Give Video Game Music Some More Love

Ten more songs that prove video game music is not to be overlooked

Back in early October, I made the case to music editor Skye that VGM deserves more attention and respect. I put together a short list of songs in the hope that she would be receptive, and much to my delight, she was. That made me smile like a dopey, gleeful idiot.

So here we are again, two months later, saddling up for round two. There will be no repeat games from the original list. Although those games still have plenty of great music, I’m limiting myself to games I’ve played. This makes my task more difficult, but I’m hoping it will go over just as well as the first time we did this.

Allow me to clarify once again that this is not a top 10 list; there is no order of preference. Now, without further ado, let us begin.

“Lost Odyssey” – “The Capital of Numara”

Chris: This song encapsulates everything I love about heading into a new town in an RPG. Aesthetics are nice and all, but when a locale has a great theme song to go along with it, that’s when it becomes a cherished memory. This is what happened with Numara. This song is just so serene, and in my opinion, it perfectly evokes thoughts and feelings of being near the ocean. Fitting, seeing as how Numara is a coastal city.

Skye: Wow. Such a strong start to the list! If I didn’t know this was VGM, I’d think it was a new dream pop song or something. Those beginning chords are so psychedelic and blues-y, straight out of The Beatles’ Abbey Road. Like “Sun King” off that album, this track has a relaxed New Age-style drum beat that reminds me of a summer day at the beach. I guess that ‘by the water’ feeling really comes through in the sound.

The jazzy piano that follows is sweet, but I think the real star of “The Capital of Numara” is the melody at 1:25 that feels both nostalgic and adventurous. It brings up the feeling of familiarity, like when you return to a place you visited as a kid – a place you almost forgot existed though the mundane details of what it smelled like have stuck in your head.

“Guacamelee!” – “Caverna del Pollo”

Chris: This song is a good deal of fun, and it really shows what can be accomplished when a composer gets creative and experimental. Arranged by Rom Di Prisco, “Caverna del Pollo” plays almost like a D&B song. It has a strong, driving percussion with a lovely Latin twist. That might sound a tad weird, but trust me, it works so very well. This is another example of a VGM piece putting a game on my radar.

Skye: This one is straight up kooky! I definitely get the D&B vibe – it’s like house music infused with salsa. While it’s not something I’d put on the aux on my way to the grocery store, there’s no denying it’s fun and energetic; the perfect tune to get you in the zone for Guacamelee, whatever that entails. I love how genre-bending it is, and how experimental VGM is in general. What I’ve learned is you can find VGM incorporating nearly any genre you can think of, and I can’t think of a better way for gamers to be introduced to different musical styles.

“Red Dead Redemption 2” – “Unshaken”

Chris: I love this song so very much. It’s amazing in its own right, but the scenes in which it plays made for some of the most memorable moments in gaming in 2018. This song is an original piece made for “Red Dead Redemption 2” and performed by artist D’Angelo. Featuring a prominent percussion accompanied by a soft guitar and powerful vocals, “Unshaken” effortlessly delivers a beautiful, somber tone. I won’t spoil the in-game scenes, but the song fits to say the least, and it’s one that will stick with me.

It was hard to find the full version of this song without a big spoiler plastered on the screen, so I had to go with one where the audio was recorded in-game. There are some background noises, but they shouldn’t be too distracting.

Skye: You had me at D’Angelo. I respect him so much as an artist; you can tell he puts so much into his craft, and this piece is no different. I read online that he not only sang and helped compose the track but played the electric piano featured on it too. “Unshaken” plays like a spiritual with beautiful gospel harmonies and blues guitar. This track is haunting on its own, and I don’t even know the backstory of the game! Imagine if I knew. I’d probably be in tears!

“Borderlands 3” – “Captain Haunt Part 2”

Chris: The “Borderlands” series has always had decent music, but I didn’t think there would ever be anything that I would recommend to someone. Then this song happened. The music in the Captain Haunt boss battle is easily the best part of “Borderlands 3’s” Halloween event. When part two kicks in, there’s an instant surge of energy. It makes the fight feel like a spooky dance-off to the death. This song is all treat and no trick. Pun fully intended.

Skye: First off, I appreciate the pun. Always. So I’ll preface this by saying EDM is not my cup of tea. As a music writer, this Skrillex-style dance music is a bit of a weak spot for me. Though I’m sure this is a treat for any gamers by day and ravers by night. What constitutes a good EDM track? I’m not really sure. Actually, maybe this one isn’t even Skrillex-like at all. The track, like a lot of EDM, makes me a little anxious. But that’s probably good for a gamer scrambling to beat an NPC in an epic battle!

“Final Fantasy 3” – “Kefka’s Theme”

Chris: I couldn’t resist including this. It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if you don’t particularly care for this one, Skye. I love it to bits. I love music that sounds like a twisted waltz in a madman’s ballroom. This theme is made even better because of the madman it’s based around, Kefka. The guy is like a jester from hell—a megalomaniac lunatic dead-set on ascending to godhood, destroying the world just because he can and laughing about it. Yes, I am aware that makes him sound quite similar to the Joker. My response to that is, “And who doesn’t love the Joker?” This song rather perfectly captures his madness and helped to cement Kefka as one of my all-time favorite villains. Bear in mind, this is a Super Nintendo game. So don’t go into it expecting top-shelf production.

Skye: So, you’re right. I’m not particularly keen on this one, but what I really appreciate is how connected you are to it. It has that distinct ‘90s carnival game sound that takes me back to my Tetris and Super Mario Bros days—back when Mario was comprised of a measly 192 pixels. The track might be dated, but it’s all about the memories it brings up and how well it mingles with the game’s storyline. The Joker is not quite my speed, but Kefka? He sounds like quite the villain.

