Ah, the Super Nintendo, aka the best darn video game system known to mankind. As you may or may not know, I am not only a big fan of video game music, but I also do some remixes from time to time (such as the BIT.TRIP remix featured in our podcast) as well as write my own music. I am currently in the midst of creating a video game soundtrack for a game that does not exist anywhere outside of my head. Well, I’m calling it a soundtrack, but it might just end up a mishmosh of semi-related, sort-of-gamey-sounding music. We’ll see.
While writing this so-called soundtrack, I’ve been thinking a lot about what “video game music” means, or to be more precise, what it means to me personally to think of myself as a “video game musician”. In the 8-bit era video game music was limited heavily by hardware (check out my Top 10 NES Original Soundtracks (OSTs) here!), and the result was a distinct sound that could be instantly identified as video game music. The 16-bit era introduced better hardware, opening up more possibilities, but the resulting music still generally had its own sound. However, that hardware limit no longer exists (for the most part), and we are seeing all kinds of music popping up in video games, from classic chiptune sounds to sweeping cinematic tracks to rap, rock, electronic and anything else that the minds of musicians can imagine. Has video game music lost its identity? It seems to me that the only thing that defines video game music in the current gaming era is that it is music that appears in a video game.
Yes, this is pretty much the best video game system ever made.
I suppose that I still have a sense of there being a specific “video game” style nonetheless, even if it is not as concrete as it used to be. Personally, I draw upon a wide range of music when creating my own, and my major influences include punk rock, electronic, piano pieces, and yes, of course, retro video game music. I like to think that my music is more along the lines of the direction video game music would have went towards if it had not turned so cinematic (not that there is anything wrong with cinematic game music, but it generally can’t stand along with retro game music for my tastes.) What does this long and boring story have to do with my top 10 list? Well, when all is said and done, 16-bit video game music, specifically that of the Super Nintendo, is probably my biggest musical influence. Period. The 8-bit era had some awesome music, no doubt, and it is no surprise to me that when musicians look to retro video games for inspiration, they tend to look at the 8-bit era first and foremost. But much like with visuals, gameplay, controls, etc. I really feel like the 16-bit era was everything that the 8-bit era was and then some, and that is where the bulk of my favorite video game soundtracks come from. So in making a list of my top 10 Super Nintendo soundtracks, you’re not just seeing a list of soundtracks that some nostalgic gamer is throwing together years after the fact, you are seeing a list of soundtracks that a musician has drawn upon heavily over the years, and that have never stopped influencing him deeply at his creative core. Neat!
Before we start, I have a self-imposed rule for this list; I will only choose one soundtrack per franchise. Otherwise a few key franchises might overrun the entire list, and that would not be fun, would it? I’m also choosing one song to post with each soundtrack, but this is not a best songs list, it is a best soundtracks list. The song is meant only to give a taste of what the soundtrack has to offer.
Is this going to be my controversial choice? I really don’t know. Lemmings is one of my favorite action / puzzle games, and with 125 stages (SNES version) to play through, it definitely has enough content to keep gamers satiated. The soundtrack has a fair bit of variety, from happy songs to scary songs to... remixed public domain songs? It was the emotional songs that took me by surprise though; this was not something that I expected to find a colorful little puzzle game.
The song that I chose to represent the soundtrack definitely captures that emotional feel for me. Furthermore, it has one of my favorite bass lines (if a fairly common one, Green Day’s “Basket Case” uses a slightly modified version, as does the famous wedding song, and a random VeggieTales song, among others. Don’t ask me why I know this.)
Final Fantasy VI (III)
I’m sure no one is surprised to see this game on my list, although you may be surprised that it isn’t closer to the top. What can I say, I missed out on this game at the time, and didn’t play it until many years later, so it never quite stuck with me the way some other SNES games have. Still, the soundtrack made an impression, and it has everything from energetic battle / boss themes to tear-jerking dramatic themes that scream out “epic”.
The song I picked is a battle theme and probably one of the most renowned Final Fantasy songs, and for good reason. This is a great example of good old fashioned excellent song-writing.
