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June 4, 2013

The Volties: My Top 10 Video Game Songs

Blessed are the gamers, as I often say.  Well, not out loud.  Or in my head.  Or ever.  But I thought it once, I swear.

I may love video games, but I don’t need anyone telling me that there are things that they can and can’t do.  I’m more than aware of the flaws and faults of the medium.  That said, it IS interesting -- and harrowing -- to hear the words of someone who’s gotten in deep with game development, like this interview with game writer Susan O’Connor.  She outlines a few problems with the business, but in spite of that -- and in light of her work on several notable games, like BioShock, Far Cry 2, and the recent Tomb Raider -- I can’t help but think that she’s done good work, and it IS possible to get something more out of games with a little elbow grease.  In spite of that, I can’t help but think that she brings up a lot of legitimate points.  (I haven’t played the new Tomb Raider, but from what I’ve heard via TomBadguy’s review is true -- and there’s no doubt that it is -- the issues therein are proof enough of the problems.)

So let the records show: videogames have something very near or equal to ninety-nine problems, but more often than not music isn’t one of them.  So without further ado, these are my favorite video game songs.  (Though really, you can’t go wrong with just searching YouTube for Guilty Gear songs.  And on that note, how awesome is it that a new game is on the way?  Rashousen time, baby!)

10) Seven Force Theme (Gunstar Heroes)

Admittedly my brother and I never went out of our way to grab the esteemed Treasure title when it was in stores; instead, he had to buy it off a friend years down the line (and jump through a few hoops, possibly, but I’d prefer not to dwell too long on the particulars).  Whatever the case, Gunstar Heroes really is something else; it’s a furious and action-packed game that can genuinely leave you exhausted, but accomplished all the same.

The music helps lend the game that blistering element, and nowhere is there a better example than the theme of one of Heroes’ most infamous bosses, Seven Force.  We’re talking about a mech that can transform into a sea urchin, a tiger, and a huge-ass gun (complete with reload animation!); it might be silly to know that you’ll go up against an enemy who thought it was A-OK to give his machine a crab form, but you won’t care with this track blaring.  The opening notes immediately hammer in the fact that you’re about to face your toughest challenge yet, and the beats to follow offer no relief; you’re being pressured, and the most you can do is whittle away at your foe with puny weapons in a bid to survive.  There’s an undeniable sense of desperation, and an almost suffocating force.  There is no escape.  You have to blow Seven Force apart, or else you’ll die.  And if you succeed, you’re justly rewarded…though you won’t be forgetting the song, the battle, or the game anytime soon.

And on that note…screw Curry and Rice.  Hate that guy. 

9) It Has to Be This Way (Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance)

You might think that it’s cheating to include a song from a game that -- at the time of this writing -- isn’t even six months old…but then again, I think that it deserves a spot.  I can’t think of a final boss theme that hits harder, rocks louder, and most importantly brings with it an impending sense of triumph.  Cyborg ninja Raiden has come a long way to make it to the last fight, and the game will be damned if it doesn’t make that obvious with every note of its final song. 

Raiden has learned everything he’s needed to learn to make his stand -- as has the player.  It’s all your skill, and all your will, against someone diametrically opposed to your beliefs.  Your very being is on the line, and it’s up to you to unleash all your mettle to win the day.  And this song is right here to help you get hyped, turning an already-overwhelming fight into something truly cataclysmic in its scope and impact.  For a game that’s already got immaculate sound design, this last theme takes it up several thousand notches.  As Raiden might say, it’s a real “bull’s eye.”

8) People of the North Pole (Final Fantasy 10)

I have a pretty strong hunch that Final Fantasy wouldn’t be what it is today without the music running parallel to it.  The quality of the games might have suffered, but the fact that the music is (in general) serviceable at worst shows that they’ve got their heads in the right place in at least one area…even if it’s the only area. 

