Awesome Video Game Music: Banjoland

I’ve always loved the upbeat, whimsical nature of a lot of Rare’s soundtracks, and the Banjo-Kazooie games are arguably the best examples of this. The latest (and hopefully not last) game in the series, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, has a wonderful orchestrated soundtrack that’s a ton of fun. One of the most memorable tracks to me is Banjoland.

Banjoland is first and foremost a trip down memory lane for those who played the original Banjo-Kazooie. The level itself is a theme park built in honor of Banjo-Kazooie, and its theme is a mish-mash of original Banjo-Kazooie (and some Banjo-Tooie) tunes. All of the songs it brings together were great in their original forms, and they are even better here thanks to solid instrumentation and sound quality. Everything just sounds great, and there’s a lot of variety in the instrumentation. This song is kind of just all over the place, which might be expected given how many tracks it pulls together, yet it manages to transition extremely smoothly from on segment to the next. My favorite segments will always be the ones that showcase a lot of horns. They’re generally upbeat and jaunty in that classic Rare fashion, and never fail to put a smile on my face. I especially love them in the Freezeezy Peak segment, which is still one of my favorites from the original game (along with Click Clock Wood, which I’ve already given tribute to).

Ultimately, it’s the simple fact that I like all of these songs from Banjo-Kazooie that makes Banjoland so memorable to me. I also love that Nuts & Bolts, as a game, is equally as carefree and joyful as the Nintendo 64 platformers were. That means that these songs still work as well as they ever have, and to have them all strung together in a giant throwback level is pretty rad. It’s a nice level and a nice fit for some genuinely entertaining music, which goes a long way towards describing why I like Banjoland as much as I do.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Aeris' Theme

I love it when a song can define a single, powerful moment. Be it in video games, movies, or even real life, the right song used at the right time can make an already memorable moment even more so. One of my favorite examples of this in video games comes in the form of Aeris’ Theme (I know it's technically "Aerith", but she'll always be “Aeris” to me!) from Final Fantasy VII. I should probably warn you that if you’re one of the two people left on the planet still concerned with Final Fantasy VII spoilers, there will be big ones here.


Aeris’ Theme, as the name suggests, is the character theme for Aeris. In this sense, it does a lot to define what Aeris is all about. Amid all the crazy things that happen during Final Fantasy VII, Aeris somehow manages to remain calm and collected the entire time. She is, in a lot of ways, portrayed as a beacon of hope and reason, someone who just might be able to save this poor planet. And she handles that role as calmly and as confidently as anyone could be expected to; she proves the strength of her character multiple times throughout the game. Unsurprisingly, her theme represents all of these same attributes. It is, first and foremost, a calm song. The instrumentation and chords are all very soft, and represent someone who accepts her role without complaint. At the same time, the notes here are strong and steady, and exude a lot of subtle confidence. This is clearly someone who knows what they need to do, and is at peace with their fate. The tone of the song represents this dynamic incredibly well.

These qualities combine to make Aeris’ Theme an extremely powerful song. It doesn’t shove itself in your face, but the way it swells and grows as it moves along can pull at your (or at least my) heartstrings. Relying mostly on the same basic melody throughout, the song starts out quiet and peaceful and then slowly builds up until it finally erupts in a grand swell of emotion. I see this as chronicling Aeris’ trials as they build during the game, ultimately culminating in that aforementioned penultimate moment at the end of the first disc; her death. And what a moment it is. As Cloud holds a limp Aeris in his hands, this song continues to play on, almost as if to try and convince us that we shouldn’t be sad (I kind of see it as a message from Aeris to Cloud, telling him to be strong). Aeris herself is the last person who would cry about her fate; she would simply soldier on with a smile. Her theme does an equally wonderful job at accepting its role and carrying on with a calm but powerful confidence, as if to remind us to never give in even in our worst moments.

In some ways Aeris’ Theme is a sad song, but I also find it to be a surprisingly uplifting one. Also, what's often lost in the drama of the memorable scene it accompanies is just how beautiful the song itself really is. The instrumentation, the core melody, the chords, the rhythm; I find it all incredibly beautiful purely as a song (I’ve posted an orchestrated version as well, which is my preferred version). That such a wonderful song is also so directly linked with one of gaming’s most memorable scenes is a fantastic treat, and does a lot to cement Aeris’ Theme as one of my favorite video game songs.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Rose Town and Nimbus Land

Super Mario RPG is awesome. So is its soundtrack. The game’s music may not do anything super special, but it’s a great example that you don’t always have to. Sometimes it’s just as good to offer up some simple, lighthearted tunes to supplement an incredibly fun game. That’s what songs like Rose Town and Nimbus Land are meant to do, and they do it well.

