By Joseph Walter
And while it's not as fondly remembered as its predecessor, it managed to improve upon in almost every way (minus the removal of invincibility frames when you're hit!)
Along with the addition of 8-way movement (as opposed to "Startropics'" grid-based design), outstanding graphics, a wealth of new content, a captivating and even more bizarre storyline, and some truly memorable sequences ("Cactus Dance," anyone?) Zoda's Revenge also brought immense sound quality with it.
The score for Startropics the first was enjoyable and exceptional in every way, but mainly stylistically. Startropics II, although somewhat more typical of NES action-platformers in terms of music, it managed to craft some unbelievably complicated, harmonic and bass-focused tracks that few other games on the system could muster. On the weirder side of things, many pieces feel... recognizable. It's as if they're based on songs with lyrics, but you can't seem to put your finger on what songs they are take-offs of (and if anyone else feels that way, please let me know in the comments!)
As with last time, there are going to be some spoilers with the track titles and the discussion, oftentimes pertaining to locations or situations. Since this game is even more of a sleeper than its predecessor, I recommend playing it first so you can enjoy all the surprises it contains!
With that having been said, is this soundtrack better than the first? That's hard to know, but let's say the magic words and give it a try:
PAA PAA PAA OOM PAPA MOW MOW!
An immediate departure from the atmosphere of the original Startropics, this Title Screen starts with a somewhat unsettling and evil-sounding theme, a perfect representation of the dark-sounding title, "Zoda's Revenge." After the initial threatening sounds, the piece transitions to a more familiar, jovial Startropics-y sound, which plays over a recap of the first game, for those who have not yet played it. It's not quite tropical, but it has the same energy. Also of note, as this is the first taste of the music we hear from this game, is the complicated orchestration and wondrously harmonic finale. It's crazy how far their sound technique were able to advance by the time this sequel was released!
To Another Time and Place
This is essentially the stand-in for the "Chapter" theme of the first game, serving the exact same purpose. This motif is based on the jovial part of the "Title Screen" music, and we could perhaps extrapolate it to be Mike's theme. Interestingly, it follows the same bare-bones orchestration approach used for the rendition of the previous game's title screen for its own chapter splash.
The theme for Mica, one of the Argonians rescued at the conclusion of the last entry. Used when she contacts Mike through her telepathy, it's yet another astounding example of complex musicality. Stunning harmonies and a light-hearted feeling give us a wonderful picture of who Mica is as a character.
The theme for Dr. Jones, who plays a comparably minor role in the sequel. It's high-energy, and seems to take a very small (and I mean minuscule) inspiration from the "Dr. J Found" sequence in ST1, but it's likely my imagination. It has an eager sound about it, which is a great fit for Dr. J as he enthusiastically tries to help Mike start his journey.
Those Magic Words
Containing some sounds that are reminiscent of the original Metroid, we hear a subtle take on "Mike's theme," while the bubbly effects and overall nerve-wracking composition do a great job of making us concerned (but excited) for the steps that need to be taken to help the Argonians, namely using the "magic words" (as I bravely stated in the intro to the article) to travel through space and time!
A quick little ditty that accompanies the trippy visuals of Mike slipping through space and time. It's not necessarily foreboding, but it does build up an uncertain excitement.
Ice Age Overworld
This is our first taste of just how different Startropics II both visually and musically. This is the first of many overwolrd themes in this globe-trotting and adventure. While it certainly still retains that dance-worthy beat that was prevalent in the original, it's certainly not the carefree tropical-breeze we've grown accustomed to, and rightfully so. That's not to say no joy is to be found, however. This piece gives the feeling that the cave people enjoy their lives, and it does so without resorting to full-on "stereotypical" (can that even be used in this context) drum beats or primitive instruments. Yes, it has a certain rhythm, but it's not the main focus. Then again, this doesn't necessarily scream "Ice Age!" It could easily fit into another location, or even another game entirely, despite the still-present musical flourishes the series has pioneered so far. This is unfortunately a pervasive issue with the soundtrack, if it can even be called that.
Town (Ice Age)
Within the small town-cave in the Ice Age, Mike learns that all of the children have been stolen by a gluttonous monster. Although the piece doesn't sound particularly dire or sad, it does sound empty and hollow, as if the life were sucked out of it (the kids, in this case.) It's effective, sure, but again remains somewhat anonymous.
