Thursday, November 28, 2013

Gaming Top 10s: Top 10 Best Modern (Current-Gen) Video Game Themes

By Andrew Braid
BTW, if you get a chance to see this, DO SO. Totally worth it.

Welcome to my first of (many) planned Top 10 lists! While we fondly remember a lot of the classic 8-bit and 16-bit tunes from the medium's more youthful days, the capabilities for music and scoring in games has been greatly expanded since then. Nowadays, many a game not only strives for but outright demands a full orchestral score on par with (and in more than a few cases surpassing) that of Hollywood feature films. As much as many of us (myself included) love the good old magic of catchy chiptunes, that used to be the only option. Now that the doors are wide open, it seems to make choosing one's favorite scores from the more recent crops of games more of a challenge. After all: art, in it's many forms, defines who we are. Our tastes in art follow suit. So perhaps you'll all get to know me just a bit better through the choices on this list: my Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes!


-The game in question must have been released during the current (seventh) console generation (between 2006 and 2013).
-The main systems in question: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and PC (as well as handheld systems Nintendo DS, Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Portable and PlayStation Vita)
-Games for older systems (ex. PS2) can be eligible, but only if they were first released during the aforementioned timeframe (I'm using North American release dates, BTW)
-One game per series/franchise
-The themes/songs must have been composed from the ground up specifically for the game in question in order  to qualify (no remixes of older themes, no reuse of pre-existing songs)

Before we begin, lets' feature some honorable mentions (in no particular order) that, while great, just missed the cut! Take a listen below!

 Another Winter- Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game (Xbox 360/PS3, 2010)

Calling- The World Ends With You (DS, 2008)

Ethan Mars' Theme (Main Theme)- Heavy Rain (PS3, 2010)

The Last of Us (Main Theme)- The Last of Us (PS3, 2013)

Will the Circle Be Unbroken- Bioshock Infinite (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2013)

And now, on with the Top 10 Best Modern Video Game Themes! (Because that totally needed to be emphasized a second time!) Starting off...

#10: Land of the Living Dead- Rayman Origins (Xbox 360/PS3/Wii, 2011)

We kick things off with a game that completely took me by surprise to become my favorite 2D platformer in what feels like ages (until Rayman Legends came out, anyway). The theme is for the bonus level "Land of the Living Dead", a very long and brutal stage unlocked only after collecting all 10 ruby teeth from the chest chase levels (already a challenge in and of itself). The first third or so of buildup is good in and of itself (and more the kind of music style to expect from much of Origins), creating an atmosphere both inviting and foreboding, mixed with the humorous chants And then at about 1:39 into the song, it goes into full-blown Leone-style western theme, adding a whole new level of invigoration to (by far) the most challenging stage in the game. It's ideal contrast to such intense feats of running, smashing and jumping. Even the developers themselves were clearly in love with it, as follow-up Rayman Legends both brings it back for a few obstacle course levels and remixes it for one of the game's absurdly fun music levels (which you can watch here).

#9: Rising Sun- Okami (PS2, 2006)

A game as stunningly beautiful as Okami (brought to vivid life through its watercolor paint style and basis off Japanese folklore and Shinto mythology) deserves a stirring score to match. And while much of the game's music is a treat, it's "Rising Sun", the theme that plays for the final boss battle, that really stands out. After losing your powers, the prayers of the people you have helped and befriended across the course of your adventure allow you to steadily regain your strength. This theme sets the stage for a rousing final bout, the score motivating you to achieve victory as you regain the upper hand, as if it's the final round of an against-the-odds sports movie. It is the perfect note (pun intended) to close out your epic quest.

#8: Reach Out to the Truth- Persona 4 (PS2, 2008)

Ah, nothing like good ol' J-pop to get you in the mood for hours of dungeon-fighting fun. In all seriousness, Persona 4 is a truly fantastic game that really stands out as a unique gaming cocktail mix- part turn-based RPG, part Pokemon-style collecting/fusing system, and part high-school social sim, with a heaping helping of murder mystery, comedy, and deep psychological study. One of its most celebrated elements is undoubtedly the killer soundtrack by Shoji Meguro, making the small town of Inaba feel almost alive. While the truly badass boss theme comes close, it's your main battle theme "Reach Out to the Truth" that's guaranteed to stay stuck in your head for all time. It not only summarizes the central theme of the game, but it also proves to be just as infectiously catchy every time, getting you pumped for a fight even if it's what feels like your hundredth or so in a row (probably because it was your 200th- this is one addictive game, as my severe loss of sleep will attest...)

