The Video Game Soundtracks of Our Lives: The 1990s
It’s no exaggeration to say that behind a great video game lies a great soundtrack. A soundtrack is integral alongside graphics and mechanics because the soundtrack needs to audibly set the pace and theme of the video game. As amusing as it would be to mash up a Silent Hill style game with Spyro the Dragon style music, the immersion would be lost, effectively harming the experience.
The 1990s is debatably one of the most, if not the most, important decade in gaming. For those of us that were there, we witnessed an evolution from the 16-bit era to a full-on polygonal resolution by the decade’s end. Video game production turned to the grandiose in terms of presentation and video game soundtracks were no exception. Ask anyone who was there what their favourite soundtracks are, and you could be inviting yourself into a very passionate and heated debate, with titles you’ve probably never heard of.
However, someone has to wade into those murky waters and with that in mind, we’re here to give you ten video game soundtracks that dominated the soundscapes of some of the most cherished releases during the decade. We must stress that this is in no way a top ten list, and is rather ten examples of ‘90s games where the relationship of music and atmosphere truly reached an apex.
1. The Secret of Monkey Island (PC, 1990)
After 30+ years, The Secret of Monkey Island’s soundtrack could very easily be inserted in today’s generation of video games and it’d still be talked about glowingly. Then again, with the former LucasArts at the helm, is it at all surprising? Look into the publisher’s back catalogue of adventure titles throughout the ‘90s and there’s an inspired portfolio of the decade’s finest video game soundtracks.
At the time, this was needed to help consumers look at PCs in a different light, as Microsoft was in their infancy as a company. For many, the PC was looked at more like an office tool than a multimedia centre. Microsoft wanted to show the PC and especially the CD-ROM drive could be used as a refuge for a different breed of gamer. If anything, the PC was trying to corner that mature marketplace way before Sony did.
Monkey Island’s composer, Michael Land, has gone on record to call the soundtrack “pirate reggae” and it’s very easy to hear why. The soundtrack is often lighthearted, using bouncy trumpets and marimbas to capture the essence of Monkey Island’s comedic scenes. Despite being the villain, LeChuck’s theme is an excellent example of a video game soundtrack telling its audience who its villain is, but being careful enough not to take itself too seriously that it ruins any comedic one-liners. It’s not a stretch to claim that The Secret of Monkey Island’s soundtrack left behind a legacy that can still be heard today.
2. Ecco The Dolphin (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1992)
Ecco The Dolphin was a peculiar gem in the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis’ crown. Even after almost 30 years, I still don’t understand what the hell the game was supposed to be about. A bizarre adventure of aquatic dreamscapes and monster nightmare fuel, to this day the titular dolphin is still reminisced about in conversations — mainly by people saying “did that really happen?”
Despite its surreal nature, the soundtrack wonderfully composed by Spencer Nilsen fits that odd atmosphere the game boasted. The use of heavy synthesisers was par for the course for most 4th generation video games. However, Ecco had a certain tranquillity to its soundtrack. With so much going on in the game, Nilsen created this ambient soundtrack to help soothe the player into inner zen, while you tried to guess where the heck you were supposed to go.
It’s a soundtrack that did its job well. The idea of this dolphin lost in a vast ocean, trying to find their friends is captured perfectly in each level, with some of the notes matching that of a dolphin. It’s a particular achievement to note, considering the Mega Drive/Genesis wasn’t known for its sterling sound design and left some video games sounding like a vomiting yak. When a soundtrack was done correctly, it was instantly memorable and Ecco The Dolphin was such a golden example of why that was the case.
3. TMNT: Turtles in Time (SNES, 1992)
Hey millennials, remember a time where Konami was cool? In the early ‘90s, you couldn’t move anywhere without seeing a beat ’em up title on store shelves which was most likely developed by Konami. While the west had LJN to rely on for horrendous licenced titles, in the east, the publisher was nailing franchise after franchise. Their company strategy and motto must have been “give us a licence, we’ll give you a fun beat-em-up, profit.”
Though there are plenty of great examples of soundtracks in the genre, from Sega’s hyper slick Streets of Rage to the giddy bounciness of The Simpsons, another Konami arcade hit, TMNT: Turtles in Time, is often hailed for its brilliant gameplay, but never its soundtrack. The original TMNT TV show always had a charismatic soundtrack behind it, because being a children’s TV show, everything needs to be exciting.
Turtles in Time captured that dynamic well, offering a blood-pumping soundtrack that was going to leave any 7-year-old-fan buzzing while beating the Foot Clan down as their favourite turtle. Whether you’re beating them down at ‘Big Apple, 3 AM’ or the Wild West, every level offered a bombastic response to its settings. Throw in an anxiety-ridden boss theme that screamed urgency, and you had yourself a hidden gem of a soundtrack that compliments an amazing beat-em-up.
