Welcome to the final part of the CelJaded Top 100 for Best Video Game Music. This final post features entries #10 to #1.
If you’re just now joining us then you have a lot of catching up to do! Start by reading the introduction post first as it contains all the house rules that this list follows along with a few other musings that you might find interesting.
If you’re looking for another post in this same series then also consider visiting the associated index which includes a readout of all currently published entries and the posts in which they appear.
As always, please remember that I do not own any of the music samples you see embedded below; they are the property of their respective copyright owners.
[Banner photo via ‘Diggin’ In The Carts’ by Redbull Music Academy]
#10 – Fear …for Rez
Principal Platforms: Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Xbox 360 | Composers: Adam Freeland | Year: 2001
I’ve said before that having first-hand familiarity of a video game is important to fully appreciate its soundtrack, but in Rez that view may as well be a solid requirement with no exceptions.
The backing tracks can sound overly repetitive if taken in isolation which is why it’s so important to listen alongside the dynamic SFX-shifting gameplay that makes this otherwise simplistic shoot ’em up so drastically cool and original.
Fear by composer Adam Freeland is the accompanying theme to the game’s final level. This wireframe world of developmental sights and sounds is unique in that it tells the story of humanity’s rise to ascendency, all the while permeated by the memorable “mind killer” motif.
Due to a legal technicality, Rez’s official soundtrack only included a remixed version of Fear rather than its actual in-game counterpart. This “true” version was considered lost for many years until an outfit called GO-GO-GST finally managed to resequence the track in the correct order (as presented above).
#9 – Baba Yetu …for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV
Principal Platforms: PC | Composers: Christopher Tin | Year: 2005
It’s safe to say that there are no obscure soundtracks featured in these final top 10 entries (for once!). Every track you’ll read about in this post is sure to have more than its fair share of fans and yet none of them will quite match the decorated heights of Baba Yetu here.
Baba Yetu (“Our Father” in Swahili) is actually a multi award-winning musical rendition of the Lord’s Prayer with an upbeat and worldly sound that makes it a perfect fit for the historic franchise in question. I can still remember being awestruck by this song the first time I booted up Civilization IV all those years ago; such is its incomparable quality.
6 whole years after its debut, Baba Yetu became the first piece of video game music to win a Grammy award. It was a proud moment for composer Christopher Tin and also for the legion of fans who helped spread the praise for one of gaming’s leading examples of best video game music.
#8 – Conditioned Reflex …for Sega Rally Championship (Sega Saturn Version)
Principal Platforms: Sega Saturn | Composers: Naofumi Hataya, Joe Satriani | Year: 1994
The Sega Saturn didn’t accomplish much of anything during its short stay on the market, but if there’s one thing it can cling to in terms of mainstream success then perhaps it’s Sega Rally Championship.
This faithful 32-bit port of an arcade classic defines the rally genre as we know it today and its (then) all-new soundtrack featuring legendary guitarist Joe Satriani only adds to an already pristine production.
Just listen to the furious guitar in this opening stage theme! Seriously, what more could you possibly want?
#7 – Cleric Beast …for Bloodborne
Principal Platforms: PlayStation 4 | Composers: Tsukasa Saitoh | Year: 2015
It may not sound as grand and inspiring as Dark Souls, but the threatening strings and omnipresent choir in Bloodborne are perfectly suited to its unremittingly bleak setting and vicious gameplay.
Cleric Beast is the most recognizable track from the game and even if it doesn’t make use of Bloodborne’s dynamic music feature (where the tone and pace changes as a boss nears death) its traditional approach is still top class.
It’s impossible not to feel the gravity in this piece. From its brooding undercurrent to the booming choir, this track contributes a healthy portion of the fear factor that’s felt going into the eponymous boss battle.
As Luke Edwards puts it: “[Cleric Beast] does a good job being understated, despite the grandiose nature of the choral voices (at least in the initial stages) which does an excellent job of conveying that this is a boss without overstating the fact (some games certainly treat EVERY boss song like the end of the bloody world)”.
#6 – Last Stand …for FTL Faster Than Light
Principal Platforms: PC | Composers: Ben Prunty | Year: 2012
Indie video game hit FTL: Faster Than Light had the misfortune of missing my previous top 100 list and it wasn’t an omission made in error as much as it was made in passion.
