Ever sing along to a video game song? Learn the lyrics to an emotive title theme? We asked a bunch of VGM connoisseurs about their favourite original vocal tracks from games.
By Thomas Quillfeldt
Songs and movies. Movies and songs. Some things just go together: like “My Heart Will Go On” and sinking boats; “Danger Zone” and sweaty fighter pilots; and “Lose Yourself” and battle rapping. As a culture, we don’t celebrate the songs written for video games to the same extent as happens — or at least used to happen — with cinema.
Yes, there have been fantastic songs to emerge from games: Christopher Tin’s “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV won a GRAMMY; José González’s “Far Away” (admittedly a licensed track) is widely cited as a wonderful moment from Red Dead Redemption; Jonathan Coulton’s “Still Alive” from Portal is hilarious; and Jessica Curry’s “The Light We Cast” from Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture recently got an airing in the Royal Albert Hall.
But, often, beloved game songs are only championed among a series’ fanbase, or within our lovely bubble of game music devotees — and not across the wider gaming community, or in
(Please consider the four examples above so obviously brilliant that they don’t require further exposure below.) Interestingly, tellingly, the vast majority of picks involve MOJO — music of Japanese origin, or at least songs created for Japanese games. Is that just because games are a more widely accepted cultural medium in Japan? Are Japanese developers and publishers more courageous in their music commissioning choices? Please do let us know your thoughts (@Laced_Records). I’d love to be corrected on this, but it also appears that Japan is the only country where an original song from a game has charted significantly.
Speaking of which…
Mathew Dyason – YouTube creator, Game Score Fanfare & David Housden – Composer (Thomas Was Alone, Volume, Q.U.B.E. 2)
“Eyes on Me” by Faye Wong (comp. Nobuo Uematsu) from Final Fantasy VIII (1999)
Mathew Dyason: “Romance games are all too rare, which is part of the reason I love Final Fantasy VIII so much. Whilst the game boasts a fantasy-meets-sci-fi world under threat from a sorceress who literally wants to destroy the concept of time, at the heart of FF8 is a love story. For this reason, the creators took the decision that the main theme would be something new for the series — a
“Eyes on Me”, performed by Canto
“However, “Eyes on Me” isn’t actually about Squall and Rinoa — not in the game world, at least. Fictionally, it was written by piano chantress Julia Heartilly (the cue “Julia” is yet another variation), about the soldier Laguna Loire, who she notices in the audience as she performs at a bar in Deling City. Julia and Laguna were modern star-crossed lovers torn apart by fate, but the spirit of their love lives on in “Eyes on Me”, and through Squall and Rinoa.
“Scene by scene, Final Fantasy VIII carefully develops the relationship at the core of the game, gradually deploying the theme melody until, finally, their love for each other is revealed and the song plays in its full,
David Housden: “”Eyes On Me” is essentially the soundtrack to my teenage years. I vividly remember playing Final Fantasy VIII in high school as someone slightly younger than the game’s protagonists and just being enthralled by their stories.
“The Squall and Rinoa romance basically became my template for what the perfect relationship should be (sorceresses and all), and much of it played out to this beautiful song, reworked in various ways throughout game. I remember being so moved by it that I actually had permanent saves on my old memory card: one save point just before specific cut scenes such as the the waltz scene; one before the the Deling bar meet-up with Laguna and Juliet; and one for the Ragnarok romance scene, shortly before hell on earth opens up.
“A large part of what made it so poignant was that, up to that point, we associated Final Fantasy games with instrumental music (barring SNES-synthesised opera and the odd chant of ‘SEPHIROTH!!’) As it happens, I actually prefer the instrumental arrangements of “Eyes On Me”, but, since we’re highlighting theme songs, it’s an easy winner for me!”
