Non-ScrewAttack Top 10 Video Game Themes
Unofficial Number 11: Kirby's Dream Land, Green Greens.
Editor's Note: As someone who truly loves video game music, I have to you say that you have fine taste Elmo. Although, my Top 10 picks would be different. ;)
I’m bringing back an old idea I had for one last fling – a Non-ScrewAttack Top 10. Despite the name, it bears no ill will towards ScrewAttack or anything of the sort, it’s just an idea that could be done by anyone, and anyone’s list would be different. I’m talking about taking one of the many Top 10 videos that ScrewAttack has done, and redoing it with your own choices, with one catch – none of the franchises on the official Top 10 can be used on your list. I did it when they talked about NES games, (How they missed Castlevania and Kirby’s Adventure is beyond me anyway...) and I’ve seen a few much better versions across the site. The Guardian has used this idea for GameCube Games and... well, Video Game Themes. Yep, he beat me to my own blog, although admittedly, I think it’s been 3 years since I debuted it the idea, and he did it better than me anyway.
Anyway, having been playing so many more games lately, especially ones with great music (Chrono Trigger, Shadow of the Colossus, Phoenix Wright, Professor Layton, Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy VII) then I’m feeling overwhelmed by utterly amazing music. So I’m giving this idea another shot, and trying my own list, sans-ScrewAttack’s chosen franchises, for the Top 10 Best Video Game Themes EVER.
For the record, ScrewAttack’s list contained music from (in no particular order,) Sonic The Hedgehog, Donkey Kong Country, Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, Megaman, Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Duck Tales, and Duke Nukem. I don’t really disagree with any of – Stupid Super Metroid Title Theme! At number four? Are you kidding me? It’s not even the best song in that game! – their choices, but I’d like to take a stab at it myself. You may notice two things about their list; it’s full of some of the best and most musically-praised series in gaming, and secondly that it’s lacking a little in modern tunes.
I don’t think that age has anything to do with the brilliance of a track, which is why some of the classic picks on my list were nearly knocked off by things like Assassin’s Creed II’s ‘Ezio’s Family’ and Portal 2’s ‘Cara Mia’. Another close call for the modern age was the music from the Cronos boss battle in God of War 3, which was epic enough to successfully distract me from the plot holes of the game for a full minute and a half.
With that being said, a lot of retro classic tunes didn’t make my list either. Even only looking for tunes outside of ScrewAttack’s 10 franchises, I couldn’t make space for the soft, chilling tune of Earthbound’s ‘Eight Melodies’, the perfect old-school opening of Blaster Master, the chirpy Green Greens of Kirby’s Dream Land, or... just about anything from Chrono Trigger. Actually, that was less to do with finding space and more to do with just picking a track. The best soundtrack in gaming history has consistent quality, making it difficult to pick a best tune.
Other big misses I would’ve loved to fit in are ‘Monster Town’ from Wonder Boy 3, the best soundtrack on the Sega Master System at least, the criminally underrated tunes from ‘Monty on the Run’ on the Commodore 64, composed by Rob Hubbard himself, and anything from Pokémon, which is probably the single greatest series with no particularly outstanding music. All 3 of my favourite Pokémon tunes come from Pokémon XD: Gale of Darkness, and that soundtrack was amazing, but not legendarily groundbreaking.
Enough stalling for time and honourable mentions – let’s dive headfirst into the 10 songs I would’ve put on ScrewAttack’s list as the best Video Game Tunes... Ever.
What, you didn’t think I’d put the game and the track first thing on each entry, did you? How would that build any tension for each entry? You’ll just have to read the intro I write before revealing the track, and hey, it could be fun, guessing which entry is seconds before you find out by my description of – you already scrolled down, didn’t you? Dagnabbit.
Anyway, just in case you didn’t, this is a song that, as is expected for the number 10 on the list, was very tough to decide, because I knew that by putting it here, in a way, I would be saying that this was better than everything that didn’t make the list. Every Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, Pokémon, Skies of Arcadia, Killer7, Kirby and Kingdom Hearts track, as well as every other track from series not on this list, is therefore worse than what I’m putting.
