Hi Destructoid! You know what's great? Video Game Music. We're all here because we love games, but how many people really give attention to the soundtracks? How many turn the game volume down and play their own tunes instead? There are some truly phenomenal game soundtracks out there and I think I'd like to start a series showcasing some of (what I think are) the best. I want to focus on games that may escape the every day thought. Sure, games like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger may have amazing soundtracks, but they're also people's go-to when they think of memorable gaming tunes.
I want to change that. Destructoid used to have an infrequent series called The Memory Card. In this series, Old Dtoid staffers would write about gaming memories that were truly legendary. I want to do the same, but with music.
I haven't figured out a schedule yet, but once a day/week/twice a week, I'll post a piece about a game soundtrack that is truly memorable. It may be obscure, it may be popular. I won't discriminate, but as I said I do definitely want to draw some attention to some hidden gems of the game music world. In each piece, I will highlight and talk about some specific tracks, as well as the soundtrack overall. I'll also include a couple nifty covers of great tracks from the games, because if you're not into covers of sweet VGM, you should be.
For the inaugural entry in this series, I decided to pick one of my favorite games AND game soundtracks: ActRaiser for the SNES.
First, a little explanation on what the hell this game even is for those who have never heard of it.
ActRaiser is sort of two games in one, with each game feeding into the other. First, you have a Sim section where you play the role of a deity trying to foster a society and allow humanity to flourish. In order to do this, you have to enter sidescrolling action-platforming levels by possessing a statue and clear the land of the vile beasts that are wreaking havoc. After you clear the Act 1 boss for each region, you are taken to the Sim portion of the game where you will control a cherubic representative (FLYING NAKED 16-BIT BABIES WHOO!) in directing the development of a town.
When building the town, you will be tasked with using your angel's bow to destroy demons that pop up from portals that can be destroyed by directing your people to build towards them. As the population of your town grows, your Level for the side-scrolling areas increases, giving you more HP. Once all of the demons' portals are sealed, the second act becomes available. This is usually a more difficult side-scrolling level and has a major boss fight. Your score in each act contributes to how high your population can grow. So, the better you do in the side-scrolling levels, the more townspeople you can have, which translates to more levels, which means more HP. Which you will need. Seriously. This game is HARD.
There's a little more nuance to the game, but that's a decent enough explanation. Onto the music!
The soundtrack was composed by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro. Some of you may know him for his work on the Streets of Rage Trilogy, Etrian Odyssey, Ys I&II, or contributing work to Kid Icarus: Uprising and Super Smash Bros. Brawl. His claim to fame is that he composes all of his music on an old Yamaha FM Synth keyboard. Basically the same sound chip the Genesis uses. In ActRaiser, he really showed what the SNES' sound chip was capable of, which is impressive, considering this game was very early in the system's lifecycle.
The first track I want to talk about is probably the game's most iconic: Fillmore Act 1.
Take a couple minutes and listen to this beauty. There's so much going on. The convincing Orchestral score, the driving slap-bass. It's a great start to the adventure and really pulls you in to this fantastical world full of demons that need slaying. This stage takes place entirely in a forest full of angry monkeys, glowing bees, and walking trees. The hook is catchy and the bridge is intense. There's a reason it's the most well-known track in the game.
After clearing the forest and killing a super rude centaur, you're taken to the first Sim section, where you're tasked with guiding the people of Fillmore in building a thriving civilization. The music here is the song you will probably hear the most. It's a nice, calm, medieval sounding piece that doesn't overstay its welcome and encourages you to just take your time and build a good city.
After you've cleared Fillmore's town of Demon portals, the second Act's entrance is revealed.
Once you enter the second act and possess another conveniently placed hero statue, you're greeted with dark, dingy, dripping caves. The level is filled with slithering slugs, demon statues shooting fireballs, Lion Facades dropping magic murder balls down walls, dagger throwing imps and sword-weilding skeleton dinosaurs. The music here is a brass- and woodwind-filled piece. It evokes a feeling of mystery, claustrophobia, and vague sense of unease with its short, punctuated notes. It's quite understated and the melody is haunting.
At the end of Fillmore Act 2, you fight a big-ass minotaur that hurls ethereal axes and jumps around everywhere while a trippy space-warping background tries to distract you. It's not fun. And this is the easiest Act 2 boss in the game!
It's tempting to go track-by-track because everything is just so good, but I'm only gonna mention 2 more and then I'll be done.
First up is the music you'll first encounter on your trip to the second region, Bloodpool.
Continuing with the amazing orchestral soundtrack, this piece is completely in your face with its intensity. This song lets you know that shit's real and you need to move, move, move. There's a sense of urgency and real danger in its blasting brass lead and driving beat. It also wouldn't be out of place in a Star Wars flick. This song is probably the second most common one you'll hear, as it is used in several of the action levels (Fillmore Act 2 is used a lot, too).
The final piece I want to touch on is a huge step back in intensity from all the action sequences. In one of the regions you'll be responsible for managing, the people discover music. They give you, their God, this music as a gift.
This is a song I could listen to for hours. It's a beautiful string piece, calm, reassuring, and a little bit sad. It's the kind of song that would work perfectly as a music box. The gift of music that you are given is actually used in a town you saved previously when its citizens become angry and hostile, reusing to work. The music calms their anger and the people are once again happy. This may be my favorite piece in the entire soundtrack, short as it is.
Well, there it is. Some of the highlights of the phenomenal ActRaiser OST. There are more stunning songs int eh game. Northwall's Act 1 is a good one as well. I didn't really focus on the boss music as, while great, it's not anything that would stand out from a lot of boss battle music in games of the era. If you're interested in hearing the rest of the tracks, here's a handy YouTube playlist!
And you know what? Here's a bonus! Remember how, at the beginning, I mentioned Yuzo Koshiro being known for composing everything on an old Yamaha keyboard? Well, it applies to ActRaiser, too! Here's an album of his original compositions, including some that weren't in the original game! Hearing what some of these songs could have sounded like on the Sega Genesis is a trip.
Finally, I promised you all a sweet cover. There are so many good ones that I could showcase, but I'm gonna go with my personal favorite. Teddy's Bread by Stemage and chunkstyle (of Metroid Metal internet fame):
And that's it! I hope this long-ass read got you interested in checking out the soundtracks of some quality games yourselves or at least inspired you to appreciate what the composers of these games have done. Sure, throwing on a Spotify playlist is great, but there's some truly amazing stuff right in that wonderful console of yours!
What do you all think? Is this a series you'd be interested in me continuing? Do you have any favorite game soundtracks? If you do, let me know! I love talking about VGM!