I've had nothing but good to say about the results of games-on-vinyl music label Data Discs and their collaboration with SEGA to create definitive LP editions of classic arcade, Genesis, and Dreamcast soundtracks. Yet I can't help but think everything they've published over the past year has been a warm-up for the label's newest release: A double LP soundtrack for Streets of Rage II.
Composed primarily by Yuzo Koshiro (with some contributions by Motohiro Kawashima, who would take a much larger role in Streets of Rage 3), Streets II remains a high-water mark for game music. It's not just that the music was great or cutting-edge for the medium — though it certainly was all that — but rather the way it squeezed performance out of the Genesis' Yamaha YM2612 audio chip that frankly should have been impossible. The YM2612 provided composers with six sound channels, at least one of which needed to held over for sound effects; yet listening to Streets II, you'd swear you were hearing far more than that at any given time. Deftly weaving together limited samples and layers of rhythm, Koshiro put together a dense, danceable, and diverse set of music unified by a commitment to catchy beats and the spacey electronic sound that had become the Genesis' FM synthesis trademark.
Unsurprisingly, Data Discs' mastering on this record set more than does justice to Koshiro's compositions. As with the soundtrack to the original Streets of Rage, the music was drawn from several different Genesis hardware versions as the engineers and composers felt best suited the individual tracks. Although there's no escaping the synthetic nature of the source material, the vinyl pressing reproduces it immaculately and allows the full spectrum of the electronically generated music to shine, from floor-rattling lows to trilling highs. You could mix most of these tracks into a dance club set and no one would blink.
The new release of Streets II carries forward the high standards seen in Data Discs' previous work. The packaging features high-quality promotional and cover art sourced from the SEGA archives; it includes two 12x12" lithograph-style prints also from the archives; and the two 180-gram records themselves come in simple black sleeves with an anti-static liner and label windows. There's a very European sort of design discipline at work, uncluttered and stark, and it plays up the quality of the featured artwork. About the only negative here is that the cover art selection — the stiff, airbrushed, American game box illustration — is the least interesting of all possible choices for the cover.
Still, while some people will undoubtedly purchase this album as a collector's piece, it's really the music that stands out here. Packaging may be all well and good, but if you're buying one of Koshiro's finest creations on vinyl, you'd be a fool not to enjoy it.
Game soundtracks can be a tricky business. The music is really meant to be enjoyed within the context of a game, and dropping it onto a CD or record strips it from its intended purpose; all the tracks may loop twice and fade on an album, but in-game they often play for much longer, or even more briefly. And music rarely serves as the focus during gameplay, which can lead to the tracks feeling monotonous and tiring when isolated and played nonstop in rapid succession.
Streets of Rage II is no different. Koshiro demonstrates a lot of stylistic influences here, from ’80s synth-pop to ’60s Motown funk, but the heavy emphasis on electronic beats along with the natural limitations of the Genesis sound chip could potentially make it tiring. Happily, much as with Transistor's soundtrack, this release definitely benefits from the structure of vinyl, which creates breaks at the end of every side. Prior to this new release, Streets of Rage II had only ever been issued as a single full-length CD, which means the LP edition distributes tunes across four record sides.
Data Discs has switched up the track order from the earlier CD releases, kicking things off with "S.O.R. Super Mix," a remix of the first game's opening theme. Previously buried toward the end of the CD soundtracks, "S.O.R. Super Mix" creates a bridge between the two albums by appearing as the lead cut here; for anyone familiar with the original soundtrack, this reprise (followed immediately by the "Player Select" theme, carried over faithfully from the first Streets) offers a comfortable starting point for the album ventures off in new directions.
The third cut on the A side, "Go Straight," sets the tone for much of the rest of Streets II's music: It's a lengthy track with a fairly involved structure, incorporating more changes of tone and tempo than anything in the first game did. It's imminently danceable throughout, yet it also feels more subdued at first than you'd expect from a game about beating street toughs to a pulp... a sensation that quickly subsides as it swings into high gear before slowing down again for a second loop.
