Morning Music: Revenge of Shinobi Fused Dance Beats With Ninjas

Thanks, mum! (Screenshot: Sega)
Thanks, mum! (Screenshot: Sega)

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s new, daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today’s subject of inquiry is Yuzo Koshiro’s very first soundtrack on the hardware that’d make him famous in the West, The Revenge of Shinobi.

1989’s The Revenge of Shinobi (The Super Shinobi in Japan / longplay) was a new spin on Sega’s prior arcade hit Shinobi (longplay), an attempt to make a ninja side-scroller more suited to extended home play. Slower and more methodical than its arcade predecessor, it’s a wonderful game most side-scrolling action fan should enjoy. And it’s all the more pleasing because it sported one of the system-defining soundtracks of the early 16-bit era.

The title screen gives a clue: “MUSIC ©1989 YUZO KOSHIRO.” Rather unprecedented talent billing for a console game, but Koshiro (VGMdb) had been making waves in Japanese PC games music for a few years by that point, so perhaps he had the clout. Plausible. Except actually, it recently came to light that his mum made him ask Sega for those credits, which he got. Amazing.

Unusual crediting aside, Revenge was the young composer’s first freelance work for Sega, beginning what would prove a productive collaboration that pushed the creative and technical boundaries of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha YM2612 FM synth in ways we still talk about today.

Let’s listen:

Three things jump out, first being the often fast, dance-like beats delivered via a small set of sampled drums. Koshiro’s appreciation of cutting-edge Black dance music, house in particular, is well documented and in evidence throughout many of Revenge’s tracks. I’d love to read a higher-level overview re: what extent dance music was influencing video game scores around that time. (A good read along these lines is a recent Audio Log column at Paste by Dia Lacina, “How ‘80s House Came to Define the Sound of the Sega Genesis.”)

Second, the bass. The Mega Drive audio hardware has massive bass potential and it gets a fantastic workout here. So dense, so deep! My desk is vibrating pleasantly as I type this. For full effect try to listen with a sub, and bake apology cupcakes for your neighbours.

Third, some tracks show a “traditional” Japanese music influence, befitting the game’s ninja theme. First-stage track “The Shinobi” is a good example, as are “Opening” and “My Lover.” Real cool how Koshiro fuses his dance beats with the Japanese motifs.

They all sound great in-game (well, the final stage’s “Labyrinth” is kind of unpleasant) but I’m partial to “Like a Wind,” “Long Distance,” and “Sunrise Blvd.” “Ninja Step” is a lot of fun. A Mega Drive nerd shoutout also to “My Lover,” which starts with that deep-arse FM synth bass you just won’t hear on other systems. And yeah, fan-favourite “China Town” is excellent too.

A month ago I noted some of the earliest Mega Drive soundtracks were, counterintuitively, among its best. The Revenge of Shinobi may well be the ur example. Data Discs saw fit to give the game a vinyl release (VGMdb) a few years ago, writing, “Koshiro’s work on The Revenge of Shinobi remains a testament to the ingenuity of early game composers who, when given enough creative freedom, found the means of drawing new and unexpected sounds from extremely limited hardware.” Well put.

Bonus round? Of course. In Japan, the popularity of Koshiro’s initial (mostly PC) music contributed to early interest in video game soundtrack albums, so his works are well represented in commercial releases. 1989’s The Super Shinobi & Works (YT / VGMdb) — it came out on Christmas day, which always seems cool and strange to my USian self — features the full OST in its original PC-8801 format (nicer drums!), then concludes with four tracks he composed for the Sharp X68000 computer version of Bosconian, two Bosconian arrangements, and two The Revenge of Shinobi arrangements.

The YouTube upload unfortunately lacks timestamps, so here are the non-PC-8801 tracks:

22:39 “Blast Power” (from Bosconian X68000)

25:15 “Flash Flash Flash” (Bosconian X68000)

29:26 “Inner World” (Bosconian X68000)

30:54 “Asteroid Memory” (Bosconian X68000)

32:04 “Flash Flash Flash” (Bosconian X68000, arranged)

35:39 “Make Me Dance” (The Revenge of Shinobi, arranged)

38:35 “China Town” (The Revenge of Shinobi, arranged)

43:06 “Blast Power” (Bosconian X68000, arranged)

I surprised myself by knowing one of the Bosconian melodies already, I guess through nerdmosis. They’re nice. And the Shinobi arrangements are interesting spins. But the real story is that model shoot Koshiro did for the album cover. What a damn cutie! Gosh!

That’s it for today’s Morning Music! Fan thyself and take a ninja step down to the comments to share your thoughts on Koshiro’s awesome beats, dance influence in game music, and that luscious Mega Drive sound.

By the way, there may or may not be an interruption in Morning Music next week due to some behind-the-scenes factors, we’ll see. So I’ll hedge my bets and say, until next time!

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