The importance of music in video games can never be overstated. In any given scene, a single piece can enhance the atmosphere or completely ruin it. When a game is trying to tell a story, the music should be helping to dictate the pace. While everyone takes something different from hearing music in games, here are the gaming soundtracks that will stay with me for life.
Disclaimer: Since most of my favorite gaming music comes from the Final Fantasy series, I’m grouping them together to avoid it becoming all about them.
Jet Set Willy 2
Back in the eighties, while Sega and Nintendo were still in the process of gaining their foothold in the Western gaming market, there were these other platforms known as ‘home computers.’ They were a little more versatile than consoles in that you could actually write your own programs on them, but unfortunately, loading games could be a bit of a slog as they were predominantly housed on cassette tapes.
Anyway. I digress. On the ZX Spectrum, there was a platform game called Jet Set Willy 2. You’d collect items from some very surreal-looking rooms while being spurred along by a chip-tune version of Edvard Grieg‘s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King.’ It has a great mid-range tempo that keeps you moving from one room to the next in your goal to pick up every glowing piece in the game.
It was almost mesmerizing. That’s not all, though. You also have the privilege of hearing Ludwig van Beethoven‘s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ on the main menu. Even with the relatively primitive music software back in the day, I couldn’t help but be impressed with those classical pieces even as a small child.
I’m referring only to the very first Road Rash game on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis). If this is a little before your time, Road Rash is a game in which you ride a sports bike in various road races against fourteen opponents, where the goal is to finish in a top-three spot in every race to progress to the next level. When you progress to the next level, the opponents get quicker bikes and the races are longer.
To counter this, you have to purchase a faster bike with your race winnings to keep up. Oh, and your opponents will also be trying to stop you by kicking, punching, or hitting you with a club to knock you off your bike. So that’s fun! Anyway, accompanying you on your violent ride are some truly rocking 16-bit synth tracks.
Despite none of the instruments in the game sounding much like their real-life counterparts, it’s still quite easy to imagine where they lead, rhythm and bass guitars fit, along with the high-energy drumming. You have five different areas to race, so that means five excellent pieces of music to speed you along. If a remake of Road Rash happened, it would be absolutely epic to listen to these tracks played by a real band!
Secret of Mana
More 16-bit goodness in one of the greatest RPGs to exist (in my opinion anyway). Randi, Primm, and Popoi are on a mission to save the world with the help of the accidentally acquired Mana Sword. There are the usual collection of baddies, monsters and conspiracies set in a vibrant and colorful world of sprites.
This is all backed by a wonderful score composed by Horoki Kikuta. Each synthesized track fits the current mood of each scenario. For example, your initial visit to the underground Dwarf Village in Gaia’s Navel brings with it a feeling of a hard-working but fun-loving people. The jaunty, high-paced music is perfect for this, just like your arrival for the first time in the Kingdom of Pandora. You’ve already had a warning that something is wrong, but the background sound really emphasizes that.
The slow-paced, somber sounds tell you that this looks like a typical town, but there’s something not quite right. This is backed up by most of the NPCs having literally nothing to say as you try to engage with them. Kikuta has gauged each scenario and composed the perfect accompanying piece of music each time. A truly wonderful storytelling experience backed by a truly wonderful soundtrack!
The Final Fantasy Series
Oh, where to even begin! Fifteen main series entries along with numerous spin-offs. Oh, and also that remake of Final Fantasy VII that’s going on. Music that can make you laugh cry and ride a roller-coaster of every single emotion in between. You know a piece of music has done its job when you can picture the scene that it’s associated with. And Final Fantasy has some of the best video game soundtracks.
From Aerith’s gentle theme in Final Fantasy VII to the crashing drums of ‘Liberi Fatali’ in Final Fantasy VIII, to the heavy metal ‘Otherworld’ track that introduces us briefly to the sport of Blitzball in Final Fantasy X. Almost every track is iconic in its own right and helps to weave another epic Final Fantasy tale. Nobuo Uematsu has, on many occasions, been referred to as the John Williams of video game composing.
I’d dare anyone to argue with that. Just to further emphasize the brilliance of the music of Final Fantasy, many of the most popular tracks of the series have been re-recorded by full orchestras and released as their own albums under the Distant Worlds name. Additionally, composer Arnie Roth has teamed up with Uematsu and toured the world to play live concerts. I had the pleasure of attending one of these concerts at The Royal Albert Hall in London. It is quite simply an experience I will never forget.
Over the years, we have been given the opportunity to immerse ourselves in some fantastic gaming experiences and whether we’ve realized it or not, the music has been right there with us. So, all I can say to the composers out there is, thank you for the music.
What are your favorite video game soundtracks? Let us know in the comments below and on social media!
The article was written by Richard Camfield.
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