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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Awesome Video Game Music: Athletic and Flower Garden

Sometimes you want music that isn’t deep, epic, or emotionally heavy. Sometimes you just want something light and fun, and that’s exactly what you get from Yoshi’s Island.

AthleticFlower Garden

I chose to do a double feature simply because these two songs are awesome in similar ways. They evoke the exact same vibe, so what I have to say about one applies to the other. And I couldn’t live with myself if I only chose one of them! At any rate, both Athletic and Flower Garden are wonderful, upbeat tunes whose primary goal is to brighten your day. That’s a noble a goal as any, and is a lot of what Yoshi’s Island is all about in the first place. It’s a charming game that prioritizes lighthearted fun above all else, which it delivers in spades. The soundtrack follows suit, and in my mind Athletic and Flower Garden are the standard bearers. These songs just bring a lot of positive energy and personality to the table, in a way that a lot of games seem to have a hard time doing. I’ll never forget running through the titular Flower Garden as the song plays, listening to that hilarious, long winded high-pitched note as smiling, whistling flowers are skipping across the screen. Yoshi’s Island is game that’s simply ecstatic about the fact that you’re playing it, and it’s going to do whatever it can to make sure you have as good of a time as possible. Its soundtrack is one of the main contributors to this, as Athletic and Flower Garden are just too much fun.

There’s really nothing else to say about Athletic and Flower Garden, but there also doesn’t need to be. For songs that are as simple and delightful as this, all you need to do is sit back, hit “play”, and let your mood drastically improve. It’s rare for me to find songs that put a smile on my face so easily, which is why I love Athletic and Flower Garden as much as I do.

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Awesome Video Game Music: Valkyria Chronicles Main Theme

Valkyria Chronicles is a great game that I highly recommend to any PS3 owner, and its soundtrack was one of the many aspects that made it such a memorable experience for me. The Main Theme is perhaps my favorite track.
  

  
The central theme in Valkyria Chronicles is war, and it covers just about every aspect of that heavy topic by the time all is said and done. It's an epic tale that does a great job at simultaneously keeping the big picture in mind (people are dying everywhere for horrible reasons), and focusing on the more personal struggles of the main characters (trying to save others, prove themselves, etc.). The Main Theme follows this route as well. It opens with a strong drum rift, which I have always loved in wartime settings. It just makes me think of an army marching in unison as an unstoppable force. It's a very rigid, forceful sound, and works perfectly here. Trumpets are the other instrument I always associate with war, as they have that "for king and country" vibe to them. Like in most war stories, there are plenty of moments in Valkyria Chronicles where characters claim to be fighting "for their country".  Needless to say, a trumpet does kick in after a few drum beats, and the combination of the two is fantastic. It offers a purity of sound that drives home the notion of "war" splendidly.
 
About halfway through, the song changes pace to a slower, more inward looking tone. To me, this is the section that reflects on the individual characters and their personal journeys. It doesn't last very long, but I find it to be a strong interlude nonetheless. Otherwise, the entire song is fueled by its central motif defined by a series of sweeping, beautiful chords. This is the heart of this song, and has a grandness to it that seems to be all encompassing. It links all of the song's many pieces together incredibly well, meaning it also ties together the game's many themes. It sounds epic and personal all at once, and when the vocals chime in to back it up in the second half it becomes incredibly powerful. This is the kind of heart warming, inspiring music most games wish they could have, and it never once comes off as being cheesy or forced. This is some genuine, high quality stuff that's simply a pleasure to listen to.
 
Valkyria Chronicles' Main Theme wraps up just as it began, with trumpets and drums providing a powerful closure to a wonderful song about war and all it represents. In fact, a lot about this song reminds me of the main theme from Saving Private Ryan, which is meant as a huge compliment in every way. That a game's soundtrack can match that of a high budget war film's composed by the great John Williams is no small feat, but that only begins to describe how amazing Valkyria Chronicles' soundtrack really is, and the Main Theme is among the best it has to offer.
 
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Awesome Video Game Music: Revived Power

Shadow of the Colossus is a very unique game, and has a very unique soundtrack to match. It constantly toggles back and forth between quiet, mellow songs and exciting, action packed ones. One of my favorites among the action oriented songs is Revived Power.
  

 
Your fights with the titular colossi in Shadow of the Colossus are some of the most intense, epic encounters I've ever come across, and songs like Revived Power go a long way towards making those fights so memorable. Seriously, these colossi are huge, and I love that songs like Revived Power match their size with a "big band" style and instrumentation- in fact, the instrumentation is one of my favorite aspects of the entire soundtrack. Right off the bat it delivers a blaring intro and follows it up with a lot of horns and drums, all of it constantly marching in unison with the highest levels of intensity. It really lends a lot of weight to the encounters, and fighting these creatures with this kind of music in the background makes them feel even bigger. That it's able to inflate one of the game's central themes (size) is a highly impressive feat, and the game itself is all the better for it.
 
Otherwise, I love the way Revived Power feels like it's always moving. There's this constant beat that drives the entire thing, adding a certain edge to what is otherwise a pretty adventurous song. The main rifts definitely boast of high adventure, which is another one of the game's central themes. You spend the entirety of the game exploring a huge world and fighting gargantuan creatures, and songs like this do an amazing job at capturing the pure excitement that can come from such a setting. Revived Power never lets up on the gas either, as each rift transitions flawlessly from one to the next. It's just a thrilling song that's used to great effect throughout, and the way it's able to expand Shadow of the Colossus' themes is fantastic. Revived Power shows how to make an epic game even more so, which is downright awesome.
 
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Awesome Video Game Music: Phendrana Drifts

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Metroid games is their fantastic music. This is certainly the case with Metroid Prime, one of my favorite tracks being Phendrana Drifts.
  

 
I’ve always thought there’s a certain ambiance to Metroid music. To me, the best songs in the franchise are often ones that don’t initially jump out at me. They blend in with the surrounding environment perfectly, helping to set the tone and mood that’s such a defining aspect of the series. Metroid Prime’s soundtrack does this as well as any, and Phendrana Drifts is a great example of it. The level itself is a snowy, mountainous area, and there’s a certain serenity to it that can be pretty relaxing. At the same time, it all feels kind of cold- and that’s not just because of the snow. It can come across as a lifeless place, and yet there’s a palpable energy to it that seems to suggest that there’s more than meets the eye. That notion adds a sense of adventure and mystique to the level that’s pretty exciting. As you explore, you find all sorts of awe-inspiring ruins and ferocious monsters that reveal a lot of life in an initially lifeless place.

I’ve talked a lot about the Phendrana Drifts level itself, but only because the song does such an amazing job at representing the same traits. When the song begins it’s very serene, and the short, punctual notes feel cold and lifeless. I simply can’t listen to this song without thinking of snow, and there are even wind and chime-like sounds in the background which only further the notion that you’re alone in a cold, desolate world. But as the song continues on, it starts adding new rhythms and complexities. The pacing picks up, making it more adventurous and almost playful in some cases, and there’s this subtext of awe and wonder that’s pretty cool. All of these traits are ones that I feel best define the level (as well as the game) itself, and it’s so great that its music harbors the exact same traits. In fact, I often feel that the music in games like Metroid Prime do as much as anything to create their awesome atmosphere. I just love it when great music plays such a large role in creating great games, making Phendrana Drifts another wonderful showcase for the medium.
 
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