As my favourite game ever – Secret of Mana – quietly approaches its remake on PS4, Vita and Microsoft Windows, and my anticipation grows, my mind wanders to one of the main reasons for loving the game as much as I do – its gorgeous soundtrack.
And so I thought I’d think about those games where I have really enjoyed the soundtrack. Each of the games below I’ve actively listened to various songs from the game in my spare time, proving to me that they’ve made a particular connection with me outside of general atmosphere setting in-game. I’d be keen to know if you agree with the games below and if there are any others on your lists you’d recommend to me.
Secret of Mana
Let’s start with the obvious then. Secret of Mana, a soundtrack that hit me between the eyes when I was a child of 9, and I still enjoy listening to it a quarter of a century later. I think it’s incredible what was squeezed out of the SNES way back when, and “Into The Thick Of It” can still send shivers down my spine even now. First heard in the game, when you start the game properly and you as the hero are properly thrown into the thick of it, embarking on a quest you don’t fully understand, traversing a wilderness an upbringing of innocence has hidden from you. It’s a relatively happy and upbeat song combining overtones of your natural surroundings and the possibilities of what is yet to come. Just a great piece.
Other personal highlights are “Did You See The Ocean?”, a remixed version of Into The Thick Of It, used at particular points of peril and intrigue, “Mystic Invasion” used for the majority of the game’s palaces (read dungeons), the aptly named “Danger” for boss battles, and culminating in the exquisite “Meridian Dance”, the song of the game’s final boss. I could cite more examples, and I think this is why I cherish this game, because throughout its plentiful and varied soundtrack I could listen to pretty much all the tunes happily now, completely out of the game and out of context and enjoy them, despite their age. It’s a testament to what composer Hiroki Kikuta was able to achieve all those years ago that so many cite this game’s soundtrack as one of the best ever made.
Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon
A complete change of pace and game type now as the majority of this list features RPG games, so a quirky Japanese action-adventure platformer may seem a bit out of place. But it’s cutesy, upbeat, and overall just plain happy soundtrack really struck a chord with me on the N64. Most of the open areas you had to explore had suitably upbeat and enjoyable tunes including “Tosa”, “Kompira Mountain”, “Yamato” and “Bizen”. All of them unique, but they all also felt similar and familiar because they married perfectly with the optimism and quite frankly bonkers setting of the game and it’s story.
But what really set Mystical Ninja apart for me was its approach to dungeon music. Unlike most games of the time that use the same one or two tracks over and over in dungeons, Mystical Ninja’s few dungeons were given individual tracks, but not only that, they were crafted in such a way so that they built over time, as you progressed further into the dungeon. Take the “Ghost Toys Castle” tune above, the first 75 seconds of that tune play over and over in the first few rooms of the dungeon, until you progress to a certain point. Then from then it plays the music from 1:15-2:28 over and over, until – you guessed it – you hit the third stage of the dungeon, and then last part kicks in from 2:29 onwards.
It may not sound like much but it was the first time I’d ever experienced this in a game, and it still stays with me. That and the fact that which each section builds on the previous part, it still feels new and like a fresh sound. Other fine examples in the game include “Submarine Castle” and “Festival Temple Castle”. Check them out and see if you don’t end up with a smile on your face.
Skies of Arcadia: Legends
Fast-forwarding onto the GameCube now to the incredibly enjoyable Skies of Arcadia: Legends. A game I will right now show my hand and say this is very close to the top of the “Bring this game to Nintendo Switch!” list for me. Preferably a remake, but heck I know I’ll drop good money for a simple port at this point.
One of the things Skies of Arcadia did well with its music was in its boss battle music, showcased in the aptly named “Boss Theme” above. In a sort of similar way to Mystical Ninja’s Castle tunes, it had three parts to the tune that played at various points. The beginning part of the tune (up until the 1:25 mark), the boss music would play on a loop and is the general music for the boss fight itself. However inevitably at some point, either through difficulty, bad player planning, or an overpowered boss move, the boss would take the upper hand, and the music would change accordingly (in the video up until about 1:53). But as with these things, the player finds a way, and there will come a point in the fight where the game deems you to have the upper hand in the fight, and then the last section (1:54 onwards) will play out. And believe me when that music kicks in, and you know you’ve got the fight in hand there’s a real sweet spot hit between the music playing and how you feel as a player (FYI, like a swashbuckling don!)
