Kick-Ass Music In Gaming

(there are many secrets in this land, up in the clouds or beneath the sand…)

One of the best parts about video games as an art form – beyond obvious stuff like the interactivity and their relentless pursuit of new technologies to tell their stories – is the variety of other kinds of art that make up a single game: take something like the recent Tomb Raider reboot, a game with cinematic visuals, an impressive narrative, and the mechanical aspects such as gameplay and the rendering of models, that are themselves forms of art, deployed excellently. But a big one is music, with some game’s songs transcending the limited number of pixels they’re associated with, and become memes and parts of gaming culture in their own right; there are a lot of crap songs in games, but today I’m gonna pick out some of the best ones.

1) Super Mario RPG – Beware The Forest Mushrooms (1996)

As part of Nintendo’s attempts to make Mario games in every genre known to man, Super Mario RPG was produced, a fun, simple RPG known for its awesome character Geno, a doll brought to life to fight alongside Mario, and the Forest Maze where he is introduced; said maze brings with it the aforementioned Beware The Forest Mushrooms theme, an upbeat, playful tune that captures the insanity-inducing repetition of getting lost in the maze. There’s also this fantastic Martin Hagwell-XBrav-Kirbopher-Shadyvox fan version, Waltz Of The Forest, whose combination of a classic theme, original lyrics, collaboration across generations of fans, and even a rap segment, is pretty strong evidence that gaming has a phenomenally creative and collaborative community.

2) Kirby Super Star – Gourmet Race theme (1996)

I’ve mentioned this one before on this blog; the theme itself is a frantic, light-hearted piece of music that aptly mirrors its subject matter, namely a race involving a sentient squishy pink ball with adorable stubby arms, and serves as an effective alarm clock. Speaking of collaboration again, You’re The Man Now, Dog has brought us this wonderful mashup of the theme with Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot; this is one of those times where I’ll claim the fan mashup is better than the original, not to be a knuckleheaded online fanboy, but because Snoop’s original music is a bit naff in comparison.

3) Sonic Adventure 2 – City Escape theme (2001)

Apologies for the impending stream of Sonic Adventure 2 songs, but the game is important to me; it was my first ‘favourite’ game, one that seven-year-old James (I didn’t get the game until early 2004 when it was rereleased on GameCube) could point to as being noticeably superior to his other awesome games (such as Pokemon Colosseum). A big part of that distinction was the music in SA2, which consists of actual songs, instead of repeated jingles; these songs have lyrics, and clearly-defined versus and choruses, and were the first pieces of video game music that I heard that held meaning in of themselves, instead of being things that – while sounding cool – only added to what was being presented in the gameplay and story of the games. And while that meaning usually consisted of just how frakking cool it is for a hedgehog to be skating down a highway on a piece of metal ripped off a helicopter, there was meaning nonetheless.

4) Sonic Adventure 2 – Pumpkin Hill theme (2001)

A song that’s about as close to rap music as the theme from the Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, all of Knuckle’s faux-hop backing tracks in this game are brilliantly awful, but I always liked the ‘so bad it’s good’ quality of the Pumpkin Hill theme, which is incidentally a description I only use to refer to songs from the Knuckles levels of this game. The lyrics aren’t inspired, the rapper’s ‘flow’ is decidedly not ‘sick’, but I love the bassline, and the turntable scratches which would, unbeknownst to me at the time, rear their edgy heads once again when I got into hip-hop I actually liked, with Classified and DL Incognito.

5) Sonic Adventure 2 – Live And Learn (2001)

I’m cheating a little bit here, because this song wasn’t as striking to me when I first played the game, because it was the background music for the title screen, which every seven-year-old in the world clicks through ASAP to get to what they perceive to be the actual game; but having looked up the previous two songs, and listened to this one in its entirety, I think this is my favourite of them all. While the others sound like honest, yet unsuccessful, attempts at replicating the rock and hip-hop genres, Live And Learn sounds like a hard rock song, not one made to sell hedgehog mascots to kids, but one whose lyrics could inspire a bunch of ironic throwback t-shirts worn by pretentious bastards such as myself thirty years after they stopped being actually relevant. And speaking of the actual music industry, I think one astute YouTube commenter sums up this song more eloquently than I ever could –  ‘This is better than everything the Beatles have made.’

6) Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Steel Samurai theme (2001)

I’m going to get away from gushing over fan-made things now, to bring you this amazing minute from the GBA soundscape; the whole tune fits the game, and the episode it’s used in perfectly – the industrial, synthed guitar just after the intro fits the urban, mechanical world of the Steel Samurai and Neo Old Tokyo, and the jingles heard at the very start of the piece that pop up throughout reinforce the vaguely Japanese origin of this fictional kids’ show. The jingle, immediately followed by the crash of the intro, is also reminiscent of songs like Rise Against’s Ready To Fall, with an almost pre-introductory bar, long enough to make listeners squeal ‘Oh my God it’s that song!’, but not quite long enough to take away from the awesome introduction itself. I’d set this as my ringtone, if I wasn’t surprisingly technophobic.

