I felt like waxing Op/Ed on a topic we all like: Game Music. I recently wrote a little list for our Lunch.com site explaining my take on the Top Five Game Soundtracks. It's hard to write a Top 5 list these days, with the saturation of games as they are...but let's pretend there was a best of all soundtracks...what would it be? Once again we tackle the hard questions...what makes a Video Game soundtrack truly masterpiece material?
I believe I know, and I'm going to use Castlevania: Symphony of the Night as my example.
Symphony Of The Night is an amazing game to behold. If for some reason you live under the proverbial rock, go pick up this amazing video game and play it. If you're still unconvinced, I hope this article will change your mind. Symphony Of the Night (SOTN) is a Konami action platforming game from 1997, originally released for the PS1. It took the formula from previous Castlevania games (linear, level, boss, rinse, repeat) and broke it wide open, presenting a spawling central location for players to fight through, explore and discover. We began referring to games of the style as Metroidvania for their emphasis on exploration and action (much like Nintendo's own Super Metroid). But Castlevania was different. There were a few things making it special and for this article I will focus on one of them: the music. Composed by Michiru Yamane, the music of SOTN is widely praised and it's easy to hear why...
After the titular opening, the game thrusts you into the gold-buckled boots of Alucard as he whips through the forest on his way to Castlevania. Once he lands inside the might castle, the lights snap on...and the music begins. "Dracula's Castle" sympathizes with Castlevanias of old with a heavy four on the floor rock beat and rising chorus. Amidst the "HAH" and "TOH!" of Alucard's incessant monster slaying come the triumphant strings and major chord finishes. But even this song steps back, throwing in howling wind during an interlude of heavy drums and distorted guitar. It sets a stage for what is to come: great triumphs and extreme danger.
Atmosphere is what soundtracks are all about. The best soundtracks carry the on-screen action instead of drowning it out, or ignoring it completely. The look and feel of a game is easily ruined or enhanced by a bad music choice. When Bungie decided to include Breaking Benjamin's instrumental version of "Blow Me Away" in Halo 2, I felt that particular music detracted from Martin O'Donnell's already great score, and the game's sort of operatic violence was reduced slightly. Not in any grand way...but the music shift disjointed the game for me. In a game like SOTN the atmosphere is dark and gothic, with rich art and animations. A lack of 3D may get you thinking there isn't much immersion to the game so it's okay to let the music wander a bit, but SOTN's environments are among the most detailed and beautiful, standing the test of the past 15 years. And the best part is that the music still manages to support it.
The animal sounds, the water dripping, and the droning of the piano make this track nerve wracking and suspenseful. While other tracks like...
...paint a much brighter, grander picture. Indeed, "Dance of Pales" plays in the grand ballroom of the castle, where Alucard must dodge ghostly dancing partners, skeletons kicking around their own heads, possessed furniture and more. As you learn to navigate the castle, returning to old areas brings back a familar feeling when the opening chords of the hit you just after the interlock's door slams shut. Castlevania uses its music to fully support every moment and place appropriately.
The real sticker is: Why SOTN? Has there been another dracula hunting simulator you can point me to that has recreated/adopted/even touched the experience that is Castlevania? Not to my knowledge. Even today, 14 years after its release, SOTN wipes the floor with other games like it (See: Metroidvania), even though games like Cave Story and Shadow Complex are getting close. SOTN stands apart. Not even later Castlevania games managed to top its ability to fully engross the player in a 2D space. And to that end it's music stands next to its game play as one of the finest examples of atmosphere meeting game play.
Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night has the best soundtrack in video games right now. It's unique, it fits and it's truly beautiful to listen to. Even the remixes are amongst the best remixes available. "Bad Dudes", a remix group have released a free album of remixes from the game, that is entirely worth downloading and enjoying. And if you haven't played it yet...I highly suggest SOTN. Ten bucks on XBLA and PSN. Don't miss out, cause I have a feeling the 15 year anniversary will bring us some goodies.
And I leave you with my favorite song from the soundtrack.