Ok, so this is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while now. It’s going to be long and it’s going to be about a topic that is both generally universal and intensely personal. Music. Specifically, video game music, both original and inspired by, some of which will be included along the way. So feel free to fire up some of your favorite tunes, or jam on some of the ones here, grab a snack, and let’s jump in.
Earth by Jesper Kyd from Assassin’s Creed 2 [XBOX360]
It’s an understatement to say that music plays a huge role in my life. It always has. I am one of those people who are just deeply affected by it. It builds me up and tears me down, it inspires me at its highest and squeezes my heart at its lowest. Music amplifies my moods, sways my feelings, and helps me give sound and voice to the life I find myself in. I am not a musician, but I do so greatly admire them. I am a listener, I am the kind of person that music creators create for. It is this relationship with music that drove me to be a DJ back in the day. To orchestrate, compose, and share the passion I have for the musical experience with others. Much as I think many people do when they are passionate about something.
As I mentioned, I’ve been meaning to write this for a long time. The desire to do so stems from the belief that a sizable number of people from my generation have early, intense, musical memories stemming from video games (if they were available). I feel that these early experiences have contributed, almost unknowingly, to a new kind of musical discovery, one that was not possible in generations prior.
Musical taste discovery is an organic and intensely personal part of growing up and the methods and techniques you develop stay with you for your entire life. Music discovery has changed drastically in the past couple decades though. The amount of media we’re endlessly exposed to now-a-days, combined with the accessibility of nearly infinite collections of digital music, pumped through dozens of services and outlets has made music discovery an almost passive activity. The digital revolution reduced music to a nearly commodity status while at the same time, making it more personal and important than ever. I’m sure I don’t need to explain this, especially to anyone who grew up during those times, or who is even still invested in music today. The portable digital music player, and lets not mince things here, the iPod, drastically changed how we consume music. Easy access and pick and choose playlisting essentially killed the album (and put a huge hurt on radio). Suddenly we were all crafting our own personal soundtracks, the musical accompaniment for the movie of our lives. This is why I mentioned above that music has become so much more important in daily life, because we now have the ability to incorporate it seamlessly into that daily life. We can all now, quite literally, follow the beat of our own drum.
Halo Theme by Martin O’Donnell And Michael Salvatori from Halo [XBOX]
Ok, I’m getting a little off the subject here. What does this all have to do with video game music? Well, it goes back to the act of music discovery. When I was growing up, music was on records, tapes, and the radio. I begged for a dual cassette stereo when I was a kid so I could make mix tapes off the radio and from other tapes. That was how you made mixes and playlists back in the day. When CDs came around, I still made mix tapes, partially because Walkmans were indestructible compared to the glass houses that were Discmans, and, well, I had a cassette player in my car, not a CD player. Mix tapes blaring in the car were the definitive custom musical experience of the day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit to one of the defining growing up factors, learning about money. CDs were not cheap, so buying one was always a serious quality crap shoot. What if it only had one good song, the one you heard on the radio? Did your local record store have a listening station? If not, you were SOL and out a healthy chunk of change. It wasn’t like you could jump on the internet to find out and it certainly was nothing like throwing $.99 at iTunes after a 90 second preview. This is why a solid music discovery channel, i.e. the radio, was so important, though the radio was usually the same top 40 songs of any given genre no matter what station you listened to. Without exposure to the music, there wasn’t any way to know what was good and what wasn’t and besides, we all had better things to spend our money on. For me, that was video games.
When I was growing up, it cost $2.49 to rent a video game for a weekend or $4.99 for 3 for a weekend. Bear in mind, this is the Cartridge Era, NES, SNES, and Genesis are the top consoles of the day. There were hundreds of games available and I grew up with two younger brothers, which basically meant that we had access to new video games every weekend. $5 to keep three boys entertained for a weekend. Deal of the damn century. But, we got more than just the video game when we popped it into the console, we also got the music that came with it. Sure, a lot of it was forgettable, but a whole hell of a lot wasn’t. See where I’m going here? My experience with video games growing up probably fueled more musical exposure then all the radio I’ve listened to, and I wasn’t even aware of it.
