Wizkid defies definition. Sensible Software’s unique title is an arcade game of sorts, in which your character (a disembodied green head) floats around a screen dislodging bricks to kill baddies, collect musical notes, and solve obscure puzzles that have their own twisted logic. In what other game can you use a rolled-up newspaper to subdue an angry dog in a bathroom stall, allowing you to use the facilities and, er, unclog a blocked volcano?
Games of the 16-bit era owe much to the late Richard Joseph, who created music for countless ST and Amiga titles. Although he passed away in 2007, his legacy can be heard throughout his extensive game credits. A frequent collaborator with Sensible Software, his eclectic soundtrack for Wizkid bounds from rock-and-roll, to sea shanties, to ska, to martial music. A perfect complement to a completely nuts game.
The years before Batman: Arkham Asylum were pretty lean as far as decent Dark Knight games go. But this tie-in to the Tim Burton 1989 movie was surprisingly ambitious, if too short. A couple of decent platforming sections – complete with a solid grappling hook mechanic – were padded out with pacy Batmobile and Batwing levels, and a brief puzzle mini-game.
All of this was boosted by a layered chiptune that had absolutely nothing to do with Danny Elfman’s memorable score, but was retro chiptune excellence in its own right.
Largely neglected as a cheap tie-in to Quaver’s (a British brand of chips/crisps), this snack food advertisement disguised a bright, clever, compelling puzzle game. The hook? Position a series of domino-like blocks so that the entire set can be toppled with one push. The music was cheery and light, suiting this sorely underrated puzzler.
The beautiful 16-bit game features a sampled title tune by Captain Sensible, an appropriately buoyant anthem that nicely tees up the gameplay of Sensible Soccer.
Also memorable was the menu music – another catchy chiptune courtesy of Richard Joseph.
Prince of Persia
Designer Jordan Mechner drew on the physicality of classic Hollywood movies for Prince of Persia’s platforming action. And he also understood the importance of the score in crafting a cinematic feel. The soundtrack for Prince of Persia is operatic – there are recurring themes for the characters, and for the hourglass that represents a 60 minute time limit ticking away.
Prince of Persia’s soundtrack came in chiptune form for the 512K Atari ST models, and in sampled music for the 1MB upgraded version. Either way, Prince of Persia was steeped in an Arabian Nights aesthetic. Artistically, technically, Prince of Persia still impresses.
Taking the mixtape home with a series of tracks from the Bitmap Brothers’ back catalog! The Bitmaps were the heroes of the 16-bit era – the distinctive logo on the box was a seal of quality, and their games were defined by excellent design and exceptional production values.
Richard Joseph was also a partner to the Bitmap Brothers, and he worked on their 1991 platformer Magic Pockets. In adapting popstar Betty Boo’s “Doin’ the Do” into sampled ST form for the intro, Richard Joseph and the Bitmaps set the tone for a fun, smartly designed platformer.
The Bitmap Brothers’ vertically-scrolling shoot-’em-up was defined by its tough difficulty level, and a collaboration with electronic dance artist Tim Simenon, better known as Bomb the Bass. His track “Megablast” (which also gave the game its subtitle) sampled the theme from cult John Carpenter action movie Assault on Precinct 13 – and then cranked the volume. Xenon 2 was one of the earliest games to feature sampled music, courtesy of David Whittaker, whose contribution to video game music in this era is also outstanding.
The Chaos Engine
Inspired by steampunk, especially William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine, and 8-bit classic Gauntlet, this 1993 top-down shooter is the Bitmap Brothers at their best – intricate level design, fast-paced action, and a memorable intro sequence.
For The Chaos Engine, the Bitmaps brought in British dance act Joi, who assembled a wailing, pounding, techno-infused track that fits the aesthetic of industrial workshops and bizarre steam-powered inventions of this alternate universe Victorian Britain.
Richard Joseph had scoring duties for the rest of the game (which means menu music only for the ST, unfortunately – the Amiga version features additional in-game music).
Everybody loves Speedball 2. It doesn’t matter whether you grew up on home consoles or computers, or if this game was before your time, or if you only ever played this at a friend’s house – Speedball 2’s raw gameplay speaks to you at a primal level. Really!
Furious matches pitted two battle-armored teams against one another in a brutal, futuristic sport where punching out opponents is rewarded. Game halves lasted only 90 seconds – vicious sliding tackles fly at you from all sides – and pass-and-move isn’t strategy so much as survival mechanism. Matching the pace was the powerful intro theme by British synthesizer artist John Foxx (as Nation XII) – more on him with our final track…
Was this the Bitmap Brothers’ best game? Gods – a balanced blend of puzzles, platformer, and shoot-’em-up. Artistically, the game remains utterly stunning, a fantastic vision of ancient Greek myths and monsters. Gods is the showcase of the Bitmaps’ talent for coherent visual style and level design.
And for the superb title sequence, featuring bold Greek imagery, the Bitmap Brothers again partnered with John Foxx – his ‘90s electronica track somehow perfectly matches the story of a mythic Herculean hero battling waves of baddies from the underworld. “Into the Wonderful” indeed.
I’m sure I’ve missed other great game soundtracks from this era. What were your favorite Atari ST or Amiga tunes?