Gaming's greatest hits
There's something special about hearing a song used just right. You know the feeling: when a track you've heard dozens of times matches a movie or TV show so well that you can't ever hear it the same way again. Cinema has too many examples to count--Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Andersen are masters of utilizing pop songs--but video games are no slouch in the manufactured-synchronicity department either.
Game-music fans will know all about Journey sneaking into Mega Man, or how dance outfit Fluke scored mainstream success with a track written for a PS1 game. However, today we aren't interested in surreptitious sampling or commissioned odes to specific games (sorry, Jonathan Coulton and Jose Gonzales); we're looking at pop/rock tracks that started out in the mainstream, and ended up inseparably tied to your favorite games. Turn it up and let's go.
Saints Row The Third - "Power," Kanye West
Kanye West's "Power" was a godsend for the makers of movie trailers. The track's main lyric neatly expressed the theme of any movie about the perils of any one man having all that power (which is most of them). But when video games get their empowerment-fantasies on, even the most pyro-tabulous action flicks look like mild daydreams by comparison.
So if there was a better interactive outing for Yeezy's anthem than 2011's Saints Row The Third, we must have missed it. Maybe it got beaten to death by SR3's hookers, machine-gunned by militant furries, or bludgeoned with the game's signature weapon, which is of course a massive, weaponized marital aid. It may have graced the trailer and heralded your arrival in Steelport, but the track's in-game appeal was indisputable nonetheless.
Crazy Taxi - "All I Want," Offspring
Back when big-name in-game music was still something of a novelty--and when The Offspring were still a punk act with a smattering of mid-'90s alt-rock cred--Sega's cult deliver-'em-up made a splash with its skate-punk soundtrack, headlined by the lead single from the Orange County outfit's latest album. The rest of the OST was a mix of tracks by the Offspring and fellow skate-punks Bad Religion--for whom, legend has it, "All I Want" was originally written. And that's one to grow on.
"I'm not asking a lot / I just don't want to be controlled / that's all I want," hollers Offspring lead Dexter Holland, as you control a guy whose well-being rests on driving from Pizza Hut to the Levi's Store before well-heeled customers lose patience with your unruly antics. Tonal dissonance? Maybe, but everybody knows nothing's as punk as making some cray-zee money off The Man.
Michael Jackson's Moonwalker - "Smooth Criminal," Michael Jackson
Video games couldn't offer much in the way of musical fidelity prior to the days of CD audio, but pop music wasn't waiting around for an engraved invitation to the party. In 1990, a tinny falsetto "woo!" was all the unadulterated Michael Jackson players were offered--setting the stage for a succession of chip-tuned MJ re-interpretations that, frankly, did an admirable job of shoehorning Bad's painstaking production wizardry into bleep-'n'-crunch MIDI form.
You can take your pick as to which of the movie's musical numbers made the best of the transition to in-game muzak. We'll go with the stage-setting opening number from the console versions, which plays while Michael Jackson searches an abandoned nightclub for orphan children. And because this is 1990, you have a good decade or so before anyone thinks of an off-color punchline to those circumstances.
BioShock - "Beyond the Sea," Bobby Darin
Irrational's landmark paean to deep-sea Objectivism had plenty going for it in the style department, from sumptuous underwater vistas to a lovingly-designed Art Deco dystopia full of old-timey weirdoes for you to debate Ayn Rand with shoot bees at. Particularly daring was the game's soundtrack, which bucked high-octane FPS conventions with a selection of vintage music-hall tracks appropriate to the setting.
Battling juiced-up Splicers while Bobby Darin croons about a love beyond the sea (because BioShock takes place underwater, see?) was a welcome departure from the norm, and went a long way toward cementing BioShock's high standing within the canon. And if you're looking for a shooter of an unusually melancholy bent, try the game whose brighter moments are about serenading people who've been dead for decades.
SSX Tricky - "It's Tricky," Run-DMC
Run-DMC's 1986 smash enjoyed periodic revivals thanks to remixers like Jason Nevins, not to mention the eternal truth that it is tricky to rock a rhyme, let alone one that's right on time. But a sample in Electronic Arts' snowboarding classic catapulted the song to whole new levels of cult appreciation.
You could say "It's Tricky" was featured within the SSX spinoff, but it's perhaps more accurate to say the entire game was built around the song. There was no greater reward in Tricky than building your combo-meter high enough to hear from Rev Run and Darryl Mack, a treat that never got old no matter how many times you heard it. The song even returned in the recent SSX reboot, this time in the guise of a 2011-friendly dubstep remix.
Spec Ops: The Line - "Nowhere to Run," Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Spec Ops: the Line starts out pretty stock: blah blah rogue military squad, yadda yadda distinguished former commander, blah blah blah apocalyptic war zone. And then you reach the main staging area, a long-deserted Dubai, and vintage rock 'n' roll music starts playing wherever you go and everything begins to get a bit uncanny.
Without going too far into The Line's convention-skewering narrative, suffice it to say that the game's here to mess with your head; and that the choice of Vietnam-era pop music isn't a random one. But don't be thinking too hard on the political ramifications of 60s R&B in a contemporary shooter, lest you miss the song's more immediate relevance. "It's not love that I'm running from / just a heartbreak I know will come," cautions Martha, presumably because "loads of guys are trying to shoot you and there's literally nowhere for you to run to" didn't fit into her song's rhyme-scheme.