FF10 had no shortage of silliness, but that game at least knew how to plant a song in your head -- and on top of that, entwine the music with the setting.  Nowhere is this more obvious and effective as the Mt. Gagazet climb; the song’s quiet resolution mixes with growing desperation as you come closer and closer to the game’s end goal with no satisfying answers (i.e. how to save Yuna) in sight.  For the most part, the theatrics of the cast ends up getting axed to focus on the journey -- and with it, the solitude invoked by the song.  Soldering on in the snow, forgoing the colorful, vibrant worlds you’ve explored in the past, for the sake of a mission you don’t believe in…all those emotions and thoughts are magnified via this song.

I’m thankful that there are other ways to listen to it besides being in-game; somehow, the impact is lost whenever a random encounter is triggered and the screen shatters into a million pieces.

7) Song of Healing (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)

I may have only recently cleared Majora’s Mask (with the posts to prove it), but make no mistake: that wasn’t the first time, or the last, that I’ve heard the Song of Healing.  It really does encapsulate the nature of the game, more so than the theme of the titular mask -- it’s a haunting and melancholy song, no doubt, but there’s an unmistakable beauty to it.  Contextually, it’s impossible to divorce it from the concept of hope; even if you’ve never gotten the chance to try the game, I’d wager that you can’t quite bring yourself to call it sorrowful and leave it at that.  I wouldn’t blame you for calling it sorrowful, of course, but there’s still more going on underneath.

Sharp-eared Zelda fans have noted that the main three notes of the song (B, A, F natural -- or left C, right C, down C if you prefer) are the exact same notes used to play Saria’s Song; they’ve just been reversed and slowed down immensely.  It’s actually a really smart move.  MM was a direct sequel to the infamous Ocarina of Time, so naturally there’s a certain audio-association to follow, even if the connection isn’t 100% clear at first.  Considering that Termina is a parallel world to Hyrule, it makes sense that one game’s most identifiable song should pop up -- albeit distorted -- in another.  No matter the distortion, though, the spirit of the original song (if only by being drilled into a player’s head) remains throughout.  But associations aside, there’s no denying that the Song of Healing can stand up on its own merits.  And it doesn’t even need four giants to hold it up.

6) Noontide (Guilty Gear X2)

Try to imagine this scenario.  You’ve just picked up your first Guilty Gear game, a counteroffensive respite against your brother’s simultaneous purchase of Halo 3.  The two of you sit down with the game, having never touched any of the games in the series or heard any of the music.  All you have is a cursory knowledge of the characters therein.  He goes with wild man Sol.  You choose noble knight Ky.  The stage boots up.  Now imagine your reaction when the first song you hear is that song.

Congratulations.  You’ve just been de-flowered.

On the one hand, this song’s packing some explosive force behind it, and does indeed feel like the perfect song for the clash between rivals.  On the other hand, it feels a bit…routine.  It delivers exactly what you’d expect -- even if there is a dramatic buildup, full-force riffs, and drum beats that’ll get your blood beating faster, it’s all done in a matter that’s vaguely expected, but with a level of skill and power you wouldn’t have thought possible.  It’s rock that you never knew existed until you crank up the volume, and in many respects I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s very natural -- and befitting of Sol and Ky, two rivals who go at it on what I can only hope is a regular basis.

So there you have it…although to be fair to God-King Ishiwatari, any number of his songs could make a good substitution.  Start with this one, and work your way outward.   

5) Sonic Boom (Sonic CD)

Okay, honestly?  I’ve never even played this game.  Ever.  I’ve seen about five minutes of it on YouTube, but…you know, come to think of it I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Sega CD in person.  And I can’t even form a picture of it in my head.  Some gamer I am.

