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3-D dreams and 2-D extremes: 1996 in video game music

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January: “A Bit Of Blue Sky Between The Clouds,” 19XX: The War Against Destiny

19XX was simultaneously the end of Capcom’s 1942/1943 shooters and their salvation. Trading in the deeply awkward World War II setting for a fictional war where twin-engine planes can shoot walls of plasma and fly endlessly into the horizon, it recast the ’80s arcade series in heavy metal tones for the ’90s. The old games were Black Sabbath. 19XX was Slayer. “A Bit Of Blue Sky Between The Clouds” is the essential jam, a blazing death-metal tune to match the upgrade to sci-fi shooter bombast on the screen. Synth drums rage and squall, tumbling over each other as they build and build before the melody explodes out of the haze like a gleaming fighter jet out of a thunderhead. Every guitar wail and bass slap feels like a righteous call to action. It’s one hell of a way to start the year. [Anthony John Agnello]


February: “The Shining Path,” Civilization II

In 2010 “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV became the first song from a video game to win a Grammy. You could call it a technicality—composer Christopher Tin was nominated for a version of the song included on his studio album Calling All Dawns—but it still encouraged the Grammys to start considering game music. That path to mainstream recognition began with 1996’s ambitious and diverse Civilization II soundtrack. Civ2 drew inspiration from world music of several varieties—East Asian, sub-Saharan African, and Mesoamerican influences can be heard throughout—and sound cards of the era were sophisticated enough to render its instrumentals recognizably. On “The Shining Path,” the rhythm of the bamboo xylophone, whistling of the reed flute, and twanging of the zither mark the tune as something that might be heard emanating from a Chinese temple. [Patrick Lee]


March: “Jun Kazama,” Tekken 2 (PlayStation version)

Tekken 2 is a game about robots, bears, wrestlers, CEOs, and kangaroos beating the hell out of each other for riches and glory. It is absolutely no place for a breezy spring afternoon of a tune like “Jun Kazama.” It’s important for every soundtrack to have at least a little variety, but this? With its light-as-a-feather synths, whispered woodwinds, and bloodless drum patterns? Serving as the soundtrack for one-on-one combat in England’s Wiltshire County, a setting so pastoral that you can actually see Stonehenge in the background? How can anyone be expected to grind their enemies into the dirt to a track that sounds like it was engineered to lower peoples’ blood pressure? Still, even if the tune is wildly out of place, it at least has the decency to be divinely catchy. [Patrick Lee]

April: “Inner Station,” Metal Slug

SNK’s Metal Slug series of arcade shooters made its debut in 1996, introducing the world to its brand of cartoon violence and exquisite pixel art. Even in this primordial form, Metal Slug was a bold and boisterous game, full of nonstop explosions and the death cries of your doomed enemies. The soundtrack is an equally raucous mix of propulsive rock and militaristic pomp, but no track captures the game’s goofy mayhem like “Inner Station,” the theme of Metal Slug’s second level. It funnels every ounce of the game’s gusto into a massive, merciless funk-rock jam. The foundational groove pulses and pushes you forward while all matter of instruments dance in and out—nimble piano, MIDI trumpet, interjecting slap bass, and the blistering guitar that leads them on. This is video game excess at its finest, a fitting way to represent Metal Slug’s arrival. [Matt Gerardi]


May: “Conversation 1,” Fire Emblem: Genealogy Of The Holy War

Like so many aspects of its long-running parent series, the fourth Fire Emblem’s soundtrack first reached an American audience through Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. series, with a couple of the game’s tracks Marthing their way into the background of Super Smash Bros. For Wii U’s “Coliseum” stage. But Genealogy Of The Holy War—never (officially) translated for the West—has a lot more to offer the musical adventurer than two measly tracks. It features one of the most ambitious soundtracks of the Super NES era. There’s the regal rendition of the series’ theme, for instance, perfect for plotting all your elaborate medieval human husbandry to, or the rocking, organ-driven “Recruitment” song that signals a new hero bringing their improbably colored hair into your fighting force. But the soundtrack’s biggest highlight is this emotional piece, used to underscore some of the game’s most dramatic conversations. (Given that Genealogy is widely considered one of the darkest entries in the series, they aren’t in short supply.) Surprisingly fast-paced for such a sad track, its simple instrumentation—highlighted in a YouTube video by Joseph Perkins, who adapted the song for strings—really manages to capture the angst of brother turning on brother and friend turning on friend that so much of Fire Emblem’s drama draws upon. [William Hughes]


June: “Staff Roll,” Super Mario 64

Super Mario 64 did a whole lot of new things, and the game’s soundtrack varied a great deal as a result. There were gentle string quartets throughout Peach’s castle, chipper accordion squeezes on snowy mountaintops, cooing crystalline synths underwater, and bent steel tones in the lava pits. As the showpiece of Nintendo’s new hardware, the game had to demonstrate all the new things the Nintendo 64 could do. Only during the end credits did the game give up the pretense of being a dozen new ideas and embrace its Mario roots. The staff roll music feels like a throwback to the portly plumber’s past, with a cheerful melody that could have been plucked out of Yoshi’s Island, complete with Raphael The Raven’s slap bass and Yoshi’s bongos. This tune is an upbeat, colorful celebration of otherworldly exuberance, and it feels more like Mario than the entire game that precedes it. [Derrick Sanskrit]


