Most of it is gently atmospheric and uses a nice range of synth sounds to help describe a tranquil ocean-floor environment, but, like a lot of the music presented here, it’s punctuated by panicky interruptions of swirling, threatening note progressions designed to unsettle and disorient the player. “Chaos,” the game’s main theme that plays in the Van Allen Belt zone, is exemplary of the stylistic and emotional range that Ogura’s works often embody. It’s a very harmonically peculiar piece, featuring nice contrasts between an almost obnoxiously bubbly main melody, and some slow, droning passages that echo the eeriness of open space and culminate in bursts of sinister staccato notes that suggest imminent danger. It’s an incredibly rich piece that definitely stands up to repeated plays outside of the game, and almost stands as a main theme for the entire Darius series. Also, there is one boss theme that should appeal to almost any fan of videogame music. “Boss Scene 7,” which plays during the final battle, starts out with the (at this point) typical motifs of impending crisis and disaster, and quickly slips into a strong groove with heavy bass lines, dynamic rhythms and a powerful melody which is both encouraging and hopeful.

There are certainly a few tracks that may have popular appeal, then. Ultimately, whether or not this release is worth buying depends on how open you are to listening to some quite stark, bleak and “alien” music and a lot of dissonant, strident boss themes. It’s also important that potential buyers remember that this isn’t the soundtrack to the arcade or Mega Drive Sagaia that they may be familiar with, and that even as a recreation of the original Darius soundtrack, it’s a bit more reductive than one might expect. At $0.99 per track it’s almost unarguably good value for money, and they can, of course, be purchased one track at a time, but it’s a difficult collection to recommend given that over sixty of Zuntata’s other releases are also available on iTunes, and that the original soundtracks for both Darius and Darius II are among them and cost the same as this one. What I’d recommend doing is sampling a handful of the tracks mentioned to see if they do anything for you, and then going and buying Metal Black -The First- and having your mind blown.

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