Several tracks feel almost like a test to see if you can spot the musical reference. "Alien Power," which accompanies the game's surprising battle with "aliens" on what turns out to be a film set sounds like it includes an off-key House of Pain sample that builds up to a some ferocious riffs by the Genesis equivalent of thrash metal guitars. "Slow Moon," which closes out the B side on a somewhat mellow note, contains a synthesizer line running throughout reminiscent of Men Without Hats' "The Safety Dance." And even though a driving beat runs throughout nearly every track on this LP, Koshiro occasionally drifts toward other genre influences — game genres, that is. "In the Bar" has a Falcom-like feel to it, a swing tune that wouldn't be out of place in an RPG weapons shop or pub. Likewise, "Back to the Industry" is by far the most sweeping and melodic cut on the album and almost feels like a warm-up for Koshiro's work a decade later on Etrian Odyssey.
There are a few flat notes here, sometimes literally; the Streets II soundtrack doesn't lack for ambition, and sometimes the tech underlying the game just wasn't quite up to the task. "Ready Funk" is a great composition, but its attempt to incorporate punches of Motown-style trumpets falls flat in FM synth, where the brassy punctuation ends up sounding shrill rather than bright. Likewise, the thrash metal guitars in "Alien Power" require a bit of generosity and the ability to anticipate what Koshiro was trying to accomplish, because in practice they feel like the music equivalent of cinder blocks: Big, heavy slabs of indistinct sound. But even the few missteps here just serve as a reminder of the unique proficiencies of different game consoles; the Super NES probably could have done a much better job with those trumpets and guitars, but there's no way the rest of this soundtrack would have been able to produce the same crisp-yet-dense electronic layers that Koshiro developed on Genesis.
Streets of Rage II's music is at its best when Koshiro and Kawashima develop themes and work beyond simple 90-second music loops. While standalone pieces like boss theme "Never Return Alive" (with its intense beat, ascending sirens, and pulsing tones) sound great in-game, it's the more expansive compositions like "S.O.R. Super Mix," "Spin on the Bridge," and "Too Deep" that really shine as standalone works. "Too Deep" embodies the best of Streets II: It's lengthy enough to breathe, and sonically it calls back to "Player Select," teasing at familiar rhythms toward the end of the album to create a sense of unity with a subtle callback. Kawashima's few compositions particularly play this up; his final encounter themes, "Expander" and "Max Man," are basically the same composition arranged in two very different ways, building tension for the boss showdown sequence distinctly from one another.
Somewhat like Ship to Shore Phono's Mother 2 soundtrack, the D side of Streets II consists of unused tracks (which also appeared on the CD releases) and alternate versions (which didn't). The two alternate mixes — "Go Straight" and "In the Bar" — don't offer a radically different take on those themes, but as they're two of the first cuts from side A, they bring the album full circle. Kawashima's unused "Little Money Avenue" is a jaunty piece (maybe too jaunty) that goes heavy on the electric organ, whereas Koshiro's "Walking Bottom" is a solid piece of techno that fits right in with the rest of the album. While the D side is novel and great as a historical archive, it doesn't feel as essential as the first three sides of the set.
Altogether, though, "essential" is a great way to describe this entire album. Streets of Rage II hasn't seen a legitimate physical soundtrack release in 15 years, and those older releases have become scarce and highly coveted. Besides presenting one of the all-time great soundtracks with wonderful, remastered fidelity, Data Discs' new issue also presents a much more affordable option for those who would like to have this Genesis masterpiece in their physical collection; starting at £23 (about $32), Streets of Rage II is priced competitively with two-disc releases from larger labels rather than like a boutique item. Really, the biggest drawback to such an excellent release for a landmark soundtrack like this is that it's going to be difficult for Data Discs, or anyone else, to top it.