This is not a Best Of list, or even a ’17 of the Most Underrated Video Game Music Tracks (You Won’t Believe Number Four!)’ type list for one very good reason: I am in no way qualified to make that sort of judgment. I played saxophone for eight years in the school band and can noodle around on the ukulele, you think I know anything about music theory? I know a few key words. ‘Octave.’ B flat. Uh…shit, I’m blanking. Anyway, here’s some of my favorite video game music.
My first console was a SNES but I don’t have a lot of memories with it. Like, I know I tried to play Super Mario All-Stars, and I remember a lot of button mashing in Mortal Kombat, but I think the only core memory that came out of that console was being absolutely humiliated by The Lion King. I mean completely destroyed. I actually attribute repeated play session of that game to my terrible self-esteem.
Besides getting repeatedly spanked by a movie tie-in, the SNES wasn’t the real memory maker for me. That would be the Nintendo 64. To all the kids out there: the rumors are true. These consoles could survive getting tossed out of an airplane into an active volcano. I still have mine, and it still works fine after an amount of decades I’m currently unwilling to quantify. Sure, some of the cartridges have gotten a little finicky, but just a couple strips of scotch tape to keep it leaning forward and I can play Banjo and Kazooie in all its pixelated glory.
Speaking of Banjo and Kazooie, my first pick comes from the 2000 sequel Banjo-Tooie, a cartridge that still works well without any jerry-rigging. There was a later-game land called Cloud Cuckooland. I actually wasn’t in love with this theme. It was a little…much. Like, I get it, we’re in a crazy place, let’s make the theme crazy! Lots of whistles! Fast pace! It’s like the purest auditory migraine trigger I can think of. But the thing I really liked about Banjo-Tooie was that in the base world, Isle O’Hags, when you got close to the entrance of one of the lands the music switched to a twisted version of that land’s music. And the Isle O’Hags version of Cloud Cuckooland went like this:
That slide whistle sinking down to a minor key (I think? Again, I don’t know a of theory) was basically the first moment of my life where I was completely hooked by video game music. Absolutely loved it. Wanted to just hang out right here in the main world, doing fuck-all but listen to this on a loop. Compared to the actual theme, this version is so much grungier. The low strings in the main theme is replaced with this disgusting horn farting out the slow tempo and it is glorious. It’s bizarrely dark and sullen for a game about a bear with a bird in a backpack fighting against a rhyming witch and her sisters.
I Fucking Love Jazz
Yeah, I don’t know if you’ve figured this out about me, but I love jazz. Couldn’t tell you a thing about it, except that I like it. It’s great. There’s piano, and a double bass, and people playing those horns dirty. And I love all kinds, too! Except for that kind that’s made up entirely of someone randomly pressing saxophone buttons while the drummer looks on in muted shock. Could never get into that.
You know who else loves jazz? Whoever is making music over at Nintendo. And I mean all of them. Even the original Super Mario theme is jazzy as fuck once you get past the fact that all the sounds are made by…I want to say electronic versions of those recorders they made us all play in kindergarten? Listen to that syncopation and whatever the Holy Christ the baseline is doing. You listen to that shit while sipping on straight gin and afterwards you run from the cops breaking up your speakeasy.
But if I had to pick my favorite jazzy Nintendo theme, it’s a no brainer:
Okay, first off: I love me some saxophone. This number is a sweet little pick-me up, the theme song for my cat Louis (Well if it isn’t Louis-cat! She’s gray and white and kind of fat! She’s FLUFFY, and CUDDLY, and also a massive bitch!), and also the first Super Mario theme that sounds like its played with the actual instruments instead of using the ‘horn’ setting on a Casio.
Runner-up definitely goes to “Jump Up, Super Star!” which I very much want to karaoke someday.
Maybe you like your jazz quieter. Sadder. The soundtrack to your sultry mental breakdown where you drink red wine by the window while you watch the rain come down and you’re wearing formal clothes for some reason. Only one go-to for that mood:
The music for down days, for lonely nights, for mornings when you don’t know what’s going to happen and maybe don’t particularly care. Persona 5 (Royal) doesn’t miss a single time when it comes to music, I seriously can’t think of a track I don’t like, but there’s just something about “Beneath the Mask” the other tracks can’t beat. The moodiness, probably.
But let’s say you’re looking for something even darker. Downright…noir.
Yeah, I wasn’t going to beat around the bush after that one.
This is easily my favorite video game music from a video game I haven’t played. I found this track because I was working on a noir jazz playlist to listen to while doing nightshifts at the hospital and Pandora supplied it. I can’t think of a single song that better exemplifies what I’m looking for in noir jazz than this one. Saxophones may be my favorite, but a close second are trumpets, and when the sax comes in to echo the theme around the 1:30 mark I lose my got-danged mind. It’s dark. It’s sexy. It’s carrying a pistol in an ankle holster and watching the dame who just walked into its office with hungry yet suspicious eyes. I’m afraid to play the game because I can’t imagine a single thing ever living up to these three minutes.
I can’t make the words go when someone else is singing their words. It’s a clash of words and I never win. I listen to a lot of chillhop, vaporwave, outrun, all those genres that seemed to spring up overnight around 2010 between some unholy combination of eighties nostalgia, video games, and YouTube. I also listen to soundtracks.
While it’s no secret I like jazz, I think if you’ve been around my site it’s even less of a secret that Horizon Zero Dawn is one of my favorite video games. I mentioned some of the soundtrack in a previous article, but this is my website so I’ll repeat myself whenever I want.
I was this close to giving it to “A Wanderer’s Work” which has those amazing synthetic voices around the 3:30 mark, but ultimately I had to go with “Trails in the Darkness” for the violin. I can’t get over the way this music would make me feel wandering around the world of Horizon, especially when it played at night and I was all by myself in the middle of the desert. Both pieces are perfect embodiments of the game: old world instruments mixed with electronic synth sounds and they fucking touch my soul. Look at my soul. Look at how touched it is. I should call the cops with how much it’s been touched. Just…fuck.
My husband likes to remind me that I got into gaming at the exact right moment. The first Final Fantasy I ever played was XV (which has it’s problems but also features a villain humming the Chocobo theme nefariously so it all balances out), the first Rockstar game I played was GTA V followed quickly by Red Dead Redemption 2, and the first Zelda game I played was Breath of the Wild.
Okay, we did have Ocarina of Time for the N64, but do you remember how long the opening to the game is? Especially compared to Super Mario 64? I played it for a grand total of forty minutes, got frustrated, and bailed.
Breath of the Wild is my Zen game. I play it like others play Animal Crossing. I’ve put in over two hundred hours spread out over three years. I beat Ganon once. I maxed out the amount of apples you can carry. I don’t know if I can even pick out a favorite. All of the themes are as quiet and melancholy as the game itself. I said I’d make a list of favorites, though, so I’ll stick to it, and go with the Tarrey Town Theme:
Understand it barely edges out literally everything else. Fun fact: when I was a nurse in the GI lab I used to play the Hyrule Field theme for patients as they waited for everything to get started. Always hoped someone would recognize it, but it turns out anxious fifty year olds waiting to get a flexible camera shoved up their bungholes aren’t really the demographic for video games. Who knew?
Brief shout out to the music of Red Dead Redemption 2 because for whatever reason I can put on these videos for literal hours while I work and never get tired of it.
Music for Fighting God
I’ll kick anyone’s ass. I’ll kick your ass. I’ll kick your dog’s ass. I’ll kick my own ass.