It’s Monday, and that means it’s time for Ask Kotaku, the weekly feature in which Kotaku’s rank and file weigh in on the burning questions of our times. Sometimes they’re serious, sometimes they’re less so, but mostly it’s just another excuse for us to talk vidya games. You down?
This week on Ask Kotaku, to celebrate the launch of our new Morning Music feature: What is your single favorite piece of video game music?
There are many songs in video games that I love and can hum along to. There are very few that elicit actual, deep, feelings and memories. The first song you hear when you boot the opening mission of Doom is one of those rare tracks. To this day the moment I hear it I’m flooded with memories of killing demons as a kid on my old Compaq PC. Any time a modern Doom game includes part of this song I feel like pumping the air with my fist, grabbing a shotgun, and killing some zombies.
Doom is one of my favorite video games of all time and the soundtrack is a big part of why I can still go back and enjoy the original Doom in 2020. And I’ll probably go back and play it in 2030. And in 2040 too. Well, assuming I’m still alive and the world is still around.
Grandia III is not my favorite Grandia game. It’s far from my favorite Japanese role-playing game. Hell, it probably wouldn’t even crack my top 20. But sometimes I drop the disc into my PlayStation 2 just to let the edited English version of Miz’s “In The Sky” play over and over again. It’s an airy pop song that perfectly captures the wonder and excitement of setting off on a grand adventure.
Here’s the version from the game.
I know the song backwards and forwards, in English and Japanese, and it’ll be with me forever.
My top pick always teeters on a whim. What I can do is choose something nicely representative of my enduring passions and interests, a test easily passed by the soundtrack to Sega’s 1988 “super-scaler” arcade game Galaxy Force II, “Beyond the Galaxy” in particular. Casiopea-style jazz fusion in my 32-year-old arcade game? It’s more likely than you think when Sega’s S.S.T.Band is at the helm.
“Beyond the Galaxy” is a far cry from the energetic, heroic themes you might expect from the first stage of an outer-space shoot ‘em up. Instead it’s downbeat and mysterious (like me!), with a remarkably prominent bassline that carries us through several distinct passages, the first of which is downright plaintive... mournful! What is this, S.S.T.? Y’all are great, and I love this track.
Throughout, the instrument samples sound shockingly good for the era. How absolutely incredible that video games went from public-domain covers composed of beeps to competently sampled, original jazz fusion in the space of five years. What was it like for the artists fueling this rapid innovation, constantly one-upping both the competition and themselves? Hopefully someday this story will get the in-depth exploration it deserves. In the meantime, “Beyond the Galaxy” remains both a great jam and a small milestone for an emerging artform.
I was 16 when I first played FFX, and it was the same year I wrote my first fic. The Ashley that was around when Final Fantasy X came out was the kind of Ashley who was obsessed with romance, shipping, fanfiction, and everything that had to do with scarred-up and ruggedly handsome protagonists protecting their softer, feminine (not to be confused with helpless) girlfriends.
I’ll never forget how I felt when I first saw that scene in the Macalania Woods, when Tidus and Yuna do it. They totally had sex in that river, you can’t convince me otherwise, and it was the most romantic thing I’d ever seen in a video game. I think it was the first time I’d seen anybody kiss in a game, let alone have heavily implied sex. “Suteki da ne” was the song playing over that scene, and I’ll never forget it for that. If I ever get married… again… and have a real wedding this time, this is what I want to play for my first dance. 16-year-old Ashley would be thrilled.
How can I pick just one favorite? Video game music has resonated with me in a way few other aspects of gaming have ever since the first time I dropped down the chemical falls of Mega Man 3’s Shadow Man stage. The Lavender Town theme from Pokémon Red and Blue still gives me chills. Unlimited Saga is a barely incomprehensible, borderline unplayable board-game JRPG, but “Listless” is my head’s go-to music for when life is idling. “Sky Burial” from Kou Otani’s masterful Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack seared itself into my brain after looping it on the bus ride back from a bad breakup. “Silent Edge” made me fall in love with Final Fantasy VII: Dirge of Cerberus after falling asleep to it while playing one night. I still remember beating Star Ocean: The Second Story all over again just so I could capture the credits track “We Form In Crystals” on my parents’ tape recorder.
