Awesome Video Game Music: Katamari on the Rocks

I love Katamari Damacy’s soundtrack. It’s completely over-the-top, eccentric and silly. The game is too, and I find it totally awesome that both the game and soundtrack go balls out with it, embracing the craziness. The game’s main theme, Katamari on the Rocks, is the perfect example of this.

From start to finish, Katamari on the Rocks is full of energy. Frantic drums beats, blaring trumpets, and goofy vocal chants kick the song off with a bang, setting the standard. I especially love the trumpets- it’s a distinct sound you rarely hear in video game soundtracks, but they work wonderfully here. They’re used in that “Big Band” kind of way, and when played to the song’s quick pace they're effectively upbeat. Combine that with the drums and vocals it’s easy to see that there’s a personality and energy here that’s pretty rare. Once the lead vocals come in it gets even more ridiculous. The lyrics are mostly in Japanese, meaning I have no idea what they’re saying (probably something nonsensical anyway), but every now and then the guy spouts a line in English. It’s a strange way to do it, but the song just rolls with it. In a way, the whole thing almost feels like the purest embrace of Japanese pop culture they could come up with. It’s all eccentric and colorful in a way only Japan can do, and all told Katamari Damacy is probably one of the most Japanese games I’ve ever played. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much, and is also why I like Katamari on the Rocks.

For a game where you play a tights-wearing midget whose goal is to roll up everything from thumbtacks to cows to rainbows in pursuit of rebuilding the universe, you’d probably expect things to be pretty crazy. Fortunately for me, as someone who appreciates pure craziness, Katamari Damacy delivers on this premise. Even better is that its soundtrack does too. Katamari on the Rocks is one of the best examples of the game’s bizarre Japanese nature, and that’s exactly why I enjoy it as much as I do.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Movin'

When I think of Final Fantasy music, the first songs that come to mind are almost always the epic ones or the touching ones. But there’s a lot more to the various Final Fantasy soundtracks, including some great action oriented themes. One of my favorite examples of this is Movin’ from Final Fantasy VIII.

In a way, the name for this song says it all- it’s about motion. The song’s brief intro (first 20-25 seconds) makes it sound like it’s getting revved up, almost like a giant waking from its slumber. Then it kicks in with some simple but effective drum beats to further advance proceedings, proving that it’s starting to get into gear. This fits perfectly with the part of the game where the song plays, when Balamb Garden first becomes mobile. The intro occurs when Garden is waking itself up, starting to move for the first time, and you literally see its gears start turning. Once it shakes off the rust, Garden is quite a sight to see in motion.

Those drums that help getting everything moving also do a great job at meshing with the military vibe that accompanies Garden. Such drums would be fitting for a marching army, and likewise work extremely well with Garden as it makes the transition from stationary academy to mobile fortress. The song keeps that militaristic beat throughout; it’s what keeps driving the song forward. Along the way a lot of other fantastic instrumentation and motifs are layered in to add texture, and do a good job at, in a way, narrating the ensuing encounter that occurs between Balamb and Galbadia. But it’s that driving beat that makes this song memorable to me. As the name implies, Movin’ is constantly moving, making it a great song that fits perfectly with one of Final Fantasy VIII’s biggest action sequences, which I think is awesome.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Aquatic Ambiance

I generally find water levels to be kind of frustrating in games, but somehow they often seem to have really relaxing, really great music. Donkey Kong Country is no exception, with Aquatic Ambiance being one of my favorite songs in the game.

To me, the ocean is a vast, mysterious place that's pretty fascinating. Aquatic Ambiance seems to embrace this notion. Its central chords are beautiful, and do a wonderful job at capturing both the size and wonder of the ocean. It almost seems as if the song is lost at sea, but not really worried about it- rather, it's in awe of such a calm and majestic setting. Layered on top of these chords are simple, poignant motifs. They consist of quick, punctuated notes that seem to represent the voice of the ocean- I imagine creatures such as dolphins or whales singing. All of this paints a pleasant picture of a peaceful ocean habitat, one undisturbed by outside forces. There's no sign of man's influence anywhere, which is very true to the game as a whole. One of the defining aspects of Donkey Kong Country (to me at least) is how natural the game is. It's a game filled to the brim with a wide variety of creatures and environments, and even with some of the characters' personifications it stays pretty true to this idea throughout. Its music is one of the main contributors to this feel, with songs like Aquatic Ambiance making its respective level feel that much more raw and real. I simply can't imagine a song feeling more like water than this.