Then I thought about what this track was designed to accomplish, and I listened to it once more.
I regret nothing.
Pikmin kicks off this list with one of the greatest upbeat tunes in any game ever. It’s not that it’s perfect as a song – it’s just perfect for the setting it plays in. Pikmin is a game unashamedly suitable for the youngest of children, and if you’re unsure that they’ll be able to pull this off in a way that’s still fun for the hardened veterans of gaming to play too, then this song should change your mind. If you have a childish side, this song should be able to access it.
Just the instruments alone let you know you’re in for a good song. How many video game themes use a xylophone? And later a set of bongo drums? It's just a beautiful-sounding song, from the gentle piano in the background to the chirpy twinkling the tune does when it reaches a high note. When it comes to relaxing video game tunes, this is as good as Super Mario 64's 'Dire Dire Docks', but this has more energy, more variety, and is in my mind, just a better tune. I can't think of a better way to kick off my list than with this exceptional little ditty.
This was going to be Dr Mario’s ‘Chill’ or Super Mario RPG’s ‘Beware The Forest Mushrooms’ before I remembered that although they’re Mario Spin-Offs in my eyes, they probably still count as Mario games. I wandered around YouTube for a bit, listening to the soundtracks of my favourite games, wondering what I could fill the void with. Skies of Arcadia has outstanding music, as does Killer7, but I looked the longest for a tune from Tales of Symphonia.
Tales of Symphonia is one of my favourite games of all time, and its soundtrack is nothing short of breathtaking. That being the case, it’s one of those games like Chrono Trigger with a soundtrack of consistent greatness, so nothing really stands out. I was listening to ‘Revival’, the tune that plays during the ending cutscene, and a tune I could easily justify putting on the list (Seriously, my parents confused it with the climax of an opera) but then I was reminded of my favourite tune from the game – one I’d somehow forgotten.
We’re all aware of great boss tunes, and opening tunes, and title screens, and so on and so forth, but one area in games that we sometimes forget that needs amazing music. I’m talking about the bit JUST BEFORE the final boss. The very most definitely final dungeon. The build-up to the conclusion. And this piece of music, well... take the haunting theme of Ganondorf’s Castle from Ocarina of Time. Now imagine one for a game with a plot 10 times longer and 5 times better, with 7.3 times the major characters. And make the tune pi x 2 times more tense.
This is what you get.
Let me clarify that this isn't a boss theme, or a battle theme, or a title screen, opening, overworld, cutscene, plot point, character theme... this is just the background music for when you and your party are exploring the very final dungeon, and the setting definitely helps the music. Some kind of dark, magical castle full of enemies, concluding the adventure you've been playing through for the last 100 hours.
This doesn't sound as tense as it does foreboding. You're near the end, and you know it. The person behind all of your hardship is waiting for you, and all you have to do is get through this final challenge. It's one of the best dungeons in the game, even though it's borderline optional considering you can just charge straight up to the boss, a giant dragon, defeat them, then advance to the super-very-final area. Still, this is my favourite tune in my favourite game. Is it any wonder it makes it onto the list?
I may have had to leave out a great number of tunes from the Mario Universe, but you won’t stop me using Yoshi’s. Yoshi’s Island is a Yoshi game, starring Yoshi, in which you play as Yoshi. Not Mario *Shifty eyes*
Anyway, Yoshi’s Island had some nice cutesy music when appropriate, and the castle theme was pretty great considering it had to be creepy, but for all audiences. All in all, a game with some good music, but one tune in particular that stands out as one of the greatest, most epic achievements on the SNES. Not just talking about the music here – I’m talking about the best boss battle on the entire system, except for maybe Giygas in Earthbound. I’m talking about an accomplishment in every sense of the word; graphics, gameplay, tension, and of course, music. And if you played the game, you already know what I’m talking about.
This is like a tutorial on how to make the perfect tune for a final boss. Strange, eerie few notes as the castle has crumbled around you. The way you know something is wrong, but you’re not sure why and then the tone changes and – HOLY CRAP is that Baby Bowser rising on the horizon and oh no it is and he’s roaring and AH A GIANT ROCK JUST MISSED ME WHAT THE HELL?!?
