The video game front of the past few years' so-called "vinyl revival" took a while to get itself up to speed. Initially, it consisted mostly of novelty gimmicks: Pre-order bonuses on poor-sounding picture discs, with truly worthwhile releases coming few and far between.
With the arrival of game-focused publishers like Ship to Shore and Data Discs, though, game music on vinyl has taken on a new, respectable dimension. It seems that every few weeks I pick up another excellent game music LP that sets a new standard for the genre, be it with recent games like Axiom Verge and Transistor or classics like Streets of Rage II. Now, the latest music label to throw its hat into the game vinyl ring — Brave Wave — has upped the stakes yet another notch with its debut LP set: The Street Fighter II Definitive Soundtrack box.
At $85, the Definitive Soundtrack doesn't come cheap — or rather, "won't," assuming it ever sees another pressing (it's currently sold out). However, this is hardly a standard game soundtrack release. Published across four LPs and shipping in a lavish package, Brave Wave's vinyl debut truly does feel like a definitive work that contains the sum total of all that is Street Fighter II.
The packaging for Brave Wave's Definitive Soundtrack goes a long way toward making the choice of the vinyl format more than a mere collector's novelty. The 12" square booklet does justice to the archival artwork, and each disc comes packaged with an almost obsessive level of care: All four records come in anti-static sleeves that slide into paper sleeves which then slip into durable cardboard jackets emblazoned with beautiful full-size character illustrations, all of which comes enclosed in a case reminiscent of the box sets that were so popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Besides the LPs, the outer box also contains a record-sized booklet. Sky blue and orange are the dominant colors here, and every surface that isn't printed with these eye-popping tones is instead slathered with original archival Street Fighter II artwork. The box cover features a bold Akiman illustration depicting the entire SFII cast with the artist's usual hard lines and stiff, angular anatomy; most of the interior pieces, however, are Kuni Nishimura watercolors that feature individual world warriors in her softer, more fluid style. The book interior includes essays by current Street Fighter franchise head Yoshinori Ono, SFII primary composer Yoko Shimomura, and Polygon editor (and my former 1UP.com coworker) Matt Leone.
Despite the excellent packaging, Brave Wave hasn't put together this set for mere shelf appeal. The underlying music has been reproduced with the same meticulous care as the box and record sleeves, and the collection of music here genuinely lives up to its billing as "definitive."
In the arcades, Street Fighter II saw a number of running changes following its initial release, including a significant upgrade in the form of Super Street Fighter II — a revision so expansive it practically counted as a sequel. This musical anthology doesn't simply include the stage and ending themes for every World Warrior; it also chronicles the two distinct hardware formats that Capcom used for the game's different versions. Discs 1 and 2 presents the older renditions of the music on Capcom's older CPS-1 board, while Discs 3 and 4 feature the CPS-2 versions of the music.
While the soundtrack box set duplicates a good many tracks across its two components, this works out to be less redundant than you might expect. The CPS-1 board used FM synthesis, a sound generation technology common in arcade boards and certain consoles (such as the SEGA Genesis) in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The CPS-2, on the other hand, made a few significant tweaks to the older arcade board, and its audio sounds completely different. Where CPS-1 Street Fighter II themes play with the clean, electronic tones of FM synthesis, the later CPS-2 renditions (reworked for Capcom's proprietary Q-Sound technology) have a more varied sound thanks to the use of heavy sampling and less reliance on sound generation... but also a certain fuzziness that come as a side-effect of the data rates that era's games used for audio sample.
The differences in technology result in two rather distinct takes on many familiar themes. The CPS-1 versions have a clean, mechanical precision about them, while the Q-Sound revisions sound more expansive, yet messier as well. Metaphorically, I'd compare it less to remixes of live music tracks than I would to different performances. The CPS-1 mixes are the studio versions: Carefully controlled, technically impeccable, but maybe a little robotic. The CPS-2 music is the live performance: Looser, maybe even a little sloppy, but with more breathing room and heart. Both are worth listening to, though which variant is truly definitive comes down to a matter of personal preference.
Brave Wave reportedly captured the music from original hardware rather than through emulation, which has resulted in a slightly different sound to the CPS-2 tunes than many people are used to. From what I've read, the complexity of the advanced boards (which employed heavy encryption to prevent piracy and hacking shenanigans like "Street Fighter II: Rainbow Edition") also make audio emulation imprecise, so the fan rips of the Super Street Fighter II soundtrack that you'll find on YouTube aren't perfectly accurate. The Definitive Soundtrack recordings, however, sound exactly the way its composers intended — even compared to older official releases, such as the Redbook tracks contained on the Street Fighter II collections for PlayStation.
In terms of audio transfer, Brave Wave has done an impeccable job with this vinyl pressing. All eight sides sound clear and crisp (allowing for the innate distortion of Super Street Fighter II's sound samples, of course), and I didn't notice any of the more distracting flaws that sometimes affect vinyl, such as inner groove sound degradation. Brave Wave packed the records full of music, but not too full.
Well... arguably not too full, anyway. This box set may be definitive, but some record sides feel more essential than others. The nature of this collection means it gathers together all the music from Street Fighter II and its iterations, but not every composition that appeared in the games was necessarily a timeless classic. Generally speaking, the first record in each of the collection's sub-groupings (that is, Discs 1 and 3) contain the meaty character stage themes that everyone knows and loves. The other half of the set, on the other hand (Discs 2 and 4), features a lot of throwaway material, such as various gameplay jingles, urgent final-round remixes of stage themes, and character endings. These vary in nature from obtrusive sound effects to throwaway musical sketches, but generally speaking everything past each subset's respective "Staff Roll" isn't exactly prime listening. It's all reproduced immaculately, no question, but it does raise the question of how much love needed to be invested in a reproduction of, say, the coin drop sound effect. While the archivist in me loves having a comprehensive collection of Street Fighter compositions, the listener in me would have been OK with an abridged collection option that simply put the CPS-1 and CPS-2 stage themes on a pair of records for half the price.
Still, it's hard to take issue with the gorgeous presentation and meticulous reconstruction invested into iconic music from such a landmark video game. BraveWave has done justice to Street Fighter II's music, and this set deserves a place of pride on the shelf of any fan of classic games. Thankfully, you don't have to wait for the expensive LP set to come back into print to enjoy the label's act of historical curation; the Definitive Soundtrack is also available as a three-CD set, and in download form. In some senses, those might be the better way to go; you lose out on the beautiful packaging, but you can more easily skip past lukewarm ditties like Guile's "Wedding March" ending theme. However you choose to buy it, though, this excellent act of musical archaeology demands respect. And the best part is that Street Fighter II is simply the first in Brave Wave's planned Generations series; I'm eager to see what they set their sights on next.