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Bass of operations: 10 homey themes from video game headquarters

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1. “Old Castle By The Lake,” Suikoden III

The Suikoden games never shy away from depicting war as truly devastating. Suikoden III tells the series’ most fully developed antiwar tale, exploring a conflict between two nation states from both sides and a third impartial viewpoint. It grapples openly with issues of genocide, racism, refugee crises, and war crimes—pretty bleak stuff. Mercifully, then, the game’s headquarters theme is a calming, meandering, summer breeze of a tune. Gaining a permanent base of operations is a staple of the Suikoden games, but in most of them, the headquarters’ music evolves over time, growing more militaristic and celebratory as your army grows. Not so in Suikoden III. Right to the end, your headquarters is a much-needed refuge from the game’s raging storm of warfare and violence. [Patrick Lee]

2. “Starship Mario,” Super Mario Galaxy 2

After the sometimes-too-serious celestial epic that was Super Mario Galaxy, this sequel took the portly plumber back to his cartoony roots with bright colors, goofy antics, and the joy of play. Everything from the first Galaxy was recast with classical irreverence, including its soundtrack. Traipsing about a spaceship shaped like Mario’s head felt like meandering through a forgotten Disney feature. A Peter And The Wolf-style orchestra circles, its oboes and strings jumping in and out of a musical conversation. Brass interrupt to plead their case while rapped snares, twirling flutes, and plucked strings keep marching forward, building into a grand procession. It’s a tune as bright and bouncy as the colorful bunnies that populate the ship and an upbeat call to arms for Mario in his inter-dimensional adventure. [Derrick Sanskrit]


3. “Mission Select,” Strider 2

Strider 2’s soundtrack is not messing around. Being a ninja with a 10-foot long, totally sweet scarf is no laughing matter in the dystopian cyberpunk future. When an immortal despot and his army of kung fu chicks and cyborg centaurs have taken over the world, you’ve got to take his defeat seriously. Nothing gets you pumped up for it like the game’s “Mission Select” theme song, a thumping cascade of synthesized noise. The descending melody repeats over and over, a mix of MIDI horns and synth keys, while drums rat-a-tat underneath as you pick your next destination. It’s every bit as ridiculous and bombastic as what happens in the stages you head to and the aural equivalent of Strider’s thought process: “Where to next?! How many cyborg woolly mammoths shall I explode tomorrow?!” [Anthony John Agnello]


4. “BLADE Barracks Theme,” Xenoblade Chronicles X

The residents of Xenoblade Chronicles X’s New Los Angeles are stuck in a crappy situation: They’re stranded on a resource-starved alien world full of humongous predators, hunted by hostile alien life, and stuck living in a crash-landed facsimile of a city that wasn’t that fun to live in before it got shot into space. But at least they know how to chill out at home, as evidenced by this funky, laid-back track that plays when you’re hanging out in your strike team’s home base. Grooving like it ought to be playing in the funkiest of futuristic elevators, it’s the perfect background music for tinkering with your giant mecha or checking through page after page of assigned quests from the deprived citizenry. (It also gets bonus points for offering a respite from the bizarre scatting that’s all over the track that plays when you’re walking around the city itself.) [William Hughes]

5. “Headquarters Theme,” Shining Force II

A scrappy band of screw-ups and losers coming together to fight evil and save the day is a tale as old as time. Rarely, though, has a band been scrappier, or composed of bigger screw-ups and losers, than in Shining Force II. Main character Bowie’s ragtag army includes, but is not limited to, his classmates (still so young that even the dwarf isn’t old enough to shave), the giant thieving rat he broke out of jail, a feral tortoise-like monster, a homeless werewolf, and a suicidal vampire. The demon armies they face should be laughing them off the battlefield, and yet, this parump-a-pumping march, complete with a rousing MIDI fife, is inspiring enough to make even this pack of hopeless down-and-outers feel like a genuine military force. [Patrick Lee]


