There are few elements to a game more important than the way it sounds. Even a game with very little story or very sparse gameplay usually has sound effects and a score. Completely silent games died with MUDs made in MS-DOS, and that’s probably for the better. Nothing sets the scene of a ominously dark cavern full of untold riches and horrors like the right sound design.
I didn’t always appreciate game music, especially at a young age. I would look to my peers (most of which loved listening to game soundtracks more than playing the actual games) in bewilderment, because I never had that sort of connection in games besides playing them. Maybe I was a duller instrument back then, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. In all fairness, a younger Jarrett didn’t have much stake in any music – video game, radio, or otherwise.
Even to this day, unless a soundtrack is particularly different or interesting, I treat it as a second hand feature. I can appreciate it’s presence when in particular moments during the actual playing of the game, but as a stand alone entity, I almost always downplay it. So when I was tasked to choose my favorite game soundtrack, it took some soul searching.
I had to really look into what it was about the soundtracks I liked that really made drew me in. Rock Band’s tracklist was chock full of songs that were already on my iPod or on the radio, so there’s an instant relationship with the music there. Similarly, Spec Ops: The Line’s soundtrack was spotted with grungy psychedelic rock the like of The Black Angels or Hendrix, two other faithful standbys in my MP3 player. As hearing “Say it Ain’t So” or “Black Grease” can conjure up memories of playing these games, I don’t really associate these songs with gaming; a wall that prevents me from really considering any heavily licensed soundtrack as my favorite.
In this grand reflection into my relationship with video game music, I began to really realize just how much of my memories of older games consisted of how it sounded. I don’t remember many lines of dialogue from the 7th Saga, but I absolutely remember the boss battle theme, because I remember it evoking that sense of urgency needed for the challenge in front of me. Final Fantasy 4’s Golbez almost always entered a scene with accompanied music reminiscent of a funeral march; it’s tall, droning organs and deep, deliberate bass said everything you needed to know about the character before the character himself said anything at all. The nostalgia factor played a big part in what I determined was my favorite soundtrack: the bombastic, chiptune, power rock collection that is Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest’s auditory onslaught.
The early 90’s was a pretty good time for JRPG’s, especially if you were in Japan, where they were being developed and produced by the dozens. Over here in the US, we still had a bit of a tepid, though promising, relationship with them. Japanese developers assumed it was because their games were too complex for us. So Squaresoft, even though they were exporting their flagship Final Fantasy games stateside in edited and redacted fashion, decided they were going to custom make an RPG just for us. Enter Mystic Quest.
Everything about Mystic Quest was so incredibly simple it was almost silly. Your main character was travelling the world to restore the crystal’s power, fighting bad guys and helping the weak and downtrodden in the most repetitive and narrow bit of storytelling in all of the FF brand. Your combat party never reached over two people, and the second slot would be occupied by various different partners in crime that would revolve in and out of your lives whenever deux ex machina was needed. There was a spell list that wouldn’t require all your fingers and toes to count, and tools to make your overworlding experience more dynamic. As a kid playing it, I was thrilled. If I was in my mid 20’s in 92 and someone handed me this, I’d probably be insulted.
The one assumption that was absolutely correct about us Americans is that we love our rock and roll. A fact that Ryuji Sasai and Yasuhiro Kawakami kept in mind when composing the soundtrack, which is full of raging guitar solos and upbeat, frenetic drum fills. Being the first game not composed by series standby Nobuo Uematsu, it sounded completely different from any other game in the franchise. Hell, to this day, no Final Fantasy has ever sounded like this one.
The lack of relent in songs like “Battle 1” and “Battle 2” are really what gives this game attitude. The energy is high from the first chord, really giving the simplistic combat the sort of edge it needed to remain interesting. I remember loving the boss battle theme (Battle 2) because of its Slash-esque guitar licks, that seem to travel into their own dimension, and eventually settle back into the high-tempo, double four-on-the-floor bass drum line. There’s still no better song to beat a giant red skeleton dinosaurs’s boney, prehistoric ass to.
The locales of the game had great tracks, as well, and played to the strengths of Sasai’s rock dedication, and Kawakami’s orchestral background. While the City of Forests and City of Water would feature calmer, more atmospheric and serene tunes more typical of the series, the Volcano and City of Fire were rock centric. Especially the City of Fire, which actually featured a little sprite band playing the Chuck Berry-like tune. “Lava Dome,” the fire lands dungeon, was especially badass, and remains one of my favorite chip tunes ever.
The last dungeon features a stellar rock/orchestra fusion, that does a great job at getting you pumped about how close you are to saving the world. It’s followed shortly by the games most epic track, “Final Battle,” that is the perfect representation of the form changing, shit-talking Dark King in all of his shadow infamy. It’s boisterous and elegant, moody and eerie, and direct and inflexible all at once.
It took me awhile to come to the conclusion that my love for this game comes solely from its soundtrack, and not from playing that atrocious mess. Memories are funny that way, I guess.
As the whole package is a sterling beacon of early 90’s audio ingenuity, my Top 5 recommendations are actually pretty straight-forward. Maybe the order in which I love them is the only real conflict I have.
Honorable Mentions: Bastion
Harder than getting an idea of my favorite soundtrack ever is figuring out a suitable runner-up. The dark, ambient rock of Digital Devil Saga really spoke to me, maybe because rock heavy sound is still a foreign element in JRPG’s. Bioshock: Infinite’s folky set was topical and engrossing, punctuated perfectly by Courtnee Draper and Troy Baker’s cover of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” The truth is, though, Bastion is a soundtrack that I couldn’t escape once it had me. I couldn’t play the game with the sound off, I needed the plucky acoustic guitar and atmospheric piano to guide me to the shards. Part of what made me enjoy the game so much is my extreme love of the blues and the American Frontier.
This game was like being in a blues record, and songs like “Build That Wall” and “What’s Left Undone” do a great job as presenting the elemental sense of superstition and mysticism that the blues can often command. I’m always happy to hear that people haven’t played Bastion, because it means someone still has an opportunity to experience that soundtrack for the first time.