Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Top 10 Video Game Soundtracks: Part 1

There's been a lot of talk in recent years about "Cool Japan." I've previously written about how I don't consider "Cool Japan" a solution to any of the country's problems. That's not to say I don't think Japan is cool. I think certain products of Japanese culture and ingenuity are plenty cool. Exhibit A: the video game. Although Japan hasn't yet cornered the video game market completely, it's certainly become the juggernaut nation of the industry. And so in this post, and one or two future parts, we're talking about video games. Specifically, video game music.

I think many gamers would agree with me that more than graphics and gameplay, the most memorable element of many a great game is its soundtrack (second to a well-written story, of course). With this in mind, I've decided to run a short series on video game music, written by JADJ's more hardcore gamers. I'm curious to see how our lists compare, and what you guys think. Feel free to tell us what you think in the comments! But this introduction has become too long. So, Shadow, take it away:

I love video games. I love music. And I'm pretty fond of that land mass across the ocean called Japan. So when Paul approached (cornered) me, and asked (demanded) me to compile a list of my top 10 favorite Japanese video game soundtracks, I was more than happy (forced) to do it.

A few things to keep in mind before we get started. First, he said favorite, not best soundtracks. As games evolve, and the capacity for music storage grows, the soundtracks get more in-depth. Soundtracks today contain full orchestras; games of the early 80's sound downright primitive in comparison. I'm not saying, from an artistic standpoint, that my top 10 are the greatest musical masterpieces of all time. I just dig them groovy beats.

And secondly -- there are certain game series out there that can easily dominate the video game musical world. You know who you are. I've made a conscious decision to only allow one game from any particular series. As a result, some of your favorites may not appear on the list at all. Tough tanookies. So, all that said...here we go.

#10 -- Blaster Master

A story about a boy who chases after his runaway frog, and winds up in a sub-terranian world full of radioactive mutants. The gameplay was wonderful, if unforgiving. This game was HARD, and to this day I've never beaten it. But it was the music that truly stood out. Spooky, optimistic, fear-inducing...and one track full of pure 8-bit heavy metal awesomeness. Far as I know, there are no song titles. It's all good, though. It's all good.

Favorite titles -- It's all good.

#9 -- Contra

If Blaster Master was unforgiving, then Contra was sadistic. 3 lives, danger coming from every direction, and your buddy keeps stealing your extra lives. The Konami Code was made famous in Contra, giving the player 30 lives instead of 3...not that I needed them. Musically, the catchy beats don't quite fit the surroundings, but they are catchy. Very catchy.

Favorite titles -- Jungle Theme, Enemy Base, Energy Zone

#8 -- Castlevania II

If it wasn't for Game Genie, I never would have beaten this. It's not that it was too difficult...I'm just not a big Castlevania fan. But there's no denying the music. Then again, with song titles like "Bloody Tears," how can it NOT be good?

Favorite titles -- Mansion, Bloody Tears

#7 -- Goonies II

American gamers never saw the original Japanese Goonies game for the NES. American theatergoers never saw a sequel to the Goonies movie. American gamers shook their heads in confusion when Goonies II was released for the NES. Then they popped it in, and bopped their heads to the beat. Each area has a song very unique from one another, and each one is nicely done. Even better? An 8-bit version of Cyndi Lauper's "Goonies R Good Enough!" Score!

#6 -- The Legend of Zelda

Choosing only one Zelda title wasn't easy. Ocarina of Time had the salsa-tastic Gerudo Valley, A Link to the Past had The Dark World's marching beat, but it's the original that truly stands out. Not the largest collection of songs in a game, but any gamer worth his thumbs can hum each tune at the drop of a rupee.

#5 -- Metroid

I was tempted to go with Super Metroid over the original, mainly because the latter's "Lower Norfair" theme is arguably the most fitting, chilling song of the series. But the original had it all -- the heroic Brinstar, the baffling Norfair, the haunting Kraid's Lair, and the simplistic, yet spooky Tourian. As if exploring a hostile alien environment by yourself wasn't scary enough.

