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2017 in Gaming: the Best Scores

Thanks to Cart Boy for edits.

2017 has been a banner year for games, and one of the more enjoyable highlights has been a wealth of great game music. It’s made me excited to make not only a list of the year’s best scores, but to go back and look at music from years past. Narrowing this particular one down was exacting, and even with a self-imposed thirteen game limit I still had to leave out a number of excellent tracks and scores. Honorable mentions include ARMS various sports themes, the pipe and woodwind greatness of Golf Story, the synth-powered intensity of Strafe and The Mummy: Demastered, Monument Valley 2’s ambient calm, Wonder Boy: the Dragon’s Trap and Fire Emblem: Echoes excellent remixes, David Wise’s soothing Snake Pass score, the “Sneak Eater” riff in Metal Gear pastiche Never Stop Sneakin’, DJ Kid Koala’s music for the new breakdancing Switch game Floor Kids, and two particularly spectacular covers: Wolfenstein II’s amazing propaganda pop “Danke Schoen” (which I tried to include up until the very last minute) and Resident Evil 7’s haunting rendition of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

It should also be noted that alongside only going with one song per game, we’re only including games that were initially released in 2017, so no Persona 5, Framed, or The Flame and the Flood. You may find those on our 2016 list, as we slowly work backwards to enjoy the best game music of each year. In addition, I simply haven’t been able to play all these games, so for many of them I looked up their soundtracks and tried to find their context.

And now…

NieR: Automata, “Amusement Park” (February 23)

Early in this exquisite game, protagonists 2B and 9S discover a dilapidated amusement park in a post apocalyptic world torn to ruins by deranged machines. Except the robots here, unlike the ones you’ve been fighting, are friendly. They’re mimicking humanity through an endless carnivale, wearing party hats and shooting confetti instead of bullets. You’ve seen some clear examples of them “randomly” aping human actions, simulating acts of sex or worship, but this is a noticeable act of performance on a grand scale. It’s one early example of how the game constantly shifts itself, and Keiichi Okabe and studio band Monaca’s haunting musical piece – one that dynamically deafens as you wander into the park’s back alleys – is a statement of the game’s ambitious, emotional intentions. Automata had a number of memorable songs, from its tear jerker credits song “Weight of the World” to its evocative desert theme to the hilariously bizarre marketing jingle “Emil’s Song,” but this one stuck with me the most.

Hollow Knight, “Greenpath” (February 24)

At first glance, Hollow Knight would seem to only be one of the many games cribbing from Dark Souls’ notebook: an obtuse world, difficult combat, labyrinthine environments, and an aura of quiet, dark sadness. But underneath those surface elements is a game with a distinct and powerful identity, and a sense of constant life through its insect characters, its natural geometry and shapes, and the incredible audio work. Christopher Larkin’s soundtrack for the game has the requisite (and very well done) dramatic boss themes, but there’s a softness and kindness used in the game’s quieter moments that give it a satisfying distinction. Greenpath, a section of the game filled with poison and flora, feels off its own and as comforting as it is dangerous, and its music is appropriately fitting.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, “Main Theme” (March 3)

In the spirit of Breath of the Wild’s radical departure from the entire Zelda series, its score is dramatically different from the series norms. Gone are most of its majestic, sweeping themes – they exist, but only as a small part of the game, almost rewards for finding bosses and towns. Instead, Manaka Kataoka’s score is mostly subtle, contemplative, and melancholic, at times nothing more than a few stray piano notes. It’s music for exploring a harsh, beautiful world, from leitmotif when climbing the Sheikah Towers or the understated remix of the Zelda theme that plays while riding a horse at night. But it’s the quiet main theme I want to highlight, because it perfectly hits the emotions and feelings the game wants to instill. It starts from a light tone, with different instruments almost representing the number of things you do in the game, before becoming deeper, darker, and more operatic as the music starts to swell before suddenly cutting off right at the end, stopping the bombast from taking over and retreating to the quiet.

