This is a continuation from my previous post, when I went through songs 6 through 10. If you’d like to read about them and why I chose them, see part 1 here. Otherwise, here’s a quick recap:
10. Street Fighter II – Guile’s Theme, SNES
9. The Legend of Zelda – Opening Theme, NES
8. Maniac Mansion – Dave’s Theme, NES
7. Star Tropics – Sub-C Sailing Theme, NES
6. Ken Griffey Jr. Presents Major League Baseball – Gameplay Theme, SNES
Now, without further ado, here are songs 1 through 5:
5. Sonic the Hedgehog – Starlight Zone, Sega Genesis
In the second half of the 80’s, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was king. If you were a kid and didn’t have one, then I think there’s a strong case that your parents should’ve been charged with child abuse.
Then, along came the Sega Genesis.
It was hip. It was fast. And upon seeing the first commercial with the old hag complaining about the 16-bit graphics in the 1st Grade, it was all me and my friends were talking about. Man, oh man did we go ballistic when we saw Sonic fly across the screen!
Nintendo would eventually have to step it games up, but until then, Sonic was here, and he came with an attitude. And although the Sega Genesis wasn’t exactly known for its great music, the original Sonic the Hedgehog had a great score full of memorable hooks to accompany our blue hedgehog friend through each zone, my favorite being the theme for Starlight Zone.
Set in the backdrop of a starry-lit city and with the final battle of Dr. Robotnik looming, Starlight Zone acts as the last glimpse of a cheerful experience with our likeable blue mascot before the hard part begins. The music sets the mood perfectly, a throwback to the first time I set foot in a big city and witnessed the magnificence of busy streets, flashing lights and skyscrapers. It brings back that wondrous feeling of living life in the moment, knowing there’s no other place you’d rather be, even with all the surrounding chaos.
It’s a shame that it all has to end at some point. But eventually, we all must move on. We all must face our fears at some point to confront our greatest foes, whether it be a round psychopathic doctor or having the courage to ask that babe out on a date. At some point in our life, we all much step up to the plate to do what we were meant to do. But as we strive for that point, we can still enjoy the moment that is around us.
4. Chrono Trigger – Guardia Castle Theme, SNES
So, funny story about this game. I was at a party once over Thanksgiving break during college at my buddy’s place when his roommate’s Super Nintendo got busted out among a group of friends. The usual hits were brought out, and of course, I crushed it on Super Mario World. Near the end of the night however, I shuffled through a couple of the titles when I came across one that peaked my interest.
“Hey, Chrono Trigger,” I said to my amazement, having feasted my eyes upon one of the most coveted games of the SNES. “That’s supposed to be one of the best RPGs!”
“Oh yea,” replied the roommate, who for the record, was a good dude and a person I really liked, but was also at that moment plastered beyond belief. So, for obvious reasons, I’m leaving a few names out of the equation. “Do you want to borrow it,” he asked.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Me? Borrow Chrono Trigger? This was the gold standard of role playing games, and undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed RPG of all time, even more so than Final Fantasy VII! On top of that, it was one of the rarest! But it was wrong of me to borrow it, to take advantage of a guy blitzed out of his mind who had no freaking clue of the treasure of which he was sitting on. “Thanks, but I can’t borrow this from you. It just wouldn’t be right—“
“Ah dude, go ahead! Take it, and just bring it back whenever.”
“Are you sure it’s cool? I mean, we’re talking Chrono Trigger here.”
“Trust me,” he replied, slurs and all. “You’re a good guy. I know you’ll bring it back when you’re done.”
Approximately 15 years later, that game still remains in my possession.
Over the next several weeks, I played the crap out of that game. It definitely lived up to the hype, and then some. I couldn’t stop playing it, even in the wake of finals coming up. The tight battle mechanics, the balance of characters, the amount of detail the game developers put into creating a story that naturally mends several different time periods, it’s no wonder that many consider Chrono Trigger to be the greatest RPG of all time. And of course, as was the case with many RPG’s of that era, the music was on point throughout.
Though the game had its score of compelling pieces, if I had to single out one, it would be the Guardia Castle Theme, where Meryl, the “female interest” gets sent back in time only to discover that she’s been mistaken as a princess, and the protagonist, Chrono is in danger of losing his life. It’s a great blend of excitement, tension, running, and I love the trumpets that fill in some of the choral elements of the song. It really sucks you in the moment of a medieval quest and provides a sense of urgency to your actions.