Dungeon Theme 1
Ah, now we're back to a Startropics musical triumph. Although the "Dungeon" theme of the first game was excellent, they've mechanically outdone themselves for the sequel. While no Calypso-beat accompanies this, we're treated to an exceptional baseline and even little solos and flourishes, which give the track a life of its own. Thematically, its got the necessary elements of danger, peril and action that you'd expect from Startropics, so this is a huge win.
An excellent improvement to the tepid Boss music from ST1, this track remains nerve-wracking but loses all the grating elements that made the previous Boss music a chore to get through. Again, the more complex orchestration sounds great, but even more noteworthy are the various emotional sequences through the piece. It starts appropriately threatening (perhaps a fanfare for the beast itself) with an awesome counterpoint sequence representing combat immediately following. After that, there's an heroic-sounding sequence, calling to mind Mike possibly getting the upper hand in this battle.
Whereas Startropics' victory theme was subtle and humble, this one is fully triumphant, and proud of it. This is an appropriate thematic change because the stakes are far higher in Zoda's Revenge, along with the settings themselves. This is just as satisfying as the previous "Victory" theme, if not more so. Better yet, this theme will be revisited and further fleshed out later in the game, leaving a truly memorable and emotional impact.
Got a Tetrad
A short fanfare for acquiring one of the many mystical Tetrads that are the goal of your adventure, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but lacks the energy of the equivalent fanfare in The Legend of Zelda for acquiring the Triforce. It still fits well, but I can't help but feel it could have been far more triumphant.
Mike has said the magic words for the second time and now finds himself in ancient Egypt. This is where another prevalent problem with Startropics II begins to rear its ugly head. The chapters are maddeningly short, so before we're able to fall in love with a particular setting or associated theme music, we're swept elsewhere. This Egypt theme takes a stereotypical approach but adds a certain swanky element that was not expected. They manage to pull off the marriage, too. That said, this track can manage to get somewhat irritating compared to other overworld themes in the game, and overall feels short and unfulfilling.
In Search of Pizza/Pizza Delivery
Yes, you read that title right. Cleopatra has been patiently waiting for her pizza (ordered from Rome, naturally) and tasks you to track it down for her. The piece is a stripped down take on the "Egypt Overworld" theme. It's slow and somewhat funky, perhaps a reference to how long it's taking for that dang pizza to get here. Still, it has a nice progression and its depth is somewhat surprising. When you finally get the pizza, you'll realize it's no wonder why it was so slow: it was being delivered all the way from Rome on the back of a Koopa Troopa. Makes perfect sense.
While pursuing a mischievous monkey through a large head maze reminiscent of Pokemon's hedge maze, you'll get this lively take on the "Egypt" theme once again. It's not much to write home about, as it's only slightly different then the main piece, with its most notable change being that it has removed the stereotypical Middle Eastern instruments.
Dungeon Theme 2
If nothing else can be said about Startropics II, it's immense variety and amount of music when compared to its predecessor is quite impressive. The second "Dungeon" theme is just as amazing as the first, yet it's one of those tracks that seems like it's based on a real-world song with lyrics that I can't seem to put my finger on. The desperation with the descending notes, the spine-tingling high notes at the start, and the infusion of a Middle-Eastern flair before the bass-heavy bridge make this an exceptionally high-energy and exciting track that maintains that particular atmosphere of Startropics' sound style, but ends up slightly more mainstream.
The theme for Cleopatra (clearly), it's somewhat mystical, with more Middle-Eastern/Egyptian-styled flourishes that set the scene well. It's slower pace is perfect for showing off the majesty of Cleopatra herself, despite her unexpected desire for "Caeser's Hut" pizza.
This piece, which obviously serves as the theme for the location of London, is yet another slower-paced song. While not annoying, it doesn't stand-out and, like the Ice Age era before it, it doesn't exactly call to mind the location of London and could be in any other game for any other setting, despite its Startropics' progression.
This a humble-but-wonderful piece of Holmes. It has an air of restrained regality, a slight reference to the awesome "Victory" theme (intentional or not) and has a cognitive feeling, perfect for a character that is familiar with all of those ideas. While the composition doesn't blow any minds, its an enjoyable and reserved piece that serves as a fitting theme for the character.
