Grab some bottled water and a fan, because we're about to dive into the shifting sands of desert music! Throughout the history of gaming from Orre to the Washington D.C. Wasteland, the folks behind controllers have been privy to some of the most desolate music imaginable. It's become a fixture in so many games to place a hot, arid obstacle in front of characters as they aim to complete their quests, whether it be an RPG, a racetrack or even a backdrop to a puzzle mission. These themes color not only our perception of a setting but also convey specific emotions that are essential to understanding and experiencing a specific locale enumerated by game designers.<br /><br />This list takes several important factors into consideration: quality of scoring, use of instrumentation, innovation in comparison to game music at the time and (least importantly) nostalgia and popularity. Keep that in mind as you read on.<br /><br />Note: Due to GameFAQs policy, I cannot provide you with links to each track. I urge you to visit a site like Youtube or another media sharing web page in order to truly experience the quality of each piece on this list. I will attempt to keep entries for each song short so you may do just that! So put on some headphones and get to searching!

This theme should really be irritating, but for some unquantifiable reason, it reaches past that to just be a flat-out catchy tune. The piano is the main reason this piece works so well; it's Spanish-inspired flavor is just so darn memorable that you can't help but tap rhythm on your controller as you beat Psylocke into a pulp. The frantic pace isn't stressful but rather perfect for a fighting game situation; even the loudly oppressive horn section doesn't overpower your eardrums and render them impaired in an auditory fashion. Somehow, things that SHOULDN'T work together work spectacularly in this situation. Also, the use of syncopation in key places really is a shot in the arm throughout the piece; it keeps unpredictability without losing consistency. Make rhythmic chances in a piece of video game music can be harmful; it can wake up the player from their trance of reverie and make them say "That doesn't sound right." Here, however, the music doesn't lose cohesion by throwing the occasional wrinkle into the pattern.

Then again, isn't that the beauty of a Marvel vs. Capcom game? After all, superpowered supergods shouldn't be a logical match-up for a bunch of low-powered alleyway ninjas, and yet the game gels so well. The arcade sensibilities of MvC2's soundtrack brilliantly combines unlike parts into an odd yet awesome whole that is exactly what this game is all about.

Honorable Sequel Mention: Wild Arms 3 - Advanced Desert

Breath of Fire III has one of the best soundtracks to over come out of Capcom's stable, and a piece like "Desert of Death" demonstrates the unique and resonant quality of each piece in the game. Starting from the top, "Desert of Death" demonstrates it's ambition by using a slightly out-of-tune piano sound to carry the main line of the track, something that doesn't occur often in desert pieces. The piece also veers away from the trap of using an Eastern style of chord structure, which makes it stand out amongst the legions of sandy songs out there. Most importantly, the drumming style is sparse but uses carefully chosen instrumentation to capture the sound West African drumming effects, similar to the sound of percussion you would find in Ghana or Sierra Leone.

The result is an interesting hybrid of Asian sound, smooth jazz and African tribal drumming. Over top the piece, the sound of wind caresses the music like a warm palm sweeping across the sheet music. The upshot of all of this careful instrumentation is that the piece feels sonorous despite a strong leaning towards articulation and staccato throughout meaning of the piece's parts. It truly captures the feeling of barrenness without becoming overly empty or losing a melodious sound. It's important for quality soundtracks to find a different way to convey a setting without resorting to the standard pattern; most desert pieces seek to capture the sounds of Middle Eastern music without attempting to convey emotion within the game's actual setting. As a result, we find that many desert pieces all share the same instrumentation, rhythm and even similar chord patterns. When a piece like "Desert of Death" comes along, we should rejoice at the variety it provides us as listeners.

Honorable RPG Mention: Golden Sun - Desert Heat

There are two FF-related pieces on this Top 10. Don't say I didn't warn you.

FFCC had a few good pieces scattered throughout its various levels, but this was the crowning glory. The rhythmic piano pattern was extremely unusual; while it provided the consistent base line for the piece, the chord pattern was unusual even for a desert piece (a category rife with atonal and odd riffs). The use of wood pipes and bagpipes is also a bizarre choice for a desert, yet here it works amazingly well; the sonorous sounds of the wood pipes never become shrill yet still punctuate the music with a soft staccato. The medieval tune they unveil leads extremely well into an Asian-inspired dual violin melody, romantic in intent and focus. It is an extremely intricate piece with tight-fitting rhythm that comes off perfectly throughout the piece. Despite using several different instruments to convey a wide variety of emotion, the music still feels unified thanks to the perpetual piano part.

Great music can be found anywhere; I was surprised to find such an enjoyable piece in a minor franchise spin-off, yet here it is, right as rain. I think it's important to recognize that achievement in music isn't quantifiable, but rather spontaneous. Anyone can be a musical genius, if only for a moment. That's the beauty of making a list like this; subjectivity reigns supreme, and with a giant category like desert music, a piece like Sleeping Treasure in the Sand can be pulled from a C-list game and given new recognition.

