In middle school I once filled a cassette tape full of my favorite songs from video games—I simply held my tape player’s built-in microphone up to my television speakers, turned up the volume and cued up each level. Wish I still had that tape! Video game music was a big part of my life, at least back when I actually played video games, so today I’ve decided to salute the songs that helped develop some of my and my generation’s musical sensibilities.
The games I’ve chosen from are part of the third and fourth generation games that I grew up with after the Nintendo boom of the mid-’80s. This is certainly my favorite period for gaming, back when the platforms ruled. Back then, game music composers were limited to a specific number of channels, which obviously limited what they could do, but in a way broadened the imaginative process. These days you can throw any sort of professional scores onto a game, and, in my opinion, the music ends up being less inventive.
Something interesting to consider: If you asked me to name some Japanese musicians, I could probably offer a handful of hipster/cult musicians (Boredoms, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Guitar Wolf, Asobi Seksu, etc.) without realizing that 99 percent of my favorite video game jams were created by Japanese composers! Yoshihiro Sakaguchi, Kōji Kondō, Masato Nakamura—these unsung composers created a world of simply textured synth horns, synth electric guitar and synth strings that just plain pumped you up for some good gamin’. Game composers also fused a number of different genres—classical, Caribbean, rock, ambient—in their work.
There a lot of different styles of video game songs. Boss themes typically had a faster tempo and felt more anxious and evil. Overworld themes were usually more spacious and relaxed, and in the case of some RPGs, even took on an epic, filmic quality that borrowed from famous scores by composers such as John Williams, Maurice Jarre and Ennio Morricone. Level themes could be more varied, and during the NES/SNES/Genesis period were influenced by contemporary pop music styles—namely heavy metal, hip hop and the burgeoning techno scene. It seems like there’s two key factors in my decisions in this list: I don’t like boss themes and I love big melodies. Pretty simple. So let’s get down to it: My top 10 favorite video game songs …
10. Yumiko Kanki and Naoto Ishida - TIE: “Mute City” and “Port Town” from F-Zero (SNES, 1990)
Outside of platforms and RPGs, racing games were my other love. F-Zero was probably the game that got me into racers (along with Super Mario Cart, of course)—there was something subtle and primal about mastering a course in a racing game, something simple and hypnotizing about the gameplay. These two songs fit so perfectly with the surreal, future shock world of F-Zero. Check out this awesome video of some freak acing Mute City in 1:58:38!
09. Kōji Kondō – TIE: “Overworld Theme” from Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1988) and “Hyrule Overture” from Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (SNES, 1991)
Kōji Kondō is one of the great video game composers, who began using four simple digital channels to create some of the most recognizable music of the late-20th century. His most famous work is with Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Zelda series. Personally, they’re not as strong to me as some other games we will get to, but I’m accounting for the chance that maybe these songs have been driven into a small section of my skull after what could possibly amount to months and months of my life playing Mario and Zelda.
I picked the main level theme from Super Mario Bros. 3 because it’s my favorite Mario Bros. game—all the weird suits and airships and giant goombas make it the most inventive game in the series. And the “Hyrule Theme” (the revamped Link to the Past version is my fave) just brings me back to afternoons spent slicing up monsters and wandering around looking for heart pieces. It’s the soundtrack to adventure!
08. Yoshihiro Sakaguchi and Manami Matsumae – “Elecman Stage” and “Cutman Stage” from Mega Man (NES, 1987)
One of the great video game composers, sometimes credited as ”Yuukichan’s Papa”, Yoshihiro Sakaguchi worked on the music for Mega Man and Mega Man 2, as well as Final Fight, Duck Tales and Street Fighter 2. The first three games of the Mega Man series all have great music, but I think the first one is my favorite (I like his early s***, what can I say?).
“Elecman Stage” is fairly simple, but it stands out to me for its use of a repeating melodic theme over descending bassline, one of my favorite pop music tricks. “Cutman Stage” uses some sort of fake metal guitar tone and a quick tempo to get you pumped. Here’s a clip featuring a metal version of the song:
07. Yuzo Koshiro - “Underworld 4″ from Legacy of the Wizard/Dragon Slayer IV (NES, 1987)
This may be my only “deep cut” in the list; I doubt many of you readers ever played Legacy of the Wizard. It’s a fairly mediocre game as far as gameplay goes—an early mix of RPG and straight platform. But for whatever reason, my family ended up owning it and I ended up loving the game. The best part about it is that you have to switch characters to go on different quests. Also, the way the platform is set up is not straightforward—it’s a maze of intertwining levels and secret passages that take quite a while to master.
Yuzo Koshiro’s music itself was actually pretty stellar given the mixed package the game is; it’s probably the reason I’ve revisited this game so many times over the years. Sometimes I’d head over to the fourth level (way before my character had the proper item inventory built up) just to hear this sweet jam.
06. Hajime Hirasawa - “Armada” from Star Fox (SNES, 1993)
Star Fox is one of my favorite games of all time. When it was released, its use of the Super FX chip, which created the simulated, geometric look of the game, put it on the cutting edge of gaming graphics, and every kid on my block wanted a copy.
The endearingly dated look, great gameplay and awesome John Williams-esque score by Hajime Hirasawa bring its replay value way up. Plus, the sounds that Slippy Toad makes when his plane goes down always crack me up. “Armada” sounds like it could, given a little expanded arrangement, fit into a Star Wars or Indiana Jones flick.