There are many more reasons why Chrono Trigger is considered to be such a masterpiece of a game. A large part of that involves its versatile and engaging story, the fact that even the simplest of decisions you make throughout the game actually have consequences that play out in significant ways, leading to several different endings and even the permanent death of the main character if the player is not careful.
But even with all those elements, the story wouldn’t be as memorable without a wonderful score to accompany it along the way.
3. Mega Man 3 – Opening Theme, NES
My father and I bonded over Mega Man 2. We knew that game like the back of our hands. Day in and day out, Bubble Man’s theme repeated itself inside our head worse than Disneyland’s “It’s a small world.” We could breeze through Flash Man’s stage with our eyes closed, even with the slippery surfaces. The first boss level where you fight the dragon and that crazy jump you can only make with the Item-1 upgrade? Easy. Quick Man’s stage still sucked, but at least his music was awesome! Just name the stage and we could start humming the theme song to you right off the top of my head, no problem.
Then came the sequel: Mega Man 3. Nintendo Power Magazine had been buzzing for months about Snake Man, Magnet Man and the rest of the new robot masters, giving us plenty of time to studying their weaknesses and strategizing our attack plan. And what about the enigmatic, whistling… Proto Man??? Talk about an overload of anticipation, way too much for a typical 5-year-old to handle! And as my dad returned from work that Friday in late 1990 with the rented cartridge in hand, my heart was already pounding. This was it, the moment we had been waiting for. “How would it hold up to Mega Man 2?” We were about to find out.
There was nothing special about the title screen. In fact, it was fairly basic as far as games are concerned. But even with all the hype built up over the past several months, I couldn’t bring myself to press the start button. The music had a cool, captivating tone at the onset of the opening credits that furtively transitioned into a bit of a mysterious mood the moment the words “MEGA MAN 3” appeared on the screen. It was as if the game was asking us, “are you sure you’re ready for this?” I thought I was, but for the moment… maybe not. So I stalled and listened, and little by little, the melody grew in complexity, the tone turned darker, all in a build-up into the final hook…
All of a sudden, “BAM!” It hit me in the face with your textbook Mega Man style, to say, “Oh yea! This is what you wanted? This is what you’re getting! I was pumped, and I was ready for another round of blue, 8-bit badassery!
From that moment, I knew Mega Man 3 would live up to the worthiness of its predecessor. And if you ask most critics, they would agree in saying Mega Man 2 was the most critically acclaimed and overall favorite of the bunch. But there was always an enigma with 3 that captivated me, an unknown, yet familiar landscape that was both comforting and challenging at the same time (not to mention the kick-ass opening theme song), making it my favorite Mega Man of the series.
2. Final Fantasy VI – Terra’s Theme, SNES
If I were to mention the name John Williams to you, most of you would instantly recognize him as one of the most famous composers in the world. But what about Nobuo Uematsu? “Nobu.. who,” you ask? He happens to be one of the greatest composers in gaming history, a true pioneer of his craft, and the genius behind the music of the Final Fantasy series.
One thing I find fascinating about him is the amount of work and dedication that he put into creating a score for games in an era where these types of compositions were unheard of. After all, we aren’t talking about a silly Mario Brothers jingle; these are 3 hour sets that have been played with orchestras many times over. Even for those who aren’t avid gamers, it’s easy to appreciate the Final Fantasy games, not just from a musical standpoint, but from their story-telling and by the emotional connection they’re able to make with a player (don’t tell me you didn’t cry when you watched Aerith die in Final Fantasy VII). It’s one of the reasons why so many have come to love the series and have invested so much time into them. Final Fantasy really broke the mold into making a game something more, something that inspired gamers to be greater, and out of all the Final Fantasies, I think VI (otherwise known as III in the United States, but that’s a long story) was the most impactful in my life.
It was the first time I had seen a video game of such depth in its story and with such a diverse group of characters, whose personalities shined throughout the game, some of which you really grew attached to. There was Locke, the “treasure hunter” who would brush off any mention of his true profession as a thief, Cyan, the noble swordsman, Gau with his awesome, primitive theme music from The Veldt, and my personal favorite, Sabin with his Blitz abilities, all with well-rooted backstories. And if I’m talking about characters, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kefka, the psychotic and sinister villain who fancies himself a God, even going so far as to poison an entire kingdom of people! Heck, to tell you how much detail they put into the music and story of the game, there’s even a part in the game where you participate in an opera! And for the grand finale, you’re rewarded with a nearly 20 minute epic for the final battle!
