ENTERTAINMENT: Top Five Video Game Soundtracks (You Ignored)
Music is one of the most powerful and influential mediums in the history of all linear time, and when a soundtrack transforms a narrative from acceptable to exceptional, it’s certainly worth taking a second look at. In my life as a gamer, so many soundtracks (from the likes of Halo, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, MegaMan X4, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, StarFox 64, etc.) stayed stuck in my mind many years after those games, and their respective console hosts, were buried in the obscurity and dust of the past, forging a way for the next generation of living-room entertainment.
However, there are some tunes I have never been able to get out of my head, and these soundtracks come from some video games that may not seem terribly recognizable at first, or are usually overshadowed by predecessors, or simply didn’t have its players give a real listen to the music during play. Consider this your redemption shot, nerds, and check out these games’ soundtracks you might’ve missed when they were….well, fresh.
RoboPit (1996, PlayStation)
Okay, this one is a bit of a stretch, I’ll admit. I can’t think of too many people who’ve ever even heard of this game, let alone people who have memories of it from the mid-90s when it was released for the original PlayStation except my brother and I. The actual soundtrack as a whole isn’t bad at all--most of it ranges from haunting cyber-horror jams that promises deep layers and dark environments, to generic piano-pop that is somehow supposed to invoke the fantasy come true of a simple, playful battle between cute robots. But that upbeat menu music simply cannot be stopped.
After an electro techno-knob dialed up to ten marks the intro video, a heavy 90’s laser-effect signals the start screen, and creepy phone-dials and off-kilter melody reminds the player of the earliest days of mainstream dial-up internet, the menu music questions your actual destination: are you on your way to church, the local malt shop, or finding a dope robot to hop in an arena with and decimate the competition? The range of emotions the music brings blend well, inviting the player to enjoy the process of customizing their own fighter-robots and scrolling through the list of higher-rank enemies with higher-grade weapons to take of their hands after a inch-thin victory. Listen for yourself.
Highlights: Menu Music; Track 5 stage theme.
MegaMan 8 (1996, PlayStation)
I can readily admit that game developer Capcom has always had a knack for exceptional, memorable, above-the-bar soundtracks to drive the narratives of the tales their video games carried. This trend goes as far back as the days of the original Nintendo Entertainment System, with one of the flagships of this wave being 1988’s MegaMan 2. “Fans” of the franchise seem to have the unanimous attitude that the first six MegaMan games, all released for the Nintendo, are the only relevant entries, all but completely disregarding 1995’s MegaMan 7 on the Super Nintendo, and 1996’s MegaMan 8 on the original Sony PlayStation. (Even the neo-retro sequels MegaMan 9 and MegaMan 10 playfully revert back to the 8-bit graphical style of the first six games, ignoring the graphical advancements of 7 and 8).
I completely disagree with this odd notion that MegaMan 7 and MegaMan 8 are somehow forgettable throwaways. I have a very special connection with 8 in particular, and will excitedly defend the game for having one of the best soundtracks in the entire franchise. Promoting the gorgeous game’s ambient electricity (like watching a lightning storm in slow motion--see Aqua Man theme, Frost Man theme), the drum'n bass-style theme songs for each of the stages are melodious, warm, and ultimately full of unique charm instead of over-relying on attempts to recapture the magic and likeness of the songs of previous games (i.e. by means of remixing or tributing). 8 stands on its own two feet and earns a thick chunk of my appreciation and respect for its colorful boss select screen music alone. I've been humming that song since I was ten.
Highlights: Boss Select Screen, Frost Man theme song.
Super Street Fighter II Turbo (1994, 3D0 port)
Not many young gamers today would even know about Panasonic’s overpriced, undersold video game console. And yet, the 3D0 (“three-dee-oh”) holds the honor of hosting the first ever port of Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Another gold nugget developed by 90’s Capcom, this fourth update to the world most popular flagship arcade fighting game, 1991’s Street Fighter II, standardized 2D fighting as we know it today, with the mainstream debut of air combos, “super moves”, highly-stylistic versus and victory screens, and a secret boss fight for advanced players who met certain conditions of high challenge (the debut of fan-favorite character Akuma). Yet, the game’s 3D0 port remixes the arcade counterpart’s soundtrack and amplifies the quality fifty-fold.
