When we think of fantastic scores or memorable music, most people would tend to go toward artists’ direct albums or compositions completed for movies or television series. Some of the greats, like John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Horner, and Hans Zimmer, have made the movie experience that much greater by matching up the score to the action or drama on-screen. Most people felt a strong reaction when they first heard the fanfare of the Star Wars theme or the playfulness of the music from The Nightmare Before Christmas. It invokes tension, passion, levity, or power.
The same could be said from the world of gaming…
Music in video games has been vital to making some of the greatest gaming experiences that much greater. Star-crossed lovers finally admitting their feelings, the majesty of a new world being opened, and a melodic backdrop that fills out an adventure that is just beginning are just some of the connections that music has made in the gaming world. Admittedly, my gaming experiences are somewhat diverse, but I have tended to appreciate certain series over others. I have been a loyal Nintendo follower but have dabbled in the world of Sony and on the PC, with little connection to Microsoft or Sega. Still, the list below includes some of the best musical compositions I have heard over the years from some of the most memorable games across these many platforms.
For this list, I will only be picking one song per franchise in order to diversify the songs listed. While many title themes can be identified for being extremely memorable, I am purposely going to shift my focus to specific tracks that invoke a level of intense connection with the experience on the screen, with honorable mentions for other songs that are similarly impactful.
10) Metroid – Prologue: The Metroid series has used a lot of mechanical sounds to produce its accompanying themes, but the prologue in Super Metroid truly raised the bar for the fanfare of the series. A true accomplishment, beating Ridley and Mother Brain is no easy task. Neither is traversing a harsh terrain with no true allies to save you. Samus was also revealed to be a woman in this game, which made the experience sweeter. Women had not been protagonist in these games with the same type of bravado and matching soundtrack. The finale/prologue changes the atmosphere to a more heroic element, adding to that accomplishment of halting evil and escaping the collapsing planet. The 16-bit song is just fine, but the orchestrated version takes it to a whole new level.
9) Mega Man – Dr. Wily’s Castle: Having achieved victory over the first 8 bosses, Mega Man finally reaches the end of his quest at the evil Dr. Wily’s lair. Achieving this is no small feat, as the simplified controls and dangerous terrain of the first eight levels does not provide an easy path toward this goal. The high energy brings the player back into the zone with the ability to take on this final set of levels. Some of the other Mega Man games revisited this soundtrack, including a revitalized version in the Mega Man X series.
8) Star Fox – Corneria: The soundtrack to the Star Fox series has a lot of use of electric guitar and in a lot of ways sounds like some of the music from the Mega Man series. What makes this particular song so memorable is that it sets up the epic quest of traveling throughout the galaxy to take on the evil Andross. Starting off the game with such a rocking’ ballad helps to set the tone almost like starting off a great mixtape with You Give Love a Bad Name. The remainder of the game has equally energetic music but only Star Wolf comes close to the level of energy as this one.
7) Mirror’s Edge – Still Alive: While I only ever played this game in its demo version, the main theme from the game is clearly present, upfront, and magical. The song gives the perfect background to the free running experience of the game. Mirror’s Edge was an interesting concept even without its music. A game that is based on navigating through the rooftops and a city on foot without being able to stop for a breath keeps the energy level up and could be a little too intense for some. What the music does is to almost make you feel like you are flying and gliding through the landscape and grooving while exploring each of the runs. This may not be an epic song, a beautifully sad ballad, or a hard-edged battle theme, but it is exactly what is needed to enhance the experience of this game.
6) Super Smash Bros. – Melee (Main Theme): With the first Super Smash Bros. being such a great success, the sequel was highly anticipated and seen to be a potential instant classic on the Gamecube. One of the best things about this song is that it is everything that is amazing about some of Nintendo’s greatest franchises. When I first turned on the system with this game, I was excited to see what Nintendo had produced. With the characters coming alive on-screen (and in a way that was far and above the graphics of the N64), the music just made the experience that much more epic. Even before actually playing the game, I knew this was a true winner. Super Smash Bros. Brawl had a more epic feel to it with the choir element, but the difference between the first and second games was significantly more memorable.
