As the 1990s drew to a close, we saw a glimpse of where gaming and, most importantly, its musical direction was taking us. The inclusion of MP3 and technological advancements allowed many genres in the medium to thrive. They all had a hand in laying out the blueprint for the first decade of the new millennium. The first 5 years alone saw the 5th generation take its final bows, the 6th generation creating new and beloved franchises and by decade’s end, the 7th generation hitting its stride.
With new technology on the rise, this also made video game development reach new heights of replayability, deeper storytelling and cheaper tools that set the stage for the genesis of the indie developer. What all these elements have in common, however, was the importance of their soundtracks, which bridged the gap between telling a story and immersing the player into its world. Soundtracks were more important than ever, so we are back with another ten examples of that perfect harmony.
As explained in our last list, this is not a top 10. This list is to provide an insight into where video game soundtracks were at the time and how they evolved. Let’s roll up our sleeves and swim in the heady waters of, well, historically speaking, a rather depressing decade full of war, credit crises and Nickelback. Thank the maker that video games provided some much-needed escapism.
1. Final Fantasy IX (PS1, 2000)
We can imagine that some of you that read our list of the 1990s may have been a little disappointed that we didn’t include Squaresoft’s magnum opus Final Fantasy VII or its equally impressive 8th instalment. Both games have amazing soundtracks, however, both are very similar in their militant and realistic approach. If we’re to look at the “golden trilogy” of Final Fantasy games, FFIX stands out for many reasons.
For one, this was the last Final Fantasy instalment that was solely composed and produced by Nobuo Uematsu, though he would come back in subsequent sequels to mentor other composers of the franchise. The idea of Uematsu stepping down was a huge blow to the faithful fans that had followed his work since the inception of the franchise. However, Uematsu made sure to go out on a wonderful high note.
Over 160 pieces of music were composed, a staggering amount even today, with only 20 of those compositions getting the chop. Uematsu also mentioned that the influence behind the soundtrack was meant to be an audible response to seeing the world through the black mage Vivi’s eyes. Hearing this soundtrack through Vivi’s eyes explores adventurous music in response to Terra’s royalist atmosphere, while the world map music sounds tranquil, almost childlike. These elements capture an aesthetic of a dauntless journey and make this soundtrack stand out among one of the best JRPG soundtracks of its era.
2. SSX Tricky (PS2, 2001)
By 2001, the extreme sports genre was reaching its apex. Much like beat-em-ups in the 1990s, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing another Tony Hawk or Dave Mirra title on the shelves of your nearest Blockbusters. We were spoilt for choice in what extreme sports fantasies we wanted to indulge in every weekend, with the little pocket money we had. However, very few managed to stand true to the dreaded “test of time”.
It’s not a huge leap to say that the Tony Hawk franchise managed to stand that test well, but for our money so did SSX. Its first title was experimental, with EA testing the waters of the PS2’s graphical and technical capabilities. The OG SSX was arcadey nonsensical fun, but everything came together with its sequel released a year later. From its opening energetic remix of Run DMC’s ‘It’s Tricky’, the player is invited to an atmospheric electronica soundtrack that marries lush white mountain tops and addictive gameplay in perfect kinship.
It has a nightclub vibe: some songs get the blood pumping, but it’s equally important to have a few mellowed out tracks so the player isn’t feeling too overwhelmed at some of the game’s more, well, trickier tracks that need to be mastered. It’s not too in your face that it’s distracting, but has just enough of a kick that it’s hard not to tap your feet while trying not to crash into the nearest oncoming tree. A perfect balancing act if there ever was one.
3. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (PS2, 2002)
There’s no question that Rockstar Games were hitting their stride during the 6th generation. Titles including Max Payne, Manhunt and Bully were pushing the envelope in terms of storytelling and taste. If you were too young to know, I can safely tell you that at one point, there wasn’t a single Rockstar release that didn’t garner a small army of overly concerned parents wanting to cancel their releases. “Cancel culture” is hardly a new phenomenon.
GTA 3 wasn’t perfect in terms of presentation and its soundtrack was rather forgettable, with perhaps the exception of Lazlow’s performance on Chatterbox FM. However, GTA: Vice City’s soundtrack was unique for its time. Soundtracks went one of two ways: either completely original material or sign up as many bands as possible and make a soundtrack that way. GTA: Vice City managed to do both.
With 10 radio stations to choose from, including 2 chat show stations and 8 music stations, Rockstar not only just brought in classics from the 80s but also included their own music acts such as V-Rock’s Love Fist or Radio Espantoso’s Alpha Banditos. This gave the game a unique personality as you drove down the neon-drenched beaches of the city. It’s something that is fondly missed in subsequent sequels and should make a comeback. C’mon Rockstar, do it for GTA VI.
4. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings & The Lost Ocean (GameCube, 2003)
Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings & The Lost Ocean has an interesting history. Baten Katos was developed by Monolith Soft and directed by Tetsuya Takahashi, who at the time was frustrated at Squaresoft’s reluctance to create a sequel of the critically praised Xenogears. Not only did he leave the JRPG juggernauts to start his own publisher, but took a few of the Square’s workforce with him. For the time, this was certainly a dramatic affair.
All eyes were now keenly looking at Takahashi to see what he could do without the Squaresoft machine backing him. What resulted was this Gamecube exclusive, which yet again garnered a lot of critical praise for its presentation and storytelling but also gained a strong cult following. It’s easy to see why its battle mechanics were especially unique for the time, using decks of cards to control the fight. It’s an oversimplification I admit, but for the JRPG fans among us, it’s absolutely worth looking at.
Composer Motoi Sakuraba doesn’t do anything too wild within the game’s high fantasy settings, but what he does is enhance those settings, knowing when to add tranquillity as you explore the vast world around you and up-tempo guitar work for its fight sequences. Baten Kaitios didn’t limit itself to just instruments that could fit easily in the game’s time period but had more freedom to infuse itself with rock, gothic and even some jazz rhythms coming into play. It’s clear to see why Baten Kaitos had its followers, everything about this one of a kind title is alluring to even the most casual JRPG fans, including its soundtrack.
5. Def Jam: Fight For NY (PS2, 2004)
The clue is in the title as to why we included this entry on our list. For those who have never played Def Jam: Fight for NY, think WWE before 2K came along and made it a no fun wrestling simulator and mix in some over the top arcade destruction. The result was an interesting fighting game addition that is still beloved by fight fans today. It’s depressing that apart from the underwhelming sequel Icon, EA is sitting on this property like the greedy dragon it is.
For its time, Def Jam stood out as a lone wolf of the fighting genre. No game before it had been done on such a large scale with such a large roster of household names in the rap scene. For rap fans, this was the premier score settler. Who was the hardest, nastiest rapper on the planet? Snoop Dogg? David Banner? Angry punk rock singer turned literary savant Henry Rollins? All of this could be settled while throwing Sean Paul into an oncoming train.
Much of the soundtrack contains instrumental versions of songs from the game’s roster, only using lyrics should the fighter use their Blazin’ Taunt, in a simple but effective use of audible psychology. By using this simple method, the player knows what’s going on in the fight without needing obvious signs that could end up distracting you. Def Jam: Fight for NY was a standout gem in the 6th generation’s life span and its soundtrack is a pivotal reason why fans are clamouring for a HD revamp.
6. Kingdom Hearts 2 (PS2, 2005)
For the younger gamers among us, it’s hard to describe the gamble Square Enix made when creating the phenomenal Kingdom Heart — you had to be there. By the time the first instalment of the franchise rolled around in 2002, the idea of Final Fantasy set in a Disney universe made many gamers of the time feel the kings of the JRPG had lost the plot. Thankfully for them, the experiment worked and Square had another franchise to tap into.
Disney is known for their strong soundtracks, as it’s practically their bread and butter, even to this day. They picked the right developer to work with, in that respect. For such an ambitious project they needed an ambitious composer, which they found in Yoko Shimomura. At the time, Shimomura was a respected composer in video games; her portfolio boasted of high profile titles such as Street Fighter and Super Mario RPG, but she was never asked to helm a franchise up until that point. When asked if she wanted to come back for the sequel, she jumped at the opportunity.
The first Kingdom Hearts soundtrack is memorable in its own right, but its sequel needed a more robust style. Teaming up with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, the reworking of the lead theme ‘Dearly Beloved’ told the player what to expect in this sequel. Also reworked are the many Disney locations you visit, where in the first KH most of the locations just had the same opening bars of a Disney song on a continuous loop, Shimomura gave most worlds a unique theme instead. Whether it was exploring Hades Underworld or Pride Rock, every world in KH2 had character because of its original score backing it, adding to the immersion of KH and the soundtrack is still stunning to listen to, as a result.
7. Okami (PS2, 2006)
A soundtrack so good, it won a BAFTA. Okami is a title few may have played but does have a loyal and dedicated fanbase. A tale based on Japanese folklore and its characters might not scream big seller, but much like many games before, it’s all down to the presentation. Clover Studio opted for a beautiful art style that’s still admired to this day, as its Sumi-E (that’s ink painting, not the PhotoShop filter) made Okami stand out when compared to the murky brown shoot-em-up counterparts that were dominating video games at the time.
With Okami so determined to stick out, a small army of composers was called upon for Okami’s soundtrack led by legendary composer Masami Ueda. At the time Ueda was known for his work behind such franchises as Capcom’s Resident Evil and Viewtiful Joe, but even he admitted that Okami was a challenge in itself. He has said in the past that due to Okami’s main mechanic of healing a dark and demon-ridden world, the soundtrack needed to reflect that, but also the game’s mythical settings of Japanese folklore.
