8-Bit Mondays: Gradius – “1st Stage” (Miki Higashino)April 5, 2010
After months of technically having posts a day late (I usually post after 10 PM), I decided to skip ahead and do the 8-Bit Mondays on Sunday night so they would, in fact, be available on Mondays. Today’s is from the original Gradius. Gradius is one of the longest-running soundtracks still in use today (incidentally, predating Super Mario Bros. by a few months). Released in 1985, the arcade Gradius featured pleasant music with loops averaging about 30 seconds each – one of which, the “Boss” theme, is still used today! Seven stages plus boss battles means that there was a little over 4 minutes of music total (not including the “Morning Music”). That said, Gradius makes full use of those four minutes to create several impressive and memorable tracks, my pick of which is the “1st Stage” theme. The soundtrack was composed by Miki Higashino.
“1st Stage” is pleasing to the ears with the long notes in major scale that we’ve come to identify with memorable vgm. The song is very short, with only an A and B section. The note range reflects the maneuvering of Vic Viper, notes rising and falling with the ship. The music instills joy and confidence in the player, moving the game pleasantly forward – it is, in short, the idealized thrill and freedom of cartoon combat flight. In an interview with Yasunori Mitsuda (conducted while collaborating on Ten Plants), Higashino states, “I tried to create songs that would stimulate the listener’s ears and send out pleasant pulses to their shooter-brains.” This philosophy was based on what the player’s experience would be during the game, and changed depending on the type of game as well as the stage within it. Indeed, what she chose was a good fit (though a couple of the mid-stage themes I don’t find terribly fun). It is vgm at its earliest and purest form.
The Gradius arcade soundtrack was first released on cassette in 1987 and featured musical scores as inserts. The B side of the album also had gameplay recordings – game music arrangers weren’t quite sure at this time what the best way of putting game soundtracks onto an album would be. A cleaner copy can be heard in the Gradius Arcade Soundtrack (2002), which compiles music from all four arcade games. “1st Stage” was remixed in Gradius Perfect Selection as “Challenger 1985“, a wonderfully groovy rock piece with a slick guitar and brazen synth trumpets.
Miki Higashino, who also composed the Salamander arcade soundtrack (as well as Gensousuikoden), is the composer of the Gradius soundtrack (done while freelancing as a part-time worker). She was one of Konami’s first composers (and as a result was given free reign over her compositions). However, she has since retired in 2002 and is now only doing part-time work in composition. Square Enix Music Online has an incredibly detailed biography of her work, a rarity for game composers.
I find it very interesting that many of the earliest composers in Japan were women. The women composing game music in the early days at Konami and Capcom are responsible for many famous tunes from Castlevania and Gradius to Street Fighter and Mega Man. In fact, it was Miss Higashino’s work on Gradius that convinced Yuzo Koshiro, Hitoshi Sakimoto, and Motoi Sakuraba to join the industry. In a field that is largely noted for being male, this is one important section of the industry that is often overlooked and is deserving of an in-depth article.