Sheer happenstance was what led me to find out about this song (I think it was during a search for Guile using his Sonic Boom on YTMND).  But once I did…man, oh man, did I have myself a winner.  Make no mistake, the franchise has some incredibly catchy and impressive tracks, even in its darkest days; at the same time, it’s packed to the brim with some of the cheesiest songs I’ve ever heard (pretty much every song with lyrics in Sonic Adventure 2 is an example).  But “Sonic Boom” has just the right amount of cheese without going too far astray.  It’s over-the-top, but it’s catchy as hell -- and on top of that, it feels like it captures the essence of the blue blur’s adventures.  Speed, momentum, purposeful motion; it’s a relic of a forgotten age that captures (and colors) the soul of the franchise in a way that other songs can’t. 

Apparently there’s a remix of the song done by Crush 40 -- the guys who did songs for some of the later Sonic games -- but in my opinion, it’s unnecessary.  The original version is the best version, somehow managing to be less dated than the remix.  I suppose that some cheeses age better than others. 

4) Tekken Tag Tournament 2 Opening Theme

Awwwwwwwwwwww yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah.

In a lot of instances, fighting games have some of the best music in the entire medium.  They pretty much have to; the music has to convey information about the characters, the stages, and even beyond that get the players psyched up for a fight.  It’s for this reason that the recent Mortal Kombat games (and Injustice by extension), in spite of good intentions and steps towards becoming more than half-hearted copycats, still have a ways to go.  Outside of the Fatality jingle, not a single song in the entire franchise has made itself distinct.

Not so with Tekken.  The opening to Tag 2 features a remix from the original Tag, and while I’ve never touched the original game, I’ve listened to both songs.  Indeed, Tag 2’s opening manages to get you hyped, but it carries with it other astounding qualities: the song has this feeling to it, this sense that you’re about to enter a whole new world.  It sets expectations, and it sure as hell delivers on them -- you’re bound to feel the rush before the end of the first few measures, and every lull in the melodic action prepares you for a dizzying hit that’s bound to come next.  But more than anything else, it gives the sense of an invitation.  There’s a new world awaiting you, and the game -- the song especially -- is holding out a hand.  Come along.  Get ready for the next battle.

…Then again, I could be a little biased.  Once upon a time, I DID make it to the rank of Tekken Deity.

3) Roberto’s Theme (Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams)

If you saw the post on my top ten favorite video game characters, you may remember that I mentioned my not-so-secret love of characters that punch the shit out of things.  That love remains constant today -- and as such, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to honor Roberto Frois.  I didn’t know what to make of him when I first encountered him, but he certainly left an impression…by slaughtering me in one combo.  His theme didn’t even get past the first ten seconds.

Well, he did warn me beforehand.  He said “I don’t play with toys.”

That aside (and ignoring the fact that Roberto is an amazing character to play as), the theme itself is absolutely stunning.  It has an undeniable Devil May Cry vibe to it, as you’d expect from a Capcom action title, but it has an air of class to it that establishes both the song and the character.  It manages to get a little melancholy at points, but like “People of the North Pole” the focus is on soldiering on and doing some serious damage with Roberto’s divine fists.  I’d even go so far as to say there’s an almost dream-like quality to the song.  There’s heat and tension to it, but it seems somewhat…relaxed.  Chill.  There’s a level of tranquility to it that you’d think would be a misfit, but I’d say it works.  It’s a song that simultaneously breeds heat, but brings peace.  And indeed, you’ll need your focus when you take on some of the enemies in Dawn of Dreams.  Good thing Roberto has his Death Grip.

“I’ll make this hurt.”  Such a badass.

2) Simple and Clean -- Orchestral ver. (Kingdom Hearts)

There’s no way I can leave this one off. 

If there’s one phrase that I seem to toss out a lot recently when it comes to palling around with my bro, it’s “magical adventure.”  I use it in jest more often than not, but I’m starting to think that -- when used in the proper context -- it’s more of a compliment than anything else.  If the story’s properly built, a magical adventure can withstand the test of time, impart lessons and emotions, and give people memories that they won’t soon forget.  In other words, it’s this song. 

