Top Ten: Videogame musical Themes / Introductions

Platforms: All

I am not sure what I was thinking when I stuck my hand up to write this top ten piece. Inevitably I was always going to pick a music related category as, one could say, it is a bit of a passion of mine. A Top Ten of music from Video games. Simple, one might think, I can rattle off far more than that from the tip of my mind with very little thought. And that, in essence, is the problem. After digging a little deeper into those fuzzy chasms of my mind I was dredging up more and more classics. I literally hit one hundred tracks, almost all of which should be mentioned, before I realised that refining this down to a simple ten would be a Herculean task.

At this point I saw the task needed some redefinition if I were ever to progress past the mind-boggling amount of songs I had already scribbled down. So after some deep thought, and a cup of tea, I decided to adjust to ‘Top Ten: Videogame musical Themes / Introductions’ Furthermore, all tracks included must have been composed for the game in question and not a cover or rearrangement of an earlier unrelated piece of music. This trimmed the list down somewhere closer to the figure intended. And so, after further calculation, computation and categorisation I present to you my 'Top Ten: Videogame musical Themes / Introductions'.

10 Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge 3 by Patrick "Pat" Phelan - Atari ST - 1992
Music is a very personal thing. Sounds can mean everything to one man and pass another completely by. The topic will inevitably throw up all kinds of issues to all kinds of players who can’t find all their personal connections to the music on this list. However, the theme to Lotus Challenge III is indisputable. It is just plain brilliant.

The build up, then that release, into what is arguably one of the most addictive rifts in computer game history is unforgettable. Jean Michel Jarre would be proud of this composition. Decades later and that melody is still hammering my mind, bringing memories of the virtual wind whizzing through my hair, as I race that clunky Lotus towards the horizon. Nothing can slow you down when this music is playing.

9 Katamari Damacy “Katamari on the Rocks” by Yū Miyake - Playstation 2 - 2004
I admit to never really understanding Katamari Damacy. You’re some kind of crazy adhesive ball that rolls around, items sticking and enabling it to grow and collect larger items until the ball is big enough to become a star. It is a strange premise, but the theme is even more surreal and that is what makes it work.

At its heart it is a crazy, extravagant but brilliant pop song. Genius intertwining melodies and possibly one of the best sing along nonsensical choruses all combine to make you want to get off your seat, ignore your strangely all encompassing spherical machine, and just dance and sing out loud. Crazy Japanese music rarely gets better than this.

8 L.A Noire by Andrew Hale - Xbox 360, PS3, PC - 2011
After drawing up a draft version of the list, I discovered I had a problem. Not one of the current generation crop had made it. I was not entirely sure what to make of this, as it is certainly not the case that music in games has regressed over the years. The music found in today’s games is often not far short of incredible but the issue I have found is that it is not generally memorable or particularly anthemic. Perhaps it is an age thing, maybe the kids of today will look back at the Gears of War or GTA series with the same fondness I view those found here. I’m not sure.

So, with some magic and a little hocus pocus, I slotted this piece into the list. And, actually, it deserves its position. Andrew Hale’s (interestingly the Keyboardist and song-writer from Sade) re-imagining of 1940’s jazz, combining it with contemporary themes and modern sound techniques is nothing short of incredible. While the whole soundtrack for the game is certainly brilliant, I still often sit at the title screen lost in the vibrations of that sliding bass, mournful trumpet and arrhythmic beats not even tempted to actually enter the game. And that’s not just because I can’t stand the sight or sound of that arrogant and deluded fool of a man called Phelps.

7 The Secret of Monkey Island by Michael Land, Barney Jones, Andy Newell and Patrick Mundy - DOS, Atari ST - 1990
Some of the music found in games just fit perfectly. When you dream of Monkey Island, lots of notions spring to mind – Epic voyages around the Caribbean, idiotic and downright insane pirates and pure comedy genius. The theme to the original Monkey Island invokes all of this and more. The way those synthesised pan pipes and steel drum dance around the tune, almost comically misplaced in time yet melodically stunning, just cannot stop you smiling. It makes you want to pick up the nearest sword and start an insult battle with the nearest person to you. But I recommend you not to do that. Seriously.

6 Duke Nukem 3D by Lee Jackson - DOS - 1991
I was tossing and turning in my sleep over whether to include this. As I pointed out earlier, some connections to music are personal and remaining objective over matters of art is notoriously difficult. Is the downright dirty rift of the Duke Nukem theme deserving of a place in the top ten? In my head it perfectly sums up the game, handing over money to strippers, shrinking disgusting aliens then crushing them under my foot and also the general mood of First Person Shooters in the early 90s. Furthermore, it is the only piece of music here that I would willingly head bang too and if that isn’t a good enough reason for entry into this prodigious list then I am not sure what is.