Rose TownNimbus Land

The thing I love about both of these songs is how unabashedly happy they are. Rose Town in particular essentially screams out “Let the good times roll!” It has a jaunty, big band kind of vibe to it that I really like, and it fits incredibly well with the carefree style of the game itself. Nimbus Land is similar in that it’s such a happy song, but its instrumentation and rhythm are much less bombastic than Rose Town’s. It’s more peaceful and mellow, but that also manages to fit the game in its own way. Super Mario RPG never takes itself too seriously, and neither do either of these songs. They both strike a slightly different tone, but they both manage to be lighthearted and fun in much the same way that Super Mario RPG is on the whole.

That’s about all I have to say on Rose Town and Nimbus Land. I mostly wanted to just give them a shout for being so awesome. I should (hopefully) have a more substantial entry up within the next week.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Hyrule Field

The Legend of Zelda games always have great music, and some of their most memorable songs occur in their various “overworlds”. With regards to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, that would be Hyrule Field.

Ocarina of TimeTwilight Princess

If I had to describe The Legend of Zelda franchise in one word, it would most certainly be “Adventure”. I personally think that’s why the games resonate so well with so many people- a good Zelda game is about nothing more than a young boy having the adventure of a lifetime. That’s as pure and noble a premise as any, and is also what the overworld theme for practically every Zelda game is all about. The Hyrule Field themes from both Ocarina of Time and Twilgiht Princess are no exceptions, and I’ll focus on Ocarina of Time first. The song opens up with a great rift that immediately kicks it into gear, which is quickly followed by the fast paced drum and horn beats that set the pace for the song. In a way, it reminds me of riding Epona. The quick opening is reminiscent of spurring a horse into action, and the song’s basic beat has a galloping feel to it. Past that, the basic melody and instrumentation is very much suited for such an epic adventure. Everything is upbeat and grand in a way that’s fitting for a brave hero setting out to save the world.

At some point the song takes a turn. The notes and chords become discordant, and the melody becomes disorganized. There’s this high pitched shrill that’s particularly unsettling, and to me, this section of the song is representative of the struggles one would encounter on such an adventure. But it snaps back together almost as quickly as it spiraled out of control, and shortly after there’s a section that’s very peaceful in tone. I see this as representing the hero finally overcoming his or her trials, and quietly reflecting on the adventure afterwards. I feel like this quieter section really gives the entire song a lot more heart than it would have otherwise, and always makes me appreciate the scope of the adventure in a game like Ocarina of Time. The Hyrule Field theme just does a fantastic job at covering that scope, including all of the highs and lows you’d expect to experience on such a quest. That’s the main reason I like this song as much as I do.

I included the Hyrule Field themes from both Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess because they’re both very similar. The Twilight Princess version follows an almost identical pattern as Ocarina of Time, and is equally great in the same way. They both hit all the highs and lows that these epic adventures contain, which makes them fantastic overworld themes through and through.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Best of Times

The World of Goo soundtrack is one of my personal favorites. The pinnacle track, Best of Times, is one of the soundtrack’s more dramatic songs. It swells back and forth between various highs and lows, making for a moving piece that’s as memorable as the game itself.

Best of Times opens up in subtle fashion, with quiet but clear piano beats. Vocal humming and/or chanting quickly comes in to give the song a fuller sound, and I find the chords they produce beautiful. Not long afterwards, a heavy, forceful drum beat kicks the song into gear. This is my favorite part of the entire song, as that single beat is a powerful transition that never fails to make my heart skip its own beat. Those drums continue to be the driving force for the remainder of the song, and in a way sound very primal. It reminds me of the natural way that the goo balls function. They rely entirely on themselves and nature (gravity, wind, etc.) to accomplish some pretty spectacular feats- no technology needed. They are incredibly capable and resourceful all by themselves, and in a way that’s also how you play the game. You have a very simple input method, as the interface is no more complicated than “point-and-click”. It’s a refreshing way to play a game that still manages to be complex and stimulating, and just goes to show how much you can do with so little. Best of Times is similar, as it’s able to get a lot of mileage out of simple methods, the aforementioned drums being one example.

Shortly after the drums come in, the song begins to swell dramatically. A lot of fantastic instrumentation and beautiful chords continue to ramp up in volume and intensity. As it nears a boiling point, the song quickly backs off to regroup before putting everything it has into one last hurrah. The ensuing segment brings some great vocal chanting to the forefront, and combines it with everything else the song has done thus far, dramatically building up to a fantastic fever pitch. This entire section of the song is incredibly exciting, and goes a long way towards representing the imaginative way that World of Goo operates on the whole. It’s wonderful and majestic in a way that really draws me in, exuding a level of genuine excitement that’s really great to see. Once it’s reached its apex the song finally cools off, reverting back to the somber style that it began with. In a way, this song is all about the ups and downs, as it constantly alternates between peaceful lows and breathtaking highs to great effect.

Best of Times, to my knowledge, never appears in the actual game. I only recall hearing it alongside one of the game’s trailers (as well as on the officially released soundtrack), and in that sense it is perhaps a better representation of the journey you take in World of Goo more than any specific moment of the game itself. Best of Times is a wonderfully dramatic and majestic song, and is one of my absolute favorites as a result.

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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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