Some of the best soundtracks from the past
Video game music is one of the subtler parts that players often overlook when it comes to playing or even looking back at a video game. Unless they’re playing a rhythm game, players usually won’t even interact with music in their games. But despite it being a non-interactive element, players are bound to remember some of the most iconic pieces from a video game that they fell in love with.
I still feel elated whenever I hear Valkyrie Profile’s “Condemned Thoughts”, which is a song that plays after you beat the final boss of a dungeon. It gives you a feeling akin to that given by the Final Fantasy franchise’s “Victory Fanfare”. But since “Condemned Thoughts” plays all throughout your exit from the dungeon while “Victory Fanfare” usually only plays in small snippets, the former has stuck more to me through the years.
Still, “Victory Fanfare” is an important part of many player’s experiences with the franchise due to how it makes the players feel triumphant, especially after a hard-fought battle. And great video game music always aims to give players a certain feeling. Whether it be a dramatic piece like Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ “Separated by the Storm” or that first instance of goofiness with Yakuza 0’s “Judgement -Shinpan-”, you can count on a game’s soundtrack to elevate a scene.
Today, we’re going to look at some of the best soundtracks from the retro games of yore. These might not necessarily be the best of all time, but they sure can contend with some of the finest in the field.
Pokémon Red and Blue
Oops, should’ve gone with a trigger warning
Being the first game to the hugely successful franchise about kids travelling the world to catch critters of all shapes and sizes in hopes of gaining glory by conquering the competition, it’s definitely one of the most memorable entries for many people. Red and Blue will always be remembered not just by virtue of its amazingly addictive gameplay, but also because of how Junichi Masuda weaved a little boy’s growth into the soundtrack.
Experiencing a serene walk with “The Road to Viridian City - From Palette” and suddenly being confronted by a visual transition accompanied by “Battle (vs Wild Pokémon)” for the first time will usually feel epic, even though you’re just fighting low-level Rattatas and Pidgeys at that point. From that point on, the music just presents the player with a journey. From tiny snippets like the serene sounds of “Pokémon Whistle” to sounds you’d hear oftentimes like “Cycling”, there are plenty of songs within Red and Blue that are iconic enough that they get rearranged for later games in the series. It would also be pretty ridiculous if I simply forgot about mentioning “Lavender Town's Theme”, which was spooky enough that plenty of urban legends spawned from it, putting it up there with the likes of something like “Gloomy Sunday”.
That portal will not be the last
Considered by many to be one of the best RPGs of all time due to its multiple endings, charming cast of characters, and engaging plot, Chrono Trigger also boasts an amazing soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda. With the eerie “A Premonition” opening the story with a ticking clock, it’s no surprise that time travel will be a major theme within the game. Fortunately, the soundtrack also delivers hard in that aspect, with plenty of themes that wildly differ in feel but still are coherent enough for you to know that they came from the same game. From the delightfully quirky yet innocently charming “Robo’s Theme” to the calming yet looming danger hidden within “At the End of Time”, just listening to the soundtrack alone will be enough to send you hurtling through the game’s different time periods even without the context.
Sadly, the Chrono series failed to make the same waves as Pokémon. Despite this game and its sequel, Chrono Cross, being critically lauded and commercially successful, the series never progressed in terms of the quantity of games. Up until now, nobody knows when another Chrono game will hit shelves, and only time will tell if we ever get more games for this short yet sweet series.
Still no idea what that pink spring is
From one RPG to another, Earthbound these days is a game that is remembered fondly by the video game community. Some games went on and became cultural phenomena that have been inspired by it, like Undertale and Omori, and with good reason. An unassuming tale that begins with a boy curious about a meteor crash site soon takes him on a wild ride involving cults, aliens, and eldritch horrors. And with such an outlandish premise, you’d be glad to know that the duo of Keiichi Suzuki and Hirokazu Tanaka delivers in accompanying Ness and his gang with music that is both homely and out of this world.
From the welcoming “What's Your Name?” that greets you when naming various aspects of the game to the wonderfully offbeat “Hi Ho! (Saturn Valley)” that matches the weirdness of the Mr. Saturns, you would have no shortage of cheerful sounds that would serve as an antithesis to the parts of the story where things turn sour. “The Devil’s Machine” and “Absolute Terror!” are terrifying to hear, especially given the context in which these songs play. And if you know anything about Undertale or Omori, you’d know things turn bleak quick.
Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy
Oh, yeah, the Dopefish is from this game
Shifting gears into another genre and console, we have one of the most popular shareware platformers to have ever graced your floppy disk drives. Once upon a time, shareware games were essentially demos, and users were encouraged to share these games with people they know as a way of enticing them to buy the full game. Unlike demos these days, these games are almost always full experiences already, with a sizable chunk of the entire experience being available in the shareware disks. This specific outing of Commander Keen packs a lot of punch when it comes to content. And while there are no huge set pieces that try and evoke an emotional response from the players, there are plenty of great levels with equally great music to drive the action home.
Robert Prince delivers such great tunes that encapsulate the current atmosphere of the world you are in. “Shadows Don't Scare Commander Keen!!” is one of the most prominent tracks in the game due to it being the overworld music, and it drives the feeling that Commander Keen is probably feeling. A brave kid trying to convince himself that nothing in this alien world can stop him. “Too Hot to Handle” is one of the most common tracks that plays in a level, lending a foreboding sense of danger lurking around each corner. The one drawback to this entry’s music is that there’s very little of it. But for the first entry to receive music that is so catchy? That’s already a triumph in itself.
Super Mario Bros.
You better grab that piece of power
Of course, we can’t talk about video game soundtracks and platformers without talking about the original Super Mario Bros. Everybody knows what the “Ground Theme” sounds like, even if they probably don’t know that it’s officially known by either that name or “Overworld Theme”. Koji Kondo has said that it took the longest time to compose out of the entire soundtrack, chalking it up to how he felt that the song needed to harmonize with the sound effects of Mario’s movements. And if you have a piece that even non-gamers can identify, you have a sure winner in your hands.
Obviously, even if that piece is iconic, there are other tracks in the game that are equally recognizable. “Underground Theme” is probably the other song that people can recognize the best due to it playing when you go into the pipes leading underground. Or if you missed that first pipe, you probably got yourself a Starman and heard the “Invincible Theme”, hyping you up and basically telling you to run as fast as you can without any worries. And with that theme being accompanied by Mario getting enveloped in flashing light, there is no doubt that you are invincible during that time indeed, much like Mario’s enduring legacy.
Those are some of the retro games with such a great selection of songs from their soundtracks. Of course, it has to be said that this list will be non-exhaustive. Different people have different tastes, after all. I didn’t even list Little Nemo: The Dream Master’s soundtrack here even though that game’s soundtrack always gives me fuzzy memories about my childhood.
So did any of these games trigger nostalgia? Or maybe you heard some of the songs mentioned in your head? I’m sure you also have your lists of great video game soundtracks. Let us know about any of these things via our Twitter Page or head on over to our Youtube Channel to see more retro gaming goodness.