4. EarthBound (SNES, 1995)
For those who haven’t heard of Nintendo’s surrealist cult classic, let me try to oversimplify it. EarthBound is a giant satire on American ideals, the creative imagination of a child and also a satire on, up until that point, the classic style of JRPG. Though EarthBound has gone on to inspire many future indie darlings along the way, most gamers will agree that you cannot beat the original.
EarthBound’s soundtrack has a particularly interesting history of its own. Composer Keiichi Suzuki had often said in subsequent interviews that the move on from 8-bit to 16-bit, meant Nintendo had to be more daring in its sound design, citing western artists such as The Beach Boys and John Lennon as particular influences. There was a common myth that those influences almost derailed the game’s release on Western shores, with Apple Records threatening to sue Nintendo for heavily borrowing from The Beatles’ back catalogue. Thankfully, those rumours have been proven to be untrue, with both parties admitting their unawareness of such stories until years after.
EarthBound is meant to be looked at through a satirical lens and its soundtrack is no exception. Suzuki did a brilliant job of mixing as many genres as possible. The tranquil and pleasant sounding beginnings of Onett will leave one bopping their head or whistling along in delight. Meanwhile, its various fight music themes will leave you feeling disorientated to complement its surreal fight scenes. Much like Pokèmon, EarthBound has an audible response to every scene imaginable, contributing to the charming identity the game had to offer.
5. Sonic 3 & Knuckles (Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, 1994 – 1995)
We couldn’t talk about video game soundtracks without mentioning the interesting history of Sonic 3 & Knuckles. Sonic 3 itself was a hotly anticipated game for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis and the blue dude of ‘tude could do no wrong. Outside the video game landscape, music was going through sweeping changes as well and there was an undisputed king of pop who was making such changes.
Depending on who you ask, a large part of Sonic 3 & Knuckles soundtrack was written by Michael Jackson, with his former musical director Brad Buxer confirming as much in 2005. Buxer claimed that Jackson spent 4 weeks in an LA studio, providing Sega with various beatbox samples to use in the game. However, also around this time came the first of many allegations about the singer’s private life. This is where the argument splits as Sega claimed that they scrapped all the songs as a result, but Jackson’s team insist to this day that wasn’t the case.
For my money, I say that the comparisons are too similar to not be a coincidence. Most of Sonic 3 & Knuckles’ soundtrack does take a lot of influence from Jackson’s 1991’s ‘Dangerous’ album. If you fancy doing some sleuthing yourself, listen to Carnival Night’s theme music and compare that to Jackson’s single ‘Jam’. Whatever your take is, the history behind this soundtrack is too good not to pass up on this list. Sega fans gained a brilliant and memorable soundtrack either way. However, the mystery of its composure was the lure that caught many gamers’ attention.
6. Pokémon: Red & Blue (Game Boy, 1996)
While not the first handheld console, the Nintendo Game Boy is considered by many to be the definitive handheld. Those who could afford a pack of 4 Duracell a week to fund their habit would tell you that while the Game Boy was a nifty little machine, it was limited, not only just in terms of its 8-bit presentation, but also in terms of sound design. Soundtracks were often considered an afterthought that usually had the same song on a continuous loop.
With maybe the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, no game pushed the sound capabilities of the Game Boy as Pokémon did. Composed by Junichi Masuda, who would go on to compose nearly every Pokèmon game in existence, Pokemon Red and Blue’s soundtrack was meticulous by design. Every interaction you made triggered a simple but catchy earworm of a tune. Every town had its own theme, giving them identities from the sleepy themes of Pewter City to the creeping unease of Lavender Town.
Coupled with the high stakes chiptune of gym battles that gave the player the incentive to focus, cautiously picking the next pivotal move to victory, everything in this soundtrack felt important. In a time where spoken dialogue in video games was a new novelty, the Game Boy needed to audibly tell its story. Pokèmon achieved that and even to this day, the soundtrack to any Pokèmon game is equally important as it was 25 years ago.
7. PaRappa the Rapper (PS1, 1997)
The 5th generation of consoles provided the platform for more genres to be introduced or expanded on. Sony in particular wanted new ideas and they got that in a way no one at the time could have expected. Depending on who you ask, rhythm-based games are either a fun but niche genre where timing is key, or a complete waste of time where the player is rewarded for hitting buttons in the right order like an overpriced Bop-It.
However you view the rhythm genre, you cannot deny that its success wouldn’t have come about without the help of a paper dog and its cast of colourful characters. PaRappa The Rapper’s development is also interesting to note. A response to director Masaya Matsuura reluctance to appear in music during his time in bands, Matsuura teamed with American graphic artist Rodney Greenblat to conjure up a colourful and vibrant world. What also helped bring PaRappa to life was Sony’s marketing strategy of coming up with new, refreshing ideas to show off the technical prowess of the PS1.
