What happened to great video game soundtracks?

Posted: December 23, 2011 by Tony Polanco in PIECE OF MIND

I’ve been playing a fair amount of retro games lately and its made me realize something.  Modern game music is pretty forgettable.  What happened to great video game soundtracks?  Older games contained very catchy tunes that have stayed in our minds and hearts for decades but I don’t think the same will be said about the music of modern games in the decades to come.

To me the most disappointing thing about the current generation of games is the music.  Very few tracks are actually memorable now.  Most games have generic techno soundtracks that don’t resonate like older game soundtracks did. This point is made clear thanks to all of the old games being re-released.  Older games just had more memorable soundtracks.  Think about the original Street Fighter IIs and Alphas.  All of them had great tunes that stick with you.  Street Fighter IV has bland techno tunes that you forget 2 seconds after listening to them.  The only memorable tracks that SFIV has are the remixed versions of the originals.

I recently got Sonic CD on the PSN.  By default its set to the Japanese soundtrack.  I played the American version of this game when it originally came out so as I played the first level with the Japanese soundtrack turned on I wasn’t really into the game even though it has always been my favorite Sonic the Hedgehog title.  Don’t get me wrong, the Japanese soundtrack to the game is great but it just wasn’t what I remembered.  As soon as I turned on the U.S. soundtrack all of those great memories came flooding back to me.  I was in nostalgia heaven.  Is anyone going to be able to say the same thing when they replay Batman: Arkham City in 17 years?  Vanquish? Enslaved?  No one can remember the music to these games now.  You think they will in the future?  I seriously doubt it.

These days, games have soundtracks that resemble those of movies.  How memorable are those?  Answer: Not very.  Most movie soundtracks are just there to highlight certain moments or to add ambiance to the scenes.  They work well with the images on screen but if you listened to a soundtrack on its own, it probably won’t hold your attention for long.  This seems to be the general direction that video games have gone in music wise.  Have a soundtrack that fits the world but doesn’t draw attention to itself.  I’m all for games being more cinematic but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the soundtrack.

What older game soundtracks had going for them where themes.  Each tune would have a specific melody that would repeat itself.  This is why the music of the original Legend of Zeldas, Final Fantasies and Street fighters resonate so much with gamers even 25 years later.  All of these games had themes that bury themselves in your brain and are hard to dig out.  I can listen to music from a retro game that I’ve never played before and the music would be instantly etched into my mind.  Catchy themes are the reason why we latch on to older game tunes.  Why can’t we have a mix of both? Ambient music serves a purpose and I have nothing against it but I also want a greater emphasis on memorable themes like older games had.  They don’t need to be cheerful like tracks of yesteryear but a recurring melody every once in a while would be nice.

Now, before you think I’m ragging on EVERY new game soundtracks let me point out some recent games with exceptional music.  Talking about how great some modern game tracks are may undermine my article a bit but I want to be fair and give credit where it’s due.

Red dead redemption, Portal 2, Scott Pilgrim vs the world: The game and Brutal Legend all had fantastic and most importantly, memorable soundtracks.  Red dead redemption has it all, ambient music that fits the barren lands of the world, recurring themes and even actual songs with acoustic guitars and vocals.  Portal 2 barely has any music in it but when it pops up it does an amazing job of making you feel the loneliness and terror that the protagonist must be feeling.  The techno music of Portal 2 fits perfectly since you’re trying to escape from the clutches of a mad robot. Also the ending song…pure genius.  Scott Pilgrim’s soundtrack is great because it’s basically a throwback to older games with its MIDI sounds and repeating themes.  Brutal Legend is probably the best example of how to use licensed music in a video game.  The game knew when to play the right songs for the occasion.  When you’re riding around in your car it would play a lot of songs about cars and driving fast, when you entered the evil and dark portion of the world it would play a lot of Black and Doom Metal.  There are some other modern games out there with soundtracks that are great (L.A. Noire, Final Fantasy XIII, Super Mario 3D Land) but the fact that I can only name a handful of them that standout says something about the state of video game music nowadays.

For the most part the modern gaming world is devoid of memorable soundtracks and it’s a damn shame seeing as how every other aspect of gaming has evolved so much.  While graphics, story telling and voice acting have improved immensely, music has taken a back seat.  Hopefully the few current games that do have exceptional soundtracks will remind developers that music should also be a large part of games and not just something to be relegated to the background.

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