Like all good water level themes, there's a certain serenity to Aquatic Ambiance that makes it incredibly pleasant to listen to. Unlike many similar themes, however, this one seems to be first and foremost about water. That speaks volumes to Donkey Kong Country's dedication to its nature aesthetic, and makes the game feel that much more genuine for it, which is just fantastic.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Mass Effect Theme

Life has been incredibly busy the past month, but I’m happy to finally be back writing another one of these things :)

One of my favorite things about the Mass Effect soundtrack is how it sticks so closely to the source material. Every track oozes a thick sci-fi vibe, which does wonders for the atmosphere. The most iconic song on the soundtrack is creatively named Mass Effect Theme.

Mass Effect is, in a lot of ways, about space. The vast, unknown expanses of space, and what kind of life exists out there. The Mass Effect Theme sounds appropriately “spacey” as well, which is immediately apparent via its classic sci-fi instrumentation and motifs. The opening segment is dark and empty- there’s not much going on at all, but the little that’s there sounds ominous and foreboding. It makes it feel as if you’re entering the great unknown, and that exciting, dangerous things await just out of sight. I imagine that’s what it feels like venturing into the far reaches of space for the first time, as mankind has just done in the Mass Effect universe. They’ve taken that giant leap, and the universe they’ve discovered is fascinating. As the song moves along it begins to ramp up in intensity, representing the scope of new races and cultures they encounter, as well as the new conflicts that are about to shape humanity’s future. The later part of the song is appropriately awe-inspiring quality to it, one that makes you feel as if great, epic things are about to happen. They of course do, which is why this theme works so well.

A grand space opera such as Mass Effect demands an iconic theme. Luckily for us, it got one. For a game that embraces science fiction as brazenly as this, it’s incredibly awesome to see it have a powerful main theme that showcases those very aspects. The Mass Effect Theme is just too cool.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Terra's Theme

Final Fantasy VI is certainly one of my favorite games ever, and one of its best features is undoubtedly its all encompassing soundtrack. There are numerous standout songs, and the awesomely epic Terra’s Theme is easily among them.
  

 
Terra’s Theme has two purposes in Final Fantasy VI. As the name suggests, this is the “character theme” for Terra, but it also doubles as the overworld theme. It functions wonderfully in both roles, and I’ll focus on the “character theme” idea first. For the majority of Final Fantasy VI, Terra is very uncertain of her place in the world. She knows she has the power to make a difference, but has no idea how to go about doing so. At the same time, even though she carries this uncertainty throughout much of the game, there’s still a silent determination about Terra that makes her very endearing. She desperately wants to use her power, and to use it for good. I see these same traits in Terra’s Theme as well. Something about it seems simultaneously lost and determined. A lot of the instrumentation has kind of a wispy, “airy” quality to it that makes it seem fragile and unsure of itself. Yet behind it all, providing the foundation for the entire song, is a strong, steady beat. It’s the driving force that keeps things moving forward, making the song feel very determined even as it’s searching for answers.

I feel like this description carries over to the world itself, and is why Terra’s Theme works so well in doubling as the overworld theme. I’ve always thought that the world of Final Fantasy VI is, in a way, its biggest “character”, and I get a sense that it’s struggling to find some sort of balance. Whether it’s Magic vs Machines or the Empire vs the Returners, there are numerous forces at work that are pulling it in different directions, and you can see the adverse effects it all has on the world’s downtrodden citizens. And yet, through all of this, there seems to be a global determination budding in every corner of the world- life is determined to find a way. This goes hand in hand with the traits I expounded above with regards to Terra herself, which is why I think Terra’s Theme works so well as both a “character theme” and as the overworld theme.

