A good videogame soundtrack can be the difference between whether a game is memorable or not. Good gameplay helps too, but even if a game is bad, it can still be remembered fondly by its music. Where would a game like Cheetahmen be without its catchy music? Even more awful and forgotten. Would Super Meat Boy be the same experience without Danny Baranowsky’s input? I don’t think so. I think there’s something to be said for melody driven, simple game music.
Let’s go back to the 8 and 16 bit era. The music was simple due to programming limitations, which ultimately was a strength because the music was catchy due to a strong melody. Games like Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong Country, F-Zero, MegaMan, Tetris, Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Bubble Bobble and a slew of others. How many songs from just the games I’ve listed can you hum? I would wager quite a few. I would also imagine that it brings back both good and frustrating memories.
Modern indie games have embraced the idea of a strong melody. Danny Baranowsky is a master of such melody. In no other game is this more evident than Super Meat Boy. In addition to its super solid platforming and gorgeous art style, SMB’s soundtrack is certainly something special. It’s a retro style soundtrack with modern production values, so the music is nuanced and complex, but still retains what you remember most, the melody.
Part of what makes Hotline Miami such a visceral experience is it’s droning 80’s club soundtrack. Songs such as ‘Crystals’ and ‘Hydrogen’ are infinitely stuck to your brain like sticky tar. Thematically, the music feels like a descent into madness. It gets more intense and grating the further into a mission you are.
That isn’t to say ambient music or a lavish orchestral score can’t be memorable. In many cases its even preferable. One of my favourite examples of ambient music was in Mirror’s Edge. It really felt like the sound was echoing off the concrete walls and filling your ears. It gave the entire game a real industrial vibe. But I couldn’t hum it to you. It’s music that blends in with the environment, so you barely notice it’s there.
It’s very difficult to make engaging ambient music. Ben Prunty did the soundtrack for FTL: Faster Than Light. He managed to make a soundtrack that complemented the theme of deep space. From calm exploration music, to more intense battle music. It seamlessly transitioned to add immersion.
Shadow of the Colossus is beautiful and epic in scale. I couldn’t possibly imagine a chiptune soundtrack for this game. The sweeping orchestral score by Kow Otani fits the theme of battling giant stone monsters. No music is used during any other gameplay, so it makes the colossi battles feel very special.
A strong argument can be made for simple melodies being more memorable. But it certainly doesn’t fit every game. The variety of music in videogames today is the biggest strength it has. But try getting Bubble Bobble out of your head!
Questions to the readers: What videogame music style do you prefer? What is your favourite videogame soundtrack?
Last Updated: November 1, 2013