The best of video game soundtracks

January 17, 2020

What do I mean by “best soundtracks?” As much as I would love to analyze the composition of these pieces and give you a very technical answer, my education in music theory stopped prematurely when I abandoned the piano in seventh grade. Instead, I want to show to you what makes these tracks unique and how much they add to their respective games, to the point that I consider them to be the “best.” 

The Themes of the Dark Souls Series

I don’t know how many times I’ve talked about the “Souls” games already, and I just can’t seem to shut up about them. You might have heard how punishingly difficult the action role-playing series is known to be. You might have even read my previous articles about its environmental storytelling and engaging multiplayer. And now allow me to tell you that it also features an orchestral score with a heavy emphasis on choir vocals, which is fitting for the dark fantasy setting. These are usually boss themes that play during the big fights, reflecting their characteristics and backstory, like eavesdropping into their consciousness, so to speak. For example, the theme of “Ornstein and Smough” (from the original “Dark Souls”) is a piece consisting of wind instruments and bass vocals that manages to be grandiose at times but sinister at others, revealing the opposing nature of these two characters: the former a knight, the latter an executioner. 

But beyond the bosses they represent, many of these tracks contain elements of melancholy and despair, like the “Gwyn, Lord of Cinder” theme, which precisely reflects the tone of the dying world of “Dark Souls.” They seem to transport the listener back into the experience—the various encounters and emotions. I suppose that’s a testament to just how atmospheric and how perfect for the series these tracks are.   

The EDM of Violence, Contemplation and Nostalgia of the Hotline Miami Series

The “Hotline Miami” series are top-down, twitchy action games all about non-stop ultraviolence and a lot of their tracks, which span multiple subgenres of electronic dance music (EDM), capture the intensity and insanity of going on a murderous spree in ’80s Miami. Tracks such as “Hydrogen,” “Roller Mobster” and “Le Perv” are like adrenaline in music form that immediately get you going with loud, repetitive beats and extremely fast-paced progressions. It puts you in a frenzy, as if you have been infected with violent impulses. Having these songs in the background while playing the games is like going berzerk on a battlefield—you just can’t help but enjoy yourself, and afterwards you’ll be startled at how much you liked committing mass murder, albeit virtually. But this startling realization is exactly what the series wants you to experience and think about. Tracks like “Daisuke” and “Dust” seem to invite you to do some introspection with calm rhythm and white-noise like ambience. These songs do trigger some sort of existential wondering in me whenever I listen to them. 

Another crucial element to the sound of “Hotline Miami” is nostalgia, a point that becomes immediately obvious when you hear that 80s drum beat, among other uniquely 80s sounds that I can’t quite name, in so many tracks. Like the themes of “Dark Souls,” these tracks reconstruct visions of the ’80s. With “Miami” and “Electric Dreams,” you get the one that takes place in Miami with the palm trees, beaches and a perpetually setting sun. With “Future Club” and “Technoir,” you get the Hollywood, sci-fi treatment: think of “Terminator” or “Blade Runner.” These reconstructions are so vivid and memorable that I like to believe that they helped popularize synthwave. 

The Incredibly Diverse 16-bit Tune of Chrono Trigger

“Chrono Trigger,” a classic Japanese style role-playing game, came out in 1995 and it still amazes me with how inventive its soundtrack is. Nobody expected mere video game music, which was 16-bit chiptune at the time, to have such diverse sounds and span so many genres. In “Peaceful Days,” this chiptune morphs into a violin, creating an atmosphere of warmth and contentment with a string-like sound. In “World Revolution,” it takes multiple forms: organ, violin and trombone—it becomes an orchestra. “Undersea Palace” feels like a sci-fi film score with a layer of persisting techno-sounding hook in the background, which actually plays from ear to ear, a variety of percussion sounds and so much more that perhaps render my characterization of this track inadequate. Whereas “Black Omen” feels like the opening theme of a suspense thriller with drum and bass as its foundation, a clean but cold piano progression and a melody that suggests mystery and malice. 

Then you have something like “Robo’s Theme” which seems to disguise itself as industrial rock (or something like that) with heavy, robotic percussion in the first few beats, only to quickly reveal itself as a disco track with upbeat violin. Finally, my favorite, “Battle with Magus,” uses a choppy, high-pitched sound which sporadically changes volume to mimic the sound of the wind as well as this peculiar noise that sounds like the whining of someone in pain to capture the setting of this particular boss fight. 

The list could go on, but alas the article would never finish. With so much atmosphere and diversity that goes into the craft of video game soundtracks, I think they’re overdue for mainstream appreciation. Give them a listen, if you will.  

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