Honorable Spin-Off Mention: Romancing Saga: Minstrel Song - Oasis from a Window

Despite most desert themes using an Eastern-based instrumentation and theme, Adel Desert stands out because it takes what is common and polishes it into the greatest example of this over-used style of music. From the get go, we have low tone marimba and strings setting the chord pattern and rhythm for an Eastern string solo; a solid effort is made here to differentiate this theme from other desert music. Firstly, the song itself uses a great deal of bass line progression as the song moves forward which is not keeping in step with other traditional desert tunes. Secondly the song maintains the sense of barren windy plains not with effects but with strings, a feat not so easily duplicated. The middle progression of this piece introduces high wind instrumentation, which continues the motif of airiness and wind that has been lain from the beginning. This is fundamental in order to create consistency while still building momentum in the piece. Thanks to the marimba line, the pace of the piece remains quick without becoming frantic, allowing for some contemplation on the theme.

Despite this game not garnering much attention in the gaming community, Soma Bringer had a pretty solid musical score. While it didn't break new ground per se, it definitely breathed a little bit of life into stale musical fallbacks. It kept modernity despite using traditional patterns and progressions, and that's why this piece deserves a spot on the Top 10.

Honorable Nintendo Mention: Donkey Kong 64 - Angry Aztec

Pretty much the only thing going for Sonic these days seems to be amazing music. (Yes, I just went there.)

The unique beauty of this piece in unusual instrumentation; saxophone is not often chosen as the main focal point of a desert piece; then again, Sonic music has always bucked tradition in favor of innovation. Here, it proves to be a crowning achievement in a great soundtrack. The most impressive part of this piece is the bridge, where the saxophone begins to oscillate between high and low notes with deft ease; the piece tugs a little at the emotional heartstrings while still maintaining a fast pace and desert motif. The out-of-tune harmony also helps convey a Middle Easter vibe while the percussive sound keeps momentum with repetition. Every instrument is serving a specific purpose, and what's more, serving said purpose extremely well. A piece like this is exactly why Sonic games remain (barely) playable. Music always has a positive effect on even the worst games when it's composed with an ear for purpose. Instead of being economic with notes, the Dusty Desert theme, fills all sorts of needs that the level has in ways only music can provide.

Unrelated Honorable Mention: Rogue Galaxy - Shadow of the Sun

What? You were expecting a video game theme list without a Jeremy Soule piece?

Honestly, Soule is one of the great composers in modern games. His pieces can forego the complexity of sharp craft for the sonorous sounds of ethereal beauty, and a piece like this makes it easy to see why. Such a simple harp-synth melody accompanied by simple strings and an occasional cymbal ride would in less capable hands appear as a dull and hastily-written filler piece, but here it is contemplative and soul-searching. The feeling of the desert's barrenness doesn't simply produce a feeling of isolation here; rather, Soule uses a pre-Renaissance chord progression to create a sense of grand scope on top of the isolation, a tricky feat to accomplish with such a small palette of instrumentation.

The most eloquent part of this piece is how the theme of isolation and the theme of scope combine so sharply. Can you imagine being alone in a desert, with the greatest view you have ever seen and no one to share it with? It's quite a melancholy proposition; but that's what video game exploration is all about. This concept of being a lone surveyor in a great land is what draws so many of us to games - that feeling of charting the uncharted, taming the untamed. Soule captures this movement within what on paper is a simple piece. But listen closer, and you'll find a host of subtle craftsmanship beneath the surface.

Honorable RPG Mention: Skies of Arcadia - Kingdom of Nasrad

Castlevania music has a pretty sizable following amongst VGM-nerds like myself, and for good reason. Themes like this one, demonstrate just how far the musical quality of handheld consoles has come; Hail from the Past could easily fit into Agrabah in Kingdom Hearts without even batting an eye.

From the beginning of this piece, the use of marimba and synth creates a brilliant backdrop; then the melody enters with electric strings, and suddenly there's an air of creepiness over top this mystical desert sound. The consistent permutation of a basic Eastern riff makes the piece have variety without becoming an overly complex tune. That's a line that Castlevania titles have always balanced with ease; it's important to keep a song entertaining in games without completely stealing the thunder of gameplay. If a game is well-rounded, the music works as the most fundamental and important aid in creating a virtual world for the gamer; music that goes beyond providing a supporting role and totally stealing the center of attention is a sign that the game is either: A) not up to standard in terms of gameplay or B) that the composer did not do a good job in meshing sound to sight.