Burnout: Paradise - "Paradise City," Guns 'n' Roses
It would be cheating to lean too hard on racer soundtracks here, as the genre's long lent itself to effective deployment of found music: witness Ash and Garbage in the original Gran Turismo, through to the prominent use of Muse in Criterion's latest Need for Speed outing. But it would be remiss not to mention that company's previous open-world extravaganza, for which G'n'R's seminal hard-rock anthem served as a pitch-perfect title track.
Guns 'n' Roses, of course, are old hands at the sneaking-into-video-games beat, as you'll know from our own coverage of the Guns 'n' Roses/Mega Man X5 mystery. Here, Axl 'n' frenemies' contribution fits perfectly, even despite Burnout: Paradise's lack of green grass and utter dearth of pretty girls. It also sparked a renewed interest in Guns 'n' Roses, which might have continued all through 2008 if the band hadn't gone and screwed it up later that year.
Prince of Persia: The Warrior Within - "I Stand Alone," Godsmack
Godsmack originally penned "I Stand Alone" for the 2002 action-adventure flick The Scorpion King, offering fans of the earlier Mummy movies a clear signal that maybe this nu-metal spinoff would be a bit silly and grunty and eyeliner-slathered and probably worth staying away from. Just how much sand 'n' scowling did you need in one place anyway?
The punchline, of course, is that when Ubisoft was reinventing the swashbuckling Prince of Persia as a grimacing purveyor of angst and dismemberment, "I Stand Alone" once again heralded the critically-derided shift. Used in chase sequences, it wasn't even good advice--though stripped of its grunt-tastic vocals, the track actually fit pretty well. The band's next single, "Straight Out of Line," played over the game's end credits. The diss-track was aimed at fans who resented Godsmack's new direction, and the back then the same sentiment could be directed at Prince of Persia fans.
Far Cry 3 - "Make it Bun Dem," Skrillex feat. Damian Marley
From the opening chords of M.I.A's "Paper Planes," Far Cry 3 is explicit in its objectives: it wants to be a ridiculously enjoyable empowerment-fantasy for the young folks, one whose story (such as it is) asks the question, "can you ever have too much fun stabbing people in the neck and blowing up their houses?"
But it's not all throat-stabbing and house-detonation; the game's main campaign includes all manner of diversions, from hallucinogenic initiation-sex to a bravura sequence in which heroic dudebro Jason Brody reluctantly takes a flamethrower to the enemy's sizable cannabis plantation. By "reluctantly," of course, one means to say that the incident sends young Brody into an immolatin' frenzy. He's urged on by the wub-wub stylings of Skrillex, our age's premier irritant of the over-30 set; here assisted by cannabis-consumption scion Damian Marley, making sure you know that THIS IS A SONG ABOUT MARIJUANA, HERE IN THIS LEVEL THAT IS ALSO ABOUT MARIJUANA.
Rock 'n' Roll Racing - "Paranoid," Black Sabbath
Once again, remember that games had licensed music before the technology existed to include actual recordings of said music. One of the more notable playable chiptune compilations was Blizzard's 1993 sci-fi racer, Rock 'n' Roll Racing, featuring contributions from Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Steppenwolf or at least, 16-bit approximations of those artists' better-known works.
Composed by early game-music pioneer Tim Follin, the game's six-track score (five on the SNES) isn't exactly what you'd call a Wagnerian epic; still, when a reasonable facsimile of Tommy Iommi's (apparently improvised) riff heralds the start of yet another bout of isometric demolition-racing, it's hard not to wish you'd paid better attention to Ozzy's wailing, so's you could sing along.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City - "Crockett's Theme," Jan Hammer
It was Vice City that announced Grand Theft Auto as a world superpower in the field of found-music soundtracks, with so many standout tunes that players were spoiled for choice for what to listen to while outraging the moral majority. The game's freeform nature meant you never knew what your next anthem might be, so it's hard to pick just one track.
Except we can easily single one out, because Rockstar is such a cocky bunch that the soundtrack went so far as to include "Crockett's Theme," the standout single from Jan Hammer's 1986 Miami Vice score. Crockett, for you kids, was the hero of Miami Vice, a television program long ago from which Vice City borrowed more than a few cues so the track's inclusion within Vice City is part "homage," part out-and-out theft. Grand theft, even.
Call of Duty: Black Ops - "Sympathy for the Devil," The Rolling Stones
Critics of Activision's first-person army-man juggernaut are quick to write the blockbusting series off as so much jingoistic propaganda, ignoring--or not taking the time to notice--the games' deceptively nuanced take on warmongering. When dying characters' final moments are overlaid with stately quotes decrying patriotism and militaristic fervor, it's hard to ignore the suspicion that someone's thought about just what message the games are sending.
Another case in point: Call of Duty: Black Ops, a saga of tough men doing bad things in the name of black-book skulduggery, whose de facto theme song is "Sympathy for the Devil." You know, that one where Lucifer narrates his role in shaping the politics of the 20th Century? If you didn't get the joke while you were machine-gunning enemies in one of the campaign's rail-shooter sequences, the song returns for the end credits--to make sure you've guessed his name.
Play it again!
What's your favorite in-game pop-music moment? What artists have done well from their inclusion in games--and who needs to make an appearance?
Come on, who are we kidding--you're here for our Xbox One info blowout, and we're surprised you're not there already. In the already-raging battle of the Xbox One vs PS4, which one looks the best so far? Exciting times!