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Saturday, April 19, 2014

My 200 Favorite Video Game Themes- Part 17: Nostalgia Triumphant

Tornado Man
from Mega Man 9
Composer: Ippo Yamada
Capcom; 2008

After a decade-long hiatus peppered with Legends, Battle Chips and 3-D debacles, Capcom finally gave us Mega-fanboys a new title in original franchise that harkened back to the old-school series that created the namesake and cemented it as a solid and reliable franchise that would satisfy from the 80’s well into the 90’s.  By the turn of the millennium, Capcom had set its sights on other projects and had essentially left the Blue Bomber to rot, only occasionally releasing tie-in titles that claim to be canon but were really titles implementing popular fads for handheld gaming at the time.  They were essentially cash-ins.  The Megaman X titles continued with declining quality, ultimately showing how far the series fell with Megaman X-7, an ugly disaster of a game that was hindered by its poorly-executed 3D design.  Long gone were fast stages with constant threats and collapsing environments, and in its place came slow, dark, poorly-rendered passages and cheap-looking, sloppy cel-shaded animation.  Five years later, Mega Man 9 brought the series back to its roots, releasing as a digital download title on the 360 and PS3, the game featured classic 8-bit graphics, challenging design and a great soundtrack.  The one takeaway track for me was Tornado Man’s theme, a song that sounds as though it could have been composed in 1990 yet still does not feel like a throwback either.  It is an impressively catchy theme and one of the best of the series.

Home Sweet Home
from Beyond Good and Evil
Composer: Christophe Héral
Ubisoft; 2003

Beyond Good and Evil has shown up a few times up to this point and Home Sweet Home is the final theme from the game featured on this list.  This is a wonderful tune.  The way it builds on a simple piano melody so fluidly and so beautifully gives the song a sincerity, and as the tune progresses, while things in this strange world begin to feel more and more dire, the mood shifts and turns and changes.  It is a song that conveys so many feelings.  A perfect iconic tune for a game this emotionally-complex and deep.

Purification of the City
from Flower
Composer: Vincent Diamante
ThatGameComapny; 2009

On the note of emotional-complexity, Flower makes its final appearance with the song from the stage that holds the most meaning in the game.  Flower’s is a story is told without any exposition or without any dialogue.  It is a tale woven through pictures and experiences.  Purification of the City has the player maneuvering the wind between fallen buildings in an abandoned, lifeless metropolis.  The song is triumphant and glorious, feeling ever tragic but still empowering as a strong backdrop to nature’s victory over man’s folly.  It is a very powerful tune that is best heard while playing the game, as it fits the feel and flow of the level better than almost any game theme I have ever heard.

NOTE: I shared the entire level video rather than just the song. I felt it was the only way to properly convey the impact of this song.

Bloody Tears
from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest
Composer: Kenichi Matsubara
Konami; 1988

I loved Simon’s Quest as a kid.  This is a game that opened quite a few doors for me.  It was one of the first games I ever played and beat that had a fully-explorable world, implementing a design that is now lovingly referred to by fans as a “Metroidvania” world.  One of the earliest instances of an open side-scroller, Simon’s Quest remains one of the best of the genre on the weight of some sturdy difficulty, a solid and clear goal, and an amazing soundtrack.  Bloody Tears is arguably the most famous theme of the franchise, having been covered live on stage and on YouTube in various forms and even having shown up in later Castlevania titles as one of only a handful of the series’ themes to be featured in more than one game.  Bloody Tears is a classic in every definition of the word.

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

Boss Themes are an important gauge for any game composer, I say.  You have to take the musical stylings of the game, and make a song that is separate from the level theme, and make it more intense, and have build in a way that makes the fight seem grandiose and threatening.  Most boss themes fail at this, which is why there are so few of them on my list.  It is easy to make music creepy, or noisy, but to make one that is just purely powerful, reflecting the threat before you… Well, that has to be a daunting task.  So, leave it to the folks at Square to solve the problem!  Enemy Attack, and I say this with all sincerity, is the perfect boss theme.  It may not be the best, it may not even be the best on the PS2, but it is the example.  It is the song that starts out letting the player know things are serious and then just builds.  The song’s long loop and bone-crushing choir (those are words you probably never thought you’d read back-to-back, huh?) make for a truly powerful series of encounters throughout the game.  This is a standout track from one of the best game soundtracks of all time.

