“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.
Music is probably not the first thing an average player might think of when discussing 2014. Harassment, broken Triple-A releases, and an array of massive, misguided projects dominated the year. I’m not going to dwell on it other than to say that this year’s music also took a bit of a hit; to my surprise, there weren’t too many scores I found especially excellent. I mean, there were a lot of good ones. Framed gave us a sultry saxophone for its hard boiled story, while Hohokum had a mesmerizing new wave score. Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions’ cool synth soundtrack worked wonders for its frenetic gameplay. Never Alone used a combination of instruments and sounds of nature to tell an adventure inspired by the Iñupiat people. Taking a drastically different approach, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker remixed much of the score for Super Mario 3D World for its delightful puzzle boxes. Pokémon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire supplemented its own remixes with plenty of new tracks. Cœur de pirate’s score for Child of Light was gorgeous; it was in my selection right before being supplanted by the final entry at the eleventh hour. And I wouldn’t be doing justice to my fellow Source Gaming writers if I neglected the rock-heavy music for Hyrule Warriors.
But what were meant to be the greatest scores of the year were underwhelming. Destiny managed to rope in Paul McCartney for its team of composers, but the soundtrack itself was just underwhelming. Ubisoft bagged another big music name, Cliff Martinez of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, for a score to Far Cry 4 that was…fine, I suppose. Sunset Overdrive’s wealth of good punk songs did little to mask how ultimately corporatized the experience was. The soundtrack for Alien: Isolation was good, but it was just one example of the gulf of quality between what the game was interested in (the Alien itself) and everything else. Similarly, the still very good music of Persona Q wasn’t on the level of the franchise’s bassy best, and Nidhogg’s score was painfully small. Watch Dogs’ music was largely unmemorable, fitting for a game that often wasted its most compelling ideas. Perhaps the most disappointing music, though, was that of Lords of Shadow 2; the most recent Castlevania game, and likely the last major one for the foreseeable future, had tunes that were largely as generic and forgettable as the game itself.
And, as always, there were thirteen games I felt represented the best the year offered, musically. I should note that more than most years, many of these I’ve not yet managed to enjoy first hand, so I may have gotten some specific details wrong:
The Banner Saga, “We Are All Guests Upon the Land” (January 14)
Composer Austin Wintory – who got into a controversy of his own with a fight against the American Federation of Musicians due to this score – emphasized a number of specific elements in the music for The Banner Saga. Individual sources of the music, such as its drum and vocal sections, will regularly dominate certain sections of the whole, instead of them molding together in a brilliant synergy; it evokes both ancient music and the different attitudes of the game’s array of personalities. Befitting a strategy game inspired equally by Norse mythology and classic Disney animation, it’s fantasy music, but slower than most, and largely disinterested in supporting combat or adrenaline. And the song he made for the subtle ending sequence overtly eschews the tropes of our mental image of “Vikings” to get at the dark, often fatalistic world of the Norse gods. It feels loud and powerful, partially because it’s more quiet and stark than “traditional” fantasy music.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, “Windmill Hills” (February 14)
Retro Studios sent players a valentine in 2014, and along with its lovingly crafted levels and picturesque world, Tropical Freeze had a gorgeous score, one of the best of this decade. Retro brought classic Kong composer David Wise back to his old stomping grounds, but his work here is a cut above everything else he’s done. Listen to the way “Windmill Hills” steadily blends guitar, percussion, harmonica, flute, and what sounds like a ukulele into something so rich. It’s everywhere in this game, from the guitar and percussion in “Busted Bayou,” to the woodwinds breaking up “Scorch ‘N’ Torch’s” strings and drums, to the vocals running through “Grassland Groove,” to how “Sawmill Thrill” matches its level with entire genre shifts. And Retro’s team deserves credit for the way they built levels made for this music, like how the gorgeous “Horn Top Hop” adds extra sections dynamically as in-game horns blow leaves used to cross gaps. Rare’s original Donkey Kong Country games were often snarky and cheeky, but there was something different in Tropical Freeze: an earnestness, and with it a sense of melancholy and kindness. But Wise had already gotten there decades ago, with his iconic Kong pieces. And his work on Tropical Freeze continued that wonderfully with an assortment of didgeridoos, accordions, and jaw harps. Were it not for one game in particular, it would easily be the best score of 2014.
Dark Souls II, “Milfanito” (March 11)
I’ve talked about this before, but I love diegetic music, audio that exists within the universe of a story. It’s great for world building, tone, and storytelling, and it adds so much to a world as dark and obtuse and Dark Souls II’s. At a few points in the game, the player encounters the Milfanito, mysterious women who constantly sing this haunting song. They’re interesting on a narrative perspective – the characters flesh out the world and provide a neat connection to Dark Souls I – but the music in particular is wonderfully pretty, spooky, and chilling. One of the few times it comes up is particularly excellent, as an unnerving prelude to the fight against the Demon of Song. As great as Motoi Sakuraba’s selection of wild boss themes is, it’s the little details like his odd little in-game song that give Drangleic so much of its personality. This series typically avoids level themes to create a sense of tension and mystery, so having music like this as something that exists within the world (and can be stopped by killing the singers) allows Dark Souls II to have its cake and eat it.