I can’t tell you the first song I ever heard on the radio, but if you asked me to recite the music from World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. I wouldn’t miss a beat, and I could effortlessly transition straight into World 1-2 complete with warp pipe noises. What was the #1 single of 1989? I haven’t got a clue, but I can sing the theme from the Moon stage of Duck Tails on NES note for note. Or Stage D from Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers. Or Casino Night Zone from Sonic 2. Ken’s Theme from Street Fighter II? When someone says “Classic track” I immediately think of “Bloody Tears” from Castlevania. The list goes on and on, and while some tracks, like the aforementioned World 1-1 theme from Super Mario Bros. have become nearly universal in the musical subconscious of well, pretty much everyone, there are thousands of tracks that remain a unique experience for the individual listener. No one can really explain why a certain track connects with a certain listener, but it just does. It’s part of the magic of music, and all this was happening in the background while we were playing these amazing video games. We weren’t renting them to listen to the music, but it was always there. It was, and still is, an integral part of the experience and something that has embedded itself in our collective subconsciousness. This something I believe that is somewhat unique to video game music, similar to movie scores. It’s job is to be powerful and memorable, to create ambiance, to guide, to help immerse, to be part of the experience, but never at the forefront (barring the somewhat modern genre of music games).
Metal Man by Takashi Tateishi from Mega Man II [NES]
Of course, as games got bigger and (though some would argue otherwise) better, so did the music. The Playstation brought “real” music to games, in fact, it was a major selling point of the PS over the consoles of the day like the N64. Yes, the Sega CD did have a few titles that stand way out musically, like Sonic CD and Eternal Champions CD, the games themselves were mostly laughable. Video game music composers suddenly had the ability to create true, high quality, music for their games. Please don’t get me wrong, the music from the Cartridge Era is probably more ingrained into the minds of players due to its quality and brilliant simplicity, but going from a midi keyboard to a full on orchestra, when it came to video game music, was a serious revelation. The CD Era also brought with it the ability to include licensed music to video games. I don’t know about you, but for me the WipE’out” XL soundtrack was mindblowing. That, really, for me, marked the crossover in my life of video game music and real life musical tastes. That was one of my defining “Ah ha” moments of musical discovery growing up and it help set the pace for my taste in music for a long time. It would happen more often as time went on, like with Jet Set Radio, as “video game music” and “music” became one in the same.
The CD Era also brought one more amazing revelation with it. The “hidden” ability to separate the music from the game with a computer. Granted, we’re still talking the early 90’s here, so this was really space age kind of stuff. The PC revolution was still in an early upswing, but this new power to extract and listen to the music independently of the game (with the right know-how) was huge. This is something that would also start to define how I personally approached music, having digital control over it. I stuck every CD based game I owned into my computer in an effort to get the music off of them and in the process, learned a lot about how computers, files, and video games actually work. This was the start of what is now a massive personal collection of video game music. I can remember my friend Josh sent me the ripped radio station tracks from Grand Theft Auto III. It blew my mind. The ability to listen to a video games’s music outside of the video game.
Sonic Boom by Spencer Nilsen from Sonic CD [Sega CD]
It’s strange to think back to a time when music wasn’t instantly available from dozens of easily accessible resources. When the internet was still young and dial-up was the order of the day. Downloading a JPG at 56k took forever, you can forget about a 4 minute audio file (usually a .WAV in those days). To a time when the music from video games was locked away as an exclusive part of the gameplay. Today you can fire up iTunes and grab dozens of video game soundtracks nearly instantly. Anything not on iTunes is probably on Amazon, or YouTube, or can be purchased from the developer directly. The value of the music has been realized, marketed, and monetized. There are tours and concerts that perform only video game music. Classic video game music, like much of the Cartridge Era classics, have broken free from the video game subculture and spread out to the public awareness.
