Game Informer Editors Name Their Favorite Soundtracks
With the release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection this week (and many other audio-rich titles), we got to thinking about our favorite soundtracks. On this snowy day here in Minnesota, our editors sound off about which games have made the biggest auditory impression on us.
Note: All release dates are first appearance in North America.
Katamari Damacy (PlayStation 2)
Composers: Yuu Miyake, Asuka Sakai, Akitaka Tohyama, Hideki Tobeta, Yoshihito Yano, Yuri Misumi
Release: September 21, 2004
Music is such a vital part of my appreciation for gaming that it's tough for me to single out a particular soundtrack. I remember being wowed by Pitfall II's audio, which was incredible during the 2600 era. While I didn't enjoy the actual game, Wrecking Crew's peppy little title tune has stuck with me all these years. And, for my obligatory Dead Rising mention, that game featured amazing, Muzac-inspired lunacy (and that bizarro Gone Guru train wreck [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDeThz30JtQ]).
I could go on. If I had to pick one soundtrack, however, it would have to be Katamari Damacy's. I love everything about it. It's exciting and cheerful, and it suits the gameplay perfectly. Katamari on the Rocks is probably my favorite cut, but there's not a dud on it. I ripped the CD onto my Xbox 360, and I'd often swap the soundtracks from other games with it if the original audio was lacking or I was looking for a change of pace. Grinding for weapons on EDF was always a little easier while accompanied by a robotic voice intoning, "You are smart." Who knows why? It's music.
Double Dragon (NES)
Composer: Kazunaka Yamane
Release: June 1988
While the arcade version of Kazunaka Yamane's soundtrack is the original, I prefer the NES edition's brighter tones and faster pace (not to mention I played that version a hundred times more). The title theme and level 1 music get you pumped up to trash some punks.
The industrial area's theme starts off creepy and foreboding then transitions to to a happy chorus and back again. The woods level has a gritty '70s cop soundtrack feel then has a non-nonsensical noise bridge in the middle. Abobo's theme might be my favorite. Once you hear that hyped up Russian music you know it's time to jump kick that jerk right in his fat head.
Gitaroo Man (PS2)
Composers: Keiji Yamagishi, Kaori Nakabai
Release: February 18, 2002
My favorite video game soundtrack is for Koei's PS2/PSP music game Gitaroo Man. The game came out in the States in 2002 well before the music game craze, and all the songs were written and performed by Japanese band COIL (not to be confused with the experimental band of the same name).
The songs span a range of musical styles from funk to metal to lighter fare, and COIL is not only up to the task but the songs are both suited to the gameplay while capable of standing on their own two feet outside of the game. My favorite is the wistful "The Legendary Theme (Acoustic Version)," which comes at a tender moment in the game.
I remember at the time there was the insinuation that the cost of commissioning Gitaroo Man's original soundtrack and the game's relatively low sales squelched any chance for a sequel, but I dare say with a clutch of songs this good it was worth it.
The Secret of Mana (SNES)
Composer: Hiroki Kikuta
Release: October 3, 1993
My late grandpa and I shared a fondness for Secret of Mana that no doubt makes the game special to me. Composer Hiroki Kikuta's score always stands because it fit every moment perfectly, from the sad "Phantom of a Rose" track that plays while you're banished from Potos village to the song "Into the Thick of It" that keeps your thirst for exploration alive as you explore the world.
The soundtrack captures the vibrant landscape and it was unique for the 16-bit era, focusing a great deal on woodwind instruments. Whenever I hear any of the tracks, I'm instantly transported to that part of the game, easily making it one of my favorite soundtracks just for the wonderment and nostalgia it instantly sparks in me.
For more on Secret of Mana's music, check out Tim's Appreciating The Music Of Secret Of Mana piece.
Bully (PlayStation 2)
Composer: Shawn Lee
Release: October 17, 2006
Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto soundtracks are a master class in music licensing, showing the company's deep love and knowledge of popular culture. However, my favorite Rockstar soundtrack, and my favorite game soundtrack ever, is Shawn Lee's score to the 2006 cult favorite Bully.
Bully had a much more whimsical vibe than most Rockstar games, and Lee's score perfectly matches its lovingly nostalgic vibe with music that mixed a wide range of genres and instruments with a playful grace. Some of the tracks explicitly reference DEVO founder Mark Motherbaugh's acclaimed soundtrack to Wes Anderson's Rushmore, while others recall the otherworldly vibes of jazz-fusion pioneers David Axelrod and Roy Ayers. From '50s rockabilly to electronic dance music, Bully manages to pull in a wide range of influences into a whole that seems completely natural and unforced. It's as memorable as the game that inspired it.
Lair (PlayStation 3)
Composer: John Debney
Release: August 31, 2007
This lesser known soundtrack by John Debney has the grandeur and scope of a John Williams movie score, but a distinct sense of mystery and wonder. Even if the game itself didn't fully tap the potential of dragonriders fighting mid-air duels, the orchestral score helped to make up for it.
Lots of people haven't played Lair, but give a listen to Rohn's Theme to get a taste for the soundtrack's rich and vibrant dynamic, mixing orchestral strings with a mournful female vocalist.
Final Fantasy III (SNES)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Release: October 31, 1994
A good RPG makes players connect with the world and characters, and the soundtrack's role in that process shouldn't be underestimated. Final Fantasy III (a.k.a. Final Fantasy VI) doesn't have advanced graphics, but the music tells a great deal of the story, filling in the gaps that the 16-bit sprites can't convey.
From the opening sequence to the opera house to the World of Ruin, Final Fantasy III's music creates a surprising sense of sadness. Of course, it isn't all mopey; the soundtrack is also home to exuberant gems like the Figaro Castle music and the Blackjack theme, not to mention my favorite boss music in the whole series (above). This ability to cover all of the bases, from adventure to despair, is why this soundtrack sticks with me, and is a large part of why Final Fantasy III still holds up so well today.
