Let’s listen to some (obscure) game music!


(Crossposted from theexperiencebar.com)

This isn’t an article about JRPG soundtracks being performed by symphonies or the great song selection in Grand Theft Auto or the Fallout series, or Song of the Dragonborn, or the track lists for Guitar Hero/Rock Band/other random plastic-instrument game. Those already get a lot of attention.

Here, I wanted to focus on the really obscure songs that I think add immeasurably to a game yet never got the recognition they deserved. I have a couple that were written specifically for games that stand on their own as eminently listenable songs in their own right, and a couple that so complimented their game that the entire game would have been lesser without them.

And I’ll even give you a surprise at the end.

There aren’t that many that spring to mind, so luckily this will be short and not one of those absurd “100 best video game songs of all time” lists.

Off we go!

“Skeletons in My Closet” – The Fat Man and Team Fat – 7th Guest (1992)

George Sanger, otherwise known as The Fat Man, has composed music for countless games going all the way back to Maniac Mansion in 1990. He also led a group composed of other game composers that was known as Team Fat. Their crowning jewel, a song that rises far above even their distinguished collection, is the jazzy “Skeletons in My Closet” from The 7th Guest.

It reminds me of the sultry “Why Don’t You Do Right” from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, only much darker lyrically and in terms of composition. I don’t remember much of The 7th Guest other than it championed optical media, but I still listen to Skeletons in My Closet.

“The Darkstone Will Shine” – Audren – Darkstone (1999)

So the way this works, unlike other titles that use songs as themes or outros while credits roll or what have you, in the 1999 RPG Darkstone the song is actually part of the adventure! In one of the towns, you will encounter a bard and a young lady who will perform a song if you leave some money in their plate. I was not expecting the song I heard, and I still remember hearing it for the first time and being stunned at the quality of what I heard. Not to mention it’s possible to never hear it; it’s not part of the main story!

It’s a song written and performed by French artist Audren (I hate to say it but be warned – her website is really bad, as is any site that has ‘free’ in the URL), and it fits within the narrative of the story perfectly. It’s haunting both musically and lyrically, yet with a complex and layered arrangement, full of nuance. The fact it’s actually performed in-game, as part of the narrative, is just icing. I still listen to it today and it stands up as well as ever, and I’m still amazed at how good it is.

“The Devourer” – Alternate Reality: The Dungeon (1987)

Do you doubt my obscure game knowledge? Do you question how long I’ve been around, and been involved? Do you think because you know some little-known Pokemon fact you’re a game historian? Well I’m about to put you to rest.

When I was much, MUCH younger, I had an Apple IIe. It had so many glorious games on it it’s hard to pick just a few. Everything from King’s Quest to Aztec to Wizardry to Bruce Lee to CannonBall Blitz…you see? Those are only a few so I could never pick just one, but nothing enraptured me like Datasoft’s Alternate Reality: The Dungeon.

The game itself was nothing short of absolutely incredible in terms of scope and achievement. First, it used a raycasting engine with mip-mapped graphics to give a scrolling first-person perspective years before Wolfenstein 3D took credit for doing it first. You could move at different speeds and the halls scrolled along at an appropriate pace rather than have you move tile by tile – you can briefly see the movement and how it rendered at the beginning of the video below. Your character could get hungry, thirsty, tired, diseased, poisoned, and overencumbered. In fact, if you had too much stuff in your inventory, there was a risk of the game crashing, so the game would just delete some of your inventory, and the developer used the titular Devourer of the song highlighted below as a narrative device to ‘devour’ some of your equipment and explain away why your stuff just went missing.

The colors of the environment would change as night fell, there were many small architectural details and the levels were visually unique…I could go on and on. A really fantastic game years ahead of its time.

Right off the metaphorical and occasionally literal bat, you would find The Rathskeller Bar & Grill, and upon first entering you were serenaded with a song called The Devourer in all its speaker-clicking glory. You see, the Apple IIe couldn’t make actual sound without an expansion card, it could only ‘click’ the speaker, although programmers were able to manipulate that masterfully as you’ll hear.