Then the tune goes into some kind of spasm and everything’s happening so fast and you don’t even know how you’re going to win until the first giant egg floats by. Everything about this boss battle is amazing, and the music is no exception. You think this would’ve been as good with a different tune? Try your precious ‘Guile’s Theme’! No use, is it? It’s just not as fitting as the original, epic music.
There aren’t many boss battles that I feel genuinely sad to end because they’re just so damn fun, but this is one of them, and that wouldn’t be true if it wasn’t for the amazing, push-this-console-to-the-limits music that raises the tension, but makes every teeth-grinding, balls to the wall, moment not only dramatic, but incredibly enjoyable too.
This is the sleeper on the list. As in, you won’t guess this. Ever. Which means I don’t have to go into too much detail, and I can just jump into the track.
Firstly, a minimal intro. This spot on the list is occupied by the opening of Ninja Gaiden 2 for the NES. Ninja Gaiden was a fun, albeit cheaply difficult game, but regarding music, it was pretty good. I would say it was above-average, but that vast majority of soundtracks to NES games are probably above-average, which isn’t statistically possible. Still, it’s good. Then comes the intro to the second game is the series.
... You did watch that, right? Good good, just checking. Anyway, I’ll begin my in-depth analysis.
That’s a really good tune.
That’s pretty much it.
Seriously, what else can I say? It starts out slowly and steadily, then rises into a sinister melody, then as it reaches a climax, at least 3 layers of music all come to one abrupt end. The fact that it’s the best cinematic opening on the NES adds to the tune, although it’s not as if there were many of those on the NES.
I don’t think it’s the best music from any game ever, but it’s easily the most underrated piece on the list, even moreso than Last Battle – Decision. It doesn’t deserve the recognition reserved for Zelda and Mario, but... you know how much everyone loves the Moon Theme from Duck Tales? This deserves that status. This deserves to be widely known as one of the greatest tunes in gaming, even if it’s not known by everyone. So, erm... spread this song, and do your duty!
Or, failing that, just listen to it and privately acknowledge its goodness.
This was going to be a toss-up between F-Zero’s Mute City and Starfox’s Corneria. Corneria was more impressive at the time, but Mute City goes well with the heart-pumping, fast-paced racing. I could’ve just put them both here, or put one a space below and moved everything else down, but that would be, you know... logical. And that’s not my thing. So it was one or the other.
Starfox and F-Zero are pretty similar anyway, especially in music. Their music is liked a great deal, but neither one of the franchises are well-known enough to have a definite theme, and neither one has achieved the success they could’ve gotten by now. Clearly they’re in Nintendo’s Top 10 franchises, but it’s pretty clear to everyone that they’re in the bottom half of that list, and unless some new developments are made, they won’t be climbing the ladder any time soon. Music-wise, they’re both great, but not amazing. Much like their standing with Nintendo, neither one is likely to make the top half of this list either.
Honestly, I just liked Mute City more, but I’d already gone for Corneria. So I decided to check YouTube – whichever video had less likes and more dislikes wouldn’t make the list. Mute City lost, by just 7 likes. I refused to admit defeat and unplugged my headphones, interrupting my sister and her boyfriend’s innocent viewing of a Frasier rerun, demanding they tell me which tune they thought was better. For obvious reasons, they had no idea what I was talking about, so I played them a minute of each song. It took 20 seconds of the winning song to play before they made their choice.
Yeah, it looks like I’m outnumbered on this one, but to be fair, the opening Corneria music is amazing. It’s not a surprise that people remember Starfox’s opening tune just as well as they remember the remarkably advanced graphics of the 3D space adventure. As soon as the level begins, this tune starts playing as you see your Arwing, and those of your team, taking off and blasting into Corneria.
I'm having trouble thinking of the right way to describe this because it's a tune which doesn't aim to be as epic as a final boss or energizing as an opening, but it's a great tune to accompany the beginning of the game. Given that it was the first time thousands of gamers would be introduced to an entirely new style of gameplay (Suck it, Space Harrier,) in an exciting new 3D series, it was a very appropriate tune and I'm sure it was exactly what the composer was looking for. I'm just not sure how to describe what they were looking for in the first place.
