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!