Pretty much since I started playing games, I’ve been a giant fan of the music. Give me an excuse to ramble on about game soundtracks, specific or general, and I’ll surely be happy to. I’ve recently been asked a rather tricky question, though, one I haven’t really spent much time thinking about before:
What’s my favourite game soundtrack?
Rather than give a straight answer, I figured this might be a decent opportunity to quickly revisit a bit of my gaming history. After all, I’ve played a lot of games in my life, many of which have at least one great track on the OST. As such, I’m probably going to forget a hell of a lot of tunes that thoroughly deserve a mention, but I’ll do me best. To be honest, this is going to end up just being, more than anything else, a giant list of games with music that I think is worth mentioning for being really super sweet.
My gaming story starts as a kid, getting a Game Boy Advance and the game of the first Harry Potter movie. I rented a lot of games back then, since I couldn’t afford to buy ’em, and one of the games I distinctly remember throwing a major tantrum over when I had to take it back to the shop was Pokémon Silver. I loved that game, even at an age where I didn’t really understand just how big of a deal Pokémon was. (Our TV was shit, so I never got to watch Saturday morning cartoons. That’s probably why I absolutely love them now, since I’m an adult and therefore finally free to watch all the kids’ shows I want.) I don’t think there’s anyone who’s played a Pokémon game who won’t get a little frisson of nostalgia when they hear the Pokémon Centre theme, or the opening bars of the battle music. Even now, when the newer games tend to remix the iconic tunes pretty heavily, I can’t help but smile whenever I catch a few notes from the past.
I also played a fair bit of Tetris, and I would be remiss if I let this article go without tipping my hat to its immortal theme music. It was one of the first pieces I learned to play on the piano, and I must have spent hours as a kid riffing little variations on the polka-esque tunes. I was terrible at actually playing Tetris, but I was pretty frickin’ hot at reproducing its music.
Before I got my first PlayStation 2, I played a few games at friends’ houses, or hung out in the game shop my neighbour owned and annoyed him until he let me play his consoles. That was about when I first heard of the Final Fantasy series, though I didn’t actually play through any of the games until years later. I also had my first dabblings with the Koei series Dynasty Warriors, a bizarre historical-fiction-based mashup of beat-’em-up, Chinese mythology and electric guitars. I’ll openly admit that Dynasty Warriors (and its offshoots, the Samurai Warriors and Warriors Orochi series-es) doesn’t have the most nuanced gameplay, or the most artistic merit, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t just straight-up fun. You wouldn’t believe how satisfying it is to mow through thousands of mooks while some weird fusion of metal and traditional Oriental music blares at ya.
Oh, and PaRappa The Rapper. Can not forget that.
I also got pretty into some arcade-style PS2 games like Crazy Taxi around this time. I didn’t have much of a desire to play digital sports, mirroring my lack of interest in real sports, but I did also have a bit of a fling with SSX 3. These games didn’t have much in the way of OSTs, but they did have in-game radios. Through these, I was introduced to The Offspring, Caesar’s Palace, Finger Eleven and probably many other bands I still listen to even now, but just forgot that fictional radio stations were where I discovered them. Later, when I played a bit of GTA and quite a lot of Saint’s Row, I also developed a bit more of a taste for the medley of rap, grime, metal and (just ‘cos) baroque that tended to play while I was driving around the city looking for a sucka in whose ass I could pop a proverbial cap. Far Cry 3 also had one great use of non-original music, at which I burst out laughing when I first realised what was going on.
Theme Park World was another game I sunk a lot of time into. Compared to stuff like Rollercoaster Tycoon on the PC, it wasn’t exactly the best of sims, but it was what I had and I’ll be darned if I didn’t love building a theme park. Its music was simple, but fitting: unintrusive, well-defined background tracks that were clearly themed and suited to each area.
Oh, heck, and Katamari Damacy!
Later in life, having somehow just missed them entirely as a kid, I started playing the Zelda games. I
emulated bought and legally played Ocarina, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess… I still think that I missed out on Zelda in some ways, because I never was as big a fan of them as I think I ought to have been. Whatever that means. Still, I love the way Ocarina in particular worked its music into its gameplay, and tracks like the main prelude, Zelda’s and Epona’s themes and the Wind Waker credits will always have a place on my iPod. While I was at it with the N64 games, I also had a bash at Conker’s Bad Fur Day, which has at least one excellent tune in its own right. Plus I went back a little further to Chrono Trigger, and that game’s ability to convey the stories and personalities of its characters through their leitmotifs will never stop impressing me.
