Imagine, if you will, a world where Cease and Desist orders don’t exist. Independent game developers make their own fan projects, and are able to share these homages to their favorite classic games without fear of the original company taking them down or threatening lawsuits. A place where talented fans work together to keep the fandoms alive when they’ve been abandoned by the original game creators. We call this place… The Twilight Zone, Act 1.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of videogame appreciation, it’s that there are no fans more hardcore than fans of Sega franchises, and most specifically of the Sonic series. I started hearing about all of these intense fan projects when I was a freshman in college, and by that time these things had long since been out and about. It should come as absolutely zero surprise to anyone that even in the days of dial-up internet, you could still hear the call of “collabs, bro!” bouncing around message boards. It was in one of these that the fateful meeting of budding musician Hunter Bridges and the team who would end up coming together to make ‘Sonic Nexus’, Brad Flick and Christian Whitehead, would take place. Now, I won’t reiterate the full story here (the official Ubiktune release page and the page over at Sonic Retro do quite well in chronicling the tale), but suffice it to say that Hunter Bridges basically did what every musically inclined nerd dreams of – he got contacted to do some work for a passion project for one of his favorite franchises. Now, the game ended up being so well done that one of the creators ended up being hired by Sega, which left all of this music unreleased, echoing around the dark halls of the internet and doomed to obscurity… until now.
Hunty got to do that other thing that musically inclined nerds pray for – the ability to go back and touch up his old work that never really made it out and re-release it in a much more polished form. And so that find us here, with Hunty’s soundtrack, polished until it shines, but no game to put it to. It’s an interesting situation – when a set of music is intended as a score, it often seems inextricably tied to what it was intended for. But any of us who have, over the years, listened to videogame scores on their own know that scores do often have a life of their own and can find different meaning when consumed separate from their games. So while we may never get to experience this soundtrack in its native habitat, so to speak, we sure as hell have it now, and I’m gonna have to ask you to firmly grasp your collective tuchuses, because this thing is a freaking powerhouse of FM goodness.
Now, this album is arranged in true Sonic soundtrack fashion, which is to say that just about every track has its own slight remix as every level has two acts. Consider it a “variations on a theme” style of composing – it’s one I always enjoyed in concert-style music, and one that Hunty clearly loves as well. I’m going to highlight some of my favorite tracks below – but I’m inclined to take you to the end of the album before anything else.
As a former musical theatre kid, I’m a sucker for a good overture/medley track to showcase the album, and the final track here does just that. If you know nothing about this album aside from what you’ve read so far, give that a listen and decide if this album is for you (protip: it is). Medleys are funny things, because they’re supposed to be a single song, but you know that they’re comprised of many – it’s simultaneously a tiny version of the whole soundtrack, but unique in its own way. It’s a remix in the most literal sense – and while you don’t know these songs yet, you get just enough of a taste to know what’s coming and get that hype train a-rolling.
Skipping back near the beginning, we get my favorite pair of tracks, the ‘Sunset Shore’. Now, it might just be because I’m a fool for the “woo!” and “come on!” samples from the old Sonic games that got snuck in here, but really it’s the slick Carribean-style grooves underneath it all that draw me in. It was honestly right here at ‘Sunset Shore, Act 2’ that my brain kicked in gear and said “Okay, this is gonna be good.” Sonic’s soundtracks, from time to time, would have the Act 2 theme be a slightly faster version of the original theme – so it’s good that Hunty didn’t just give in to that mentality. Instead, he actually went out of his way to change the feeling of both of these tracks while maintaining their core melody – and this (mega)drive to create unique variations on the same song is everywhere in this album.
After several tracks of fun grooving, all of a sudden there’s this miniboss theme and the whole album goes bonkers. This track is all over the place – you’ve got notes running up and down, the tempo jumps around, the voicing of the instrumentation changes from more urgent alarm-like tones to bell tones in back to back phrases. This untethered feeling, though, is exactly what you would expect from a miniboss fight in a game, and so this mastery of evoking feelings from manic changes (one might call it a chaos control, if one were, say, a particular dark haired hedgehog) shows that while the music may be crazy, the composer is not – Hunty knows exactly what he’s going for and delivers with gusto.
Speaking of boss fights, I really want to talk about the next boss fight track, because this is one of the better standalone tracks on the album. It’s got all sorts of things going on – some almost trumpet-like staccato blasts near the end as well as killer drums throughout. Then there’s a solid bass groove section that’s followed by a call and response that sounds like half of it could be in a Doors album and the other half like it’s straight out of Nobuo Uematsu’s book for battle themes. This offering has the particular distinction, though, of finally trying to sound like something different than a Sonic game song – this particular track stands apart as its own entity despite having the instrument voicings of all the Genesis Sonic games.
‘Magma Monolith’ is just so…fat. There’s no other way to talk about it – it’s just big, heavy and in your face. This could have ended up as a much calmer jam, but this song is aggressive even though it is slow, much like…well a volcano, to be honest. It creeps up on you. From the beginning, it lets you know it’s here and it intends on going hard. And on it goes – slowly building until tiny contained melodies bubble up out of the beat. The relationship between these tracks and the ‘Sonic Nexus’ game isn’t what you’d think, though – says Hunty on his Soundcloud: “Magma Monolith is another theme that was not composed for the original Nexus soundtrack. The original ‘Magma Monolith’ theme was never settled on, and this is remake of a track I wrote in 2012 called “Magma.” It is included in Nexus Genesis because it still fits the bill! Act 2 is faster and more syncopated, reminding you not to stay inside a volcano for too long!”
And then here we are at the final boss track. Immediately, my music nerd senses go into extreme overdrive when the song kicks off in 6/8 as opposed to the more common 4/4 time signature. Getting anything other than Common Time in chiptunes is a treat, since it usually requires some extra kerjiggering of the program to pull off properly if you’re using a tracker (and yes, that is the technical term, thank you). In terms of final boss themes, it’s not the most intimidating or dark piece ever, but Hunty’s skillfull use of tiny bouts of dissonance and jumping back and forth between grand triumphant swells, slower, almost baroque passages, and the ever building melody that tells you, “You better enjoy the time you’ve got left, because it’s just about up”. This, of course, leads back into the medley piece I spoke of at the beginning, and with it, we come full circle.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, you need to go give Hunter Bridges your money and adoration. This album isn’t just great for the super Sonic fans among us – although that certainly doesn’t hurt the situation if you are. It’s an album for those of us who need fat, funky FM jams, an album for people who need a diversity of instrumentation that is often lacking if you don’t know where to look. It is, in short, exactly the sort of thing that a label like Ubiktune needs to put out there, not only to showcase excellence in the community and to honor the work of people who have been doing this for quite some time, but to strike back against the assumption that “8-bit music” is all there is to chiptunes. Pick up a copy of the album by clicking on any of the embeds here, or by following one of the
Sonics links below.