Sega CD’s Silpheed Was A Spectacle First And Foremost, And That’s OK

Sega CD’s Silpheed Was A Spectacle First And Foremost, And That’s OK
Image: Game Arts / VGMdb / Kotaku

Welcome to Morning Music, Kotaku’s daily hangout for folks who love video games and the cool-arse sounds they make. I was hoping to write a quickie today, but Silpheed is so interesting that wouldn’t have done it justice. Ready to blast off? (Spaceship metaphor.)

When I was a kid my shit-filters weren’t yet calibrated, so when a popular gaming mag said that Sega had a Sega CD-based Star Fox killer in the works that pushed “500,000 polygons” and used “advanced fractal geometry” to “calculate and draw the lights and shadows” my imagination ran wild. It sounded like my fancy but underserved Sega CD was about to host the next-gen, 3D, go-anywhere flying game of my dreams. Sign me up!

In reality we got Game Arts’ 1993 Silpheed (playlist / longplay / VGMdb), a rather basic vertical shooter that pulled the clever trick of layering a small number of real-time polygons (your ship, plus enemies) over pre-rendered CG backdrops. With Silpheed presentation truly was everything, and you know what? It mostly worked. As bland as the shooting was, feeling like my lone fighter was swooping through beautifully minimalistic, flat-shaded polygonal space scenes felt uniquely thrilling. The game had legit cinematic flair.

Silpheed’s heroic, urgent soundtrack enjoyed a lot of high points, too, and like the rest of the game, was actually pretty unusual from a technical standpoint. Here’s a sample, pun slightly intended:

Game Arts / VintaGamers Paradise (YouTube)

You might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound like CD audio!” And it sure isn’t. While redbook music was seen as a huge draw of early CD-based video games, it took up a ton of disc space and introduced other technical challenges, so a fair amount of CD-based games actually used their consoles’ built-in sound chips to generate some or even all of their music. Sometimes that’s a bummer, because you’ll be playing a TurboGrafx CD Ys adventure, digging its soaring Falcom rock score, only to enter a town and find some thin-sounding chiptune tinkling away.

Silpheed struck a better balance. One of the rarely touted advancements of the Sega CD was a whole extra sound chip, the Ricoh RF5C68, which augmented the Genesis’ standard 6-channel YM2612 FM and 4-channel PSG with eight additional PCM voices. That’s a lotta channels, and Silpheed employed those PCM samples more freely than most games, using them as the primary instruments in many songs. (The other game that famously made extensive use of Sega CD’s PCM was Sonic CD, in its “past” stages.)

The resulting sound is certainly not CD-like, but an interesting mix of modest-quality samples — the Ricoh only had 64KB to work with — and lo-fi FM (plus possibly PSG?) grit. This chip-based approach was probably necessary in Silpheed’s case because the Sega CD’s incredibly slow 1x speed disc drive (only 150KB/s!) was likely maxed out just streaming the game’s FMV backgrounds. Those videos probably didn’t leave much disc space for massive redbook tracks, either.

Anyway, that’s a lotta words to convey that Silpheed was a technical outlier in some ways. Luckily, its designers and composers were up to the task. Check out the intro sequence:

I dig just about everything about it: the flat-shaded but substantial 3D models, the earnest, serious voiceover, and most of all how it pays off with that incredibly heroic, almost romantic theme. Great way to start an Earth-saving mission.

Soundtrack highlights include the first stage’s intention-setting, gallant “Scramble,” stage 3’s tense “The Huge Battle Mother Ship,” Stage 4’s frantic, unrelenting “Fortress Under Construction” (very cool stage to see in motion!), and Stage 5’s “Subspace” (I love that electronic “hiss” it harnesses at a few points). Stage 7’s “Mobile Fortress” (frantic again) certainly leaves an impression, Stage 8’s oppressive “The Great Armada” could be an R-Type track, Stage 9’s “Surface of the Moon” is a beauty all around, and Stage 12’s “Giant Battleship” is one heck of a final boss lead-in and fight theme. Finally, the cinematic scene before stage 2 has a real cool vibe (more solid voice acting!), and the ending, plus credits…that’s what I’m talking about. Couldn’t ask for a more triumphant, stirring payoff for the heroic leitmotif established way back in the intro.

All told, it’s a real good soundtrack that perfectly syncs with and plays off of each stage’s remarkably cinematic visuals. Most games credit “directors,” but perhaps you could argue that Silpheed’s filmic qualities required its creators to think more like filmmakers than most game designers had had to up ‘til that point. It’s not a particularly great shooter to play, but it’s a real cool shooter to experience, if you follow my distinction.

It’s challenging to actually get a full soundtrack for this game. The rare official release (embedded above) is more or less an arranged album, plus is missing some tracks (and includes one brand-new one). Gamerips (such as the first embed) fill that gap somewhat, but perhaps due to the game’s audio complexities, tend to screw up some aspect or other. The Silpheed disc also contained six mildly enhanced redbook tracks that you could play in a CD player. They weren’t used in the game…just a bonus I guess! All told, Silpheed’s music is scattered all over the place in varying qualities, and it’s all a little confusing.

The game’s not, though. It couldn’t be more basic. But the ride’s somehow wild enough — and the music so pleasing — that you might not mind.

That’s a wrap for today’s Morning Music! In the immortal words of Darth Vader, “I’ll try spinning. That’s a good trick!” (Little non-sequitur for you there.) Say hi in the comments, and we’ll see ya tomorrow!

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