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The art of good video game music

Music can make or break a video game experience. Here contributor Timlah takes us through some of his favourite tracks and explains why they’re on his playlist.

Tim, contributor

Contributor overview
Website: GeekOut South-West
Description: Some men just want to watch the world burn – but that quote certainly doesn’t fit the eccentric Timlah. Geek culture has completely consumed this chilled-out cosplaying conundrum. Regularly smiling and keeping it geeky, he’s hugely fond of indie games and alternative gaming systems.

Timlah says…

Music is a powerful tool which stimulates and gives a good vibe, which is why so many people fondly remember certain tracks: you reflect on a better time, or a memory, or something else through association. Over the years we’ve gone from using whatever sound-chips are inside our consoles consisting of little beeps and boops, all the way up to massive full-scale orchestras to make music for video games. But what makes a good piece of music rather than a bad one? I think I have the answer, although this is an opinion piece and I implore you join in the discussion at the end.

Let’s go to the arcades, an environment where noise is the easiest way to stand out in a room full of other sounds, flashing lights and more. Whilst you’ll hear countless instances of coins falling, whether it’s something putting a penny into a machine or people at the slots, you’ll definitely encounter some game music filling the room. It’s an easy way for players to identity a title, which means you’re more likely to head over to it.

Once you’ve been drawn in by the music, the gameplay generally does the rest – however, there are some cases where it enhances your overall experience. Be it a scene in an epic-scaled RPG or a simple game of Dig-Dug, where simply moving spurs on the cutesy noises from the character; you’re more inclined to play a level through if you enjoy the music. Here are a few cases for you to consider, soundtracks which not only sound good but also add to the experience. They’re integral to the game, whether acting as a key identifier for the title and its franchise or adding an element to the gameplay or storytelling.

1. Cornered

Name: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Release date: October 2001
PEGI rating: 12
Genre: Adventure, simulation
Platforms: DS, 3DS Game Boy Advance, iOS, PC, Wii
More information: Official website

The Ace Attorney franchise is one filled with amazing tracks, which are there to amplify the mood for the given scenario. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing Phoenix Wright, Apollo Justice or otherwise: you’ll always get the same music triggers, with only a few differences. Each character has their own respective theme but they also tell a story.

Music such as Cornered is Ace Attorney’s way of boosting the atmosphere of an already-tense scene. Couple this with tracks for each of the prosecutors and you start to understand the sort of mindset you’ll be playing against. One of them, Godot, is unlike most of the others; his tune is a soulful jazz-like saxophone playing against soft sounds. Most of the prosecutors are very snooty in sound, or aggressive.

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2. You’re Not Alone

Name: Final Fantasy IX
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Release date: July 2000
PEGI rating: 12
Genre: RPG
Platforms: PlayStation
More information: Final Fantasy Wiki

Here’s a very specific example of how video game music can elevate the mood of a scene. In one of the most touching of Final Fantasy IX, the protagonist finds out something which basically denotes his whole life, his whole upbringing, as a fallacy. Shocked, and feeling very cold and alone for the first time, he vows to bring an end to all that’s wrong with the world by himself. However, his friends are by his side throughout although he’s so blinded by his rage that he can’t see it.

This part is so symbolic of what the morale of the title stands for, that if they didn’t have the perfect music for the scene it would have been a failure. As the protagonist goes through challenge after challenge, the song builds up; it’s good to have on a loop as it starts calm, rises and peaks, then calms again. At the start are basic stabs, short bursts of sound which are striking to the ear, then a simple tune is played – the whole time, you feel like you’re trapped in his mind. More instruments are added before some brilliant guitar work is heard. It’s beautiful and it represents a track that’s been made specifically for that part of the game: a masterpiece which is very chilling.

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3. Pokey Means Business

Name: EarthBound
Developer: Ape
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: August 1994
PEGI rating: 12
Genre: RPG
Platforms: Game Boy Advance, SNES, Wii U
More information: EarthBound

EarthBound is commonly cited as one of those games that should be played. In fact, it’s featured on the wonderful 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die list, the very one that spurred on the creation of 1001Up. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek RPG which sees Ness and co seek out and put a stop to the ultimate evil called Giygas.

