Opposing Moon’s lighter pop sound, “Yogen” resembles Akina Nakamori’s gothic cult favorite Fushigi. Matching the eye-catching cover, this song chooses to dwell in mystery; the sense of void and landscape is strong. “Yogen” channels a lost cave with the moon as the one light source. Yuki’s voice is a whispered warning shrouded in fog, going from hypnotic hums to a nervous drift. Forming this fog are slick, spacious guitars and a murky fretless bass.
easy listening / sequencer & MIDI / synth pop / new age
RIYL – Donkey Kong, Super Mario and other Nintendo 64 music; vaporwave, Eyeliner
This ‘album’ gathers commissions K. Yamato stashed away for years. Only after seeing the new online interest for 90s game music did he share them. Some tracks glean from other media, but everything has a certain 90s-VGM flair here.
The early lower-bit jingles make a brief but fun cherry on top. The rest is a tour in digitized MIDI bursting with color. Mallets, synth pads, slick bass, bells and adorable flutes are on the menu. Versatile as expected, Yamoto shifts from 16-bit Outrun synth-pop to deluxe 90s chill-out. Somehow “Pleasant Specter Lever 6” merges a heaven-sent unicorn lullaby with summery disco.
Yamoto fills these bite-sized songs with sweet, romantic melodies, never letting them ramble. The “Spa Tape” tracks near this but their refreshing synth textures won me over. Spa music needs space to breathe after all.
CW is like playing Kirby for half an hour: a quick, simple pick-me-up with no pretension. Anyone curious about 90s VGM and/or the cuter side of synths should look here. No more Yamoto albums followed, but his Pleasant Specter EP from months before is your next step.
For more great video game music on the obscure side, see my top five
As mush as I adore synths, my #1 band didn’t actually use them much. Superstition was the one Banshees album to use them beyond cameos. Guitars were their clear specialty, but I do wonder where more keyboard would have led them.
This metaphysical b-side is one in few exceptions. Beyond Siouxsie and one quiet guitar, it’s all misty fairy synths. Believe it or not, “Sea Of Light” sounds like new age Banshee-style. An uneasy mood sneaks in even so via Siouxsie’s vocal as she sings of near-death experiences. The effects on her voice resemble a distant call for help or gathering wind. This results in a unique middle ground between peace and danger.
Pictured: Sound Shapes
Criteria: Video game music with little exposure or no release outside the game.
After editing down my behemoth draft for what felt like forever, I have my own VGM list! As I’ve known most of these for 5+ years, doing my own list proved challenging, but I tried. See the entries from my friends Marilyn Roxie and Jan if you haven’t yet!
5. Various – Sound Shapes, 2012
Sound Shapes is a unique PS3 platformer where music is crucial. Finding coins adds new notes and rhythms to what you hear. Visit the level editor to see they’ve merged a sequencer with the side-scrolling grid.
With cute, colorful designs and no plot, SS is a calming experience. The songs match this with an organic downtempo sound. They form simple melody-loops through synths, e-piano, mallets and other clear-cut sounds. These are refreshing, simple songs with a wide appeal. They could open the gate to enjoying EM for outside listeners and kids. SS makes both music and level design easy to grasp.
In the end, only Jim Guthrie’s Corporeal songs had their own release. I found this odd; what’s a musical game with no full soundtrack? I’d love full versions for Robot And Proud songs like “Aquatica”, similar as his other work gets. As time flies, the SS hype fades and a sequel looks doubtful. A true shame; the PS4 holds so much potential for their concept.
4. Jack Hall – Neopets: The Darkest Faerie, 2005
Yes, Neopets had a video game, and even it had good music. The Darkest Faerie’s sound is pure new age fantasy; flutes and celtic harp twinkle in every corner. Battle themes aside, Hall fills the game with a strong sense of travel and enchanted feather-light ambience. Many songs ramble as a result, but his themes for known Neopets lands are clear peaks. “Meridell” takes every tone a medieval town needs; proud, tender, casual, a tad lonely. “Faerieland” is what you expect; cloudy new age bliss dipped in choir and rosy flute. Both songs recall Enya’s hits to charming effect. A moment I love is the sad little harp heard in Brightvale Outskirts.
While I can’t say ‘play all 101 songs together!’ I can direct you to my playlist of favorites.