The list goes on: Xenogears’ “Shevat: The Wind is Calling,” Chrono Trigger’s “Sealed Door,” Secret of Mana’s “Into the Thick of It,” Mass Effect’s “The Presidium.” And on: Donkey Kong Country’s “Aquatic Ambiance,” Donkey Kong Country 2’s “Stickerbrush Symphony,” Final Fantasy XII’s “A Moment’s Rest,” The Last Story’s “Ruli Castle,” and Final Fantasy XIII’s “The Cradle Will Fall,” and Final Fantasy XIII-2’s “Parallel World.” (Little known fact: FFXII-2’s soundtrack is one of the best in the entire series). This barely scratches the surface of every piece of beautiful gaming music that’s transported and transformed me, and even these are mostly the B-sides. I’ll go ahead and settle on a favorite though: the soundtrack of Fez by Richard Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace. That’s cheating, I know, but the entire score builds so beautifully that I almost feel like I’m replaying the game when I listen to it.
For the requirements of today’s question I’ll go with “Nocturne.” Musical composers have been churning them out for centuries, but none captures the contrast of dark alienation and comforting nostalgia quite like Vreeland’s. It makes being consumed by the glitchy void feel like returning home again. From T.S. Elliot’s The Little Gidding: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
I’m not really one for video game music, to be honest. But give me a chance to talk about “favorite” anything and my thoughts will always drift to killer7, the trippy GameCube fever dream from 2005 that I regard as Goichi “Suda51” Suda’s magnum opus.
“Rave On” itself isn’t all that special—it’s a decent little electronic bop if that’s your thing. I mostly like it because of the context in which killer7 uses it. Most of the game’s levels end in a weird, alternate-reality space known as the Vinculum Gate, that looks and sounds like a club. The room is dark and you can hear a loud, thumping rhythm coming from beyond the doors.
It isn’t until you pay the requisite amount of Soul Shells to the Gatekeeper (don’t worry, these terms aren’t really important) that you finally get a full taste of the track. “Rave On” only plays in the small hallways that connect the Vinculum Gate and the boss areas, and thus it’s easy to miss if you’re rushing to finish the level. But take your time, and you’ll be treated to one of killer7’s more memorable tracks.
There is nothing on Earth that makes me happier than the opening few seconds of the Dragon Roost theme from Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It’s so jaunty, and windy, and carefree, and every time I hear it I either want to dance a jig or jump in a boat and go sailing (please note I cannot dance a jig nor live anywhere near the ocean, that’s how powerful this track is).
I was planning, as I usually do, to only semi-seriously respond to this week’s query—maybe call out “Escape From the City,” from Sonic Adventure 2 Battle; or “Live and Learn,” from Sonic Adventure 2 Battle; or “A Ghost’s Pumpkin Soup,” from Sonic Adventure 2 Battle; or “It Doesn’t Matter,” from Sonic Adventure 2 Battle. But the other week, I went through a truly life-changing experience.
On July 23, 2020, at 12:04 p.m. ET, I saw the gameplay reveal for Halo Infinite. It was glorious. Then, at the end, around the eight-minute mark, it kicked in: the Halo theme, reimagined by Gareth Coker (who, by the way, composed the Ori theme, another track for the ages). Those unmistakable swells reawoke a dormant flame in my soul, and since then, I’ve been playing Halo pretty much nonstop. The music for Reach and 4 and 5 is good, but you can’t beat the main theme of the original trilogy. Unlike you or me—unlike everyone who plays Halo and everyone who does not—some things just never get old. Some things really are infinite.
A year after I moved to Japan, Utada Hikaru’s “Hikari” was the latest in her long string of hits. It was also the theme for Kingdom Hearts and was re-recorded as “Simple and Clean” for the English-speaking world. It’s a great, great song and a terrific theme. Listening to it now reminds me of my early 20s and when I just moved to Japan, so for me, it has a very large resonance. I am always excited when a big, new Kingdom Hearts game is announced, because I look forward to a new Utada theme.
As an aside, the greatest hardware theme song of all time is this ditty by Shigeru Matsuzaki for the PS Vita.
[This week’s last word goes to Chris Person, who was unexpectedly laid off on Friday along with about a dozen other video producers at our company. Chris spent eight wonderful years masterminding Kotaku’s video features. You can follow his future exploits on Twitter. Your heart, insights, and contributions will be missed, friend.]
“Oh yes, yes. This is the sound, that glorious sound! We’d forgotten this sound for so long.”
There are definitely better songs than The Legendary Theme from Gitaroo Man, but it sets itself apart as the culmination of a perfect, beautiful rhythm game. Gitaroo Man was some bona fide freak stuff that hit me at just the right time in my life. I even imported the CD from Japan. It makes me truly sad that iNiS went from this, Ouendan, and Elite Beat Agents to having to put out stuff like The Black Eyed Peas Experience. Ah well, we’ll always have Gitarooman.
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? What one track represents, to you, the very best of video game music? The conversation continues below, so have your say. We’ll see you in the comments, and will be back next Monday to take on another no-doubt nerdy head-scratcher. Until then, enjoy some Morning Music!