But Skies of Arcadia doesn’t just make this list because of its boss music, although that is a big part. It also has a lot of other great tunes throughout the game; “Delphinus” perfectly captures the grand exploratory scale of the game, whereas “Nervous Crisis” does well to capture the tension and panic at various points throughout the story. My personal favourite though is “Military Facility Dungeon”, for its perfect encapsulation of trials and tribulation within the military setting it encompasses. You first hear this tune early in the game and it sets the tone for the rest of the game. Then, when you hear it again later it’s a welcome refresher in the game’s music catalogue. I often find myself humming this tune in other games, especially in military locales as in order to give off a similar vibe, most games have a tune similar to this in their arsenal (*looks to bottom of this list, and nods*). All in all, a terrific soundtrack to a thoroughly enjoyable game.
Steamrollering our way onto the Wii now (or at least that was the version I played first) we have everyone’s favourite wolf-centric, Zelda-like that isn’t Twilight Princess; Okami. This game perhaps more than any other on this list has a soundtrack that most completely fits with the “feel” of the game itself. Okami’s serene and beautiful art-style, yet playful direction needed a soundtrack that reiterated this focus, otherwise the dream-like illusion of the game would be shattered. Thankfully its soundtrack delivers in droves.
Like some of my other favourite tunes, “Shinshu Field” is the tune to an early game location, and so sticks in the mind. But because it also serves as a main hub for the first part of the game, it needed music that never felt over-bearing or repetitive to the point of annoyance. Shinshu Field manages to not only deliver a rousing “let’s go!” feel akin to that first time you enter Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time, but is soft enough to never feel to overused after the 20th return. It also perfectly balances the natural order of Amaterasu and her kin, with the sense of duty and adventure the story takes you in.
You get a similar feeling, although more upbeat and purposeful, when you hear “Ryoshima Coast” for the first time later on in the game. Other highlights for me are the beautiful “Lake Hirami” and the little 20 second tunes when you remove the curse from a particular area such as “Hana Valley Restored”. Even the day-to-day battle music with enemies, “Exorcising Evil” feels on point and different without straying from its Japanese influences. A soundtrack I can definitely while away the hours to. Beautiful.
Xenoblade Chronicles 1 & 2
OK, so I cheated, and the final entry is in fact two games, both with excellent soundtracks. The original Xenoblade Chronicles makes its way on this list on its own merits and it is only because I was so amazed by the sequel’s soundtrack on Nintendo Switch, that I had to combine the two. There are very few arrangements in either game I don’t really like, but the first that comes to mind on the original is “Gaur Plains” – your first truly expansive space to explore outside of your home village, and the music and scenery perfectly capture that sense of adventure and opportunity. Not to be outdone, Xenoblade Chronicle 2’s equivalent “Gormott (Day)” manages to achieve the same feat, although I understand many prefer Gaur Plains, as it was their first experience.
Other highlights from the original include “Daily Life” from your home town perfectly encapsulates the harmony with which you live at the start of the game, a time of innocence and purity. In a complete contrast, the boss music of “One Who Gets In Our Way” is exceptional as is “Engage the Enemy” especially when coupled with key events that happen in the main game between Shulk and various antagonists.
The sequel has particularly strong points as well, including “Counterattack”, arguably XC2’s version of Engage the Enemy, succeeding as did the XC at getting the goosebumps rising when played alongside dialogue and action. “Mor Adain – Roaming The Wastes” intro is about as chest-bumping and heart-racing as a start as you could need to get you in the mood to kick some arse. And in perfect contrast the soft sounds of “Spirit Crucible Elpys” demonstrate the range of style that this series can nail with ease.
Both games essentially are made up of masterpieces. They naturally sound more complete than the older games on this list, but even so represent a gold standard in my eyes for the use of music, and their soundtracks as a result are unmatched.
So there’s my list, maybe a few you agree with, maybe a few omissions you’re outraged over. Let me know in the comments.