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Composed by Yuzo Koshiro
Arranged by Yuzo Koshiro
Published by Alfa Records
Catalog number ALCA-105
Release type Game Soundtrack - Official Release
Format 1 CD - 18 Tracks
Release date January 25, 1991
Duration 00:41:25
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Today, it is common for most game soundtracks to have orchestral pieces. While fans argue that the introduction of CD-based consoles were undoubtedly responsible for this trend, in actuality, there were cartridge-based games that tickled the ears of many. One such game was ActRaiser, an early title for the Super Nintendo system developed by Quintet and published by Enix. This unusual game, which combines side-scrolling action-based stages with role-playing Sim City style interludes (where the player commands the recently freed villagers to reconstruct their towns), was also notable for its music score, as contributed by Yuzo Koshiro.


Upon listening to this music, one would has the impression that it sounds and feels very symphonic. The compositions themselves sparkle with classical "leitmotifs" very much in the style of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Bruckner, or Mahler, but it's the "orchestra" that drives them which really makes this score tick. Squeezing out the limits of the much-heralded Super Nintendo sound chip, Koshiro aptly manages to create a rich, vibrant synthesis that very closely resembles, but never quite sounds identical to, an actual orchestra. For a system that relies on cartridges for its games, this was a very impressive achievement indeed.

There is really no way to describe the score for ActRaiser as anything but an instant masterpiece. The first track that opens the score, a rousing, heroic march introduced by the rich tones of the brass section, immediately displays both its epic nature and a challenge to the argument that game music could never sound this amazing. This is followed by "Sky Palace," a slow, melancholy hymn reminiscent of Bach's "Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor," as delivered on a moderately heavy-sounding pipe organ.

When the action stages kick into gear, so too does the score, as Koshiro meshes the classical tones with an interesting and not too jarring techno-tempo, as evidenced in "Filmoa." This track mixes another Bach-style composition with an impressive percussion beat. Hearing this track, one would assume that Bach's Brandenburg concertos have gone disco! While the remaining tracks don't exactly match up to this kind of amazing mixture, they fall nowhere short of excellence. "Blood Pool ~ Casandora" and "All Over the World" sizzle with energy and power, while "Aitos ~ Temple" begins ominously before progressing into an understated but intense tempo. Quieter breaks include the minimalistic-sounding "Pyramid ~ Marana" and the warm, yet romantic sounding "North Wall". This latter track reminded me a lot of Holst's "Venus" movement from his Planets score.

The boss battle themes, which include "The Beast Appears", "Powerful Enemy", and "Satan" are all some of the most furious, fast-paced and pounding action-cues ever committed to a videogame and literally shake the speakers with gusto. Of the eighteen tracks on the album, three of them are classified as fanfares, although one of them "Silence," does emerge as a distinctively notable, albeit brief, standout.

For the simulation stages, Koshiro tones down the intensity and brings up the subtleness and warmth. "Birth of the People" is a Mozart-like concerto carried by the pizzicato plucks of the "strings" and the mellow, almost heavenly tones of the woodwinds. "Offering" is a beautiful, heartfelt hymn that displays Koshiro at his finest and the Super Nintendo sound chip at its most pleasing. The penultimate track, "Peaceful World" depicts a triumphant yet restrained epilogue that conveys newfound harmony and a definitive finality.

The score's final track begins sounding something along the lines of the "20th Century Fox" fanfare before settling into a victorious march. Midway through, a brief reprise of "North Wall" can be heard just prior to a grand finale that culminates with four very satisfying notes.

