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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

My 200 Favorite Video Game Themes - Part 1: City Streets, Pirates and Plumbers

Capital City Theme
from Sim City (SNES)
Composer: Soyo Oko
1991; Maxis


In a game where the whole idea is to build a successful city, the feeling of progress is a necessity.  Aside from his far-reaching influence in the area of game design, Sim City's designer Will Wright is justly credited (alongside his peer Sid Meyer) as one of the founding fathers of the strategy genre.  This is a game series I’ve loved for many years (Except for the 2013 reboot.  Go bankrupt, EA.  The world hates your face), and as the years went on, one consistent positive element in this series has been its excellent music.  The first Sim City and Sim City 3000, in particular, had stunning soundtracks with memorable music ranging from relaxing to encouraging and energetic, and this first theme from this storied franchise sort of falls into both categories.  It starts of with the sound that is reminiscent of construction, it is to me at least.  It then progresses into a soft theme mixing synth and strings sounds.  It’s a solid theme and is one of the majority of songs on this list that dominated my childhood.

Eyes On Me
from Final Fantasy VIII (PSX)
Composer: Faye Wong
1999; Squaresoft


As stated in my introduction for this series, Final Fantasy is going to be one franchise whose music will show up again and again on my list.  Eyes On Me is on here because… well… I don’t know.  I am being entirely sincere here.  I do like the song, but most of the fond memories of this song comes from length conversations with friends about this game.  It is on the list because it was a song that I have always associated with the strange love story between Julia and Laguna; a story I had always considered far more interesting than the tepid romance between Squall and Rinoa, despite my irritation with Laguna’s constant wussing out.  Whenever I hear Eyes on Me it does bring back fond memories of gaming in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  This is in spite of the fact that I consider VIII to be among the weaker of the Final Fantasy titles.  I still enjoy the game, but not nearly as much as many of the series’ other titles, however I contend that the soundtrack to Final Fantasy VIII is among the series’ best, and Eyes On Me is just one of a number of entries from this game on my list.

Main Theme
from The Curse of Monkey Island (PC)
Composer: Michael Land
1997; LucasArts


My history with PC gaming does not really go back that far.  I did not get my first quality PC until my senior year of High School.  Before that, I was using an older Windows 95 machine that could not run most new games.  Today, I’m pretty much a PC gamer almost exclusively.  I still play console games from time to time, but most of the titles of the last five years or so have been my primary focus have been popular MMORPG’s, Minecraft, or various titles on Valve’s excellent Steam platform.  That said, I did get some hands-on time in the early 2000’s catching up on some of LucasArts’ classic adventure titles.  The first one I played was Curse of Monkey Island, a late and well-loved entry into the long-running series.  The entire series has good music, but I particularly enjoy this theme.  I guess this simply comes from the fact that it is exactly what you expect a title theme for a game about pirates to sound.  So, it’s perfect!

A Place of Memory  - Memoria
from Final Fantasy IX (PSX)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
2000; Squaresoft


Final Fantasy IX is not one of my favorite games in the series.  It is good, don’t get me wrong, but it feels a little over-simplified and lacked the customization of VII and even VIII (which I repeat, I'm a little lukewarm to).  I am a person who likes to play a game the way I want to, not the way the developer wants me to, and I always felt more than a little constricted by Final Fantasy IX’s overall structure.  Still, the game had a wonderful soundtrack.  It is not one of my favorites in the series, but Nobuo Uematsu always brings his A-game and FFIX was no exception.  The soundtrack is a mix of folk, blues, Baroque and Renaissance-period sounds that culminates to a uniquely bright and moving symphony.  Now, Memoria is a weird place.  It is another world, built from collective memories, where time has stood still while the world it governs seems to be trying to move on without it, and while, from a story standpoint, this particular area is out of left field, it has three really good things going for it.  First, and most memorably, are the bosses, which are among the most intimidating and creative in the series’ history, despite some of them being throwbacks to fights in previous games.  Second is the art design, where the artists at Square just went crazy and made a stunning, haunting and simply beautiful landscape.  Lastly: the music.  The theme for Memoria is a ghostly melody that is mournful and it has a tone of loss to it, not just losing someone, but as though the characters in the story are lost… for good.  Memoria as a whole is a great final chapter to what is ultimately a pretty weak third act in the game.  In fact, Memoria is one of my all-time favorite Final Fantasy levels, and the beautiful song that plays chillingly in the background has done much to influence my love for this place that memories built and time forgot.

Overworld 1 Theme
from Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)
Composer: Koji Kondo
1990 (NA); Nintendo


Koji Kondo.  Real video game fans know that name.  He is the head sound director/composer for many of Nintendo’s flagship franchises.  Think of an iconic Nintendo melody and there is about an 80% chance Kondo was behind it.  He has been an inspiration for game composers and has given countless two-dimensional worlds depth with his inspired and iconic scores.  He, alongside the aforementioned Nobuo Uematsu and a few other names will appear many times on this list, as they are the definitive names in game music, and for good reason.  Now, I want to say a few words about Super Mario Bros. 3.  It is not a simply a “good” game.  It is one of only a few titles in existence that I would call “perfect”.  It ranks among the best platformers of all time and is one of my favorite video games.  It also laid the groundwork for many ideas that would become staples of the industry, such as the “three hit boss” and the fully-interactive map leading to different levels.  Another unforgettable aspect of Super Mario Bros. 3 is its soundtrack, which has numerous songs that are instantly recognizable for me and just about anyone who was gaming in the late-80’s and early 90’s.  It is not my favorite Nintendo soundtrack, nor is it even Kondo’s best work as a whole, but it definitely hits all of the right note blocks (sorry).  Instead of going for high-energy music, Kondo composed a chiptune with an island sound and a delightful melody.