Castlevania 3: Dracula's Curse (Famicom)
Composers: Hidenori Maezawa, Jun Funahashi, Yukie Morimoto, Yoshinori Sasaki
Release: September 1, 1990
I didn't grow up with a Nintendo system, but I have fond memories of peeking over the proverbial fence to see how green the pixelated grass was on the other side. My cousins liked to play the Castlevania series, and the series immediately stuck in my brain as a cool, spooky alternative to the cartoony action of Sonic and Super Mario.
The gloomy, gothic soundtrack did much to sell the decrepit castle interiors and classic creatures like Frankenstein's Monster and Medusa. The Famicom version of Castlevania 3 stands tall as my favorite in the series, thanks especially to a special chip included only in the Japanese versions of the game.
The VRC6 chip boosted the Famicom's core five sound channels up to eight, unlocking new musical depth and complexity. In the case of Castlevania 3, this meant more intricate, classically inspired tunes with more robust percussion. Some tracks are foreboding pieces that instill a sense of dread, while others sound like Beethoven rocking out on a church organ with a rock 'n' roll drummer accompaniment.
My favorite track is "Prelude", a beautifully eerie tune that kicks off the game. It's a bittersweet intro to the game that somehow interweaves notes of melancholy and hope to really get players blood pumping for the upcoming quest to once again slay Dracula. (For more on Castlevania 3's amazing soundtrack, check out this episode of The Super Marcato Bros. Podcast on which I guest star.)
Mega Man X (SNES)
Composers: Setsuo Yamamoto, Makoto Tomozawa, Yuki Iwai, Yuko Takehara, Toshihiko Horiyama
Release: January 1994
I'd always enjoyed Mega Man X's soundtrack, but it became a full on obsessions when my old high school bad and I had the epiphany that Storm Eagle's theme would make a fantastic metal song and started working on a cover. We never played it live – it was really just for us.
Another instance I realized that perhaps I have too much appreciation for Mega Man X's soundtrack, was when I started hearing Chill Penguin's theme in the phone alarm I used to wake me up every morning. I wrote a blog about it to prove I am not crazy, but I am not sure if it was effective.
Final Fantasy IV (SNES)
Composer: Nobuo Uematsu
Release: November 23, 1991
At virtually every point in the game from Palom and Porom's sacrifice to the bizarre Dancing Calcobrena battle, the music fits the scene impeccably. It all culminates in a final battle with Zeromus, which may be my favorite of all Final Fantasy bosses and my favorite tune on the soundtrack.
Halo 3 (Xbox 360)
Composers: Martin O'Donnell, Michael Salvatore
Release: September 25, 2007
Traveling to a distant alien world through an ancient portal on the heels of humanity's last stand demands a remarkable musical accompaniment, and in Halo 3, Michael Salvatori and Martin O'Donnell created something truly moving. The track "Behold a Pale Horse" perfectly captures the wonder and terrifying scope of the battle taking place on the Forerunner Ark, and it remains in my opinion, a landmark of music in gaming.
Mass Effect (Xbox 360)
Composer: Jack Wall, Sam Hulick, Richard Jacques, David Kates
November 20, 2007
Driving beats, ethereal melodies, and a heavy reliance on 80's synth sounds are the defining characteristics of Mass Effect's remarkable score. Shifting from familiar and powerful to alien and strange in a beat, the music fits the content, and heightens the science fiction atmosphere.
It's unlike anything I've heard. It can be a little unnerving to listen to on its own, but with Shepard and company battling on screen, it's one of the greatest listening experiences in gaming.
Super Mario World (SNES)
Composer: Koji Kondo
Release: August 23, 1991
I don’t geek out about video game music as much as some of my fellow GI editors, but even I can’t resist the catchy tunes from Super Mario World. From the frantic tempo of “Athletic Theme” (which usually caused me to run straight into a bottomless pit) to the creepy “Ghost House Theme” (which my siblings and I made up lyrics to that for some reason involved Baby Beluga), each song is not only highly memorable and hummable, but perfectly fit its level and tone.
Beating the game wouldn’t have been nearly as rewarding without the celebratory “Ending Theme,” but that’s true for every step of the journey, thanks to Koji Kondo’s masterpiece OST.
Red Dead Redemption (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3)
Composer: Bill Elm, Woody Jackson
Release: May 18, 2010
When people think of Western soundtracks, chances are they are recalling a score by the legendary Ennio Morricone, who set the tone for classic films like Man With No Name trilogy. Red Dead Redemption composers Bill Elm and Woody Jackson wisely channeled these brooding works, deftly mimicking spaghetti western arrangements to make one of my favorite game soundtracks ever recorded.
Mega Man 2 (NES)
Composer: Takashi Tateishi, Manami Matsumae
Release: July 11, 1989
Even picking last didn't make my choices easy, just fewer. I considered The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Super Smash Bros. Brawl (but considered that cheating), and one of Jesper Kyd's soundtracks (Darksiders II was the frontrunner).
Instead, I chose to go with the first game that drew me back for countless replays. I've beaten Mega Man 2 upwards of 20 times, and I never tire of the soundtrack. The jungle beats of Wood Man's stage, the perilous teetering up among Air Man's clouds, and the clever unevenness of Quick Man's stage music all fit perfectly. There's even a more relaxing track to be found in Bubble Man's accompaniment.
Ultimately, I keep coming back to the first track in the assault on Dr. Wily's fortress as my favorite. Sure, I love the opening title, but Tateishi and Matsumae expertly captured the feeling of starting that final push to the end game. And now I feel ready to take on the robot masters all over again.