But this isn’t just a nostalgia trip. There is another side to all this. A side that is still slowly emerging, but a side that is arguably far more important than the enjoyment from just listening to the music from video games.
See, if we rewind ourselves back to sitting in front of Streets of Rage, Top Gear, or Final Fantasy during those early, amazing, days, for every 1000 of me that exist who grew up to love the music we were so subtly being exposed to, there is someone who grew up with the talent to create the music we were so subtly being exposed to. This is one of the truly exciting aspects of video game music today. That within the entire generation of people who grew up with these musical experiences, there is a subset of people who are now creating music that has been inspired by those experiences… and they are doing incredible things with those talents and influences. They are re-imagining and remixing, re-crafting and composing entirely original works based on the music that inspired them, even unknowingly, as they grew up. What’s truly remarkable though is that the music they are now creating instantly connects them to a massive generational listening audience that shares those same memories, experiences, and feelings of inspiration. The potential to connect to the memory of a listener with a remix or rearrangement of track they grew up with and recall so fondly is as large as the world of video games itself. This is especially true for people who grew up before the era of internet games and social media sharing. It connects us in an amazingly heartfelt and core way. I sometimes marvel at the re-imagined versions of video game music I find online. I think to myself “Oh my god, someone else actually played this and thought the music was as awesome as I did!” Sharing that kind of inspiration and memory with someone who has gone on to possess so much talent and creativity feels amazing. It connects creative minds and creates an inspirational networking effect. A lot of times this has the ability to open the music to an even wider audience. When the music is so well produced that it’s not even recognizable as video game music (which is still bogged down with a bit of a stigma) anymore because it stands alone as just an incredible piece of music. I can’t even count how many times someone has asked me what they were listening to only to be taken totally off guard when I tell them it is from, or inspired by, a video game. This probably happens a lot for video game music fans but it is so important. It is, again, the merging of “video game music” and “music” in the collective subconscious. Some of today’s incredible video game composers, like Jesper Kyd and Darren Korb, have pushed the boundaries and wholly blurred lines between “video game music” and “music”.
Top Gear [Final Nitro Mix] by DJ Rayza from Top Gear [SNES]
Luckily, these days, we live in a world where the incredible music from, and inspired by, video games is easily shareable and enjoyable. A time where those who were, and are, inspired can share their creativity and inspiration with those who feel the same way. Music that can carry us back to the incredible experiences we had with the video games they’re from and inspire us to seek out and explore new ones. To connect people who create with people who appreciate. Music has grown to be an integral part of video games, not just background sound, and there are genres of video games that incorporate their music into the very elements of game play. It was, and remains, an essential way to discover new music and musicians and looks to remain that way for a long time to come. I, for one, am thankful that there are so many people out there acting on their inspiration with their talent and continuing to create new worlds for us.
I have two personal playlists devoted to the music of video games, one general and one specifically for the music of Final Fantasy XI. Long after I’ve stopped playing, the music of Naoshi Mizuta, the lead composer for the FFXI expansions after Nobuo Uematsu left following the release of the initial game, still evokes incredibly powerful emotional reactions. Below you’ll find my main video game music playlist, full of tracks that have been, and are, particularly inspirational for me.
I also need to acknowledge that the motivation to finally write this post was heavily inspired by the fan created album “Harmony of a Hunter” by the team at Shinesparkers. It is an incredible example of talented people, inspired by video games, creating amazing and beautiful music. The effort, skill, and quality of the contributors and their music is simply awe inspiring. I’m not even a fan of Metroid (I’ve only ever really played Metroid: Fusion), but I am a fan of creativity, passion, talent, and great music. That is exactly what Harmony represents.
