The Video Game That Got Jazz so, so Right

Illustration for article titled The Video Game That Got Jazz so, so Right

For some reason or other, jazz soundtracks are a rarity among video games. Plenty of games feature heroic chiptune anthems, Hollywoodesque orchestral scores, and evocative sci-fi themes, but jazz, one of America's oldest art forms, remains surprisingly underrepresented.


Though they may be few and far between, there are a handful of games that have used jazz to great advantage. Games like Earthbound, L.A. Noire, and No One Lives Forever. But among even the swingin'est of them, one soundtrack stands apart: Grim Fandango.

Grim Fandango's soundtrack was composed by Peter McConnell, and it remains as killer today as it was when the game launched in 1998. Each of the game's 32 tracks has a loose, street-band vibe, which makes sense, given that McConnell tracked down a group of San Francisco musicians and, in the jazz tradition, let them interpret his score with quite a bit of leeway. He even grabbed a mission-district Mariachi band give the score a South American flair to match its Aztec-inspired visual design.

Upon a recent replay of Grim Fandango, I was struck by just how much McConnell's soundtrack (which you can listen to in the player to the left) elevates the basic game. The game's clumsy tank controls and extraordinarily difficult (some would say obtuse) puzzles regularly slow things to a crawl, and long moments are spent wandering each environment, waiting for the protagonist Manny to turn his head and look at a clue or object that may have been missed the first time through.

There's nothing quite as flatly dispiriting as being stuck in an adventure game, puttering about the same three screens, cycling through inventory items while attempting to delay the inevitable, shameful visit to Game FAQs. It's a good thing so many adventure games had great soundtracks—without musical acompaniment, we'd be staring at a silent, motionless screen, flummoxed and frustrated.

Wow, you'd never guess that Grim Fandango is actually one of my favorite games of all time, would you? Behold, the power of a good soundtrack! (And great dialogue, acting, visual design, and storytelling.)

Illustration for article titled The Video Game That Got Jazz so, so Right

I was reminded of how well-played jazz can enliven unspectacular gameplay while playing L.A. Noire. It was far from a perfect game, and I couldn't help but be thankful for Andrew Hale's kicky, diverse soundtrack. Every repetitive drive through L.A. was soothed by noble trumpets, every prescribed foot-chase spiced up by bass clarinet and baritone sax solos. The tedium of nosing around crime scenes while waiting for my controller to vibrate was greatly relieved by all those rich, soulful bass solos.

But even so, L.A. Noire's soundtrack doesn't come close to the variety and vivaciousness of McConnell's Grim Fandango score. From the dark, plunger-muted swing of "Swanky Maximo" to the mellow, guitar-accompanied lobby-trombone of the appropriately named "Frustration Man", it's simply good, video game-related or no. And man, don't get me started on the epic saxophone of "She Sailed Away," the chord-less free jazz of "Blue Casket Bop," or the menacing bari sax/bass clarinet duet of "Rubacava"… Okay, pretty much the whole thing.


Grim Fandango's soundtrack was released as a CD in 1998, shortly after the release of the game, but as far as I can tell it's never made its way to digital release (a used CD can still be ordered from Amazon for a whopping $63.97). In this way, it's actually similar to the game itself, which for some unknown reason still can't be purchased anywhere online.


Fortunately, the entire soundtrack can be found online in MP3 form at Video game soundtracks as creative, organic and distinctive as this one don't come along very often, so pour a martini, turn up the speakers, and drink it all in.

Track Listing:

01 - Casino Calavera
02 - Swanky Maximino
03 - Smooth Hector
04 - Mr. Frustration Man
05 - Hector Steps Out
06 - Hi-Tone Fandango
07 - She Sailed Away
08 - High Roller
09 - Domino's in Charge
10 - Trouble with Carla
11 - Blue Casket Bop
12 - Manny's Office
13 - Rubacava
14 - Blue Hector
15 - This Elevator is Slow
16 - Domino
17 - Don Copal
18 - Neon Ledge
19 - Nuevo Marrow
20 - Gambling Glottis
21 - Raoul Appears
22 - Scrimshaw
23 - Talking Limbo
24 - Coaxing Meche
25 - Lost Souls' Alliance
26 - Los Angelitos
27 - The Enlightened Florist
28 - Temple Gate
29 - Ninth Heaven
30 - Compañeros
31 - Manny & Meche
32 - Bone Wagon


You can contact Kirk Hamilton, the author of this post, at You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.



With bony hands I hold my partner,

on soulless feet we cross the floor.

The music stops as if to answer,

an empty knocking at the door.

It seems his skin was sweet as mango,

when last I held him to my breast.

But now we dance this grim fandango,

and will four years before we rest.