It's Zoda! Our most feared enemy from the first game has returned to *spoiler alert* take his revenge! Although not quite the ominous theme from the "Title Screen," this short piece does a well-enough job conveying the threats of Zoda-X, Y and Z (yes, now there are three of them.)
I suppose this took a hint from Startropics' more grating pieces, but this does a slightly better job of not becoming too painful, with its alien, theremin-like "woos." Aside from them, the constant danger of that the percussion and repetitive beats reminds us of does a nice job of making this sequence stressful.
Zoda laughs and it's honestly quite scary, particularly for what was accomplished on this hardware. We all know Kefka's laugh, but this is still mighty sinister. Although it's not my favorite laugh of all time...
A chilling and depressing take on the "Dungeon Theme 1," it's not as ghostly as the first game's life-lost track, nor does it have as much character, but it's real effectiveness comes when we lose all our lives and are stricken with a "Game Over..."
... because this "Game Over" theme is the third movement of a symphony, with "Dungeon Theme 1" serving as the first and "Player Miss" as the second. This is an amazing Game Over piece, since all three aforementioned tracks share the same theme. It far surpasses the (still cool) original game's mystical feel because of that. This feels far more defeated, but upon seeing a mysterious wizard's face offering us comfort that his "magic will guide us," there's a small hint of hope. Again, the entire concept for this trifecta was such a great idea: "Dungeon Theme 1" gives us the exciting and perilous action version of the them, "Player Miss" gives us the tragic version, and "Game Over" perfectly follows it up with a somber and final rendition.
Wild West Overworld
Finally an overworld theme that seems like it truly fits its setting, this song sounds a heck of a lot like what you'd find in some Z-tier cowboy television show or film, perfect for the Wild West setting. Unfortunately, this jaunty tune loops far too quickly and you'll be wanting to be deaf from revolver fire long before you're in this world.
Wild West Settlement
Another excellently-theme piece, it calls to mind the sometimes-slow pioneer life (when you're not dying of horrible conditions). Although not extremely complicated, it's enjoyable and happy, while still having that "anything can happen" feeling that the West was called "Wild" for.
Ah, now if only I could go to a Saloon and someone playing a piano was capable of producing this piece, which is clearly not meant to sound like it's being played on a piano. But then again, this piano player is quite special (but we'll get to him later). This gives off the perfect atmosphere for the dancing girls, the nonalcoholic beverages that you can drink (although they seem pretty alcoholic considering how Mike reacts) and the two guys casually beating each other up ("Hey Kid! We're brawlin' over here!")
Dungeon Theme 3
One of the lamer pieces on the soundtrack. It's eerie and serves its purpose, sure, but compared to the other "Dungeon" pieces, its far too uninteresting and repetitive to stand-out.
Yet another song that reminds me of something I swear I've heard before (aside from the main lick of "Space Harrier," or maybe that's actually it) there is actually a vaguely Italian (or European) vibe from this track. Better yet, it's one of the only "Overworld" to have some interesting compositional depth, which quite nicely sets it apart. It's deliberate percussion and hypnotic pace make this a piece worth listening to for quite a while but, alas, despite the size of Italy's map, there's not much to do! Well, except for visiting a familiar face...
Leonardo Da Vinci
Trapped in a statue by that rascal Soda.. er.. Zoda, you free our pal Da Vinci, help him improve the Mona Lisa ("radical!") and then get some much needed help. Sadly a bit too short, this nice piece is calming but not necessarily the best fit for the character of Da Vinci. It's far from offensive though and is very enjoyable to listen to. I guess I expected something a little more... well, eccentric.
The Flying Machine
An odd rendition of Da Vinci's theme, this accompanies the brief sequence of riding his patented Flying Machine. Again, this sounds like another song whose lyrics I keep thinking are "Reeeachinnn! Pullinnnn!" but they're so terrible that I think I must have made them up as a child.
Transylvania is the strangest destination in the game. There's no reason for an overworld or a theme to go with it since there's nothing to do other than enter the haunted house on top of the mountain (as far as I know!) It's spooky, but in a game hellbent on adhering to stereotypes (Lots of "I-a love-a my spaghetti!" stuff in Italy) it's shockingly not organ-heavy or anything that's traditionally associated with a horror atmosphere. I'd go as far as to say it would have been a benefit to go that route, since this overworld theme is simple and unexciting as is.
