from Sim City 3000
Composer: Jerry Martin
So, I open the final chapter in this series with an entry that is probably not on anyone else’s top 10 favorite VGM. This personal choice comes from hundreds of hours over many years playing Sim City 3000. I adore this song. The pace, the tone, the piano, the way it builds and the melodies that overlap and play off each other are all just astounding to me. There are a lot of great themes from the Sim City franchise but Magic City is the one that fits my taste and idea of an “amazing song” better than any of this storied series’ other tunes.
from Donkey Kong Country
Composer: David Wise, Evellyn Fisher Novacovic, Robin Beanland
Aquatic Ambiance really stands out for me as a 16-bit era song that not only uses the system’s audio capabilities better than any other song on the Super Nintendo (though it is not my favorite SNES theme), but also as another composition by David Wise that crushes the standards of game music. It is an achievement in terms of stunning sound design and for pushing the limitations of 16-bit, midi-format music. Aquatic Ambiance has a slow build, not getting to the song proper until the time when most game themes would have already begun looping. All of the little details of this song, from the ambient synth filling the background to the beautiful piano melody that plays throughout come together to form a tune that does not simply live up to its pedigree, but it sets the standard for the sound of the entire series.
from Mega Man II
The Intro theme from Mega Man II is one of the most well-known and revered themes among gamers. It reflects all of the sounds and musical ideas that are expressed throughout the entirety of the game in one short, memorable tune. The song has been covered time and time again, and has even had lyrics written for it in numerous fan videos. It plays over the introduction to Mega Man II, the game I believe bears the best soundtrack of any single game in the history of the medium so far. It is vibrant, bright, fun and catchy, and like just about every song in the game, it is timeless.
from Mega Man X-5
Composer: Naoto Tanaka
Duff McWhalen’s theme is another song that likely does not show up on a lot of top tens, so let me see if I can express why I have this song featured so high on my list. The piano melody is complex in the right way, the time signature and respective beat is catchy and lively, and the song’s tonal shifts are just perfect. Duff McWhalen’s theme from the PSX game Mega Man X-5 is actually a cover of Bubble Crab’s stage from Mega Man X-2, and while melodically that version is just as good, as it is the exactly same, I love this version for its use of a set of synth sounds that just fit perfectly. It is moody and simply brilliant.
from Mega Man X
Composer: Setsuo Yamamoto
Another fan-favorite, Chill Penguin ranks as my second favorite Mega Man theme of all time. It’s high-energy sound, insane use of a brain-melting synth/bass combination and classic melody make it stand out as the perfect tune for its stage. It is has a fast lead riff that keeps the energy of the song high while still having a relatively slow tempo, and while those may sound like conflicting ideas, listening to the theme should help that make sense. The tune has a slightly slower pace than most other songs on the soundtrack, but that does not detract from its intensity, accentuated by that phenomenal synth riff. It also has a sound that perfectly reflects its stage, another major contributor to its placement in my top ten.
from Final Fantasy VI
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Considered by most to be the ultimate boss theme, Dancing Mad is the official Kefka battle theme from Final Fantasy VI. It plays as the player engages one of the most powerful video game bosses of all time and is the iconic example of the “perfect” battle theme, feeling grand and threatening. Many fans of the Final Fantasy series extol Kefka as the greatest villain in the series, and considering he quite literally becomes God by the end of the game (right down to the Michelangelo imagery and Shekina behind his head), I can understand why. The theme to battling a deity had better be amazing, and Dancing Mad nails it.
from Duck Tales
Composer: Hiroshige Tonomura
To more casual game music fans or younger gamers, the inclusion of this 1989 licensed title from Capcom may seem a little odd. However, while the original Duck Tales game was actually quite good, it is the soundtrack that kept its legacy alive. It is full of great tracks and the quality of the soundtrack lies squarely on the shoulders of composer Hiroshige Tonomura, who only composed six titles under the Capcom label before leaving the company to work for Taito, whom he then left in the mid-90’s to pursue other projects. Of his entire career, however, Tonomura has left one song behind that is among a few themes that really set the standard for what game music can and should be. The Moon Theme is a beloved tune because of its cheery mood, tonal complexity and sheer breadth. It is energetic, too, but it has a warmth to it that many game themes really lack. It is a fun and endearing song that is always in the back of my mind when the subject of game music comes up.
Wily - Stage 1
from Mega Man II
Composer: Takashi Tateishi
Of all the themes in the outstanding Mega Man II soundtrack, the theme from Wily’s Castle 1 is by far my favorite. It is hard to really put a finger on why, but I believe it falls mostly on the energy. The minor key, the pace and the tone all give the feel of a song written to drive the player forward. It is a perfect accompaniment to its stage, complimenting the flow well, despite the level’s more lazy vertical segments. Still, there is an urgency to it, and it just feels right. Also, it really just seems to stand out on the soundtrack. It does not clash, mind you, rather it is like an evolution of the sounds heard up to that point. It is actually a quite brilliant when you think about it.
Bowser in the Dark World
from Super Mario 64
Composer: Koji Kondo
The Mario series of games has been hit or miss for me in terms of music. Occasionally, I will hear a song that expresses the franchise’s trademark whimsy and self-aware sensibilities well and it will stick with me, but more often than not, it just comes off as forced. However, Super Mario 64’s soundtrack is quite an achievement. It has a mix of a lot of different musical ideas and all of them work astonishingly well. The one song on the soundtrack that ranks above the others as my favorite is the Dark World theme. The three courses in in the Castle where Bowser has hidden the keys to the varying floors have a song that is, for a lack of a better word, awesome. The percussion, the build, and that moody melody during the song’s main section are all just intensely-classic. I played this game a lot in my teens when it came out and it remains one of my favorite games of all time to this day, and this song is, believe it or not, part of the reason. When I enter these worlds and that song kicks in, it just hits me with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Composer: Koji Kondo
Alas, the finale. My number one pick. Cliched? Okay. Obvious? Maybe? However, why is this one song held in such high regard by so many gamers? Well, it is a masterful composition and an amazing achievement in sound design in games, but I do not think this is solely the reason. I believe it is a combination of things. Forget the argument that Ocarina of Time is among a handful of contenders for what could objectively be called the “Greatest Video Game of All Time”, and consider this one aspect of the game: When you enter Hyrule Field, this song plays for the first time contrasting a sorrowful and silent goodbye to a childhood home for Link. The flutes break the day and the camera pans showing us what is really the first vast, open landscape any gamer had ever really gotten a chance to explore. Sure it is not quite as big as it may seem, thanks to some clever design tricks that allow for the illusion of scale while remaining within the bounds of the console’s limitations, but the promise of exploring this world the first time we see the field and hear this song is a striking memory, at least for me. The song is a orchestration of the classic Legend of Zelda theme music but unlike a vast majority of game music up to the time this game was released, this tune does not really loop. It opens with the break of day and then, just as the song would begin its loop, fades out as night falls leaving behind an unsettling silence, broken only occasionally by the howling of a wolf or the chirps and shakes of midnight ambiance. The song goes through several segments, all flowing to a triumphant climax as dusk approaches. Koji Kondo’s theme for Hyrule Field is not only a good theme in terms of composition, but is equally stunning in terms of how it is used in the game. It is a flawless implementation of an already breathtaking song, and that is why it is my number one.
It took me a while to get through this list, but now that it is over, I have another list to start working on, here. Keep watch because very, very soon I will be sharing my favorite movies of the 90’s.
Thank you for reading.