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One of my favorite video game-related collectibles is this cassette of music from Heiankyo Alien, a game from publisher Meldac for the original Game Boy. I believe I found it at the summer Consumer Electronics Show in 1990, sitting on top of the partition between Meldac’s booth and the booth next to it. Note that I didn’t say “I obtained it...” or “It was given to me...” as I would say about any other trade-show
promo item. When I say that I found it, I mean I just saw it lying on that partition, and I picked it up. It was literally the only one there. I assumed that they had a bunch of them, and that I happened to arrive when there was only one left. But to this day I have never seen another.    

I am enchanted by this thing for so many different reasons. First of all, the game itself and the company that published it are both fascinating. Heiankyo Alien was originally an arcade game developed at the University of Tokyo in 1979. Its popularity in Japan never matched that of Space Invaders, but its deeper gameplay attracted a following of serious players who tested and shared playing strategies, not unlike the patterns they would later develop to conquer Pac-Man. Because of the name, the accompanying artwork and the setting, it’s also one of the very first quintessentially Japanese video games. Heiankyo is what the city of Kyoto was called during the Heian period, approximately 1,000 years ago, and the game’s protagonist is a Kebiishi, a Heian military officer. That’s about as much culture and historical context as you could possibly squeeze into a video game in 1979!

In bringing the game to North American Game Boy owners, it’s commendable that Meldac chose to retain the original title and storyline at a time when most publishers were modifying game content and packaging to minimize evidence of their Japanese origins, if not eliminate it altogether. Meldac even trumpeted the game as a “Japanese Masterpiece” in print advertisements and used the same box art on both the Japanese and North American versions of the game. You won’t find much information about Meldac on the Web—not in English, at least—but the 1990 World of Nintendo Buyer’s Guide that I scanned for a previous article on this very site reveals that the company was a joint venture funded by Mitsubishi Electric Corp., a popular Japanese vocal group called the Dark Ducks and Crown Record (also known as Nippon Crown, itself a subsidiary of Nippon Columbia). Meldac was also a music publisher (and continued to publish music long after its game division fizzled out), which sort of explains why the Heiankyo Alien music was treated to its own release, albeit as a “limited edition” industry giveaway. It might also explain why the quality of the game’s music is a cut above that of most original Game Boy software.

Tracks 1 through 6 are sampled directly from actual Game Boy hardware, but they are enhanced with some reverb effects, as was common with commercial video-game soundtracks in the 8-bit era. I find it fascinating when video-game music is given descriptive titles as opposed to generic labels like “Stage 1 Theme,” “Boss Theme” and
so on. It lends to the credibility of the idea that these songs can stand alone as artistic works—that they don’t have to be linked to gameplay in order to be enjoyable. I have no way of knowing if the song titles were actually chosen by the person who composed the music, but they do add to the mystique of Heiankyo Alien. The fifth track, “Kagome Kagome,” is actually an arrangement of a children’s playground song from a traditional game that’s similar to “Ring Around the Rosie” or Musical Chairs. It can be heard in the game during a Kabuki-style intermission in which Knight Kebiishi plays a quick game of Kagome Kagome with four aliens!

Track 7 is a dynamic “arranged version” of the Knight Kebiishi theme that—to the best of my knowledge—has never appeared anywhere else. (In video-game music parlance, the term “arranged” refers to chiptunes being played by actual musical instruments, or—at the very least—a good MIDI setup that sounds like real instrumentation.) This may have been the first song of its kind that I ever heard, and it really sparked my interest in game music in general.

The real surprise is the last track, “Message From the Alien,” the lone cut on Side B of the cassette. It’s a professionally narrated and voice-acted recording that was apparently made for some type of Heiankyo Alien telephone hotline. “As a special reward to those who dare to battle with the evil from beyond,” it says, “we’ll give away a free Meldac original designer T-shirt to the first 80 warriors who buy Heiankyo Alien. These are one-of-a-kind T-shirts featuring the Heiankyo Alien in all his gruesome glory.” (I don’t know how something could be “one of a kind” when there are 80 of them, but if somebody actually still owns one of these, it probably did attain one-of-a-kind status around the turn of the century.) The phone message goes on to mention another Meldac game in development, an unnamed “action/shooting/role-playing experience.” They’re probably talking about Mercenary Force, another weird Game Boy adventure with a historical Japanese premise.

There’s also some cryptic discussion of “the very latest in audio technology: the Multi-Matrix Sound System” used in Heiankyo Alien. I didn’t actually own a copy of the game when I first listened to this tape, so I concocted a wild theory about what the Multi-Matrix Sound System could possibly be. It seemed to be related to the game’s two-player Link Cable mode, in which “...each Game Boy plays its very own rock and roll background music, then...the sounds suddenly merge to create an incredible combination all its own!” The Game Boy was capable of stereo sound, and the Link Cable allowed synchronization between two systems, so theoretically it should have been possible for two connected units to play music with four independent channels—the world’s first quadraphonic video-game soundtrack! It’s worth pointing out (though probably irrelevant) that one of Meldac’s parent companies was also the developer of the UD-4/UMX system, one of several methods of quadraphonic encoding that were commercially supported in the 1970s.

My idea was sound in theory, but unlikely in practice. The Game Boy was only equipped with a single speaker, so the only way to experience both the left and right sides of a stereo soundtrack was by listening with headphones. This would defeat the purpose of quadraphonic reproduction, because then you wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds produced by the other player’s system, unless you had been born with four functioning
ears. I guess you could listen to all four outputs at once by hooking up external stereo speakers to each Game Boy unit, but who would ever be willing to go through that much trouble? It was hard enough to find another player who owned a copy of Heiankyo Alien and was available for a Link Cable hook-up.

When I finally got to play Heiankyo Alien in two-player mode, I discovered that my guess about Multi-Matrix Sound was not too far off the mark. When you link up two Game Boy units, each system will play a slightly different version of “Rock n’ Roll in Kyoto,” a silly 1950s-style rock number with a traditional 12-bar blues progression. It’s not quite the masterpiece of harmony and counterpoint that I had envisioned...and the resulting cacophony does not appear to be truly quadraphonic. In fact, each side uses only three of the Game Boy hardware’s four sound generators, and two of those three “voices” (the bass pattern and the percussion sounds) are identical on both ends. The only difference is the main melody, which alternates between lead, rhythm and harmony parts. This suggests that the song was probably composed for stereo reproduction on a single Game Boy...and that the idea of silencing one of the two solo “voices” for each player in multiplayer mode may have been made later, when the programmer(s) realized that such separation could simulate the sound of guitar players trading solos during a live performance. The promo cassette version of this song actually includes both sides of the multiplayer audio mixed down to stereo. The separation is not reproduced accurately because the added reverb bleeds across both channels, but the MP3 linked above (Track 6) gives you a good idea of what the mysterious Multi-Matrix Sound System sounded like. The output from one Game Boy can be heard on the left, while the output from the other Game Boy can be heard on the right.  

Unfortunately, this cassette is missing a few songs from the game, including the theme from the third phase of the “New” mode and the music that plays when you reach the ending. They may have been preserved elsewhere, though, as there is apparently a CD version of the Heiankyo Alien Game Boy soundtrack that Meldac produced as a promo item in Japan. If you happen to own a copy, please contact me; I’d like to know more about the track listing and maybe find out if you’re interested in selling it to me.

© 2011 Chris Bieniek. Certain video game images, characters and logos on this Web site are copyrighted or trademarked by their respective publishers.