Soundtracks in games have become immense. That’s the only word to describe it. Rising from the limited but creatively excellent 8-bit sound to the glorious, vast orchestral giants. Original or not, the musical direction of a game has always been one of the underlying aspects that makes a game. Of course there is gameplay, graphics and plot but if there isn’t the depth that music provides, then really there’s nothing to supports the game. Can you imagine Sonic without its glorious background music? No. Exactly. So I decided (quite some time ago, but I’ve been too scared to publish it) to compile my top ten list of game music – in no particular order. There are some rules as well, which I’ve adhered to.
Like movies, game soundtracks have taken a huge direction in popularising music as well as using established music. Obvious nods must go to the EA Sports titles as well as various racing games. In fact F1 2010 has a great soundtrack. The NFL series has its own theme, The Madden Theme composed by NFL composer David Robidoux which is brilliant and genuinely excites you to play the game. To this end though, unless composed specifically for the game, it will not be allowed on this list. Which means the likes of “Beyond The Sea” from Bioshock and every Grand Theft Auto soundtrack is excluded. Again however, a notable mention to the GTA series; GTA 3’s Mix FM was a hardcore way to drive and mow people down, and who can forget the utter brilliance that is GTA Vice City. So, only originally composed music for the game. It can be a song, just as long as it’s exclusive to the game.
Another rule is that I can only have one choice from a game or franchise of games. So no Mario 1 and Mario 3 for example, I can only choose one from the entire series. This will cause great consternation in my choices… possibly. I have put no constraints on the platforms; everything from Spectrum 48k to Xbox 360 has been considered.
Chani’s Eyes – Dune (PC/Amiga/Sega CD) 1992
So as far as games go, Dune 2: The Battle for Arrakis gets the props in the gaming community as the template for the entire Command & Conquer series. So Cryo’s first game, the adventure tactical RPG is not so highly renowned. However, it is a great game with loose links to the movie, though if you haven’t read the book, you might be a bit lost as to what you should do. The soundtrack itself is a source of much controversy. Stooped in a long legal battle with the composer, it was finally released as Exxon: Spice Opera and if you’re lucky enough to own an original copy from the early 90s you can download this legally… Otherwise you’re screwed. However, this tune, which forms the source of the main tune from the game, is a great piece of music that, if you’ve played the game, perfectly fits the desperation of the planet and the epic landscapes it portrays.
Title theme – Streets Of Rage (Mega Drive/Genesis) 1991
I’m giving a few more honourable nods here before I go into why I’ve chosen this one. Those being Golden Axe 1 & 2, Shinobi and Double Dragon. Again, great games with awesome soundtracks, especially the Golden Axe series. However they all suffer from one problem… They sound dated. Not the sound of course but the music itself. The Golden Axe 2 theme for example starts like a grand giant Conan The Barbarian epic until it goes into some 80’s action tune. Streets Of Rage does not sound dated. It is a cool piece of music that wouldn’t be out of place in many contemporary police or detective dramas. And that’s why everyone loves it. It holds the tension perfectly for the story it unveils in the titles. Many games had music and a brief description of a plot traversing the screen, but Streets Of Rage did this perfectly. It matched the tone and the darkness of the game. If someone were to recreate this with real instruments, I would challenge you not to be impressed. Whether you went orchestral or rock with it, it would sound just as good and as dark as the original.
Far Away by Jose Gonzalez – Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360/PS3) 2010
I brought the limited edition of this game because it came with the soundtrack. I love westerns. The Morricone scores for the Man With No Name trilogy are outstanding. I even liked the score to the old LucasArts PC game Outlaws, which paid homage to the genre. So I brought it for some good old western music. Imagine my surprise when (SPOILERS) I crossed the river into Mexico and suddenly this epic, vast, beautiful landscape, encapsulated in a song comes out of nowhere. There were no songs before, only great incidental music, so this, beautiful piece of music, blew my mind. I was slowly trotting along with my horse and then this filled the air. It is the single, most perfect placement of a song anywhere in a game. Imagine my surprise when I found out it was done exclusively for the game and my joy when I remembered I had the soundtrack. There’s not much more I can say that the song doesn’t, but if you want a special treat, head over to the Rockstar official website for the game. There you will find a live acoustic rooftop performance of the song by the man himself. Well worth a look.
Dogs Of War – Medal of Honor: European Assault (Xbox/PS2/GC) 2005
Michael Giacchino has written the scores for pretty much all of the Medal of Honor series. Famous now for composing Alias, Lost, Star Trek, MI:3… Basically he’s J.J. Abrams right hand man for music. For this game however he did not, and it shows. It’s a refreshing difference to the series. Admittedly the first time I heard it was in a trailer for EA’s The Simpsons Game, which also used it. But once discovered, I could only marvel at how this song really shows the bravery, courage and dire futility of war. Far being from a normal “these brave men sacrificed their lives for their country” type of score, it really does bring something genuinely upsetting and foreboding. Which is perfect for the type of game it is. Like the end of Star Wars Episode 2, it ends on not this gallant major epic note of the others but a soft, sombre, low minor note. It evokes emotion to really say to you, the player, “Look you’re having fun, but this really happened. People have died, pointlessly. People still do and it’s not to be forgotten in the entertainment of triumph.”… MESSAGE!
Ending – Sonic The Hedgehog 2 (Mega Drive/Genesis) 1992
WHAT!?!?!?!!!! You’re using the END of a game as the music???? Not the theme? Not the Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1? WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU???