It’s a powerful song.  There’s no debating that, I hope.  It’s overflowing with emotion, almost threatening to wash you away before the thirty-second mark.  It is, at once, a song about going on adventures and delighting in the commonplace of one’s home.  It’s about meetings, reunions, and departures.  It’s whimsical, but bursting with determination and focus -- with a sense of duty to forge ahead with courage.  But no matter the intent of the song, it’s certain to impart its ideas and virtues with a smile on its face; that is, it’s helping you realize that these emotions, and everything you need to meet its fortissimo fanfare is inside you.  It’s a long road ahead, and you’ve got to get going somehow. 

But as good as that song is -- as good as all these songs are -- there’s one that tops it.  One that I’m proud to give top honors…no matter the source.

1) Unforgotten (Halo 3)

If you’re checking this blog of your own will, chances are that you know how I felt about Halo 4I stand by that.  And it was enough to make me realize that whatever I wanted out of the franchise, I’d only get it if Master Chief and his ilk pretty much vanished.  Halo is, in my eyes, a franchise that’s full of problems.  Even beyond the easy target of an audience, there’s a certain stigma about the goings-on in the canon.  As much as Halo and Halo fans -- and even the Halo penmen -- would like to believe that it’s about something meaningful…well, it isn’t.  Not as long as it’s strapped to Master Chief’s ass.  

But damned if they don’t put up a serious effort in changing that.  And you don’t have to look any farther than “Unforgotten.”  Halo may be about running and gunning, but “Unforgotten” is THE song that makes you feel like that running and gunning matters.  It’s nothing short of an aural memorial -- a chance to honor, and remember those that have fallen, or will fall.  And at the same time, it carries with it hope for the future; it places its trust, and its faith, in something yet unseen.  There’s an unmistakable, but appreciable weight to every note, and every rest, and every echo left behind.  It’s a song that makes you feel.  Feel, and fear, and care, and hope.  The battlefield awaits, and while it may be a graveyard to some, it can become something more.  Much more.  It can be the place where you make your stand.  Where you become something more.  Not just for your own glory, either -- for the world.  For all worlds.  For the one person that matters most.

That’s what “Unforgotten” is about.  And it’s what it wants Halo to be.  And even if it never does reach its ideal state, the song already has.  Even if the franchise it supports is destined to bumble and betray, that song never will.  The adventures of Master Chief may never offer anything substantial, but one song will do more than a super-soldier ever could.  It will live on.

…Man, I love video games.


And that’ll just about do it on my end.  Hope I -- or at least the songs I have here -- managed to entertain you a bit.  But of course, I’m ready and waiting to hear some comments.  Let me hear some of your favorite video game songs.  What tracks have touched you in ways you never thought possible?  What memories do you have tied into the notes within?  Who is your patron saint of the song?  Let me hear it, and I’d be more than happy to put it up for consideration in the (dreaded (?)) Manly Song Repository.

So there you have it.  Long live the rock.  And the techno.  And the orchestra.  And the rap.  And…uh…the percussion, I guess.  Gotta get me a timpani one of these days…      

4 comments:

  1. Volt, if you've never been to a Video Games Live, you need to find one near you and haul ass. You will absolutely NOT regret it.

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  2. Memo to self: add "Go to a Video Games Live" to the bucket list. And be sure to put it right above "pilot a tank".

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  3. Nice list! I especially dig how varied it its. Can't go wrong with the likes of Sonic Boom, Seven Force and really, just about anything from Guilty Gear is rad. I'm not sure I could come up with a list of my ten favorite VG songs, let alone rank them.

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  4. Admittedly, coming up with this list was a lot harder than I would have imagined; I wanted to get a good smattering of songs across every gamut, but at several points I ended up swapping out a song from one game for another. (Kingdom Hearts' Dearly Beloved was -- and always will be -- a top contender, for example.) Still, I'd say it's a good list, and I'm glad you got some enjoyment out of it.


    Still, I'd say that you could make your own top ten if you gave it a shot. It might take you about ten million hours if you're the indecisive sort (a pain I know too dearly), but it's definitely more than possible. Just go for it...as a certain gaming heroine would say.

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