Composer: Frank Klepacki
Highlights: "In the Line of Fire", "Just Do It", "Act On Instinct"
Even today, RTS isn't a genre typically associated with memorable, enjoyable music. The most you can usually hope for is a decent main theme and then some orchestral swells for in-game wallpaper. But prior to 1995, when Command & Conquer was released as part of the dawn of the genre's modern template, you were lucky if you even got music in a strategy game. And it sure as hell wouldn't be a highlight of the experience.
But thanks to the industrial sensibilities of Westwood composer Frank Klepacki (and possibly a lack of hardwired genre conventions at the time), Command & Conquer was blessed with a ground-breaking, infectious soundtrack. One that's full of driving percussion, electrifying instrumentation, and vocal samples that inexplicably lodge themselves in your brain and just won't leave. Trust me, every Command & Conquer fan just instinctively thought, "I'm a mechanical- I'm a mechanical- I'm a mechanical man" at the mention of vocal samples, even 19 years later.
What makes the soundtrack truly great is its range. Combined with the ability to change the current song at any time, the tone of the game becomes anything you want it to be. Want your campaign to be a somber, war-as-hell drama? Put on one of the brooding, bass-heavy tracks. Want it to be more of a heroic battle for glory? We've got tracks with marching drums, shouting, and brass parts for that. Or if you just want to play a casual game of pretend combat, there are plenty of hip hop-inspired grooves and laid-back guitar parts to suit your needs.
Composer: Jeremy Soule
Highlights: "Happy Hogwarts", "Malfoy Fight", "Remember All Chase"
I received Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone on PC as a gift one Christmas (it was one of those gifts you get from relatives who know you like games, but don't know the first thing about them themselves). And after playing it...well, it was just as mediocre as I expected. But to my surprise, it wasn't mediocre for the reason I expected - namely, it wasn't lazy. The graphics and level design were excellent, and it actually had more than a few neat ideas for gameplay. But most surprisingly, its soundtrack was wonderful.
Now, there are lots of factors that make the actual level of surprise fluctuate here. It's a licensed game, first of all, but it's a Harry Potter licensed game - a series with a phenomenal soundtrack. But it's not using the movie's soundtrack. But the new soundtrack is composed by Jeremy Soule, who would go on to score The Elder Scrolls, Guild Wars, and a whole bunch of other really important releases. But the key phrase there is "go on" - at this point in his career, he was considerably lower-profile. The important thing is that Philosopher's Stone has one of the best soundtracks of any licensed game out there.
Just like John Williams' spectacular film score, Soule's work perfectly captures the wonder, charm and fear of the Hogwarts setting. Piercing chimes and horns take turns singing a catchy main theme throughout the game, while sweeping strings and flighty wind parts provide a light atmospheric complement to the onscreen events. Later in the game, the strings gain a violent edge and the brass move down a couple octaves in time for the more dangerous scenes, though with enough restraint and bounce to avoid becoming too overwrought and heavy. The series was, at this point, still primarily about and for eleven-year-olds, after all. But despite its target demographic, the soundtrack contains a complexity and ambience that push it far above what could reasonably be expected of it.
Highlights: "Katamari*Stars", "Gin & Tonic & Red Red Roses", "Katamari on the Rocks"
You can probably guess the tone of Katamari Damacy just by looking at it and reading a gameplay summary. It's obviously the kind of game only the Japanese could (or would) make: roll through an enormous pastel world full of the most nonsensical and energetic denizens you can imagine, while attaching as many of them as possible to a sticky, ever-expanding ball, then turning the ball into a star with the help of a cosmic monarch who speaks in Engrish and non sequiturs, and transports you around via rainbows. You can probably also guess its musical style; it's going to be an erratic explosion of genres and instruments for which the term "weird" doesn't even scratch the surface, right?
Well...yeah, that's exactly what it is, but it's also the catchiest, most intricate, and most unexpectedly heartfelt erratic explosion you'll ever hear. No, I'm not kidding. Command & Conquer's musical range could be likened to that of a few octaves, but Katamari Damacy's reach covers the whole grand staff, with ledger lines, and extends into those notes that are so high that supposedly only your dog hears them. Bombastic anthems with crowds of vocals descend into thoughtful moments of piano or guitar tinged with understated electronic chirps and clicks. While ridiculous humour is still the cornerstone of the soundtrack thanks to laughably dumb lyrics like, "I wanna wad you up into my life," the level of detail and creative rhythms ensure that there's much more to this soundtrack than a showcase of eccentricity.
