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17 videogame soundtracks ahead of their time

There’s no shortage of people who think “videogames” and “music” are two impossibly distant mediums. One is something you do to kill time, the other is the ultimate expression of the human spirit and emotion yank yank blah blah blah. Game music is every bit as moving, long-lasting and inventive as the so-called real deal. It’s also such a relatively new form of music that its entire history has unfolded within our lifetimes.

Collected here are 16 of the most progressive game soundtracks. They refused to accept the moniker of “background noise” and pushed the medium in ways no one else was at the time. This isn’t just a list of great game soundtracks (that’s a far larger list, obviously) – it’s recognizing the games that furthered the very idea of what game music could be. Granted, a lot of the early stuff will still sound harsh to virgin ears, but anyone who admires composition and technological ingenuity can appreciate what’s been done here.


 
Platform
Various Atari consoles, notably the 2600 and 5200

Sample song: The one song it plays
 

Why it’s ahead of its time
Prior to Pitfall II’s incessantly looping ditty, videogame soundtracks were practically unheard of. According to era-expert Dan Amrich (of OXM and TalkRadar fame), Pitfall II was the first Atari 2600 game with four audio tracks running at once.


Above: Born after 1990? Then this looks stupid

Think back to other Atari 2600 games, with their minimal (or total lack of) music, and compare them to the song above. It was a technical marvel for the time, and more than stands up to the first wave of NES tunes that would arrive in 1985.




Platform
Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, among others

Sample song: Main Tune
 

Why it was ahead of its time
This bizarrely named action-puzzler stands heads and shoulders above other titles of the day thanks to one prolific composer – Rob Hubbard. He birthed several knockout tunes back in the day, but in our eyes nothing flexed the C64’s musical muscles like One Man and His Droid. The song continually builds upon itself, reflecting the strained reflexes of a gamer stifled by yet another seemingly impossible puzzle. It’s the antithesis to Tetris’s sleepy, laid back tunes, and light years ahead of what was happening on Atari and the NES.


Above: The C64 Symphony performing One Man and His Droid tunes

Other C64 tunes of note are the above Skate or Die, Green Beret and The Last Ninja 2. Want even more? Check this repository for all things C64. Modern groups like 8-bit Weapon routinely use C64-level technology to crank out legit music, so if that’s not proof of endurance, we don’t know what is.




Platform
Arcade, popular on Sega Genesis/Mega Drive

Sample song: Magical Sound Shower

Why it’s ahead of its time
The previous two entries are wonderful examples of musicians pushing the tech to new heights, but the songs are admittedly abrasive to people not accustomed to the aural delights of electronic music. Out Run, on the other hand, contained tracks clearly inspired by popular sounds of the day, plus let you choose which track you’d hear while playing. So, not only could you compete with other players for a better time, you could pick “your” music and only race to “your” beat.


Above: The alleged inspiration behind Out Run’s jazzy synth sound

The songs in question were amazing, of course. They sounded like videogame interpretations of real-world music, hinting that this medium could indeed evolve beyond bleeps and blorps, even if at the time it still sounded like a keyboard demo.




Platform
Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Bomb Man Theme

Why it was ahead of its time
Consider the games that were popular when the first Mega Man was released. Mario and Zelda were tops, their themes now as memorable and iconic as game music can ever hope to be - but they’re not exactly complex. They, like most games of the day, had a shockingly small number of basic tracks, usually reusing the same songs over and over throughout the game.

Not the case with Mega Man.


Above: Cut Man’s theme, another long-lived favorite

There were six bosses to fight, each with a memorable tune, plus songs for level select, Dr. Wily’s castle at the end, the final battle and the ending. Simply put, there were more songs than your typical 1987 game, and each helped lend a sense of uniqueness to each area you played. Zelda’s overworld theme, while recognized the world over, plays for hours on end no matter where you are. Mega Man’s songs change per area, strictly identifying the song with a particular place and an enemy.

This of course led to Mega Man 2, which is to this day considered one of the best games of all time, as well as one of the most remixed soundtracks in all of gaming. Street Fighter II popularized the idea even more, forever tying characters like Ryu, Ken and Chun Li to a specific theme.

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72 comments

  • ross_drew - January 11, 2012 8:42 a.m.

