This is what happens when life gets busy and you suddenly realize you have half an hour to put together a Friday post…
I don’t get many chances to mix the musical and gaming themes of this blog, but these are a few examples of how these worlds can collide in the best possible way. Game music is often ignored in favor of other things like graphics, story progression, and character development, but it plays a major role in establishing the atmosphere of a game, and serves as an emotional conduit for the game to affect how the player’s feelings and experience. Battle themes are a prime example of this: They have to convey both a sense of danger and urgency, and let the player know that what’s about to happen is serious business. The best ones can lodge in the listener’s mind for years afterward, and these are the ones that have stuck with me over the years.
Battle Against Nightmare (Kirby’s Adventure, 1993)
This thing left quite an impression back in the day. Kirby music up to this point was mostly light and bouncy, and even the regular boss theme didn’t feel terribly ominous in practice. Suddenly, you’re faced with this long, dark-sounding intro ending with Kirby’s warp star getting shot out of the sky, and then this Dracula-like thing appears on screen as this track kicks off, and you realize that things are about to get real. Tons of minor chords, a fast tempo driven hard by the percussion, the unsettling higher synth tones on the melody…I had no idea you could get this much tension out of an 8-bit track!
- Fight Against An Armed Boss (Super Mario RPG, 1996)
It’s amazing how the use of one or two instruments can make or break a track like this. At first glance, this one doesn’t seem all that notable or catchy: The tempo isn’t terribly fast, and the bass and percussion lines is nothing to write home about. To me, this is all about the synthetic wind instruments: That dark clarinet melody was something I hadn’t heard before (and I really haven’t heard it much since), and it added a lot of texture and a real foreboding feel to the track. The horn stabs in the background are just okay at first, but then they switch places with the clarinet halfway through and give the track a much more darker feel than before (the clarinet’s low part here helps a lot too). I liked most of the SMRPG soundtrack, but this one stands out as my favorite.
- Fighting (Final Fantasy VII, 1997)
As awesome as some of the orchestral tracks from Super Mario Odyssey are, I’d still rank this MIDI orchestral track above them. It’s a nice blend of a classic strings and horns with a modern, uptempo backbeat, and while it’s not a terribly ominous track, as a general battle theme the focus is less on the present moment and more on the fact that you have yet another obstacle that needs to be taken care of before you can proceed. There’s a lot of nervous, frenetic energy here, which drives home the pressure of navigating FFVII’s real-time battle system (being accustomed to turn-based RPGs like SMRPG made for a tricky transition), and the swells of the orchestra and the flute-esque solo really play with your emotions as you’re trying to figure out what commands to give before your enemies can act.
- Hyper Zone 2 (Kirby’s Adventure 3, 1997)
This is the battle equivalent of Brad Paisley’s “Time Warp”: Tempo, tempo, and more tempo. Sure, it’s tone is a little unsettling, but its main goal is to generate so much sonic energy that it pushes you to your limit and rushes you into making a mistake. (After all, you’re trying to dodge a gigantic floating eyeball as this thing races through your head.) Keeping your emotions in check and making measured decisions while the music is telling you to gogogohurryhurrynownownow adds an extra level of difficulty to an already-tough boss battle. You’d be surprised how much easier this fight gets when you turn your volume down!
- Battle! Zinnia (Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire, 2013)
While this battle ended up being a cakewalk for me in Pokémon Omega Ruby (every monster I had seemed to be super-effective against dragons), it was the novelty of the instrumentation that stuck with me: I’d never noticed violins and accordions used in a Pokémon battle theme before, and I was impressed at how effectively they ratcheted up the tension and energy of the moment. The riffs themselves aren’t terribly complex, but they rely on the horns and drums behind to drive the tempo and instead an extra layer of texture that was missing from other battle themes in the game. Here’s hoping Zinnia makes a return to Pokémon in the future and brings her awesome theme with her!
- Boss Battle (Miitopia, 2016)
I loved a lot of things about Miitopia, but its music stood out even among its many highlights. What impresses me the most about this track is that instead of being dark and scary like you’d expect, you get this bouncy, energetic track carried by synthetic instruments similar to the FF7 theme from before, and yet is still does enough to set the mood and reflect the seriousness of the situation. Much like Miitopia itself, it balances the absurdity and the gravity of the situation: Sure, you might be fighting giant hamburgers, but those hamburgers will rip you to pieces if you’re not on your game! It’s catchy, it’s fun, and it really revs you up for the fight. What more can you ask more?
These are my favorite themes, but I’ve probably left a bunch more good ones off the list. What are your favorite video game themes to listen to? Let me know in the comments!