Melting Sun by Pyro Paper Planes from Harmony of a Hunter
8-Bit Theater: A Video Game Playlist
|Way Back Home||Bob Crosby and The Bobcats||Fallout III|
|The Normandy||Jack Wall and Sam Hulick||Mass Effect 1|
|The Illusive Man||Jack Wall||Mass Effect 2 [Disc 1]|
|Creation||Cris Velasco and Sascha Dikiciyan||Mass Effect 3 – CE|
|Those Who Fight Further (FF VII)||The Black Mages||The Black Mages|
|Halo Theme [Mjolnir Mix]||Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori||Halo 2|
|Finale||Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori||Halo 3: ODST [Disc Two]|
|More Than His Share||Martin O’Donnell & Michael Salvatori||Halo 3: ODST [Disc One]|
|Devils Never Cry [Full]||Tetsuya Shibata & Shawn McPherson||Devil May Cry 3|
|The Time Has Come||Tetsuya Shibata & Shawn McPherson||Devil May Cry 4 (Special)|
|Arthur (Haunted Graveyard)||Tamayo Kawamoto & Hideyuki Fukasawa||Marvel vs. Capcom 3|
|Dante (Devil’s Never Cry)||Tetsuya Shibata & Hideyuki Fukasawa||Marvel vs. Capcom 3|
|Trish (Lock n’ Load)||Masami Ueda & Hideyuki Fukasawa.||Marvel vs. Capcom 3|
|Metal Man||Takashi Tateishi||Mega Man 2|
|Dr. Wily’s Castle 2||Takashi Tateishi||Mega Man 2|
|The Moon||Hiroshige Tonomura||Duck Tails|
|Level AA: Neighborhood||Harumi Fujita||Chip n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers|
|Twisted Reality||Coil [J]||Gitarooman|
|Tainted Lovers||Coil [J]||Gitarooman|
|Flyin’ To Your Heart [E]||Coil [J]||Gitarooman|
|Metal Header||Coil [J]||Gitarooman Lives!|
|Derezzed||Daft Punk||Tron: Legacy|
|[WIX] Kavon Shardfist (Datareaper)||Dev VJ||Stars End|
|[WIX] Kkel Solaar (Stranger Wild)||Dev VJ||Stars End|
|Top Gear (Final Nitro)||DJ Rayza||[Remix]: Top Gear|
|Return Of The Omen||Steve Jablonsky||Gears Of War 2|
|Hope Runs Deep||Steve Jablonsky||Gears Of War 2|
|The Heat Is On [Heat]||Aaron G.||Bust A Move 2: Dance Tengoku|
|Magic Tower [Comet]||Sakurai Tatsutaron||Bust A Move 2: Dance Tengoku|
|Redemption||Gackt||Final Fantasy VII – Dirge Of Cerberus|
|The Whole New World [Lyric Version]||Hideaki Kobayashi||Phantasy Star Online|
|Can Still See the Light [Lyric Version]||Hideaki Kobayashi||Phantasy Star Online|
|Theme Of Gouki||Hideyuki Fukasawa||Street Fighter IV (CE)|
|Theme Of Ken||Hideyuki Fukasawa||Street Fighter IV (CE)|
|Theme Of Ryu||Hideyuki Fukasawa||Street Fighter IV (CE)|
|Main Theme||Inon Zur & Stuart Chatwood||Prince Of Persia (2008)|
|Grit’s Theme||Yoshito Hirano||Advance Wars: Dual Strike|
|The Spirit Of Damascus||Jesper Kyd||Assassin’s Creed|
|Venice Rooftops||Jesper Kyd||Assassin’s Creed 2|
|Flight Over Venice 1||Jesper Kyd||Assassin’s Creed 2|
|Welcome to Kostantiniyye||Jesper Kyd||Assassin’s Revelations|
|The Force Unleashed||Jesse Harlin||Star Wars: The Force Unleashed|
|Daytime In The Backyard||Laura Shigihara||Plants Vs. Zombies|
|Gene’s Rock-A-Bye||Masafumi Takada||God Hand|
