Splatterhouse 2: The Sounds of Madness
Burdened by the limited soundboard qualities of the 16-bit generation, though in turn expressing a charm and inventiveness of its own, the would-be synthesizer notes could never hold the amplification and weight of their analogue brothers, but, and much to the writer’s credit, the midi-keyboard does bestow a superb backdrop against which murder and monstrosities unfold. The musical score to Splatterhouse 2 remains largely uncared for. It’s time to give acknowledgment where it’s owed.
A sequel to the arcade game Splatterhouse, Namco’s return to this supernatural dimension saw Rick Taylor once again don the Terror Mask in a bid to save his girlfriend Jennifer from the putrefied clutches of Dr. West. Remembered warmheartedly by many, the sequel improved on all elements from the original. To skip to the end: it remains one of the finest horror video games to date.
Opening with the Ruins of West Mansion, composer Milky Eiko (an entity I can find no concrete information on) immediately sets the scene by drawing together a piece that plays out as a collaboration between John Carpenter and Fabio Frizzi. The sharpened entry keys are soon splashed with deep, murky synthesizer notes, wasting no time in setting the picture. This is pitch-perfect with the story itself: throwing you straight into the chaos outside of Dr West’s mansion ruins. Avoiding self-destructive irony, Namco took lucid influences from cinema and ran screaming with them to great effect.
Foul River follows a similar pattern in construction. The low, ebbing bass line runs under the piano keys providing the core foundation. Escape From The Void takes motifs from earlier sequences and picks up the pace, offering the hope of a happier ending once the final sprint from the blasted abominations is over. Fighting the undead is bad enough; going to hell and back is something else entirely.
The amount of variations and moods built around the key themes add a unique touch that was similar to the method cinema is scored. The opening scenes of key chapters in the story are complimented in various manors as events unfold and newly emerging landscapes cause a transferal in sound. For these reasons it was perhaps unaware of being ahead of its time. Whilst the gameplay was admittedly a little sluggish – again, in itself becoming part of the atmosphere – Eiko’s score could be considered forward thinking.
If there are limitations to the harmonies then this is inherent to the medium at the time, and still exists in many cases. The standard 4-by-4 rhythm found in pop(ular) music, which is derived from a basic template believed to stem from the safe sound of the heartbeat when in the womb, is used consistently. Once used to make nursery rhymes easy to learn, it has been adapted into the world of structurally entry-level music for those now old enough to know better, or, in this case, stay indoors and smash Dr West’s melting face through, against, and all over the nearest bookcase.
As such, the experimental or avant-garde elements that could be found in Giuliano Sorgini’s score to The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue or Elsio Mancuso and Berto Pisano’s whacked-out synthesiser jams for Andrea Bianchi’s sleaze-fest Burial Ground are absent. The flowing notes never break format or oscillate wildly into free-formed and adventurous experimentation. But it must be stated that Milky Eiko’s work here was much more advanced and fitting than a lot of titles at that time that saw music as an afterthought.
Come to think of it, attitudes towards the importance of sound in the video game industry haven’t changed much. There are those that try hard, but the critics’ obsession with guns and graphics results in little review space left to appreciate the aesthetic music arrangements. It’s a shame. There’s clear evidence in the film industry, the very industry the bigger gaming companies are trying to imitate, that sound and music are a vital and integral organ during development, especially if you want your art to not disappear and never be mentioned again a few weeks after release.
Even now, soundtracks to cult cinema are still in high demand. What we need is the video game equivalent of a John Carpenter, Ennio Morricone, Fabio Frizzi or Riz Ortolani. A composer who will keep to their beliefs, demand the trust of the team for creative independence and give birth to an entity truly unique. Perhaps it’s more a question of trust in this industry, or simply that musical composition remains an afterthought in the development lifeline.
Whenever I listen to a great soundtrack it makes me want to watch the film itself. The power of an effective score should not be underestimated. Listening back to Splatterhouse 2‘s harmonies makes me want to dust off the Megadrive once more. It’s for this very reason that Milky Eiko’s symphony remains daring and innovative.
As I wrote previously, finally reaching the end of the story after a ten year break was a wonderful moment. Playing the genre cliché of the end fight never genuinely being the very last, it was down to Rick and me to put one final fist into one of the many faces of that floating daemonic absurdity. Finally, the beast fell. The victorious notes rang out through the clean, shoreline air. Birds began to sing again, free of terror. Then a complete ode to Walter Rizzati’s score from Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery rang out in all its midi-keyboard glory, and I welled-up. Beautiful.