My critical style is a little more in-depth than most, and I occasionally get asked why I don't let games "get away" with just being fun. And the answer is that I'm perfectly willing to do so; it's just that so few games truly embrace fun the way Katamari Damacy does, and that really shines through in its soundtrack. The composers and performers on display here are audibly having just as much fun as the player should be. They just do not give a **** about convention or restraint. "Why would someone work in just one genre?" they seem to ask. "We're going to have lounge, swing, J-pop, and three different strands of world music! Because we can!" It's thanks to this grinning disregard for de facto standards that Katamari Damacy is such a lovable, anarchic experience, and its soundtrack exemplifies that perfectly.
Composer: Kumi Tanioka
Highlights: "Twilight in Dreamland", "When the Northern Sky is Clear", "Sad Monster"
I know what you're thinking. "Final Fantasy?! How is that surprising? I'm going to go on the Top 10 Lists board and complain about this without checking if there's a topic for this list first!" But if you know anything about the circumstances surrounding its development, you'd know Crystal Chronicles had no business having such a great soundtrack...or great anything, for that matter.
The story goes that Square wanted to create games for the Gameboy Advance, but Nintendo wouldn't allow it unless a Gamecube Final Fantasy was part of the deal. So Square exploited a loophole in its exclusivity agreement with Sony, and began work on Crystal Chronicles. The idea that this game was only being developed to bribe Nintendo already screamed, "We are going to do this very half-assed," but the revelation that each player would need a separate GBA and link cable for multiplayer added "Gimmicky cash-grab" to the game's list of pre-release sins. Upon release, some of these fears were realized - the minimal RPG elements and barebones story led some to justifiably declare the game Final Fantasy-lite. But there was at least one person on the development team who didn't get the "don't take this seriously" memo: Kumi Tanioka.
Tanioka poured everything into the game's soundtrack, creating a Celtic-flavoured tour de force that undoubtedly tops the other entries on this list in terms of sheer quality, and is easily in the running for my favourite soundtrack of all time. Seriously, those highlights up there? You could pretty much just pick any three songs from the tracklist and they'd be just as appropriate. Tanioka takes every situation the game throws at her and turns it into a masterpiece. She excels at everything, whether it's the haunting loneliness of an abandoned mine, the jovial swing of a friendly town, a heated charge through an enemy fortress, or a curious exploration of some exotic locale.
But special mention must go to two elements in particular. The first is the final boss' (first) theme, "Sad Monster", which not only has the distinction of being the only song to make bagpipes sound good, ever, but also incorporates a mechanical stutter against an otherwise all-acoustic soundtrack, effectively highlighting just how alien and dangerous said final boss is. And the second element is the ubiquitous use of marimba and flute parts, which drive the whole suite forward and ensure that despite the focus on atmosphere, each song has a definite and memorable melody that will keep it in your head for years to come.
Composer: David Wise, Eveline Fischer, Robin Beanland
Highlights: "Forest Frenzy", "Aquatic Ambience", "Fear Factory"
The Donkey Kong Country series is revered for its soundtracks by gamers everywhere these days (there's a reason half the hype for Tropical Freeze amounted to, "Because David Wise"), but in 1994, what pedigree did it have? The music from the Donkey Kong arcade games, though memorable, wasn't exactly Album of the Year material, and Nintendo had only just started its perfect soundtrack streak a few years previously. Even then, Nintendo handed off development to Rare, whose history consisted of a truckload of B- and C-list NES games, the most notable of which was Battletoads. Um...yay?
And yet, seemingly out of nowhere, the team of David Wise and Eveline Fischer (and also Robin Beanland, but only for a song) crafted something that was fresh, mature, and so damn memorable that Nintendo was able to wordlessly use "DK Island Swing" to announce Donkey Kong Country Returns 16 years later. The first fluttering notes of "Aquatic Ambience" or heart-stopping atmospheric bass of "Voices of the Temple" announced to every player that this game was something more. Even though it was a goofy game about monkeys jumping on lizards, it was suddenly OK to be legitimately moved by the ballad in the background; it was OK to be legitimately creeped out by eerie echoing noises in the distance; it was OK to be legitimately immersed in a 2D platformer.
But more importantly, you could have a hell of a lot of fun while doing so. Just as the realism of the game's graphics (remember, 1994) didn't overpower its cartoon physics and level design, the darkness in its soundtrack never overshadowed the lightheartedness assumed in the label of "video game". Instead, it added a spark to the "grass level, cave level, water level" pattern that was already being tread and retread in 1994, making it interesting all over again. There's a reason the jazzy jungle theme deflates into a percussion-only fade-out, and it's the same reason the goofy pirate jingle erupts into an epic guitar solo, and the xylophone-centered forest songs play at such a ferocious pace. It's so you remember them not as "the music from level 2", but as enjoyable songs in their own right.
