Video game music has existed almost as long as video games themselves and has evolved in tandem with video game technology. We’ve certainly come a long way from the bloops and bleeps of gaming’s early days (though said bloops and bleeps are certainly good in their own way). Today, video games have epic soundtracks comparable to that of big-budget Hollywood films. Too often, however, the people behind the music, the great video game composers, are overlooked.
I would argue that music is a critical component of what makes a game truly great. A great soundtrack can truly help immerse you in the game and enhance your gaming experience. Conversely, a mediocre soundtrack can be what keeps a good game from being great. When people think of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA series, for example, the iconic music of the series probably sticks in their heads almost as much as the epic boss battles. That is the result of a great video game composer.
This article will aim to give some well-deserved acclaim to a selection of great video game composers. Unfortunately, listing all the great composers in gaming both past and present would take a very long time. Because of this, this article will be limited to a few great men and women. If you know of other great video game composers who deserve recognition, post examples in the comments! I am always happy to hear great music.
How Far We’ve Come
But first, it is worth mentioning just how much video game music has penetrated into our culture already, and how it has gone from niche to fairly mainstream.
As a generation comes of age who has grown up with video games their entire lives, the stigma of video game music being nothing more than bloops and bleeps continues to fade into history. Today, video game music is an industry unto itself.
Tommy Tallarico, a prolific video game composer, is most famous for creating Video Games Live, a concert tour dedicated to the celebration of video game music. I have attended the concert upwards of six times and heartily recommend it.
When Tallarico started VGL, people told him that he was crazy, and how he’d never be able to make money by playing video game music of all things. People told him he’d be lucky to get a hundred people to show up. In 2005, VGL debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to an audience of 11,000 people. Today, VGL has played for millions of people worldwide and continues to tour. Suffice to say, Tallarico’s naysayers have egg on their face.
Why is this important? Because the success of VGL, as well as later video game concerts such as THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: SYMPHONY OF THE GODDESSES, shows how far gaming and its music has come. From a “nerdy” niche to multi-million dollar symphonic tours that play worldwide, it is indisputable that gaming and its music are now integral parts of our culture and entertainment. This will only continue to grow as video games become further mainstream.
The legendary Koji Kondo, as composer for the SUPER MARIO BROS and THE LEGEND OF ZELDA franchises, is responsible for some the most iconic tunes in gaming. This includes arguably the most famous tune of them all. I would go as far as to say he is the composer people think of when they think of great video game composers, and for good reason. ZELDA, in particular, is widely venerated for its epic soundtrack.
Listing all of the great songs that he has composed over the decades would take ages. I will limit myself to a few examples. Obviously, the main theme must be mentioned, but that goes without saying. Perhaps my personal favorite track in the ZELDA series would be from MAJORA’S MASK.
I am talking about the Final Hours theme. In-game, this dark, sombre theme plays six in-game hours before the end of the world. It is, perhaps, the single greatest piece of atmospheric music I have ever heard. It is a theme which perfectly encapsulates both the in-game situation and the game as a whole. This theme gives a feeling of utter hopelessness and despair in the face of annihilation.
However, it also gives a feeling of a serene acceptance of the inevitable. Combined with the in-game bells and tremors that accompany it, it is truly a masterpiece of video game immersion. Koji Kondo has a plethora of amazing tracks under his belt. This entire article could be devoted to him. However, this song is what I think solidifies him as one of the greatest video game composers of all time.
Motoi Sakuraba is a very prolific video game composer. Any fan of JRPGs not named FINAL FANTASY has probably heard some of his tracks. For example, he composes music for the TALES OF series. Other games include STAR OCEAN and VALKYRIE PROFILE.
Today, Sakuraba is probably most famous as the composer for the DARK SOULS series. I sadly have not played those games, so I cannot list any of their tracks. However, if they are anything like the other games he has composed, the DARK SOULS series is in good hands.
However, I would say that his magnum opus is the score for the BATEN KAITOS series. The games were released during the Gamecube era, and are underappreciated gems on the system for a multitude of reasons. The art direction is breathtakingly beautiful, the gameplay is interesting and unique, and the story, while not without flaws, is engaging.
Whatever your thoughts on the games, though, the soundtrack is something else. Sakuraba shows great versatility, ranging from the intrepid Soft Labyrinth, the eclectic Chaotic Dance, the heroic Brave Way, and so many, many more. And this is only from the first game! The prequel has just as good if not better a soundtrack.
Again, I could write an entire article on not only Sakuraba but these two games alone.
Yuka Tsujiyoko is a composer at Intelligent Systems, a Nintendo developer most famous for the FIRE EMBLEM, ADVANCE WARS, and PAPER MARIO series. All three series have excellent soundtracks, though FIRE EMBLEM, in particular, stands out in that regard.
The FIRE EMBLEM titles for the SNES (which sadly were never released outside Japan), as well the Game Boy Advance (which were the first to be released in the West), contain some of the finest examples of 16-bit sound. The FIRE EMBLEM games from the Gamecube and Wii era onwards contain amazing orchestral scores.
The PAPER MARIO series is no slouch either. The original PAPER MARIO for the Nintendo 64 has what’s perhaps the best soundtrack on the system outside of the two ZELDA games. Its sequel PAPER MARIO: THE THOUSAND YEAR DOOR for the Gamecube, is one of the best RPGs ever made. It also arguably has an even better soundtrack — yet another way in which THE THOUSAND YEAR DOOR is a perfect example of how to do a sequel.
If you’ve played any of Nintendo’s RPGs or strategy games, you’ve probably heard Tsujyoko’s tracks. It is hard to say which particular game she has worked on is her best work. However, one cannot argue that she is not great at what she does. She is comparatively less well-known than the two men above and deserves more recognition. Her work makes her well worthy of the title of one of the great video game composers.
The Future of Video Game Composers
Just as video games themselves have come a long way from the days of PONG, so too has video game music. From the classic 8-bit tunes of the NES era to magnificent orchestral scores that rival blockbuster Hollywood films, video game music continues to further evolve and change. And it is not going to stop.
Just as the video game industry as a whole continues to grow, video game music will become ever more mainstream with time. I believe video game soundtracks will be held in as high esteem as film soundtracks one day, as will video game composers. The success of Video Games Live is just the beginning.
I would place money on it happening within my lifetime.