Originally published on Pixelitis.net on October 23, 2012.
(Editor’s note: From Castlevania to Turtles in Time, everyone’s got at least one videogame tune stuck in their heads. Enter Liner Notes: a Pixelitis feature in which our writers discuss their favorite videogame music.)
If you were a kid of the 80s and early 90s, then you were no doubt exposed to the musical phenomenon known as the “orchestral hit.”
For the uninitiated, the orchestral hit (or stab depending on your lingo) is a sound created by layering several orchestral instruments that play a sole staccato note or chord. In other words, it’s a quick note followed by a quick rest or pause. Its use by hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa in 1982 set off a whirlwind in the music business where every pop album had to use it.
And so did Konami.
In the realm of videogame music, the late 80s was a time of immense experimentation, with Konami standing at the forefront of it. Soundtracks like the early Metal Gears, Contras, Castlevanias, Gradius’, and TMNTs can stand testament to that.
A game’s audio was an important facet of a Konami-developed title. The fact that a unique “VRC6″ microprocessor chip was developed for the Famicom version of Castlevania III should be proof enough of the company’s insistence on good audio.
With this mindset, it’s no wonder the composers under its wing would look to the hippest trends in the music industry at the time.
“Gates of Fort Fire Storm” – Super C (NES)
Konami’s infatuation with the orchestral hit began with the likes of Super C and Contra Force.Super C composers Kazuki Muraoka and Motoaki Furukawa took the hit to heart and incorporated it in both the 1988 arcade and 1990 NES releases. The NES version features a sample of the trope that’s heavily compressed and used mostly as a way to cap off a measure with a bit of dramatic flair.
The Super Famicom port of Gradius III in 1990 had a few orchestral hit samples here and there, but it really wasn’t until a year later when they became more prominent.
“Stage 1″ – Sunset Riders (Arcade)
Konami’s use of the orchestral hit reached a sort of golden age in 1991. Nearly every arcade game they churned out was bound to contain the sample in several of its songs. The stellar cowboy shoot-em-up Sunset Riders, composed by Naohisa Morota and Motoaki Furukawa, featured it in spades.
The first stage music is energetic in its pace, fueled by the ever-present drums. The hit is used right at the beginning while also incorporating it at the end of each measure, with every other measure ending in a higher-pitched sample.
“Climactic Battle” – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time (SNES)
The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game may have served as the precursor to much of 1991’s orchestral hit bonanza, but it’s really the hits from Turtles in Time that most people will likely remember. “Climactic Battle” is just plain insanity with its frenetic speed and the desperation inherent in the melody. The orchestral hits here are through the roof, particularly toward the end where they are played in blazing fast succession.
While certain titles that followed Turtles in Time like X-Men kept the trope going for a bit longer, the mid-90s saw Konami’s musicians move away from this fad. For all intents and purposes, Konami’s orchestral hit had overstayed its welcome, and the company’s game audio was to take a new turn in the form of CD-based audio with Snatcher and Castlevania: Rondo of Blood.
By the turn of the century, Konami’s games had eschewed this effect.
“Into the Dark Night” – Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow
That is, until 2005’s Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow. While in no way does the orchestral hit permeate the entirety of the DS action platformer’s soundtrack, “Into the Dark Night” feels like an homage to its glory days. This boss music is fast-paced and intense, and the orchestral hits act as rhythmic punches amidst a flurry of bass guitar-slapping and double-bass drumming.
If you’re as into this as I am, then you’d probably find it difficult to resist headbanging to the beat of these orchestral hits.
“Stage 1 (Reincarnated Soul)” – Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth
The soundtrack to the 2009 WiiWare title Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth would serve as another sort of nod to Konami’s musical past, with every track being a classic Castlevania tune redone in a style reminiscent of Konami’s arcade titles (Fairlight Orch5 samples and all).
The release of Double Dragon Neon this year proved that Konami’s go-to musical sound effect of the 90s was not forgotten. Jake Kaufman’s work on Neon features several uses of that signature, which clearly shows an appreciation for that age.
The orchestral hit may have been a silly fad that Konami just happened to extend, but its use, no matter how overbearing one may think it was, defined the developer’s game audio during that time period.
It’s hard not to think of that bludgeoning sound effect when hearkening back to those glorious days of playing Sunset Riders and Turtles in Time with fellow friends (be they an additional three in the arcades or simply one partner on your home console of choice). Best of all, though: it makes for great onomatopoeia.