Highlights: "Winterbliss", "Space Pirates", "Online Menu"
Castle Crashers was created by The Behemoth, a company headed by Tom Fulp (the creator of Newgrounds) and Dan Paladin (a prominent contributor to Newgrounds). Staying true to their roots, The Behemoth recruited a selection of Newgrounds musicians to assemble the game's soundtrack, while composing a handful of songs themselves.
Now, Newgrounds is an enormous website with tons of content, some of which can be truly artistic or absolutely hiliarious, but to an outsider, Newgrounds is known only for its Adobe Flash content and the general immaturity of its community. Unfortunately for it, Castle Crashers reveals both its Flash roots and its general immaturity almost immediately. Not that there's a problem with either of those in this case - Castle Crashers' specific brand of immaturity is pretty funny, and Flash has been a legitimate game development tool for years. But thanks to their reputation, first impressions of Castle Crashers are rather unimpressive.
As quickly as that judgment is made, however, it's reversed when the unapologetically epic title theme bursts from the speakers. The soundtrack almost never lets up from there as it jumps between genres, instruments, and tones for the entire game. The symphonic battle cry of the game's initial level segues into slippery electronic melodies backed by rapid-fire synthesized drums for more exotic locations, while light, catchy ditties provide some comic relief between the action. Also worth noting are the boss themes, which incorporate everything from wailing guitars and harsh static beats to grim piano chords and hyperactive wind parts. They effectively allow the game to be as self-serious as you want it to be - you can embrace the drama with a straight face, or treat the whole thing as an ironic joke, by remembering that these excellent compositions exist in the same game as a terrified deer that rockets around on a stream of poo.
The final neat thing about Castle Crashers' soundtrack is how it periodically uses its songs in completely different situations than they were originally intended. The track titled "Space Pirates" gets repurposed for the deep forest level, while another titled "Spanish Waltz" functions as the armoury theme. It's not overly important to the music's quality, but it is an interesting demonstration of the overlapping moods a single song can convey.
Composer: Tsukasa Tawada
Highlights: "Cipher Admin Battle", "The Under", "Title Theme"
I feel like I'll lose some credibility by saying this, but I've never found the Pokemon soundtracks to be that special. While many of the themes from the first two generations have reached an iconic status, and Generation III added some much-needed texture, the overall delivery has always felt somewhat bland, and void of dynamic range. But even if you do enjoy the soundtracks of the handheld games, you probably wouldn't expect a spin-off's soundtrack to have the same spark. While Pokemon Snap had a wonderful soundtrack, it was vastly outnumbered by the mediocrity of the Trading Card Games, the Pinball games, the Puzzle games, and Hey You, Pikachu! and its sequel. Even Colosseum's sort-of predecessors, the Stadium games, only recreated songs from the first two generations.
So while I was mildly impressed when the first notes of Colosseum's title theme hit me, what really intrigued me was its halfway point, when its rousing orchestral declaration backed off to reveal a sober reprise performed by a single flute, which then concluded with an uncertain piano part. The contrast between this and the title themes of the handheld games, which flirt indecisively between ceremony and action, established the exact message Colosseum needed: it didn't want to be just a spin-off.
Not that the rest of the game really adhered to that mission, what with its restrictive exploration and gameplay. But the intention to be remembered as something other than Pokemon Stadium 3 was clearly evident in the title change and removal of almost all non-story modes, and the soundtrack conveyed that perfectly. In particular, the music displayed a bluesy identity that's practically unheard of in games outside of niches like The Neverhood or Hotel Dusk. You knew Orre was a more dangerous place than anywhere in previous Pokemon games, because towns now greeted you with a lonely harmonica or swaggering saxophone instead of a cheerful chiptune blast. And the game's corruption theme was perfectly captured by the villainous Cipher syndicate's leitmotif popping up all over the place under the guise of different instruments.
Battle themes are another highlight. Where the battle sounds of previous Pokemon games eventually wore on the listener, these songs meld Colosseum's established jazz skill with rock and orchestral instrumentation, creating a hard-hitting rush of keyboard melodies, soaring guitar solos, and ominous marches. I should probably also mention that...other boss theme, "Miror B.'s Retro Groove", a dance number that's so embarrassingly catchy and hilarious that it feels like it belongs back on the Katamari Damacy soundtrack.