It's a pity that ActRaiser's score quickly fell out of availability shortly after being released on an 18-track CD provided by Yuzo's then parent record company, Alfa Records. Clocking in at 41:38 minutes, the tracks loop two to three times and are amplified by a rich, studio-like reverb added primarily to give the tunes a more "concert" like feel. Considering that much of ActRaiser's score screams "classical," this is a nice bonus. Recently, perhaps due to the game being rereleased on the Wii Virtual Console, the score has been made available again on CD on a three-disc compilation from Five Records Yuzo Koshiro Best Collection Vol. 1. While this album is laudable for bringing back a masterpiece of a score and for including a track inadvertently omitted on the original release ("Level Up," a brief harp glissendo fanfare), the sound mix omits the concert-like feel, resulting for a flat experience. Whether this compromise is worth picking up a more commercially available release just mainly for one four second track is totally up to the purchaser.


Album situation aside, there is no denying that ActRaiser is an amazing early staple of game music at its finest. Future game scores would become more elaborate, complex, and experimental, but while there are indeed fine video game soundtracks available today, it's remarkable at how well ActRaiser holds up. As an early creation from Yuzo Koshiro, its amazing, but as a cartridge-based score it is phenomenal. Finicky listeners may gripe at how dated the synthesis sounds at points, but on the whole this remains a soundtrack of musical excellence, exuding a sense of classical-style and epic-ness seldom matched. Very highly recommended.


Music in game


Jon Turner


If there is an early achievement that Enix will be remembered for outside Japan, it will likely be ActRaiser, a revolutionary first-generation SNES game that first enticed American audiences 15 years ago. With a clever combination of Civilization-style town building and Castlevania-style platformer action, accompanied by a relatively deep story, some profound graphics, and a captivating musical score, the game managed to be unique, challenging, and downright fun. The score certainly demands especially close attention, as it was unique in its day for technical and compositional reasons. While retaining the memorable melodies and elements of the harmonic simplicity that defined early game music scores, ActRaiser provided a convincing quasi-orchestral score that featured superior sound quality and admirable employment of a synthetic orchestra in a wide variety of styles. Though still in his early 20s, one man, Yuzo Koshiro, was behind this masterwork, ultimately creating a soundtrack that boasted an array of unforgettable adrenaline-pumping action themes and evocative storyline themes, while influencing a lot of symphonic game music available today.


Starting strongly, a testament to Yuzo Koshiro's versatility is demonstrated by the first two tracks, which feature enormous contrasts in styles. With "Opening," a series of imposing brass fanfares build up grandly and lead to the eventual announcement of the main melody. Fast-paced and apparently Star Wars-esque, this march sets a high standard straightaway and is contrasted by some mellower sections; it's only let down marginally with the initial fanfare motif being repeated too many times in latter parts of the piece. Treated as a grandiose overture with classical orientation, "Opening" is a flawed yet remarkable work that remains fondly remembered to this today. After such glee, Koshiro gives the soundtrack some grit with the subsequent track, "Sky Palace"; a church organ theme that represents divinity against evil, it's used as the gamer navigates a floating palace around the world map. Messiaen-inspired, with plenty of dissonance created by endless suspensions and diminished chords, most will feel unnerved by this awe-inspiring experiment. Certainly, with both of these themes coming from a soundtrack made in 1991, it's already clear that ActRaiser was incredible for its time.

Following the first of three short yet memorable fanfare-like themes, the first action theme is introduced. With an unforgettable melody, brisk pace, and a sense of adventure, "Filmoa" stimulates the gamer and listener alike, proving to be a classic old-school Koshiro theme. It has intriguing instrumentation, with a rock organ leading the melody, diverting constructively from a full-orchestral approach; despite using an instrument similar in name to the pipe organ used in "Sky Palace," it creates a completely different emotional effect. The organ is well-supported by a classic bass line and some punchy orchestra hits, keeping everything simple yet buoyant. "Filmoa" represents how using and subtly modifying traditional game music approaches can be just as credible and influential as unprecedented stylistic experiments. "The Beast Appears" is the Filmoa level's accompanying boss theme and somehow stands out through the way the instruments are utilised; with powerful timpani rolls, brass crisis motifs, healthy amounts of dissonance, and clever 'call and response' patterns between contrasting instruments, it manages to be one of the strongest quasi-orchestral battle themes available for its time. It's clear from this theme that Koshiro's experiment isn't doing anything musically unheard of, but integrating established composing methods into a game setting with musical and technical refinement.

