Ten 2011 Game Soundtracks Worth Checking Out
It’s that time of year again where “Top 10″ lists saturate gaming blogs even more than usual. And yet, game music will once again receive little to no attention on most sites. That simply just won’t do! For the third year in a row, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on the sweeping scores and bumping beats that the soundtracks of 2011 brought us.
Of course, listening to every soundtrack released in North America last year is an impossible task and my taste might not sync up with yours. I may have not listed your personal favorite (let me know in the comments), but maybe you’ll discover something new. I’ve included a four song sampler clip and purchase link for each soundtrack below for your convenience.
#10 Ridge Racer 3D (3DS)
One thing I’ll always love about Japanese racing games is their insistence on creating original music instead of relying on licensed songs. The Ridge Racer series in particular has long been a great vehicle for fresh electronica to listen to. Ridge Racer 3D brought plenty of new music to enjoy (along with some old tunes) and really showed off the 3DS’s ability to use streamed audio without sounding horribly compressed (a major drawback of the previous system).
With eight different artists, there’s a lot of stylistic variety. Some of it is a bit out there, but tracks like Taku Inoue’s “Nitro Right Now” still get stuck in my head from time to time.
#9 Mighty Switch Force (3DS eShop)
You can always rely on Jake “virt” Kaufman for a catchy soundtrack. Mighty Switch Force is loaded with really upbeat, often funky electronica tracks that never stay in one spot for too long. Each stage theme has the driving force to make you want to shoot for those unforgiving par completion times while also generally leaving you in a good mood.
It has an almost retro feel to its melodies while simultaneously employing techniques like side-chain compression to give tracks like “Love You Love You Love” a modern kick. And if the more dance oriented tracks aren’t your thing, there’s always the dangerously funky sound of “Whoa I’m in Space Cuba” and the frantic pace of the final boss music.
#8 Portal 2 (PC, PS3, X360)
The music of Portal 2 succeeds on many levels. It often straddles a line between moody and playful, atmospheric and melodic, all while forging a very recognizable identity. The frequent use of low fidelity synthesizers and mechanical rhythms give it an appropriately inhuman feel. But it’s when it blends in more traditional instrumentation that it can really become haunting.
To really appreciate it though, you must experience the game’s many brilliant musical cues. Whether you’re launching from a springboard or running along orange goo, Portal 2 is always at the ready with a musical flourish to compliment your actions.
#7 Radiant Historia (DS)
Yoko Shimomura strikes again as she has so many times before. Radiant Historia showcases the signature style she’s used as early as Legend of Mana and as late as Birth by Sleep. The sound may be familiar, but that doesn’t make it any less of a joy to listen to.
The hardware of the DS leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to sound, but Shimomura makes you forget that with the passionate string leads found in “An Earnest Desire of Grey” and the overall sense of mystique present in “The Garden Where the Celestite Sleeps” among others.
#6 Bloodrayne Betrayal (XBLA, PSN)
If you doubted Jake Kaufman’s talent, the fact that he has composed two of my favorite soundtracks of the same year should speak to the quality of his work. Those who were disappointed by the stylistic changes of last year’s Castlevania: Lords of Shadow OST should look no further than the Bloodrayne Betrayal soundtrack.
While Michiru Yamane went off to make the jazzy score of Skullgirls, Kaufman picked up the torch and kept the Symphony of the Night sound alive. “Vampires’ Ball” is a stunning piano piece that will make you swear it came from one of Konami’s 2D masterpieces while tracks like “Sanguine Nightmare” rock you in the most meticulous, deliberate way.
#5 Deus Ex: Human Revolution (PC, PS3, X360)
In its calmest moments, Michael McCann’s soundtrack for Deus Ex: Human Revolution reminds of Daft Punk’s phenomenal Tron: Legacy score. Yet, it never feels so similar as to be an imitation. The highly reverberated synthesizers of its most ambient pieces create a fitting soundscape for the dystopian future of the game’s setting without ever using it as an excuse to eschew melody.
