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2015 in Gaming: the Best Scores

“The Best Scores” is a series by Wolfman in which he explores the music of the gaming world, year by year, while highlighting thirteen tracks from thirteen games he feels have the strongest or most innovative soundtracks.

2015 was a year of riveting soundtracks, with more than a few surpassing the very games they were made to accompany, and it made narrowing this list an exacting affair. Persona 4: Dancing All Night created a selection of rad, original pop songs, while Life is Strange plucked its collection from a bevy of great licensed songs. While I decided to cut Planet Diver from this list due to its tiny, inconsistent soundtrack, the default themes for its three levels were some of the best pieces of the year. Justin Bell’s Pillars of Eternity score was beautiful and intimate, as was Marios Aristopoulos’s music for Apotheon. Fans of horror got some wonderful, inventive spookiness in Soma’s various pieces. And was a great year for main themes, even for scores or whole games with which I wasn’t enamored: Nuclear Throne, Fallout 4, Codename S.T.E.A.M., and Tri Force Heroes.

It was also a good year for music from Nintendo and its subsidiaries. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse had nice original pieces, but where it shined was in its massive library of absolutely astonishing series remixes. Pokémon granted us two good scores: Super Mystery Dungeon’s was grandiose, and Pokkén Tournament’s fantastic selection befitted its take on fighting games. Though Xenoblade Chronicles X’s score didn’t match those of its predecessor or successor, it was also eclectic and fun. BOXBOY! had some pleasingly silly ambient tracks. The publisher also got in on great music through downloadable content in Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U. And though it wasn’t on Nintendo hardware, Game Freak had a lot of fun with the audio work in TEMBO THE BADASS ELEPHANT.

And, of course, there were the thirteen games I found to have the best music of 2015:

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, “Decade Dance” (March 10)

While this piece by Lone Survivor creator Jasper Byrne is not my favorite track here – just because the selection of licensed electronic and chiptune songs is so good – this piece for the “Final Cut” scene is probably my favorite of the original pieces (at least, I think it was made for the game?) and the most evocative of the game’s themes. If the first Hotline Miami is about the hypersexed, deranged narcissism of the late Eighties, Wrong Number is about the aimless, ideologically insecure Nineties. The Russian gang representing the Soviet Union has dissipated, a social ennui without its clear cultural “threat” has led to a passive fetishization of wanton violence, the neon day-glo has fallen out of fashion, and the surreal meta storytelling of the first game is up to eleven with nonlinear plotting. “Final Cut” is set in a nightmarish snuff film erupting out of an episode of Ellen, and it’s never clear which parts of the sequence’s horrors are “real.” That disconnect, that sense of insecurity, is central to the series, and if “Decade Dance” (whose name alludes to the timeskip) isn’t as intense as “Roller Mobster” or dramatic as “Simma Hem,” it’s the best partner for the games’ off-kilter horror.

Ori and the Blind Forest, “Light of Nibel” (March 11)

I’m going to be upfront about this and say that my console setup means I realistically won’t be able to play Ori for the foreseeable future, so I can’t give much of an analysis of how its credits music evokes or represents the game’s plot or themes. However, this is a game with stunning music, courtesy of Gareth Coker and vocalist Aeralie Brighton, and “Light of Nibel” is both energetic and haunting, with some incredible instrumentation. There are even a few excellent polyrhythms in there that give it a sense of tangible size and power, and tie it to a wide array of historic musical traditions.

Bloodborne, “Father Gascoigne, the Hunter” (March 24)

Fans of Dark Souls certainly got a taste of the familiar in the music to FromSoftware’s crypto-spinoff, but just as Bloodborne draws from horror tropes in contrast to Souls’ western fantasy influence, its music comes from a wealth of horror stories and movies. The intense string sections, in this case used for the boss fight against deranged preacher Father Gascoigne, are a classic horror trope typified by Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score, as are the wailing vocals in the background and a wildly changing tempo that keeps listeners from feeling too comfortable. In a broader sense, the game’s cross-cultural horror mashup was supported by a mix of western and Japanese composers. This one was done by Ryan Amon, who also composed the game’s most radical track: “Hail the Nightmare,” which broke Souls tradition of eschewing background music to unsettle players in the terrifying Yahar’gul, Unseen Village. Amon’s discography is paltry – his only works as composer before Bloodborne were Assassin’s Creed: Unity and the mediocre film Elysium – and it’s respectable how well his works stand with the rest of the game’s diverse musical team.