6. “Humming The Bassline,” Jet Set Radio

Between missions on the streets of Tokyo-to, members of the GGs street gang kick it at their secret headquarters, which doubles as the closest thing the game has to a menu screen. The camera weaves between characters, nonchalantly highlighting their pinball machine, wall-to-wall tags, and most importantly, their sound system. Through no fewer than six industrial-size speakers the gang is pumping “Humming The Bassline,” probably the grooviest track in a superlatively groovy soundtrack. Just about every element of Jet Set Radio’s celebrated track list is here in some form or another—the narcotic bass lines, funk-influenced guitar licks, toe-tapping beats, and hip-hop-influenced samples and scratches. It’d be impressive if this song contained all those elements without feeling overstuffed, so it’s nothing less than a miracle that it feels instead like the perfect low-effort chill-out track. [Patrick Lee]


7. “Aboard The Ebon Hawk,” Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic II—The Sith Lords

Knights Of The Old Republic put a lot of effort into capturing the feel of the Star Wars movies, including the scruffy used-future aesthetic, climactic showdowns against a string of uniquely deformed sith lords, and the heavily modified light freighter that is apparently the standard mode of transportation for all galaxy-spanning adventurers. The spaceship in question for KOTOR2 is the Ebon Hawk, transportation, home base, and Millennium Falcon surrogate all rolled into one. Your character spends a lot of time on the ship, so thankfully the theme music that plays while you’re aboard is enjoyable and not overbearing, blending in nicely with the constant hum of the ship’s hyperdrive. A contemplative, low-tempo piece shot through with a brief, uplifting flute trill that represents discovery, it hangs gently in the background without interrupting any of the conversations or blaster crafting you need to attend to. It’s a melancholic tone that fits KOTOR2’s moody themes of identity and morality. [Nick Wanserski]


8. “Coasting,” Transistor

While a lot of the game’s soundtrack matches the story’s cyberpunk night-club espionage aesthetic, this track is a chill jam for lounging about and enjoying the self-satisfaction of striking a pose without any foes to fight. Well, except for the beach ball you can bounce around your quiet little oasis. Despite the lack of urgent mystery found everywhere else in the game, “Coasting” still manages to be seductive and alluring, with delicately tickled keys, sputtering snares, and strings strumming with the reckless abandon of a performer who no longer gives a damn. Even when Red is out of harm’s grasp, she’s still on stage and chooses to carry herself as such. [Derrick Sanskrit]


9. “Whispering Rock,” Psychonauts

Aside from the part where it doubles as a training facility for burgeoning psychic super spies, Whispering Rock is your stereotypical summer camp—bunkbeds, bullies, a nasty lake, and plenty of time in clean forest air. Double Fine’s resident songsmith, Peter McConnell, crafted a laid-back theme befitting of the bucolic summer setting. It’s the kind of wispy tune the camp’s resident musicians might be caught lazily jamming out on the porch of their log cabin, all guitar noodling while a quietly persistent harmonica strolls in and out of the spotlight. The twang and drawl further bring out the relative mundanity of the camp’s sun-soaked woods, which are a welcome break from the wild fantasy worlds Raz visits while traipsing through people’s troubled psyches. [Matt Gerardi]


10. “The Gates Of Hell,” Bayonetta

There are no two ways about it: “The Gates Of Hell,” the theme song that plays whenever Bayonetta takes a break at her pal Rodin’s bar, is swank as hell. Post-bop snare shuffles by beneath a plaintive trumpet melody while a lush piano line leads the whole thing forward. As a perfect slice of jazz, the song makes you feel precisely as cool as Bayonetta looks when she’s swirling around like a long-legged storm of bullets and swords. As a compliment to the game’s one place of rest, it’s equally excellent. The Gates Of Hell bar is a place where a giant dude in sunglasses and an overcoat—who is also the devil—trades you life-restoring candy for dead angels’ halos and odd weapons for golden LPs. Not to put too fine a point on it, but that’s cool as hell, and this is a theme song to match. [Anthony John Agnello]