Yoshi’s Island: Super Mario World 2
I think that a lot of people may be expecting the Super Mario World soundtrack to represent the SNES Mario games, but for my dollar, I have to go with Yoshi’s Island. This was this one of my favorite games of the 16-bit era, and it stood out in many ways, from the awesome art style to the polished gameplay to, of course, the soundtrack, which was a bit different from what you might expect from a Mario game, yet still exceptional.
I’m choosing a song that works for me on a lot of levels, but the main one is that it’s not just a great song, it really feels “different” to me than almost anything else I have heard in video games. And it hits you very soon after starting the game, setting a nice tone for what is to come.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
The Legend of Zelda series has a lot of games that get a lot of praise for their soundtracks, and for very good reason. I might even go so far as to say that the series is one of the industry standards for excellence in soundtrack design. A Link to the Past is no exception, and it mixed plenty of original tunes with some nice remixes of classic Zelda themes. A Link to the Past is one of my favorite games of all-time and the soundtrack did not disappoint.
I know that most people (at least, those of us old fogies) probably hear “Zelda theme” and think of the main overworld theme from the original Legend of Zelda game, an icon of video game music. However, to me the A Link to the Past Dark World overworld theme is always the first one that springs to mind, and it may just be my favorite Zelda song.
And yet another Squaresoft RPG on my list. It won’t be the last. Chrono Trigger was a sprawling time-traveling epic, and the soundtrack matched the game perfectly, from the bouncing beats of the caveman days to the tech-infused sounds of the future. Each of the main characters had their own theme as well, and pretty much every one of those themes was awesome.
There is a world up in the sky in Chrono Trigger, and it is a very strange and solemn world. When I first walked into it and heard the theme for that area, it took my breath away. Chrono Trigger has a ton of awesome music, but I had to go with Zeal.
Secret of Mana
Secret of Mana was the first RPG that I ever played, so maybe the nostalgia factor works into this choice a bit. Just a bit. I suspect that most people wouldn’t put this game’s soundtrack quite as high as I am doing, but I don’t care; it’s one of my favorites. No matter how you look at it, the fact remains that Secret of Mana has a stellar soundtrack, and it helps you get lost in the beautiful world of Mana.
You won’t hear the song I chose until the last area of Secret of Mana, but it is well worth the wait. An excellent way to close out what was a spectacular game for me.
Lufia and the Fortress of Doom
What is this? An RPG that wasn’t made by Squaresoft in my list? Heck yes! Those who have played Lufia will know exactly why this soundtrack is so high up on my list. Those who have not; I pity you, for so many reasons. Lufia had one of the most epic and emotional storylines of any SNES RPG, and the soundtrack made me feel every single moment of it; from the the lighthearted moments to the crushing tragedies, and everything in between.
This song brings me to tears, in part on its own terms, but also because of what happens in the game while the song is playing. Lufia was one of the first games to show me that games can excite powerful emotions in us, and this song helped drive that point home.
Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest
The original Donkey Kong Country had me drooling over its graphics months before it released, but it wasn’t until I got my hands on it and cracked into that sucker that I realized that the soundtrack was equally as stunning. I would not have thought that the sequel could top it in the music department, but it did, and then some. Donkey Kong Country 2 has some of the most emotional music that I have heard in any medium, which is kind of hilarious if you think about it, considering that it is a game about a primate collecting bananas.
Was there really any choice in what song I would pick to show off the Donkey Kong Country 2 soundtrack? Way up in a bramble-filled sky this song appeared and oh man... it changed the way that I viewed video game music. I used to turn the game on and play the corresponding stage over and over and over just to hear the music play. This is often considered one of the greatest video game songs of all-time, and it deserves that acclaim.
From the moment the title screen booted up and the hauntingly chilling music began, I knew that I was in for something special with Super Metroid. This may very well be my favorite game of all time, and this is in no small part to the immersion factor. Modern games may claim higher levels of immersion, but I will put this 16-bit gem against any of them, any time. Samus Aran was an isolated women on an alien (in every sense of the word) planet, and the soundtrack made me feel her plight in my bones.