Nevertheless, it's a great tune. It's catchy, it's memorable, and it's number six on the list.
I've never been a big fan of shoot-'em-ups. I enjoyed Gradius a bit, and UN Squadron is on my list of SNES games to play once I run out of GameCube, N64, DS, PS2, PS1 and DreamCast games to play. But I can still appreciate the genre, and a lot of games look really fun.
One of the most original-looking is Ikaruga, first released on the DreamCast, then the GameCube, and now on Xbox Live. Most of its originality is due to the way you can change your ship's polarity, which means you can absorb the shots the enemy fires at you depending on what colour they are. Just as you get used to this unique little knack, the game designers laugh as you realise that it's now a necessity to survive. Which you probably won't.
But the music in Ikaruga, and shoot-'em-ups in general, deserves respect for what the gameplay does to the music. Any tunes have to be catchy enough that you want to hear them when restarting the stage for the 73rd time, and the boss tunes are an even harder task. At the best of times, boss themes tend to have... an opening. Gangplank Galleon from Donkey Kong Country, or the aforementioned final boss tune from Yoshi's Island - both of these have notable introductions before they get serious. But with a game like Ikaruga, there's just no time.
So how do you make a tune that brings tension and excitement to the situation immediately, and doesn't stop until long after the fight ends?
THE EPIC TUNE IS APPROACHING AT FULL THROTTLE.
ACCORDING TO THE DATA IT IS IDENTIFIED AS BUTSUTEKKAI.
This is flat-out one of the best boss themes in gaming, and it's the highest one on the list. From the very first beat, your hands tighten around the controller and beads of sweat run down your forehead as you suddenly realise that, for lack of a better term, shit just got real.
From the beats of the... erm, I actually can't tell what many of the instruments in this tune are, aside from the drums. Is that chorus provided by a bugle or a trumpet? I don't know and I don't care, the fact is, I can't think of any way to describe this without overusing the word 'epic' to an epic degree. It's not happy, it's not sad, it's just action-packed, just like a good shoot-'em-up game. Futuristic and kind of techno-sounding, it's just a flat-out amazing piece of music. They say Guile's Theme goes with everything, but I reckon you could play this over any boss battle in the history of gaming, and it wouldn't sound out of place. From all the platformers, RPGs and adventure games I've played, this is one of the best tunes to fight a boss to.
And, if you're very good at the game, it could only play for 20 seconds or so. Oh, the inhumanity...
The downside of making a list like this is that after a while, you genuinely run out of things to say. I cannot face the idea of making a Top 100, or even a Top 20, given that I can't write less than 4 paragraphs for anything anyway. This is a crying shame, because the next piece of music is just as beautifully composed, but I feel like there's something missing, stopping me from going into greater detail.
Yep, it had to be Kid Icarus I was talking about. It's excellent, it's just... I've already covered great openings, and great tunes that are both happy, and set up an adventure. I like it, I'm just not sure what I can say to add anything new. I mean, erm... it's good. Really good.
*Looks at watch*
It's... really, really good.
Hmmm... if only I could take the classic tunes of Kid Icarus, retain the nostalgia, happiness, and underlying excitement for the new adventure it promises, but add in the regal angelic anthem it deserves... Wait a second!
Sorry, it's my list. I've always unofficially seen Super Smash Bros Brawl as having the best soundtrack in all of gaming, but unofficially because it takes all of the great tunes from other Nintendo franchises. But I'm letting this one on the list because I still consider it Kid Icarus' tune, just amplified by the greatness of Super Smash Bros, although I acknowledge that this is, for all intent and purposes, a really crap excuse. Sorry.