Though the game is filled with amazing songs, I believe the most memorable would have to be Terra’s theme that runs throughout the game, starting with the opening sequence where she and two Magitek armored soldiers march into the city of Narshe to find an esper with magical powers.
“Wait, who’s Terra?” She’s a half-human half esper with magical abilities. “Wait, what’s an esper?” A magical being from another realm. “What about all this Magitek Armor?” Well, at this point, I would just recommend you play the game to find out. But in all, her theme expertly encapsulates the mood of our protagonist, somebody who doesn’t quite understand her abilities and the magnitude of her skills, as well as the players themselves. There’s a reluctance about her, like many of us who have been thrust into situations we didn’t ask to be in and who don’t quite understand the potential we have within ourselves to be great. But every now and then, we feel called to act, possibly out of necessity, but also because we have to press forward… because it’s the right thing to do. Thus, she embarks on her adventure, not quite sure what of peril she’s walking towards, and we are with her every step of the way with a song helps us understand her plight.
1. Donkey Kong Country 2, Diddy’s Kong Quest – Sticklebrush Symphony, SNES
Donkey Kong Country hit the Super Nintendo by storm. The 3D renderings pushed the SNES to the limits of its processing capabilities, and not only did it become a breakout hit, but an instant classic for the SNES, cementing its place as one of the all-time great consoles. As we talked big hype about Sonic in the early 90’s, by the mid 90’s, Nintendo had taken back the crown with Donkey Kong Country. And as a Sega Genesis loyalist, I too had to eventually succumb to the greatness of the SNES, as hard as it was for me to do so.
However, as great as Donkey Kong Country was, it’s hype wouldn’t last forever, for around the corner was the 32-bit era and the advent of 3D environments, lead by the all-powerful Sony Playstation. By the time Donkey Kong Country 2 came out, it seemed as though the SNES was on its last leg. There were no further leaps in graphical capabilities to be made like we had seen with the first Donkey Kong Country. The system had been pushed to its limits, and it was nearing the time for Nintendo to retire the SNES and make way for the next generation of consoles. It was something my friend Matt and I didn’t seem ready for.
It was late January and the year was 1996. While everybody was watching the Super Bowl that afternoon, we had a different motive. As two kids about to make the transition into Jr. High, we knew our lives were changing. Soon, things like girls and sports would occupy our minds over Super Nintendo and other aging video game consoles. But in a way, we were like the famous quarterback Uncle Rico, knowing his best days were behind him, yet still holding on to that vestige of a dream. That realization was hammered into us once we heard the Sticklebrush Symphony in the Bramble Blast level of Donkey Kong Country 2.
I’m not sure how or why they came up with such a melancholy composition for a level where you barrel blast your way through a briar patch, but not only does it work beautifully, you almost forget about the dangerous thorns surrounding you due to the poignancy of the song. It was the very first time I experienced the feeling of nostalgia, that longing for the days of old, when things were simpler, where we didn’t have to worry about the complexity of three dimensions or the ever-changing culture and environments of not just the video game world, but of a kid in transition into a teenager. In that moment, while I was playing through that level and the rest of the world was fixated on a football game, I wanted nothing more than to have that moment of battling the Robot Masters of Mega Man 2 once again with my father, or exploring the islands and caverns of Star Tropics and finally beating the alien nemesis Zoda for the first time. Although I could (and would) replay those games, the feeling would never be the same as when I first engaged them.
While we make new memories, we never quite get those moments back, a comfort that lies in the past that isn’t quite guaranteed for the future. And that’s what Donkey Kong Country 2’s Sticklebrush Symphony represents; that feeling I receive looking back at the games I used to play, a throwback to the 8 and 16-bit eras of gaming. All the songs mentioned above and so many more bring back the nostalgia, the joy of being a kid fulling engaged in a game with not a care in the world except for conquering the next boss in our way, and Sticklebrush Symphony is the ultimate tribute to the greatness of that time period and to the game developers, composers, and pioneers of that era. It’s why it remains my all-time favorite.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I have a feeling they don’t make video game music the way they used to. There was an art to the simplicity, a repeditiveness that was appealing and comforting. The sense of adventure it brought made games more than just a game, but an avenue to feed our sense of imagine, to explore the limits of our creative minds.
Video game music will never quite get the credit it deserves. You’d certainly never hear any of them being played on the radio or receive a Grammy or any other major award. But perhaps, that’s what makes them so good. They’re special to those of us who grew up with them as if they’re a part of us as it is a part of the game, and as gamers, I don’t think we’d have it any other way.