#7: Dragonborn- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360/PS3/PC, 2011)

I'm going to be honest here: I haven't actually played Skyrim. I know, seems a bit blasphemous, right? Partly it's because I haven't found the time, partly it's because of my personal tastes and preferences with games (more on that another time- though it looks like a great game). But if you want epic, Lord of the Rings-esque game music filled with chanting, then the awesomeness emanating from "Dargonborn" is undeniable. Makes me really want to try and hunt some dragons... (even if How to Train Your Dragon taught us how it's wrong)

#6: Hidden Village- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Wii/GC, 2006)

Okay, I might just have a thing for western-style themes in video games. But not only does "Hidden Village" itself evoke a very western feel in the most overtly mature Zelda game to date (a lone warrior in a shootout against an army of bandits holed up throughout the small town), but the music really manages to stand out among the soundtrack for the rest of Twilight Princess (and probably the whole series for that matter). Hell, Link's Crossbow Training was almost worth playing just to have gallery shootouts set to this theme!

#5: Arie ~Recollection~ - Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3, 2013)

When I heard about this game, an RPG co-produced by the much-revered Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli, I was sold on it right then and there. When I heard that composer Joe Hisaishi, regular collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki, was doing the score for the game, I knew to expect something special. And damn did it ever deliver. This is undoubtedly the best score for any game released in 2013, not to mention the best orchestral soundtrack for a role-playing game that I've heard in ages. There are too many great tracks to choose from: the incredible overworld theme, the awesome boss battle music, and not to mention the one that plays when you ride your freakin' dragon. But my choice must go to "Arie ~Recollection~", a theme that is not adventurous or whimsical, but rather quiet, simple and deeply emotional.
In other words, it's the only theme on this list guaranteed to inspire waterworks. It gently builds, almost as if to lull you into a sense of security, good memories of days gone by, all before it goes straight for the heart. It is a theme that is undeniably, indisputably moving, and a prime example of why Hisaishi's score stands apart from your average game.

#4: Nate's Theme- Uncharted Series (PS3, 2007/2009/2011)

You know a theme is great when you'll wait around on the game's title menu, stalling from actually starting up the game, just to hear that music. "Nate's Theme" stands the tall challenge of having to be a call to thrilling action/adventure to rival the iconic "Raiders March" from the film series it takes the most inspiration from, Indiana Jones (seriously, you could write a whole thesis paper on the similarities between Uncharted 3 and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, following its trilogy-capper formula to a "t"). And while nothing beats John Williams (to be fair, nothing ever will), "Nate's Theme" sure isn't a disappointment. Just try listening to that theme and not feeling a stir within you to go looking for treasure and globe-trotting thrills (though if it makes you want to watch National Treasure, you may want to consult someone about that).

#3: Apotheosis- Journey (PS3, 2012)

It's that moment in any journey, when the hero rises up in triumph after reaching his lowest point, that gives us as audiences the utmost feeling of satisfaction. It is a constant (arguably flat-out necessary) component to any good story. In seven awe-inspiring minutes, that is exactly the sensation "Apotheosis" doesn't just give, but downright embodies. Combined with the game's truly astonishing visuals, it makes Journey's climax and denouement not just memorable, but transcendent. In a game that already raises the bar for the medium's recognition as an art form with its gallery-worthy art design and simple-yet-powerful  use of gameplay to convey theme, Austin Wintory's astounding score ensures its legacy.

#2: Suicide Mission- Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360/PC, 2010)

In a truly epic science fiction trilogy filled with outstanding cinematic music (this incredible track from Mass Effect 3 was in very serious contention), none of them had quite the same personal impact as the theme for the climactic assault against the Collectors in Mass Effect 2. The slow build creates a sense of tension as you and your team make plans for the final assault. Every experience in the game has been leading to this, to what has been deemed a suicide mission. Your team's trust and loyalty is crucial, and your decisions can (literally) mean life-or-death for those friends and comrades you have connected with. As the action kicks in so does the theme in full, managing to be simultaneously intense, stirring, and altogether exhilarating. It says something when a game actually gets me to jump up and cheer at its end- not because of overcoming great difficulty, but because the score had given such a triumphant feeling as I blasted away from the exploding Collector base, my party having survived the impossible.

#1: Gusty Garden Galaxy- Super Mario Galaxy (Wii, 2007)

Super Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite games of all time (and definitely my favorite 3D Mario title), and the "Gusty Garden Galaxy" theme does so much to encapsulate why. Listening to this theme, what does it make you feel?
Adventure via cosmic road trip. Exploration, awaiting whatever wonders, good or no, that you'll encounter next. The sense of an epic quest unfolding in front of you. Bust most of all it embodies the feeling that best sums up the game as a whole: joy. Pure, bright, unbridled joy, no matter how old you are, whether you're playing for the first time or the fiftieth.
To me, that is what Super Mario Galaxy is. And the heights it reaches are a lofty standard that more games need to try and strive for (more recent Mario games included).

Thanks for reading! Expect a new list sometime on the horizon!