5 Cannon fodder by Jon Hare and Richard Joseph - Amiga - 1993
This song not only made it into fifth position in this list but also wins the award for best lyrics and most satirical piece of music ever used in a game. In the days before huffy mothers and ancient right wing conservatives complained that video games were perverting the youth into monstrous killers, Sensible Software (also responsible for the excellent Sensible Soccer and its music) released this gem that positively promoted war and death. Penned and sung by game designer Jon Hare, it is hard to argue that more entertaining lyrics have ever been released, and all to a brilliantly arranged reggae anthem:

“Go up to your brother
Kill him with your gun
Leave him lying in his uniform
Dying in the sun
War! Never been so much fun!”

4 Halo: Combat Evolved by Martin O'Donnell - Xbox - 2001
The Halo series has constantly impressed with the music in all its games; however none have ever surpassed the purely magical opening piece of composition from the original. For a single arrangement this has absolutely everything. The haunting chant of the choral monks representing the majesty and mysticism of the Halo structure. Then the break down into that epic string section and pounding drums which can only bring to mind those raging battles against the Covenant. The intertwining of all these melodies as the piece progresses is truly a joy to the ear and few can doubt composer Martin O’Donnell deserves all the praise and awards he has received for the thought, effort and sheer genius he has created throughout the series.

3 The Legend of Zelda – Link to the past ‘Overworld’ Theme by Koji Kondo - SNES - 1991
I am told I would have been under severe duress and possible excommunication if I failed to include Zelda in the list. Really they had little to fear, the legend of Zelda theme is possibly one of the most famous works in gaming history. The hardest part was actually working out which version to include; in fact I imagine there is a top ten right there for the enterprising individual. While technically the ‘Overworld’ piece was not the introduction to the game, it is certainly the theme tune of Zelda. This version hits the perfect tempo, with crashing synthesised cymbals and emphatic pompous trombones, all allowing the melody to soar above, uplifting everyone that hears. It draws forth such a sense of passion and wild adventure that makes the entire game unforgettable.

Obviously writing these top tens requires a severe amount of research and often you discover some brilliant facts in the process. One such interesting nugget of information (from the font of all dubious knowledge that is Wikipedia) is that initially composer Koji Kondo ‘planned to use Maurice Ravel's Boléro as the game's title theme, but was forced to change it when he learned, late into the game's development cycle, that the copyright for Boléro hadn't expired yet; therefore he wrote a new arrangement of the overworld theme within one day.’ One day! For an arrangement that will live on and inspire many generations still to come that is possibly one of the most productive days in history.

2 Super Mario Bros ‘Ground Theme’ by Koji Kondo - NES - 1985
In a battle between Mario and Link who would win? Link has all the weapons and gadgets but maybe Mario would artistically dodge them all and then eventually splat him on the head. I am happy if you consider them equally matched and reward both the same position, but I’ll leave that for you decide in an epic game of Super Smash Brothers.

Like Zelda, the tune has gone on to shape the world even beyond gaming and still lives on in current incarnations, a universal calling card understood by a huge chunk of humanity. Unlike Zelda, it is whimsical, ridiculous and horribly addictive. The off kilter melody and dancing calypso rhythm is like a loving energetic dog that follows you everywhere, never letting go. If I live long enough to grow old and bed-ridden through severe arthritis, this tune will still be bouncing joyously around my mind, constantly reminding me that despite all your troubles in life there is still fun to be had in music. I love Koji Kondo for showing us that.

1 Civilisation IV ‘Baba Yetu’ by Christopher Tin - PC - 2007
Who put that there? After a thorough discussion of the joys of the Nintendo musical legacy and the way it has shaped society, suddenly the track changes to something completely different. You would however be missing the point entirely. This glorious piece of music has absolutely everything; it stands as a composition in its own right as well as fitting with the theme of Civilisation. The brilliantly sung solo Swahili vocal (actually a translation of the lords prayer) then opens up into a vibrant chorus of voices all chanting blissfully together and then later the classical strings and brass bring forth an epic fevering finale. Not only does it represent the magnificent evolution of humanity and the growth of civilisation but it is also lifts the listener to a state of ecstasy rarely found in music even beyond computer games.

It is fitting that the piece was not only the first of any video game music nominated for a Grammy but also the first to win the prestigious award. If there is a single composition that can prove that computer game music can have just as much relevance in today’s world as every other media form then this is it.

And so we come to the end of that epic journey down musical lane... there are so many that have been, possibly unfairly, left off the list. Feel free to shout and scream in the comments below. However before I go, I would like to give out some honourable awards:

Most consistent music series award: Final Fantasy by Nobuo Uematsu. Every track Uematsu writes for the Final Fantasy series is filled with genius. I hesitated to include the theme to Final Fantasy 8, but unfortunately I couldn't find one single piece that really deserved the recognition.

Personal meaning award: Venus Fly Trap

Most beautiful award: Braid

Old School Classic award: Pac-man

Best rock out award: Doom

Best use of screaming and shouting award: Mortal Kombat

Unfairly ruled out on a technicality award: Tetris

Latest Articles