Quite frankly, I was angry at the game! It’s a sentiment that FTL tends to cultivate due to its punishing randomness and unforgiving difficulty curve of course, but looking at my decision now I think it only makes the game even more noteworthy. I doubt Subset Games would have it any other way either!
In terms of music though, FTL surely needs no introduction. I’ll always be a vocal supporter of Ben Prunty’s many superb works and his near 30-track album for this incomparable title must surely rank as his best video game music to date.
My first experience with these embellished retro chic tunes came when I would overhear my brother playing the game in the room next to me. Pretty soon the track to the Last Stand was always in my head and when I came to play the game for myself I would never hear it as reaching the final level where it plays is a daunting task for someone who refuses to play on “easy” difficulty!
The topic of music was very far from my mind when I eventually did reach Sector 8 for the first time, but it wasn’t long before I realised how great a thing that actually was.
This final level is one where you need the utmost concentration and Prunty clearly knew this. Last Stand isn’t a triumphant theme of fast-paced riffs or loud drums, it’s a decisive one built on steady beats and wooden instruments. This is a track that’s steeped in tension and accelerating drama without being overbearing and it’s exactly what you need for a battle where intense concentration and quick micromanagement are key to victory.
Last Stand arguably has a more specific role in the game than most other tracks do, but it never sells out on the wondrous spacefaring theme that makes the FTL soundtrack so utterly essential.
#5 – Passing Breeze …for Out Run
Principal Platforms: Arcade, Mega Drive | Composers: Hiroshi Kawaguchi | Year: 1986
As the first arcade game to allow players to freely select the background music before play begins, it should come as no surprise to learn that Out Run is rather famous for its audio.
Composer Hiroshi Kawaguchi set out to create the perfect tunes to “drive to” in his very famous work here and I’m sure most players would agree that he succeeded.
Passing Breeze is one of the three backing tracks present in the original arcade version of Out Run and is well known for its Latin Jazz influences. Unlike its equally noteworthy sister tunes Splash Wave and Magical Sound Shower, Passing Breeze is a more laid back number that’s so chilled you can almost feel that cool Caribbean air against your face.
Although the arcade cabinet lays claim to the original composition, I think I prefer the Mega Drive rendition (presented above) because of its beefier bass and slicker tempo.
#4 – Heavy Price Paid …for Halo 2
Principal Platforms: Xbox | Composers: Martin O’Donnel, Michael Salvatore | Year: 2004
The meticulous audio design behind Halo and Halo 2 was the signalling of a new trend; a sign that the world was ready to start taking video game music seriously.
With its influences in contemporary electronica, alternative rock, and orchestral music, Halo 2’s massive soundtrack was even more adventurous than that of its predecessor with an official release that spanned two large volumes of music.
Whilst I personally find the album’s supporting metal acts to be hugely off-putting, there’s plenty of the more traditional Halo fare to be happy about and the one that always sticks out for me is a short theme called Heavy Price Paid.
This sorrowful piece, that helps elicit the whole “war is hell” motif that’s common in military science fiction stories, is particularly memorable for the sombre beauty it adds to Halo 2’s menu screens and various cutscenes.
According to Halo Nation, this song plays for 2:32, which could be a veiled reference to Bungie’s weird obsession with the number 7 (2+3+2=7).
#3 – Ramirez At Bay …For Headhunter
Principal Platforms: Dreamcast, PlayStation 2 | Composers: Richard Jacques | Year: 2001
Composed with the London Session Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios, Richard Jacques’ score to the former Dreamcast exclusive Headhunter is something of a triumph for video games of the era and one of my all-time favourites from the genre at that.
It didn’t take long for this soundtrack to receive widespread critical acclaim either, but amid the numerous awards and live performances, the Headhunter original soundtrack also saw a commercial release via an established record label. This was a big deal at the time as only the best video game music was getting such treatment and Headhunter was certainly a more obscure title when compared to the likes of Halo or Hitman.
The style of music here is very bold and heroic to match the personality of protagonist Jack Wade. Several members of the London Session Orchestra worked on James Bond films before this game and it shows in the themes of heroism and strength that are instilled into every set piece whether they’re a simple stealth section or a full on boss battle.
