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Gaming’s Most Original Soundtracks Of The Decade

by Axis Of Reality

© 2010 Alex Baldwin – Features Editor

We’re only a few days into the second decade of the new millenium. To celebrate what has arguably seen gaming take over as the dominant entertainment medium, I thought it appropriate to honour one of the most overlooked elements of games that has seen tremendous growth in recent year: its soundtrack.

Specifically, games with original soundtracks (that is, not licensed music) composed around the gameplay and events. These are often later released as full albums.

While there have been many amazing soundscapes created for games both big and small, I’ll be covering some of the most noteworthy in various game genres including what is my pick of the best this decade has produced.

Role Playing Games

The soundtracks for RPGs (including Japanese RPGs) tend to rely on set themes for various gameplay events, such as having a recognisable battle piece or musical motifs for major world areas to give each location a unique identity. Classical elements are also popular.

My pick: Eternal Sonata

Fusing very classical melodies with large scale orchestral overtures, Eternal Sonata’s name gave it away that the entire game was themed around music.

Showing a world that exists inside Chopin’s dreams as he dies, all the towns and characters have musical names and an appropriately well-composed soundtrack.

It blends in when needed yet comes to the forefront to highlight significant events in a way that gave the world a unique feel.

Examples of other noteworthy RPG soundtracks:

  • Fable series (I, II)
  • Elder Scrolls series (Morrowind, Oblivion)
  • Lost Odyssey
  • Kingdom Hearts series (1, 2)
  • Star Ocean series
  • Mass Effect
  • Okami
  • Dragon Quest series
  • Knights of the Old Republic series (I, II)
  • Final Fantasy series (X, X-2, XI, XII, VII: Crisis Core)

Adventure

While similar in style to RPG soundtracks, adventure games can often have the additional requirements of needing to dynamically change during play as specific events such as fighting or exploring are usually not as strictly seperated as RPGs.

As such while still for the majority using orchestral compositions they will use less instruments and have less overt themes to prevent giving the incorrect musical accompaniment to the player’s actions.

My pick: Assassin’s Creed series

The real difficulty for open world games is that the player is free to do any number of things at any time, making it difficult for a planned or scripted soundtrack to follow.

Luckily the Assassin’s Creed series (particularly the second) got it right with a dynamically changing sound environment that ramped up as the action began to flow and mirrored the player’s own emotions as they played.

Examples of other noteworthy adventure game soundtracks:

  • Zelda series on console (Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess)
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum (can also be classified as action)
  • Bioshock (can also be classified as shooter)

Platform

An unfortunate development this decade was the decline of the platforming genre that was so prevalent in the 90s due to the rise of the action and shooter genres. However, we have gotten some true gems and suitably these have been accompanied by some memorable music.

Platform games are primarily separated into distinct worlds which use music to define the feeling of each. There is a balance between simplistic melodies and larger-scale orchestral pieces that bridge the gap between the original limited audio technology of the platformers’ heyday and the modern epic soundtracks.

My pick: Super Mario Galaxy

Using many of the familiar themes from past Mario games, Galaxy gave them a significant overhaul by expanding the once simply melodies into orchestral symphonies.

The quiet magic of the main hub to the majestic flying theme all created a sense of wonderment that many thought Nintendo had lost.

Examples of noteworthy platform game soundtracks:

  • New Super Mario Bros Wii
  • Banjo Kazooie: Nuts ‘n’ Bolts
  • De Blob
  • Super Smash Bros series (Melee, Brawl) (can also be classified as action)

Action / Shooter

Here’s where music budgets shoot sky-high. As the action and shooter genre has come out as the dominant games of choice in the last few years studio have realised the importance of the soundtrack in immersing the player in the action. As a result the style of choice is Epic with a capital E recorded by large professional orchestras.

There is some distinction between styles here however. While some like Killzone 2 go for using the music to pull the player into the immediate action by providing a sense of scale and urgency, others such as Halo use distinct, memorable melodies for the player to associate with certain actions, characters of locations.

My pick: Lair

No matter what you thought of the game, there’s no denying it had it going on in the sound department.

Using epic themes reminiscent of John Williams’ work in Star Wars the soundtrack was perhaps the single redeeming point of the game.

If you’re not interested in the sadly flawed game the soundtrack is available for purchase and is well worth your dollars.

Examples of noteworthy action / shooter game soundtracks:

  • Killzone series (1, 2)
  • Gears of War series (particularly 2)
  • Uncharted series (Drakes Fortune, Among Thieves)
  • Metal Gears Solid series (2, 3, 4)
  • Call of Duty series (1, 2, 3, 4, World at War, Modern Warfare 2)
  • Medal of Honor series (Allied Assault, Frontline, Rising Sun, Pacific Assault, European Assault, Airborne)
  • Star Wars: Force Unleashed

Indie

In contrast to the large budgets and orchestras of the action / shooter genre, indie games must make do with much smaller resources which can often have the beneficial effect of introducing new style and experimentation.

From electronic music to ambient natural themes, the music here can really define a game and have seen some amazing success in the latest generation.

My pick: World of Goo

Just play the game and you’ll see why.

The charming high-pitched squeals of the blobs combined with some almost show-tuney themes in minor keys contributed greatly to the mesmerising quality of the game.

And the best news is, the game itself is cheaper than what you’d usually pay for a soundtrack album anyway!

Examples of noteworthy indie game soundtracks:

  • Braid
  • Flower
  • Dyson (now released on Steam as Eufloria)

Other Genres

The genres covered above are the most noteworthy for original soundtracks this decade. While there are other such as racing, real-time strategy, sports and fighting these either do not often use original soundtracks or have not had many of significance as yet.

Licensed Soundtracks

These are very tricky as it can be purely up the player’s taste, and as such aren’t included in this list. However, some games with popular licensed soundtracks include:

  • Jet Set Radio Future
  • Tony Hawk’s series
  • Grand Theft Auto series (in particular Vice City)
  • Need for Speed series

OXCGN’s Soundtrack Of The Decade


Now this is a prickly area, as just with all ‘best of’ lists, it’s based on the preference of the writer. However, taking everything into consideration I’d have to say in my own opinion the best soundtrack this decade has seen is:

HALO: Combat Evolved (Xbox, PC)

From the eery sweeping choral chanting that gave me goosebumps to the chimes and orchestral runs as the beautiful outdoor vistas opened up for exploration, Halo set the new standard for game soundtracks outside RPGs.

The music was incredibly woven in the with gameplay experience, providing memorable themes that were synonymous with certain locations and enemies while knowing when to hold back and revert to ambient soundscapes when the quiet could be just as effective (remember the swamp level before discovering the Flood?).

Sumthing Distributors Halo Combat Evolved Soundtracks, where you’ll find each chapter of the game in all its splendour.

And just as effective were the tribal drum beats that kicked in during high-pressure action and the famous warthog run that ended the game (known as The Maw).

While the Halo sequels have built on these foundations it’s amazing that the themes and basis for the music are all still intact 8 years on and proves how effective they were. While ODST took a detour to try something different to great success (being named Soundtrack of the Year at the Spike TV Video Game Awards), there’s still something so beautiful and haunting about the original soundtrack that I haven’t seen emulated yet in any other game.

Halo 3 best original score by Spike

• Congratulations to composers Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori for being awarded OXCGN’s Original Soundtrack of the Decade.

© 2010 Alex Baldwin



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About AXiDER (63 Articles)
B. Games and Interactive Entertainment Honours in Game Design PhD Candidate in Game Design and Player Experience

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