Axiom Verge, “Inexorable” (March 31)

The music of Axiom Verge is as unashamedly derivative of Metroid and classic 1980s science fiction as the rest of the game itself. That isn’t, strictly speaking, a bad thing; Thomas Happ’s Metroidvania is filled with interesting ideas and great level design. And the music he composed for it is even better, a collection of trippy pieces that draw from his twin influences in fascinating, exciting ways (the intro theme especially is hilariously imitative of Metroid, from its 8-Bit origins to Metroid Prime). Playing through the game, two stood out to me, both from the “Kur” area: “Cellular Skies” and this piece. Both are great, neither action heavy like “Apocalypse” nor slow and spooky. What led me to choosing “Inexorable,” though, was a decision by Happ to add vocals to the track from a CD of Indian singing, whose lyrics and language are unknown. One of the important parts of Eighties sci-fi and western cyberpunk was a fetishization of aspects of Japanese culture, and drawing from a different Asian culture for aesthetic value feels appropriate for a work that’s trying to recreate the spirit of those stories.

Crypt of the NecroDancer, “Konga Conga Kappa” (April 23)

I couldn’t not include a nod to Danny Baranowsky’s score here. Crypt of the NecroDancer (which came out in early access in 2014, but I’m counting its full release) is a game about music, a frenetic, captivating duet of roguelike and rhythm. All your actions have to be to the beat of a rockin’ score, one which draws from a variety of styles and genres. While it’s not as representative of the experience as the themes for the dungeon crawling – “Mausoleum Mash,” for instance – and lacks the detail where shopkeepers can join in the songs, this is something special. The boss theme for King Conga is absolutely rad conga/electronic fusion, perfect for fighting the gorilla and his line of zombie followers. It’s hard to think of examples of conga being used in most video games, and that this one manages to put the music to an appropriate battle is something close to magical.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, “The Fields of Ard Skellig” (May 19)

And here’s another game I’ve not played, partially because The Witcher 3 is of a massive, intimidating scale. One thing I find interesting about the series (and a major reason I want to explore it) is how explicitly Polish it is, with CD Projekt Red drawing from Polish history, culture, and symbolism to a degree I’ve never really gotten to experience or learn. That extends to Marcin Przybyłowicz’s score, which brought in the folk group Percival for some of the score. “The Fields of Ard Skellig,” the theme for the Skellige kingdom, is one of the songs on which the two parties collaborated, and it’s truly lovely. Like many modern fantasy music pieces, t’s quiet, melancholic – it takes its lyrics from “Fear a’ Bhàta,” a sad Scots Gaelic romance song – but it is composed and performed in a way that’s just a bit different, a bit unique, from the majority of fantasy stories we get in this medium.

Splatoon, “Ink Me Up” (May 28)

To get music as energetic, stylish, and fresh as Splatoon, and in keeping with its Nineties aesthetic, Nintendo opted for pop-punk to play over its rapid fire matches. The game’s Turf Wars are fought to the songs of fictional in-universe bands (standing in for composers Toru Minegishi and Shiho Fujii), all comprised of the series’ various anthropomorphic deep sea monsters and puns. Squid Squad is responsible for the de facto main theme, “Splattack!,” while “Hooked” comes from Hightide Era and “Shelfie” from Chirpie Chips. But for the Splatfests, the tournaments in which players across the world fight for whether building snowmen is better than sandcastles, the game brings out the Squid Sisters, the team of two squid pop idols who usually announce the game’s features and status. They’re responsible for all the Splatfest music, from the peppy dance music for the celebratory hub world to “Ink Me Up,” the fight track that fuels your excitement to grab a roller or slosher, throw some ink around, and prove that pizza is superior to burgers. And damned if it isn’t catchy as hell.

Fire Emblem Fates, “Lost in Thoughts All Alone” (June 25)

Fire Emblem has always been an openly theatrical series, with plots of grand armies, kingdoms, and entire dynasties that battle for generations. And Fates’ is a narrative so massive in scope that it took three storylines, two games, and some optional modes to fully tell the tale of Corrin, an heir to two kingdoms in endless war. Throughout each of those stories, the princess Azura, played by Rena Strober (who sang this song live for the Christina Grimmie Foundation last February), performs this melancholic ballad at certain chapters, one whose awesome magical power is used to protect, support, and save Corrin’s forces. The way it’s used connects Fates to classical poetry and storytelling: it’s a Greek chorus subtly hinting at moments and themes through its lyrics and harmonies, a channel for the divine, and a great example of diegetic music, songs that exist within the world of the game. I should also note that this is the English version, made for the U.S. version that launched a year later, and that its Japanese counterpart, “If thinking alone,” has fairly different lyrics.