|God Hand (English)||Masafumi Takada||God Hand|
|The Front Hall||Masami Ueda||Resident Evil 2|
|Sunset Riders||MegaDriver||Best of MegaDriver|
|Double Dragon (Main Theme)||MegaDriver||Best of MegaDriver|
|Katamari on the Rock ~ Main Theme||Yū Miyake||Katamari Damacy|
|Katamari on the Swing||Yū Miyake & Yoshihito Yano||Katamari Damacy 2: We Love Katamari|
|Everlasting Love||Akitaka Toyama||Katamari Damacy 2: We Love Katamari|
|Under The Stars Of Destiny||Junichi Nakatsuru||Soul Calibur 2|
|Sailing Theme (The Great Sea)||Koji Kondo||Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker|
|[Metroid] Menu Theme||Kenji Yamamoto||Super Smash Bros. Brawl|
|[F-Zero] Mute City||Taro Bando & Hajime Wakai||Super Smash Bros. Brawl|
|[Kid Icarus] Title||Hirokazu Tanaka||Super Smash Bros. Brawl|
|Final Destination 2||Hirokazu Andō||Super Smash Bros. Brawl|
|Great Bay (The Hyrule Overture)||Koji Kondo||Super Smash Bros. Melee|
|Fountain of Dreams (The Dreamworld Overture)||Koji Kondo||Super Smash Bros. Melee|
|Chill||Hirokazu Tanaka||Dr. Mario|
|Tetris: Type A||Hirokazu Tanaka||Tetris|
|Tetris: Type B||Hirokazu Tanaka||Tetris|
|Encounter||(KCE) Sound Team Japan||Metal Gear Solid|
|Love Theme||Nobuko Toda||Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Partiots|
|Love Theme (Action Version)||Nobuko Toda and Akihiro Honda||Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Partiots|
|Setting Sail, Coming Home||Darren Korb||Bastion|
|One Winged Angel (Advent Children)||Nobuo Uematsu||Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children|
|Battle 1||Nobuo Uematsu||Final Fantasy IX|
|To Zanarkand||Nobuo Uematsu||Final Fantasy X|
|Pokémon Johto||PJ Lequerica||Pokémon|
|Fly Me To The Moon (∞ Climax Mix)||Hiroshi Yamaguchi||Bayonetta [Disc 1]|
|Bayonetta – Mysterious Destiny||Hiroshi Yamaguchi||Bayonetta [Disc 1]|
|Round 1, Part 1 (Go Straight)||Yuzo Koshiro||Streets of Rage 2|
|Ramses||Tristan des Pres||Eternal Champions CD|
|Jet Set Medley||Hideki Naganuma||Jet Set Radio|
|Town/Bloody Tears||Select Start||BA|
|Green Hill Zone/Marble Zone||Select Start||BA|
|Loco Roco Main Theme: Yellow Roco||Nobuyuki Shimizu & Kemmei Adachi||LocoRoco|
|Sonic Boom||Spencer Nilsen||Sonic CD|
|Melting Sun||Pyro Paper Planes||Harmony of a Hunter|
|Kraid’s Campfire Ballad||Sebastian Mårtensson feat. Kristin Björkebäck||Harmony of a Hunter|
|If You Still Believe||Dennis Martin & Takao Miratsu||The Legend Of Dragoon|
|Swift Horse||Koh Ohtani||Shadow of the Colossus|
|The Bard’s Song||MarcstaR||Final Fantasy XI: Limit Break|
|Scherzo di notte||Yoko Shimomura||Kingdom Hearts – Disc 2|
|Sanctuary||Hikaru Utada||Kingdom Hearts II – Disc 1|
|Sinister Sundown||Kaoru Wada||Kingdom Hearts II – Disc 1|
|Tension Rising||Kaoru Wada||Kingdom Hearts II – Disc 1|
|He’s a Pirate!||Kaoru Wada||Kingdom Hearts II – Disc 1|
|This is Halloween||Kaoru Wada||Kingdom Hearts II – Disc 1|