My 10 Most Important Videogame Music Pieces 3


You know those Facebook lists that go around that ask you to list the 10 Most Important Books You’ve Ever Read? I like those bet­ter than most such games, because, unlike a more straight­for­ward “10 Favorite Books” kind of ques­tion, it asks you to list the books that have had the most impact on your life. This requires a lit­tle more intro­spec­tion, and some­times you actu­al­ly learn some­thing about your­self or at least the other peo­ple answer­ing the ques­tions.

Videogame music has always been a huge part of my life. I grew up trawl­ing the pre-YouTube Internet for places to hear my favorite songs from var­i­ous games. In mid­dle school, I down­loaded oodles of sheet music from Final Fantasy to play on the piano, much to my teacher’s annoy­ance. In high school, I arranged a med­ley of five or six videogame pieces for my orches­tra class, and I con­duct­ed it for my last orches­tra con­cert.

So I thought I might go through and see if I could pick out ten or so of the Most Important Pieces of Videogame Music I’ve Ever Heard – not nec­es­sar­i­ly the 10 Best Pieces, nor my 10 Favorite, but the 10 that seem to have the most influ­ence on me. Maybe I’ll learn some­thing about myself, or maybe you’ll learn some­thing about me, or maybe you’ll just get intro­duced to some pret­ty swell tunes.

I restrict­ed myself to no more than one piece of music per fran­chise, in an attempt to keep things more inter­est­ing. Otherwise this list might be com­posed entire­ly of Nobuo Uematsu tunes. I decid­ed to put them in chrono­log­i­cal order, since I would have no idea how to rank them in impor­tance, and that makes as much sense as any­thing else.

Lemming 3” from Lemmings (DOS version), by Brian Johnston, arr. Tony Williams, 1991.

I played so much Lemmings as a kid, you guys, try­ing and most­ly fail­ing to guide hordes of green-haired idiots through com­plex death­traps with­out allow­ing them to suc­cumb to their per­va­sive ten­den­cy towards self-destruction. I played the first thir­ty or forty lev­els so many times that I sus­pect I could still solve most of them in my sleep.

All of the music in Lemmings is super catchy, alter­nat­ing between orig­i­nal pieces (like this one), and weird, remixy arrange­ments of folk songs and clas­si­cal music. But how­ev­er much I may enjoy the poppy vamps on Mozart or Tchaikovsky, it’s this song’s dri­ving beat and repeat­ed refrain that sticks in my head the most. Five-year-old me jammed out a lot to this song. Much of the fun of early videogame music is how much the com­posers were able to accom­plish with com­par­a­tive­ly few resources: four to eight tracks, and a finite num­ber of syn­the­sized instru­ments, none of which sound­ed any­thing like the instru­ments they were osten­si­bly imi­tat­ing.

Runner Up: “Dance of the Little Swans” by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, arr. Tim Wright and Tony Williams. Definitely the best of the clas­si­cal music remix­es in the game.

Tal Tal Heights” from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, by Minako Hamano and Kozue Ishikawa, 1993

Link’s Awakening was given to me for Christmas when I was five years old, to go along with my shiny new Game Boy, and I was absolute­ly not equal to its dif­fi­cul­ty. I was quick­ly stumped by a not ter­ri­bly intu­itive puz­zle in the sec­ond dun­geon, and as this pre­dat­ed GameFAQs, it was actu­al­ly sev­er­al years before a chance encounter with anoth­er kid at a piano recital (I think?) revealed to me the secret of the Bottle Grotto.

But I kept play­ing the game, even though I knew I couldn’t progress until I solved this puz­zle. Accordingly, I explored as much of the map as I could with the lim­it­ed tools at my dis­pos­al, which was actu­al­ly quite a bit, con­sid­er­ing Link didn’t have the hook­shot yet and couldn’t swim yet, either. The first time I set foot into the Tal Tal Heights moun­tain range, this song start­ed to play, and I real­ized I had wan­dered into some­place Important.