“Crackdown 3” – “ROXY”

Chris: “Crackdown 3” may not have reviewed very well, but no one can knock its music. This boss battle theme is proof of that. It starts off a bit menacing, and later bursts into the kind of high-energy, adrenaline-pumping fighting music that reminds me of “Einhander.” There’s really not much else to say about this song other than it’s badass. Shame the boss fight itself didn’t quite live up to it.

Skye: This is some EDM I can get behind. My biggest qualm with EDM is that it can tend to sound lifeless, leaving me to think ‘Where is the melody?’ Not this, though. “ROXY” is dynamic, starting off quiet with a sudden crescendo into a hyperactive techno track. It’s almost like a modern counterpart to last time’s ‘80s-inspired “Blood Bath” from “Einhander.” One of the YouTube comments on this track describes the sound as “being indoctrinated by a siren via bass,” which is not an inaccurate description.

“Ratchet & Clank” – “Aridia Outpost X11”

Chris: You’re going to want bass for this one. Percussion is front and center in this song, and it provides a great beat. There’s a lot more going on in the song, though. It’s like a multi-layered cake of ambient space sounds and classic sci-fi sound effects. I think I even hear a theremin at one point. You can’t tell me that’s not awesome. Everything in this song just comes together beautifully to create an instantly memorable and fun tune worthy of the “Ratchet & Clank” name.

Skye: The bass really comes through in this one. The futuristic house beat gives off the vibe of a grimey night lounge in Tokyo, and I can imagine it playing behind a race scene in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” as much as I can during a shooting match in “Ratchet & Clank.” D&B is such a classic VGM genre, and for good reason. The two just go together. I may have limited gaming knowledge, but I know that this track’s intense energy can only hype you up as the beat constantly drops and the tempo changes from fast to slow within split-seconds.

“Xenoblade Chronicles 2” – “Tantal (Night)”

Chris: I may have said no repeat games, but I never said no repeat franchises. That’s what we call a technicality. I don’t know what the deal is with these games and their night time themes for their snowy environments, but they are excellent. This one is much smaller in scale and more intimate than the track from “Xenoblade Chronicles X.” Serenity is the name of the game here. There’s so little going on in the song, yet it manages to produce such a lovely sound. Calm yet mysterious. Reserved yet wondrous. This game had plenty of great locales, but Tantal stands out due in part to this song.

Skye: This is a great piano composition—a nice switch from the D&B-heavy tracks we just went through. Accompanied with the acoustic guitar strumming, “Tantal” makes for a simple saccharine song with a guitar riff reminiscent of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart”—or Juice WRLD’s emo rap hit “Lucid Dreams,” which sampled the 1993 single. I’m surprised by how different it sounds compared to “Sylvanum” from last time. While “Sylvanium” felt more whimsical and grand, this track has a serene countryside feeling. A strangely moving quality that makes you reflect on your childhood memories and maybe shed a tear if you’re as much of a sentimentalist as me. “Reserved yet wondrous.” That’s the perfect way to describe this.

“Castle Crashers” – “Vain Star”

Chris: Ah, “Castle Crashers,” what fun times we had. I only recently discovered what a great original soundtrack, OST, this game had. I somehow failed to notice back when I played it. I’d smack that younger version of me right upside his head if I could. Once again, we have a song with that great driving percussion and rhythm I love. This song has a great beat throughout, and I find it to be rather catchy. I like how layered this particular track is; there’s a lot going on and it all fits.

Skye: Don’t smack yourself! One of the little joys in life is revisiting your favorite shows, movies and, yes, games and noticing all the details and nuances that make you love it as much as you do. And I can see why you like this track so much; that driving beat powers through the whole two minute song bringing ‘90s rave energy to the screen. Here’s my suggestion: try listening to this at 1.5x speed. As it ends, it feels like a sugar high comedown in the best possible way.

“Killer Instinct (2013)” – “The Tiger Warrior”

Chris: I was hesitant to put anything by Mick Gordon on these lists. His work is excellent, but I’m not certain that people who don’t like metal would appreciate his music. But hey, it’s worth a shot, right? Gordon has crushingly heavy music throughout his soundtrack for “Killer Instinct,” but each song has touches of personality and individuality that suit the character it’s supposed to represent. “The Tiger Warrior” is the theme for Jago, a warrior monk from Tibet, and his song reflects his origins. For example, throat singing, that Gordon himself performed, abounds in this piece. This song has a ton of punch packed into it and is sure to get the adrenaline going. The sound is big, heavy, energetic and phenomenal. To me, this song is a great example of how versatile heavy music can be in the right hands.

Skye: This one is so unique. You can hear its roots in heavy metal and dubstep, but “The Tiger Warrior” is in its own genre. The first 30 seconds almost remind me of Grimes with its high energy synths and ambient vocals. Those east Asian glissandos are the best part of the track, in my opinion. They’re what pull the track together, throat singing and all. I heard somewhere once that sometime in the near future, it’s predicted that beauty standards will be made up of distinct facial features cherry-picked from different ethnic groups. Maybe that’s what’ll happen with music—each song will extract sounds from every genre. If that’s true, VGM already has that down.

Chris: Another list down. That was much harder to do than I initially thought it would be. I suppose I brought that on myself, though, with those self-imposed limitations. How did I do, Skye? Did I deliver again, or did I drop the ball?

Skye: Last time, you showed me VGM tracks that ranged everywhere from opera to funk. This time, we journeyed into gospel, dubstep and house. The range of VGM continues to fascinate me, especially when you think about how each song represents something in the context of the game. With each song, I learned not just about VGM and the games themselves, but a little about you.

VGM unites people, ok! This was a bonding experience. So, final thoughts: maybe one too many EDM tracks, but I had a great time. The verdict: delivered!