David Housden is an award-winning, BAFTA nominated composer best known for his collaborations with Mike Bithell on the BAFTA-winning Thomas Was Alone and Volume; and puzzler Q.U.B.E. 2 – www.housdenmusic.com | Twitter.com/davidjhousden
Jacob Geller – Writer, Game Informer/Cane and Rinse
“TEARS” by HEALTH from Max Payne 3 (2012)
Jacob Geller: “HEALTH’s soundtrack for Max Payne 3 is phenomenal: drums like a pounding headache, and layers of distortions so smothering that it’s hard to imagine the sound source ever came from an instrument. The one vocal track in the game, “TEARS” (Spotify, Apple Music), plays as you battle through a vast airport terminal full of death, and it finally makes the previously implicit message of the game clear — that Max is weary to his core.”
“With an aging protagonist who racks up a body count in the hundreds, it’s no surprise that, tonally, Max Payne 3 evokes a feeling of exhaustion. Max is not a spritely chap. After he hurls himself into a wall to avoid a bullet, he doesn’t get up until the player makes him — and when he rises, he’s clutching a sore shoulder. He can’t turn very well. If he has to climb up a ledge, it’s not going to happen quickly.
“‘Give up on us, it’s time to let me go,’ wails the singer. The song competes with the sounds of gunfire to be heard, men screaming as they clutch their shattered kneecaps and collapse onto broken glass. ‘Give up, give our soul away.’
“The game’s structure also reflects this sense of weariness. Like Max, it just keeps on going, long after it has any right to. Everyone he was supposed to protect is dead; everyone he relied on has stabbed him in the back; and we’re mopping up the blood hours after it has already seeped into the carpet. His missions feel increasingly suicidal: a slaughter in a building set to be demolished; an assault on a police station. Set in an airport packed with goons, the last chapter is called ‘One Card Left To Play,’ and I’ve always interpreted that as ‘Max doesn’t care if he lives or dies’.”
Malindy Hetfeld – Writer, Eurogamer
“Odin Sphere Opening Title ~Leifthrasir ver.~” by Rena (comp. Hitoshi Sakimoto) from Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir (2016)
Malindy Hetfeld: “I’m yet to grasp the reasons why someone in charge of a game remake/remaster might want to rearrange the score to a PlayStation 2 title. This is mainly because I’m a big fan of ‘leaving well enough alone’, and also because it always tends to sound as if someone just added more layers and instruments for the sake of a bigger sound. The soundtrack to Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir, the remaster/partial remake of 2007’s Odin Sphere, to me is the best example of how to handle a remake’s soundtrack, simply because the people behind it clearly understand when less is more.”
“The theme song showcases this beautifully. It has always sounded languid, but its former version ended in a big crescendo that always made me think it could have been a better ending theme, the journey somehow over before it even began. Yet, I listened to the song in its entirety every time before starting the game, because the experience was curiously close to listening to the theme of your favourite TV show over and over again. Without it, I just didn’t feel quite ready to enter the game’s world.
“The French lyrics to the song are sung by a Japanese performer (Noriko Kawahara in the original version and Rena for the remake). The way you can’t quite make out the words isn’t just a charming quirk — as with Grandia 2’s “A Deus”, for example — but, to my mind, represents the whole experience. The song is French by way of Japan, the way Odin Sphere as a whole is Norse mythology in a cute anime package.
“The new version is much quieter, only half as long as the original, and very much gives you the feeling of entering a mysterious new world. It’s also a wonderful a cappella arrangement that maintains absolute faith in the strength of Rena’s multi-tracked vocals, which, like the operatic style of the original, effectively communicate that you’re about to be told a grand story.
“This is my favourite vocal track from a game simply because of how utterly essential it is to the entire experience.”
Further listening: The Odin Sphere ending theme, sung in both versions by Japanese band Shanachie.
