My recent review of Sigh’s latest album Graveward got me thinking. In it, I jokingly described the band’s music as “videogame metal” because its songwriting and blend of intricate guitar leads and synth melodies remind me of the songs featured in the games I loved in my youth. I’m certain one can still find those as kinds of songs in more modern games, of course. But as videogames’ budgets and cultural cachet grow ever bigger, it’s easier and easier for them to license previously recorded music from major-label artists, or recruit composers from the film world. At least in games from major studios, it seems I hear less and less of the cheesy, hair- and power-metal derived scores that used to be much more common.
I honestly think that’s a bit of shame. It’s not that the soundtracks I’m referring to were good, exactly. Many were no doubt the result of one or two overworked composers, using inferior MIDI instruments and completely ignoring notions of restraint or taste. But the best videogame metal tracks had charm in spite of their limitations: they were camp in the sense that they strived so hard to excite audiences, get them to rock out. They might have had numerous failings in terms of recording quality or songwriting, but in terms of being silly, goofy entertainment, they succeeded admirably.
I’ve compiled a few of my favourite hard-rocking tracks from 90s and oos videogames below. There’s no attempt to rank them in terms of which is “best”, or to argue that these selections are objectively better than any others. This is solely based on the game soundtracks I was feeling most nostalgic for at the time of writing.
Final Fantasy VII- Fight On!
I can fully recognise that it’s mainly nostalgia preserving my affection for Final Fantasy VII. So many of my childhood memories are tied up with memories of this game- my emotional investment in the plot, the immense satisfaction I felt when I finally felled Emerald and Ruby Weapon. (As you can probably tell, I did not go outside much.) And the game’s music is a huge aspect of that nostalgia. As a twelve year old, I didn’t care about the objectively poor quality of the synth instruments the badass boss music was performed on, it was the awesomest, most rocking riff I’d ever heard in a game. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t care- the tinny, “videogamey” sound is all part of the charm.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne- Fierce Battle
Summer, 2005. My closest friends and I spent far too much of that golden season indoors with the curtains drawn, getting sucked into the dark, devilish world of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (or Lucifer’s Call, as it was subtitled in the UK). As we journeyed deeper into the game’s post-apocalyptic setting, where demons and surviving humans struggle to determine what kind of new world will arise from the ashes of the old, a strange ritual emerged among us. As soon as a boss battle started, and the Fierce Battle theme kicked in, a palpable excitement would overtake us. For the first twenty seconds, as the guitars, snare and keys built up, we would silently prepare ourselves for what was to come. Then, it would happen. The drums kicked in, signalling an infectiously boneheaded riff, and we would all headbang in unison, lost in the music. Often we wouldn’t even touch the controller for a good minute or two, rocking out for as long as we liked before trying to salvage the damage our inattention had wrought on our character’s party. I don’t think we ever did finish Nocturne’s story- its unforgiving difficulty meant we lost interest when school started again and we could no longer devote an entire afternoon to trying to best its various dungeons and dragons. But to this day, I still find myself humming the Fierce Battle music from time to time. If no one’s around, I might even headbang away, and suddenly feel like a teenager again.
Resident Evil 2- Scenario B Ending Theme
There are huge gaps in my videogame knowledge. My first Resident Evil game, for example, was RE4, which represented a high point for the series in terms of being fun to play, but somewhat neglected the original focus on creating a creepy horror-movie atmosphere. I’ve still yet to play the first three games on the original Playstation, but I recently came across this track from RE2, which plays after you complete a character’s alternate game scenario and see the game’s true ending. I can only imagine that after finishing two full playthroughs and fending off all manner of zombies and mutant fiends, hearing this bizarre 90s shit-rock classic defuses a lot of the tension built up over the course of the game. It’s completely incongruous with the game’s horror aesthetic; it’s like listening to Joe Satriani wail away over a preset “funk-rock” loop from a Casio keyboard. But that’s why I love it. It’s not quite as majestic as the infamous version of the Mansion Basement theme found in the Dual Shock re-release of the first Resident Evil, but it’s pretty stirring all the same.
Final Fantasy X- Otherworld
It would be very easy to populate this list solely with songs from Final Fantasy games. Nobuo Uematsu, the composer chiefly responsible for most of the series’ music, has crafted a variety of fantastic songs in all manner of genres, but the best of them are often rockers like this one. My first exposure to Otherworld was the first time I’d heard a Final Fantasy song with vocals, and the first time where the production values and songwriting were pretty much the same as the “actual” songs I heard on rock radio. Certainly it comes off well compared to much of the crappy nu-metal that was on the airwaves at the time the game was released. Perhaps it’s held up because of how the game utilised the track. First being played as a giant monster destroys the protagonist’s hometown, it only returns at the very end, playing in one of the final boss fights with that same monster. Where it first heralds your helpless inability to stop the destruction being wrought around you, it comes to represent the strength your party has gained over their journey, their conviction to change things for the better. Or maybe it’s just a sweet riff, bro.
Guilty Gear X2- Everything
There is no videogame series more metal than Guilty Gear. That fact is largely down to the efforts of one man: Daisuke Ishiwatari, who designs all the of series’ characters and composes all its music. His enthusiasm for all things metal is evident not only in his soundtracks, but throughout the game’s story and lore: almost every character and special move references a band or song from the metal and rock canon. But the important thing is that every soundtrack he creates, Guilty Gear X2’s in particular, is chock full of cheesy goodness. I don’t even like the neoclassical, symphonic and power metal subgenres that the game tends to borrow most heavily from, but somehow when those musical tropes are welded to an utterly ridiculous fighting game they become infectious, campy fun. It’s too difficult for me to cull a single favourite from the soundtrack, so I present the whole lot for your perusal. I guarantee there is at least one jam in here that will make you want to cut your hair into a mullet, dress up like a dayglo anime nightmare and fling snooker balls, yo-yos and giant whales at your opponents.
And now, dear readers, I open up the floor to you. What are some of your favourite examples of the fine art of ridiculous, over-the-top videogame metal? Share your links and descriptions in the comments, or send a tweet to @analgender if that’s your bag.