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The 8-Bit Playlist: A Look at Great Gaming Soundtracks #1

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While anybody who’s picked up a controller can tell you some of their favorite video game soundtracks, most gamers tend to stick to titles they have played when choosing their top OSTs. And that’s one aspect that’s always compelled me about video game soundtracks. It’s a medium within a medium. Similar to artwork, writing and cinematography, but decidedly different in some way.

To me, music seems to stand on its own compared to other mediums in games, while maintaining the same level of importance. Maybe it’s my love of good tunes or my need to always have a full library of music to listen to, but for the past decade I’ve always kept a keen interest in gaming music.

However, it wasn’t until recently that I took that passion to the next level. In my quest to explore parts of the world I’d never seen (I’m from the US and currently living in Australia), I also left home with a mission to explore unfamiliar OSTs on my travels. After almost half a year diving into some of gaming’s best soundtracks, I’d like to share with the world some of my greatest findings in this continued series. In each entry I’ll look at five albums from anywhere in the annals of video game history and briefly talk about what makes them so special.

This week we’ll start with an ass-kicking album that comes from a side-scrolling beat ’em up. Any guesses?

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game (2010, PS3 & Xbox 360)

Composer: Anamanaguchi

Genre: Chiptune, Rock

Release Date: August, 24

Favorite Tracks: Another Winter, Sushi Box, TechnoMan, Scott Pilgrim Anthem

Length: 46 min.

Played: Yes

This album can essentially be boiled down to NES-style songs gone Super Saiyan! It has all of the same goofy charm the graphic novel and movie have become cherished for, neatly wrapped in a gleeful chiptune package. Most of the tracks boast a spirited pace and the album as a whole pushes forward purposefully. Even though the album was clearly meant to give off a distinct Scott Pilgrim vibe, Anamanaguchi makes sure each track stands out on its on merits.

SP fans and video game music enthusiasts alike will be pleased to have this album in their library, as it works as its own standalone effort that can be enjoyed separately from the game. This album is best listened to when you want to rock out rather than just relax as the rhythm is typically fast and the beat hits hard. Listen to this if you like any of Anamanaguchi’s previous work, 8-bit tunes or quick, electronic rock music.

Crypt of the NecroDancer (2014, PC, PS4 & PS Vita)

Composer: Danny Baranowsky

Genre: Dance, Electronic

Release Date: July, 30

Favorite Tracks: Momentum Mori, Deep Sea Bass, Portabellohead

Length: Around 90 minutes

Played: No

Although I haven’t played CotN, I have seen its rhythmic gameplay, which is why I’m not shocked that listening to the OST makes me feel like I’m in a nightclub. But even if you’re not the biggest fan of dancing you should at least give this album a listen. Again, as someone who hasn’t experienced the gameplay firsthand and encountered the music through that physical means, I can still appreciate how this soundtrack puts a little pep in my step every time I put it on. It also gives listeners a feel for how the game raises in intensity as the player progresses. By the OST’s finish the beats per minute go from 100 in the CotN tutorial to the final track’s quick 160 BPM. Every other track gradually leads up to that pace and brings a unique flare to the table. Where some songs sport an eerie zombie boogie tone, others might sound more salsa-esque. Listen this this album if you like dance music, the Super Meat Boy OST or if you need something to pump you up.

Pokemon Snap (1999, Nintendo 64)

Composer: Ikuko Mimori

Genre: Instrumental, Ambient

Release Date: June 30

Favorite Tracks: Cave, Rainbow Cloud, The Hut by the River, Valley, Tunnel

Duration: About 40 min.

Played: A long time ago

If you’re saying that I must be blinded by nostalgia to put Pokemon Snap of all things on this list, then you might be right – but that absolutely does not mean this soundtrack is bad. Admittedly, it isn’t the most natural-sounding OST outside of its source material, but if you’re just you’re just lying in bed looking for something to make your eyelids heavy, this might be one of the chillest albums you’ve relaxed to in a while.

In the “beach” track, island drums and the sound of waves lapping on the shore wash over you. Birds chirp and spacey electronic sounds surround you on all sides in the “tunnel” track. So despite this appearing to be an odd choice, this dream-like journey might be one of the most underrated albums in relaxation. It’s not the hardest hitting music so don’t expect to throw this on at any party that isn’t Pokemon themed, but do expect sweet dreams if you need something to lull you to sleep at night.

Golden Sun (2001, Game Boy Advance)

Composer: Motoi Sakuraba

Genre: Synth, Electronic

Release Date: August 1

Favorite Tracks: Isaac’s Battle Theme, Sol Sanctum, Battle with Saturos, Venus Lighthouse

Duration: About 45 Minutes

Played: Yes

Man, this game makes me miss my GBA. As a kid who grew up watching his brother play Super Mario RPG, Secret of Mana, Ocarina of Time and other games that covered a grand adventure and had the music to back it up, my hopes were high when I picked up Golden Sun. It was only after being totally swept away by the handheld epic and its equally impressive soundtrack that I realized I got everything I could have wished for and more from a game that I could play on the bus rides to and from school. A masterpiece that fit in my pocket!

Saying the soundtrack was equally as impressive might be a bit of an understatement. It had everything. All of the melancholic villages, wondrous forests, triumphant towers and decisive battles that I remembered from RPGs of days past lived on and jumped out of the not-yet-backlit GBA screen with its own stylistic sounds that were similar but not quite the same. This was the perfect game for the 11-year-old me that was just beginning to appreciate games on his own. And it’s still a soundtrack that I can zone out to 15 years later. This album is fast at some points and slows down to a relaxing lull at others, so it’s best listened to when you’re not looking for too much of either.

Grim Fandango (1998, PC)

Composer: Peter McConnell

Genre: Jazz, Big Band, Swing, Bebop, Mexican

Release Date: October 30

Favorite Tracks: Hector Steps Out, Coaxing Meche, Ninth Heaven

Duration: About 45 minutes

Played: No

It doesn’t take liking games to fall in love with this album from Peter McConnell, who’s since created works for games such as Star Wars: Battlefront, Brutal Legend, Escape from Monkey Island and Psychonauts. (Among so many more. Seriously, Look up this guy’s track record.) In my case, it doesn’t even take having played the game to recognize this soundtrack as the incredible accomplishment that it is. But it does make me want to pick up a copy ASAP.

The spirited flutes, sad string instruments and persistent percussion tell their own story and bring with that story Mexican, South American, Spanish, Indian and even Russian undertones. Some of the tracks I would expect to hear in a smoky jazz club back in the 1920s and others might seem more at home in a dusty Mexican town alongside luchadores and dancers dressed in colorful garb. If you like music and haven’t heard this album, open up YouTube and give it a listen. If you don’t like music, then I suggest you do the same. Grim Fandango might just be the soundtrack to change your mind.

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