The Sexy Brutale, “The Sexy Brutale Theme” (April 12)

Okay, so this is a bit of a cheat; as I’ve not played The Sexy Brutale, I don’t really have the best context for excellent tracks like, say, Tequila Belle’s theme. But I do know when game music is good, exciting, and fitting, and the dark, jazzy music fits the sensual, time-bending atmosphere of a theater whose patrons keep reliving the night of their murders again and again. It’s electro swing that brings to mind dark detective games like Deadly Premonition, or spooky casinos like the Fallout: New Vegas’ Sierra Madre.

What Remains of Edith Finch, “Edith’s Theme” (April 25)

If I’m being honest, my favorite musical cue in Edith Finch comes in Barbara’s memory, when John Carpenter’s Halloween theme starts playing to highlight the home invasion plot. But that ignores the excellent original score from Jeff Russo, TV composer for Fargo and The Night Of. And the first track of music in the game, “Edith’s Theme,” sets the stage for the environmental narrative to come. It’s sad and lonely, incredibly evocative of the feeling of returning someplace familiar and just a bit threatening. The game plays with horror extensively, with pieces that capture that, but it’s a weird, tragic story about family and loss above all.

Prey, “Semi Sacred Geometry” (May 5)

Prey is very openly a successor to the immersive sims of the Nineties, games like Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock. Those often traded in cyberpunk aesthetics and visual tropes of 1980s science fiction, something Prey draws from immensely with its mind-bending storytelling and gameplay. This extends to the score; Mick Gordon, who did the excellent music for the new DOOM and Wolfenstein games, made a wonderful retro soundscape that harkens back to that era of game design and stylistic sensibility. “Semi Sacred Geometry” isn’t a Gordon piece – it was made by Matt Piersall and Prey director Raphael Colantonio – but its powerful synth and percussion is as captivating as the rest of the score. Lyrics (sung by Mae Whitman in this version) like “it’s just better in blood like the surest old sun” carry the vapidity of late Eighties pop, but with an intimidating undercurrent fitting for the game’s tone.

Splatoon 2, “Inkoming!” (July 21)

The first Splatoon captured an audience from both an appealing take on competitive shooters and a light punk rock aesthetic to match it. Eight player matches were set to rock songs by in-universe musical outfits. It’s an attitude Splatoon 2 follows to a tee, with “Inkoming!” – the closest thing it has to a definitive theme, by the new band Wet Floor – being a catchy, cool track. In some ways, it outclasses “Splattack!,” its counterpart from the first game, with more sections to the song.

Pyre, “Shattered Lands” (July 25)

Another 2017 game I haven’t yet gotten to, Pyre is the latest project by Supergiant Games, creators of Bastion and Transistor. All three have exquisite scores composed by Darren Korb, whose music is powerful and evocative of the kinds of stories Supergiant likes to tell: dramas told through action, set in harsh, mysterious worlds equally picturesque and tragic. While “Shattered Lands” (the theme of the Black Basin) isn’t one of the iconic vocal performances that grace these games, it’s a great example of how rich his music is – guitar riffs that draw from both Latin and folk music, a deep percussion, and a tone that’s wonderfully hard to pin down. It’s music perfect for a tale where religion, purgatory, and sports all mix together.

Sonic Mania, “Studiopolis Zone Act 1” (August 15)

Straddling the identities of fan game and official release, Sonic Mania has to walk a thin line, one it (apparently, as I’ve not played it) manages with aplomb. And fans turned professional developers Taxman and Stealth had to create a Sonic game that not only harkened back to, but improved the design of the beloved, but flawed original games. But one part of the original Sonic games that never had issues was their eclectic rock, jazz, and pop music. Mania’s Tee Lopes – another fan-turned-pro – brings that back in full force, with music like the theme for Studiopolis (the “iconic” level of the game) that doesn’t just match the Genesis originals, but in some cases even exceeds it.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, “Mid-Boss Mayhem” (August 29)

To call Mario + Rabbids a “hard sell” puts it mildly, but the game’s official E3 reveal did a lot to mitigate the strong dislike that cropped up around leaked information about the game. And one of the elements virtually everyone agreed was good was the score, made by Banjo-Kazooie composer Grant Kirkhope (one that eclipsed the work he and David Wise did on Yooka-Laylee). It’s telling that one of the most popular YouTube videos about the game before release was a pre-release version one fan cobbled together of this song, the recurring theme used for the game’s various mini-bosses. The music in general is excellent, but it’s also distinctly Kirkhope; fittingly for a crossover between two radically different series in a genre entirely unfamiliar to both, it eschews Mario and Rabbids music to make something bombastic and off-kilter.