3. Spencer Nilsen – Ecco The Dolphin Sega CD, 1993
Oh, Ecco. I didn’t have to play the actual game to admire him. How? Hearing the Sega CD music. The SCD added CD audio to the Genesis, making this live VGM pre-Nintendo 64. The result? A rich, gorgeous new age score with all the right Vangelis-isms. Flutes, mallets, piercing drums, synth shimmers; you name it. You say “Aquatic Ambience” is close as early VGM gets to ambient? Hear “Medusa Bay”. ‘New age about dolphins’ won’t prepare you for something so grim. I’d say the same for the rest, since Nilsen builds it around the high stakes in Ecco’s quest to save his stolen pod. It’s a sad story once you look past the weirdness that aliens took them.
The synths merge space with water perfectly. Their cries and warbles reflect both alien threats and the ocean’s mystery. Familiar as dolphins are, the lack of humans added to the game’s alien aura. Said ‘warbling’ evokes pure water yet shifts pitch like a horde of popping bubbles. It’s vulnerable, it’s flexible, it improves any song. One of the best synth sounds I know.
I didn’t need five “Machine” reprises, but skipping a few makes this a solid album. As VGM it’s truly unique for its time. Hear this if you’re a Tangerine Dream and/or Vangelis fan. “Saint Gabriel’s Mask” from the sequel is unmissable too.
2. Julian Soule – Pajama Sam 2: Thunder And Lightning Aren’t So Frightening, 1998
Before point-and-click fell from grace, Humongous’ ‘edutainment’ games won many awards. Pajama Sam 2 was my favorite. Why? The unique setting: a weather factory in the clouds. At World Wide Weather, talking chairs and living machines plan the weather.
Julian Soule’s music completes this easygoing sky-world. His lively tap-along rhythms and piano chords are a great fit for the factory’s constant motion. A key trait is the sax peering through that motion. Not the usual bold, beefy saxo we know; this one is utopian, almost dreamlike. Someone make sky-jazz happen, please.
To contrast, the offices play it cooler with a lounge accent. The piano softens, joining warm bass to form some of HE’s most relaxing songs. Now I know how I got my knack for easy listening.
I know HE is too niche for a music release, but I hoped for more interest post-vaporwave. After all, the popular Hologram Plaza sampled this game.
1. Kevin Manthei – Nancy Drew: Stay Tuned For Danger, 1999
With such an enormous range, ND’s music could fit many lists. I can’t choose from 30+ soundtracks, but I know STFD’s belongs in my top 5. As the second-ever ND, STFD has many off-putting quirks. Awkward pacing, hammy acting… but the music is a thrilling neo-noir oddity by itself. Noticing it’s depths helped me find more respect for the game.
The persistent gloom is a early-ND quirk. Where the first game had murder, this had death threats. Kevin’s strength for domestic yet secretive piano stays, but a jazz accent takes hold. Plucked strings, vibraphone, flute and double bass create a discreet, sinister aura. The intrigue lies in how it portrays NY at night. Themes like “Dwayne Night” and “Ext Night” dive you into the slow tension of trespassing. Empty parking lots and offices filled my mind. They stress the city’s size so well despite lasting under a minute. The ’99 PC dust only adds to the effect.
Main theme “STFD” perfectly crosses the NYC glamor with a more sensitive mood. Here, the ritzy trumpet meets the Early Nancy Piano at it’s fragile, wistful finest. I guess Manthei meant this to mirror the game’s soap opera theme, but it always sounded extra sad to me.
It was way past midnight
and she still couldn’t fall asleep.
This night the dream was leaving
she tried so hard to keep.
And with the new day’s morning
she felt it drift away.
Not only for a cruise, not only for a day.
– Double, “The Captain Of Her Heart”
A summer mix invoking the romance, mystery, scenery and varying emotions of a lavish cruise as it begins a long journey overseas. Think sipping a cocktail as you watch the sunset, a romantic embrace by the docks or a suited pianist enchanting the crowd during their buffet.
This naturally doubles as a spotlight for the sophisti-pop genre best known for Sade and Prefab Sprout. Its cross of slick production and synths with elegant piano, strings, clean guitars, sax and/or brass has close ties to this imagery. Many songs take influence from lounge and jazz; others are simply eighties pop with a swanky attitude.