Like many soundtracks, ActRaiser largely follows the format of stage themes being followed by boss themes with some extras here and there to boot. This format is well-sustained especially by the originality of the stage themes. "Blood Pool ~ Casandora" is a delectable blend of what "Filmoa" and "The Beast Appears" had to offer; it alternates wildly between featuring fun lyrical passages with Koshiro's clean 'call and response' structures and much more aggressive passages that darken with a succession of string discords. "Pyramid ~ Marana" combines a quirky opening riff with some of the most gorgeous metamorphoses of emotion to ever be heard in a game score; the way it seamlessly alternates with great finesse between conveying daintiness, mystery, grandeur, and beauty of the finest form, all within an oriental-influenced framework, makes it nothing short of a masterpiece. ActRaiser's peak of tension comes with "World Tree". The track's three minutes worth of development incorporates an articulate brass and string overture, an abstract Mos Eisley-esque section, a brief action-packed extravaganza, and, best of all, a delicious series of discords that gradually slow down as they increase in pitch and grow more harrowing while the theme eventually fades into silence. Immediately after comes the final battle theme, "Satan," a threatening mountain of discords, shrill trills, and timpani rolls, made unique through its string discords over rallentandos and influences of Mussorgsky's "Night on a Bald Mountain".

One of the most intriguing aspects of Koshiro's music lies in the tracks "Birth of the People" and "Offering." Both play during the town-building interludes, meaning they have to sustain about two to three solid hours of gameplay between them. Nonetheless, they never grow boring. "Birth of the People" is written in rococo style; featuring simplified contrapuntal phrasing and transparent accompaniment, its melodic emphasis establishes a sense of innocence. It also feels distinctly like game music, almost Sugiyama-esque, with Koshiro deliberately employing beep sounds in the first phrase to form an endearing introduction. "Offering" is essentially a brief dab of colour with its rich and warm melodies, used for representing music playing to one's land. Any educated musician would deem both thtmes devoid of any original musical qualities and somewhat underdeveloped, but this is not to the discredit of Koshiro, considering how well they sustain in-game use; the power of the melody and atmosphere created by these tracks alone makes them outstanding compositions. Aspects of both of these themes are integrated into "Peaceful World" and "Ending," which conclude the soundtrack in an appealing way, though discussions of their classically-influenced refinement and melodic depth ignore their principle feature — no, not the wretched imitation of the 20th Century Fox fanfare in the latter, but the bags of nostalgia they carry that can only be testified to by personal experience.


Highly recommended to pretty much all listeners, ActRaiser provides an excellent introduction to one of the three sides of Yuzo Koshiro. It's an influential piece of game music and a highly enjoyable and accessible score in its own right. While the soundtrack is immensely rare and requires $80+ to pick up, it remains recommended. And, even if one cannot pick up the album, the game remains a classic today, so, if you have five or so hours to spend, play through the game and enjoy the music; in fact, it might well even heighten the Koshiro experience. Managing to be musically and technically profound, while retaining the fun melodic aspect that characterises a lot of game music, though the ActRaiser score is brief, the level of enjoyment that can be derived from it emotionally and intellectually should not be underestimated.


Music in game


Chris Greening

All Songs Composed and Arranged by
Recorded at STUDIO A
Designed by OFFICE AMANO
Special thanks to ENIX, QUINTET
Album was composed by Yuzo Koshiro and was released on January 25, 1991. Soundtrack consists of tracks with duration over about 45 minutes. Album was released by Alfa Records.

CD 1

Sky Castle
Demon Beast Appears
Round Clear
Bloodpool ~ Casandra
Aitos ~ Temple
Strong Enemy
Pyramid ~ Marana
World Tree
Birth of Humans
Peaceful World
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