I was tempted to chose a darker song to capture the eerie tone of Super Metroid a bit better, but in the end I had to go with my gut, and give you my favorite song from the game. It plays in an area with lush forestation all around you, and I think it fits pretty well.
Mega Man X
I mentioned above that punk rock is one of my major influences. Well, Mega Man X music is essentially punk rock music in video game form, and how could that not be awesome? Ripping “guitars”, crashing drums, pounding bass lines, dual lead harmonizing solos; this is some seriously intense stuff. And it was all topped off with some raw emotion infused into the mix. I struggled between choosing X or X2 for my list, as both of them have spectacular soundtracks that should not be missed out on, but in the end I went with X. The Mega Man X soundtracks have probably influenced my music more than anything else in the world. I’m being totally serious here, and if you have heard any of my music, you know that I speak truth.
To show off this stellar soundtrack, I had to pick the first fortress stage song. This song manages to be super emotional and totally rockin’ at the same time, which is a rare combination indeed. And I can remember how different this song felt after the erm... mid-stage event. Something major happens which leaves you in a different emotional mindset than when you started the stage, and this song captures the mood perfectly.
Great list and many I agree with though I've never played Lemmings so I wouldn't know about that one. My top 10 would have a lot of those games most likely but no way can I make a proper list. But Lufia II would definitely be above the first game. It's just a much, MUCH better soundtrack! And it even has that song you used to represent the first!
Okay I'll stop now
EDIT: Oh but a game that would make the list is Final Fantasy Mystic Quest. It might be a game most people consider "terrible" for a Squaresoft RPG back in the day but its soundtrack is far from it.
EDIT#2: Touching on your intro part, I do feel that video game music has lost its identity as hardware has improved. I don't know if it's because games were something I didn't own as much of as a kid or if its the style, but today's soundtracks are for the most part not as memorable to me because of losing the "bips" and "beeps" we were all used to during the NES/SNES days.
I know it has that song... a not as good version! Lufia II did have a great soundtrack but my favorite songs from it were just the remixes from the first game, which I felt weren't as good, and even if they were, I still associate them more with the first game.
I gotta tell you guys though, choosing between Mega Man X and Mega Man X2 was a very, very difficult task. I actually think my favorite X song is from X2, but I think the X soundtrack is more consistently awesome, so... yeah. Ug.
Although I wish the loop were a bit longer. But either way that's just PURE FREAKING ROCK there.
And yeah that Mystic Quest song is sweet, I remember getting there and being like... really? This is one of the best video game songs ever in this B-level Final Fantasy side game?!
Are you sureeeeeeee? Maybe you're right, though I could swear Lufia II had a few other remixes. They may have been remixed enough to barely qualify as remixes, but I notice these things! On the other hand, I could be way off here.
Most people probably would go with the original Mega Man NES games if they were picking favorite Mega Man soundtracks, but I prefer X and X2. Don't get me wrong, the NES Mega Man games had some amazing music (especially 2 and to a lesser but still great extent 3.) It's the whole video game rock thing though, I guess, it appeals to me when done right. It would be neat hearing some of those NES songs remade SNES style though...
I'm fairly certain yes. Though it's been a while since I've played Lufia but the only song I recalled from one game to the next was the one linked above. Checking Youtube doesn't seem to bring up a varied soundtrack list... unless if the first game was pretty limited.
I really like your choices, Zero! The Mega Man X series' music in particular has had a major effect on my developing musical taste as well; I credit it with first piquing my interest in metal-style music. I also liked the more orchestral songs in your list as well; the Dark World theme is a major favorite of mine as well in A Link To The Past (the soundtrack in general is great).
I can't think of much to criticize I'd choose different games of course, based on what I've played on the Super NES, but I think all of these choices are good. I'd absolutely feature EarthBound in my list, and definitely Contra III as well.
This song (one of a few from the last level) struck me as a great example of cinematic music in a video game. Each particular section of the track is cued to a different boss battle in the last level, and I think they really accentuate the terror and tension that those bosses instill in the player. I really like the 1:09 section onward in particular; I always think of not just the dragon-style alien boss that you fight alongside it, but it also makes me imagine a dark, dreary battlefield in an apocalyptic world. I think it's incredible, and it (along with Contra III's music in genral) would definitely be near the top of my list of favorite Super NES soundtracks.