Tal Tal Heights con­tains the Wind Fish’s Egg, which is where the game ends once you have acquired all 8 Instruments of the Sirens and are ready to enter the game’s final chal­lenges. The music is appro­pri­ate­ly dra­mat­ic, gear­ing you up for your final con­fronta­tion and the end of the game. But when you stum­ble upon it early, like I did, you have no idea what’s going on. I knew some­thing nifty had to hap­pen in Tal Tal Heights, but I didn’t know what. Accordingly, this made that zone feel some­thing like holy ground, and when it was final­ly time for me to engage with the zone for real, I felt like I was reach­ing the end of a long pil­grim­age.

Main Theme” from Final Fantasy VII, by Nobuo Uematsu, 1997

Legendary game com­pos­er Nobuo Uematsu is at his absolute best in Final Fantasy VII, which cer­tain­ly boasts the great­est sound­track of its era. Uematsu’s sound­track bounces from bom­bas­tic and sym­phon­ic music to smooth jazz to hard rock and every­where in between, push­ing the lim­its of the PlayStation’s inter­nal audio chip and cre­at­ing a beau­ti­ful lat­tice­work of leit­mo­tifs and vari­a­tions on themes and musi­cal hat-tips to every­thing from “Take Five” to “Purple Haze,” and, well, it’s a real­ly good sound­track, is what I’m try­ing to say.

But for all that “One-Winged Angel” is prob­a­bly the most famous track, with its ecsta­t­ic choir and por­ten­tous Latin (cribbed from the Carmina Burana), it’s the “Main Theme,” which plays on the over­world map for the first half of the game, that sticks with me the most. The five-note pat­tern that opens the “Main Theme” is, in fact, the theme for the game as a whole, and appears all over the place in the sound­track. But this is where it real­ly appears in its fullest expres­sion, in its most Romantic glory.

See, for all of its cross­dress­ing minigames and dolphin-jumping and enor­mous robot­ic teddy bears, Final Fantasy VII is a very sad game, and this piece embraces that melan­choly more than any other. The fact that it plays on the over­world map con­tex­tu­al­izes the rest of the game in its melan­cholic chords: this is what Final Fantasy VII is about, first and fore­most.

Runner-up: I mean, there are oodles. I love this sound­track. But I’ll opt for some­thing com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent and point to the “Turks’ Theme” min­i­mal, per­cus­sive, and super-duper cool.

Terran One” from Starcraft, by Glenn Stafford, 1998

There might be noth­ing I love more than a good Space Western, and I real­ized the other day that Starcraft might actu­al­ly be the source of that love. Starcraft’s rugged and rough-around-the-edges Terrans make the rest of the game’s sin­is­ter bug-monsters and detached psy­chic war­riors all the more inter­est­ing and believ­able. The Terrans of Starcraft are not the galaxy-traveling, peace­ful United Federation of Planets, but rather a soci­ety of out­casts and crim­i­nals, kicked out of Earth and sent to a remote cor­ner of the galaxy, for­got­ten by civ­i­liza­tion.

The music for the Terrans gets it: a lit­tle bit rock-and-roll, a lit­tle bit front-porch-guitar, a lit­tle bit ‘90s synth. The buildup to the first hook (about 0:35) mar­ries all of these togeth­er into one beau­ti­ful, groovy blend. I have prob­a­bly heard this song a thou­sand times, and I have jammed out every sin­gle one of them. I have lost games of Starcraft because I was hav­ing too much fun lis­ten­ing to the first minute of this song.

Starcraft has some of the best sound design in videogames, and all of the music (but par­tic­u­lar­ly the Terran and Zerg themes) do more to char­ac­ter­ize the races and char­ac­ters than any­thing else. The Zerg are ter­ri­fy­ing and strange, the Protoss are state­ly and dig­ni­fied, the Terrans are dirty and stub­born.

Main Theme” from Baldur’s Gate, by Michael Hoenig, 1998

Character cre­ation is half the fun of a role­play­ing game. You pick skills and affini­ties and col­ors, the whole time plot­ting out how this char­ac­ter is going to han­dle things dif­fer­ent­ly from the last one, or, if you’ve never played the game before, won­der­ing which skills are going to be the most help­ful for the unknown chal­lenges ahead. Nowhere is this more true than in Baldur’s Gate, despite its com­par­a­tive­ly lim­it­ed suite of cus­tomiza­tions.