When I got a computer that was able to handle it (I’ve still never had one that could play anything demanding whatsoever), I was hooked by Bastion (and, later, its spiritual successor Transistor). I’ve written elsewhere on Bastion‘s very particular use of a couple of tracks on its OST, but the overall feeling of the soundtrack as a whole is just wonderful. It’s one of the best-fitting soundtracks I can think of, and I do think that a game soundtrack’s job is to augment the work it’s attached to. There are, of course, game soundtracks which stand alone as pieces in their own right, but I consider that there could be a brilliant track which just wouldn’t work as a game piece. Equally, the Pokémon Centre theme would be super out of place in Bastion, so I think the real art of game music is in fitting it to the game it’s for. Or, of course, you can do a Toby Fox and write the soundtrack first, then write the game around it.
Other PC games I’ve been obsessed with over the years include: Undertale, which has some of the best uses of leitmotif I can remember; Civilisation IV and V (the main theme of the former being the first Grammy-winning video game piece, but both boasting some seriously sweet tracks); Hotline Miami, the bizarre, pulsing soundtrack of which just enhances the drug-addled feel of the game; The Sims (might not be in the discussion of good soundtracks as much as it ought to be – just listen to that and try not to be whipped into a buying and building frenzy); and various instances of Halo. That game’s main theme gets a lot of love, understandably, but there are at least one or two other tracks that I think are worthy of high praise.
I’ve also been an Xbox 360 gamer; Dark Souls has a lot of excellent music, particularly themes associated with bosses. Mirror’s Edge and Portal both have great original songs named ‘Still Alive’, weirdly. I doubt anyone who’s played Portal could forget its version of that song, but Portal 2‘s ‘Want You Gone’ is just as good in my book. Skyrim is also known for the track that was most associated with it in advertising, but some of Jeremy Soule’s incidental tracks are nothing short of beautiful.
OH, HECK, AND SUPER MARIO
There are also plenty of DS, iOS or browser games I think are worth mentioning: the Ace Attorney series has some pretty epic tunes, as do Ghost Trick and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors (and its sequel, Virtue’s Last Reward). Fire Emblem, too, gets in some right bangers across its many titles. I’ve also got to throw out an honourable nod to You Have To Burn The Rope, without which no list of the greatest songs ever would be complete.
Now we’re getting on to the games I really wanted to talk about, and the ones that I can’t deny are the first to pop into my head when I’m asked about game music: Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy.
Admittedly, Kingdom Hearts has a slight advantage here, because composer Yoko Shimomura has a lot of the Disney back-catalogue of iconic material to work with, plus a few of Final Fantasy‘s tracks. But still. I mean, come oooon. I’m fully, one-hundred-percent aware that I’m ginormously biased towards a semi-irrational love of all things KH, but I just can’t get over how phenomenal its music is. The two ‘Piano Collections’ albums exemplify this, I think. In the first album, we get the themes of Sora, Kairi and Riku, a couple of sweet battle beats, and then Roxas and Namine’s themes, which I just think are fantastic. Much as Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu is sometimes considered a translation by Chopin of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Roxas and Namine’s themes take all the musical ideas expressed in Sora, Kairi and Riku’s, plus the dark undertones of Organisation XIII’s leitmotif, and expresses them again and anew. It’s very appropriate, if you know the story, because Roxas and Namine are mishmashes of Sora, Kairi and Riku in much the same way that their themes approximate. The second album, subtitled ‘Field and Battle’ to help distinguish it, takes this to an altogether new level with Xion’s theme, quite possibly my favourite piano piece of all time. And yet, even with all that stunning complexity, the one that will reduce me practically to tears every time I hear it is this one. Dearly Beloved appears at the opening of every game, and it gets me in a way I don’t think anything else does. Its concert reprise is pretty darn sweet, but… nothing beats that simple theme. I played Kingdom Hearts 2 for the first time in a few years not long ago, and I spent far too long just sitting at the main menu feeling all sorts of fanboy emotions.
Then there are the Final Fantasy piano collections, which I’m not as madly, irrationally obsessed with as the Kingdom Hearts ones, but there are still some beautiful tunes. To Zanarkand from FFX is actually the first piece I ever played on piano for an audience, so that’ll always have a special place in my heart. And the many versions of One-Winged Angel, whether the piano or the original or the heavy mashup from Advent Children, are inescapably epic.
And that… probably comes nowhere near to covering it, but it’ll have to do!
Thanks to the team at Later Levels, who asked me the question. I’m hoping I’ll be able to be part of their ‘question of the month’ features again in future! You can read my (extremely abridged) contribution, as well as other bloggers’ opinions on the best soundtracks, here. Also, just generally check them out. They cool.