Favorite Titles -- Brinstar, Kraid's Lair

#4 -- Chrono Trigger

The higher up we go on the list, the harder it was to place these games in a proper order. Chrono Trigger could easily be at the top of anyone's list, and who would argue? As I write this, I've yet to see Paul's list, but I'd bet good money this game is on his. Top 5, easily. The man's a sucker for Frog. How good is the music of Chrono Trigger? Orchestras worldwide have performed concerts of this game's playlist to sellout crowds.

#3 -- Mega Man 2

Best soundtrack of any Mega Man game? Sure. But top 3 contender for favorite soundtrack of all time? Well, yes. Each of the 8 robot bosses were given a theme that can stand the test of time. Catchy as they were, it was the first Dr. Wily stage that truly stands out as an accomplishment in video game music composition. For it's time, it was epic.

#2 -- Final Fantasy VI

A case of favoritism? Certainly not. Yes, Final Fantasy VI is my favorite of the series, and while other Final Fantasy soundtracks are wonderful, the music is at its best in right here. Final Fantasy VI was the first game that made me truly take notice of the musical composition, and how important a soundtrack could be to a game. Not only are the songs wonderful, but there are a lot of them. 14 character themes, a collection of battle themes, each town has its own theme...and they're all winners. Cyan's noble tune, the tribal Veldt theme, Shadow's ode to the spaghetti western genre...oh, and a 20+ minute opera that upped the ante for every video game soundtrack since. Sephiroth's theme from VII may be more popular, but the final battle of VI, against the demented Kefka, will have you dancing mad. You...you see what I did there? I'm so clever...

#1 -- Earthbound

So much can be said about this game. The plot, the characters, the symbolism, the...fuzzy pickles. And then there's the music. Music plays an important role within the game, as the characters are on a quest to collect 8 melodies from around the world in an effort to save humanity. What strikes me about the music in this game is that it's so outstandingly diverse. The main characters travel the world, and the music reflects this, influenced by real-world styles -- the Middle-Eastern Scaraba, Asian-influenced Dalaam, the snowy Winters, to name a few. The battle themes shook things up, set to trippy kaleidoscope backgrounds, and taking sample melodies from such places as Super Mario Bros, the Little Rascals, Chuck Berry's "Johnny B Goode," the Beatles, and many others.

But it's the theme played at the beginning of the final battle, "Pokey Means Business," that I want to single out. My favorite piece in the game, and possibly my favorite video game theme of all time. The music of a final battle is often when composers put it all out there, throwing their most impressive efforts out to the world. For Earthbound, the player spends all these in-game hours immersed in an incredible, melodic journey full of memorable tunes. And after all those hours, all those battle, when you finally reach the main villain, that pudgy little brat whose always been just out of reach, and the opening notes start to play, it's...not impressive. Decent, but not "epic" by final boss standards. So you choose your attacks, the battle begins, and you're lulled into a false sense of security. And that's when it happens. Pokey unleashes a series of attacks, and the music goes from optimistic to an all-out, pulse-pounding heavy metal assault. And suddenly...this battle wasn't as easy as you thought. Hearing this theme for the first time became a "where were you when...?" moment, and I can vividly remember it to this day.

So there you have it. 10 games, 10 incredible soundtracks. Honorable mention should be bestowed upon the wonderful Metal Gear Solid 2, Rygar, and plenty of others in the Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda, and Metroid franchises. And had this not been a Japanese-only list, you're damn skippy that Donkey Kong Country would be up here, too.


  1. I think you may be pleasantly surprised at my picks. Some overlaps, but enough difference to keep things interesting.

    I never really got into some of those series until recent years, though they have great reputations. In particular, Castlevania, Metroid, and Megaman are three that I knew I had to play but never got around to until the past two or three years. Great games, but unfortunately not on my list.

    Blaster Master I played a little as a kid. Wow, that takes me back. And didn't know there was a Goonies game.

  2. Bloody tears is my favorite video game song. No contest. Like the symphony of the night version better.