Yoshi’s Woolly World, “A-Mazing Post Pounding” (June 25)

I was vacillating a lot between two tracks in Tomoya Tomita and Misaki Asada’s Yoshi’s Woolly World score, a hilarious, humongous soundtrack. Really, “Welcome to Yoshi’s Woolly World!” is the better one to highlight; it’s more in keeping with the sweet, kindly attitude of the game as a whole. But I gotta go with my gut and, alongside it, the theme for a level in the game’s third world. “A-Mazing Post Pounding” isn’t the game’s most interesting level by a long shot, with some okay post-themed puzzles, but it’s got such an amazing theme. Going so far afield of what you’d expect from a Yoshi game is this bassy, weirdly sensual funk piece (never has the phrase “a-mazing post pounding” ever felt more suggestive) that’s just an absolute treat.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, “An Early Harvest” (August 11)

And here’s another game I’ve not played but enjoyed through its music. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was fairly controversial on release, from debates on the merits of its exploration to  questions about how publisher Sony treated developer The Chinese Room. However, one thing agreed upon by virtually everyone is the quality and power of director and composer Jessica Curry’s incredible score. It’s giant in scope, and classical in a way even most ostensibly “classical,” orchestrated game scores have no interest in being. The prospect of exploring a desolate world like Rapture’s is intimidating, and this soundtrack manages to both support those feelings and provide something of a comfort from them.

Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain, “Sins of the Father” (September 1)

To be honest, The Phantom Pain depresses me. It was supposed to be this grandiose finale to one of gaming’s greatest, more idiosyncratic sagas. Instead it ended up unfinished; many of its interesting ideas were stymied by generic open world design, and Metal Gear’s iconic creator was forced to leave Konami amid a corporate implosion. Even its use of “The Man Who Sold the World” as a plot relevant song is appropriately disappointing, eschewing (or failing to secure the rights to) the classic David Bowie original for the mediocre 1982 Midge Ure cover. But there’s still a beating heart within MGSV, and the de facto main theme performed by Donna Burke provides a drama the rest of the game doesn’t quite get. Like many of the other Metal Gear songs, it’s a link to the franchise’s cinematic aspirations, with this grand song comparable to an era when dark dramas and war films had original songs like this one.

Super Mario Maker, “Create: Super Mario World – Ground Theme” (September 10)

Mario Maker didn’t have the best soundtrack of the year, but thanks to some brilliant dynamic scoring it had some of the best use of music. During the process of building a level, it plays these quieter remixes of the series’ many classic themes, and as you jump in on the fly to test the level out yourself, it automatically substitutes in the originals. Perhaps the biggest appeal of the game is how easy, direct, and immediate it is to make a level, and the music never suddenly stopping furthers how intertwined the acts of creation and play are. It doesn’t hurt that Mario Maker is filled with all sorts of odd little beats and fun uses of music, from secret themes and leitmotifs to an ability to add sound effects – sound effects that led players to build entire levels whose very assets dynamically create songs from video game standbys to the Seinfeld theme. And while these aren’t in the games themselves, the fan-made mixes fusing the “create” and “regular” themes are really cool.

UNDERTALE, “Undertale” (September 15)

The score for UNDERTALE is the best of 2015, and choosing one track was tough. My favorite, “Dummy!,” is a great example of just how danceable this music is – as are the boss fight themes “Spider Dance” and “Death by Glamour.” “Snowy” and “Another Medium” are the kind of amazing location tunes the game’s clear inspiration, the EarthBound series, had in spades. And some of the more operatic piece – “Hopes and Dreams” being the standout – rise to support the adventure’s most climactic moments. But “Undertale” is important for what it is. It’s not a boss theme, not the credits music, just a quiet yet powerful six minute piece that plays right before the climax. It’s the theme for a slow, long walk where you learn some backstory before reaching the supposed final boss, a rare moment of the game using less innovative storytelling techniques specifically for the benefit of mood and tone. It, and the sequence over which it plays, eschews bombast in favor of sadness and intimacy, fitting for a story not about angry gods or unstoppable armies but a few people who can hurt and help each other. It’s in that way that “Undertale” the music track and UNDERTALE the game not only chart a path back to the ambitious 16-bit JRPGs that inspired them both, but suggest and create something entirely new and grand.

So these are the games I found to be the best representatives of what game music can be, but what about you? We’d love to hear your choices and personal favorites, so put them in the comments below.

(Previous entries in this series)