05. Setuo Yamamoto - TIE: “Boomer Kuwanger Stage” and “Spark Mandrill Stage” from Mega Man X (SNES, 1994)
Mega Man X is, to me, the best game in the series (haven’t played any of the 5th thru 7th generation ones—no interest). It improved on the original entries in the series by making the control of Mega Man more flexible—you could correct your jumps, slide and jump off walls.
The storyline, like every video game storyline, is juvenile, anime-style ludicrousness, and the Mega Man X Wikipedia entry approaches it with an academic seriousness that’s worth a good laugh. Here’s an excerpt:
With the free will given to a Reploid came the possibility of criminal activity previously unknown to robots; such rogue Reploids were said to have “gone maverick” and were later referred to as Mavericks (in Japan, Irregulars). As the public outcry against the few Maverick incidents became too great to deny, the government stepped in, and under the advice of Dr. Cain, formed an elite military police organization called the Maverick Hunters. The Hunters would capture or disable any Reploids that posed a danger to humans, provide damage control at Maverick uprisings, help with disaster recovery, and perform other tasks as needed.
So, yeah, basically you run around spaceships and shoot robots, right?
Anywho, the music from Mega Man X is the tits. “Boomer Kuwanger Stage” is an ’80s action movie-style theme, and “Spark Mandrill Stage” is a heavy metal, synthesizer shred-fest.
04. Sega Sound Team (and Michael Jackson?) – “Endless Mine Zone” from Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Sega Genesis, 1994)
Think you know all the weird rumors about Michael Jackson? Did you know that he was originally hired as the composer for Sonic the Hedgehog 3? You did? Well. Aren’t you cool? Damn. Really thought I had you there …
Anyways, so yeah, in 1993 Jackson was officially hired to provide the soundtrack to the game, but was soon released from the project due to the allegations of child molestation levied against him, and supposedly his music for the game wasn’t used.
However, his producing team was still credited for the game. Obsessive nerd research, including this homemade documentary, has revealed that several songs from Sonic 3 bear similarities to Michael Jackson songs.
Whether Jackson was involved, there’s no doubt that Sonic 3 has one of the best game soundtracks of all time. My favorite is the “Endless Mine Theme,” which improves on Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s “Mystic Cave Zone” spooky, cavern-related atmospherics by wrapping them around a killer melody. It’s all in that simple bassline that kicks it off.
03. Yasunori Mitsuda and Nobuo Uematsu - TIE: “Chrono Trigger” and “Robo’s Theme” from Chrono Trigger (SNES, 1995)
Chrono Trigger is my favorite RPG—it barely edges out Final Fantasy VII. I should mention that I really haven’t played an awful lot of RPGs—mostly just the Squaresoft staples. But the ones I did I really dug into.
The story of Chrono Trigger is basically the perfect archetype for an RPG aimed at an audience of tween to teenage boys. It goes kind of like this: through incredible happenstance, a teenage boy (check) befriends a teenage girl at a fair—the young girl just happens to be a princess. Due to a wild glitch in a transporter machine built by the teenage boy’s nerdy friend, the teenage girl is sucked back in time, and the boy decides to jump into the time portal to save her. From there on, an adventure unfolds that includes wizards, flying time machines, frog knights, floating cities, robots and dinosaurs. When I got this game in 7th grade, this was pretty much the coolest thing I could think of.
To some extent, it still is. Every once in a while, we could all take afford a trip to a magical land where frogs talk and ordinary kids can save the world from destruction. But look at me; ain’t I gettin’ all wistful? The music from the game can still take me back to hours upon hours spent playing it. The “Chrono Trigger” theme is epic and Morricone-esque, and “Robo’s Theme”, like much good video game music, sounds like it could be the theme to an ’80s sitcom.
02. Masato Nakamura – TIE: “Starlight Zone“ from Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1991) and “Metropolis Zone” from Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Sega Genesis, 1992)
If I’ve established anything here today, it’s that the Sonic series sported pretty much the most solid video game soundtracks. Although Sonic 3/Sonic & Knuckles is my favorite game, the first game has the best music. “Starlight Zone” is an awesome disco song with punchy horn sections intertwined with electric piano—it’s so catchy you wonder why no one has actually made it into a song. Sonic 2 is a tough choice, but the hyperbolic “Metropolis Zone” is probably the song I revisit the most.
01. Yoshihiro Sakaguchi – “The Moon” from DuckTales (NES, 1989)
Who knew that a game that centered on guiding an elderly Scottish millionaire duck through jungles and haunted mansions on a pogo stick would become one of the most beloved and enduring video games of all time? Sure, the Disney brand name helped propel a lot of unlikely video game characters (I’m looking at you, Little Mermaid!). But perhaps the least likely video game hero was Scrooge McDuck. I hope the game designer who decided to turn McDuck’s walking cane into a pogo stick won some sort of reward.
Seriously, this game is awesome. You’re a greedy millionaire who goes around all of these exotic, third world countries and getting points by amassing a huge fortune (in the form of rubies) and killing all sorts of wildlife (gorillas, yeti, moon octopi) with your pogo stick.
Most pertinent to our conversation is Capcom composer Yoshihiro Sakaguchi’s soundtrack. Every level is a gem in ol’ Scrooge McDuck’s money sack, but the highlight, and easily my favorite video game song, is “The Moon”. It’s a gorgeous piece of music by any standards, filled with constantly shifting chords, airy synth scaling and a lead melody that was meant to be rocked out on guitar. Hey, there’s even some awesome covers of the song!
for an ’80s metal-style version of the song, or check out the below video for the Advantage’s live version of “The Moon”.