While the role of a soundtrack is to help with the immersion of a video game’s environment, never before did a soundtrack have to be the pivotal plot point. PaRappa managed to pull this off successfully, with a collection of catchy light rap earworms, destined to ruin your childhood. Everyone in the playground knew the first few bars to ‘Chop Chop Master Onion’ because that was about as far as we got in the demo and Instructor Mooselinni’s Car Rap will make you fail a driving test (trust me, I know). While rhythm-based video games were successful in Japanese arcades before, PaRappa the Rapper introduced that genre to a global audience, making it one of the only games on this list to create a new playstyle.
8. Metal Gear Solid (PS1, 1998)
As the 1990s were drawing to a close, the landscape in gaming was going through seismic changes. By 1998, the 4th generation had ended, paving the way for 2 consoles whose legacies are still felt to this day – the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. Both consoles needed to prove that video games weren’t just kids toys, but a valid source of entertainment for young adults too — an audience Sony was particularly keen on capturing.
Everything about the PlayStation needed to be ambitious, not just from a technical standpoint, but also from a storytelling and audible viewpoint also. We’ve all heard how much of a masterstroke MGS was for the OG PlayStation, a spy action thriller with an emphasis on stealth. Just on gameplay alone, MGS offered a more mature and engaging experience, but the soundtrack needed to emphasise all those elements for MGS to truly work.
From its main theme alone, MGS nailed that aesthetic. A blend of James Bond and cornball ‘80s keytar that wouldn’t feel too out of place on an ‘80s detective TV show, this song played a key role in enticing gamers when it was included in the game’s promotional demo.
Then there’s the rest of the soundtrack, an interesting mix of orchestral urgency and gothic soundscapes. Each area of Shadow Moses has a deep level of immersion that was never seen before. Even after 20+ years, MGS achieves something most big titles struggle with today: an engaging soundtrack that’s complementary to the game’s overall style and gameplay.
9. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64, 1998)
To try and sum up Ocarina of Time’s soundtrack and just how much of an impact it left is a tricky one. There are plenty of N64 games with memorable soundtracks that you don’t necessarily need to play. By and large, that was N64’s stopping power, and Ocarina of Time was head and shoulders above anything else that was on offer for the time. There are gamers that may not be familiar with The Legend of Zelda but will know the opening bars of its title song.
With Sony’s much more popular machine taking away publishers such as Squaresoft and Capcom, Nintendo needed to prove to the gaming world that they still had appeal. The N64 was a popular console, though they had a huge gap to try and fill compared to the PS1. The Legend of Zelda was only beginning to be a heavyweight franchise, but The Ocarina of Time needed to show it was ready to take on the mantle. Koji Kondo composed the perfect adventure soundtrack, with a dynamic, exciting score for the fields of Hyrule, mystery and intrigue in its temples and of course a bombastic and loud score for the bosses.
Not only that but because the Ocarina is, you know, a musical instrument, the soundtrack had to be pivotal to the story especially with Link needing to learn several unique tunes. This was a huge challenge for Koji, given the technical limitations of the N64, but he took to the task and there was no stone left unturned. Magical and mysterious in some places, ambitious and intrepid in others, the N64 may have lost the popular vote to Sony, but soundtracks like Ocarina of Time helped solidify the console’s legacy.
10. Silent Hill (PS1, 1999)
Of all genres that went through a technical overhaul in the 1990s, horror games truly found their footing during the 5th console generation. Though there were horror games such as Clock Tower or Alone In The Dark that tried to bring terror into the hearts of gamers, the technological limitations of the time hindered any game from being a legitimate horror hit, often making some games feel like silly B-movie schlock.
The 5th generation was able to provide the technology available for horror games to seek out that fear in players. For this list, it was a tough choice between Silent Hill or Resident Evil 2. Both games have fantastic sound design, however, Silent Hill edges out the other. RE2 does bring an unnerving atmosphere, with its robust gothic soundtrack and use of piano and bells, but. Silent Hill’s soundtrack has a more minimalist approach that utilises sound effects and high strings to make you feel like those sounds were part of the town.
What Team Silent was able to deliver was a soundtrack that encapsulated fear and isolation, which was radical for its time. Composer Akira Yamaoka lulled you into a false sense of security with warm introductions, before triggering the senses with the clanging of sheet metal, the faint sounding moans of the town previous victims and those aforementioned high strings being drenched in anxiety. You would be well within your rights to have a small panic attack yourself. Nowhere in the heavy shrouded fog of Silent Hill was safe and Yamaoka played with the audience’s psyche to achieve those results.
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