I love the NES music of Kid Icarus too, but I can't deny the improvements this makes. To turn the modest beeping of the original into a royal fanfare is both fitting and deserving of a game like Kid Icarus. It's just so... grand, and impressive. Then some drums come in more prominently and it sounds a little bit jazzy and funky, which is good but not great to my ears. But with the original tunes of Kid Icarus blaring in my ears, I can't form any real complaints. Besides, I love the way it ends before looping around, with the tune played when the Grim Reaper spots you is replaying three times, the first two quietly and quirkily, before the last time it's a loud, booming, banging echo. It's like the soundtrack is laughing, and you're in on the joke.
All in all, this is a win for Kid Icarus, and a win for Super Smash Bros. Both should be honoured to be a part of each other.
Well, from one modern tune to another. Just to add to the flame-bait, this is a tune from a game I haven't even played yet! Take that, credibility!
Anyway, this piece of music comes courtesy of my friend Philip, who, when not losing to me at Soul Calibur II, Super Smash Bros, XIII and Yu-Gi-Oh, can be found playing more modern games, like Assassin's Creed, Modern Warfare 2, Halo: Reach and the Mass Effect series. While I've showed him more about GameCube games than I think he ever wanted to know, he's dragged a rather reluctant Elmo 3000 into the modern age of gaming, even if it's just by trading music.
The music he introduced me to, and the piece on the list, happens to be from the Mass Effect games, a series I initially knew as 'that series I know practically nothing about (but still more than Fox News)' due to the controversy over a sex scene that it turned out didn't exist. Still, I learnt, little by little, until eventually, with great effort... I still know almost nothing about the series.
But I know that this tune belongs here. I know that the mission it plays in is the final mission, the one that the whole game has been leading up to. The moment where, depending on the relationship you have with your characters, all could live or all could die. The moment where everything you've worked for finally pays off, or explodes in a big ball of failure.
They say the mission is suicide.
Prove them wrong.
There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think that this doesn't belong on the list, and those who have listened to it.
I don't even know what to say. If games on the SNES still managed to play music to highlight the dramatic tension in the conclusion of games, they had to work their very hardest to do it, and Mass Effect 2's Suicide Mission shows what can happen when a modern game with every musical option available at its disposal works just as hard to produce the most legendarily epic music they can.
I haven't even played the game and I know this must be great. I've seen enough clips to know what goes on - this starts playing after you pick your team to head off to the final confrontation, right as you make a short speech to all of your comrades about what you're going to accomplish, how, and why. It continues playing until you start the final fight itself, and once that fight is over, it plays again as you run out of the... base? Planet? Star? I have no idea. But like Super Metroid, it's exploding and you have to get out of there.
This isn't the kind of tune you can play as the credits roll, or as the characters peacefully talk about the previous and oncoming events in an epilogue. This is the kind of tune that plays before then, when the character you've spent so long making decisions for that they might as well be you is running for their life, and even though you're sitting safely in your house playing a game, you only want two things at that moment in time; for your character to survive, and for the music to keep playing.
Mass Effect 2's 'Suicide Mission' will henceforth be referred to as 'Exhibit A' in the debate of whether more recent music in video games can be as good as the classic music of yesteryear. The first and last exhibit in that debate.
Ah, Castlevania. You were always going to be on this list, and you were always going to be a really high spot too. From the NES alone, you could make a Top 10 - you've got the opening tunes of Castlevania 1 and 3, the dungeon/castle music from Castlevania 2, and the musical accomplishments of the franchise don't end there. The SNES gave us Dracula X, which had the amazing tune 'Bloodlines', with an opening on guitar that sounded surprisingly real for an SNES game, and Super Castlevania IV was full of some of the best music on the console.
But, much like the inevitability of a Castlevania tune making the list, it was also going to come down to the two most beloved tunes in the series. The first, 'Bloody Tears', is widely regarded as one of the greatest piece of video game music of all time, and has been remixed by fans and companies alike, and is one of the most recurring themes in all of gaming.
The other tune 'Lost Painting', is an original piece from Symphony of the Night. It's not as well-known as 'Bloody Tears', but amongst Castlevania fans, choosing your favourite can be the hardest decision of your life. Even harder than whether to choose Bulbasaur or Charmander or Squirtle. That's right - it's that difficult.
