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This fundament has played a pivotal role throughout many games to this day. If a beloved character died, the thing to push you over the edge to tears was the sorrowful lament of the violin or piano. Or maybe it was your chance to strike and make a big reversal, and the pinch of the guitar and blasts of the drums abolished your inhibitions and fear. Whatever it was, the music made the scene and made a memorable experience to be treasured.
With this in mind, it is today that out of my own personal passion for video game music that I attempt to promulgate to the game community what I believe are the top 10 most masterfully composed video game soundtracks (OSTs) of all time. I aim to dissect and carefully choose what soundtracks were just so good that they couldn't possibly be matched or emulated. Soundtracks that were perfect start-to-finish. Soundtracks that captured every emotion, feeling and action; ones that told the story just as much as the characters did.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Composed by: Kenta Nagata, Hajime Wakai, Tōru Minegishi and Kōji Kondō
Ah, Wind Waker. Easily my favorite Zelda game. I have such fond memories of this game. I got for Christmas '02, and whenever I play it, I'm reminded of the holidays, which is a time of year I hold near and dear to me. Just a very good time in my life.
Anyway, as most of you know, Wind Waker was a Zelda game that kind of broke the traditional Zelda archetype of traversing Hyrule/Termina field, and introduced seafaring. This got me because I'm a sucker for the water, and having the ability to freely explore the open ocean with the wind at my back was nothing less than gaming nirvana. This is where the music comes in.
Wind Waker's music was fantastic, plain and simple. It retained the same epic feel of all other Zelda music, but added a very charming and endearing folk flavor to it with woodwind instruments and lutes. In retrospect, there is not a single area in Wind Waker that I believe could've had better, more fitting music placed to it. From the tribal island of Dragon Roost, where a festive yet peaceful woodwind/lute combination plays, to out on the Great Sea, where more orchestral instruments, such as brass and drums give a triumphant, adventurous feeling, which suits the wide-open sea perfectly.
Wind Waker was definitely a turn for the better in Zelda music. In a world isolated by oceanic surroundings, the brilliant usage of folk instrumentation compliments the neighborly, simple and relaxing feel of each and every island. Coupled with the vibrant colors and playful art direction, Wind Waker's soundtrack is very high-spirits, light-hearted and uplifting. If you haven't paid attention to this soundtrack, I strongly suggest you do so now. I'll start you off with a few links to my personal favorites.
The Great Sea
Epic is all that she wrote. When listening to this I can almost feel the wind at my back and the sun on my face.
Dragon Roost Island
So festive yet relaxing.
The Forest Haven
Very somber song. Illustrates the hidden nature of the Forest Haven perfectly with.
Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest
Composed by: Ryuji Sasai
I don't care what anyone says; Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest was a terrific freaking game. Yes, it was easy. Yes, it was linear. But *** it all, it had all the elements of a good RPG, including one of the the best soundtracks of gaming history. It's serendipitous that an obscure Japanese rock musician would work on an obscure game, and consequently produce one of the most highly regarded video game soundtracks in history.
Mystic Quest was special for many reasons. The foremost being how virtuosic the music was, and with such a hard-rock/metal influence, all on a SNES cartridge. Seriously. Mystic Quest completely revolutionized video game music as far as I'm concerned. Mystic Quest, plain and simple, just had exceptional music. Every song was either extremely catchy, or hard-hitting, heavy and fast. The biggest vector to be appreciated in Ryuji's work for Mystic Quest is the sheer complexity of the music for the time.
The OST in its entirety was simply driving. Not a single song was left unrefined, and for the resources Sasai had, it's amazing he was able to compliment many of the environments he did, such as Falls Basin.
Even if you don't like heavy, fast music, you'll definitely like Mystic Quest's OST. It is pure gold.
SO HEAVY AND FAST. HELL YES.
The Dark King
Mixes some orchestral elements with electric guitar. Definitely a spectacular team to create an atmosphere for the final battle.
Music that empowers you before your final confrontation. You've come this far, and you're not turning back.
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean
Composed by: Motoi Sakuraba
Coming in at 8th place is my personal favorite RPG for the Gamecube and one of my favorite RPGs of all time overall: Baten Kaitos. Baten Kaitos was a proverbial punch in the groin to me. Everything in that game was amazing. It tore open traditional RPGs and, in my opinion, presented the most innovative and brilliant battle system in RPG history. I remember when I used to bring Baten Kaitos to school and play it during open periods on my mini-TV that I brought everywhere with me. This brings up an interesting point, though. I had a pretty crappy high school career, and whenever I played Baten Kaitos, I'd be able to press on through the day.