I think I would've went with the EXACT same list (in a different order) but I would've swapped out Lemmings for Illusion of Gaia, and I would've maybe swapped out Lufia for Kirby Super Star. The one franchise limit does put some limitations, as we obviously can't include Final Fantasy IV, or (if we wanted to) Seiken Densetsu 3, the successor to Secret of Mana never released in North America. Amazing, amazing soundtracks, and I urge anyone to check out SD3's music if they are even REMOTELY fans of Secret of Mana.
It's very hard for me to disagree with your number one. I think it'd be pretty easy for me to argue that FFVI or Chrono Trigger should be at the top, but Mega Man X' soundtrack is SO good. SO good. Sting Chameleon! Melts my face off.
Earthbound has a good soundtrack. There really isn't anything else like it on the SNES. In the end, the whole soundtrack is just too mundane for me. It fits in great with the game, but doesn't really stick with me later.
Some of my faves that missed the list:
Illusion of Gaia: Town music - an ultimate 'comfort song' for me from the SNES
Seiken Densetsu 3 This is one of those songs that I SWEAR was in Secret of Mana...but I guess it wasn't? Is this a remix?
Kirby Super Star Maybe it's easy to write this game off because it's just so...Kirby...that you kind of don't even think about it amongst the best soundtracks, but man, it's fucking good. The way they filter those main themes throughout the various songs is a sign of amazing, amazing design.
Nice list! The SNES is my personal favorite as well, and while I'd switch a few things around personally, I can't disagree with any of your inclusions--they all have great soundtracks. And now, for a bunch of comments on each (except Lemmings, which I don't remember much of).
FF3 - This game would actually be my number one soundtrack...of all. FF3 is the Les Miserables of video games, not only in scope, but in its sheer operatic feel, and this extends over to its music as well. I absolutely love its massive, grand soundtrack that manages to cram in a bunch of different genres while still giving each of its main characters their own musical "theme." There was clearly a lot of love put into this OST, and I can't praise it highly enough. Oddly enough, its boss theme isn't really one of my favorites (as far as battle themes go, Dancing Mad is my pick. Did you beat this game? I think you'd love the 12+ minute final boss song). My favorite FF3 song might actually be Terra, the main overworld theme in the World of Balance. It's the perfect theme song for the game--melancholy, militaristic, with a ray of hope.
Yoshi's Island - I've always admired this game's soundtrack, but is it just me, or are there not really many songs? Flower Field, Athletic (my favorite!), Fuzzy Forest, Castle, Cave, Mini-Game, Mini-Boss, Boss, Final Boss...and that's pretty much it? The songs are great, I just wish there were more of them.
A Link to the Past - Another solid soundtrack through and through. It might be because I played the games at the same time, though, but I always felt ALttP's adventurous soundtrack is musically simpler compared to what Square was doing at the time. Even Dark World (its most popular song?) kind of sounds low-key and subtle to me throughout. Then again, ALttP was one of the earliest SNES games, so it's not quite fair to compare them maybe? I do appreciate how many classic Zelda themes started here, such as Dark World, Kakariko Village, and Zelda's Lullaby. My favorite is probably Hyrule Castle.
Chrono Trigger - Great soundtrack for the most part. There's a lot of variety here, and Zeal is also one of my favorite songs on the OST. The music really makes for a nice atmosphere throughout the game, and the sound samples (minus some of the tinny brass) are among the best on the system (a benefit of releasing so late in the console's life). Oddly enough, my favorite song might actually be the courtroom theme ("Kingdom Trial"). It's lengthy and has got some great variety.
Secret of Mana - Square knew what they were doing back then, didn't they? SoM's soundtrack always comes across as peppy and bouncy to me, but that might be because I've only played the last half of the game once or twice. And my favorite songs are both pretty intense, the remarkably creepy Thanatos song, and the crazy boss theme.
