If I enjoy a game’s soundtrack, I find myself forgiving said game’s bland or unimpressive parts. If I enjoy it enough to listen to it in my spare time, I find myself even forgetting the game’s flaws altogether. The music will transport me back to the environments I was in and the feelings that music gave me instead. That’s a powerful element that is discussed surprisingly little on this blog.
I actually played music extensively in middle school and high school, and at one point in my life I was involved in my university’s music program. I can play, read, and even compose music in my spare time. However, I find it hard to discuss it the same way as with Shigeru Miyamoto or Masahiro Sakurai without getting too technical and losing people in the process. Additionally, I find the written word a hard medium to tackle conversations about music. It’s much easier to talk about it in person, or through a YouTube video, where you can give audio examples on the fly.
And yet I desperately want to recognize the video game composers who have left profound effects on me, who have given me peppy tunes and emotional melodies, who have captured my imagination and pulled me into a game’s world. So let’s give it a shot anyway!
Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Star Fox series)
The big guy himself. Kondo’s music has this immense range of emotion, place, and scale. He deservedly has made some of the most iconic soundtracks of all of video games. He moves from the infectiously catchy beats in Super Mario Bros., to the sweeping orchestral suites in The Legend of Zelda, to the bombastic drama of Star Fox. I can only hope to make music as impressive as he has.
Favorite tracks of his include: Overworld Theme from Super Mario World, Title Theme from Ocarina of Time, the Song of Healing from Majora’s Mask, and the Great Ocean Theme from Windwaker.
Junichi Masuda (Pokemon Red & Blue, Pokemon Gold & Silver)
While he’s now a high-up producer at Game Freak, Masuda actually started out as a composer for the company. The Pokemon series has always had stellar music, but those early games sounded particularly upbeat and grand. I can’t hear Pokemon Silver‘s bops and beats and not feel a wave of nostalgia.
Favorite tracks from Red & Blue include Vermillion City, Gym Leader Battle, and Champion Themes; and favorite tracks from Gold & Silver include Route 30, Violet City, and Azaelea Town themes.
Motoi Sakuraba (Golden Sun, Tales of, Dark Souls)
You know why he’s here. Sakuraba’s work on the Golden Sun games embues every location with mystery, adventure, and tension, everything a good JRPG needs to pull you in. The way he blends woodwinds, strings, vocals, and synths into a cohesive package makes any imitations I make pale by comparison.
My favorite tracks from the Golden Sun series include: Sol Sanctum, The Elemental Stars, Isaac’s Battle Theme, and Venus Lighthouse.
Rich Vreeland, aka Disasterpeace (Fez, Hyper Light Drifter)
A strange pick, but this musician has an uncanny ability to imbue his pieces with a strong sense of atmosphere and place. I only wish I could compose this well. Even though he has worked on indie games with pixelated graphics, each place is given added depth and mystery thanks to his Impressionistic soundscapes and haunting melody progression.
Favorite tracks include Home (from Fez), Cult of the Zealous (from Hyper Light Drifter), and Panacea (from Hyper Light Drifter).
Kazumi Totaka (Luigi’s Mansion, Animal Crossing)
Totaka’s music isn’t quite as bombastic or as ethereal as other composers on this list, his compositions are more subtle, more grounded. And yet if I have a tune stuck in my head that I can’t quite place, odds are it’s a track from Totaka. He’s had quite a successful career at Nintendo, moving up the ranks to now being a sound director.
My favorite pieces of his include: Professor E. Gadd (from Luigi’s Mansion), 3PM (from Animal Crossing on GameCube), and the Timed Minigame (from Animal Crossing: New Horizons).
Yoko Shimomura (Kingdom Hearts, Mario & Luigi, Xenoblade Chronicles)
Last but not least! I briefly mentioned her last week on my review of Radiant Historia. Shimomura is another master who can capture an impressive range of emotion, fitting the grand adventures and dramas of JRPGs. The title screen theme for Xenoblade Chronicles is the single best piece of soundtrack I have ever listened to in my adult memory.
Other favorite pieces from her include: Colony 9 and Time to Fight! themes.
There are so many other composers I’m leaving out — Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Masato Nakamura (Sonic the Hedgehog 1 & 2), and Rei Kondoh (Fire Emblem) are just a few honorable mentions… but if I talked about everyone, then this post would never end.
What are your favorite composers and soundtracks?