- In the last few years, there's been a resurgent focus on Japanese music from the '80s, a period in which the nation's socioeconomic circumstances were transforming. In musical terms, this was borne out by parallel cultural explosions. There was City Pop, an optimistic, radio-friendly genre—releases could span jazz fusion, rock, boogie, synth pop and dreamier sounds—that reflected the influx of wealth and social liberation. There was also the video game music—equally colourful and funky, though rendered on minuscule computer chips—developed by a Japanese-led industry surging at home and abroad.
The economic boom collapsed by the early '90s, taking with it the demand for feel-good music, but video game music continued to develop. The tracks programmed on these 8- and 16-bit systems were already a far cry from the functional blips that accompanied arcade favourites like Pong or Space Invaders. With a fast-growing presence in homes in Japan and beyond, games consoles and their soundtracks stayed the course. Diggin In The Carts is testament to the time when a fad became a fixture.
The compilation, arriving via Hyperdub and Red Bull Music Academy (who commissioned a documentary series on this music in 2014), covers a nine-year period, from 1986 to 1995. (RBMA's Nick Dwyer whittled down 200,000 separate chip music tracks to around 300, from which Kode9 selected 34.) In that time, an array of competing home systems came to prominence, such as Nintendo's Famicom and Super Famicom (better known in the West as NES and SNES), plus also-rans such as the TurboGrafx-16 Entertainment SuperSystem and MSX, which, though both popular in Japan, failed to make an impact in Europe or the Americas.
Much of the music on Diggin In The Carts was never available outside of Japan. Celebrated video game soundtracks from the compilation's timeframe, like Chrono Trigger or Streets Of Rage, haven't made the cut. Instead, we get music from titles such as 1990s Sega Mega Drive puzzler Mega Panel and 1987 RPG Esper Dream 2, which was released on the Famicom's Disk System add-on. The tracks were chosen on the strength of the music, rather than the fêted games to which they belonged.
20 of the 34 tracks here run under two minutes, with many operating within a similar field of bitcrushed lows and whinnying highs, and often built only to act as brief loops. This couldn't necessarily be helped. Composers worked within narrow confines—they had only a handful of usable channels on each soundcard, housed on cartridges that had paltry quantities of memory (the Famicom Disk System's floppy disks had a total capacity of 112KB), which was mostly reserved for gameplay. "They had the strictest limitations that any composer has ever had, period," Dwyer recently told Bandcamp Daily.
Some of the highlights from Diggin In The Carts are those you imagine would have directly improved the experience of the game. The white-knuckle ride of "Site 3-1 [Torrid City]," taken from scrolling shooter Metal Stoker, is the pick of the compilation's more insistent numbers. Xak II's "An-Un" is a great bit of symphonic doom-mongering, chiming well with its English subtitle, "Ominous Clouds." Jun Ishikawa's sweeping "Main Theme," from 1993's Alcahest, captures the expanse of open adventure. "Telepathy," from the PC-8800 home computer game Chátty, sounds nothing like "Main Theme," yet its happy melody evokes a similar feeling. Close your eyes and you might picture pixelated clouds floating against an azure backdrop.
A seemingly inexhaustible amount of melody-rich music flowed out of Japan in the 1980s, from City Pop stars like Tatsuro Yamashita and video game composers like Yuzo Koshiro. On account of the bolstered respect for video games in the 21st century, their soundtracks remain Japan's most prominent musical export. Yet the legacy of the 8- and 16-bit era burns brightest. The blocky, rudimentary beats were especially foundational in grime music. Hyperdub, too, show proof of this longevity: 2009's 5 Years Of Hyperdub brims with an emergent class of artists like Ikonika, Zomby and Joker who wore their influences proudly. By faithfully spotlighting the range and craftsmanship of Japanese computer game music, Diggin In The Carts pays effective tribute to the place from which that pride stems.
01. Konami Kukeiha Club - Opening (Cosmic Wars)
02. Konami Kukeiha Club - Mazed Music (Nemesis)
03. Norio Nakagata - Big Mode (Genpel Touma Den)
04. Michiharu Hasuya - Hidden Level (Solomon's Key)
05. Konami Kukeiha Club - A Planet Of Plants (Nemesis II)
06. Manabu Saito - Telepathy (Chatty)
07. Konami Kukeiha Club - Equipment (Nemesis 3 The Eve of Destruction)
08. Konami Kukeiha Club - BGM 3 (Motocross Maniacs)
09. Toshiya Yamanaka - Visual Scene 1 & 2 (Wer Dragon)
10. Goblin Sound - Opening (Hisou Kihei X-Serd)
11. Tadahiro Nitta - An-Un [Ominous Clouds] (Xak II)
12. Yuzo Koshiro - Temple (Actraiser)
13. Konami Kukeiha Club - Road To Agartha (Moryou Senki MADARA)
14. Hiroyuki Kawada - King Erekiman (The Legend Of Valkyrie)
15. Katsuro Tajima - Exercise (Mega Panel)
16. Goblin Sound - Game Over (Hisou Kihei X-Serd)
17. Konami Kukeiha Club - Beyond The Terminus (Block Hole)
18. Kazuko Umino - Waltz Of Water And Bubbles (Liquid Kids)
19. Hiroto Saito - Main Stage BGM 1 (Time Cruise II)
20. Yasuhisa Wantanabe - Area 26-10 (Metal Black)
21. Hiroto Saito - Site 3-1 [Torrid City] (Metal Stoker)
22. Tadahiro Nitta - Metal Area (Illusion City)
23. Hiroto Saito - Site 6-2 (Metal Stoker)
24. Masumi Itou - Tactics 4 (Super Royal Blood)
25. Goblin Sound - My Phase [Stage 12-14] (Vixen 357)
26. Hiroaki Yoshida - Kyoushin [Lunatic Forest] (Dragon Gun)
27. Konami Kukeiha Club - Underwater Dungeon (Esper Dream 2)
28. Technosoft - Shooting Stars (Thunder Force IV)
29. Soshi Hosoi - Mister Diviner (The Majhong Touhhaiden)
30. Jun Ishikawa - Main Theme (Alcahest)
31. Kazuhiko Nagai - Keel (Golden Axe II - The Duel)
32. Koichi Ishibashi - Bad Data (Dezaemon)
33. Yasuaki Fujita - What Is Your Birthday (Tarot Mystery)
34. Kazuo Hanzawa - Oblivious Past (Alien Soldier)