from Mega Man II
Composer: Takashi Tateishi
Capcom; 1988

Mega Man II is a fan favorite in the series for a number of reasons.  It is an incredibly well-designed and well-structured game full of memorable moments and exciting levels and bosses, but more than anything else, I think, the thing that stuck with fans was the music.  Oh, man the music in this game.  Some games have soundtracks that fans just immediately think of when the subject of game music comes up.  Some fans think of Mario, some think of Zelda, but for me, it’s this game.  Mega Man II just may be MY pick for the greatest video game soundtrack of all time.  I say this just on the grounds that I am judging it based on the period in which it was released, and based on staying-power.  Sure, there have been songs in games released that one could argue are better in their own right, but a collection of themes this good, from the title screen to the closing credits..?  I doubt one could find one that is this perfect.  I may be wrong, but in all my years as a gamer, playing console after console for generation after generation for more than twenty-five years of my life, I have yet to find a soundtrack that, in its entirety, holds a candle to Mega Man II’s.

Green Hill Zone
from Sonic the Hedgehog
Composer: Masato Nakamura
Sega; 1991

Sonic makes his final appearance on my list with the very first level theme from Sonic the Hedgehog.  Green Hill Zone is an iconic Sega tune that is also one of the essential 16-bit era themes.  Many gamers of the time were introduced to this song alongside a brand new gameplay experience that traded the more deliberate but slower jumps and level negotiation of the Super Mario Bros. franchise for twitch gameplay, high-speed loops, ramps that send you flying across the stage or into the sky and dangerous traps that often came seemingly out of nowhere.  Add to that tiered levels with multiple paths and you had a game-changer in terms of game design and pace.  The Green Hill Zone theme is one of my personal favorites because, melodically, it just works.  It has a softer melody that is emphasized by an upbeat accompaniment and a wonderful build to a satisfying end to the loop.

Treasury Room
from Super Castlevania IV
Composers: Masanori Adachi, Taro Kudo
Konami; 1991

Here’s another Castlevania IV theme.  The Treasury Room is much, much later in the game and the song features one of my favorite structures.  It is a slow build to an amazing theme.  Listening to the start of the song, with it’s creepy piano and organ combination, one would probably not guess that this tune will be a high-energy organ rock piece with some distinctly-Gothic ideas.  This theme belongs up there with many of the more famous Castlevania tunes for me.  It is catchy, memorable and just as strong as most of the franchise’s other, more well-known themes in my opinion.  The song builds well, too, starting very simple and adding layers as it goes, creating a steadily evolving theme that has a very long loop for a 16-bit title.

Napalm Man
from Mega Man V
Composer: Mari Yamaguchi
Capcom; 1992

This one may seem a little high to most, and I get that.  For me, however, I love the intro riff to this song, and how it shows up after each part of the song in different iterations.  I love that one little riff enough to push this song way up into my top 40.  Other than that, if it were not for the rhythmic interludes and the way the song sort of shifts tonally through them, I would say this is a rather forgettable tune.  It’s funny how sometimes one’s favorite songs are often the simplest ones, huh?

Title Theme
from Metroid
Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka
Nintendo; 1986

I will make an assertion here: Metroid is the most underrated soundtrack of the 8-bit era.  It is damn-good.  It has a blend of eerie and heroic and has a touch of both emotions in every theme.  It is the soundtrack to aimlessly exploring a dangerous and labyrinthine alien world.  I cannot see anyone hitting the nail on the proverbial head better than what was achieved here.  While Super Metroid’s soundtrack is arguably better, for an 8-bit soundtrack, released so early in the NES cycle, this game has charm and memorability in spades.  The Title Theme starts off as a slightly unsettling series of creepy beeps and buzzes until it seamlessly and flawlessly transitions into an excellent melody.  The song’s layers are few but that is all that is needed to convey the feeling of jumping into this game.  NES’ Metroid is one of Nintendo’s all-time best, and this theme is among the greatest in their catalog.  I stand by that.

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