A little while ago I catalogued the contents of the Sega Genesis mixtape I created at the tender age of 12. I've been mulling over that artifact for the better part of a month, and as much as I (mostly) approve of the taste of my younger self, I have been considering how remarkably limited that little collection of Sega tunes was.
The Genesis's audio chip is often maligned, and not without reason: Very often, what the designers meant to be "shredding guitars" or "wicked synths" came off as "ear-bleedingly torturous." As examples, take this music from the options menu of Sonic Spinball or (again) the main title theme to Desert Strike. Really just God-awful.
However, that doesn't mean that the Genesis was without some really superb soundtracks. 90 percent of the music from the Sonic series is fabulous, and when the rough-around-the-edges Genesis FM synth chip was used with restraint, it could produce some awesome jams that legitimately sounded "tougher" than its competitor, the SNES.
The Genesis may never have had anything rivaling "Aria di Mezzo Carattere," but the SNES never had anything that quite sounded like these:
Ecco the Dolphin: The Tides of Time, "Tube of Medusa"
Both of the Ecco games had unique and interesting sounds to them, though many have never heard them on account of the series' brutal difficulty. The second entry, Tides of Time, isn't quite as harsh as the first, and has a much more intense flavor, as this faux-rock track indicates.
The first game sees Ecco traveling back to the prehistoric age using the time travel technology of the long-dead Atlanteans to reconstruct an ancient entity and save the planet from aliens trying to harvest all life. The second sees him traveling to a future where dolphins have evolved psychic powers and the ability to fly, and — you know what? I'm just gonna stop right there. I think it's obvious to everyone by now that these games are way more absurdly awesome on paper than they are in execution.
Nevertheless, you can't deny that soundtrack. If that music doesn't get you pumped…well, I'm frankly a little surprised.
Phantasy Star IV, "The End of the Millennium"
Boom. The instant you turn your Genesis on, you know that you're in for serious business. There's no waiting for developer or publisher logos to flash up, no copyright screen to sit through — it's all Sega, so when you hit the power button, there's one logo and a desperate, pumping bass line.
Phantasy Star IV is one of the few stellar RPGs on the Genesis, but boy, is it a doozy, offering anime "cutscenes" well before they became a staple of the genre, a serious story that involves the death of at least one major character (spoilers!), and the best science fantasy this side of Star Ocean. The soundtrack in general is solid overall, but when they hit you with something like this right off the bat, you have to be invested.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3, "Lava Reef Zone, Act 1"
I don't know what it is about Lava Reef Zone. Do I love it because it's a burst of high-speed freedom after the long slog of Sandopolis? Is it the first tangible hint of the intensity of the endgame? Was there a time in my youth when I attempted to play the entirety of Sonic 3 & Knuckles in one sitting, and Lava Reef coincided with a transition from blind exhaustion to a second wind? I don't know.
All I know is that of all the superb tracks in Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles, this one has a special place in my heart; there's something urgent in its tone, but it's far more upbeat and up-tempo than the music in the zone that precedes it.
In its full, complete form, Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one of the best side-scrollers I've ever played. If you were on the other side of the console wars of the '90s, do yourself a favor and go check it out. I think you'll find it a particularly rewarding experience.
Streets of Rage 2, "Under Logic"
Let's be frank: the soundtrack to Streets of Rage 2 is pure, unadulterated sonic gold. Yuzo Koshiro is the man.
And the funny thing is, Koshiro worked on the SNES as well: He's responsible for the soundtracks for ActRaiser and Super Adventure Island, both of which are relatively good…but they're good. They're not this. This is the kind of music that you don't want to come on while you're driving for fear you'll get pulled over for speeding. You don't want this to come on while you're at a party — you might get so pumped that you roundhouse kick someone in the jaw.
This music is dangerous, is what I'm saying. And while there are plenty of superb tracks on the SNES, I can't think of a single game on the system that sounds like Streets of Rage.
Jurassic Park, "Visitor's Center"
This might be pushing the boundaries of what's tasteful with the Genesis's synth "guitars", but I don't know anyone who actually managed to slog through the Genesis version of Jurassic Park, get to the final level, and not be excited by this music.
The vast majority of the game's soundtrack was ambient, low-key, and generally inobtrusive. It was there to build tension, as the game was relatively terrifying; if a velociraptor appeared out of a nowhere, it was even odds you were about to be disemboweled. The Tyrannosaurus popped through the wall in at least four different levels to say "hi" and devour you whole.
It didn't help, of course, that the game's controls were only vaguely connected to what was going on on-screen. God help you if the developers wanted you to jump and grab a ledge. Hope you had your Game Genie ready.
But if you made it to the final level somehow, you were treated to this music, along with a plethora of weapons and a level that had blissfully few jumping sections. "All right," the game seemed to say. "You got through the platforming gauntlet. Have a rocket launcher and some shredding guitars. Let's go to town."
Vectorman 2, "Turn Up the Heat (Lava Boss)"
The Vectorman games were both relatively tight platformers with some pretty graphics and good tunes. They came toward the end of the Genesis's life cycle, when many gamers' attention was already on the consoles to come, and so they're sometimes overlooked.
This track is a good example of the attitude the games put forward. They were all about the faux-techno beats and in-your-face rhythms, and they did them pretty well.
Castlevania: Bloodlines, "Calling from Heaven"
Bloodlines is the only Castlevania on Genesis, and it's of a much different flavor than its SNES cousins Super Castlevania IV and Dracula X. I'm pretty sure it's an accepted truth that Dracula X had the best Castlevania music of the 16-bit generation (I mean, come on, listen to this stuff), but I don't think any single track in the series fires me up quite the same way as the music from the final stage of Bloodlines. I could listen to those first ten seconds over and over.
It's superb final stage music, conveying clearly that you're on the pathway to the final conflict. It's dripping with tension, hope, and importance. Considering how many of Castlevania's classic melodies are reiterated throughout the series, I'm immensely surprised to find that "Calling from Heaven" hasn't made its way into another game (despite the fact that other tracks from Bloodlines have: "Iron Blue Intention" shows up in Portrait of Ruin, for instance, and "The Sinking Old Sanctuary" made its way into Circle of the Moon, for whatever reason).
So, there you have it. Would that I could send myself back in time to share these superb Genesis tracks with my 12-year-old self, or at least convince him that they would be worthy additions to his mix-tape. Alas, all I can do now is to put them up here and exhort you to listen, listen, listen, my friends.
Speak not ill of the Genesis, for even the bearer of grotesquely shredding synths hath treasures to lay at thy feet.
This post originally appeared on The Lost Levels.