- DOUBLE – the captain of her heart
- VIKTOR LAZLO – balade de lisa
- JEANNE MAS – lisa
- GAZEBO – lunatic
- ABC – confessions of a fool
- MURIEL DACQ – tropique
- STYLE COUNCIL – the boy who cried wolf
- ALASKA Y DINARAMA – un hombre de verdad
- LUXURY ELITE – blush
- A.V. WALKER – night silk
- MOODOID – kasbah
- KIM WILDE – deep in the european soul
- MIAMI SOUND MACHINE – surrender paradise
- PRESUNTOS IMPLICADOS – no hay palabras
- YUKIHIRO TAKAHASHI – brand new day
- SERI ISHIKAWA – quantity of love
- ANNA DOMINO – bonds of love
- GEORGE MICHAEL – the strangest thing
- BRYAN FERRY – windswept
- DEBBIE HARRY – strike me pink
- BEATA KOZIDRAK – zal my tamtych noci i dni
- THE PAINTED WORD – night after night
- ENZO ENZO – pacifico
Pictured: Riven: The Sequel To Myst
This list is hardly complete of course, as there are dozens of soundtracks I could mention. I’m not the kind of person who plays games so much they know which titles are underrated or not. Still, the VGM canon gets pretty limited. When you think of VGM you think Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Minecraft or Pokemon, but there’s plenty of space for titles like these, many somewhat well-known but not so much in the VGM canon.
This list includes soundtracks that should be heard closer outside of the gaming context, as they actually hold their own as a separate medium.
Ben Houge – Arcanum – Of Steamworks And Magick Obscura
Arcanum is a fascinating game that blends the steampunk of industrial revolution in a fictional world with fantasy elements. Not only you visit Victorian-like cities, but also traverse a magical Elven forest, investigate a lost civilation’s ruins, and do many quests, which are some of the finest quests in any video game in my opinion. The game is like a wet dream of a Victorian writer who was really into fantasy, but wanted to find a way to implement fantasy into the real world.
But enough of that, the music is magnificent here. The composer, Ben Houge, takes influences from romantic and modern classical composers and turns them into a modern masterpiece of string quartet music. Melancholic, at times brooding, sometimes quite epic. For those interested, Houge has a website where he lists all the inspirations for this music, in addition to providing all the sheet music. Arcanum is available on GOG.COM and Steam.
Pierre Estève & Stéphane Picq – Atlantis: The Lost Tales
Atlantis is a new agey game full of great adventure and a beautiful story, and the soundtrack reflects that. It’s really a great journey altogether; if I had more space on this list, I would include the other two soundtracks. They might be not as unique as this one, but they’re great as well. Recommended for every new age fan, trust me, you won’t regret it. The game itself is available on GOG.COM.
Mark Morgan – Planescape: Torment
Planescape is one of the most interesting settings in roleplay gaming. The unusual feel of an ancient civilization mixed with low sci-fi was more than sufficient for the game’s deep story. The composer was working on music for Fallout and Fallout 2 before, although those are rather popular so I am not including them here.
The music for Torment is uplifting, yet brooding and soul-wrecking at times. It doesn’t give you hope in a weird world per se, but gives you reason to live there. Planescape: Torment – Enhanced Edition is available on GOG.COM and Steam.
Robyn Miller – Riven: The Sequel To Myst
Ah, Myst. The game that stormed the sales, the game that (possibly) started the whole adventure game craze. Riven is the better game, and you might guess the new age-tinged ambient soundtrack is better than the first installment’s music too. It’s a difficult game full of weird riddles, but I recommend it to everyone who wants an otherworldly experience. If you took out the music it probably wouldn’t be the same.
Rik Schaffer – Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
V:tMB is a textbook example of a cult game with a Cinderella story: rushed at launch, messy and buggy in it’s first few months, then almost forgotten because of the studio’s downfall… Yet thanks to fan patches a devoted fanbase, Bloodlines is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time today.
I don’t think many have paid attention to the awesome music; it’s an excellent mix of gothic and trip hop sounds. The original music is a great slice of dark trip hop that could put you in a good mood while going through Los Angeles, and the licensed tracks from goth artists like Ministry or Lacuna Coil are a great change of pace. Vampire: The Masquearde – Bloodlines is available on GOG.COM and Steam, but install the Unofficial Patch before playing!
Listen to Jan’s music (including a great “Song To The Siren” cover!) here.