July: “Gate Of Your Dream,” Nights Into Dreams

Most of Nights’ soundtrack is high-energy pop, with innocuous upbeat rhythms more often intended for aerobic exercises than flying through clouds in a dream. It fits nicely with the brightly colored, kid-friendly romp the game has to offer, with one notable exception at the start of every new adventure: “Gate Of Your Dreams.” This tune, which acts as a transition between the kids sleeping in the real world and their adventures in the dream world, is wispy and peaceful. A gentle chime loops lackadaisically and is layered with what sounds like distant children and shifting water, creating a collage of sounds that is both complex and serene. This song may have been too relaxed for the game’s speed-focused antics, but it provides a welcome respite for the restful moments in between dreams. [Derrick Sanskrit]


August: “Aqua And Trees,” Tobal No. 1

Yoko Shimomura had a transformational year in 1996. Her amazing Super Mario RPG soundtrack in particular proved she was much more than just the musician behind Street Fighter II, and sitting in the shadow of Mario RPG is her work on the collaborative Tobal No. 1 soundtrack. Her song “Aqua And Trees” is a jungled-up jazz track. Its acidic snare taps and tinny bongos bury a woozy guitar melody, all of which ultimately yields to a delicate synth refrain before raving horn blats. This song is all over the damn place—way more listenable and exciting than the fighter it actually plays in. It also presaged the experimental electronica the composer would create with spectacular success as the PlayStation matured after 1996. [Anthony John Agnello]


September: “Hog Wild, Whole Hog,” Crash Bandicoot

Players of the original Crash Bandicoot can be counted on to have one of two reactions to the autoscrolling levels that found Crash riding a wild boar over, around, and frequently into various hazards: They either loved them or despised them. The same probably can’t be said of those stages’ rustic, twangy backing track “Hog Wild, Whole Hog,” which successfully conveys the frantic, Looney Tunes-style antics the levels were attempting to convey. Sounding for all the world like it was played on upturned buckets, a hand-me-down harmonica, and a rubber band strung across a tissue box, the song is simultaneously loose and energetic, as springy and droopy as the game’s elastic cartoon hero. Surely we can all agree that this tune is pure magic—and that the levels where you get chased by the giant boulder were way worse than the pig levels. [Patrick Lee]


October: “Klaymen’s Theme,” The Neverhood

Far more strange and eclectic than most of his work in bands like Daniel Amos and The Swirling Eddies (although the latter’s “Arthur Fhardy’s Yodeling Party” comes close), Terry Taylor’s score for The Neverhood is a classic. He was directed to make it sound “claylike,” in keeping with the game’s unprecedented claymation visuals, and the result is a collection of songs that do have a distinct malleability and rubberiness. That’s largely thanks to Taylor’s half mumble, half chicken-squawk gibberish and the integration of bouncy Balkan music throughout. Although the soundtrack’s bread and butter is frantic cartoon cacophony, its more sedate tracks find tunefulness as they slow into a more sludgy, plaintive form. “Klaymen’s Theme” is one of those few low-key songs. The wackiness is there, represented dutifully by Taylor’s backing, but there’s also a sadness. Taylor lethargically strums out the track’s minor-key backbone, setting the stage for bittersweet woodwinds and coos. Reflecting the loneliness that underlies the zany game itself, Taylor’s music finds room for darker shades among the absurdity, and it’s better for it. [Matt Gerardi]


November: Main theme, Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider slipped into self-parody so quickly in the late ’90s that it’s easy to forget how profound playing the original for the first time was. Three-dimensional exploration games are almost literally a dime a dozen these days—just look at the average Steam sale—but there were none in 1996 that felt as fully realized as Tomb Raider. Its meditative theme song embodies the feeling of awe and excitement that came with wandering its ancient ruins, discovering new and unexpected ways to climb up stone blocks and shoot wolves in the face. Opening with a delicate oboe melody, the theme seems like it’s going to just relax, staying ambient and meditative even as a wash of strings join in. When the harp enters, raising the song into more curious and energetic territory, it takes on new character. Choral chanting comes in, the strings take center stage over the harp’s foundation, and the song builds to a stunning reveal at the two-minute mark, the aural equivalent of plumbing deeper and deeper into a cave only to find an underground Colosseum forgotten by time, begging to be explored. This was the sound of video games’ promising future as 1996 drew to a close. [Anthony John Agnello]


December: “Into The Wilderness,” Wild Arms

Acting as a sort of JRPG stopgap for the Sony PlayStation—killing time until Final Fantasy VII could arrive the following month to destroy it and all other role-playing competition—Media Vision’s Western-themed Wild Arms is pleasant but average in almost every regard. The sole exception is the game’s opening theme song, “Into The Wilderness,” which almost single-handedly elevates Wild Arms to melancholy greatness. From the strum of the acoustic guitar to the Morricone-esque whistling that carries the melody, Michiko Naruke’s masterpiece generates a feeling of intense loneliness—not the isolation of depression or misery, but the loneliness of being the only human being on a vast frontier, far from civilization and home. Wild Arms’ visuals are as blocky and unappealing as anything of the early PlayStation era, but by playing “Into The Wilderness” at the start of every session, the game fires up the player’s imagination and goes a long way toward drawing them into its somber, adventurous tone. [William Hughes]