#3: Far Cry 3 (X360)
Composer: Brian Tyler
Highlights: "Main Theme", "The Rakyat", "Make It Bun Dem"
Far Cry 3's entire design strikes me as the product of a team of ambitious developers trying to squeeze as many sophisticated and unmarketable elements into a game as possible without their nearsighted publisher noticing, and without taking the Spec Ops: The Line route of openly insulting anyone who thought they liked the game pre-insult. So while the game was a bloated, poorly written sequel to a bloated, poorly written sequel, it also had an impressive focus on its characters, complete with interesting themes and a relevant message. And more relevant to this list, it had a soundtrack that was thematically appropriate, emotional, atmospheric, and completely unlike any other game soundtrack in existence.
The AAA world has largely decided to ignore any music that isn't written for a 50-piece orchestra by a Hollywood composer, and the result has been nearly a decade of interchangeable string crescendos. Brian Tyler, on the other hand, had the genius idea of mixing his string crescendos with tribal rhythms and a torrent of electronic effects (which I would have described as dubstep if that word and its definition wasn't such a point of contention among people who give entirely too much of a **** about these things). The result is admittedly still rather tuneless, but infinitely more memorable and exciting, because pulsating static shrieks and blasts of distortion tend to stand out more than a low-key cello section.
Of course, it wouldn't be a AAA release without a 14-year-old's idea of maturity, so Far Cry 3 seemingly had a grimness quota to meet (comedy would only be allowed in the game if it painted itself pitch black first). And just taken on those merits, the score is still excellent - the mournful vocals, reversed piano, and expanding bass undercurrent certainly set the tone. But it's in light of the game's message regarding insanity and the enjoyment of violence that Far Cry 3's soundtrack begins to exhibit some depth. Outside of combat, the music is mostly a low hum with sparse percussion. It's only once an alarm is sounded that the electric stutters and oscillations kick in. And somewhere in the ensuing sea of symphonic chords, erratic circuits, and pounding drums, the protagonist, and by extension, the player, begins to wonder: am I doing this to save my friends? Or because killing people is fun? It's even more effective if the realization hits you after the blast has died off again - it's like coming down from a high and remembering everything you've done.
Finally, I need to mention the inclusion of Skrillex and Damian Marley's song "Make It Bun Dem" in the game, because it perfectly encapsulates everything that made Far Cry 3 interesting. A fusion of dubstep and reggae, "Make It Bun Dem" plays during the game's best mission, where the protagonist is tasked with burning marijuana crops with a flamethrower...and inadvertently begins getting high off the fumes. As a lively party song with an undeniable edge to it, it's a perfect complement to the mission that is most often cited by players as the moment where both player and protagonist have forgotten their goal, and just want to create carnage for the hell of it. It's also the point where there stops being anything remotely "sub" about the "violence as drug" subtext. And on top of everything else, the song's inclusion is an inspiring reminder of just how little genres mean when we remove our biases and see music in a different light - it's the exact opposite of the kind of music I listen to outside of games, but in the context of the game and the scene, I love it.
Composer: Ikuko Mimori
Highlights: "Valley", "River", "A Mysterious Sighting"
Well, I did say Pokemon Snap had a wonderful soundtrack. To be honest, the only reason Pokemon Colosseum isn't higher on this list is because Pokemon Snap's existence made it slightly reasonable to hope for a Pokemon spin-off with a great soundtrack. But in 1999, with only the reprehensible Pokemon Pinball released in North America, the idea that Pokemon Snap's music would be charming and catchy, plus contain the range and texture the handheld games lacked, and be downright atmospheric when it needed to be sounded completely ridiculous.
But Pokemon Snap was an oddball in a lot of ways, not the least of which was attempting to show the world of Pokemon from a natural perspective, where none of the mechanics of the handheld games existed, and the Pokemon lived almost realistically, with more animal-like behaviours, and habitats that were largely unspoiled by human intruders. To accomplish this, a softer, more deliberately paced method of composition was used. Songs used for outdoor environments were entirely acoustic, but with a vast instrumental range spanning from harps and guitars to pan flutes and xylophones. The instrumental contrast and effective use of panning makes the physical space between instruments audible, creating an open, evasive sound that literally could not have captured the essence of Pokemon Snap's wilderness photography gameplay any better.
