Now That’s What I Call Video Game Music

Originally Published: 2012

Track 1 – Alex Kidd in Miracle World

Let’s kick the album off with my namesake: Alex Kidd. Can you get a more jaunty and upbeat track to kick-start an adventure? Alex Kidd is the proud owner of easily one of the catchiest little ditties from the 8-bit era. Instantly boring right into your brain until you have no choice but to whistle it for the rest of the day, this delightful little track was the perfect way to begin the game. The pace of the melody gets you all fired up for punching eagles and legging it from sneaky ghosts.

I don’t think it’s possible for anyone out there to listen to this music and not fit the words “Alex the Kidd, Alex the Kiiiiiidd” to the first 2 lines of the opening theme. It just seems to fit far too well. Or is that just me?

The main theme is brilliant, but I can’t possibly include it on my album unless it comes hand in hand with the underwater theme. It slows down the pace of the music almost perfectly in sync with the way the pace of the game itself drops to an underwater crawl. As soon as you hit the water the music kicks in and the tempo, the bleeps and bloops of the bass line, and the descending melody are almost unparalleled in nailing the sound of being underwater in 8-bit. The game may be no classic, but the music is amazing.

Track 2 – Mafia II

This next track may not be an original piece of music designed for the game, but it is the focal point of quite possibly my favourite video game cutscene of all time. Mafia II had an incredible 40’s and 50’s soundtrack and used musically superbly to help enhance its brilliant storytelling. The ‘good time’ lyrics of Sam Butera and the Witnesses’ track are offset brilliantly against the brutality of the imagery to create the perfect ironic musical accompaniment to the scene.

If one cutscene can perfectly capture the appeal and ‘coolness’ of gangster stories, then 2K nailed it right here. It’s the obligatory montage piece that shows Vito and Joe moving their way up the Mafia ranks, and looks like it came straight out of Goodfellas. I will also mention that I absolutely love the song itself as well, and I would never have heard of it if not for Mafia II. A testament to what pop culture can do for great, forgotten music.

Mafia II had so many clever uses of music, another being the moment when Vito steps out of a cab having finally returned home from the war in the middle of winter to be met perfectly by Dean Martin’s “Let it Snow. Proof that the developer’s decision to limit the free roam nature of the game and concentrate on a structured, narrative-based experience was definitely the right one. Sends goosebumps down my spine watching these scenes even now.

Track 3 – Resident Evil 2

It’s time to slow the pace down a little. Music is so often used as a signifier or a symbol in movies, TV and games and this next piece is a great example of that. The save room music from many of the Resident Evil games has become a series staple and a symbol of safety. There are never any zombies in save rooms, your STARS member will remain unharmed and able to catch his, or her, breath.

The music is calming, no doubt, and to think of the number of relieved sighs produced by Resi gamers on hearing it must be innumerable. But every player knows that the save rooms are merely the calm before the storm, or terror if you will. This is brilliantly portrayed in the eerie piano and brooding strings, making it also feel sinister and haunting. You know you may be safe for now, for this one room, but as soon as you walk out and the music stops you’re right back into the thick of it. So enjoy the music momentarily, because it lasts about as long as your safety.

Track 4 – Mega Man 2

I toyed for hours with this one. I didn’t want to be cliché. I wanted to pick a different Mega Man track. But damn, it’s impossible to think of a more quintessential example of the consistent and absolute brilliance of Mega Man music than the Wily Theme from Mega Man 2. You all know it and you all love it. It’s just an incredible piece of 8-bit music. It’s upbeat, it’s inspiring and it’s epic. Oh, and it’s blatantly metal too – the number of heavy metal covers rocking their way across YouTube is testament to that.

One of the most recognisable NES songs of all time, it’s the perfectly structured 8-bit game track. It starts off fast and full of purpose, drops down with a slower melody in the middle section, before hitting you at the end with the track’s killer hook and that absolutely badass bass line.

It’s a shame but, according the internet, the composers of the original Mega Man games are difficult to pinpoint, as many were uncredited or used pseudonyms. Reportedly Mega Man 2 was composed by female composer Manami Matsumae along with Takashi Tateishi. Whoever composed the first 5 titles in the series deserves all the credit they get, as the music of Mega Man is as synonymous with the popularity of the games as the legendary difficulty is. Hats off to them all.

Track 5 – Banjo-Kazooie

Merry Christmas everyone! You will most certainly never find a more befitting song for a snow level in any game than Banjo-Kazooie’s Freezeezy Peak. Mario 64 comes close, but Rare composer Grant Kirkhope’s ridiculously festive song is just about as good as it gets. It helps that the music accompanies easily the best level in the game, but Kirkhope’s entire Banjo-Kazooie soundtrack was one brilliantly bouncy track after the next, as Rare staked massive claims to be among the best music composers, as well as game developers, on the N64.

