For Whom The Bell Tolls...

Question: What is the greatest piece of video game music ever written?

Answer: The Justice Ray, by Hyakutaro Tsukumo
This is the face of unparalleled musical genius. Truly.
What do you mean you've never heard of it? It's Tsukomo-san's magnum opus, and its legacy is entwined with Sega's own destiny. Before we skip ahead though, lets start at the beginning - the very beginning.
Tecnosoft was a Japanese developer founded in 1980 and were best known for its Thunder Force series of shoot-'em-ups - you've probably heard of them. They began developing games for Japan's early home computers, such as the MSX, NEC PC-88, Sharp X-1, and the FM-7.
From humble beginnings...
When they ported Thunder Force II from the Sharp X68k to the Sega Mega Drive, they found a new home for their unique style of game, with sprites of highly contrasting colours, organic looking mechanical enemies, gameplay focused primarily on successfully navigating through (and surviving) the lengthy stages rather than high score chasing, and, last but not least, bombastic rock-metal-synth soundtracks to accompany the carnage. While they dabbled briefly with other platforms, including a port of the arcade version of Thunder Force III to the SNES (as Thunder Spirits), Tecnosoft mainly threw their hat in with Sega, almost exclusively developing for the Mega Drive and later the Saturn.
These swirling fire effects were very impressive back in the day
This would prove to be lucrative for both companies while ever the sun continued to shine on the Sega empire. Thunder Force was an iconic series on the Mega Drive, from the release of Thunder Force II as a launch title for the US Genesis through to Thunder Force IV (Lightening Force in the US), which is often regarded as the pinnacle of the series and one of the top tier games in the Mega Drive's extensive software library. Direct comparisons between the SNES and MD ports of Thunder Force III would clearly demonstrate Sega's superior "Blast Processing" CPU speed, which was used to bolster many a playground argument during the 16-bit wars.
61 colours from a palette of 512 does provide enough graphical fidelity, you jerk! 
Tecnosoft continued to experiment with their craft by developing several new IPs for the Sega Saturn (and also sony playstation) during the 32-bit era. Some of these titles now fetch insane prices nowadays due to their desirability and small production runs. One of these titles is the shmup Blast Wind, which is where our Justice Ray story begins. Hyakutaro Tsukumo composed the soundtrack to the game, and his efforts culminated in the epic final boss theme - The Justice Ray.
Pure, distilled badarsery.
Demonstrating his mastery of the shmup musical genre, Tsukomo was commissioned again to work on the soundtrack of Tecnosoft's long awaited next instalment in their flagship Thunder Force series - Thunder Force V. He would again revisit The Justice Ray composition for the final boss theme, and the re-imagined result was The Justice Ray Part 2 - the first in the series to introduce the iconic church bells into the mix, eliciting the sense of foreboding and grave finality of humanity's last ditch efforts to survive against the ORN empire.
Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. 