Not only did the gorgeous, ethereal art style captivate me and bring my spirits up, but it was mostly, you guessed it, the music. What made Baten Kaitos so unique in its music was that it complimented a very quirky art style and doubly quirky environments. Motoi Sakuraba used a fairly common array of instruments, but if you know of Sakuraba's work, you know he doesn't write common music. Baten Kaitos, being a game that took place in the sky with winged people, had a very lofty and ethereal feel to it. This effect is amplified by Sakuraba's genius coupling of violin, guitar and bass.
But, what is arguably the best thing about this OST is its diversity. Erratic music that somehow fits to a "t" in every situation. Ranging from high-energy, bang your head boss fights, to the somber serenity of literally walking along the clouds, to the mystique and intrigue of the world below, long forgotten, of Duhr. In all honesty, if you didn't know Sakuraba did the entire soundtrack, you'd have difficulty knowing it was just one composer.
Baten Kaitos stands tall amongst the greats of gaming music for its unrivaled diversity, high-energy virtuosity and impressive ability to compliment some very bizarre environments with equally bizarre music and bring them to life, as if the dazzling art didn't do it enough. I pity you if you've never heard the music from this game. If you did, but don't love it, you're either deaf, or you like rap. Here are some links to some of the best songs in the game.
The True Mirror
Melodic, yet completely powerful. Perfect battle music.
As the name implies, absolutely chaotic music with very bizarre instrumentation. High-energy and pulse-pounding to be sure.
House of Cards
One of the most ambient songs I've heard in my life. That bass just makes you feel like you're floating in space, coupled with that ethereal whine, it couldn't be more perfect a song.
Tales of Vesperia
Aye, another one by Motoi Sakuraba. I have to say, Sakuraba is definitely one of my favorites because of his astounding diversity. He does favor guitar most of the time, but much like Baten Kaitos, Tales of Vesperia demonstrates that Sakuraba isn't just a guitar wanking fool, rather, a very talented and diverse musician with a penchant for making tough environments work.
Tales of Vesperia is admittedly probably my favorite RPG of all time. I racked up about 300+ hours on it, and loved every second. The best thing about it as a Tales game, was that it broke apart from the Tales stigma of using formulaic environments and dungeons over and over. Each area was completely unique and was exploding with character. With the XBox360's graphical capabilities, I think Namco was able to more easily execute and vivify environments so they weren't as dead as they were in previous Tales games. This game allowed Sakuraba room to explore a bit, and the outcome was absolutely fantastic. That's saying a lot, too, because Tales of Vesperia, with how long it was, was quite a tall order to fill regarding a complete OST.
Sakuraba refused to choose one style for this soundtrack. As previously stated, every location is different, and as such, so is the music. Piano, guitar, synth, chimes, bass, violin, timpani; you name it, it's probably used. The only words I can muster to encompass this soundtrack are "adventurous", "sobering" and "powerful". We have locations such as the Guild city of Dahngrest that is a close-knit capital of guilds who seceded from the empire who all live simple lives as adventurers and wayfarers. Brick streets, a sleepy purple sky and a red hue cast over the landscape suited to the heavy strokes of grand piano keys. Then there are areas such a The Forest of Keiv Moc; a humid, sultry rain forest environment replete with fecund plantlife, vines and rain droplets to the tune of a somber xylophone.
Tales of Vesperia can't be encompassed in a word. I can only go so far in explications to do this soundtrack's diversity and character justice. Save me 8,000 more paragraphs and listen to the following links.
A Vow of Unity
This is the music that plays in the guild city I described, Dahngrest. Very somnolent, yet spirited and soulful. It embodies the personality of the city perfectly.
The name sums the song up perfectly. Tales games usually change their standard battle music throughout different phases of the game. Tales of Vesperia has 3 "phases" and this is the song that plays during normal enemy encounters in that phase. Powerful, biting and screams to seize your opportunity for victory.
The Wise One
The boss music for fighting the legendary creatures of Terca Lumereis, the Etelexia. Each time you fight them, it is because they have been corrupted and you're forced to kill them before they transform into creatures called Adephagos. Desperate and tragic music that hits home at the heart while fighting your once allies.
Composed by: Yūzō Koshiro
Actraiser is definitely an overlooked gem. I know there are probably a ton of Final Fantasy fans here, so most of you will recognize the name "Enix" as the part of "Square Enix". Well, Actraiser was made by Enix, who's also responsible for the Dragon Warrior/Dragon Quest series.
