17 videogame soundtracks ahead of their time

Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Beginning

Why it was ahead of its time
Castlevania music in general had been quite good up to this point; several (if not all) of the songs used in the first two games have gone on to become franchise staples, consistently remixed for the latest games in the series. Part three continued the trend of catchy melodies and haunting hooks by adding a special music chip that added three additional sound channels, enhancing the system’s audio capabilities beyond contemporary titles.

Above: Game rockers The Minibosses made this ultra rad video to their rockin’ Castlevania III medley

For various (i.e. boring) reasons, the chip never made it to the US and Europe. So technically, this is more of an entry for Akumajo Densetsu on Famicom than Dracula’s Curse on NES. Doesn’t really matter though, as the “stripped” versions found on the US and European versions are still quite strong.

Nintendo Entertainment System

Sample song: Gameplay

Why it was ahead of its time
Jesus Crackers people, listen to that insanity. The game’s composer, Tim Follin, a well-known musician responsible for several quality soundtracks, kicked the living crap out of other NES scores with this multi-layered, tripping-on-acid electro shock. Never mind how awful the game was, we played it just to freak out and run circles around the living room until our parents drove Mr. Surfer back to the rental store.

Above: Tim and his brother Geoff wrote the ‘70s-soaked score to Spider-Man and the X-Men (1992)

You’d do well to sniff out more of Follin’s great works, including Sky Shark, Solstice, Target: Renegade and office-favorite Plok.

Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

Sample Song: Stealthy Steps

Why it was ahead of its time
Just as Out Run took inspiration from real-world sources, Streets of Rage borrowed the neon-bathed grit of a seedy, early-‘90s club and converted it into music fit for fighting. It’s not all thumping beats though – several tracks mix hard techno with up-tempo dance, while others (like the one below) are among the moodiest game tracks ever written. Simply put, Streets was incomparably ahead of other Genesis games both in quality of the tracks and the way the composer used the limited tech to squeeze out such toe-tapping tunes.

Above: Perfect music for cold, rainswept city streets

Yuzo Koshiro joins the ranks of Follin and Hubbard as one of gaming’s greatest musicians, and would go on to produce more amazing pieces for Streets of Rage 2, Super Adventure Island, Actraiser, Ys and lately Etrian Odyssey. Too much awesome.

Sega Genesis / Mega Drive

Sample song: Alien Breakdown

Why it was ahead of its time
Again, this was a game that looked out into the world for ideas instead of just throwing down tracks that people associate with game music (i.e., beeps). The above song borrows hip-hop and rap staples like smooth bass and synchronized record scratches to create a sound right out of the early ‘90s.

Above: The Toejam Slowjam

The game itself is unrelentingly bizarre, starring two funked-out, backwards-hat-wearing aliens trapped on Earth. ToeJam’s draped in a gold chain and snazzy shoes, while Earl sports garish shorts and totally rad shades. Both constantly utter phrases like “jammin’” and walk with a rhythmic gait in tune to the equally funked up music.

Sega CD / Mega CD

Sample song: Collision Chaos (Past)

Why it was ahead of its time
Hoo boy, there’s a lot to say here. First, it’s just a massive pile of tracks. Each of the game’s seven levels has four possible forms: past, present, good future and bad future, and each of these forms had its own accompanying theme. That is a ton of music for a side scrolling game, and would have been utterly impossible to do on Sega’s cartridge-based Genesis. The vast range of musical styles, in addition to the volume, earns a place on this list right off the bat.

Above: American ending song, taken from the GameCube compilation

Second, most of the Japanese Sonic CD tracks were tossed out for the US release, prompting an entirely new set of songs for every one of those levels, essentially doubling the number of songs attributed to the Sonic CD soundtrack. In fact, only the “Past” tunes remain the same in both, and as a result are easily distinguishable from the rest of the music made for the US version. The Japanese stuff is more electro-synth beats, while the US tunes range from electric guitar solos to music befitting a tiki party (looking at you, Palmtree Panic).

We happen to love both soundtracks just fine, but there are a lot of people out there who were enraged by the switch. We know this from personal experience (even some rogue GR editors hiss at the US stuff), and Wikipedia claims GameFan editor Dave Halverson said the new music was “an atrocity that remains the biggest injustice in localization history.” A bit harsh, eh?

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

    Aw what?! The Sensible themes never made it in?
  • 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!

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