The dulcet bleeps and bloops of the wood-paneled Intellivision were my introduction into the world of video games back in 1984. Even as my exposure to the medium took an errant path from system to system, I’ve always had fond memories and a strong appreciation for the music that to this day have stuck with me. Music is something that moves us, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and there is no more obvious case than with video games. Think of the first seven notes of the overworld theme of the original Super Mario Brothers. The rest come flowing forth, like Cartman being exposed to the first few lyrics of Come Sail Away.
I’d like to take a few moments to share with you all the music from games that have moved me and stayed in my mind these past decades.
Streets of Rage 2 (1992 – GEN)
There is a phenomenon with many Genesis titles, where the sound and music tend to fall on opposite ends of the quality spectrum. This was because the Yamaha YM2612 FM chip had a lackluster core toolset, but was receptive to highly customized engines. Yuzo Koshiro did things with the Genesis sound hardware that few could even dream of because he programmed his own sound engines. The result was a quintessential dance soundtrack for the Streets of Rage series. These were games I would sometimes put in for the sole purpose of going into the BGM selector in the Options menu and letting those tracks play ad infinitum. Streets of Rage 2 in particular is so chock to the brim with amazing Rave, House, Techno, and Hardcore tunes, that it stands head and shoulders above the rest. Dreamer was selected here because it’s a feel-good and heavy-hitting house track with some amazing melodies.
Motoi Sakuraba is one of those composers that have been in gaming for a long, long time. Before that, however, he was involved in the Japanese prog rock music scene in the 80s. Once game systems finally had the power to push out more complex arrangements, and pull data from CDs, he let that rock beast out and with a force. On their own, the in-game soundtracks for the Saturn titles Shining Force III and Shining the Holy Ark had a very ‘live performance’ flair to it, his roots showing through with flowing synths and full drum sets. The arranged soundtracks, however, bend into full on amazing prog rock sessions, complete with organ and keyboard solos, repeated attacking rhythms, and some amazing percussion. The selected track Prelude/Lure from the Eclipse was selected because it’s a fantastic example of transition from tradition to freewheeling rock. (Also because Sega recently went on a Youtube claim rampage and nuked most of the other posted songs…)
Michiko Naruke, Minoru Yuasa, Takaharu Umezu
Valis III (1991 – GEN/PCE-CD)
Valis III was one of my most rented games from the Blockbuster Video right outside of Killeen Mall when I lived in Harker Heights, Texas back in 6th grade. One of its strongest points is its outstanding soundtrack. There’s a very 90s anime quality to the way it drives you, which is fitting, given the style of the game itself. Each of the stages had a radically different sound to the music, but for me, all of it was memorable. Personally, I played (and still love) the Genesis version of the game. They released a version for the PC Engine (aka TurboGrafix) CD system that had a fully arranged soundtrack, greatly improving on the Genesis versions. Valis Sword! is the theme for the second stage (Dream World) and hands down my favorite from the game.
Brad Buxer, Cirocco Jones, Michael Jackson, Sachio Ogawa, Masaru Setsumaru, Yoshiaki Kashima, Tatsuyuki Maeda, Tomonori Sawada, Masayuki Nagao, Jun Senoue, Miyoko Takaoka, Masanori Hikichi
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994 – GEN)
Going from Sonic 2 to Sonic 3, you could immediately tell there was something far more daring about the music. How from act to act, the music would change, remixing and reprising the themes. There was a more pronounced swagger and soul to it all, sourced from something that was only revealed but many years thereafter. The songs exuded the hipness of the early 90s. Tracks carried the more modern stylings of New Jack Swing R&B and bass-heavy hip hop, busting out with synthesized voice samples, the sound of glass breaking, and wild percussion hits. When it was revealed that Michael Jackson and his sound team had indeed worked on the music for Sonic 3, it only made sense, and it was all the better for that experience. The selected track, Hydrocity Zone Act 2, I feel captures the very essence of MJ’s style.
It’s difficult to talk about Grandia’s soundtrack without conjuring up some vivid memories of playing the Saturn import while I was living in Germany back in 1998. The soundtrack as a whole is a symphony of music fitting an adventure of Grandia’s scope. From the larger than life fanfares, to the ethnic winds and percussions of the village themes, to the driving guitar chords and lines in the combat themes. The music complimented the game so well, it’s hard to really put into words. When one does play it, and I’d urge everyone to do so if possible, it becomes clear as day. In any case, Iwadare is something of a renaissance man when it comes to composition, as he’s been involved in games, television, films, and theater in Japan, and his music exudes his myriad experience. The selection from this soundtrack is Mullen, an expertly made military march that just might have the best ending and stinger in the business.
Takayuki Aihara, Nobuyoshi Sano
Drakengard (2003 – PS2)
The soundtrack to Drag-On Dragoon (aka Drakengard, outside of Japan) is one of the most unique and unbelievably experimental I’ve ever heard. It is also very fitting, given the game’s stark-raving mad atmosphere and story. Aihara and Sano somehow capture discordant chaos and sheer noise, and mesh it into music. Formed mostly from brief samples from dozens of classical pieces and layered with original orchestrations to bring it all together, they create a mad landscape of grandiose orchestral sound, looped furiously, and somehow succeed with flying colors. Seriously, this is one of those collections of songs that have to be heard to be believed. I’ve selected Fifth Chapter (In the Sky) to preview here, because it’s one of the most powerful of the soundtrack, and has a progression to it grounded in classical composition. Some of the other songs on this are just…out there. In a good way, mind you, but if you do want to explore this soundtrack more, try to keep an open mind.
Saori Kobayashi, Mariko Nanba
Panzer Dragoon Saga (1998 – SAT)
I love the Panzer Dragoon games, if for any reason, for the fact that it’s strikingly unique visual style and memorable music paint and elaborate and alien picture. One of small desert villages, odd creatures, and earth-tones zeppelins and airships. Panzer Dragoon Saga took what was a pretty well known rail shooter, and turned it into an amazing full-scale RPG. Everything meshed together in an unforgettable experience that many still hold in high regard today (Buying the English version of the game will run you least $200 on ebay). The music in this game has a primarily ethnic soul to it, representing the rural and lonely landscapes in the game, with lots of asian and middle eastern wind and percussion instrumentation. As a complement to this, you have the empire and it’s expansive military, charged musically with fast snares and a more classical wind and string arrangements. The two collide throughout the soundtrack, and create a mystical setting. The selected track here that really defines that amalgamation is the theme of the Imperial Air Force.
I encourage you all to give these a listen and expand your video game music horizons. Hopefully I’ve given you a look into my personal music tastes. I’ll be back next week to round this list out.
Until next time.