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Wintry mix: 12 video game songs in the spirit of the season

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1. “A Wish,” Secret Of Mana

The best winter-level themes feel more like a natural extension of the landscape than composed pieces of music. Since they’re frequently presented as places of languid, crystalline stillness, the music can’t be too up-tempo. A gentler melody feels appropriate when the cold slows the world around you into a drugged torpor. Featured in Secret Of Mana’s Ice Country landscape, “A Wish” feels like it emanates directly from the environment itself. A pleasingly drowsy tune, the piece is all sparkling synth notes, the musical personification of sunlight glinting off of a fresh snowfall. Glittering pillars of ice and barren trees sheathed in gently scintillating frost define Ice Country. “A Wish” plays in time with the color-shifting forest, creating a mild phantasmagoric experience. You feel as though you are walking through a dream; a soft, antiseptic place of absolute peace where the glass-like serenity is only occasionally shattered by the necessity of chopping apart rampaging dire wolves. [Nick Wanserski]

2. “Another Winter,” Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

The Scott Pilgrim soundtrack makes you wonder why more game studios don’t just hire bands to craft music for them. After all, chiptune legends Anamanaguchi already construct their music to sound like the most exciting retro-game soundtrack that never existed, so it was only natural that they’d contribute some absolutely kickass tracks to underscore doofus-hero Scott Pilgrim’s battle against his girlfriend’s league of evil exes. But before he reaches them, he’ll have to River City Rampage his way through the snow-covered streets of Toronto, beating up random schlubs (who then, of course, explode into spare change), while “Another Winter” pulses in the background. It’s hard to pin down what, exactly, makes the song feel like a cold but cozy evening—something to do with the hints of sadness in its driving baseline, maybe, or the nostalgic melancholy of the main melody—but listening to it, you can almost feel your breath turn to steam in the cold air. [William Hughes]


3. “Memories Of The School,” Persona 3

For most people, December is just the end of the year, but for the members of the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad, it’s also the end of the world. Whenever something ends, even something as common as an ordinary year, it’s natural to get a little nostalgic about it, and for the kids of Persona 3, the stakes and emotions are so much higher. “Memories Of The School,” then, is less about celebrating and more about reminiscing, looking back on the year that was and getting a bit teary-eyed about it. It taps perfectly into the bittersweet undercurrent of the holidays, that sense that something important—a year, a life, every life—is already almost over. [Patrick Lee]


4. “Out Of The Cold,” The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Packing all the grandeur and stillness needed to match Skyrim’s frozen expanse, any of Jeremy Soule’s down-tempo orchestral beauties could fit this theme. His score is at its most wintry, though, when the player leaves the cold outdoors behind for the hot fire, hearty ales, and pared-back guitar ditties of the land’s taverns and inns. The twanging, legato guitar of “Out Of The Cold” provides just as much warmth as the flames in the fireplace or the brandy in your belly. It’s a perfect tavern tune, reminiscent of the olde English folks songs, like “Greensleeves,” whose gentle melodies were refashioned into holiday standards. The only thing that could make it more welcoming is the sound of a crackling fire. [Matt Gerardi]

5. “Doda Doda ~ The Snow Has Fallen,” LocoRoco

The LocoRoco games are ceaselessly delightful, thanks in large part to the bright, cheery art direction and upbeat blob-like characters constantly bouncing and singing and cheering one another on. Something about the fourth level of the first game, though, feels unusually somber. The landscape is muted in a snowy palette of pastels and blues. More impactful, though, is the music, which is slower and more contemplative. A chorus coos above a gentle piano and delicately patted jingle bell. The lone lead voice sings nonsense, but it calls to mind the weighted ballads of lost loves that spin on late-night public radio during the holidays. It’s not hard to imagine that this particular LocoRoco feels the cold weather and is reminded of a lost love, or a dear friend they miss seeing, or any number of other regrets. The LocoRoco are often a symbol of the joy in togetherness, but at this moment, in this song, the LocoRoco call upon a feeling we too often associate with winter: discontent. [Derrick Sanskrit]


6. “Freya’s Theme,” Final Fantasy IX

It’s not snowing in Burmecia when your band of misfits reaches its gates. It’s raining in the ruined city. This song makes it feel like that rain is going to freeze into snow and ice any second now, but it’s also ill-suited to the dire scene that accompanies it. The dancing harpsichord and stoic woodwind melody piping over it taps into that lilting grandiosity in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” but with more intimate orchestration. “Freya’s Theme” is part of that mythical winter solstice experience—less Yule log on cable access and more riding an actual horse-drawn sleigh in the dead of night through some German forest 500 years ago. It’s forbiddingly warm, like staying up too late on Christmas Eve. [Anthony John Agnello]