I have spent many hours on the char­ac­ter cre­ation screen in Baldur’s Gate, and this song, the game’s dri­ving main theme, lends all of your choic­es there an air of impor­tance and dan­ger. Because it’s five beats to a mea­sure, rather than the more tra­di­tion­al three or four, the song is a lit­tle off-putting, a lit­tle strange, a lit­tle hard to put your fin­ger on. Baldur’s Gate is a dif­fi­cult game, and you should not be entire­ly com­fort­able when you’re prepar­ing to delve its unfor­giv­ing dun­geons.

Howard Shore would use the off-putting and dri­ving power of 5/4 to great effect in the Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring sound­track three years later to accom­pa­ny the Uruk-Hai, and though I can’t imag­ine he ever lis­tened to the Baldur’s Gate sound­track, the two songs are linked in my head as a tes­ta­ment to the power of non­tra­di­tion­al time sig­na­tures.

Hoenig reuses the choral theme from the “Main Theme” sev­er­al times through­out Baldur’s Gate, but it rears its head most notably in the song used in the final bat­tle, rearranged, but still over that puls­ing 5/4 beat. You spent the begin­ning of the game lis­ten­ing to this theme, know­ing you were about to embark on a dan­ger­ous jour­ney, and now, at the end, the theme comes back to remind you where you came from.

Smoldering Corpse Bar” from Planescape: Torment, by Mark Morgan, 1999

Most videogame bars are delib­er­ate­ly try­ing to invoke the D&D tav­ern feel, and the music accord­ing­ly feels like reject­ed takes from BBC Renaissance dra­mas. It’s the sort of music that isn’t played by musi­cians, but by min­strels.

Not the Smoldering Corpse, the strange bar locat­ed in the worst parts of Sigil, the City of Doors. The Smoldering Corpse gets its name from the burn­ing man float­ing above a grate in the floor, always burn­ing, never con­sumed, writhing in joy­ful agony until you recruit him to join you on your strange jour­ney. A bar like that isn’t a fun place. Most videogame bars feel like a place to have an ale and talk about your adven­tures. The Smoldering Corpse feels dirty and strange and very, very drunk.

Not funny drunk or frat-boy drunk, either, but alco­holic drunk, dark-drunk, the kind of drunk where noth­ing sur­pris­es you and you could fall asleep or kill a man and it would seem per­fect­ly in char­ac­ter. The Smoldering Corpse is a dan­ger­ous place, and this theme under­scores that.

Vigil” from Mass Effect, by Jack Wall, 2007

I don’t think this was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be the main theme for Mass Effect, but it sure ended up that way. By Mass Effect 3 the com­posers and sound design­ers start­ed hid­ing that open­ing chord and the first three notes of the theme through­out the game, most notably in the hum of the Normandy’s engines as it idles through space.

When it’s at its best, Mass Effect is a very melan­cholic game, all about moments of quiet beau­ty in the face of the end of the world. Nowhere is that made clear­er than in “Vigil,” which first plays in-game as you meet a dying com­put­er pro­gram which stood guard over the last of an ancient race of aliens, unable to keep power flow­ing to their sta­sis pods as the mil­len­nia passed, until even­tu­al­ly all had qui­et­ly suc­cumbed to the rav­ages of time, leav­ing it alone in a vast mau­soleum.

That sim­ple theme, played on some syn­thet­ic approx­i­ma­tion of a wood­wind, floats over a hum­ming, vibrat­ing, slight­ly dis­so­nant sea of sound like a sin­gle small ship lost amid the waves, and hot damn if I don’t tear up a lit­tle bit every time I hear it. Numerous YouTube com­ments and forum posts lead me to believe I’m not the only one.

Runner-up: “Uncharted Worlds”, the map theme, which is about the hope of the vast­ness of space, rather than the melan­choly that “Vigil” focus­es on.

Triggernometry,” from Red Dead Redemption, by Bill Elm & Woody Jackson, 2010

Elm & Jackson wrote a dang good sound­track for Red Dead Redemption, one which paid homage to all the great Spaghetti Western musi­cal tropes with­out sim­ply repro­duc­ing them. This is my favorite track, one which mar­ries the call­ing horns and muf­fled elec­tric gui­tars with a dri­ving beat and a fan­tas­tic elec­tric bass line. Be sure to stick around to at least 1:36, when the horns and wood­winds of a Morricone score real­ly kick in.

