Classic, unsung video game soundtracks

By Jackson Maxwell

When the casual person thinks of the soundtrack to a video game, a few things come to mind. If they’ve played it before, they may think of the haunting Gregorian chant that serves as the theme to the “Halo” series. Or they may think of the numerous legendary “radio stations” of the “Grand Theft Auto” series. If they are into older games, they will probably remember the iconic 8-bit melodies that score “Super Mario Bros. or “Tetris.”

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Along with the games themselves, video game soundtracks have become increasingly ornate, complex and impressive. But there are some fantastic original and non-original soundtracks that typically don’t get thrown around with the greats. These games, mostly around eight to 10 years old, had absolutely fantastic soundtracks that helped increase the musical vocabularies of countless sleepless gamers.

On the non-original side of things, the expansive “Tony Hawk” skateboard series reigns supreme. “Tony Hawk’s Underground 2,” the 2004 game, has a particularly amazing soundtrack that features underground and popular artists from a litany of genres. One minute you can be skating around to industrial-metal band Ministry’s “No W,” the next, you might be hearing Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life.” This game alone may have introduced the Ramones, Joy Division, the Doors, X, Violent Femmes, the Dead Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Germs and countless other unforgettable classic bands to young gamers all around the world.

In the tradition of the skateboarding videos that helped inspire the games, the “Tony Hawk” video games all feature this dichotomy of well-known songs by super-popular musicians and underground hip-hop and punk-rock tracks. Few other games take so much care to pay tribute to unsung heroes of underground rock and rap. Other great games in the series, like “American Wasteland,” “Project 8,” “Pro Skater 4” and “Underground,” continue this tradition of opening the minds of gamers to even more great music. While having a blast playing these fantastic games, the young ears of generations past were exposed for the first time to the likes of the Sex Pistols, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Public Enemy and 7 Seconds.

The “Tony Hawk” series has never really gotten enough credit for exposing people to great independent music. It was one of the few series that really had the guts to include edgy music that most other video game producers never had the nerve to include.

On the original side of things, one overlooked group of beautifully-scored games is the “Ace Combat” series. Written by the famous “Namco Sound Team,” a composing unit comprised of Tetsukazu Nakanishi, Hiroshi Okubo and Keiki Kobayashi, the music for these games mixed rock, electronic and orchestral elements into a single amazing score. The soundtrack to “Ace Combat 5: The Unsung War” took Namco three years to develop, and involved the full Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Combined with the innovative plots and the advanced graphics of the “Ace Combat” series, the orchestration took on a new level of brilliance.

While many people may view these games as old to the point of irrelevancy, their soundtracks influenced many video games afterwards. The developers of these games recognized music as an integral part of the gaming experience, as more than just background noise. And these are just a couple of the best examples of fantastic video game soundtracks that have flown under the radar over the years.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]