We pick out a diverse range of terror-inducing game music to haunt your nightmares — everything from Dead Space to… Pokémon?
By Steve Vancouver and Thomas Quillfeldt
Scared? Likely not. How about the thought of long, slimy black hair seeping slowly out of an old well in a dark forest, preceding the chalk-white corpse of a malevolent ghost child as it creeps jerkily towards you?
There are all sorts of different scares when it comes to popular entertainment: some like it ghostly and slow; some prefer oodles of gore; and some are suckers for a tense thriller.
With Halloween around the corner, it seems like a perfect time to pick a suitably varied list of spooky video game pieces — some from the obvious horror series, and some from less obvious soundtracks that will nonetheless leave you feeling like Luigi alone in his mansion (on low health)…
“Metamorphosis I” by Michiru Yamane – Castlevania Symphony of the Night (1997)
Flavours: Gothic, anxious, foreboding
It’d be hard to compile a video game Halloween listicle without including something from the Castlevania series.
The player hears the choral chanting and crashing cymbals of Metamorphosis I during the opening scene of the seminal Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which plays as you approach the dread castle for the very first time. The piece aptly prepares you for your topsy-turvy journey through the game, laying the atmosphere on thick.
“Änglamakerskan” by Daniel Olsén – Year Walk (2013)
Flavours: Haunting, eerie, unsettling
This ambient track is almost relaxing if you’re not fully paying attention, but composer Daniel Olsén manages to create enough suspense to keep you from dropping your guard altogether. On its own, Änglamakerskan is wintry, stark and nervy, but it really shines in-game as you journey through the bleak Swedish forest.
“Welcome Aboard the USG Ishimura” by Jason Graves – Dead Space (2008)
Flavours: Anxious; horrific, freaky
Just like any good horror game, Dead Space’s tension builds and builds, before some monstrosity or other jumps out at you at just the right moment.
Composer Jason Graves’ stand out track from the series encapsulates this feeling of suspense perfectly. He establishes an eerie tone from the start, lulling you with some nice melodic flourishes that could come from a Batman: Arkham game or Heavy Rain — before hitting you with an unholy cacophony that will leave you feeling exhausted.
“The Hunter” by Ryan Amon – Bloodborne (2015)
Flavours: Dark fantasy, Gothic, heroic action
While other pieces on this list focus on building a sense of trepidation about the game world, The Hunter goes all-out with its strong, pulsating theme, devastating us with a spine-tingling Gothic action theme featuring formidable brass, a Satanic choir and pounding percussion.
“Betrayal” by Akira Yamaoka – Silent Hill 2 (2001)
Flavours: Dark industrial, nightmarish
Underscoring ones of your fights with the iconic — now sadly overexposed — Pyramid Head, Betrayal’s wonky industrial ‘beat’ (such as it is) is complemented by the cathedral-sized synth pad. It is perfectly in tune with protagonist James Sunderland’s realisation (NO SPOILERS) about the reasons underlying the fight. Just like the whole game, this masterful piece has more layers to it that may be apparent on a first listen.
“Stage 01” AKA “Haunted Graveyard” by Mari Yamaguchi – Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (1991)
Flavours: Haunted house, pipe organ/silent film
This piece of music terrified me [Steve] as a child. Super Ghouls’N Ghosts is stressful enough to play, but the SNES sound chip upgrade that the Haunted Graveyard theme benefitted from really puts you on edge as you scramble through the first level. It soundtracks the dead rising from their graves... and you dying over and over and over again.
“Shadow” by Michiru Oshima, pentagon – Ico (2001)
Flavours: Ghostly, woozy weirdness
Team Ico titles aren’t horror games, but that doesn’t stop the composers and artists delving some of the darker depths whilst building their worlds; and, in particular, maximising the creepiness of the creatures you encounter. Shadow belies a sinister madness at the heart of the (mostly) abandoned castle that Ico has to work his way through to rescue the waif-ish Yorda.
“Crimson” by Scott Lloyd Shelly – Terraria (2011)
Flavours: Tense, off-kilter, trashy
If you’ve played Terraria, you’re probably aware of the Corruption biome, which slowly eats away at the other areas and spreads across your map. If you haven’t progressed much further, you may not know that there is something far worse awaiting you... The unnerving, almost incoherent synths make way for the piece’s darker and more bass heavy melody later on. There’s a hint of the cyber horror found in the scores of the Valve classics Half-Life 2 and Portal 2.
“Acre Underworld” by Jesper Kyd – Assassin's Creed (2007)
Flavours: Ghostly, historical horror, palpable tension
Jesper Kyd was highly successful in establishing the sound of the blockbuster series. Beyond the bombastic action, Assassin’s Creed and its sequels featured plenty of deeply unsettling ghost-in-the-machine music cues. Between the clinical whites of the Abstergo lab, the infinite, insanity-inducing spaces of the Animus and the cities of the Middle East, Renaissance Italy and beyond, Kyd occasionally imbued the games with a sort of ‘historical horror’ sound; achieved by low pedal notes, oodles of reverb and vocal snippets evocative of the respective period.
“Lavender Town” by Junichi Masuda — Pokémon Red/Blue (1996)
Flavours: Chiptune horror, woozy insanity
The most obviously creepy piece of music from a game not exactly associated with creepiness, Lavender Town is the source of urban legends and creepypastas surrounding the high pitch tones used and their supposed ill effects. In a world of happy-go-lucky outdoor trekking tunes, this cue’s deceivingly tranquil musical feel is both out of place and strangely fitting for the story the game tells about the area you’re visiting and your relationship with your pocket friends.
Bonus track: “Mansion Basement” by Takashi Niigaki – Resident Evil: Director’s Cut Dual Shock Ver. (1998)
Flavour: Noodles the cat banging on a keyboard
For a truly terrifying musical experience, check out this track from the re-recorded (!) soundtrack for the PlayStation Dual Shock version of Resident Evil: Director’s Cut. Perhaps since Takashi Niigaki was serving as deaf composer Mamoru Samuragochi’s ghostwriter (no pun intended) at the time (before the latter was exposed as somewhat of a fraud), he possibly didn’t mind turning in this baffling track to be worked into the survival horror classic.