Have you got the rage out of your system enough yet to hear me out? Good. Well yes I agree the 5 second Sonic the Hedgehog theme is iconic. As is the relentless drone of the Green Hill Zone until you hear the jingle of rings fly out of you as you accidently hit a monkey in a tree or the bolt from a crab. But cast your mind back to the ending of Sonic 1 (or YouTube it if you’ve forgotten). You’re in this big metal place; you beat Dr. Robotnik and then BAMM!!! You’re back in Green Hill with a slight reprise of the theme before the credits repeat the zone’s themes. Sonic 2 on the other hand had a story ending (which Sonic 3 ripped off. Don’t remember? YouTube it) that actually followed what was happening. The scene where (SPOILERS) you are falling from the destroyed Death Egg in space before Tails comes to your rescue in the plane and catches you. The music is composed for the sequence and is rather rewarding once you’ve completed it. It makes you feel that you’ve achieved something for this world that you’ve been playing in and not just completing a game.
Title Theme – Silent Hill (PlayStation) 1999
I don’t expect too much criticism on this one to be honest. What can you say other than it is a great mystery track. At a time when The X-Files was popular and children’s shows like ‘Goosebumps’ and ‘Are You Afraid Of The Dark?’ haunted and excited, there was a nice, almost minimalist approach to music for the horror portrayed, so it didn’t detract from the story or cost a lot but was in keeping with the genre whilst making an iconic theme (X-Files & Millennium are prime examples). This is gaming’s version of those iconic themes. It’s almost a film score with Silent Hill and the composer; Akira Yamaoka has gained huge notoriety for his work on the series. But for me his best theme has to be the original. The slow warm tremolo guitar sound with the beauty of the mandolin (without looking it up), sets up the game and it sets up the atmosphere. Something which I believe, so I’ve heard, Alan Wake also does brilliantly. If you’re looking for a song to head a survival horror third-person game, then this is it.
Welcome To Rapture – Bioshock (PC/Xbox 360/PS3) 2007
Ok so I know my earlier statement about the rules, but this is within them. This piece of music is one of the many originally composed pieces for the game and perfectly complements the beginning wonder and drama of seeing Rapture for the first time. It is evil, epic, yet tragic – the lament of a wonderful grand dream and visionary idea twisted to serve the needs of those who seek to exploit it. And the fact that you never hear the music again in the game is a further effort to make it more poignant. In my opinion, which is the point of this blog, if there were to be a Bioshock movie, it would be criminal if the reveal of rapture weren’t welcomed to the screen with a loud rousing reproduction of this piece. This music IS Rapture. Not the year when the game’s set. Not the Art Deco brilliance of the design. Not even the psychotic Splicers and characters. This piece is Rapture.
The Legend of Zelda – The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GC) 2003
Now this is going to get me carted through the streets like the criminal I am. However this piece of music is perfect in every way for the series. I love the theme. In any version, from 8-bit to 16-bit to even the amusing System Of A Down rendition. However, this so far is the best use of the theme. In fact the entire soundtrack to the Wind Waker is a beautiful opus to its lovely nautical almost cartoon-like graphics, which is the perfect way to treat such an iconic character (in the games mythology of course). The theme for Zelda is the best adventure theme for a computer game (Final Fantasy fans have just created voodoo dolls of me now) and like Streets Of Rage, it is not dated in the slightest. It’s perfectly recreated in any form without losing what it is or the time. As a fan of the Conan movies, I can relate to great theme tunes that stay with you and sound right, regardless of them being 28 years old. A few notable nods here (on the subject of adventure games), are going to the entire LucasArts series: Monkey Island, Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and to Fable (with Danny Elfman no less).
Unforgotten – Halo 2 (Xbox 360/PC) 2004
A lot is made of the Halo soundtracks. As of time of writing the Halo: Reach soundtrack is currently number 3 in the iTunes Soundtrack album chart. The music for the Halo franchise is simply brilliant. Marty O’ Donnell makes up for his lack of gaming ability with his talent with the musical stave. I love the Halo soundtracks… all of them. So my hardest decision was which song to choose. There are the iconic chanting monks for the theme, which is brilliant and encapsulating. There’s the opus of how Halo 3 pans out with some great music during the in-game sequences, which take from all of the previous games. Even the trailers to the games have had incredible music and the brilliance of the atmospheric Halo 3: ODST is beyond comparison. However once I went onto Unforgotten, I knew that it couldn’t be anything else. This is an absolutely beautiful piece of music, first heard in Halo 2 but repeats throughout 2 and 3, notably on the menu screens for 3. I challenge you to provide a better, more emotive piece of music from the entire series. Hats off to you Marty.
Still Alive – Portal (PC/Xbox 360/PS3) 2007
Ok so maybe this is cheating as it’s on everyone’s list but this has to be on my list. For the pure reason of how brilliant the game was as well as it being an utterly original and hilarious payoff. I got this game and was with a friend who was watching me play it. Of course it didn’t take long but we were laughing at how deliciously insane GlaDOS was. Then game over (SPOILERS). Fair enough. Nice game, original, fun and entertaining. Then GlaDOS sings… There was nothing funnier than listening to her at that moment in time. Jonathon Coulton’s lyrics are incredible. There are several insane computers in Science Fiction and gaming. But I can’t ever see Hal 9000 donning a tuxedo and banging out some Sinatra at the end of a movie. GlaDOS was different and when you look in retrospect, it makes sense that a dead (?) computer sings a lovely song about science. Want some other funny songs? Try ‘That’s Death’ from the beginning of Discworld 2: Missing, presumed? (UK title).