Anyway, Actraiser takes #6. Actraiser is a really cool game in many ways. It's a platformer/sim hybrid, in which you assume the role of "The Master" who is presumably God. Your objective in the game is to restore peace to the ravaged Earth by expunging demons and beast lords from local areas in the platforming mode, so that the land will be safe enough to guide your people to prosperity via your angelic protege. A very epic concept indeed whose accompanying soundtrack does ample justice to.
The reason I choose Actraiser as one of the top 10 OSTs of all time, is because it is, shall we say "exotically epic". Being a god, you have dominion over the entire Earth, and as such, you visit different regions. Marana, the "Egyptian" locale, Kasandora, the "Mayan" and Aitos, the "South American". Of course there are others, but this is just to give an idea. Each area with its own distinct ethnic music.
As if this wasn't good enough, given the plot revolving around a world domineered by demons and a Satan of sorts, much of the soundtrack is mixes the distinct ethnicity with a duality of both very malevolent and benevolent. Timpanis, harps and wind instruments are used to great affect. Actraiser finds itself here for expertly combining two themes into one to such a degree that you feel very out of place when not hearing the music in any given locale. Every song is a masterpiece, and not one second of vapidity.
After listening to the following links, you'll feel as if you've been around the world.
Heard while trekking through the ancient cursed pyramid of Marana. Very eerie song that captures a foreboding feel with an Egyptian taste.
The Beast Appears
This song is an auralgasm. It is heard while fighting a supreme demon. The whaling and timpani combination in the beginning is a musical death sentence, followed by the build-ups and toccatas, making you know know *** well you're not coming out of this alive.
The entry stage. The music, I feel, introduces "The Master" very nicely. It is a very melodic and triumphant song.
La Pucelle Tactics
Composed by: Tenpei Sato
We're getting there. At #5, it's La Pucelle Tactics. La Pucelle Tactics is definitely one of the greatest games I've ever played, but it is a very niche game, sadly. Though, many of you are probably familiar with its more mainstream counterpart (and inferior one, I might add) Disgaea.
La Pucelle, not unlike its other Nippon Ichi counterparts, is a fairly light-hearted game. But this does, by no means, subtract from the quality of its music, nor of the emotional impact it has when played. I can say with an honest heart that no game I've ever heard has had more inspiring and positive music. Granted, La Pucelle maintains its fair share of tragic and epic songs, its greatest achievement is in the positivity and badassery of its soundtrack.
You play as a young girl by the name of Prier who works as a demon hunter for the Church of the Holy Maiden. Long story short, stuff happens and she goes soul-searching, meets a ton of amazing characters and is swept off her feet by what she is confronted by. Each character has their own unique backstory, and each one has a score to settle, even if they don't know it at first. Boy, let me tell you, when these points come up though, it's unbelievable. No game has brought me closer to tears in these situations than La Pucelle thanks to the hopeful, positive music it plays in a seemingly impossible situation. It really breaks the platitudinous mold of "sad situations" and turns them around. La Pucelle is the only game to date I know of that ventured to invoke the same emotion as a eulogy song, but with positivity.
Tenpei Sato is the first on the list thus far to use pianos and choirs to great affect as well. Even in the more sad and epic songs, Sato finds a way to incorporate some fleeting positivity in. Every song on this OST basically makes you want to take on the world. Energetic, positive and impacting. From A to B, the music urges you forth and personifies the character's determination and resolve. Treat your ears to some of the best music this game has to offer.
Usually played when the party regains its spirit after a tribulation. I feel this song captures the collective positivity perfectly.
You'll hear this song when facing off against a powerful foe. This music is sort of the "destiny confrontation" music, if you will. It is heart-heavy and replete with determination. Fantastic song.
A Martyr's March
I love this song particularly because it is so uplifting. It's usually played in situations that are uncertain. A good example is when Homard basically goes against all odds versus the demonic murderer of his parents. He's pretty much accepted that he is going to die, but makes it clear he's not going down without a fight. Such a nice change of pace from the platitudinous "sad songs". Though, Homard ends up surviving. Yeah, I spoiled it, but it's not like any of you are going to play this game anyway.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
Composed by: Michiru Yamane
Yep, you probably saw it coming. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. While Symphony of the Night is by no means by favorite Castlevania, I feel it definitely belongs among the ranks of the best of the best in video game music.
Castlevania has always had terrific music. Ever since the NES version, Castlevania has obviously understood the importance that good, suiting music plays in the overall success (not financial success necessarily) of a video game. What separates Symphony of the Night from all the others, however, is the fact that it is, thus far, one of the most musically diverse OSTs known. I don't know how Michiru Yamane did it, but she managed to incorporate almost every style of music into this one game with a Gothic/classical feel.
