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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

My 200 Favorite Video Game Themes - Part 9: Mood vs. Attitude

Balamb Garden
from Final Fantasy VIII
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Sqauresoft; 1999

Balamb Garden is one of the very first songs you hear in Final Fantasy VIII.  It is a calming theme that, to me, blends a classic sound with a sort of sterile, synthetic feel, and I do mean that as a positive.  The garden’s look is this cold efficient place with all of these comforting and, adversely, disconcerting trees and fountains.  It has always created an atmosphere that makes Garden seem like it is hiding something (which we later find out is true).  The relaxing tune, I feel, is actually kind of unnerving, since there are darker truths hidden beneath the surface, as is the case in any place that seems to be just a little too perfect.

South Cape (Town Theme)
from Illusion of Gaia
Composer: Yasuhiro Kawasaki
Game Arts/Enix; 1993

Town themes in RPG’s are, by their nature, generally pretty dull.  They are meant to be calm, peaceful songs designed to reflect the feel of the town.  However, most of the time I just find these themes boring.  They rarely do anything unexpected and maintain simplicity at a level I would just label as bland.  There is nothing wrong with “soft” as long as it is not “sleepy”.  South Cape, at least to me, is the creamy blend of a well-composed theme and a soft melody.  This sort of balance can be hard to achieve, but there is something so peaceful about this tune that I just cannot help but love it.  There are countless songs like South Cape in RPG’s, but few that are really as good.

Snow Field
from Contra
Composers: Hidenori Maezawa, Kiyohiro Sada
Konami; 1987

Now, a good melody is essential, but what about energy?  The Stage 5 theme from Contra is an awesome tune.  The opening bass leads into a pounding 80’s action synth piece that then blends into an amazing electronic piano number.  This is a popular song from an even more popular game but I have always regarded it as a theme that is more than simply “good”.  Rather, it is just completely spectacular.  Now, I may be overstating it some (it has been known to happen), but there is something about this theme that just gets me pumped.

Area 1-1
from Ninja Gaiden
Composer: Keiji Yamagishi, Ryuichi Nitta
Tecmo; 1988

Like the Snow Field theme, this one has a lot of energy, which is a plus for me.  It definitely sounds like it came from Ninja Gaiden, a series full of fast, high-impact tunes like this.  The fact that it is the first level theme you hear introduces you to one of the greatest game soundtracks of all time.  I suppose what I like about this song in particular is the part at the end where things go from fast and aggressive to a breakdown that leads into the next loop.  It comes in at the right time to prevent repetitiveness and adds some mood and intensity to the song.

The Last of Us Theme
from The Last of Us
Composer: Carmen Rizzo; Performed by Gustavo Santaolalla
Naughty Dog; 2013

The Last of Us is a very atmospheric game.  Every detail has a story.  Every car that is abandoned, every building covered in grafitti, every lost soul either still human or dead underneath a monstrous shell has a story.  The Last of Us takes the Post-Apocalypse in a sorrowful, grim direction, which is not new to popular culture at large, but to video games, it is pretty close to novel.  This theme plays over real film-style credits that roll after we witness the events that shape our protagonist Joel into who he is at the start of the game’s main storyline.  While this tune plays, newsreels and reports of the events leading up to the game proper roll in the foreground.  The theme song for The Last of Us is a harrowing tune.  It sounds as much like loss and emptiness as a song this good really can without being too boring.  The scenes leading up to this intro are essential to grasp the pure weight of this tune, so if you have not seen it, at least go on YouTube and watch one of the numerous movie compilations of the game to watch the prologue followed by the opening credits so you can truly feel the power of this song in context.

Boomer Kuwanger
from Mega Man X
Composer: Setsuo Yamamoto
Capcom; 1994

Now for something a little less… Depressing.  Boomer Kuwanger’s theme is awesome.  Like the best Mega Man themes, it opens with a fast background synth that becomes the thread that ties the song together.  The horns play out the melody and the accompaniment keeps the pace and energy up.  It is a pretty perfect song and just barely escapes my top 100, and the only reason it is so low is because, honestly, there are quite a few themes from the Mega Man X series that I like a lot more, believe it or not.  Still, this is a song that is entirely nostalgic for me, and while the level is kind of forgettable in a game full of classic, awesome stages, this song makes the venture into this area worth it.

from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Composer: Mutsuhiko Izumi, Miki Higashino
Konami; 1989

This is another classic tune co-composed by the great Miki Higashino (Who appears a whopping ten times on my list..!  To put that into perspective, the great Koji Kondo only has eight appearances).  The rock sound and bass sound so natural and too good for a chiptune.  Granted, arcade machines in the late eighties had better sound than any consoles did, but even with that considered, this game sounds good by comparison to its arcade counterparts, too.  Konami nails it again with a great tune that is fun, exciting, and fitting for its stage.

from Final Fantasy X
Composers: Nobuo Uematsu, Masashi Hamauzu, Junya Nakano
Squaresoft; 2001

For the Blitzball Capital of Spira, you want a tune that is lively, fitting for the game and also somewhat cosmopolitan in its style.  The guitar gives the tune a Breezy feel, while the bass and drums make it sound modern and more advanced in years than most of the songs in the game (with one obvious exception).  It definitely has a modern edge and the more electronic elements of the song blend well into the more traditional sounds.  To me, this reflects the nature of Luca itself.  In a religion that is avidly opposed to the use of machines, Luca has one giant mechanical device at its very heart: the Blitzball Arena.  So the song sounding both classic and modern at the same time works because it reflects the spirit of the city.

Sailing on the Wind
from Flower
Composer: Vincent Diamante
ThatGameCompany; 2009

Flower is a game that, despite being high among my favorite video games of the 2000’s (and of all time really), many people apparently still have not played.  This is unacceptable, people!  Flower is an original, inventive, emotionally-gripping game about nature’s reclamation of Earthly beauty in Man’s apparently-permanent absence.  Flower weaves a story without a single word or line of text.  It is like a fully-interactive picture book told through motion and emotion, rather than exposition and dialogue.  In order to craft such a unique statement for a video game, the folks at Sony’s indie darling ThatGameCompany had Vincent Diamante compose one of the most moving video game soundtracks of all time.  This bright combination of piano, woodwind and strings is a great taste of the soundtrack as a whole, and that one soft melody that plays over and over in the top of the track is the beautiful recurring theme melody of Flower, appearing, in some form and key, in just about every song in the game.  This is a soundtrack that should be listened to from start to finish as it is a powerful, captivating and heartbreaking work of brilliance.  Expect to see this game show up a few more times on my list in the future.

from Halo 2
Composers: Martin O’Donnell, Michael Salvatori
Bungie; 2004

We venture from a moving and gripping melodic theme to Halo’s return my list.  Halo 2, to be exact.  This song exudes badassery, with the chugging guitar and intense piano playing filled by the choir and strings in the background.  It all leads up to the famous Celtic string piece that is part of the series’ official theme song.  On top of all of the complexity this song already has in spades, it manages to get fuller and fuller as it goes on, and becomes, by the end, one of the most epic tunes in the game.

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