Sure, every track on Banjo-Kazooie might be filled with clichéd sounds and melodies that serve as the most blatant signifiers possible for their designated areas, but it all adds to the joyous charm of the soundtrack. Listen to those sleigh bells in the background and try not to crack a smile – I dare you.

Banjo-Kazooie is a game that, again, is almost as synonymous with its brilliant soundtrack as it is for its superb gameplay. One of the N64’s most beloved titles, it harks back to a time when Rare were on top of gaming’s most wanted list. Titles like Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 007 and Diddy Kong Racing all proved what a talented developer they were and, indeed, all those games’ soundtracks also prove their ability for gaming musical perfection.

What a shame that we haven’t seen or heard a good game from Rare in such a long time. The company has suffered such a downfall recently, but if you’re missing the musical stylings of Grant Kirkhope, he produced all the music and sound effects for Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. Just don’t expect any sleigh bells in that one.

Track 6 – Shadow Man

From the infectious and overly happy Banjo-Kazooie music, we move on to the dark side of the N64. Shadow Man was a strong sentiment from Nintendo that they weren’t afraid to put out mature titles for their machine, and boy did we get that from Shadow Man.

Put simply, the soundtrack from Shadow Man is messed up. Disturbingly so. If ever you wanted to hear music that would haunt your dreams, this is it. Amazingly I played this game as a 13 year-old and barely had any nightmares, but the tone of the game – with its disgusting monsters and psychopathic serial killers – is still not lost when listening back to the game’s music.

Some of the original music is just horrific. The music for the asylum playrooms is just hell on the ears… in a good way. Imagine what it’s like for me to be listening to that right now as I write this. But for this CD I’ve chosen the music from the Jack the Ripper’s asylum. It’s not an original piece of music, but it is still a work of genius. The genius itself? That would be in taking Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and playing it backwards. Simple, but incredibly effective.

The result is just one of the most haunting and bone-chilling pieces of music ever. The twisted and distorted piano is enough to make you stop dead in your tracks, and if you throw that into a game where monsters and serial killers come at you from all angles it’s terrifying stuff. The normal song is also in the intro to the game, but this version just draws you in and makes you appreciate what a simple trick can do to take a beautiful piece of classical music and turn it into something brilliantly horrifying.

Track 7 – Sonic Adventure 2

Right, that’s enough of disturbing and horrible music. We need to liven ourselves up again and there’s probably no better medicine than the horrendously cheesy, yet undeniably uplifting ‘City Escape’ song from Sonic Adventure 2. A lot of people hate this song, but those people have no heart. The song doesn’t mean to hurt anyone – it’s just a delicious slice of Sonic cheese rock that true fans of the games all love. If you’ve ever heard a more cheesy-yet-catchy rock song… well, you’ve probably heard it in a different Sonic game.

Sonic has a long history of great music in his games. The 16-bit era of Sonic games produced some of the best tracks the industry has ever heard. Once the blue hedgehog dove into, admittedly the shallow end, of 3D gaming, the Sonic Team composers decided to try and modernise his ‘cool’ image. Stupidly cheesy pop rock songs were apparently the way to go.

Put simply, I can’t help but love this song. I know it’s terrible and I know the lyrics are dumb but it’s got that speed, that catchy guitar riff, and that hook-filled chorus that I associate with any Sonic song. You can’t ever play the level of City Escape and not crack a smile. It’s a brilliant level with a perfectly befitting song. The only thing left to do is “follow me”.

Track 8 – Super Mario Galaxy

Some of Nintendo’s GameCube titles, most notably the Wii-ported Twilight Princess, were criticised for sticking with Midi soundtracks. Whether the criticism was justified or not, thank the God of Music that the Big N decided to go orchestral on the Wii. Although an orchestral soundtrack for Mario was more than a little surprising.

Any and all fears were completely banished when Mario fans were met with the astounding brilliance of Mahito Yokota and the legendary Koji Kondo’s efforts. From the opening strings of the Good Egg Galaxy theme, gamers knew they were listening to something special. But for this album it’s the epic Gusty Garden Galaxy theme that gets to showcase its genius for us as the perfect closing track.

It’s the sweeping melodies, and incredible horns and woodwind sections, that send shivers down the spine. So full of pomp and bombast, it’s perfect for bounding around in gusts of air on a tiny floating planet. The wonderful combination of trumpet and harp at about the 1 minute mark is also something of real beauty.

Mario, and indeed Koji Kondo, may well be forever associated with that 8-bit theme tune, and rightly so, but the composer really showed his mettle and unquestionable genius with the Mario Galaxy soundtrack. So sit back in your favourite easy chair, break out a bottle of wine and pretend to be a cultured orchestral music fan, and then stop to remember, this is from a Mario game.

Alex Aldridge

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