7. “Snowy,” Undertale

One of the benefits of having a noted composer design a game is that it tends to end up having a pretty excellent soundtrack. Case in point: Undertale, Toby “Radiation” Fox’s enormously popular, Earthbound-inspired pacifistic RPG. Fox is a well-known musician, and his game is full of amazing songs—including a few so intense and exciting that it’s almost worth the terrible things you’ll have to do if you ever want to hear them. But the game’s most wintry song, “Snowy,” is a much more sedate affair, quiet and kind of lonely. A simple little piano melody, backed up with somber violins, it evokes the feeling of a chilly winter morning, snow falling gently in the pre-dawn twilight, when you can look out at the white-covered world and imagine that you’re the only human being for a thousand miles. [William Hughes]


8. “Cool Edge Day,” Sonic Unleashed

The winter break is when most people just want to sit around a roaring fire drinking hot chocolate, but Sonic The Hedgehog doesn’t sit still for anything—not even the holidays. The Blue Blur’s take on winter festivities is as frantic and furious as a snowball fight. “Cool Edge Day” has a chilly, serene melody whose every note hangs in the air like cold breath, but it’s also driven restlessly forward by a bumpy bassline, pitter-patter drums, and—of course—shreddin’ electric guitars. We’ve come a long way from the days when “Jingle Bell Rock” was the funkiest thing in Christmas music. [Patrick Lee]


9. “Ice Cave Chant,” Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country was one of the last big triumphs of the Super NES era, a near perfect mix of tight platforming, gorgeous graphics, and a seemingly endless collection of secrets. The soundtrack was a big part of its appeal, too, and “Ice Cave Chant” is a great example of how composers were able to wring gorgeous sound out of the SNES’s limitations. Starting with a low, ominous note that sets the tone for underground exploring, the track gradually builds steam, pushing players forward with a mix of urgency and encouraging optimism. It’s the perfect score for an evening’s sleigh ride, where the night sky twinkles, the icicles glow, and not all the snowmen are friendly. [Zack Handlen]


10. “Homesickness,” Suikoden II

Just hear those sleigh bells jinglin’, ring-ting-tinglin’ too! “Homesickness” has nothing to do with winter or the holidays, but it has everything to do with returning home and being reunited with your family. You hear this song twice in Suikoden II: once at the beginning of the game, when there is still hope for the hero that things might go back to normal, and at the very end, once everything has been changed forever. Returning home after a prolonged absence, measuring how much you’ve changed against how much the town hasn’t—could there be a more perfect seasonally appropriate theme? That, combined with the rattling sleigh bells and a sad-sweet melody, makes it the perfect match for Yuletide. [Patrick Lee]


11. “Phendrana Drifts,” Metroid Prime

The piano is the essential Christmas instrument. From Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum to George Winston’s December, there’s an inexorable link between the 88 keys and the transformation of fall into a frozen time. As Metroid Prime does with everything, the theme for “Phendrana Drifts” melds the deeply modern with the deeply primal. Building a thick foundation out of synth washes, weird electronic flourishes popping up like a zephyr of powder, and delicate choral singing, the centerpiece is a tinkling piano melody that plays again and again, cold and delicate. That baker’s dozen of notes, alternately repeated and sustained, make Kenji Yamamoto’s song sound like a morning snowfall the day after Christmas. [Anthony John Agnello]


12. “Fluffy Snow, Here We Go,” Yoshi’s Woolly World

While the rest of this playlist evokes a certain earnest and poetic side of the season, “Fluffy Snow, Here We Go” is an exemplar of its more overbearing half: the manufactured commercial sheen. With its plucky strings, oom-pah bass, and “Sleigh Ride”-wannabe interludes, it conjures visions of shopping montages and ice rinks packed with picture-perfect families. It’s the indelible sound of shiny, happy, corporate Christmas—so fluffy and toothless and relentlessly cheerful. But that’s what makes it the perfect companion for Yoshi’s Woolly World, a cuddly game that’s been made to look as if it were pieced together from a mountain of craft supplies. What could have easily been a pure piece of cynical, saccharine pap is rendered charming and infectious when little yarn Yoshi strolls into a winter wonderland of cotton-ball snow and smiley-faced beanies. [Matt Gerardi]