Malindy Hetfeld is a writer, regularly contributing to Eurogamer | Twitter.com/yourkyotowife
We strongly recommend checking out Malindy’s piece: “We are living in a new golden age of video game music”
Pete “Noob” Boyle – writer & podcaster, Gamestyle/DorkTunes
“So Let Us Melt” by London Singers (comp. Jessica Curry) from So Let Us Melt
Noob: "So Let Us Melt is the latest game from The Chinese Room (before they went on hiatus), and is very much a departure from the 'walking sims' that they are known for. It's an on-rails VR game about Custodian 98, a machine made by humans to create a new planet over the course of 10 million years. (You can only catch it on the Google Daydream at the moment)."
“A while back, before So Let Us Melt was released, I was honoured to be the first person to hear the soundtrack (Spotify, Apple Music) outside of Jessica Curry's own home — I hold this experience very dear to my heart. Since her BAFTA award-winning score for Everybody's Gone To The Rapture is my favourite soundtrack of all time, I was so excited to hear her work again. I’m also very lucky to have been gifted with some signed sheet music from the score, which I’m in the process of framing and hanging up at home.
“It sounds familiar, but slightly off-centre, melding Jessica's traditional choral work with electronic components — and it is wonderful. Every piece is a masterpiece packed with beautiful melodies, testament to her talent and the distinctiveness of her sound.
“The title piece itself is a stirring choral piece that tugs at your heart, and begs to be sung along with, as I do often (badly).”
Ryan Ike - Composer (Where The Water Tastes Like Wine, West of Loathing)
“Snake Eater” by Cynthia Harrell (comp. Norihiko Hibino) from Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Ryan Ike: “It’s hard to find a Metal Gear Solid fan who doesn’t like this goofy track. Literally every year I’ve been to PAX I see a Snake cosplayer, and, at some point, someone in the crowd will inevitably start singing ‘What a thrill…’ when they pass by. It’s amazing.”
“This track perfectly ties together the theming of the game, puts the player in the right mood for what they’re about to play, and achieves all of that whilst maintaining the Metal Gear series’ bonkers aesthetic.
“It’s an obvious homage to the James Bond films — specifically the early ones like Goldfinger (1964) — which is fitting given the game’s 1960s setting. As a huge fan of both Metal Gear games and the Bond movies as a kid, seeing these things I love collide was incredible. But, also, hearing a big Bond-style opening like this immediately gets you thinking about international intrigue and cool spy stuff — again, putting the player in the right frame of mind.
“Even though it’s wonderfully written, and mimics the source material well, it’s still its own weird Metal Gear thing — you gotta love a song that contains the lyrics ‘Someday you’ll feed on a tree frog,’ right?”
The soundtrack to Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is available on deluxe double vinyl (along with Steam game code and digital download) at www.lacedrecords.com.
Jayson Napolitano – Scarlet Moon Productions
"Yeul's Theme" by Joelle Strother (comp. Naoshi Mizuta) from Final Fantasy XIII-2
Jayson Napolitano: “As a bit of a Final Fantasy purist, I've never really been into sequels to individual titles in the series (IV: The After Years, X-2, etc.). I therefore had no expectations for Final Fantasy XIII-2 or its soundtrack.
“As it turns out though, the soundtrack remains to this day one of my favourites of all time. FF13-2 features more of the great orchestral work by Masashi Hamauzu that made Final Fantasy XIII distinct and memorable, whilst also working in electronica from Mitsuto Suzuki. Things are rounded out by a wide variety of wonderful themes from the star of the show (according to me), Naoshi Mizuta — not least, the incredibly beautiful and moving "Yeul's Theme".”
“The track is a jazzy ballad featuring dreamy pads, sweet acoustic guitar, piano, and bell trees; these sit underneath a tender female vocal sung in English by Joelle Strother. It centers on the dramatic character Yeul and her relationship with her people, as well as one of the main characters, Noel.
