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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

  • TheWoolyMammoth - April 28, 2009 9:44 p.m.

    Wow! Brilliant article Brett! Hits home with me as I'm a massive gaming soundtrack nerd also. The earlier Sonic games are the tunes that I find the most impressive, also ones I listen to consistently today. Only picked Brawl up a couple of days ago and the first thing I noticed was the amount of music on offer, must have wasted over 2 hours listening to it all before I even played the damn game!
  • GamesRadarCharlieBarratt - April 28, 2009 10:26 p.m.

    Aquatic Ambiance!
  • leroybrown - April 28, 2009 11:27 p.m.

    Good list. However, Naoto Shibata's excellent shred version of Castlevania III (from Dracula Battle released in Japan) is FAR FAR superior to the sloppy, out of tune, childish mush by the Minibosses. Here's a link, enjoy! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzg7j_vKU1w
  • twishart - April 29, 2009 1:01 a.m.

    Elston: great editor, or greatest editor?
  • 435 - April 29, 2009 1:11 a.m.

    Streets of Rage and ToeJam & Earl. Two of the best soundtracks ever created. I squee every time I hear a track from either of them.
  • onesweetdream11 - April 29, 2009 1:15 a.m.

    ...earthbound?
  • RareHero - April 29, 2009 1:46 a.m.

    I got something to add. Ridge Racer Type 4's soundtrack should probably go down as one of the best of all time. Here's a link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLp3ktpzx8E&feature=related
  • TrIp13G - April 29, 2009 2:04 a.m.

    CV III's beginning level theme is so tight. Also, you totally brought back some great memories with the inclusion of Spidey's theme from Arcade's Revenge.
  • TyeTheCzar - April 29, 2009 2:48 a.m.

    I highly recommend you check out the Japan-only Indie-developed(by one guy) Touhou series for it's great music(Visit http://touhou.wikia.com/ for more information). I'm telling you, their tunes(all done by one guy... who also makes the entire games) rival that of top-banana composers. Here are some examples of the songs; note that they've recieved a LOT of remix treatment there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvBBzvSzuWA http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uTbjS8fUYYk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJgX-F5xkjs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4FVKSHjg-0
  • JakkedGamer - April 29, 2009 4:40 a.m.

    The duke nukem guitar theme should've made it on this list, and i'm not just saying that because i'm a duke fan, i'm also a musician.
  • madrejugo - April 29, 2009 4:54 a.m.

    You forgot The moon level soundtrack from Ducktales, for the nes.
  • garnsr - April 29, 2009 5:22 a.m.

    I think Wipeout XL definitely deserves a place, it got me into techno-type music. Castlevania has the best music in any video game. Whatever happened to Yuzo Koshiro, he was so huge in the 16 Bit era. And nothing from Tommy Tallarico?
  • GR_DavidHoughton - April 29, 2009 8:35 a.m.

    Aquatic Ambience and Terra's Theme back-to-back? Are you trying to kill my ears with joy, Brett?
  • bruce - April 29, 2009 10:06 a.m.

    It's a shame that DK devolved to that Kong-Rap or whatever it was called in DK64. Also I'm going to start listening to Out Run in my car! Prime driving music!
  • teamRAMrod37 - April 29, 2009 11:23 a.m.

    I almost drowned in nostalgia when I heard Aquatic Ambiance.
  • TheWoolyMammoth - April 29, 2009 12:06 p.m.

    Remember, it's not a list of every soundtrack ahead of it's time, just 17 examples of said tracks! =)
  • FinalGamer - April 29, 2009 12:18 p.m.

    As my first post ever in this place, lemme just say I wholeheartedly agree with this entire article. I mean I'm a real fan of videogame music, BIG fan, it's the only thing I listen to all day even, and I didn't even realise about a few of these until now. I love when you guys do articles on music, thanks for this one.
  • miiketakashi - April 29, 2009 1:27 p.m.

    I'm reliving some classic C64 games and soundtracks, so this article couldn't have come at a better time. I remember One Man and His Droid being used during Ghostbuster's game-within-a-game, Invade-A-Load! It still sounds fantastic today, that was the power of the C64's SID chip, it was always ahead of its time.
  • BenitoMasterSystem - April 29, 2009 3:54 p.m.

    Oh, and i can't believe there's nothing from Jet Grind Radio on here.. Also, I'm a sucker for ambient, haunting music and aquatic ambience is awesome..

Showing 1-20 of 72 comments

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