5) Super Mario – Gusty Garden Galaxy: Anyone can say that the first game’s music is the most memorable and it has been adapted to fit the proceeding games in the Mario series. Super Mario 64 revolutionized the series with the 3-D worlds, while Super Mario Sunshine raised the bar in graphic presentation. Finally arriving at Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii, Gusty Garden Galaxy enhanced an already memorable series of compositions. SMG as not only 3-D, but it was also so big that it could not fit on one world. There were a few other musical themes that appeared before this one, but Gusty Garden Galaxy is just fun, playful, and majestic to a level that truly boasts the new heights of the series. The plumber is going nowhere and this theme is proof of Nintendo’s ability to still make its primary formula work toward the benefit of the fans.
4) Castlevania – Lost Painting: To be honest, this song is better in the recomposed piano version, but the entire soundtrack for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is spectacular. The entire game is amazing. It officially combined the RPG genre with the action-adventure genre to create an action RPG. While Alucard is the only true playable character, the ill-fated vampire turns his actions toward thwarting the villainous Dracula from overtaking the world. The castle which he must traverse is full of twists and turns, and a whole assortment of thematic areas with their own musical arrangements. When this song arises, it is like a reprieve from the harsher elements of the game, but not fully removed from the majesty or sorcery of Dracula’s castle. The version in the game was understated from its arrangement, but the many iterations, both orchestrated and arranged for piano, help to better paint the picture of mystery and adventure that the game produced.
3) Chrono Trigger – Magus Confronted: Similar to a series higher on this list, the music from this game truly enhanced the experience in remarkable ways. Battle music in RPGs is typically energetic and hard-edged, but the reveal of the anti-hero and the start of the battle had a level of fanfare unmatched by most other games up to and beyond that point in gaming history. Chrono and his team enter Magus’s Castle, defeat Ozzie and his gang, and arrive at the sanctum at the lowest level of the castle. Walking into the room, there is an eerie, quiet atmosphere about the upcoming confrontation. Arriving before Magus, he goes into a speech about disrupting his plans and then the music begins with some soft strings, vocals, and flute performing a descending ominous introduction to the battle music. Finally, the fanfare begins and the epic battle against the wizard commences. While the fight itself is easy to manage in terms of his attacks and patterns, the battle music gives the experience a much more epic feel. Later battles against Lavos and Queen Zeal are much tougher but lack the sophistication and energy that Magus achieves.
2) The Legend of Zelda – Fi’s Lament: For arguably the best franchise in gaming history, this may seem like an unlikely song to reach the top of the list. The main theme is easily more memorable and invokes that sense of adventure and heroism that has become a gaming standard. Even some of the themes from Ocarina of Time, such as Zelda’s Lullaby or Gerudo Valley, are more widely known. It is because this song produces a much stronger specific response that it wins out in this list. Fi is a character that may be more forgettable as Link’s sidekick, but she surprised gamers when this theme finally appeared in the game. After finishing his quest and while ready to return the master sword to its stone, Link discovers that he is also parting ways with Fi. Though she is a creature without emotion, there is something different in these finals moments that the two characters share. They quested to save Zelda and restore balance to the land, but their goodbye appears to have extracted a sense of emotion out of the stoic Fi. Link appears affected by realizing that he is leaving her behind, and gamers suddenly felt the same way. Navi, the King of Red Lions, and Midna never were able to create that same emotion in their final goodbyes and that achievement should be recognized.
1) Final Fantasy – To Zanarkand: This series could easily have its own top thirty. Each of the Final Fantasy games have been accomplishments in storytelling and composition. FF6 has several tracks that take the 16-bit game to amazing heights, including Terra’s Theme and Phantom Forest. FF7 could possibly win as the best musical soundtrack out of the entire series, particularly the Main Theme and Aerith’s Theme. There are even several competitors in FFX that could give To Zanarkand a run for its money, including Suteki Da Ne for its portrayal of Tidus and Yuna finally giving into their passions and sharing a beautiful moment alone together. In the end, the top song on the list serves as the title track and the one that builds the story toward its conclusion for its protagonist. Tidus is searching for proof of what happened to him during the attack by Sin that threw him 1000 years into the future. He joins Yuna in hopes of learning the truth about his time travel and his father while also supporting her quest to defeat Sin. On the eve of reaching Zanarkand, the group gathers for their final descent into the lost city. Lost in thought, this piano theme plays and ties the story together in the perfect way, part love song and part thematic ballad of an ill-fated hero. Just a perfectly composed piece.
Agree with these selections? Tell me what your favorite songs or themes are from your favorite games.