Whether you’ve heard the theme songs of Street Fighter II before or not, you’re going to be extremely impressed with the quality of reimagined iconic theme songs (sans a surprisingly obnoxious character select song). Each of the sixteen playable characters hail from a distinct part of the world, and their stages and songs reflect that--Ryu from Japan, Guile from America, DeeJay from Jamaica, and even Sagat from Thailand. With the recent announcement of a new iteration of this franchise entitled Ultra Street Fighter II: The Final Challengers as an exclusive title for the upcoming Nintendo Switch, it'll be interesting to see upon release if they will reuse this version of the soundtrack (my preference), remix the iconic songs yet again, or in fact keep the original versions of these songs from the Super Street Fighter II Turbo arcade (which itself is a remixed soundtrack of the original Street Fighter II). Either way, for being put on a console that few gamers today remember, they sure struck gold with this game’s soundtrack. Seriously.
Highlights: Intro Theme, DeeJay’s Theme song
Sonic 3D Blast (1997, Sega Saturn/Windows port)
The most surprising entry on this list (at least for me!), the black sheep of Genesis-era Sonic games had his three-dimensional debut on the next generation of Sega home consoles, the highly-underrated Saturn. Both the Saturn and and Windows port of this game gained direction and perspective from in-house Sega Europe composer Richard Jacques, contributing to a tasteful, epic soundtrack that would boast of Jacques' quality for years to come. I never owned a Sega Saturn myself (as mentioned in podcast 006, my brother and I was a hardcore Nintendo kids growing up), so I missed out on the golden era of Sonic games as well as the Saturn titles like this and its controversial racing-game counterpart, Sonic R. I didn't play the classic Sonic games until collections of the Genesis and Sonic titles were re-released for the PC on CD-Rom in the early 90s. I likely missed a bullet with the Genesis version of 3D Blast soundtrack, but the PC and Saturn versions were beyond golden. So say what you will about the game itself--the soundtrack is a breakthrough of new quality for the franchise, which was already positively-received to begin with.
Each of the seasonally or elementally themed stages contain three “acts”, with the second act featuring a slightly varied rendition of the first act’s theme song (the third act for each stage is a boss battle with a shared theme song among them all). The thing about this soundtrack is that it successfully ditches the cartoony, youthful spirit that helped personify the blue hedgehog’s previous 16-bit mega-adventures---here, the music of the Sonic franchise “grows up” and evolves into quantum of highly professional quality so clean and dramatic that it sounds like it doesn’t belong in a Sonic the Hedgehog at all. Most of the stage theme songs are unbelievably beautiful, including the short intro theme song. Colorful, bright-eyed sonic and his worlds are completely undermined by the impressive soundtracks that drive the narrative to each of the acts throughout the game. Easily Sonic's best prior to Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast (that console's top-selling game) and subsequent of Sonic 2 and 3 on the Sega Genesis. Sonic Adventure, released stateside in 1999, brought the heroic blue hedgehog into unprecedented open-world territory and helped to revive the mascot's brand by sporting a sharper anime-influenced appearance and edgy rock music to boost his cool factor. But future Sonic titles could simply never replicate the maturity and charm of this game's original soundtrack.
Highlights: Rusty Ruins Act 2, Volcano Valley Act 2.
Ikaruga (2001, Dreamcast)
Vertical spaceship shoot-em-ups have always been a favorite game genre of mine since the quarter-carrying glory days of Raiden DX and 19XX: The Battle for Destiny. I only wished that the best of any of these neo-retro shooters, Ikaruga, had been more accessible to me when I was eleven years old. There was nothing wrong with playing Bangai-O (another retro-style shooter created by Ikaruga's development company Treasure), but I literally would’ve never stopped playing Ikaruga if I’d been exposed earlier to its side-winding graphics, mind-blowing innovations within its genre, and its soul-crushing, heart-wrenching soundtrack that invokes desperation, oppression, and the real consequences of war. I hadn't ever played its spiritual predecessor on the Sega Saturn, Radiant Silvergun, but had I stayed up on things back then, no doubt I would've come across this game a lot sooner than on Xbox Live. The artwork alone for this game might earn its own future blog post.
But back to the music--annoyingly passionate and deathly dedicated to driving its surprisingly deep plot along--the synth and snare driven soundtrack pulls at the heartstrings with your connection to the protagonist and his survival, guided solely by your quick instincts and mastery of the gameplay’s technical, hyper-unique polarity mechanics. The first stage shows off its epic score alongside the graphical style, and every subsequent level of the game opens up quickly into a short-paced, beautifully patterned battle before interrupting the battle with a poem. (This game is deep.) The game itself will make next to no sense the first time around, but the music might keep you coming back again and again. It would be of little to no surprise if Martin O'Donnell's original score for his little-known Xbox title, Halo: Combat Evolved (released one month after Ikaruga), had an influence on the score of Ikaruga. The game might be hard to find but like all of these titles, their original soundtracks can mostly be discovered/rediscovered on YouTube.
Highlights: Epilogue; Reality Chapter 4.
I love writing about this stuff. I love it.
Suggest some games if you didn’t see them on the list!