We picked out some of the bounciest, brightest and most bonkers pieces of game music from the classic era of 3D character platformers.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
3D platformers are bouncing back in a big way! (I look forward to reading that sentence in 10 years’ time and cringing.)
The genre is enjoying quite the renaissance with titles like Yooka-Laylee by Playtonic (which has an official soundtrack available on vinyl, CD and digital), Sumo Digital’s Snake Pass, Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2, remake compilation Crash Bandicoot: N-Sane Trilogy, Nintendo’s Mario Odyssey and Knack 2. This incredible slate of nostalgia-fuelled fun for all the family will surely bring some much-needed brightness and colour to the world over the next few years.
We thought we’d celebrate with a carefully curated list of some of the most beloved video game music tracks from classic 3D platformers—from the granddaddy, Super Mario 64, down the line of its descendents to 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy.
Say goodbye to the greys and browns of corridor shooters and post-apocalyptic wastelands—it’s time to reminisce about endless collectibles, lava levels and enough zaniness to fuel a week-long convention of the Monster Raving Loony Party.
“Staff Roll” by Koji Kondo – Super Mario 64 (1996)
As influential as Core Design’s original Tomb Raider was in terms of the evolution of 3D game design (that is to say, very), Super Mario 64 was the blueprint for a thousand games to follow—and not just 3D platformers.
The most obvious pick here would be the mellifluous, new age sounds of the beloved Dire Dire Docks. But there’s also a lot of love for Koji Kondo’s easy, breezy Staff Roll:
“Hog Wild” by Josh Mancell/Mutato Muzika – Crash Bandicoot (1996)
Crash Bandicoot fans must be feeling pretty happy at the resurgence of the character, with a surprise game ‘quotation’ included in Naughty Dog’s most recent blockbuster, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and a full remake of the original trilogy coming in the middle of the year.
For a lot of people, memories of the first Crash Bandicoot game will be intimately tied up with the first time they ever played a PlayStation—and the intense frustration of mistiming a jump only to see Crash, astride a hog, plunge into yet another dark hole.
“The Final Battle” by Grant Kirkhope – Banjo-Kazooie (1998)
It could not have been made any more explicit that Playtonic’s upcoming platformer, Yooka-Laylee, is a spiritual successor to Rare’s Nintendo 64 classic, Banjo-Kazooie. To make sure they recapture the Rare magic of that period, composer Grant Kirkhope has been brought back (alongside other alumni, David Wise and Steve Burke); you can hear a sample of tracks from the upcoming Yooka-Laylee soundtrack on Laced Records’ SoundCloud page.
Kirkhope’s work on landmark Nintendo 64 titles including GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and the Banjo series mean that he effectively soundtracked the childhood and early adolescence of an entire generation of gamers, a compliment reserved only for the likes of Koji Kondo (Super Mario; Zelda), Yoko Shimomura (Street Fighter 2; Kingdom Hearts) and Peter McConnell (numerous LucasArts Star Wars titles and adventure games).
The Final Battle is exemplary boss battle music: energetically egging you on as you dart around the arena, blood-pumping and palms sweating.
“Jacques” by Stewart Copeland – Spyro the Dragon (1998)
Remember The Police? As in ‘Sting and the...’ and songs about lovely topics like stalking and illicit teacher-student relationships. Believe it or not, the drummer for The Police, Stewart Copeland, was a composer for the first three PlayStation-exclusive Spyro the Dragon titles, bringing his jazz and rock sensibilities to the world of video games. According to this interesting interview Copeland conducted with magazine gamesTM, he was under such pressure to produce vast quantities of music for the games that he’d churn out four tracks a day in a glorious blaze of creativity.
“Time Station” by Soichi Terada – Ape Escape (1999)
Whilst the Nintendo 64 will likely go down in history as the console for 3D platformers thanks to Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, the PlayStation was also home to some high quality series including Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Ape Escape.
In a minimalist fashion, Japanese electronic music composer Soichi Terada made the hub area of Ape Escape—the Time Station—sound like a futuristic bullet train terminal somewhere in Tokyo c. 2077.