Luftrausers, “Main Theme” (March 18)
Another cool trick is to create one piece of music and iterate upon it with different mixes and variations for the entire score. That’s what Luftrausers does, and it’s fortunate that its main theme is so good. In fact, among the songs in the game it’s definitely the best of the bunch, with the rest of the iterations good but not quite as deft at mixing the synth, instruments, and tone of the first piece. It’s a hardcore action game played in moments. It’s also a weird (and rather challenging) interpretation of a dark war game. The tonal variance in the concept can be felt especially strongly in the main theme, both peppy and just a bit grim. The command it has of its own tone is a necessity if it’s going to be the baseline for the rest of the music.
Transistor, “We All Become” (May 20)
Another disclaimer: I’ve not played Transistor, so I’m not sure where “We All Become” plays or what the context is (though it was used in the game’s announcement trailer, so I’m assuming it’s important in the way Pyre and Bastion’s vocal songs were), but damned if I’m not going to include another Darren Korb soundtrack here. Supergiant makes dramas: redemption stories, analyses of tragic apocalypses, and romances. Their games are made for Korb’s music (with Ashley Barrett returning on vocals after Bastion); they’re bassy, dark, sad, exciting, and just a bit sexy. It’s perfect for the game’s dark city of Cloudbank, with its lurid neons and hidden melancholy. It’s sad, but with a fast beat. And like the next entry on this list, it’s good just as a song.
Wolfenstein: the New Order, “Die Käfer – Mond, Mond, Ja, Ja” (May 20)
And speaking of diegetic music, Bethesda, collaborating with music studios AKQA and COPILOT, used it well in this horrific tale of a 1960s under Nazi dominion. In The New Order, the state-run Neumond Recordings owns the world’s most popular music, corrupted covers of songs from our world that have been twisted into peppy fascist themes (albeit with an element of subversion: they were performed by mostly Jewish, black, and gay musicians). Sadly, most of them, like “Nowhere to Run,” were restricted to trailers due to licensing issues; the only two that made it in were an accordion cover of “House of the Rising Sun” and this piece, both of which play at certain points in the story. “Mond, Mond” isn’t a cover, though; it’s just a brilliant pastiche of The Beatles as a whole, mixing “She Loves You,” their version of “Twist and Shout,” and “Yellow Submarine” into this bizarre, disturbingly catchy ode to Nazis taking over the moon. I feel bad for ignoring Mick Gordon’s score for this game, which is spooky and intense and intimidating, but really, it’s these songs that show The New Order’s intelligence and thoughtfulness.
Mario Kart 8, “Mount Wario” (May 29)
Dynamic scoring is the name of the game in Mario Kart 8, with the themes for each course constantly twisting, mixing, and moving into whole new sections to create a sense of incredible propulsion and energy. It’s “Mount Wario” that’s the standout here; the entire score dynamically changes from one short piece to the next as you drive into each new section of the track – pipeline, forest, and ending in a final ski slope. You can’t hear that here – this is the version played over highlights that splices them together in a specific way – but it works so well in practice that any conventional version you hear is comparably great. The dynamic medley creates a stirring, exciting aural presentation that’s perfectly tailored for every race. This kind of playfulness and detail can be found all over the game, from the singing Shy Guys in Shy Guy Falls to distorted electric guitar that bursts out in Cloudtop Cruise’s cloud section. It all comes together to help make Mario Kart exciting and toylike.
Valiant Hearts: the Great War, “Get Aboard” (June 24)
More than most in this series, Valiant Hearts shows the difficulty in discussing games I’ve not played, because a lack of information on both the game itself and its score makes it hard to learn about its music. It’s a period piece with a huge collaboration of musicians, and I’m not sure how many of their contributions were original or not. So consider my choice of “Get Aboard” as something of a hopeful guess. Daryl Neil Alexander Griffith’s piece isn’t one of the darker, more contemplative pieces on this dark exploration of World War I, but it is a short, wonderfully peppy track that expresses the swiftly crushed optimism at the turn of the century. Really, it is a bit anachronistic – it’s closer to ditties of the Thirties and Forties than the Jazz Age after the war ended – but that’s not a problem. It’s a tremendously fun piece, and it gets at the energy and happiness (some) people felt before “the War to End All Wars,” and the aggressive attempt to get away from it all after the war ended. In that sense, it’s less about capturing the facts of the war and more about capturing the psychological climate around it. And in that aim it – and the rest of the mournful, majestic score – succeeds mightily.
Shovel Knight, “High Above the Land (The Flying Machine)” (June 26)
Shovel Knight is a story about nostalgia both narratively and especially mechanically, and its greatest triumph is in how well it emulates the feeling of playing a classic action game without being beholden to the limitations or worst traits of the NES era. The score by Jake Kaufman (and classic Mega Man composer Manami Matsumae, who provided two tracks) is the most explicitly faithful part of the game, and possibly the only one that could ever fit onto an NES cartridge. However, even then it still pushes it, mimicking the Famicom’s late period VRC6 chip, which added three extra music tracks to create much richer music than what the NES could do. But it hardly matters. What makes “High Above the Land,” Propeller Knight’s theme and the best track in the score, great has little to do with its technical specs and everything to do with how well it – and the rest of the score – explores the idea of how a retro game “should” sound in our minds. It’s peppy and catchy like a good classic game, but tinged with a hint of sadness that befits the game’s plot. Altogether, the score draws from everything we know about the music design of the era, and it binds it to modern sensibilities in a way that lets both sides support each other.
Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS & Wii U, “Trophy Rush” (September 13)
Nothing I can say in one paragraph will match that mammoth analysis of Smash for 3DS & Wii U’s music I wrote when I joined Source Gaming, so if you’d like to learn all the ins and outs of its soundtrack, please read that. Instead, I’m going to say just two things. The first is that “Trophy Rush,” by Katsuro Tajima, might be more emblematic of this series than any other song. Listen to just how fun it is! The way it alternates between percussion and strings and horns, the way the tempo never stays still, the way the xylophone keys almost convey a sense of exaggerated cartoon footsteps It’s all brilliant, like a vintage American cartoon taken to hilariously deranged ends, or maybe Danny Elfman at his most madcap. That is Super Smash Bros., with all its wild, inventive, endlessly energetic identity. But the second thing is that no single piece can convey the size of the score. By 2016, after a plethora of downloadable content, the 3DS and Wii U versions together officially had 507 different musical tracks, a lineup that discounts victory jingles and a number of bonus songs. Counting new remixes, ones from prior Smash titles, and music ripped from other games, it boasts the contributions of well over a hundred composers. This is easily one of the largest scores in the history of the medium, if not the largest; one fan-made YouTube video of the whole thing is close to sixteen hours long. And it represents Nintendo’s entire video game history, from arcades to even works that came out a full year after this game did. That’s why it’s the best score of 2014. It’s not just that it’s very good (though it is) or even that it’s big (though it is); it’s because it is a video game score as an interactive library, a massive documentary collection of the history of Japanese game music. I use terms like “scope” and “ambitious” a lot; it’s hard to think of any game score to which they apply more.
Bayonetta 2, “Theme of Bayonetta 2: Tomorrow is Mine” (September 20)
One of the most frenetic, stylish games of the year, Bayonetta 2 followed up its predecessor with energy, a hilariously bizarre mashup of western mythologies, and a fantastic pop soundtrack. From its opening cover of “Moon River” to its reimagining of the first game’s credits music, it’s got flair for days. “Tomorrow is Mine” is an especial highlight, the main battle theme that manages to unironically include “for the win” in its lyrics without being utterly insufferable. Far from it, in fact; it’s excellent. Truthfully, I find it harder to discuss, because it’s not really tied into the themes of the game beyond being yet one more expression of Bayonetta’s unchallenged coolness in the face of comically absurd odds. Performer Keeley Bumford, writer Betsie Larkin, and composer Hiroshi Yamaguchi put together a piece of music that matches their heroine in style and flair, and as the first fight theme in the game, it’s an impeccable way to kick off Bayo’s adventures in Fimbulvetr.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, “Valley of the Blinding Mist” (September 25)
In stark contrast to Smash, Mikołaj Stroiński’s score here – which, like with Luftrausers, subtly builds each piece around the original “Ethan’s Theme” – has a laser focus on tone. Vanishing demands it, of course; this short detective game has to keep you into a specific mindset for the duration. “Valley of the Blinding Mist” first shows up fairly early into the story, right after a very peculiar, inexplicable incident, and it’s a great representative of how the music works as well as it does. The game’s contemplative piano keys bring to mind somber tracks from games like Dark Souls or Skyrim, but an odd reverb is unsettling, an element needed to bring out the horror and tragedy of the setting and story. There’s also a nice version in the credits with vocals, but personally, I prefer this one. It’s quieter, almost as though it’s wind through the trees.
The Sailor’s Dream, “Friday” (November 6)
I like to emphasize some soundtracks because of their mechanical sophistication, or a diversity in the genres it presents, or a whimsical abandon. In this case, however, I’m highlighting The Sailor’s Dream because it has a basic, haunting intensity. The game is an almost entirely narrative one, based around quietly poking and prodding at a small, intricate world. But the story comes most strongly through a series of beautiful sea shanties, made by co-creator Jonathan Eng and performed by Stephanie Hladowski, which collectively tell a tragic tale of a young woman broken down by her adventures and infatuations. There’s one for each day, Monday to Sunday, but you can only unlock them by playing on their specific day. It forces you to wait, to listen to this woman’s dreams and desires before seeing them all slowly die. By the time you hit the fifth song, whose lighthearted tone only exacerbates an intense underlying sadness, it’s easy to just break down in tears. It’s not just the lyrics about trying to stop time or that crypto-Irish melody that makes “Friday” as powerful as it is; it’s that it perfectly captures that sense of being in a doomed romance, and only just beginning to realize how futile the efforts to keep it going are. I’ve been there; a lot of us have been there. And this game uses its songs to cut to those feelings with a thoroughness that’s equally beautiful and painful.
(Previous entries in this series)