I love videogames, and I love videogame music. Just like great moments in film and the way the soundtrack enhances and fuses with the action, there's something about the experience of playing a game that ties the experience to the soundtrack and binds the two together in your memory. Whistle the victory melody from Final Fantasy 7 in any crowded room, or the main theme from Super Mario Bros, and see how many people respond. As many as would if you whistled Rebel Blockade Runner by John Williams, AKA the Star Wars theme? Or more?
I wish I could analyse the greatest pieces of gaming music with a more professional air, but I'm no music expert and all I can offer are my personal opinions. As such, here are my top five pieces of game music from the past few decades.
1) Phendrana Drifts, from Metroid Prime
The Metroid series has featured some pretty iconic musical pieces throughout its twenty-seven year history, but those themes reached a sublime peak (IMO) with Metroid Prime, a game that not only reinvigorated the franchise but also reinterpreted and updated many of the classic SNES themes to stunning effect.
Stepping out on to the icy plains of Phendrana for the first time was a jawdropping moment, but exploring those snow-packed peaks and foreboding chasms wouldn't have been half as wondrous without this composition. It's subtle, mysterious, and yet lively enough to drive you on into the ice wastes.
Bonus - this instrumental metal cover by Stemage is soothing, yet also rockin'. No complaints:
2) The Opened Way, from Shadow of the Colossus.
The Opened Way is one of many spectacular tracks from Shadow of the Colossus, and choosing any single song to represent what is (IMO) one of the greatest videogames of all time was quite a trial. Composer Kow Otani has spent over twenty five years crafting soundtracks for games, film and anime, but his work on SotC is undoubtedly some of his best.
What adds to the grandeur of Kow's orchestral soundtrack is that Shadow of the Colossus is largely a quiet game. There's no music playing as you explore the vast world of SotC - just the sound of hoofbeats, and you calling for your horse. This sweeping, heart pounding score is your reward for finally locating and fighting one of the titular colossi. As such, each and every track is distinct and unforgettable.
Thank you, Kow.
3) Setting Sail, Coming Home, from Bastion
When the first previews for Bastion were released, people were amazed by the hand-painted art and the introduction of an omnipresent narrator. Few people were prepared for a multi-award winning soundtrack by composer Darren Korb, which became so popular that the developers eventually released the complete soundtrack as a limited edition CD (which completely sold out, of course).
Setting Sail, Coming Home is a great song even out of context, but a real tear-jerker when you hear it for the first time in game. You have few friends in Bastion, and each NPC character has their own distinct, soulful theme music. Setting Sail, Coming Home is a combination of two of those themes, the lyrics of two opposing characters suddenly intertwined as they face up to the consequences of their actions.
Full marks, Darren.
4) Wind Waker Theme, from Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker
I should point out that there's no BAD Zelda theme, but everybody has a personal favourite theme, and it's almost always their first encounter with the series. I never owned a SNES or 64, so Wind Waker was my first proper Legend of Zelda title, and it still occupies a special place in my heart. That endless ocean! The freedom of setting out across the waves, headed for a tiny speck on the horizon! The terror when a storm started and threatened to tip your boat, and the relief when morning came and brought back the sun!
Unforgettable. If they change a single dang note of that song for the upcoming WiiU HD re-release, I'll flip a table.
Bonus: This orchestral remix by Hyperduck Soundworks is the most uplifting rendition I've ever found. It hasn't left my iPod in over a year.
5) E1M1, from Doom
E1M1 (Episode 1, Mission 1). For many people, this song accompanied their first glimpse of the future of gaming. Never mind the fact that the melody was ripped from Metallica, E1M1 was the musical embodiment of Doom - hard rock riffs mashed up against anarchic electronica, raw and pulsing, blended perfectly with the cries of the damned and the roar of your shotgun. It's not "beautiful" like many other pieces I've listed here, but it is absolutely iconic.
E1M1 has been remixed and covered more times than I can count, so I'll just leave you with this sweet cover by Evil Horde.
There were ten or so other songs I really wanted to put on this list, but I couldn't keep writing forever. So, what'd I overlook? What songs should go into part 2? Drop me your feedback below!