    Aw what?! The Sensible themes never made it in? http://soundcloud.com/ross-drew
  • mrmorozov987 - June 10, 2010 9:43 p.m.

    I can't believe you missed Doom. Doom! Blasting demons in the face wouldn't have been half as fun without the ear-splitting 90's hard rock.
  • Imgema - May 18, 2010 11:33 p.m.

    I would add F-Zero X. Why? Because, it has death metal music in it. Complete with nonsensical distorted vocals (listen to Devil's Forest theme). But that's not the only reason... The other reason is that its for Nintendo for Christ sake! You would never expect a soundtrack like that from a Nintendo developed game and of course you will NEVER see another one, ever again.
  • arahman56 - February 27, 2010 12:04 a.m.

    What? No love for Monty on the Run's theme? Unless you're told, you wouldn't even think that it's from a Commodore 64 game.
  • Fat - May 14, 2009 1:53 a.m.

    I thoroughly remember the Donkey Kong ambient theme. I remember playing this game so long ago, I even remember that level being a pain in the ass. Aaahh, nostalgia.
  • LionheartAce - May 4, 2009 3:06 p.m.

    Super Smash Bros. Brawl OST is a beast, I crapped my pants at most all of the songs.
  • dland - May 4, 2009 12:46 a.m.

    Good job Brett!! You did a fine article, and you are the master of VG music. I bow to you.
  • Kang81 - May 3, 2009 1:17 a.m.

    Hands down, the music from the Donkey Kong Country series has the best scores ever! Aquatic Ambiance for the win...only the best video game song ever made, imo. Now if I could only find a way to take that track from my iPhone and turn it into a ring tone.
  • theatticusera - May 2, 2009 9:12 p.m.

    Sonic rush is one of the best platormers ever :)
  • Red - May 2, 2009 12:39 a.m.

    Gotta raise my hand here and say that I still listen to the music from Jet Grind Radio and Jet Set Radio Future occasionally.
  • sharker - May 1, 2009 1:19 a.m.

    wait, i don't know what i'm talking about
  • iluvmyDS - April 30, 2009 1:35 a.m.

    Loved all the selections. Hopefully we'll hear these on the podcast.
  • PCG_Evan - April 29, 2009 5:23 p.m.

    Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Earthworm Jim, DOOM, and a hojillion other PC games would've qualified well for this, too.
  • BenitoMasterSystem - April 29, 2009 3:50 p.m.

    How come a karate chopping, fu manchu moustache wearing giant onion doesn't get any shit for a gong sound effect, but TDar had to retire theirs?!?! Injustice if ever there was one.
  • Xplosive59 - April 29, 2009 3:41 p.m.

    WOOT sound garden Fear factory DK is not any indication to the industrial death metal band Fear Factory REcaptcha: Castrate large (dont hurt me)
  • RedOutlive10 - April 29, 2009 1:55 p.m.

    Definitely yes for Metal Gear Solid's Encounter. Made boss battles unforgettable.
  • dustLOOP - April 29, 2009 11:32 a.m.

    What about Castlevania SOTN - Lost Paintings?! That track orchestral-wise in the game ost world is light years ahead of its time. Well I think so anyway :D
  • G0LFK4RT - April 29, 2009 10:54 a.m.

    My favourite ones on this list are Castlevania III, Silver Surfer, and MGS. I actually don't like the Megaman soundtrack that much, but I really really like the Megaman 2 soundtrack. Dr Wily Stage 1 FTW. ReCaptcha: Yellowed Especially
  • sprog - April 29, 2009 10:19 a.m.

    First of all, an absolutely cracking article! It was good to see FF6's theme in there, that games had music that provoked the rare (at the time) feeling that you weren't just playing a game, you were following an epic and well crafted story. If I had to add anything to the list I'd have to say Thunder Force IV - those riffs were amazing -, FF7's One Winged Angel - an entire choir assembled for one last boss theme? Crazy! - and I always loved the Pyramid Head boss music at the end of SH2, horrifing and beautiful at the same time with such despairing, tragic air.
  • FistfulofPelican - April 29, 2009 8:55 a.m.

    10/10 for including UmJammer Lammy music!

Showing 1-20 of 72 comments

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