Cuphead, “The King’s Court” (September 29)

After hours of trials, deaths, and successes in the incredibly tough Cuphead, the eponymous hero finally collects the souls of the Devil’s overdue contracts, all in return for his own. But then, King Dice – avatar of that most sinful vice of gambling, and “the Devil’s right hand man” – reneges on the promise, forcing him into yet another battle. One of the toughest in the game, “All Bets Are Off” moves Cuphead through a deadly card table, with each space defended by living symbols of Prohibition-era immorality – boozing, smoking, and many, many kinds of gambling. Once you shoot your way through the skeletal racehorse, organ grinder’s monkey, and a living stack of poker chips, you face off with the King himself, and suddenly the music changes from a remix of the introduction music to one for King Dice’s wonderful theme, “Die House.” Cuphead might have the best music of the year (and that it’s Kristofer Maddigan’s first game score makes it even more of an accomplishment), and I could’ve gone with a number of choices, but this felt the most fitting. It incorporates two recognizable tracks, has import with being part of an end-game boss fight, and is used for a wealth of visual splendor. Cuphead succeeds at capturing the surreality, subversive elements, and beauty of 1930s animation, something represented wonderfully through all the light sleaze with which King Dice surrounds himself. The fight is a highlight of challenge, bombast, and style, and the music is part and parcel of that.

Super Mario Odyssey, “Jump Up, Super Star!” (October 27)

I want to say this was hard and talk up Naoto Kubo’s wonderful score (with the music for New Donk City and Steam Gardens, “Break Free! (Lead the Way),” and the credits being highlights), but this is the obvious pick. It’s no exaggeration to say that “Jump Up, Super Star!” was easily the most iconic, memorable piece of music to come out of the entire world of gaming this year, debuting and stealing the show at E3, used as a focal point of Mario Odyssey’s ad campaign, and played at the Game Awards right before announcement of Game of the Year. And really, it says so much about what makes the game great, and how it’s (pardon the pun) “captured” our imaginations. It’s energetic, snappy, and nostalgic – it samples audio from the original Donkey Kong – but it’s also new. A lyrical swing number in which actress Kate Higgins sings lines about coin collection, flipping the (Nintendo) Switch, and Mayor Pauline being Mario’s “1-Up girl” is far afield of Mario music, and it’s appropriately tied to the equally retro, yet equally unique New Donk City. This song, and the memorable Festival sequence over which it plays, represents the blending of old and new that is the frenetic, experimental, and brilliant Super Mario Odyssey. Note, though, that the song technically doesn’t appear in Mario Odyssey; the honor there goes to its remix “New Donk City (Festival),” fantastic in its own way.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2, “Gormott” (December 1)

The most memorable piece of music from the superb, eclectic score of Xenoblade Chronicles was definitely the powerful “Gaur Plain,” the theme for the massive sandbox of the Bionis Leg. And Xenoblade 2, which calls back to the original in a number of ways, has its own counterpart to that space: the massive titan Gormott. Its theme calls back to the first game in a number of beats, but with a lighter, more airy tone befitting the game’s taking place on the backs of incredible creatures. Both songs were also composed by ACE, a band comprised of Tomori Kudo and Hiroyo “CHiCO” Yamanaka (though Kenji Hiramatsu, who joined them for Xenoblade 1 and worked on the Xenoblade 2 score as well, was not part of the group this time around). ACE’s work is excellent, spanning different genres and tones and beats, all befitting a series that mashes together tropes from escapist anime, philosophy, science fiction, and more. “Gormott,” and music pieces like it, power those ideas, along with the massive plots and adventures they orbit.