Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. Today we’re listening to Burning Force, a 1989 Namco arcade shooter with an amazing sort of bubblegum sci-fi slash Dirty Pair aesthetic.
While Namco’s 3D vehicle shooter Burning Force (playlist / longplay / VGMdb) was no doubt inspired by Sega’s 1985 “Super Scaler” hit Space Harrier, it was no mere copycat, and may well be the best of its progeny. In fact, the newer game’s sprite-based 3D feels much more solid and dimensional, and while Spare Harrier’s alien-fantasy aesthetic is iconic, Burning Force answers back with a delightful coat of late-‘80s anime glitz that grows more charming by the year. (Its title screen in particular is a phenomenal bit of period design.)
The game’s got visuals on lock, so I’m happy to report its soundtrack is every bit their equal. Then-young, now-veteran Namco music composer Yoshinori Kawamoto (fresh off the scores of Splatterhouse and another personal favourite, Phelios) gave Burning Force a soundtrack to remember. Let’s listen:
Namco / VintaGamers Paradise (YouTube)
Burning Force splits most stages into day and night sections, with the night music being a variation on the day’s. The game starts out bright and peppy, but by Day Two more urgent, off-kilter, and creative arrangements start creeping in.
There’s so much good stuff here that it’s tempting to say every track is a highlight, but I find “Bay Yard (Daytime) (1st Day),” “Sarinuka Sands (Daytime) (2nd Day),” “Grass Land (Daytime) (4th Day),” and “Boss II” particularly memorable. The intermission song “Taking Off” is a perfect summation of the game’s perky aesthetic, “Bonus Stage” is suitably energetic, and “Winners” (love the insistent piano) is a heck of a song to enter initials to.
Burning Force’s Namco System II hardware pairs the extremely popular Yamaha YM2151 — which we last heard sounding kind of rough in Technos’ 1987 Double Dragon — with a 24-channel PCM Namco-custom sound chip called the C140. By 1989 game composers had had a few years to get to grips with the YM2151’s FM synthesis, which is probably one reason Burning Force’s instruments sound so much nicer than Double Dragon’s. But that sample-playin’ C140 probably contributes too; I’m just not sure how much. Mainly percussion, perhaps?
I have another question as well. Curiously, Burning Force’s “original” soundtrack album sounds like it uses noticeably higher-quality synths than any emulation / rips I’ve encountered, such as the arcade rip embedded above. Check it out:
Namco / Isanami244 (YouTube)
A few tracks have gameplay sounds inserted, yuck. But damn, the music sure sounds great! I’ve never encountered a real Burning Force arcade cabinet, so I’m not sure if the real game sounds so sparkling and full — and emulation just isn’t there yet — or if, like Double Dragon before it, the soundtrack album featured better-quality synthesis or was otherwise remastered. Maybe one of y’all has insight. Or maybe I’m just hearin’ things.
Bonus round? Bonus round. Most of us Westerners know Burning Force through its Genesis/Mega Drive port (YouTube / longplay). It’s solid, considering the MD wasn’t much for smooth sprite scaling. The soundtrack is somewhat hobbled on the YM2612 (I give it a B) but clearly the intent shines through, because that’s where a lot of us first cottoned on to the game’s audio/visual charms:
Burning Force’s heroic space cadet, Hiromi Tengenji, is among the more obscure Namco game characters. But she made a memorable appearance in PS2 strategy game Namco X Capcom, so its OST features a fresh take on “Bay Yard [1st Day].”
Honestly? Very whatever. The original set a really high bar so this had its work cut out for it.
That’s a wrap for today’s Morning Music! Burning Force is pretty ᴀ ᴇ ꜱ ᴛ ʜ ᴇ ᴛ ɪ ᴄ, no? How’s your start-of-week looking? On a personal note, I’m planning to take my first official week off next week, so I dunno if Morning Music will run for that stretch. I hope so, but no guarantees yet. As ever, feel free to chime in to the open chat down below. Cheers.