This was achieved in two ways. Listening to the soundtrack, you can hear Shakuhachi’s presence in nearly every song, accompanied by the strings of the Koto and distinct low rumblings of taiko drums — everything in this game is quintessentially Japanese. However, Ueda didn’t limit himself, as he does also include some western sensibilities, including violin and contemporary classical influences. It’s a hybrid that did so much to bolster Okami as a whole, winning the composer critical praise, awards, and is still celebrated by fans with vinyl re-releases. If you’ve never played Okami before, you still should give its soundtrack a chance and hear for yourself why it’s highly regarded.
8. Bully (PS2, 2006)
Those of you who watch our YouTube channel will know that we use Bully’s soundtrack, so we have to talk about Bully through sheer obligation. Of course, being a Rockstar title, Bully was met with some controversy, including UK parents who wanted to ban the game for being a glorified bullying simulator. Bully did end up getting banned in a few retail outlets, but others simply went with the name change of Canis Canem Edit and the UK has lived in 15 years of peace, prosperity and absolutely no bullying since.
Bully didn’t tear the fabric of civilised western society as once feared. As noted before, most of Rockstar’s soundtracks at that time were licenced affairs, but when they did do something original, they captured the essence of their surroundings. 2005’s The Warriors is a fantastic example of that, building on the oozing synth framework the movie had to help encapsulate a gang-ridden New York wasteland. Bully wasn’t the most original IP on the market, but it did boast a decent narrative of sticking up for the little guy, with silly over the top pranks and a lighthearted soundtrack.
For Bully’s soundtrack, Rockstar went to the lesser-known Shawn Lee, who at the time only had Team SoHo’s criminally underrated The Getaway under his belt. The soundtrack has a generous amount of influences, with some rock, techno and hip hop stylings as you explore the academy and town of Bullworth. Lee’s use of xylophones and bells throughout the soundtrack keeps the overall tone of the game light and bouncy, but also utilises strings and guitar strokes during the games more dramatic moments. Coupled with the instantly recognisable wandering bass of its main hub world and Bully is an iconic but often forgotten gem of a soundtrack.
9. The World Ends With You (Nintendo DS, 2007)
A curious little number in Square Enix’s portfolio, it’s hard to describe The World Ends With You, as its story can be cringeworthy in places but does have enough intrigue to keep you playing. It’s a typical anime affair involving a brooding antisocial protagonist trying to brood harder when his friends are trying to be optimistic in this nightmare mystery of demons, the afterlife and the power of friendship.
However, despite its tropes, The World Ends With You does offer an interesting take on the JRPG and as such needed an interesting take on its soundtrack. Takeharu Ishimoto was a relative newcomer as a composer for Square Enix with only a handful of titles to his name, and not much is known about his influences behind the soundtrack. However, TWEWY’s soundtrack compliments the game’s uncanny style and those who wish to try the first game before the sequel will find it infectious.
Fusing hip hop, rock and traditional J-pop, the result is a distinct soundtrack where no two concepts are the same. The soundtrack captures the urban spirit of the game very well, as you traverse the many districts of Shibuya. In addition, its fight music doesn’t stick to the JRPG norms of having one composition for standard enemies and another for bosses, rather a small collection of songs to gauge as you swipe through The Noise. The World Ends With You may be cliched in terms of narrative, but its soundtrack offers diverse and catchy earworms to keep you going, while your wrists scream at you to take a break.
10. Braid (Xbox 360, 2008)
By 2008, an interesting new development was coming into the mainstream consciousness of gamers. With the technology required to make games growing slowly but surely affordable, the indie market was becoming hot property. Titles such as The Binding Of Isaac and Fez were simple in design but inspired a generation of small developers to follow their passion. Video gaming stopped becoming the rich man’s club of AAA developers and arguably this changed the medium for the better.
One such property was Braid, a simple puzzle platformer on the surface, but dig a little deeper and developer Jonathan Blow turned that genre on its head. Also present is Braid’s luxurious art direction, creating a bright and vibrant world in the style of a watercolour painting. This meant that Braid needed a good soundtrack, but with such financial limitations, Blow had to find somewhere that wouldn’t charge the heavens for a good soundtrack. Luckily he found Magnatune, a website that hosts royalty-free music for a modest sum — or at least compared to hiring an orchestra.
Blow had a specific goal in mind for Braid’s soundtrack. In an interview with GameSpot, he revealed that firstly, the music needed to fit Braid’s paint art style. Secondly, they needed to be extended tracks to cater to those who may get stuck with puzzles for a period of time. Lastly, it had to fit the atmosphere of Braid’s narrative. The soundtrack needed to be old school in its approach as there was no spoken dialogue, the music had to tell the story. Blow’s approach to soundtracks and Braid’s scope definitely helped a lot of indie developers do the same without needing to worry about running costs of independent musicians.
Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.
Gamezeen is a Zeen theme demo site. Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.