The title is often commended for its music. Up until the point that Pokey Means Business is played, the theme of the game is really silly; it’s meant to be – I mean, you have enemies such as the ‘New Age Retro Hippie’ attacking you by pulling out its ruler and figuring how to measure things… It’s not even a real attack but this bad guy does it anyway!

But then the pace, the atmosphere and everything about EarthBound takes an incredibly dramatic turn. It’s not silly any more; it’s serious and Pokey Minch, your brattish neighbour, proves that this time he’s out to cause carnage. In fact, he’s more dangerous than what you’re aiming to go and fight off. This theme proves it: it goes from trumpets to a 16-bit-era-styled heavy guitar… and it sounds so good! If the music didn’t kick in, this would just be a bit of a twisted change in pace which is unexplained. Thankfully, Pokey truly meant business.

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4. Ground Theme

Name: Super Mario Bros.
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release date: September 1985
PEGI rating: 3
Genre: Platformer
Platforms: NES
More information: Nintendo’s Official Home for Mario

Believe it or not, Nintendo have been incredibly smart with the core music for the Mario franchise. A key part of the experience is hearing certain tracks time and time again; but what they’ve managed to do is to change them just enough so you don’t feel fatigued. Now don’t get me wrong: they don’t rely too heavily on old music as they’re forever providing new soundtracks which are progressively (or subjectively) better.

The most famous jingle from Super Mario Bros. has been changed and reiterated many times, and has been included in most of the franchise’s instalments since. It was originally called Ground Level, which is supposed to be representative of the fact that you’re on the overground levels of the game. The timing of the song is structured to feel like a calypso, which encourages movement and jumping. You’ll naturally find most people manage to hit the first block of the initial level at roughly the same time. It’s been remade and called Do The Mario, and even had lyrics – but one constant remains. The three bars at the beginning of the song are iconic and recognisable, and the track isn’t going to disappear from Mario titles any time soon.

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Do you know of any particularly good video game soundtracks and songs, which not only sound good but enhance gameplay? Do you have any examples of bad tracks? This isn’t a comprehensive list, so please feel free to join in the discussion below by adding your voice to this subject!

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5 thoughts on “The art of good video game music”

  1. Some really good examples here; I like the point about the music providing an identity in a noisy arcade environment. One of the aspects to game music I’m intrigued by is the specific challenge it provides. A movie score is designed to fit with the on screen content, but music for a game must be appropriate for a wide range of players yet still create the correct atmosphere. It can’t crescendo to a dramatic moment as the composer never knew that moment was about to happen.

    I remember a really good interview with the composer for MGS2 (Harry – Gregson Williams??… Possibly) discussing how he had created the soundtrack to shift seamlessly between different musical themes as the guard alert status changed (ie. Danger blending to caution blending to sneaky – sneaky stealth).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, the intriguing thing was the part about Super Mario Bros. “Ground Theme”. When I was reading that, I thought they would have just come up with a ditty, what with it being a time before the mass popularisation of video games and all.

      So to read the composer, Koji Kondo, seriously thought through all of the different genres of music just to suss what would make people jump – it’s a stroke of genius. I won’t lie: I adore making elements of games myself, be it sprites or short snippets of code… And music too. I would never have thought of some of the things that Koji Kondo thought, let alone composers such as Nobou Uematsu 🙂

      Cheers for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The Red Wings from Final Fantasy II/IV. It opens the game with a strong, proud but still sinister tone and, to make the theme even better, it brings it back for the start of the final dungeon. Charging through into the final boss’ lair you get that callback to all the beginning and that sense of power…

    I dunno. Something about it stood out when considering your question.

    As far as bad goes I can’t stop thinking about the soundtrack to Xenosaga 2. Most things about that game fell apart, but the music was so out of place and headache inducing… Yeah I’m not a fan.


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