I made my decision quickly just so that I wouldn't have to agonise over what to write about for hours, and I made that decision when I realised that although I love 'Bloody Tears', I can listen to 'Lost Painting' on a loop for 15 minutes and never once think of changing the tune. To give you an idea of how much I still love 'Bloody Tears', when I started writing this list, it wasn't number 2. It was number 1.
But 'Lost Painting' wins it out for me by being a melody that's gentle and adventurous, cautious and curious, lighthearted and melancholy, and to be blunt, just a really great piece of music. The way that none of the instruments are particularly strong means that they have to work together in order to present the most beautiful melody in the game. It's not on the list because it's beautiful - it's because it's beautiful in so many ways.
Feel like Dracula's castle is too big, and getting a little bit intimidated by the malevolent architecture? This is the music for you. Ready to move on, casually disposing the army of the undead in your way? Yep, this music suits your situation to a T. On your way to finish off Dracula, putting an end to this madness? I think this piece should fit the situation. 'Bloody Tears' is undoubtedly an amazing tune, but I doubt it could be as perfectly appropriate in so many situations as this.
All in all... beautiful is all I can really say. Absolutely beautiful.
There are going to be some people reading this list who may think I've neglected the amazing retro tunes out there. There may be some people who think that Mass Effect 2 should've been replaced with Kirby, and Ikaruga should've been replaced with Pokémon. Those people are... well, justified in thinking that. Older tunes had to rely entirely on being catchy and memorable, and adding in the nostalgic appeal to them, it's no wonder they're so popular.
The number one on my list is not one of those. The number one on my list is a tune from a game within the last 10 years.
Newer tunes in general don't get a great deal of respect, despite games like Super Smash Bros Brawl and Marvel VS Capcom 3 which have soundtracks of higher quality than most albums. Even so, my number one choice isn't one of those either. It's not an epic piece that sounds like it could've been played at an opera, or anything of the sort. It may be modern, but it sounds a bit retro anyway.
I know that I've been harping on about the game's settings and what have you, but there's a reason for that - imagine Pikmin's 'Forest of Hope' played out over a scene from God of War. It flat out wouldn't fit, although it would be pretty funny. Anyway, what I'm saying is that I admire the amazing tunes that are sculpted to perfectly fit the situations they need to enhance.
Only one tune does this so well that I wouldn't find it hard to believe that the music came first, and the situation created itself around it.
There are those of you who may disagree, and those of you who may not like the tune. But if that is the case, I have but one word for you.
The 'Cornered' theme from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is flat out the most fitting piece of video game music I've ever heard in my life, and it really does a lot for the game. Considering that the majority of witnesses in the game are either evil or annoying, it's great when after literally hours of working up a case, you finally get to see them crumble under pressure, and when they do, this is the tune you want playing.
I can't describe how much I like this tune because I just like it that much. Want to talk about the way it works in conjunction with the other pieces of music in the game so that in turn, they feel like they're all just building up to this? Yeah, that's perfect. Want to talk about how the tune is so great, it doesn't feel like it's accompanying the dialogue and witness breakdowns - those occurrences are just convenient accomplices to the 'Cornered' theme? Yeah, that's perfect too. It's all just so damn perfect that there's not much left to say that doesn't start with 'P' and end with 'Erfect'.
The tune doesn't just fit the situation - it fits the title. Cornered. This is the tune that lets you know how awesome Phoenix Wright, both the character and the series, is going to be. I mean, it's a game where you play as a lawyer. Who does lawyer-things. That's hardly Halo, and yet the gameplay, plot, and MUSIC suck you in immediately, and just as you're wondering if you'll ever be free again, you get far enough to hear this, and realise that the game has 'cornered' you into loving it, and you don't really want to be free from it.
The other tunes in Phoenix Wright are relatively mellow, as they should be, but this song is everything the moment should be. Confident, dramatic, and ultimately victorious. It's one of my favourite tunes in gaming, and if I had to pick a tune to go on ScrewAttack's Top 10 Video Game Themes that didn't make it on the first time, it would be this.
Well, that's another list down. Let me know what tunes you would've liked to see on the list, and as always...
Thanks for reading!