Throwback Thursday: A wild ride with video game music!
You can hum the Super Mario theme, right? In fact, if you were born at any point from the late 70s to the early 90s, you’re probably already hearing it in your head right now. Our heads are filled with all sorts of tunes -- songs we heard over and over in our childhood, songs our moms and dads used to listen to, songs we used to play at full volume when we were in high school (to the dismay of our families and neighbors), and of course, songs that accompanied our forays into the Mushroom Kingdom. Or Gotham. Or Citadel Station. Or a grand city far away, long forgotten and lost to the elements. Or that store on Bourbon Street -- the one that sells rare books.
Surely you’ve heard this one. Or this one. And I hear this one goes with everything. Good themes are extensions of the characters and the stories themselves. TV knows this (or used to know this, at least). Movies are even better in this regard. However, games have been doing this since the inception of the medium, and it’s been quite a feat considering the hardware that the game composers of yore had to struggle with.
Please note that I’m not an expert of any sort in music and I’m not looking to share any great technical insights about music today -- although I did compile a small list of related reads and stuck them at the end of this article. What I’m here for today, though, is just to take you on a brief and wonderful ride through some of the tunes I remember and love from my youth.
This amazing journey starts now!
Hold on. Here we go!
Mega Man - Elec Man - This is the first ever level of Mega Man that I played. My first memory of the game is of me struggling to get to the top of the first screen to the tune of something that sounded like a low-fi demake of a Journey song.
The Legend of Kage - The official theme song of running through a rainy forest and leaping from tree to tree while pelting evil ninja with throwing stars.
Defender of the Crown - Here’s something that, in spite of being just a bunch of notes mushed together, still succeeded in conveying setting and mood. A perennial PC favorite that I would judge other great PC games by.
Maniac Mansion - Booboop boop boop booboop be doop doop.
DuckTales - The Moon - Just classic.
Bionic Commando - Mission 1 - This music contributed much to the feeling that you were really hitting the ground running. It’s quite possibly the most badass way to parachute into a Neo Nazi-infested base with no reinforcements incoming.
Some years later, my Famicom died and I started getting into 16-bit and the PC.
Lagoon - Lagoon Castle - Everyone today says this is a crappy game, but it was my first action-RPG on the SNES and I played it to death. Plus the music is still pretty good.
Quest for Glory - I also properly discovered PC gaming during this time. This track has basically grafted itself into my DNA at this point.
Streets of Rage 2 - Come on. This was just so good.
The Hand of Fate - Darkmoor Swamp - This game made me hang around the swamp for longer than I had to just to listen to this toe-tapping number by the composer of Red Alert’s Hell March, Frank Klepacki.
Gabriel Knight - This track by Robert Holmes that opened this occult murder mystery was very much like the store in which the opening scene took place -- moody and soulful, melancholy yet cozy.
And then I really got into PC gaming.
Strike Commander - Takeoff - Awesome and dramatic air combat in an 80s way.
Day of the Tentacle - Intro - This game had me repeating the opening sequence over and over just to listen to this music!
Doom - E1M3 - Just the perfect blend of kickassery and dread that said, “There’s no way out of this mess, but I’m gonna look real good while I die trying.”
Diablo - Cathedral - Composer Matt Uelmen’s proof that atmospheric music doesn’t have to sacrifice melody for presence. The motif in this song evolved into a series staple that was often repeated in the sequels, but never truly matched.
Evil Genius - Bouncy, classy, and deliciously evil.
Hitman: Contracts - I could hardly believe this was by Jesper Kyd, the same composer who created the sweeping orchestral soundtrack of Hitman 2. This one hit the game’s themes spot on: dark, calculating, and deeply personal.
Call of Duty - Red Square - You laugh. You scoff. Call of Duty? Surely not! But think back to the Russian charge at Red Square in the very first game. There was indeed a time when Call of Duty almost moved me to tears.
Although all that PC gaming that didn’t mean I totally stopped playing console stuff.
Symphony of the Night - Olrox’s Quarters - This menacing waltz is what you bring out when someone requests “haunting, beautiful, and disturbing”. I may be in the minority, but I still say Castlevania could have used less heavy metal and more of this kind of music.
Ace Combat 04 - Shattered Skies - “Mobius One, Fox Two!” *Missile wooshing sounds*
Metal Gear Solid 2 - Main Theme - This one is just incredible.
Shadow of the Colossus - Sign of the Colossus - And this one reminds me of the weird old movies they used on show on tv during weekday afternoons -- the bad, unrecognizable ones with the undeniable 70s vibe.
Persona 3 - Changing Seasons - And I just had to stick this here to top it all off with a some catchy Jpop.
If you’re in the mood for some further reading about video game music, here are some links on the subject that you might like.
- Video Game Music: Then and Now
- Is Game Music All It Can Be?
- Japanese Game Musicians Talk About Western Soundtracks
- Why game music matters
That’s all for now. I’ve lost enough time just sitting here listening to old video game music! I hope you enjoyed taking this short trip with me. If you have any favorite video game tracks that I haven’t mentioned here -- and I'm sure you do -- let us know and share your happy memories with us!