We have ballroom dancing music, jazz fusion, ambient, rock, metal and classical and each one executed and placed perfectly; her eclecticism is unmatched. Combine this with the fact that Symphony of the Night is completely devoid of any filler music and you find yourself with a masterpiece. Every piece is completely unique and very evidently hand-crafted to fit into each nuance of the environment. I'm fairly convinced that Michiru Yamane used/emulated well over 25 different instruments for this soundtrack.
Overall, Symphony of the Night was, at the time, the zenith of video game music. Michiru Yamane spared no expense in the perfection of this soundtrack. To this day, I still find myself amazed at the masterful compositions and how just pristine they are in relation to their respective surroundings. She is a one-woman orchestra.
If you've been living in a cave, then let me entreat your ears to the musical stylings of Miss Michiru Yamane.
Dance of Illusions
This song is too epic. The organ mixed with timpani and cymbals is so foreboding and spine-tingling. Classical ballad in the name of Lord Dracula himself.
Absolutely beautiful song. Crystalline chimes and a classical bass with the harmonies in the background create a very serene and surreal sound.
This song makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. The toccatas and teeth-grinding wails take you on a rollercoaster ride from hell. Literally.
Final Fantasy II (IV)
Composed by: Nobuo Uematsu
I won't lie: it was very tough deciding between this and Final Fantasy XII. Final Fantasy XII had some of the most gorgeous orchestrations I've ever heard, but it lacked one thing I look for most in great video game music: emotion. Granted Sakimoto's work in FF XII is among my favorites, there were just too many filler songs.
Anyway, Final Fantasy II was my first ever RPG. Ever since I was a little boy, I was absolutely enchanted by the music in this game. It was the first Final Fantasy to really get in the groove of using music to its advantage in a meaningful way. It was among the first of its class to utilize music as a way of identification and characterization if you will; letting the music tell you all you needed to know about where you were.
Most noticeably in this endeavor is the uniqueness in town music. We have the music from towns like Baron Castle, which with snare drums and brass instruments gives a feeling of prestige and nobility. Then we have Troia, the kingdom of "nature", whose music is a sleepy violin/harp concert.
Though I think Nobuo Uematsu is very overrated, there is no doubt he is a brilliant musician who really wanted to make something special with Final Fantasy II. An honorable mention is also the inclusion and prominent usage of bass throughout the soundtrack.
By and large, Final Fantasy II gave a game emotion and character in a time when this concept was just beginning to emerge. It pioneered in this area with its music and the results were amazing. Indulge yourself in some nostalgia; you'll thank yourself for it.
The Big Whale
If there's one thing Uematsu knows how to do, it's make you feel like you're flying. That angelic brass crescendo just possesses you and prepares you to embark for whatever may lie ahead.
Battle With the Four Fiends
Music played during confrontation against the four fiends of the elements, Milon Z, Kainazzo, Valvalacia and Rubicant. The percussion builds up, the tension rises, then the song explodes. Arpeggio here, toccata there. It's an assault on the ears.
Tower of Zot
Pure evil. That's all I have to say.
Castlevania: Curse of Darkness
That's right. I think Curse of Darkness' OST blows Symphony of the Night's out of the water. But, in light of how much I adore Symphony of the Night's OST, Curse of Darkness had to do something very, very right. Which it did.
Basically, what Curse of Darkness did, was it took the diversity and classical feel of Symphony of the Night and added a much darker, morbid feel with exotic influences. I daresay that the level of complexity in the music has increased as well.
Yamane also gained a level of comfort with the usage of electric guitar and incorporated it very well throughout the soundtrack, especially in boss fights, where a driving beat and guitar are required most. The best way I can summarize Curse of Darkness' soundtrack is that it personifies Castlevania in every way, shape and form. It retains all of its gothic, 13th century European roots, but adds modern instrumentation in perfect conjunction to create the atmosphere, ambiance and power Castlevania is so comprised of. Maybe even neo-classical would be an appropriate classification for Yamane's style of choice in the Curse of Darkness OST.
Yamane never ceases to amaze. Listen to the following links and tell me that these songs are not Castlevania in every vein.
Followers of Darkness - The First
Amazing song. The flurry of notes and constant fluctuation creates a panicked state. You have to fight to survive.
The low tempo, diminuendos and hum of the synthesizer give a very bittersweet feeling as you cautiously meander through the ravaged village under the black night sky.
This song couldn't illustrate Isaac (Hector's insane ex-comrade) any better. The chaos and unrelenting energy of this song do nothing but justice to Isaac's lunacy as he cackles maniacally throughout the showdown. It's either you or him, and he's not very fond of losing.