This is a song about get­ting stuff done, because some­body has to. I most­ly remem­ber it play­ing in-game when I was engaged in some kind of horse­back chase, gun­ning down bad peo­ple for bad rea­sons, rac­ing over one of the most beau­ti­ful land­scapes in all of videogames.

Spike In a Rail” from Bastion, by Darren Korb, 2011

I’m on record as a mas­sive fan of Darren Korb, and the Bastion sound­track in par­tic­u­lar, and this is my favorite track on the album. The genius of Bastion’s music is in the way it mar­ries three or four dif­fer­ent gen­res of music into one seam­less, spicy whole, and this song’s banjo and mouth-harp melodies backed up by elec­tric gui­tars and trip-hop beats make me inor­di­nate­ly happy.

I’m cheat­ing here a lit­tle bit: the song works well in-game, but on the offi­cial sound­track, it comes right after “Build That Wall,” the game’s most famous song, and the tran­si­tion from that quiet, mourn­ful folk song into “Spike In a Rail” is one of my favorite jux­ta­po­si­tions on any album ever. I don’t think “Spike In a Rail” is exact­ly a vari­a­tion on the “Build That Wall” theme, but you can hear echoes of the qui­eter song in the main, repeat­ed gui­tar riff.

Runner-Up: Let’s go with “A Proper Story”, which opens the album and serves as an excel­lent intro­duc­tion to the game’s whole vibe.

Disco Descent” from Crypt of the NecroDancer, by Danny Baranowsky, 2015.

I freak­ing love Crypt of the NecroDancer, the rhythm-game rogue­like where the player’s every action must be taken in time with the sound­track. Danny Baranowsky, maybe more famous for his excel­lent work on The Binding of Isaac, real­ly pulled out all the stops on this one, cre­at­ing a groovy dance-beat sound­track that is going to result in me buy­ing a DDR dance pad one of these days.

Disco Descent” is the theme for the first level of the game, and thus always greets you at the begin­ning of a run. It sets up an easy-to-follow beat, so that if you’re still learn­ing the game, it’s easy to tell when you should press the but­tons. Then, about thir­ty sec­onds in, once you’ve hope­ful­ly fig­ured out the tempo of the song and start­ed to get the hang of the run, it builds up to one of the best riffs I’ve ever heard in my life.

Seriously, though. If you don’t feel the desire to get up and start danc­ing around the room the moment you reach [0:33], you’re either a robot or the vil­lain of Footloose. This song is what tri­umph sounds like.

Crypt of the NecroDancer’s genius vamp on the rogue­like genre is one of the coolest things the indie videogame scene has pro­duced in the last ten years, and the fact that it comes out swing­ing with this fan­tas­tic song shows that it knows it. This is a con­fi­dent song. This song doesn’t mess around. This song is here to get down.

Runner-up: “Deep Sea Bass” the boss theme for Coral Riff, the one-octopus band that waits for you at the end of some lev­els. Just lis­ten to that funky bass riff!

So, yeah. These are the Ten Most Important Pieces of Videogame Music I’ve Ever Heard. What are yours? Write in the com­ments below or tweet at me @BillCoberly, and maybe I’ll put togeth­er anoth­er list with great sug­ges­tions from the com­mu­ni­ty!


Bill Coberly

About Bill Coberly

Bill Coberly is the founder and now Editor Emeritus (that means he doesn't really do anything any more) of the Ontological Geek. He currently studies law at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wonderful wife and a pair of small and snuggly terriers.

  • Andy ‘Dweezz’ Hoerzig

    Want you gone from Portal 2 is on my list.

  • Andrei Filote

    Associating the Zerg with the elec­tric gui­tar was a bril­liant move.

  • Aaron Puckett

    Wow. Been a while since I attempt­ed at mak­ing a list like this…well here are mine. No par­tic­u­lar order.

    10. Final Fantasy Dissidia

    9. Uncharted (series)

    8. Undertale

    7.Mario & Luigi: Browser’s Inside Story

    6. Pokemon Heartgold & Soulsilver

    5. The Last Of Us

    4. Cave Story

    3. Silent Hill

    2. Shadow of the Colossus

    1. Drawn to Life.

    May just be list­ing my favorite games…but they all have an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of mem­o­rable sound­tracks to me per­son­al­ly.