“Funky’s Theme” by Grant Kirkhope – Donkey Kong 64 (1999)
A classic 3D platformer that is perhaps not remembered as fondly as others, giant collect-’em-up Donkey Kong 64 nonetheless sold well. Despite David Wise being synonymous with the series both prior to, and following this particular entry, Grant Kirkhope took composition duties here, showing off his range with some serious grooviness.
“Mountain Pass Vs Klaww” by Josh Mancell – Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy (2001)
Before there was Uncharted, developer Naughty Dog’s flagship series was Jak and Daxter—the PlayStation 2’s answer to Rare’s 3D platformer dominance up to that point. Released later the same year as the last Rare Nintendo 64 outing (Conker’s Bad Fur Day), Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy is still held up as a classic of the genre.
Composer Josh Mancell is also known for his sonic stewardship of the Crash Bandicoot series; here he ratchets up the tension as Klaww, a “lurker of enormity”, hurls giant volcanic boulders at your bonce.
“Escape From The City” by Jun Senoue – Sonic Adventure 2 (2001)
2001: tough times would lie ahead for ardent SEGA fans and Dreamcast owners as Sonic Adventure 2 became the last Sonic game on the last major SEGA console. In 2002, it received a port for Nintendo’s (not that much more successful) GameCube, something that would have been utterly unthinkable a decade prior.
This pop punk ditty is part of a canon of Sonic-related rock tracks. Those recorded for the Sonic Adventure games were the fruits of what coalesced into a side project led by SEGA composer, Jun Senoue. The project became a band, Crush 40, which continued on to become the official musical ensemble of the Sonic the Hedgehog brand, touring the world and releasing albums to this day.
“Dimitri Battle” by Peter McConnell – Sly 2: Band of Thieves (2004)
The PlayStation-exclusive sequel by inFAMOUS developer Sucker Punch, Sly 2: Band of Thieves, sees you following, bugging and then battling a purple marine iguana in a Parisian club to drugged-out disco music. But seeing as we’re talking about 3D character platformers, nothing about that last sentence should seem remotely odd.
Peter McConnell, the LucasArts/Double Fine constant collaborator, joined the Sly Cooper franchise with this entry, bringing his characteristic tunefulness and versatility to bear.
“Courtney Gears Battle Theme” by David Bergeaud – Ratchet & Clank 3: Up Your Arsenal (2004)
PlayStation-exclusive series Ratchet & Clank started in 2002 and, like fellow PlayStation 2 platformers Jak and Daxter and Sly Cooper, it sought to pick up the baton from Rare which had finished its run of Nintendo 64 3D platformers the previous year.
The third game, Up Your Arsenal, was widely regarded as the best in the series, prior to the 2016 reboot. At times sounding like a late 90’s Steps/Europop hit, this track from long-time series composer, David Bergeaud, has all the layered, driving intensity of great boss battle music. Game soundtracks can never have enough synth slap bass and orchestra hits, in my book.
“The Meat Circus” by Peter McConnell – Psychonauts (2005)
2005’s Psychonauts was a symbol of writer Tim Schafer and co’s independence, it being the debut game of his new studio, Double Fine. But it also turned out to be a troubled case study on the difficulties of games development and the potential pitfalls of engaging with a publisher.
Reuniting several of the former LucasArts creatives that worked on adventure games like Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, Schafer once again collaborated with artist Peter Chan and composer Peter McConnell. The latter’s music for the rock-hard final level of the game is, quite simply, bananas: a furious, jumping, gypsy-jazz romp.
“Gusty Garden Galaxy” by Mahito Yokota – Super Mario Galaxy (2007)
Released for the Wii, Super Mario Galaxy was the spiritual successor to Super Mario 64 that fans had pined for for years—not just that, but it is still one of most highly-rated games of all time.
To make the game sound as lush as possible, much of the music is performed by the 50-strong Mario Galaxy Orchestra (here’s a clip of them in the studio). This elevates the soundtrack immensely, giving the whole game package an incredible sheen of quality. This inspiring track will leave you ready to face anything, with a goofy grin on your face: