‘F-Zero’ jazz and ‘Castlevania’ hip-hop: why the ’90s was the golden age for video game soundtracks

If you haven't heard Konami's forray into supernatural hip-hop, it's time to change that

Hey! Listen is a twice-monthly column unearthing obscure video game music and trivia. Today’s column dives into the murky depths of the ’90s to plumb out supernaturally bad Castlevania hip-hop albums and Nintendo‘s shot at F-Zero jazz.

I was born in the ’90s, an era where new music was being lobbed at you from every direction and from every genre imaginable. Britney Spears, Nirvana, Oasis, The Spice Girls, Wu-Tang Clan, Radiohead, Dr Dre, The Notorious BIG, Celine Dion, Aqua and the Beastie Boys led a musical gang that would hunt you down and pummel your ears no matter where you were hiding. Their weapons? CD players, walkmans, radios and eventually TVs. No child was safe. Memories of their music would never leave you.

While I’m still dealing with the mental trauma of unwillingly feasting on a melodic sandwich of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and ‘Barbie Girl’, this explosion of musical culture changed video game music forever. And I’m not just talking about the likes of Goldfinger, Anthrax, Public Enemy, The Prodigy and Orbital infiltrating video game soundtracks in games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and Wipeout (as amazing as that was). No. I’m talking about ‘90s arranged video game soundtracks.

The proliferation of genres such as rap, hip-hop, smooth jazz and jazz fusion in Japan led to some weird and wonderful choices in the world of video game music, as game companies such as Konami, Nintendo, and Sega tapped into the demand for physical soundtrack releases by arranging their music in new musical styles and genres. As CD sales are on the rise for the first time in 17 years, it seems like a decent time to look back at two of the more obscure releases from the world of video games.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2. Credit: Activision.

I’m not suggesting the release of video game soundtracks is anything new, by the way. Quick video game music history 101: physical video game soundtracks, at this point, had been a thing since the ‘80s. Video game music had a particularly booming vinyl scene in Japan, and let’s not forget the mark that Buckner and Garcia’s ‘Pac-Man Fever’ left on the world (for better or worse).

All of this is important, because as the video game music rollercoaster picked up momentum and rode out of the late ‘80s in style, things started to get really wild in the years afterwards.

There is no better example of this than the 1992 Japan-only soundtrack release of F-Zero, Nintendo’s futuristic racing sim. If you’ve played the series, you’ll know the music in the game is basically a mix of power and speed metal. While this culminated in the 1999 soundtrack release of F-Zero X Guitar Arrange, which may as well have Deep Purple’s vocalist screaming ‘YOU’VE GOT BOOST POWER’ over the top of its harmonised guitar riffs and heavy drums, it makes the jazz fusion style of F-Zero even more unusual.

But holy shit, the absolute state of this album. Just listen to it and you’ll realise how incredible it is. This is F-Zero like you’ve never heard it (and will never hear it like this again). At some point in the early ‘90s, someone at Nintendo of Japan blatantly decided “Fuck it. What would the music in F-Zero would sound like if it was re-written for a ‘90s sitcom where Captain Falcon plays a down-on-his-luck New York cop?”

“And what if we got Marc Russo of the Doobie Brothers on saxophone and asked him to rip into a solo every thirty seconds? Bass player? What about Pee Wee from ‘80s funk and soul group Thunderflash? Do you reckon we could lock in that famous guitarist from those Jazz Fusion bands, L.A. Express and Yellowjackets while we’re at it. Robben Ford, is it? Yeah, the same guy who was bashing out riffs for Miles Davis and KISS? Oh, what? All of this is actually possible? Sick. Let’s make the most ambitious crossover album ever.”

No cost was spared. Decision makers involved with this album laughed in the face of budget concerns. According to Discogs, the label responsible for its release only made two soundtracks. F-Zero was its last. I can only assume it bankrupted them. Was it worth it? Hell yeah. Just listen to it and bask in its goodness. Mute City. Big Blue. All of the best tracks are here and in their very best form: unadulterated jazz fusion. We do not deserve the F-Zero jazz CD.

But if you think an F-Zero jazz fusion album sounds weird, just wait until you hear what happens when the guys at Konami decided to take the music in Castlevania and turn it into a ‘90s rap and hip-hop album. I present to you, 1991’s ‘Dracula Perfect Selection’ album, performed by the game studio’s in-house band, the Kukeiha Club, comprised of members from its sound team.

The unusual thing here isn’t the fact that Konami had its own in-house band. This was an actual thing in the ‘90s, where the Kukeiha Club, alongside the likes of Sega’s S.S.T. band, Capcom’s Alph Lyla, Taito’s Zuntata and Nihon Falcom’s J.D.K. band, took to video game music festivals in Japan to perform rock and jazz fusion arrangements of video game soundtracks to audiences in their thousands. It was truly a glorious time.

But ‘Dracula Perfect Selection’ is a strange beast, and one which can wear the proud badge of being one of the cheesiest hip-hop albums ever created, and quite possibly the worst video game soundtrack ever released. I mean, this CD literally opens with a menacing organ passage followed by the sound effect of a creaking door, Dracula laughing menacingly, and someone in the background saying ‘awwwww yeahhhhh.’

“Let me taste your neck,” Dracula says. *orchestra hit*. “Please, just one time.” *orchestra hit*

‘Dracula Perfect Selection’ is by no means a ‘good’ album, but to its credit, there’s a level of unpredictability and hilarity within it that makes it worth listening to. I have no doubt that once wider pockets of the internet discover it, you’ll be hearing it in Tik-Tok memes for years to come. The album peaks when you hear these lyrics over the melody from ‘Bloody Tears’, one of the most infamous tunes from the Castlevania games.

<i>Castlevania</i>

“You better not pout.
You better not cry.
You better not shout, I’m telling you why.
Dracula, Dracula, Dracula is coming to town.”

You owe it to yourself to listen to this album at least once. But if you’re an actual fan of the music in Castlevania, you’ll be happy to hear that Konami at least redeemed itself with the 1994 and 1995 heavy metal releases of ‘Perfect Selection Dracula: Battle’ and ‘Perfect Selection Dracula: Battle 2‘.

The impact of ‘90s music on the video game world wasn’t just confined to Japan, either. Rare, the gaming powerhouse responsible for some of your favourite Nintendo games, decided to give the music in its side-scrolling 1995 beat ‘em up Killer Instinct the ‘90s school disco treatment when it released its Killer Cuts album. Even Nintendo couldn’t resist the urge of putting a load of pop hits into Pokemon. 2.B.A Master still slaps today.

Regardless of how you feel about these releases, the ‘90s was the golden age for obscure video game soundtrack releases. This paved the way for game publishers arranging their music in new and exciting styles, something that continues to this day with the likes of Square Enix’s NieR tribute album or its great Cafe SQ compilations.

Let’s just hope we never get another Castlevania hip-hop album from Konami…

If you liked this, here’s author Mat Ombler’s last piece on how Koji Kondo’s Ocarina Of Time soundtrack is actually a hip-hop album

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