Dungeon Theme 4
Yet another excellent "Dungeon" theme. Considering the amount of these themes (around six) and how all but one are incredible, that's an outstanding ratio of success, especially since Startropics went for only two "Dungeon" themes that were based on the same musical concept (and both great). The composers here went above and beyond, and I applaud them for it. Although yet again, this seems more akin to standard NES fare, it has that Startropics percussion and bass that I love dearly. This is all the most heroic-sounding of these themes so far; light on danger, heavy on excitement and adventure.
Is it me, or does this sound a lot like Independence Day? (check it out at :45) Despite this game predating it? Looks like you've got a lot to answer for, David Arnold! But anyway, this theme is nice and has an honorable and royal feeling to it, which is perfect for Camelot. And although the bridge (starting at 38:53 in the playlist video) seems slightly out of tune/clashing, that sequence (if you can bear it) has an awesome royal fanfare quality to it.
Speaking of royal fanfare, I guess we should get knighted by King Arthur himself while we are here! This is very cliche' castle court-styled music, but that's why it works so well. It's calm, collected, and proud, just like Arthur himself, while staying away from too much regality (as Arthur seems like quite the reasonable King... despite sending most of his knights away on missions and asking a kid to fight off the dragon in the cave to the north.... but then again, Merlin recommended you, so...)
Dungeon Theme 5
Where "Dungeon Theme 4" was unabashedly carefree and heroic, "Theme 5" goes the polar opposite direction, being the most perilous and spine-tingling of all the "Dungeon" themes. And this works perfectly! It's frantic atmosphere and disconcerting melody paints a vivid picture of the trials at hand and the bridge at 43:26 is a truly harrowing sequence that culminates in the briefest-burst of triumph before swirling right back into the concentrated chaos at hand.
Finally you get to meet the guy who has seen and revived your corpse countless times up until this point. Surprisingly, his theme doesn't go the stereotypically magical route and instead opts for a humble sound that has a core of reverence and knowledge. Although I've complained about the (albeit slight) thematic dissonance between other side characters and their associated themes, this one is a surprisingly subtle piece that tells us who Merlin is as a person deep within. Yes, this is another short and uncomplicated piece, but it accomplishes so much with such a simple approach.
This was a huge surprise to me when I played. A return to C-Island!? Just another reason that Zoda's Revenge is such an excellent sequel. What a way to tie the two sizably games together by having your return to your original stomping grounds to finish off Zoda once and for all? Upon touching down, I was disappointed to not hear a new version of the familiar Startropics overworld track, but I soon found out why: All of our favorite C-Islanders have been turned into pigs by Zoda! Then I listened a little harder and... yep, the "Miracola" theme is there, it's just in a minor mode. A perfect fit, too, since things are not as they should be! This is a great way to set the atmosphere and stage for the final moments of the game.
Dungeon Theme C
And the hits keep on coming. The final dungeon is none other than the very first dungeon of the first Startropics, but with a slight makeover (and a much harder conclusion). We're treated to an awesome remix of the original "Dungeon" music, but there is something appropriately off about it. Due to Zoda's infestation of the once-peaceful C-Island, there is a subtly slower pace and ominous tone in the background, especially during the shake up of the song's bridge, which climaxes in an unexpectedly dark way. Again, it was an excellent choice to not only reuse this piece of music, but to subtly alter it to showcase the alien presence of Zoda in what was/is an otherwise peaceful and carefree place (and piece!)
An absolutely horrifying and inhuman wail from the monstrous Zoda. And I don't want to talk about it. Kefka is lame. Even this guy is lame compared to this. Actually, that guy is still pretty terrifying. Look at those eyes. And the lighting! *shudder*
Battle With Zoda
Now this is a theme for a final confrontation. The utterly menacing opening fanfare oozes with pure evil, but the threat only increases from there with piercing notes before transitioning to a desperate-sounding theme for battle. Even though this is a fairly simple piece, it artfully and efficiently accomplishes its task of providing a terrifying theme for Zoda's evil while serving as a climactic piece the last battle.