The word “terra” comes from Latin, essentially meaning “earth” or “land”. I can’t imagine it’s pure coincidence that the theme for a character named Terra is also the theme you hear when you are wandering about the overworld. The two are fairly interchangeable in Final Fantasy VI, and the way that Terra’s Theme fits both so well to become such a central part of the entire game is just fantastic.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Cave Story Main Theme

The main thing that comes to mind when I think of Cave Story is how enthusiastic the game is. Perhaps nowhere is that enthusiasm more apparent than in the game’s soundtrack, especially its main theme.

Cave Story is a game that’s constantly exuding charm and energy, and its main theme is no different. This is an upbeat song that simply seems happy to be a song. It has that special joie de vivre about it that I find highly refreshing, yet don’t seem to see quite often enough. Made by a single person with a dedicated passion for video games, it’s easy to see their love of the medium permeating every aspect of it. And that’s why I like this song so much. Cave Story is a simple, fun game made by a dude who loves video games and everything about them. Its main theme represents that incredible level of passion and enthusiasm, making it hard not to sit back and smile at such a lovable tune.

I know this is a short entry- I didn't have a whole lot to say, but wanted to highlight this fun, upbeat song nonetheless! I should have a much longer piece up within the next week or so.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Morrowind Main Theme

When done well, there’s something special and transportive about a classic fantasy setting. The Elder Scrolls games have arguably been among the best video games at creating such experiences, and their music has been as instrumental as anything in establishing such an iconic environment. Perhaps my favorite theme from the series is the Morrowind Main Theme.
  

 
When I think of a fantasy setting, I generally think of sweeping, epic, orchestrated music. That’s exactly what the Morrowind Main Theme is all about. It starts out with some almost war-like drum beats, which are more or less the driving force of the song- this is what keeps things moving forward. But the main melody that quickly kicks in is the real appeal. It starts out quiet and subtle, representing the humble beginnings that are true of even the grandest adventures, Morrowind included. It then steadily escalates, using fuller instrumentation and rising in volume, adding that epic quality to an originally melancholy tune. The whole thing just swells in a way that acknowledges the scope and scale of such an adventure, which to me has always been the biggest draw of the Elder Scrolls series. Games like Morrowind are about exploring a rich fantasy world, and its main theme does as much as anything to make the adventure feel as grand as possible.

Equally important, this is one of those songs that I just find both pleasant and exciting to listen to. The notes, the rhythm, the chords- I find it all beautiful. And there’s not much more to say about the Morrowind Main Theme. There’s nothing too fancy going on here- this is simply a beautiful, epic piece that captures the series’ fantasy vibe incredibly well, and the game is all the better for it.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Sunken Suite

In addition to directly showcasing original video game music, I’d like to occasionally give a nod to some of the awesome work done by the good folks over at OC ReMix. They do an awesome job at presenting their own unique interpretations of a large variety of video game music, and come up with some pretty fantastic stuff. Today’s example is one of my favorites: Sunken Suite, a “remix” of Dire Dire Docks from Super Mario 64 (which I’m also posting for comparison).

Dire Dire DocksSunken Suite

The original Dire Dire Docks is a very calm, peaceful song. The level itself is defined by water, and the song seems to adhere to the kind of serenity that water can represent. This isn’t tumultuous, violent water- there are no waves or currents thrashing about. It’s very still, and the general tone of the song is as well. Alternatively, Dire Dire Docks is in many ways a devious level. There are plenty of subtle dangers ready to impede your progress, and navigating it’s obstacles can be surprisingly tricky. The song seems to recognize this as well, as it picks up in pace ever so slightly (about halfway through the above version). This leads to a combination of peacefulness and action that appeals to me a lot, and works really well in Dire Dire Docks.