Composed by: Yoshie Arakawa, Nobuyoshi Sano, Hiroto Sasaki, Ayako Saso, Takayuki Aihara, Shinji Hosoe and Keiichi Okabe
Tekken 2. The mother of all video game music. Tekken 2 was the first game to get me really listening to video game music when I was about 6 years old. From the opening sequence to the end stage against Devil Kazuya, every single song mystified me. Tekken has always been a series that was very story-heavy and as such, the characters are very deep. This is where Tekken 2 shines brighter than anything.
The characters were the heart of the game. They and their individual personalities are what made Tekken so fun and intriguing to follow. Tekken 2, in all honesty, told more about the characters than any verbal explication. Each song of this soundtrack IS the character. Not a single note is out of place. In a word, this soundtrack is perfect.
Every character has a story to be told about their own personal struggle as to why they joined the Tekken tournament. Each and every song reflects the character's disposition, desperation and desires. You simply cannot picture the characters without their music. Hell, even the way the characters move compliments the music.
Almost every song on Tekken 2's soundtrack literally makes you want to get up, go out and kick something's ass. Every song is just so filled with emotion of any kind.
So, the reason I place Tekken 2 at the highest of all video game soundtracks is for several reasons. I won't lie and say it holds my favorite songs (it does a few, but not many), but the reason I believe it deserves top is as follows. Tekken 2 did something I've never seen any other video game do: tell a character's entire story with just one song and to do match every song immaculately to every character. To actually give a song a personality, if you will.
It was very tough choosing Tekken 2 over others. It really was. There are at least 5,000 others I wanted as first, but in the end, I just couldn't turn my head from a soundtrack that was literally perfect. To be able to convey as much of a message in one song as Tekken 2 did is a feat I don't think I'll ever see duplicated. All different characters, from all different walks of life, from all different corners of the earth; each with a song to tell their story.
To be honest, you'd have to play Tekken 2 to really appreciate its musical mastery. But, at the very least, I can provide you a link to my absolute favorites to maybe encourage you to listen to more and share the same admiration and appreciation I do for this soundtrack.
A Man of Artificiality
Jack-2's stage theme. Jack-2 fights in a Russian industrial park, and is Russian weapon; the ultimate soldier; a man made of steel. But he takes to a young girl he finds hiding from the Jack-2 squad and while with her, becomes self-aware. You can feel the desperation of Jack-2's scenario in the coldness of the metallic whirring and drowning synth.
A passionate song, but certainly not emotionless. The bittersweet resonance of the woodwind melody is all too sobering; very befitting of Kazuya. Excellent usage of eastern Asian instrumentation.
Black Winter Night Sky
I had to post the opening video instead of just the song. This song is all about the characters in the opening. Every facial expression, movement and nuance flows in congruency with that song. Let the video speak for itself. Absolutely beautiful song. Weighs heavy on your heart, but lifts it up in short order. "Rising from the ashes" summarizes this song nicely, I feel.
The theme of Bruce Irving, a kickboxer. The upbeat bass really compliments Bruce's competitive, yet light-hearted disposition.
Made of Stone
Theme of Prototype Jack. Hard-hitting percussion and tenor sax give off a kind of comical "I'm going to kill you for fun" feeling.
Ring a Bell
King's stage theme. I really appreciate how well this song captivates King's desperate determination to rise back on his feet by winning the Tekken tournament.
And thusly ends my list for the top 10 OSTs in gaming history. This was easily one of the hardest things I've ever written simply because of how difficult it was to choose these 10 games out of the 2,000 others whom have music I adore. Truth be told, some of my favorite video game songs aren't even in games on this list, but my goal was to list what I believed were the 10 overall best in an objective light. These 10 OSTs, to me, demonstrate and represent what the world of video game music has to offer. Each one with its own unique flavor and personality, showcasing all walks of brilliant musicians who bring us the music we treasure so much.
These 10, in my mind, are the most holistically masterful and well-composed musical scores ever to be conceived in gaming. Quality music that made the game what it was and brought a whole new dimension to it. These 10 demonstrate best what I've always avidly professed: that music can make or break a game. That it can share a symbiotic relationship will all other facets of the game and magnify them to degrees unimaginable. That as a form of art that encompasses the potential for all forms of art, music has always played a pivotal role in the success of a game and the fruition of the vision of the developers.
Support video game music any way you can. When you play a game, listen to the music. Ever since I started listening to the music, entirely new worlds opened up to me in the game. I began to appreciate everything else even more and my game experiences were just indescribable. Pay attention to the music, and I guarantee you'll see just how wonderful it can be.