Some pieces of video game music are iconic. Even non-gamers will likely recognize the Super Mario theme or The Legend of Zelda overworld music. Music is probably one of the most under appreciated aspect of video games though. Non-gamers are often surprised when I tell them the music I’m listening to while reading is from a video game because there’s still an underlying view in the cultural sphere that video games are incapable of being or producing art. This is simply untrue; for example, many scores stand in bold defiance to this idea. Sure, there are songs like the Mario themes that are iconic because they are fun and tied to some of the most popular games out there, but there are so many wonderful pieces that fly under the radar either because they are more muted in their design or because they’re simply not from very popular games. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight a few pieces and give my opinion on what makes them worth your time. Keep in mind, my degree is in Japanese culture, not music. Therefore, this is a layperson’s opinion, but I will do my best to explain what makes these pieces so great regardless.
Phendrana Drifts – Metroid Prime
I’m blown away with this piece every time I listen to it. It’s a remarkable accomplishment that this song manages to evoke images of ice and snow just with the keys. Covers played on just the piano still manage to evoke a very tangible sense of chill, even without the more synthesized elements of the original piece. But make no mistake, the synthesized elements of the piece go a long way in making it also evoke themes of an alien world. It’s also done in such a way that these elements sound like wind. The combination of all these different parts leaves the listener with a sense of a frozen, windy alien world which is spot on for what the Phendrana Drifts are. Few pieces manage to evoke such strong images and sensations the way this one does.
Pursuit ~ Cornered – Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney
I always remember being told as I was growing up that whenever I was playing a handheld game with other people in the room, I needed to turn the sound down or off. I usually did. The sound was really never that important to what I was playing. The Ace Attorney series pretty much singlehandedly put an end to that nonsense. The music throughout the series is so strong, and adds so much to the experience that I either had to put on headphones, go into my room, or tell whoever was in the room to deal with it. The reason pieces like “Cornered” work so well is because most of the music in the games are fairly muted. The music as you enter the courtroom is calm and peaceful. There’s a fairly monotonous song that plays as you listen to witness testimony. Then you find something sketchy in the testimony and the music starts to rise. The lying witness tries to talk their way out of it, but you shoot down another lie, and then “Cornered” hits, a very strong indication that you are doing well as the music gets even more intense. Each game has its own version of this piece, but it’s Apollo Justice‘s that I find strongest. Ultimately the best one is up to personal taste as they’re all work well in making the player feels like the stakes have been raised and they’ve got their “enemy” backed into a corner.
Lost Elf Theme – Dragon Age: Inquisition
In all honesty, this is the piece that inspired me to write this article. As much as I have always loved “Phendrana Drifts” and “Cornered”, this was the piece that made me fully realize just what video game soundtracks were capable of. I’d loved the Mass Effect series’ music, but the Dragon Age series never really did a whole lot for me. I found Inquistion‘s main theme to be very strong though so I hoped that my opinion would be changing. And then the Trespasser DLC hit and we got this song in the process. And I can definitely say I like Dragon Age‘s music now. This piece is beautiful both in and out of context. To explain why it works so well in context is difficult though because this piece is from the very end of Trespasser. which itself is the epilogue to the main story, meaning spoilers. Without saying too much, the piece just very accurately reflects the conflicting emotions taking place during the scene in question. But as a standalone, the piece effectively uses strings , starting out more muted before rising. It never reaches bombastic heights, but it rises and falls in a melodically fulfilling way.
Kiss the Sky – Tales from the Borderlands
I list this song as an honorable mention because it was not created specifically for Tales from the Borderlands. It, like “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “Short Change Hero” (from Borderlands 1 and 2 respectively) is a previously existing song used for the intro of the game, or in this case, the intro of episode 2. Regardless, it still fits really well however. Tonally, it just fits the desert landscape it’s accompanying as well. While lyrically, it doesn’t hold a whole lot of relevance, its references to making small differences in the world does fit the game as a whole considering it’s about two nobodies of the Borderlands universe trying to make a difference in their lives.
None of these songs really hold the same amount of respect as Zelda‘s music, but that’s exactly why they’re worth highlighting. These certainly are not the only pieces from video games that are worth your time, but hopefully you’ve heard something new or have found a piece that you too appreciated when it seemed like no one else did. Feel free to share you’re own underappreciated songs.