McCann knows exactly when to really let loose and bring the music to your attention. Whether among shady characters in a club or locked in combat, the score always comes to the forefront when it needs to. And with areas like Lower Hengsha making use of East Asian instrumentation, each locale feels distinct.
#4 The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword soundtrack feels like a bit of a departure for a couple of reasons. The most obvious is its frequent use of orchestral performances. But what you might not know is that series veteran, Koji Kondo, was only a contributor this time leaving Hajime Wakai (who you might recognize from The Wind Waker) as the lead composer.
The main theme, which is as triumphant as it is emotionally resonant, permeates much of the game’s enormous score. Battles with bosses and even mid-bosses have a greater weight than they ever had before thanks to the full sound you can only get with a live orchestra. And the subtle beauty of “Fi’s Theme” almost sounds like it would be more at home in 2006′s Okami than a Zelda game.
Skyward Sword makes excellent use of dynamic music. Instantly noticeable is the bazaar which transitions between different renditions of a common theme depending on which counter you approach (similar to Monkey Island 2). But listen closer and you’ll realize that even dungeons add additional musical layers as you explore further into them. Like the randomized, eight-measure components of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field and the gradual transformation of the the Hyrule Castle theme in Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword continues the series tradition of shaping music to context with masterful execution.
Hope for an Official Soundtrack
#3 Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (PS3, X360)
When I played the first stage of Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, I was greeted with “Dogfight”. I laughed a bit to myself as I listened to the heavy guitars and stutter effects attempting to make my every move feel overly badass. Then a quick glimpse of the main theme began to shine through and my ears perked up.
As I started to absorb the rest of the score, I quickly realized that it was extremely well put together. The hybrid of orchestral, choral sections, heavy metal, electronica, and world music makes a surprisingly seamless blend that was, in fact, one of the key motivating factors when I decided to purchase the full game.
Tracks like Rio Hamamoto’s “Shall Defend” transition back and forth between an air of desperation and the sense of aggression that previously turned me off (but now found myself in love with). The majority of Assault Horizon‘s score is made up of long, building tracks that are hard to quickly get the sense of. But if you let them fully wash over you for their entire duration, they may never let you go.
#2 Bastion (XBLA, PC)
Bastion is the soundtrack that people who don’t care about game soundtracks bought. It’s that good. Described as “acoustic frontier trip hop” by composer, Darren Korb, Bastion has a style without match. I found myself playing just one more level than I planned to each night just to hear the next piece of music the game had to offer.
But what most people will remember Bastion‘s soundtrack for is its vocal tracks. Implementing a singer into stage music is no easy task. Without the right execution, it just doesn’t fit. Yet “Build That Wall” arguably contributed to one of the game’s most memorable moments while simultaneously making the wait for the official soundtrack release all the more agonizing.
#1 Rayman Origins (PS3, X360, Wii)
Like the game itself, the Rayman Origins soundtrack excels at making me happy. And it does so with a seemingly effortless, nonchalant quality as if I had stumbled into a room full of talented musicians jamming away like it was second nature.
It’s something I’d expect more to hear in a well produced, classic cartoon than a video game (though the tricky treasure stages admittedly bring to mind “Andy Asteroids” from Earthworm Jim). Much of it is downright silly in the best possible way.
But Rayman Origins is far from a one trick pony. The more thoughtful approach in “Music World” really wowed me as every item I collected and instrument I walked across created musical accompaniment that would make even Lumines jealous. It is a fittingly stellar soundtrack to what was already one of the best games of 2011.
Buy the Soundtrack (included in the UK Collector’s Edition)
Narrowing down an entire year to ten soundtracks is no easy task. Between Jeremy Soule’s Skyrim and Akira Yamaoka’s Shadows of the Damned, there were plenty of notable scores to cover that I just couldn’t fit. I hope you were able to discover something new. I’d love to hear your favorites, too! Please leave a comment below with your thoughts on this great year of soundtracks.
Tags: 2011 wrapup, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, Bastion, Bloodrayne: Betrayal, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Mighty Switch Force, Portal 2, Radiant Historia, Rayman Origins, Ridge Racer 3D, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 at 5:00 am and is filed under Features, Music. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.