How does Kirby, a sugary ‘for babies’ series, endure so much with a teenager like me? In my case, someone who didn’t grow up with it? For me, the escapism. Sometimes it’s a nice break to dive into a fictional world that needs no reason for it’s relentless cheer, or to make sense. A game like Epic Yarn is so set on making you relax and feel it’s warm nostalgia, against all odds and without forcing it, that I have to pay respect. “Staff Credits” demonstrates more than any Kirby music, and not many songs give me such inner peace in general. It was enough for me to get the game used for my old Wii! (“Cool Cave” helped.)
I heard “Credits” at a low point, where I realized those ‘it will be okay!!!’ songs were over-assuming and even ‘good news if you reblog’ posts weren’t working. So, when THAT melody hit (0:37), so elusive but so knowing and ever-fulfilled, it was like the moon lit a cave. It doesn’t assume or promise too much but I preferred this. Nothing but one of the warmest, most loving pianos to grace a video game, with high notes nothing short of precious. It’s a carefree feeling unique to happy childhood activities, but it fell asleep on itself and flew to space. The playground becomes a refuge. I’d put this on to fill the miserable silence or wind down before bed; it was just a good energy to put out there at any time. The definition of ‘sweet dreams’ in song.
Tomita knew his stuff when matching Yarn’s ’storybook’ theme, because “Credits” gets me reminiscing without coming from my past. After all, it’s the exact kind of ‘haunting credits theme’ feeling that would catch my ears all those years ago. I’m looking out the car window in awe, the moon’s peaking in on the night before a holiday. These moments where I felt comfortable with unknown things and noticed the beauty around me. Not everyday that music does this to me.
Dream Land may not exist, but Tomita did such a gorgeous job at capturing it’s harmony that it’s comforting to imagine for a few minutes alone.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Listening to full albums was beyond my patience as a 7-year-old, but I’d hum what I heard in my video games obsessively. Most often, these were songs from HerInteractive’s Nancy Drew PC games, based on the teen mystery novels dating back to 1930. Nancy’s detective formula was a perfect match for the story-centered point-and-click genre, resulting in a refined alternative to the chaos of action games. My fondness of the ND music predated almost all of my other early musical interests; I’ve enjoyed plenty of ‘canon’ VGM since then, but I still think this music deserved higher recognition.
Kevin Manthei, a relative unknown beyond a few TV themes, made the first 25 (!) soundtracks. His melodies stuck with me for years and I revisit them regularly to this day. Every game had a different setting, so Manthei tackled anything that fit. He’d go fromspringy pseudo-classical to circus music andFrench lounge but he retained his strong melodic sense throughout the whole series. I discovered several of my favorite sounds through this, like vibraphone, cello and hammered dulcimer.
This striking theme songpacks danger, intrigue, drama, a hint of sadness and (of course) mystery into a single minute. With it’s multi-shaded mood, elegant styling and that old-software-game warmth, it well-represents the unique spirit of the early ND games.
I plan to make a proper post/list about ND music in the future – until then, you can hear more at this Youtube channel.