Unrelated Honorable Mention Part Deux: U.N. Squadron - Desert/Caves

There are two goals this piece is tasked with: first, "Apotheosis" must convey a wasteland expanse. Secondly, it must convey the concept of, well, journeying. But more specifically, it must represent a journey of both external and internal significance. The result, composed by Austin Wintory, is spectacular, and resulted in one of the greatest pieces of the seventh generation of consoles.

Firstly, listeners are graced with a strong string section with a unique and fast-paced recurring strain. This strain underlies the entire piece and creates rhythm for the more sonorous leading melodies to trip across. This piece makes full use of a live orchestra in order to capture the emotional significance of the difference between duple and triple time as the melody seeks to use elongated slurred notes capture expanses. This dichotomy is significant: the faster rhythm carries the quality of movement or travelling while the slurred notes are strongly representative of the beauty of a barren world.

Ultimately, two-thirds of the way through the piece, we forsake the movement for a more contemplative attitude. Solo viola and bells become the primary source of sound as we now turn to the internal side of the journey. The sound is a plaintive cry of beautiful struggle for the lone protagonist, who faces the conflict within just as strongly as the conflict without. The quieter ending portion also captures the sense of isolation; not only is there a physical sense of loneliness, but also a quite metaphorical sense of psychological emptiness as we feel without aid or support in this strange world we move across. Music like this is why I love to play games... works of orchestration that take on mature themes and result in successful interpretations of great lands are why video game composers deserve copious amounts of laud and praise, and the crowning theme of Journey is no different.

Honorable Mention: Legaia 2 - Wasteland of Far Away Places

You know, it's tough to come up with a desert theme. What's tougher? An entire game of desert themes; that's pretty much what FF12 is when you think about. However, instead of a game that feels repetitive in terms of music, it is one rich in the complexity of a subtle and mature soundtrack. In my opinion, Final Fantasy XII has some of the highest quality composing of any FF game, and pieces like this prove it.

From the very beginning of this piece, the fully orchestrated score provides an anticipatory melody that utilizes woods and brass to create a feeling of outset; this is a theme that seems rife with possibilities. There isn't a sense of trepidation or fear in this part of the game; instead, the only minor chords seem passive and sparse. The entirety of this piece doesn't seem to herald the hardships that await the team of adventurers, but instead, the occasional Eastern stylistic flourish reminds us of our exotic locale outside of Dalmasca. There's a major use of French Horns here, which has become more and more prevalent since John Williams popularized them in his work of the 70s; French Horns normally provide a plaintive melancholy, but here they work as a hunting cry of triumph. You can still feel the bustle of the moving city behind you as you venture into the outskirts of wilderness, feeling nothing is impossible. That is the true victory of this piece and one of the reasons I rank it so high on this list.

Honorable Final Fantasy Mention: Final Fantasy X - Thunder Plains

Look, I'm not immune to the reminiscence bug either, and this is one of my all-time favorite nostalgia busters. The moment the opening guitar strain hits my aural cavities, I can't help but perk up in anticipation of what is coming next. The Gerudo Valley theme is easily one of the most recognizable tracks in all of gaming, with a Spanish dance pattern and uniquely cheerful minor chord pattern that never ceases to hearken back memories of Cuccos and canyon crossings. But why is this piece such a landmark in the desert theme world?

Quite simply, the Gerudo Valley's success lies in its use of simple instrumentation and easy-to-follow melody. By creating a piece that consists of castanets and two guitars, the Gerudo Valley theme is one that a listener can easily recall or relate to other gamers, which makes it catchy and memorable. The piece also evokes a subtle combination of emotions. Naturally, the fast-paced dance pattern creates fresh or renewed excitements upon entrance to the canyon area; but beneath this is a darker subtext conveyed in the carefully chosen chord progression that not only ignites passion but tempers hope with its muted palette devoid of standard major chords. These fundamental concepts mentioned are perfectly polished and executed in this piece and work perfectly to convey the exact theme necessary for this area; despite the area itself not being particularly large or important early in the game, Gerudo Valley's theme has become easily one of the most landmark pieces of music in the Nintendo arsenal. And when you stop to look at it, it's easy to see why this piece is my number one choice and an example of a solidly-written paragon of desert music.

The Number 11 Entry: Pokemon Ruby/Sapphire - Route 111

There are more great desert themes than grains of sand in the Sahara, so it's difficult to narrow down a list to ten pieces. I hope you'll drop by the Top Ten forum to share your thoughts and opinions or recommendations for other themes I may have overlooked. If you liked this list, let me know! And if you didn't, go complain about this list on another website so people can come and see how bad it is and consequently get me more hits! This is scarletspeed7, wishing you a good day and good listening.

List by scarletspeed7 (03/29/2013)

Discuss this list and others on the Top 10 Lists board.


Would you recommend this Top 10? Yes No You must register to leave a comment.
Submit Recommendation