A recent graduate in Biology, neverless my first love in entertainment and media has always been video games, even though I don't get a lot of time to play recent ones now. I still enjoy following the industry and gushing about the latest Nintendo releases.
A Critical Ear: Analyzing Music in Video Games
If there's one thing that I like more than talking about video games, it's talking about music in video games. As a classically trained pianist that has been playing for more than twelve years, I take a look at some of my favorite soundtracks and how they contribute to the gaming experience as a whole.
There are two types of “epic” boss themes in video game soundtracks: those that say “Oh my god we’re facing down an avatar of phenomenal cosmic power that could easily grind us into dust if we piss it off”; and those that say “…and we’re going TO KICK ITS ASS!!”
I’ve mentioned many boss themes in previous articles, but they all fall underneath the first category. This is mainly because I’ve discussed how well they play up the fight itself and the bad guy that the player confronts. Those boss themes are memorable because they relate to your opponent so well, but how many instead emphasize how awesome you are? Which pieces of music make the player truly feel like the dragon-slaying badass they control, and provide a fitting backdrop for your victory over incalculable odds? Today, I will illustrate several themes that give you the courage and determination to keep on fighting against the strongest of enemies.
Many plots in video games follow a linear path of defeating consecutively stronger enemies until you beat the strongest of them all and win the game. However, while linear, it’s not always a smooth road nowadays, and many games will have you stuck in a seemingly impossible situation where the heroes are defeated and all hope seems lost, after getting beaten up by the Big Bad….until some plot element decides to show up and give the heroes a second wind to rise up and defeat the boss for good. This is the form that most of the themes in question take, providing a victorious mood to match the determination that keeps the main characters in the game fighting.
(Author's note: No major spoilers here this time, feel free to read the article in its entirety!)
For example, the 3D Sonic games have used this starting with Sonic Adventure, and has been a recurrent theme (for better or worse) in every 3D iteration of the series since then. You defeat what the game initially frames as the final boss, find out the world is still doomed because a bigger boss is still alive, unlock the True ending, turn into Super Sonic, and grin as the main theme of the game kicks in for the final final boss fight. These games are interesting in that the songs have vocals, where the vast majority of music in video games is instrumental (it costs extra money to hire good singers, you know). The lyrics may be cheesy and clichéd, but the plot of the Sonic series is cheesy and clichéd already, so one hardly notices the difference.
The Sonic series doesn’t have a monopoly on this style of final boss music either, it can also be found in Elite Beat Agents, where the agents are de-stoned and deliver the final blow to the evil music-hating aliens to The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. It’s also appears in the Subspace Emissary mode of Super Smash Bros. Brawl for the fight against Tabuu. The entire roster of Nintendo fighters (save for Kirby, Ness, and Luigi), have all been wiped out by his super-powered rainbow-wing-wave attack , but they come back to the brink, defeat the evil, neon-colored….um, entity, and save the world of Smash Bros. from the encroaching subspace. The song used here is decidedly more upbeat when compared to the "normal" final boss theme, the Final Destination music that plays during the fights with Master Hand. Perhaps this difference in moods for the respective themes symbolizes Tabuu as a tangible villain that can be defeated with finality, whereas the struggle against Master Hand continues for as long as the game itself continues.
Another type of “uplifting” boss music also occurs where a boss theme initially starts out dark and oppressive, but transitions into a more victorious movement later on, sometimes triggered by a specific action in the fight itself. This is usually found during longer boss fights, where even the player can get worn out by the endless battle. When the triumphant part occurs in the song, it gives the person behind the controller a morale boost, and thus spurs the character they control to keep fighting as well.
This isn’t just relegated to final bosses either, it’s used in Twilight Princess against any dungeon boss. As soon as you stun your opponent or gain access to its contractually-required weak spot, the normal boss music transitions into a variation on the Hyrule Field theme (see here at the 3:00 minute mark). Super Mario Galaxy does it during the Bowser fights when you knock him on his shell and boot the spiky turtle around the arena for massive damage. The already-epic music gains an extra layer of vocals that signifies a specific turning point in the battle.
The best example of this occurs during the final boss of the True ending for Persona 4. It’s a stupidly difficult fight in a franchise that’s already well-known for its stupidly difficult fights, and the song used for this particular boss is roughly 7 minutes UNLOOPED. However, around the 5:30 minute-mark, another recognizable theme from the game enters. After hearing it for so many fights in so many dungeon crawls, the original version of “Reach Out To The Truth” starts to go one ear and out the other, but the chorus in the final boss theme, “Genesis” brings back its message with renewed vigor and reminds you of everything you’ve been fighting for throughout the events of the game.
I won’t lie to you, it made me cry tears of happiness the first time I heard it. The build-up to the 6:46 mark is just so goddamned perfect. It starts with everything else fading out, then the main melody is played slowly on one lone trumpet before the rest of the orchestra swells and joins in to encourage the player to keep on fighting through the fog.
These are the boss songs that really make you feel that you can take on the world and win, that when you reach your darkest hour, the dawn is only a short while away. Video games are all about escapism, and what better way to go on a power trip than with these themes declaring your undeniable awesomeness for the world to hear? When used correctly, this particular type of fight music not only portrays the in-game character as capable of taking on the world and winning, but also the player that controls the protagonist as well.