from Ikaruga (Arcade/Dreamcast/Gamecube)
Composer: Hiroshi Iuchi
Konami has had a good run over the years with their shmups. Expect to see a few more tunes from their entries in the scrolling shooter genre on this list. First, however, is Ikaruga. If you have not played, or even heard of this amazing game, it would take an entire entry’s worth of explaining, so I’ll just call it an excellent shooter with a unique and fun mechanic. Oh, and the soundtrack is AWESOME! Going back to the Gradius Series, Konami has a great track record for providing great music for their scrolling shooters and Ikaruga is no exception. It opens with an anthemic horn piece followed by a thumping electronica/orchestral theme that will likely get stuck in your head. I know it does for me, anyway.
The Decisive Battle
from Final Fantasy Tactics (PSX)
Composers: Hitoshi Sakimoto, Masaharu Iwata
Final Fantasy Tactics is not one of my favorite games, really. The turn-based strategy genre is just one I never really could get into, as many times as I’ve tried. However, there is one thing about this game I do like, the soundtrack. Sakimoto and Iwata did some great work here, and Sakimoto himself would later go on to work on the astounding Final Fantasy XII soundtrack. So, his first of several appearances on this list is this battle theme, heard early in the game, in the Dorter Slums. It is tense and has this ominous vibe to it, which works in the favor of battle themes, and has a nice rhythm, which is created by the thundering timpani and assisted by the syncopated strings.
from Mega Man X2 (SNES)
Composer: Yuki Iwai
Yuki Iwai is one of the most prolific and stunning talents in the industry’s history. A former employee of Capcom, she worked on classic soundtracks in the Rockman X and Street Fighter series, and many more. Occasionally composing under the pseudonym Sato, or going by her other monomonimal title Yuki, Iwai worked her ass of to make the first two Rockman X soundtracks the classics they are and it shows. The Intro Stage theme from Rockman X2 is just awesome. Keeping with the hard rock vibe of the series’ soundtrack norm, the fact that this is a 16-bit soundtrack just blows my mind. Whenever I listen to this or any other theme from this spinoff series I forget that it is just analog beeps and buzzes that are layered and modified to sound like guitars, synth keyboards and drums. You could have fooled me because when I was a kid playing the very first Megaman X title on my Super Nintendo, I could have sworn there was a rock band living inside of my TV.
from Gunstar Heroes (Genesis)
Composer: Norio Hanzawa
Gunstar Heroes is an awesome shooter/platformer released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. Treasure, its developer, managed to make a stunning action title and bring with it an awesome soundtrack. Save Yellow is one of a number of themes in the game with a bouncy, synth aesthetic to it. There is nothing organic about this music, and that is JUST fine with me. The electronic nature of this theme, along with its bouncing beat and “take charge” melody is really all I needed to put this on my list. As I was not a Sega player back in the day, mainly because me and all of my friends were Nintendo kids, I missed this one originally and it was not until years later that I got a chance to play this masterpiece. I would have been around twelve when it came out, and it would have been right up my alley. The pace, the menace, and the energy of this excellent game is all present in this song. It is all just so glorious.
The African Mines
from Duck Tales (NES)
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
There will be another song from this game much higher on this list. If you do not know what it is, then I just can’t wait until you hear it, because if it is your first time hearing that tune, then it will change your life! Okay, maybe that’s overstating it, but the Ducktales soundtrack has gone down in nostalgia as one of the best game soundtracks really on the weight of just one song, that said, the theme from the African Mines stage is not anywhere near as good as its more famous composition, but it is definitely a classic. This song does not really invoke “Africa” for me, but it is still a smooth-sounding, upbeat tune that does flow with the level very well. Shortly after the release of Ducktales, composer Hiroshige Tonomura would pursue other projects at Taito, leaving Capcom for good.
Science is Fun!
from Portal 2 (PS2/PC/360)
Composer: Mike Morasky
As far as songs that fit the game’s mood, atmosphere and tone well, this phasing electronic piece nails it. Playing over the game’s official trailer as well as at a few points in the game, Portal 2’s instrumental theme is one of those songs where, even if you have never seen a single frame of either game, you can at the very least get a feel for the mood and pace of the game. The excellent Portal 2’s soundtrack is filled with gems like this, and this game will make another appearance later on the list.
from Grandia 2 (Dreamcast/PS2)
Composer: Noriyuki Iwadare
Game Arts/Enix; 2000
I love Grandia 2. Sure, it’s flawed, but I have played a lot of JRPG’s and this series, and Grandia 2 has some of the best combat of any entries in the genre, in my opinion. The soundtrack is okay. It’s not great, not astounding, just… okay. Still Granas Sable, which plays in several areas of the game, is a great composition on its own. It has a very adventurous feel to it, setting the mood for what be a fun and entertaining quest. The mood the song invokes matches the game perfectly, well, at the very least it does up until the game’s massive tonal shift about two thirds of the way through. Its composer, Iwadare, has worked on dozens of games as lead composer, including a majority of the Grandia games, entries in the Lunar series as well as Phoenix Wright. He is a classic composer in his own right and deserves proper recognition.
from Mega Man V (NES)
Composer: Mari Yamaguchi
Wave Man’s theme is one of my favorites. It does not top my list, obviously, but it does bring back a lot of memories. I love Megaman V’s soundtrack. It is one of my favorites in the series and you can expect more from this game to show up on this list in the future. Wave Man’s theme is another that fits the level well, with rising and lowering water levels that seem to dance to the music. The ripples bounce to the beat. It all just works so well.
The Young Descendant of Tepes
from Touhou 6- Embodiment of Scarlet Devil (PC)
2002; Team Shanghai Alice
This series… Legendary for its difficulty, as well as its soundtrack, Touhou is a series of independently-developed PC “Bullet Hell” games that has began in the 90’s and is still seeing releases to this day. The characters have become as iconic and recognizable as the games’ countless, mind-boggling gameplay videos on Youtube. The game’s lead designer, artist, programmer and composer, ZUN, makes his first appearance on my list with this piano-heavy orchestral rock piece from the sixth official entry in the Touhou series. Stage 6 is a rough gauntlet leading to some pretty insane boss battles. This song ends right before the big fight of the stage, but the tune is really the level’s highlight for me.
from Streets of Rage 2 (Genesis)
Composers: Yuzo Koshiro, Motohiro Kawashima
The first level theme of this excellent Sega brawler is a catchy synth dance number, which is pretty much the description for any song on the soundtrack. Go Straight plays for the first half of the first stage and is an endlessly-catchy, upbeat piece. It’s memorable to the series’ fans (myself included) and has really held up well given that the game is more than two decades old! It definitely has a touch of hip hop in there, as much hip hop as you could get out of an early-90’s video game, anyway. Mix that with the gritty streets in the game and you have a solid tune from an awesome game.