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When it comes to how great a game is, there are many components that people discuss. Most players attribute the greatness of a title to the addictive gameplay, beautiful graphics, a compelling story, or fluid controls. Most reviewers in this day and age would follow suit, arguing that gameplay is the most important, followed (in no strict order) by graphics, story, and controls. Music in video games however, often fails to hold a candle to other elements of gaming in terms of importance. This week in the Unsung Heroes column, my aim is to demonstrate that video game music is far better than most people give it credit for.
Let’s start with one of the classics that nearly everyone has heard at one point in their life: the original Super Mario Bros. theme music. How many times have you played Super Mario Bros. and had the theme song stuck in your head for days afterwards? Perhaps I’m only speaking for myself, but the original Super Mario Bros. theme song is one that personally, I know I’ll never forget. It’s so simple and catchy that it’s no wonder you can’t get it out of your head. Even despite the low quality beeps and blips, it’s a memorable theme song that has been remixed, remade, and even replayed on-stage by big name rock groups such as Phish.
Not only can games provide an instantly catchy song, but they can also help to set up the atmosphere. One example of this is in Zelda, by legendary Nintendo composer, Koji Kondo. The brilliant mastermind is also behind the Super Mario series. Rather than provide simply another catchy theme song, Koji provided a song as epic as he possibly could in that day in age, thus setting the stage for the long adventure the player embarks on after pressing the start button. A better, more modern example of atmospheric game music is in the Silent Hill series. Silent Hill is a game known for it’s psychological intensity, and acclaimed composer Akira Yamaoka did a fantastic job keeping the music as atmospheric and creepily tense as possible. If you are yet to play through Silent Hill 2, I would strongly advise you do and listen to the music for yourself, because I can’t do Akira’s work justice in words.
In most cases, music in videogames is either epic or catchy, and with good reason. For a videogame with a story, however, more is needed, especially if there is a particularly emotional or poignant scene involved. Assuming you’ve never heard of Final Fantasy VII, one of the main charaters, Aeris, is impaled by the main villain, Sephiroth at end of the first disk. During the scene and the ensuing battle after she is killed, one of the most emotional pieces of videogame music plays. Aeris’ Theme heightens the emotional response of gamers regardless of how they felt about the game as a whole. The original version isn’t as powerful as it used to be, but there have been plenty of remixed versions over the years. Even when certain songs are re-orchestrated, most go unnoticed. It's truly a shame, as some of these pieces are absolutely beautiful.
Videogame music provides more than a tune to listen to while you play the game. It evokes emotion, sets up an atmosphere, and showcases the talents of amazing composers. I still believe it’s a shame that music often gets overlooked, because there are some truly amazing songs in these games that time and dedication have been invested in. If you’re interested in listening to some tunes, I’ve posted a few links to some of my favorite songs below. I also recommend checking out 1up.com’s The Sound Test Podcast. It’s posted biweekly on Sundays and showcases some amazing videogame music to cater to all kinds of tastes. And please, the next time you play a new game, listen to the music. It’s worth it.