Under Logic
from Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis)
Composers: Yuzo Koshiro and Motohiro Kawashima
1992; Sega


Koshiro and Kawashima managed to conjure up a solid groove for Sega’s headlining beat-’em-up series for the Genesis.  The Streets of Rage series is full of great music and this first track on this list, Under Logic, the Stage 4 theme, motivates the player as they bash through wave after wave of thugs in a run-down park.  Brawlers always have such fun music, and I’m not entirely sure why.  The genre is a mixed bag, going from superb to bland to god-awful.  However, Streets of Rage 2 is one of the best in the genre and one of my favorite games on the Genesis.  The music is a mix of funk, soul and techno that feels like the streets.  At half-tempo, I could see this song playing over the opening credits of an early-80’s Scorsese film, easily.  It’s energetic and has an aggression to it that matches the brutal streets the game portrays.

Distant Mountain
from Suikoden (PSX)
Composers: Miki Higashino, Hiroshi Tamawari, Tappi Iwase, Hirofumi Taniguchi and Mayuko Kageshita
1995; Konami


Oh, man… It’s been years!  Suikoden is Konami’s frontlining RPG series.  It spans ten titles and numerous platforms.  While not exactly huge in the States, this is a popular franchise in Japan.  Its world is loosely based on a popular piece of classical Chinese literature and it has been one of the few JRPG franchises that has truly survived the Western RPG revolution of the early-to-mid 2000’s.  The series has delightful music, too.  Distant Mountain, the theme first heard early in the game on Mt. Tigerwolf, has a strong Celtic influence, as do many great JRPG themes.  This is an often-overlooked soundtrack that is full of little gems here and there.  I strongly suggest giving a listen in its entirety.  Also, note some of those composers’ names as they will be showing up multiple times on this list.

Festival of Servants
from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PSX)
Composer: Michiru Yamane
1997; Konami


This is one of the boss themes from Symphony of the Night, which is not only one of my favorite Playstation titles, but is one of my favorite games of all time.  The theme first plays during an early-game encounter with Slogra and Gaibon, a duo of bosses long-time fans of the series have seen over and over again  At this point, they are pretty much expected to be in a Castlevania game, and their accompanying theme will become the official mini-boss theme of the game.  The song opens with a loud, squealing guitar wail, followed by an intense theme pounding the tension of the moment into the player.  I have always found the power of this theme at this boss kind of funny considering how easy these two are, but still, it is a memorable tune and a well-loved moment from one of the best adventure/platformers of all time.

Shadow Man
from Mega Man III (NES)
Composers: Yasuaki Fujita and Harumi Fujita
1990; Capcom

Rockman is one of the most essential game franchises of all time.  Whether you like them or not (though I’ve never met a gamer who does not like at least some of these games), does not change the fact that Mega Man is influential and fun.  Then there is the music.  Oh, my GOD the music in this series…  Some franchises are known for their soundtracks and, as I mentioned in my introduction, expect to see a lot from Mega Man.  I will even go so far as to contend you will hear at least one song from the franchise in each entry in this series.  My list is saturated with music from the Blue Bomber’s storied history and, I would argue, deservedly so.  Few franchises have produced music as catchy, memorable and fun as the Capcom’s flagship series.  Shadow Man is the lowest of the franchise’s entries on this list but it is, itself, quite excellent.  The minor key, the bluesy bass, the tonal shifts, everything works.  It also goes quite well with the level, which has the player traversing a lava-filled factory as the lights constantly fade in and out.  Shadow Man is also one of the coolest Master Robots in the series, and his song just fits perfectly here.

No Man's Land
from Contra III: The Alien Wars (SNES)
Composers: Miki Higashino, Masanori Adachi and Tappi Iwase
1992; Konami

Tension is the operative emotion when the player is making their way to the final encounter.  You, a human, armed with two guns, has just trekked across a flaming city, stormed a massive factory filled with hostile aliens, scoured the wastelands and now, within the enemy base, only your final targets remain.  You scale the side of his antechamber, leading to his throne.  He is the one-and-only Red Falcon.  You have defeated him before, and you can certainly defeat him again!  Fearful of your wrath, Falcon sends one last foe your way, his one remaining flying metal guardian.  You fill the flying metal beast with holes and now, with the coward Falcon’s last defenses in ruins, you make the final jump up to the platform to face your destiny.  No Man’s Land plays right after you defeat Shadow Beast Kimkou, who was actually the final boss of the previous game in the series, Super C on the NES.  After an easy few fights, the tone shifts for the final stretch of the game, and this song is the perfect mood-setter.  It is heroic, intense, menacing and energizing all at once.  I love the power and  the punch to the gut that this melody has.  It invokes a lot of great memories of my closing out the last few minutes of one of my favorite video games of all time. Also, take note of the composers’ names. Do they sound familiar?

Continue to Part 2

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