Hi Five – Top Five Video Game Soundtracks7 minute read

Listening back, Jim Cullinane chooses the top five soundtracks from video games over the years

This weeks edition of Hi Five brings you my incredibly diverse and strange music taste, which I apologise for in advance. I was asked to write about what I would currently consider my Top Five video game soundtracks. Firstly the use of the word “currently” is important here because, if you listen to as much music as I, and have as diverse a musical taste, you will understand that preferences are a constant shifting dynamic – sometimes daily.

When I was considering my Hi Five list I felt as though I was a child again, sitting in front of my old consoles and my Amiga. Games back then had such vibrant soundtracks, and are sometimes mirrored in Synthwave music today. Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge 2 had an amazing soundtrack – unusual for sports and racing games of the time (in my opinion). Alien Breed: Tower Assault was a soundtrack that harnessed pure science fiction heart-thumping and mood-inspiring feelings. The theme was reminiscent of the Alien films, with hints of Terminator all rolled into one package. Later down the line I was listening to the original Grand Theft Auto soundtrack, mostly mesmerized by the fact that the PlayStation disc doubled as a standard music CD when placed inside a stereo.

Regardless of all this reminiscence, here are my current Hi Five of video game soundtracks that for me hold the strongest emotional bonds.

Disclaimer – these are my top five and are in no way to be considered an official list.

5 Cannon Fodder

“Go to your brother, kill him with your gun. Leave him dying in his uniform, dying in the sun.” Okay, the lyrics are a little dark for a simplistic strategy game, but the theme song for Cannon Fodder was prominent, influential and grimly vibrant all at the same time. Jon Hare, half of the founding members of Sensible Software wrote the theme song War! with musician Richard Joseph.

War! was such an important theme song for me in the 1990’s. Not only was it the first piece of video game music that I had heard that sound like proper music, but it was also the first I had heard lyrics in a video game. The music was soft reggae in genre, but with a beat and tempo reminiscent of the Vietnam War soundtracks. It was a fantastic opening to a game.

“War! Never been so much fun!”

4 The Chaos Engine

The Chaos Engine is important part of an interesting history that eventually brought about the Steampunk retro-futuristic subgenre of science fiction. If we reverse engineer the games origins, The Chaos Engine was based on William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine which was published in 1990. The novel is set in a Victorian Britain that has seen a great technological and social change since Charles Babbage succeeded in the invention of his Analytical Engine.

Now, the Analytical Engine was in fact a general-purpose computer that was proposed by Charles Babbage, with the assistance of Ada Lovelace, in 1837. The proposal was to be the first successor to The Difference Engine which was a calculating machine designed by Charles Babbage in the 1820’s. So we have The Difference Engine, which was to be succeeded by the Analytical Engine, which inspired a novel called The Difference Engine, which inspired a game called The Chaos Engine. Given that the novel itself is widely regarded as something that helped establish the genre conventions of Steampunk – the game certainly needed a good soundtrack.

Richard Joseph, renowned musician for The Bitmap Brothers, took the lead on the soundtrack for the game. The game starts with sirens – alerting, threatening and scene-setting. Add into the music a dashing of The Prodigy-inspired madness and you are starting to visualise this mechanical, almost computerised composition. Beautiful in its insanity.

3 The End is Nigh

If you have not heard of Ridiculon then jump onto Spotify, or whatever your streaming platform of choice is, and listen to their work. They are responsible for a game that’s music literally took me by surprise. Edmund McMillen titles are always perfectly forged masterpieces, with every fabric and fibre weaved to perfection. The music is always great, but when I played The End is Nigh I was taken aback.

As someone who enjoys classical music it was an utter pleasure to hear a lot of the greats in one game. But better more – they are remixed versions of these great compositions. Marche Slave (Tchaikovsky 1876) is remixed and named SS Exodus and Fallen Fantasy, Night on Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky 1867) became Golgotha and Dig Dead and other greats such as Requiem (Verdi 1874) and Turkish March (Mozart 1783) are also revisited, remixed and renamed into original creations. These were all amazing, but Danse Macabre (Saint-Saëns 1874) being remixed into The End and Mortaman really captured my attention. All this aside, no game track has ever made my heart pump more than when Ridiculon remixed Hungarian Rhapsody (Liszt 1847) into Acceptance. Escaping the exploding world at the end, running backwards through an insanely difficult platformer, with a timer glaring in at you and Acceptance getting faster and faster is blood-pumping, sweat-inducing andrenaline-spiking music at its finest.

2 The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda contains music that I defy any true gamer to recognise. The compositions are equal to that of the great composers of time past and truly show the skill of Kōji Kondō and his abilities. The soundtrack came about with the game in 1986 and comprised of pure 8-bit sequences.

The soundtrack is officially 10 tracks, of which there are no official English names, due to it only being named domestically. However it spurred some of the most recognisable music that has followed through the franchise for 35 years. The most beautiful thing for me is to listen to a live orchestral rendition of this music, which can literally bring tears to my eyes as I listen to flutters of nostalgia and perfection all in one amazing package.

1 Final Fantasy VII

For me there are few composers who can match the abilities and talents of Nobuo Uematsu. His passion for his music jumps out with every single note, and you can hear him breathing life into every detail of his work. He is often referred to as the Beethoven of video games, and has been credited with changing the face of classical music. He also managed to get the first video game composition into the Classic FM Hall of Fame – something that is not an easy achievement, especially when you realised he reached third place overall.

Final Fantasy VII comprises of 85 tracks of gob-smackingly amazing music. I can literally listen to the soundtrack and see exactly where you would be in the game when the music is playing. The music is bold, energising, subtle, emotional, haunting, exciting and more. From “Fanfare” (ファンファーレ Fanfāre) to “The Prelude” (プレリュード Pureryūdo) and from “Cosmo Canyon” (星降る峡谷 Hoshi Furu Kyōkoku, lit. “Valley of the Falling Stars”) to “Shinra, Inc” (神羅カンパニー Shinra Kanpanī, lit. “Shinra Company”), the music literally became one with the game.

There are two tracks that always stood out for me, one of which was music when you reach the pinnacle moment of fighting Sephiroth and listening to “One-Winged Angel” (片翼の天使 Katayoku no Tenshi). The other, which was part of the plot that made me weep as a child, and a grown man, was “Aerith’s Theme” (エアリスのテーマ Earisu no Tēma). The latter was a composition so close to my heart that it was played at the wedding of me and my wife.

What will next weeks Hi Five be about? Well you can decide. Send us your ideas via Facebook or Twitter and we will pick one at random, no matter how obscure they might be! And the creator will get a mention too.

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