7) Pokemon Colosseum – The Under theme (2003)

Another song with an awesome bassline, the theme song for Orre’s shady Under, literally an underground slum built beneath another slum, Pyrite City, is both dark and foreboding, but also energetic and strangely vibrant, especially the piano parts that come in around the 38 second mark, which help to build up the Under – and by extension Pyrite above it – as a place of crime and deceit, but also a place with its own identity. Indeed, when – spoilers – you defeat Team Snagem and restore order to the region, the dark, criminal world of the Under and Pyrite become ‘a noble town of roughs and scoundrels’, showing misery to come not from the people in this world, but from an outside force, those who try to control them. Admittedly, both the Under theme and the Pyrite City theme do this excellently.

8) Super Mario Galaxy – Gusty Garden Galaxy (2007)

Often pointed to as an example of video games being not only artistic, but beautiful and elegant (because I’m noticing that all the examples I’ve given previously have been dark, childish or parodical songs), the Gusty Garden Galaxy is a world of floating around on dandelions, riding the winds, and generally feeling carefree, yet refined as you blow over grassy fields and planets made of rolling hills. It’s a bit like drifting through the winds above the setting of a George Eliot novel with a fat Italian plumber, and while the soundtrack lacks the variety of the Under theme, or the tight structure of the Sonic Adventure 2 pieces, it’s still a powerful piece, that never falls back on mindless aggression to force a simple ‘this is sad!’ response out of the players.

9) Mass Effect 3 – Leaving Earth (2012)

Speaking of being sad, I couldn’t get through a post on music, video games, or sadness without mentioning what I honestly consider to be the most beautiful piece of music I’ve sat down and listened to; the song plays towards the start of the final chapter in Bioware’s sci-fi epic, when the player flees Earth from the relentless Reaper invasion, who literally rain fire and brimstone onto the planet, obliterating civilian ships as you watch from the safety and helplessness of your ship, the Normandy. I honestly think the theme is underused in the game, only being a background factor as the much more vulgar scenes of the Reapers ravaging Earth play across the screen, and the reuse of the piano loop in the Extended Cut’s An End, Once And For All seems like a cheap attempt to shoehorn in an awesome loop that should have got more exposure. But the music itself is a wonderful mixture of fear and loss, with the initially slow piano parts and the crashing drums, but ultimately hope, as chords come in later in the piece, a dichotomy that is basically the heart of Mass Effect 3 – everything’s falling apart, but until it’s broken, we won’t stop trying to fix it. Also, the repeated synth notes throughout the piece binds it together musically, but also thematically, uniting that initial despair, and the ultimate sad, regretful hope that characterises the start of Mass Effect 3, after the end of the prequel in which the player undertakes a suicide mission, where any of their friends and squadmates can be killed at any point. I don’t want to harp on about this last point too much, because this song is the only one to fit into a wider narrative trilogy of the games I’ve mentioned so it’d be unfair, but Leaving Earth isn’t just a perfect song for where it fits into the Mass Effect universe, but an inspiring song I use with embarrassing regularity to motivate myself after screwing something up.

10) The Last Of Us – All Gone (Aftermath) (2013)

This isn’t the exact version I intended to use here – for those of you who know the game I’m thinking of the music that plays in the brief cutscene after Ellie brutally kills the leader of the cannibals, and is comforted by Joel with the famous ‘baby girl’ line – but it’s the same piece of music, so it’ll have to do. Instead of the grand, orchestral pieces like Gusty Garden Galaxy, or the processed tunes of the earlier songs on this list, All Gone (Aftermath) is a stripped-down feels-generator, with the single guitar part reflecting both the simplicity of the nomadic, paranoid life survivors in the Last Of Us universe are forced to live in, but also their desire to get back to something older, something more traditional; until the end of the game, where Joel realises he must move on with his life and live new experiences, it’s not a stretch to say that he tries to relive his old, pre-apocalypse life in his new surroundings, loving Ellie as he did his own daughter, Sarah, before she died, and structuring his life around meeting old friends, like Bill, and distant relatives, such as his brother Tommy, from his past – he even tries to get back to city life immediately after the disease breaks out, living in martial law Boston as a replica of his old life in Austen. I also think the stringed parts of the piece reflect the tragic beauty of the game’s world: the heads of Clickers resemble abstract art, the blood from Ellie’s killed rabbit has the contrast and slightly warped borders of a Mark Rothko piece, and the settlements encountered throughout the game are like parodies of older, pre-apocalypse dwellings, functional, hand-made and unique, yet built to survive Hell on Earth. And it’s hard to pick a single minute of a three-hour fully-extended soundtrack to sum up those contrasts, but I think All Gone (Aftermath) does it pretty well.

Sorry that got a bit pretentious-English-student-seeing-art-in-bleeding-everything at the end there, but that’s how games have changed over the years and how I, now a pretentious English student, have changed how I respond to and appreciate them. This isn’t to say that all games these days have to be these dark, cinematic pieces of art, but I think the best games create worlds, and whether they’re silly and cartoonish, or resonate and meaningful, music is a key contributor, or even central figure, in creating those worlds.

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