The other thing I really like about Pokemon Snap's soundtrack is how it refuses to treat any song as disposable. Songs that would be an afterthought in any other game - the options menu, the photo album...hell, even the song the PokeFlute plays - are given significant attention. They fit the game's themes, too, as songs that take place inside menus and status screens - artificial constructs that exist only for game purposes - sound artificial, with electric bass melodies and mechanical percussion, without actually sounding mechanical (and by extension, boring) overall. Speaking of percussion, Ikuko Mimori excels at creating interesting percussion parts, whether through unorthodox instruments (slow rattles, cymbal slides) or imaginative writing, such as the frequent use of understated drum rolls, or the undeniably cool bongo intro to the river theme.
Composer: Akifumi Tada
Highlights: "Altair Battle #1", "Blue Resort", "Rainbow Palace"
How good is this soundtrack? Let me put it this way: in Bomberman's 31-year history spanning over 50 games, Bomberman 64 is the probably second most divisive game in the series...but everyone loves its soundtrack. And in case you're wondering, the most divisive game is likely Bomberman Hero, and Act Zero isn't even close, because you need to be liked by somebody to be considered divisive.
Absolutely nothing about this game promises decent music. The primarily multiplayer series that came before it only had a handful of intermittently enjoyable songs, the game's composer, Akifumi Tada, had never worked on a video game before (and in fact, hasn't since, for some depressing reason), and the game looked for all the world like one of hundreds of me-too 3D platformers released in the second half of the 90s in the wake of Super Mario 64. And yet, similar to the ambitions of Pokemon Colosseum's developers, the people behind Bomberman 64 didn't want their game to be just another Bomberman game. So, in the move the would ultimately create the division among fans, Bomberman 64 was designed as a legitimately high-stakes quest. Tada understood the kind of balancing act this required, and crafted a soundtrack that conveyed the grandiosity of the series' new scale, without being bogged down in the kind of weight that would dull the fun of a colourful game of cartoonish destruction.
Bomberman 64's soundtrack may not have the professional sheen of some of the other games on this list, but it makes up for it with sheer skill and confidence. Every track in this game opens with some element declaring "YOU WILL LISTEN," from the surprisingly serious rock of the game's intro, to the uplifting glissando of "Green Garden", to the hyperactive synthesizers of "Black Fortress". Even if the opening notes don't grab you, the tonal juxtapositions will. The aforementioned "Black Fortress" is a viciously difficult level, but its theme is a bright, energetic piece that keeps you moving through its obstacles. Similarly, the final boss' theme is a serene, misty groove that casts his entire battle in an emotional light that would be completely absent otherwise.
On the subject of boss themes, Bomberman 64's approach is jittery drum and bass which easily set the necessary frantic pace despite their simplicity. But the real consistent highlights of the soundtrack are the level themes, which always incorporate a minimum of three separate melodies played on different instruments. Each melody weaves in and out of the spotlight, syncing up with its peers every now and then to deliver some complementary chords before bouncing off again on its own distinct but integral tangent. You could strip each one of these songs down to just their bassline, and they would still be an enjoyable listen, but with all parts together, each one forms a vibrant, cohesive piece that makes an interesting but flawed game vastly more memorable and entertaining.
Or if none of that resonates with you, how about I just explain that the track "Blue Resort" manages to make an accordion sound cool, and leave it at that?
Well, there you have it. I hope I've been able to draw some attention to some soundtracks and their associated games that have otherwise been ignored. Alternatively, I hope I've been able to provide some new insight into a soundtrack you've previously enjoyed. If not, here are some honourable mentions to try out:
Frogger 2: Swampy's Revenge: A game for which "surprisingly good" describes everything about it, Swampy's Revenge, like Bomberman 64, was a classic series attempting to stay relevant in the 3D age, complete with a catchy and varied soundtrack that just didn't pop out enough to make it to the list.
Croc: Legend of the Gobbos: Yet another copycat 3D platformer, Croc is pretty much in the same boat as Swampy's Revenge. Except Swampy's Revenge backed up its good soundtrack with good everything else, while Croc...had a good soundtrack.
VVVVVV: A great little retro platformer that surprised me not with its awesome and catchy chiptune soundtrack, but with the innovation incorporated in its awesome and catchy chiptune soundtrack. I reconsidered its place when I remembered that chiptune has been evolving for years outside of retro games, and what sounds innovative to me is probably standard practice for someone who follows the genre.
Halo: Combat Evolved: One of the best soundtracks of the last generation, and originally considered surprising for being from a shooter. Then I remembered that shooters have had great soundtracks for a while, and that I was probably just surprised that something this good came out of Halo, because I hate Halo.
This list is by no means definitive, and I'm sure there are many more surprisingly good soundtracks out there. Feel free to drop by the Top 10 Lists board and let us know about some of your favourites! Thanks for reading!
List by SSpectre (03/05/2014)
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