Okay, I'm crying. So, after destroying Zoda, "Final Victory" plays while we explore the town of Coralcola (now pig free!). And the music has returned to its former self, too! Well, with a few new flourishes, that is. Much like "Dungeon Theme C," there is a somewhat dark vibe that remains (I'm curious if this was because of the sound systems available to them at the time, but I guess we'll never know). Even though it's lost some of its dreaminess that I adored from its original version, it still serves as a wonderfully cathartic way to celebrate your final victory. And it was a perfect decision on the part of the composer to withhold this piece of music until the very end, knowing that returning players would want to hear it in its full glory after the somber minor mode rendition from the initial return to the island. But there's something else: Much like how I felt about the "Sailing" theme in ST1, the dreaminess of "Coralcola" has now been altered to that same feeling of nostalgia, and the waning ability to recapture the feelings of old. Another perfect decision, as hearing one of the most magical pieces of the first game, years later, brings the player that very same nostalgia... and what makes it even more poignant is that this game may be the last time we'll ever visit C-Island, since Startropics seems so far off the radar for both Nintendo and gamers. But you never know...
Ah! The mystical Tetrads have been assembled (thanks Chief "Tetris!") and... what's this? Hirocon!? I thought Zoda killed you long ago? Nope! The king of the Argonians, and Mica's father, had his essence sealed away and preserved within the mystical Tetrads, and now he's free! A noble piece of music that fits Hirocon's character, there are also musical moments that call upon feelings of the genuine love and adoration
that only a parent can bring to a child. This is a beautiful piece of music, and it genuinely feels that all the pieces of been put in place for a happier future (and I don't just mean the Tetrads!)
The Argonians are away (with a nice reveal of Mica's crush on Mike in her "alien language") and off to rebuild their race. Just a sound effect, but a nice touch.
The ending theme once again shows us our globe-trotting exploits, this time as illustrations in a book. The theme itself is stoic but fast-paced and it brings a smile to the player's face as if it's saying "remember all of these fantastic feats you've accomplished? Nice work! (and the game does like to congratulate the player after every dungeon, so it's only fitting)." The piece is more complicated than it initially seems, with regular solos by airy instruments and chunky reprises of the main musical idea, with one particular segment of that "fleeting memories" feeling that starts to hint at something familiar.... and that's when it culminates in a perfectly implemented (and tear-inducing) inclusion of the "Victory" theme (as I write this, I'm getting chills). To close the credits in this way was a stroke of genius. The emotional impact is unparalleled. The credits are a testament not to "Mike's" deeds, but your own, and remind you of all the strife and hard-earned triumphs you went through. Then, when you're at the peak of feeling accomplished while waxing nostalgic, they hit you with the wonderful "Victory" theme to seal the deal. It's beyond effective. And to finish off the track completely, they give the "Victory" theme a number of reprises that build it to a finite conclusion that seals the deal on Zoda's Revenge: Startropics II.
An emotional and very Startropics way to wrap things up after the marvelous "Ending Theme," "The End" has that unmatchable feeling of the original game's composition, and it feels like a proper closing of the book on this magical series.
... or you could just "Press Start!" and play again :)
... oh! I almost forgot. The piano player in the bar. You see, he's actually a musical genius. He's got this great hit. Want to hear it?
Out of context:
So how does one grade this? The soundtrack is obviously of high-quality on a technical and artistic scale, but does the comparable lack of identity harm it enough to lower its score? Or should the sheer amount of music and intense orchestration make it eclipse its predecessor?
It's hard to say, but in my opinion, part of what makes the Startropics series so magical and memorable is the special, intangible atmosphere of the music, which took a unique approach sonically when compared to any of its contemporaries.
So despite Zoda's Revenge being greater than the original on both a count of its number of high quality tracks, and its technical/compositional achievements, I still feel as though I need to knock it down ever so slightly because a few of its pieces don't have that definitive sound.
Regardless, both games are wonderful experiences with equally wonderful soundtracks, and should be played (and listened to!) as soon as possible. Buy it on your Virtual Console to let Nintendo know that we demand a Startropics III or at least some recognition through Smash Bros. or something!
In the mean time....
NOW SAVING YOUR DATA... REFRAIN FROM TURNING POWER OFF OR RESETTING!!