Unfortunately, this is where our story takes a sad turn. Tecnosoft struggled to survive during the 32-bit era. The beginnings of 3D gaming required larger development teams and bigger budgets than the 16-bit era, and when games weren't successful, the developer needed to absorb larger hits to their bottom line. Rather than sticking to the shmup genre that they were famous for, they tried their hand at many different game styles, including beat-em-ups and 3D action games, most of which didn't strike a chord with gamers (sounds a bit like a certain first party developer, always willing to gamble on new ideas each new generation, rather than churning out uninspired sequels). Emboldened by the success of the Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest series, they gambled a lot on their playstation RPG Neorude, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful.
There is a sad parallel here with Sega's own high stakes gamble on Yu Suzuki's Shenmue,
but no-one has been clambering for a Kickstarter revival of Neorude III.
Apart from a playstation port of Thunder Force V by Working Designs, most of Tecnosoft's output during this time wasn't localised for Western release, further limiting the potential sales from each new title. There were rumours of Working Designs negotiating a US Saturn release of a Tecnosoft shoot-em-up compilation consisting of Blast Wind, Hyper Duel and Thunder Force Gold Pack 1, but this was soon dead in the water when Bernie Stolar effectively torpedoed the discussions by uttering the ignominious words "The Saturn is not our future".
Presented without commentary
As the Dreamcast came into view over the horizon, Tecnosoft were in dire straits, and the struggling developer decided to risk it all on one final gamble - Thunder Force VI. They would return to their bread and butter specialty, hoping to bottle the same lightning that brought them global success during the Mega Drive era. They hitched their wagon onto the Dreamcast stallion, as, at the time, it looked as if the handsome beast would be their saviour, providing an opportunity to re-establish a footprint in the West and hopefully turning both Sega's and Tecnosoft's fortunes around. Tsukomo began working on the soundtrack, including a brand new third installment to his Justice Ray masterpiece.
The promised land is ahead, just beyond the rising sun...
Unfortunately, the development of Thunder Force VI took longer than anticipated. Some videos and early screenshots were released in 2000 showing the progress that had been made, but when the game was still unfinished by the time Sega announced they were was calling it quits in early 2001, Tecnosoft had run out of time. The company was soon after gobbled up by pachinko manufacturer Twenty-one Company. Tsukomo would release his unused Thunder Force VI soundtrack under the title "Broken Thunder," and a buggy unfinished doujin game of the same name was released on Windows PC in 2007, showing off what little remained of the original Thunder Force VI assets.
Sadly, the dream is broken, never to be seen again..
All was not completely lost however. Tez Okano, a developer at Sega who was busy putting the final touches on his secret two year Segagaga project, was saddened by the news of Thunder Force VI's cancellation. He would go some way to rectify this travesty, by securing the rights to Tsukomo's Justice Ray Part 3, and put it to good use in his Thunder Force inspired final boss battle for Segagaga, where *spoiler alert* giant old Sega consoles that had gone rogue would attempt to shoot era appropriate sprites at the player valiantly defending Sega's Headquarters in a modified flying R360 arcade machine. To this day, this sequence and the accompanying music still bring a tear to my eye. It's appropriately cathartic, and a fitting swan song to Sega's first party empire.
Tez Okano would go on to develop the officially released Thunder Force VI on playstation 2 in 2008, but this was an entirely independent project from the original Dreamcast concept, created by Sega under the Thunder Force license. 

For the longest time, I thought The Justice Ray saga ended here. It was in three beautiful movements, much like a classical masterpiece by Mozart or Beethoven. The composition, and by association the Thunder Force series, neatly bookend the beginning and the end of Sega's golden age. However, just recently, I stumbled upon this.
I don't know much about Stepmania, but this doesn't look to be humanly possible

Again drawing parallels with Sega's own fate, Hyakutaro Tsukumo went freelance after the collapse of Tecnosoft (and in many ways, always was independent). The Thunder may be Broken, but the Light of Justice will shine on... in other franchises.  He composed The Justice Ray Part 4, which was used in Koei's 2006 playstation 2 naval battle sim Warship Gunner 2: Kurogane no Houkou (Steel Roar), aka Naval Ops: Warship Gunner 2 in the US. By all accounts, the game is a bit of a hidden gem, but was never released in PAL territories.
I think this is now my new favourite rendition

And of course, if there is a Part 4, why not a Part 5? Subtitled "The Last Howling," the fifth Justice Ray can be found in G.rev's (another Dreamcast alumni) 2013 cult run stomp 'n' gun mech action shooter on PSP - Kisou Ryouhei Gunhound EX. The game was later ported to Steam in 2014 as Armored Hunter Gunhound EX for Western audiences, and I might just end this article here to go off and buy myself a copy...
If it's by G.rev, it's bound to be good.

Will there ever be a Justice Ray Part 6? Who knows, maybe it will accompany a Thunder Force VII in the near future. We can only hope...

2 comments:

The GagaMan(n) said...

I loved this song in Segagaga, but had no idea it had such a long history. Brilliant article :)

doceggfan said...

Thanks man