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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For this post I’ve enlisted musician, Vulpiano Records founder and Rate Your Music/Sonemic social manager Marilyn Roxie. As you’d expect, Marilyn’s has a flexible taste that includes both leftfield electronic experiments and kitschy sixties pop, so I’m sure this won’t be their only post for MAM.
Knowing their roots in playing Nintendo 64, I asked Marilyn to list some favorite video game OSTs with lower exposure and/or undeserved obscurity. Being a fellow VGM fan, I know I’ve had my share of examples. I haven’t gotten to the writing yet, but I plan to post my own top 5 in the near-future as well.
The game (also known as Mischief Makers) is a cult 2D platformer for the Nintendo 64 and a childhood favorite of mine. It holds up as challenging and unique to this day. I think the soundtrack gets overlooked by those who haven’t played the game and decide to dip into it for one big reason: it starts with orchestral versions of a couple of the game’s tracks (“Esperance” and “Adieux”) very different to the rest. If you don’t dig such grandiose sounds, you may not go on, and you’ll miss out on some incredible music.
This reminds me most of Stewart Copeland’s soundtrack The Equalizer & Other Cliff Hangers (Spotify); they share a frantic, robotic energy crossed with quirkiness. Even the textures are similar.. The music does a fantastic job of evoking and enhancing the game’s futuristic atmosphere; “Mischief Makers is the story of Professor Theo, a space-travelling Mad Scientist, and Marina Liteyears, his robot creation and assistant, marooned on the strange planet of Clancer. Agents of a mysterious “empire” kidnap the Professor for unknown reasons, and it’s up to Marina to rescue him.“ (TV Tropes) However, you don’t need to play the game to appreciate the industrial thumping of “Volcanic” and the creepy “Obakesong” (a bit of a departure from the usual sound), and lots more. Highly recommended.
This is a case of a great OST for a game that I actually haven’t played yet. Doshin the Giant was a Japan and Europe-only ‘god game’, where you play “Doshin…an embodiment of the sun, a giant who oversees the inhabitants on Barudo Island, a tropical paradise not found on any maps. The player is given a choice of helping the inhabitants expand their villages and found new ones as Doshin, the love giant; or they can also become the hate giant, Jashin, and rain down death and destruction.” (TV Tropes)
I wound up listening because a Vinesauce video used “Paradise Zone” was as background music. The OST is chock-full of the tropical chill-out you’d expect from the premise. At turns soothing or more free-wheeling and veering into colorful exotica territory, Asano stirs up a great range of emotions throughout. “The Island Of Memory” is my personal favorite. A stunning and sweet OST that makes me want to play the game.
Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon is another N64 game that sometimes falls by the wayside, though it has gotten much more attention than Mischief Makers due to it’s part in a long-running series and an English-localized sequel (Goemon’s Great Adventure).
This one may start on an awkward note for someone who hasn’t played the game, with a wacky vocal theme song (a rarity for N64 titles). What you get in the bulk of the soundtrack are several tunes inspired by Japanese traditional music, inflected with a touch of surrealism and electronic weirdness when appropriate, fitting the setting of the game: “The story follows Goemon’s struggles to prevent the Peach Mountain Shoguns gang from turning Japan into a Westernized fine arts theater.” (Wikipedia; really, I’m amazed this was translated into English at all).
Viridi (available on Steam) is a calming life sim game where you grow and care for beautiful succulent plants. Full of soft keyboards and chimes, each music track blends into the next and form a totality of cute, delicate melodies that mesh perfectly with the game’s theme. “Cucurbita” is my fave.
Zen Bound 2 (available on Steam) is a relaxing puzzle game requiring the player to use string of a limited length to wrap differently shaped objects to the best of their ability. The music by Ghost Monkey is far from obtrusive, merging seamlessly with the game with it’s downtempo rhythms and organic effects that emulate tumbling rocks, falling water, or rapping on wood. “Unpaint My Skin” is the stand-out for me.