“There are several noteworthy vocal themes on the soundtrack, but this one stands out for its emotional impact, describing the feelings of Yeul as she is continually reborn only to die for her people, time and again. It's tragic, but the song itself is hopeful, asking the listener to cast aside their pity in favor of embracing her destiny. [Gets slightly choked up writing this]”
Further Listening: The whole Final Fantasy XIII-2 soundtrack.
Steve Vancouver – Podcaster, VGM Moments
“Katamari on the Swing” by Shigeru Matsuzaki (comp. Yuu Miyake, Yoshihito Yano) from We Love Katamari
Steve Vancouver: “Whenever I hear the words ‘C’mon everybody!’ shouted at me while my music is on shuffle, not only do I know I'm in for an upbeat, joy filled four-and-a-half minutes of catchy big band swing music; but also a trip down memory lane of how a single intro sequence got me back into gaming, and reignited my love for game music.”
“Between the ages of 16 and 20, I lost interest in games, instead gravitating towards more traditionally 'cool' teenage activities and interests. But, during one particular summer, I came across my old PS2 and a selection of games that triggered a lot of nostalgia — including the oddity that is We Love Katamari (aka Minna Daisuki Katamari Damacy). Being a student (in other words, needing a cheap passtime), I put the disc in and WHAM! — the aesthetic had taken control and almost instantaneously I was falling in love with the music. From that moment I was hooked.
“Every detail of the song is etched in my memory: the jazzy piano, the probably-not-improvised-but-sounds-like-it mid-track percussion interlude, those trumpets… But it's the vocals that I love the most. Not speaking Japanese, I don't understand a lot of what’s being sung, and there is a lot of English mispronunciation in there as well, but I can tell that Shigeru Matsuzaki had FUN singing it. For this sort of music in this sort of game, that's what matters the most.
“After a few friends realised that I, like them, was a fan of the game, they threw me a Katamari-themed birthday party that ended with me playing through the final level on a projector screen. As this song played everyone behind me was singing and dancing along, further cementing this as the happiest piece of music I've ever heard.”
Further Listening: “Katamari on the Wings” — “Another version of the same song from a later game. Musically speaking, I prefer it, though the original will always hold more emotional sway with me.”
Liam Edwards – Podcaster (Final Games, Dad & Sons) and game developer (Salaryman Suzuki-san)
“Lost In Thoughts All Alone”, aka “Azura's Song”, by Rena Strober (comp. Hiroki Morishita & Kouhei Maeda) from Fire Emblem Fates (2015)
Liam Edwards: “I’m a huge fan of the Fire Emblem series. The titles have always satisfied my hunger for bite-sized chunks of strategy gameplay. I also adore the delightful anime artwork, and that specific kind of cheesiness that you can only get from Japan.
“Whilst I recommend everyone check out the games, the series' soundtracks are also phenomenal across the board. A big part of the emotional experience of playing is communicated through the music: from intense battle music that has me on the edge of my seat as I risk losing one of my favorite units; to the playful strings and horns that sound at the end of a successful mission. Fire Emblem is one of those series where gameplay and music go hand in hand.”
“Every now and again, a Fire Emblem title will include a song written as if it is being sung by a character from the story. I’ve always found this fascinating: both the wider story, and the individual arcs of characters, are an integral part of what makes Fire Emblem special, so hearing emotional songs sung by characters makes your bond with them stronger.
“This is certainly the case with “Lost In Thoughts All Alone” from 3DS title Fire Emblem Fates. The fictional singer is Azura (or Aqua as she's known in Japan), one of the main characters and a unique special ‘unit’ in the player's party. As Azura, singer Rena Strober’s voice is powerful, yet almost heavenly. The game is all about family and destiny, and those themes are best encapsulated by this song.
“It stays with you even after hours and hours of play — even now, two years after I finished the game. It makes me feel like I can go out and achieve anything I want to.
“There are multiple versions of the song across multiple versions of the game, featuring different lyrics to reflect the events of the story. In particular, the lyrics ‘You are the ocean's gray waves, destined to seek life beyond the shore just out of reach / Yet the waters ever change, flowing like time / The path is yours to climb’ will always stick with me.”
