In recent years, my most listened to genre of music is video game soundtracks. There’s a ton of links here to youtube examples of songs. I made a playlist here, or click the links as you read along.
Game music is the perfect soundtrack to write to for a few reasons. First of all, it’s usually devoid of lyrics. Unless the score is a J-Pop album that accompanies whatever ultimate anime battle fighting game that the kids are into these days, you won’t find game music with lyrics. That’s important for me, because if I’m listening to an album that has lyrics, I have a tendency to lose concentration and begin typing the lyrics to the song i wish i was homeward bound. Dammit
Secondly, as they’ve pointed out on the video game music podcast, VGMpire, the point of game music is to take a backstage while constantly pushing the player forward. Good game music blends into the scenery. Great game music, can blend in while somehow knowing when to amp up the rhythm, or crescendo and push the player forward. The absolute best game soundtracks, can do both of these things and stand on it’s own as a quality album.
If you’re from my generation or younger, chances are you can whistle the tune to Super Mario. Even if you know nothing about the game, its an iconic tie in to many different pop culture icons. Right now, you’re doing the thing with your tongue. Dun dun dun du du du doo doo doo doo doo do do doo. Did I spell that right? The song is just as much Super Mario as mushrooms, goombas, bad movies, mustaches, Italian stereotypes, and disappointment at rescuing the princess. In the relatively short amount of time (32-ish years since Super Mario released on Nintendo), the genre has produced many classics, but continues to push the boundaries.
Mario started it all with it’s classic soundtrack, varying from above ground overtures, to the underground romp. Further classics emerged on the NES including Legend of Zelda and Metroid. Zelda also has that iconic theme, which many of the sequels center around. But if you take a look at each soundtrack from game to game, you’ll find some very interesting variations that tie in to each soundtrack. Ocarina of Time introduced the gameplay mechanic of playing a tiny wind instrument, like you’re some 5th grader in band class with your recorder. But it also had some of the strongest songs, like Gerudo Valley. Contrast the upbeat, fantasy hero songs of Zelda to Metroid, a sci-fi space thriller that resembles Ridley Scott’s Alien soundtrack in tone. If you want further examples of some amazing retro soundtracks give a listen to Castlevania, Sonic the Hedgehog, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. I could go on and on with this list. But really there’s only so much chiptunes you can listen to before you have a mental breakdown. That’s where Overclock Remix came in and saved the day.
One of the best things to happen to this music came with the early 2000’s website, Overclock Remix. OCR is a community of music makers that makes covers, breakdowns, and remixes of classic video game songs. This paved the way not only for a string of amazing cover bands including The Mini-bosses, Powerglove, and Metroid Metal, but also the future of video game music. Composers like Danny Baronowsky got their beginnings on OCR, and went on to make some of the best modern day soundtracks. Baronowsky did the soundtracks for Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy. In my opinion, the soundtracks are strong, but I think you have to consider them within the context of the games to fully appreciate them; Super Meat Boy is a punishing platformer like Mario amped up on meaty steroids. Binding of Isaac, is the familiar old story of a kid locked in his basement by his overzealous catholic mother. Within the basement, the player battles zombies, flies, poops, and poop monsters, while finding power ups like “mom’s pills” and Isaac’s dead cat. It hits pretty close to home for me.
There are tons of mediocre, movie-like scores that accompany games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. However, not all of the big-budget blockbusters fall into this category. Skyrim has a great opening theme that propels the player forward like a badass dragon slayer. Much of the Blizzard compendium has memorable tracks, specifically the Diablo Tristram theme, and Starcraft’s Terran themes. Farcry: Blood Dragon and Trials of the Blood Dragon break out from the mold with the retrowave sounds of PowerGlove (no relation to the PowerGlove mentioned earlier).
In some games the music is such an integral part of the gameplay that it can be the game’s strongest point. Doom did an absolutely amazing job with it’s sound design, matching so much of the shredding guitar riffs to the timing of shredding demons. It’s something that interacts with the player so damn well while you’re playing it, but doesn’t translate straight to video captured here. My favorite moment of any of the two dozen Assassin’s Creed games comes in Black Flag, when you get to hear pirate shanties as you captain your ship on the open sea. It’s an atmospheric experience that capitalizes not only on the music, but the sound of the ocean. It gives the control of the ship an actual immersive feeling.
With the exception of the Farcry games, these blockbuster soundtracks still play it safe in comparison to what contemporary indie developers are doing. On the side of great video game accompaniment, there’s Hyper Light Drifter and Fez. Both soundtracks that play well with the game, but can be a little silent on their own. Hotline Miami 1 and 2 each have an all-star super conglomerate of retro-wave bands combining to create a unique, bizarre, and chilling set of albums. The game is set in 1980s Miami, and is stylized to resemble a slasher film. The soundtrack elevates it to a whole new level. If you want some contemporary chip tunes style music with a newer twist, check out the Shovel Knight soundtrack. The score for Undertale might be the best soundtrack to a game I haven’t been bothered to play. Just watching some of the gameplay has made me want to laugh and cry.
Chris Christodoulou created my two favorite video game scores in Risk of Rain and Deadbolt. Each fits with the theme of the games, while totally being able to stand on their own. Without the context of the game, you can get a feeling for what Chris was making. The part earlier where I talked about that perfect rhythm of pushing you forward without being invasive is evident in these soundtracks. Risk of Rain is a game where the player is forced to keep moving forward constantly, because the game gets harder as time goes by. But it’s also a space opera, where you play as a prisoner that has crashed on a derelict planet. To me, I can hear this translated in the music. The result is a composition that tells it’s own story, independent of the game.
This genre is so incredibly versatile. The music on this page is the exact soundtrack to what I write. I’ve stolen a little bit of their mojo and run with it through fiction.