Lufia - Zero and his Lufia admiration! I have to say, the first game's music didn't quite stick out as much to me outside of a couple themes (the ending fortress mentioned, as well as the enjoyably pleasant Lufia/Priphea theme). I may have to replay this game--it really hit on an emotional level, but it's just so difficult to slog through gameplay-wise! Which is too bad, because I find it extremely likable.
DKC2 - Definitely agree about the write-up for this--this is a surprisingly emotional soundtrack considering the game's content, and easily--EASILY--my favorite DK soundtrack. Although amidst all the awesomely atmospheric songs, my favorite might have to be the infectiously catchy Snakey Shanty, which only plays in a single stage in the game. The mine, forest, locker, title, boss, and final boss themes would all be awfully close though. Consistently great soundtrack!
Super Metroid - My favorite game of all time better have a good soundtrack. SM is perhaps the only SNES soundtrack that beats out DKC2 in atmosphere, and while I wouldn't call the compositions particularly incredible for the most part, they compliment the game perfectly. My favorite is the prologue music (I think it's Theme of Samus Aran?).
Zelda's soundtrack never really stuck out to me, neither did Yoshi's Island. Super Metroid's works for the game but isn't something I'd consider especially noteworthy. Mega Man X's soundtrack is about as generic as 90s games get.
I haven't played Lemmings, Secret of Mana, or Lufia so I can't comment on those.
My list would have FFIII, DKC2, and Chrono Trigger, and then would add FF Mystic Quest as someone already mentioned. Another terrible game with a good soundtrack is Vortex, though it may not have been so bad in its time but it isn't worth playing today. Super Mario RPG would be there as well, it has some unique tracks that still fit in well with Mario. Kirby's Dream Land 3 has some nice tunes. I might put DooM at 9 or 10 or something, it has surprisingly good music that's better than the PC version to my ears. I'm not sure what I'd pick for the other two.
@Mop it up I don't see how MMX' soundtrack is more generic than something like Lufia. One could easily make the argument that it sounds like any other RPG, no? Both of these games have styles that aren't unique, but have exceptional, exceptional compositions. It uses guitars, bass, and drums, but I don't think that necessarily makes it generic. I'd say it was generic if the compositions sounded really boring or uncreative, but I think they're as 'generic' as Mega Man on the NES sounded.
Super Mario RPG! How could I forget? I'd put that over Yoshi's Island without a doubt, as much as I like YI's soundtrack (great castle music).
@Mop it up I feel like orchestral games on the SNES were also a dime a dozen, but the best of the best still stand out. MMX' music is rock, but it's undeniably its own style and flavor. There's no mistaking that it's for a Mega Man X game IMO.
@PogueSquadron Orchestral? I'm not entirely sure what that means since I know you don't mean that literally, as the SNES couldn't handle orchestral recordings. I'm not even talking about the SNES though, I mean the 90s in general, which includes other gaming systems like the PSX and Genesis, as well as bands and whatnot. Rock was really common in games and on the radio, and personally I find it very difficult to find rock music that's actually composed well. For me Mega Man X is no exception, though I do like a couple of the tunes in F-Zero.
@Mop it up Obviously I don't mean actual orchestras, but rather all the string synths and trumpets and all that jazz (not literal jazz). There are a lot of SNES soundtracks that go for the grandiose orchestra vibe, but it's only a handful of them that wind up being truly memorable. Similarly, there are a lot of rock soundtracks, but it's hard not to put Mega Man X on or at the top of that list.
Then again, I know you're not a huge fan of the game in general. Don't you not like it at all? You greatly prefer Mega Man 7 don't you? (also has a great soundtrack)
@PogueSquadron Ah, I see what you mean. I feel like most RPGs have a wide variety of tracks, some tracks use that style of instruments but not all. I actually don't particularly like the tracks that tried to be like a big orchestra, such as FFIII's final boss theme for example. And then there are games like Super Mario RPG and Earthbound which have none of that.
I liked Mega Man X, just not as much as the original series games. I do prefer MM7 yes, though I didn't think that was as good as the NES series. I just prefer the more straightforward style of the original series over X's craziness, however I'm still interested enough that I plan to track down a copy of the Mega Man X Collection to try out the other X games.