Liam Edwards is a podcaster and indie game developer. He hosts two regular video game podcasts, Final Games and The Dad & Sons Podcast. From his base in Japan, he also develops games, and recently released the Japanese-inspired endless runner, Salaryman Suzuki-san | Twitter.com/LiamBME
Michiel Kroder – Podcaster & writer, Cane and Rinse
"Mango Tango Neon Jungle" by Jessie Seely (comp. Jake Kaufman) from Double Dragon Neon
Michiel Kroder: "As we near the end of this decade, it seems that the 1980s has been the most fashionable retro aesthetic, in the same way that the late ‘90s and early ‘00s were all about the 1970s. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Hotline Miami and, yes, Double Dragon Neon all tipped their hat to that heightened ‘80s neon aesthetic (though a video game forerunner was, of course, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City).”
“Out of these three games, Double Dragon Neon isn't the one that nails that aesthetic especially convincingly, but the second stage track "Mango Tango Neon Jungle" by Jake Kaufman pretty much sounds like heavy drum machine-driven vintage ‘80s R'n'B, strongly reminiscent of the work of producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and Carl McIntosh.
“It's the type of music that instantly brightens my day and gets me in a good mood. The floaty white girl soul vocals by credited singer Jessie Seely, coupled with the near-nonsensical dance floor noir lyrics (‘Like a tiger she waits in advance for / Her attack when the moment is right / In the jungle of laser beams, tonight’), give the song a
“I played Double Dragon Neon all the way through with a friend for the Cane and Rinse podcast last year. It was a mixed experience, but I still look back fondly at the camaraderie and bonding between the two of us as we overcame the grind long into the night in order to make the podcast recording deadline. And, this excellently realised throwback song serves as a great audio keepsake of those moments."
Michiel Kroder regularly appears on the Cane and Rinse podcast series, as well as writing for the website | Twitter.com/caneandrinse | He is also a writer, editor, project manager, and English <-> Dutch translator – www.stay-on-target.com | Twitter.com/MKStayOnTarget | Instagram.com/michielkroder
Mark Robins – Campaigner, ClassicVGMusic
“Kiss Me Good-Bye” by Susan Calloway (comp. Nobuo Uematsu) from Final Fantasy XII / Distant Worlds III
Mark Robins: “I like the Final Fantasy XII soundtrack. A lot. I mean, seriously, lots and lots. The game’s principal composer, Hitoshi Sakimoto, did some wonderfully distinct, admirable work; the score features incredible melodies and maintains a style that sets it apart from, but still on a par with, the best of Nobuo Uematsu’s work earlier in the series.
“FF12 is also a brilliant Final Fantasy title, and lead character Vaan is a much misunderstood and maligned example of boyhood innocence and ambition (...who remains my PSN avatar image to this day. Don’t @ me.)”
“But, Final Fantasy wouldn’t be Final Fantasy without Uematsu-san (even if, latterly, he tends to get rolled out just to keep the fans happy, as with Stan Lee in Marvel movies.) In “Kiss Me Good-Bye” (Spotify, Apple Music), we have musical gold — an end credits theme filled with such heartfelt emotion that even writing this has me a little choked up.
“Honestly, I’ve listened to it so often that I’ve moved beyond actually understanding what it means. If I was pushed, I’d guess that it’s about transitioning from youth to adulthood; saying goodbye to one part of your life without fear or regret. Ultimately, it’s the gentle piano and string refrains that slowly build into something passionate, yet also delicate, that really stir my soul. It’s magical Uematsu at his finest.
“Without meaning to diminish the original performer Angela Aki, it’s Susan Calloway’s vocal (as heard on the third Distant Worlds album) that I prefer. Hearing Calloway sing it live at the Royal Albert Hall in London made me wonder why an enterprising Broadway or West End producer hasn’t turned Final Fantasy into a musical…”
Now there’s a thought...