A couple of interesting notes: I recorded this using the Virtual II Apple emulator (Mac only) which as you’ll notice even emulates quite accurately the sound of the disk drives, and where I went to college we actually had a social club/bar kind of place called The Rathskeller, colloquially known as The Ratt. It’s long since gone, but it was a neat throwback to my early days when I first arrived as a freshman.

And yes, this is really what adventure/RPG graphics looked like back in the day. Glorious.

Intro – Yuzo Koshiro – Streets of Rage (1991)

I really didn’t want to include any console games, or ambient soundtrack music, but I have to include what I think is the best console game tune ever written – the intro to the Sega Genesis classic Streets of Rage. It’s one of the few songs for which I booted up the game not to play, but to listen. The entire Yuzo Koshiro-composed soundtrack is great, but the title track really stands out.

There are many parallels to the Darkstone song which I discussed earlier. It’s haunting and enigmatic, moody at the start, but develops a solid, supportive beat, all of which blends perfectly with the dark, gritty imagery of the title screen’s metropolis and perfectly sets the mood for the rest of the game. And like Darkstone, I even now remember the first time I heard it and how I was enraptured. For only being 90 seconds long, it’s easily one of, if not the, greatest console compositions ever written.

Not to mention Streets of Rage is a fantastic game; even its sequel couldn’t best it.

“Will the Circle be Unbroken” – Cory Baker / Courtnee Draper – Bioshock Infinite (2013)

I was only going to give this one an honorable mention because it’s a song from the very early 20th century, not written specifically for the game, and it’s probably much more well known than the others because the game it appears in was so popular, however upon reflection I think it’s deserving for full inclusion. Here’s why:

The original is a spiritual hymn that is meant to be a memory of, and celebration of life, with the understanding that it comes to an end and there is hope for reunification afterwards in Heaven. A beautiful song, at once sad yet also uplifting. June Carter Cash, wife of Johnny Cash, rewrote the lyrics to transform it into a funeral hymn which is much more sad than the original, however this is also the version that is infinitely more well-known. In fact, some even think that version is the original!

It’s because of that that I decided to include this song in the list. It’s not the June Cash remake, but the original song with original lyrics. Not only that, it is performed by the voice actors for the two main characters (Cory Baker on guitar, Courtnee Draper vocals) and retains all of its impact from the original, enhanced even more so by the setting. As with Darkstone, if you don’t pick up the guitar, you won’t hear the song at all.

I should also mention that the song makes multiple appearances, including a choral version performed by Maureen Murphy that you hear when you first arrive in Columbia that is *so* haunting and beautiful – made even more so by the water-filled, candle-adorned setting – I paused just to listen, and ended up staying for about fifteen minutes. I’ve written a lot about final levels, but this might be one of the most impactful, emotional intro levels I’ve ever experienced thanks in large part to the music. You can also hear Elizabeth humming the song at one point as well.

In fact, I think I have to provide the video for both versions. One can’t be chosen over the other, they both have to be experienced. The choral version is first. If these songs don’t move you, you have no soul.


“Surf Vamps” – The Suburban Vamps – Road Rash: Jailbreak (2000)

And now for the surprise.

What can I say? Motorcycle racing slash beat-em-up Road Rash on the Genesis was a blast as were its sequels, and this one on the original Playstation was no different, maintaining the high-speed bashing and hysterical, over-the-top wipeouts just like all its predecessors. EA licensed a bunch of music for it, but my favorite has to be Surf Vamps, by The Suburban Vamps. And why? Because it’s me.

That’s right. I’m the bass player in The Suburban Vamps, along with the masterful virtuoso Tony Leicht on Guitar and Todd Dring on drums. What happened was a contest was held where unsigned bands could have their music featured on the soundtrack. I don’t remember how many groups were ultimately selected, something like 18, and out of 5000 entries we were the second band selected. We were very proud of that, the game did well, we had to sign a bunch of papers but they sent us a bunch of copies of the soundtrack. I still have a few of them lying around.

So take a ride through three decades of music, from the surf of the 60s to the talk-box of the 70s to the shredding guitar of the 80s and back again, as you listen to me playing with The Suburban Vamps on the soundtrack of Electronic Arts last entry in the seminal Road Rash Series, Road Rash: Jailbreak.