Sunken Suite more or less takes that idea a few steps further. Something I love about the best Mario games is how they seem to be able to find that balance between being peaceful and action oriented, which can lend them a whimsical nature. The first half of Sunken Suite and its instrumentation is very calm, but it also has this feeling of looking ahead with anticipation. It’s almost like it’s ready to explode with excitement, and it more or less does when it layers in the drums and ramps up both the pace and volume for the second half. It then becomes a forward moving, action oriented piece that somehow maintains a substantial amount of its original peacefulness. The result strikes me as something majestic, simultaneously showcasing the wonder and adventure that defines the very best Mario experiences. That Sunken Suite can do that while also being a fun song to listen to is just awesome, and is a testament to the quality of both the original Dire Dire Docks as well as OC ReMix’s work.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Terran 1

Strategy games probably don’t come to mind too often when you think of awesome video game music, but a handful of them have some great stuff. StarCraft is one such example, the theme affectionately known as Terran 1 being the stand out track.
    

  
I’ll never forget my first experience with StarCraft, and this theme goes right along with it. The opening missions of the game (where you play as Terran) have a grand sense of mystery- both you and the characters you’re following are in unfamiliar territory, which is simultaneously terrifying and exciting. I even remember the first time I saw a zergling run at my marines in the opening mission. I had no idea what that creature was, and it was kind of shocking. Not only was the StarCraft universe new and exciting, but its gameplay was also like nothing I had seen before. I had played some strategy games such as Age of Empires, but this was very clearly a different beast. The sheer variety and diversity of the units in StarCraft was simply a sight to behold, and imparted an additional sense of wonder upon the entire thing.

All of these features made StarCraft a singular experience that started out being a big mystery for me, which is represented perfectly by Terran 1. The opening 30 seconds or so are cautious, unsure of what lies ahead- this is your first step out into a bold new world. But new things are also very exciting, and the song fairly quickly becomes very action oriented. It feels like it’s eager to get out there and explore, ready to charge headfirst into the unknown. It then more or less bounces back and forth between being cautious and excited about what’s out there, which is pretty emblematic of how I felt playing StarCraft for the first time. I love it that a theme like Terran 1 can kindle that nostalgia, and even listening to it today brings back those explicit memories. Video games, at their best, offer something completely new and exciting. Terran 1 embodies those very traits, and is a fantastic song for it.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Freya's Theme

I really like a lot of the music from Final Fantasy IX and feel that its unique soundtrack often gets overshadowed by the other giants from the franchise. One of my favorite songs is Freya’s Theme.
 

 
I’ve also heard this song called Gizamaluke’s Grotto, as that’s the area of the game where it plays. For unknown reasons, Alexandria has invaded Burmecia, and you pass through this grotto as you head towards Burmecia in hopes of discovering some answers. As such, there is a fair amount of tension in the air- there’s a lot of uncertainty that makes the entire situation uncomfortable. What kind of shape is Burmecia in? Did Alexandria really attack another friendly nation? Why would they do such a thing? The song plays up these feelings, and doesn’t have much resolution in its threads. The notes are hollow, failing to offer up any kind of easy transition- this is not a forward moving song in the slightest. Its motifs seem confused and aimless, which does a fantastic job at expressing the overall tone at this stage in the game.

And yet, for as much as Freya’s Theme seems to represent uncertainty, it also represents possibility. While the majority of the song struggles to go anywhere, there is a single, subtle segment (starting around 1:50 in the above video) that manages to turn the song on its head. For a few seconds, the instrumentation and pitch of the notes change ever so slightly, becoming brighter and more upbeat. This seems to suggest that just because you don’t know what lies ahead doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. It’s entirely feasible that Burmecia is just fine after all. Perhaps uncertainty and possibility are opposite sides of the same coin- equally viable yet totally contradictory ways of looking at the same situation. Freya’s Theme seems to take this idea and run with it. The entire time you’re in Gizamaluke’s Grotto your characters are wondering about Alexandria and Burmecia, simultaneously fearing the worst and hoping for the best.

Freya’s Theme does something that a lot of the best songs in the Final Fantasy series do- it highlights what would otherwise be a fairly subtle plot device in an entertaining way that also guides my thoughts and emotions. I absolutely love it when a cool, well written song that’s already fun to listen to manages to be something memorable in its own right. Freya’s Theme does just that.
 
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