Now I’ll be honest, Headhunter’s boss fights aren’t very good. I can remember my first encounter with the “Cyber Cowboy” Ramirez for instance being an unintuitive slog the first time around, but luckily the fight has some excellent music to make up for it!
Ramirez at Bay is unlike most boss themes that you’ll be used to just because of its sheer variety. The pace in this five minute epic starts off slow and develops steadily into a triumphant anthem as the player battles back a wave of mechanical spider robots to finally bring down the cowardly bank robber from behind his bulletproof barrier.
It may sound a bit silly, but make no mistake: this rousing theme never loses its sinister edge and that’s especially important for any boss encounter, even the mediocre ones!
#2 – Gruntilda’s Lair …for Banjo Kazooie
Principal Platforms: Nintendo 64 | Composers: Grant Kirkhope | Year: 1998
The audio work in Banjo-Kazooie raised the bar for cartridge-based video games and if you need any proof of that fact then just listen to its malleable background music that ebbs and flows depending on the locale it’s heard in.
Nowhere is this better felt than in the ever hummable theme to Gruntilda’s Lair; the hub world to where Banjo and Kazooie must return after conquering a level. This mammoth theme (featured above in a combined format) is comprised of several tracks for the various locations within and carry the flavours of every subsequent level whether they be the desert world, ice world, or even the game show finale.
It’s music like this that puts both Rare’s popularity and the skill of its composer Grant Kirkhope into sharp focus. What a tremendous effort this is!
A somewhat obvious piece of trivia: the first few bars of this theme are reminiscent of the popular children’s song The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
#1 – Go Straight …for Streets of Rage II
Principal Platforms: Mega Drive | Composers: Yuzo Koshiro | Year: 1992
In the introduction to this list I commented on the connection between video game music composed on different shores. Since video games have strong roots in Japan, many would suggest that Japanese video game music is generally superior due to its melodious quality over the more ambient or otherwise cinematic tendencies of music composed in the West.
As with most generalisations, this isn’t true at all and hopefully you’ll have appreciated the Western examples on this list as much and sometimes more than their Japanese stablemates. With music of all varieties, it’s simply about knowing where to look!
In terms of a friendly rivalry though, the prospect of East vs. West still makes a good comparison for our final entry here at #1.
Known as Bare Knuckle in its native Japan, the Streets of Rage series represents Sega when they were at the top of their game. Consisting of three 16-bit scrolling beat ’em ups for their successful Mega Drive console, this franchise is one characterized by arcade-quality action, larger-than-life characters, and of course: damn good music!
Yuzo Koshiro’s soundtrack to Streets of Rage II (that also features a contribution from the talented Motohiro Kawashima) is the stuff of legends and the tunes are still celebrated today whether it’s via another slice of fan-made excellence or a limited edition vinyl release.
With tracks inspired by genres ranging from electronic dance and house, to funk and hardcore techno, Streets of Rage II is a revolutionary production that harnesses the power of the Mega Drive’s Yamaha sound chip like no other video game before or after.
It doesn’t take a genius to understand why the composer’s name is proudly displayed on the game’s title screen (a genuine rarity for 1992) as Streets of Rage II marks one of the earliest times in history where a video game’s soundtrack became such a focal point of industry praise.
Like with Sonic CD in my previous musical list, selecting just one track here to represent what I consider to be my favourite video game soundtrack of all time is a very tough call indeed. Whilst I did consider Under Logic for its supremely catchy beat, the opening stage track of Go Straight is the obvious selection because of its lengthier composition and irresistible synth.
Whilst it’s a clear Japanese win for best video game music, the Streets of Rage II soundtrack is an oddity because its material is actually inspired by Western music!
As a young composer, Koshiro was heavily influenced by the songs and club anthems that he heard in Japanese nightclubs and for anyone born in the Eighties or early Nineties, these influences may be recognizable.
This soundtrack does more than form a curious time capsule though, it’s a genuine love letter to the West and I’ve always adored how special that feels for a Japanese composer to bring the two cultures together in such a cool way.
In terms of audio as well as gameplay then, Streets of Rage II truly is the best of both worlds.