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Top Ten Video Game Title Themes
Previously I’ve covered my Top Ten Soundtracks and just last week researched my Top Ten Openings; this week we look at the intersection of music and opening menus. Due to the overwhelming awesomeness of video game music across decades and genres I’m keeping the criteria strict for this list: only songs that play during the initial title screen qualify. In other words, Chrono Trigger’s 30 second song “A Premonition” would qualify, but the Main Theme that everyone associates with the game would not.
Top Ten Title Themes
10) “Space Cruise” (FTL: Faster Than Light)
It doesn’t get much more indie than a Kickstarter game and one young artist’s synth studio, but FTL and Ben Prunty proved everyone that independent can also mean gloriously awesome when it comes to video game music. The title track draws you in with its odd chords, daring you to listen further and discover the driving melody, the light touch of cymbals, and a myriad of synth and chiptune sounds that make you fall in love with video game music all over again.
Click here for an interesting analysis of the various themes used throughout the FTL soundtrack, and here for Prunty’s breakdown of what he used to compose the soundtrack.
9) “Prelude/Introduction” (Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness)
The intro music to Quest for Glory 4 was one of the first non-chiptune video game songs I ever heard, and the mixture of gothic and classic rock themes still holds up amazingly well over twenty years later. After the classic Sierra logo and theme, this crazy flyby sequence begins over an ominous mountain range until at :23 the bloody Quest for Glory name drips out the Shadows of Darkness subtitle, wolves howl, and I was smitten. If you hang around the menu screen long enough, the four minute song rewards you with an awesome electric guitar solo straight out of an 80s power ballad (Begins at 1:14).
Note that there was no official release of the QFG4 soundtrack, but you can download all the tracks at QuestStudios and various other sites for classic gaming.
8) “Title Theme” (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
Everyone adores Ocarina of Time’s soundtrack, and for good reason. The title track is not even in my top five for the soundtrack, which is a testament to just how incredible the whole soundtrack is, as the beautiful piano and ocarina melodies imbue all the aspects of adventure and exploration as Link rides around the menu screen on Epona. Those first few notes are a sucker punch of nostalgia among any gamers lucky enough to have grown up with one of the greatest games ever made.
7) “Grabbag” (Duke Nukem 3D)
So turns out that our ridiculous 80s-90s action hero Duke Nukem doesn’t translate well to modern audiences or gaming anymore, but that’ll never take away the sheer greatness that was Duke Nukem 3D. That classic rock themed title track was one of the first video game songs I obsessed over and downloaded in .midi format. The surprisingly great Nintendo 64 port smartly kept the theme song mostly intact, but the crunchy original is still the best. Come get some!
6) “Main Theme” (The Whispered World)
When Tim Schafer mentioned that most adventure games nowadays were being made in Germany in his Double Fine Adventure kickstarter video, he was probably giving a lot of credit to Daedalic Entertainment. Those crafty Germans have quietly created some of the best and most beautiful adventure games I’ve ever played, in art, music, and gameplay. The Main Theme of The Whispered World is the first impression you get, and it immediately sets the tone of both an epic adventure and an intensely personal story as the hard piano and melancholy flute battle each other beautifully for your ear’s attention.
5) “Vigil” (Mass Effect)
Not much more can be said about how Mass Effect has shaped our current generation of gaming in story, continuity, and world-building, and Jack Wall’s star-gazing soundtrack is the best interpretation of science fiction wonder I’ve ever heard. The simplistic initial title music is subdued but incredibly evocative and emotional, setting the stage for one of the most amazing experiences in gaming.
4) “Reign of the Septims” (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion)
Famed composer Jeremy Soule (who certainly made my Top Ten Composers list) has created all of the Elder Scrolls soundtracks since Morrowind, and if you think the title tracks have some similarities, you are correct: all the title theme songs center around the same basic melody. Youtubers have had a lot of fun with this, including a particularly interesting clip that lays the theme songs from Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim on top of one another. Although Morrowind has the stronger soundtrack, I give the edge to Oblivion when it comes to title themes; that roaring brass section comes out so triumphantly you can’t help but get excited for an epic adventure.
3) “In Case of Trouble” (Bastion)
Listen, all this takes a lot of gettin’ used to. And you do get used to it, after awhile. Years from now we’ll still be talking about how incredible Bastion’s soundtrack is, and no amount of praise I heap upon its altar would be enough. Supergiant Games struck gold when they brought on Logan Cunningham as the narrator/Rucks and Darren Korb to compose the music, blending a unique mix of rock, folk, jazz, eastern, and techno musical styles to create a compelling soundtrack unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Bastion’s title song with its driving acoustic guitar and drums is also one of its best. Folks in Caelondia really knew how to carry a tune.
2) “Main Theme” (Legend of Grimrock)
If you haven’t heard four man team Almost Human Games’ epic theme song to their modernized version of a grid-based dungeon crawler, stop everything and LISTEN NOW.
DAT CELLO. Incredible isn’t it? Grimrock teases what might have been if the likes of Eye of the Beholder, Might and Magic, and Dungeon Master had full-fledged orchestras to greet you upon opening their games. One part Elder Scrolls, one part Lord of the Rings, all wrapped up with a Celtic flavoring while imbuing its own unique instrumentation (Snakeskin banjo! So much cello!) and sound. I really, really like the theme song for Legend of Grimrock, and you should too.
Read all about composer Stakula’s creation of the theme song here, including links to download the song because indies are awesome like that.
1) “Baba Yetu” (Civilization IV)
It was the first song composed for a video game to be nominated for a Grammy, and the first to win. The lyrics are a Swahili translation of The Lord’s Prayer. The song is “Baba Yetu,” the greatest title track in video gaming history. Composed by Christoper Tin for Sid Meier’s fourth entry in the venerable Civilization franchise, “Baba Yetu” blew me away the first time I heard it, forcing me to stare at the globe that is the Civ 4 title screen and listen to it in its entirety. It’s an incredible example of the multicultural celebration of World music and a brilliant way to introduce strategy gamers to a game that spans all of human history and beyond.
Video game music lists are some of the hardest top ten lists to rank; there’s just so much greatness out there from indie one man studios to full blown orchestras and film composers. Trying to compare classic chiptune themes with modern day .mp3s is simply impossible, and ultimately comes down to the writer’s own childhood experiences, modern research, and unique tastes. Even given my strict criteria in making this list of opening title themes, several of my favorites had to be left on the cutting-room floor: Super Metroid’s haunting theme, the toe-tapping flute of The Secret of Monkey Island, and the cheery fantasy menu music of Heroes of Might and Magic III.