And now for something a bit different…
Larry Oji – Community Manager and Head Submissions Evaluator, OverClocked ReMix
Also: Co-Founder, OverClocked Records; Asst. Soundtrack Director, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix
”Moving On” by Infinite (comp. Hideki Okugawa) from Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike (1999)
Larry Oji: “Back before I had even heard of OC ReMix, I did a college radio show at Emory University that included plenty of video game music. So, at the time I first heard ”Moving On”, I appreciated radio-friendly game music that could expand people’s understanding of what VGM is. Street Fighter has always been my personal favourite game franchise, and I absolutely loved the 3rd Strike soundtrack, especially the contributions from Dale ‘Infinite’ Francis (back then part of the group Ghetto Concept).”
“Besides looping Q’s theme a ton as well, I particularly remember one time playing this track out loud in a computer lab and having the other person studying across the room nodding his head; he eventually dropped what he was doing to ask me what it was so he could also get it. The best VGM opens up conversations.
“The rapping and lyrics, the thick beats, the brass, the scratching, even the lighter percussion adding some colour to the sound: it all comes together for “Moving On”, with a smooth flow that I could (and have) listened to for hours at a time. Respect to Capcom for — as they often do — thinking outside of the box when it comes to what's needed for game soundtracks.”
Thomas Quillfeldt – Community Manager, Laced Records
Unfortunately, we can’t shout out each and every series or game that has spawned wonderful songwriting — not to mention amazing uses of licensed songs or covers. To name a few more titles with great original songs:
- various indies have thoughtfully incorporated story-based music, including The Banner Saga, Bastion, The Flame in the Flood, and Where The Water Tastes Like Wine;
- AAA period games like the recent Wolfenstein’s, Assassin’s Creed’s, and L.A. Noire feature historically evocative songs;
- there are numerous beloved tracks from Japanese series like Soul Blade/Calibur, Sonic, Persona, etc.;
- composers like Austin Wintory, Jeremy Soule, and Jessica Curry have been vying to see who can best harness a classically-trained choir;
- the Sensible Software team recorded some corkers back in the day;
- and let’s never forget the Donkey Kong rap.
“The Best Is Yet To Come” by Aoife Ni Fhearraigh (comp. Rika Muranaka) from Metal Gear Solid (1998)
There are so many great Japanese game song picks above that I felt tempted to go with something Western to balance things out (I probably would have gone with the super spooky “The Fields of Ard Skellig” from The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.)
But nothing has hit me as hard as the first time I heard “The Best Is Yet To Come” upon completion of Metal Gear Solid. The song is by MGS/Konami songwriting stalwart Rika Muranaka with additional arrangement by prominent Irish musician David Downes; but what elevates it is the melancholic Irish Gaelic vocal by Aoife Ni Fhearraigh.
Despite being a game where you can hide in a cardboard box, get peed on by wolf cubs, and squish a bottle of tomato ketchup, in the late ‘90s there was something that felt so grown up about Metal Gear Solid. I played the whole game with a buddy in one 12 hour session on release day, and we were enraptured all the way to the finish line.
I’ve quite often turn my nose up at chill-out Celtic music — flutes, guitar picking, wind sound effects, etc. — but some how, some way, “The Best Is Yet To Come” continually wins me over because of its sheer quality. I’m not sure there’s anything even remotely Gaelic about the story, setting, or the characters, and the lyrics are pretty standard lovey-dovey fare, but this beautiful, wistful ballad felt like the perfect salve after all those walking tanks, cyborg ninjas, and topless fistfights.
The song perfectly meshes with its source media, and takes me right back to the UK release day (February 22, 1999) of that surreal, astonishing, groundbreaking video game by Hideo “What the heck?” Kojima and his talented team.
Be sure to get in touch with your favourite video game songs — we’d love to hear them!